When it comes to urban revitalization, formulas (formulae) are for idiots. Misinterpreting coincidence as causation, confusing cause and effect, and placing too much confidence in correlation are a bundle of logical fallacies I like to call “cargo-cultism“. If struggling cities could be “fixed” by a sprinkling of “meds, beds, and eds” then, not only would Springfield already be a thriving metropolis, but so would just about every other down on its luck city in the northeast. The city is home to three hospitals, two of which are enormous regional centers for health services; it has 4 colleges, 3 offering doctoral degrees, which all together have over 20,000 students enrolled; and 4 large hotels, more on the way, and 3 which have been around for decades.
Vibrant cities are usually a consequence of being in the right place at the right time. Northampton is a great example. Its downtown had been mostly ignored for years, it hadn’t been the sort of industrial center that would attract internal immigration from southern blacks and Puerto Ricans as had been the case with Springfield, Holyoke, and Hartford, and when those cities began to decline, for reasons I’ll delineate later, Northampton was the right place to provide a more or less in tact urban environment for people looking for a safe(as they perceived it), white alternative.
Could some other small city in western New England have stepped up and been what Northampton became? Perhaps. Perhaps Westfield or Amherst. Westfield had the downtown infrastructure and a small minority population, but wasn’t easily accessible from the I 91 corridor, Amherst had a much larger and more diverse university population than Northampton, but was, and remains, much harder to reach by car. I think it was Northampton…or nothing. In hindsight an enormous investment, the size of Blue Back Square in West Hartford, close to any in tact urban setting could have usurped Northampton’s place…but who would have known to do “just that, just then”?
Northeast industrial cities crashed when industry and population began to move south and west, internal populations moved to the suburbs, retail moved to malls, and the focus of the domestic economy moved toward the “FIRE” sector.
Springfield’s loss was Northampton’s gain. But to think that Northampton’s success could be replicated by any and every other similarly sized city in the region would be irrational. Take an example: Thorne’s Market. Thorne’s is a spectacular example of creative reuse of an existing building, but it was not an “if you build it, they will come” situation. There was already a culture of local retail in existence around Main Street in Northampton. The truth is, that was the reason for the huge investment in what became Thorne’s Market.
Modern snake oil salesmen would take an example like Thorne’s and try to market a similar scheme to any and every similarly sized community anywhere else in the region and beyond…guaranteeing similar success. But Northampton had a special set of characteristics at the right time and in the right place…it just might constitute the entirety of the supply needed to satisfy the demand for boutique urbanity in western New England. I would go so far as to say that Northampton might have been better off without Thorne’s, placing even more retail energy at street level and not on the interior of one particular building, albeit in a building which was well renovated, could very well have seen Northampton reach higher levels of success and prosperity.
Cities and urban environments are complex, there are always going to be too many un-isolatable variables to be certain of cause and effect such that, to be fairly sure that a particular decision is a difference maker, numerous examples of correlation will need to be found.