This is all about the ‘tweener city; too large for that comfy, cozy small town America feel, too small for a major league sports franchise, important enough to be the focus of constant negative media attention, but still not revered for its renowned cultural institutions. Boston, San Francisco, and Indianapolis are not ‘tweener cities, Bridgeport, Toledo, and Fresno probably are. It’s not that big cities don’t have their problems of course, in many cases they are more daunting than those of smaller cities but my working knowledge of those places is limited and so, probably, is my insight.
There is the key. I am an amateur. I’m writing what I write and doing what I do because I couldn’t find anything exactly like it online. There are plenty of sites, and they are spectacular, produced by people who know a lot about cities and who give tremendous insight into what makes them tick and how to make them better…from a professional perspective. There are also a plethora of sites dedicated to life and living in the great cities, the trendy cities, the successful cities. What I haven’t found are sites by people who live in the struggling parts of urban America with a positive and forward looking perspective.
These are the places that can save America. That sounds hyperbolic, I get that, but the sprawling, inefficient, liquid fuel transportation intensive development pattern that has been the norm for the last 60 years here in the United States is not sustainable. Reconfiguring all of that sprawl to function within the constraints of a more modest energy regime would itself require massive resource inputs that, even at the end of the day, might not enable suburbia to work as it would need to. The perhaps hundreds of ‘tweener cities most Americans do not consider viable alternatives to a typical suburban middle class lifestyle are underutilized spaces built at a time, many of them, when design was more compact and walkable. They are there right now, in some cases literally begging people to move in. There are beautiful homes and well laid out apartments available at very reasonable prices on roads which have already been built, with sewer and water systems designed for much greater capacities, near schools and parks connected by sidewalks to shopping areas and cultural institutions, which are not being occupied.
If you reject the “peak fossil fuel” paradigm of a James Howard Kunstler, and the essential financial unsustainability of horizontal development as expressed by Chuck Marohn at strongtowns.org, you are probably interested in urban issues, otherwise, why would you be reading this? (As an aside I would say that both the energy and economic arguments I’ve just referenced seem nearly impossible to reject on a rational level. Fossil fuels by their nature are limited and therefore extraction rates must someday peak, and the idea that having to create and maintain more infrastructure in order to engage in the same amount of economic activity is inefficient appears to me to be tautological.) Even if sprawl were economically viable, and the energy available to run it infinite, there’s the fact that in much of the United States urban living is not considered a socially acceptable option for the middle class.
Long before energy and infrastructure entered my consciousness I knew I wanted to raise my family in the downtown of my hometown, but I also knew that for most people, it seemed a bad decision: the city was a dangerous place, and the schools would provide my children with only an inferior education. I took those criticisms seriously at first but living in a city was important enough to me that I felt as though I could overcome those problems with concentrated and thoughtful effort. Over time I became aware that both the school and the crime issues were more problems of perception than reality, and I wondered how many people had hesitated, and in the end decided not to live the lifestyle they preferred in the place they wanted, because an illusion was scaring them from it.
The idea behind rationalurbanism is to create a resource for people who want to live in cities in parts of the country where popular wisdom says that people who aren’t obliged to do so shouldn’t. This isn’t about Beacon Hill, the Pearl District, and Chelsea, places where plenty of people desire to live, but can’t afford to. This is about places where people say you shouldn’t live, even if you want to, even though it may cost much less than the (usually) suburban alternative.
When I was going to college in Utah westerners told me New England “didn’t have mountains” because our mountains aren’t the Rockies, (or the Wasatch or whatever) those of us who live in ‘tweener cities get similar treatment from our big city acquaintances, while at the same time we get all the venom the “anti-urbans” dispense regarding cities (but at much higher per capita rates!). What I’ve learned is that life in a ‘tweener city is not only more energizing than I ever expected, but opportunities to be involved abound, and, despite my best efforts, lower demand means that everything you do can be done for much less in the way of money. There are real problems and real issues connected to living in a city, not least experiencing what it is like to be a minority, not just as someone who is white and middle class, but also as someone who is married (and straight!) with children.
These are mountains, and they are in New England:
And this is the view of a CITY that I get from my third floor window:
While I strive to be both thorough and honest in my methodology, I’m not afraid of being wrong. This isn’t brain surgery, and most of the issues discussed here are not life and death (except for the ones that are), and I enjoy uncovering things which seem counterintuitive or where cause and effect are mis-perceived, reversed, or misunderstood.
The features on rationalurbanism like “What’s right? What’s wrong?” are designed to discuss the features and elements that work and don’t work to make city living more enjoyable, “Real or fake?” Is just about reminding those of us who live in these places which are relentlessly attacked both in the media and, in my experience, in every day social interactions, just how special these places are and, frankly, just how fake many of the places are whence cometh those attacks.
I would love to hear from anyone else who feels they’re treading a similar path and get their insights as well. If you don’t have the platform to share your ideas, I’d love for this platform to be available to you. Above all, I’d love to see America’s ‘tweener cities regain a bit of their swagger along with their economic and social viability.