It is not at all surprising that at the start of a new year my thoughts have turned to things apocalyptic. The Mayan Calendar fallacy, the idea that our demarcations in time actually represent significant divisions or discontinuities, is a natural outgrowth of the measurement of time. After reading enough yearly predictions from James Howard Kunstler one gets somewhat inured to their content, that is until a new year brings a drop in both the stock market and oil prices, political races cross into the absurd, Walmart closes hundreds of stores, and a major corporate headquarters moves, not north to south or east to west or from city to suburb, but to the north, to the east, and into the center.
One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and confirmation bias does make one eager to jump to conclusions, but a brief read on the history of GE’s move to Fairfield only 40 years ago, and the cultural about face this move represents sets my mind to wondering how long it could be before this trend accelerates?
With all of that, a speech from Andrés Duany comes to my mind. I recall that he was in the Midwest, St. Louis I think, and he was telling people there that they were competing not with Chicago or Milwaukee, but rather with their own suburbs. Springfield and all of the minor league cities like it in the United States will never compete with Boston, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and the other elite municipalities for most things, but we can, should, and eventually will succeed in re-becoming the center of our own regions; or we will simply cease to be in any meaningful way “cities”.
40 years ago New York City was dying, it was a hiss and a byword. The same goes for Boston. “Ford to City: Drop Dead” was the headline and it seemed inevitable that the entire urban northeast was headed for a future dominated by Snake Pliskin and roving bands bands of criminal gangs. As it turned out, there was a split; NYC and Boston revitalized and recovered at their centers, with help from the “too big to fail” brand of financial institutions on Wall Street and Boston’s status as a world hub of higher education; but the smaller cities from Albany to Worcester all struggled in varying degrees to retain population, vibrancy, a middle class, downtown retail, and relevance.
When I think of how quickly the worm turned in Times Square, in the Combat Zone, and even more recently in Brooklyn of all places, I start to think that a turnaround here could be measured in months, not even years. I’m not predicting that it will be in any specific upcoming months, don’t get me wrong, but I am saying that there are few major obstacles to renaissance, and unlike Boston and especially New York City, the overall size of the task is really quite small.
A tiny little pizza place where I would pick up grinders, pizza, or pasta dishes to take to my (91 year old) mom when I go over to have lunch and spend some time with her closed suddenly toward the end of last year, so I went to a place that had been around for a while, but which had recently moved around the corner into an old night club space at what we call “The X” here in Springfield: it’s one of the neighborhood centers clearly created when the streetcar lines came through and serves as Forest Park’s downtown. It was nice. It was clean. There must have been 15 people working behind the counter, there was a steady stream of patrons entering and exiting…and I realized that this place, with the two Vietnamese restaurants a block away, and a handful of other establishments, and, oh yeah, the 700 acre park, made this a great little urban space. When I was a kid it even had a movie theater and a place to race slot cars! What was that all about?
It may seem to you that I’m getting off point. I’m not. I can walk for just over an hour, 3.6 miles, from the Peter Pan Bus station on Main Street all the way to the East Longmeadow line and not go more than a few minutes between commercial establishments designed to meet the basic needs of area residents. The only significant difference between what I experienced just a few weeks ago in Manhattan and what I experience here is a slight difference in the consistency of the quality of what is on offer at the corner shop, and that is because the people whose needs are being served on my local walk are almost universally poor. (I’ll avoid going too far afield here by saying it makes a good case for how gentrification can help the poor by bringing access to, among other things, better quality products-even if they aren’t meant for them!)
Look at how easily a tiny stretch of traditional development is spruced up. From this:
A final word. A presentation at the city’s Historical Commission last week showed slides of significant buildings in one of the oldest, poorest, and most blighted neighborhoods in the city. In dozens and dozens of images I saw just how much quality, just how many breathtaking edifices are still left in Six Corners. For 75 years or more it has either been beaten up or neglected, either ignored or razed, but even there (“there” being across the street as I live on its frontier) I could see as few as a dozen significant plots being improved leading to a turnaround of how that neighborhood is perceived and, most importantly, how it perceives itself.
In the end, we’re not competing with Boston, or even Hartford and Worcester, we are competing with this: