Looking for signs that cities are making a comeback has been my hobby since I was a teenager. Like the proverbial blind squirrel and broken clock, every once in a while the tea leaves do give reason to hope for an urban renaissance. It’s hard to recall every twist and turn along the way but I do remember both Boston and New York being viewed mostly as “shitholes”, and reading about “combat zone” violence and Times’ Square nastiness. Since then those mega cities and places like “the Portlands”, San Francisco, Charlotte, and Providence have popped up in the news at intervals and touting different levels of reinvigoration and rebirth related to their urban cores.
I’ve learned to take most of this with a grain of salt because my own hometown, which has clearly just struggled for survival over the last 40 years, has at times received coverage as a comeback city. Once you’ve read a newspaper report or a magazine cover story while at the same time living the reality of the situation it becomes an easy proposition to unpack just what a reporter and a photographer can do to make a place look poised for a great leap forward. They interview the officials from government and from the pseudo private sector who have the job of making the city improve. Not surprisingly, these people see success everywhere and can recall any number of statistics to prove a city is on the ups…remarkably coinciding with their election, or appointment, or promotion. They take a picture with some natty architecture in the foreground and some towers in the distance with one or two besuited professionals, looking all happy and optimistic in between. Next they conflate the one or two small projects which have been brought to fruition with giant long term proposals and assumptions based on assumptions based on assumptions and treat them all as being nailed down sure things. finally interview a resident and small business owner or two making sure the quotes selected support the general notion of optimism. Never come back, never do a follow up. Done.
The same thing is done in reverse of course. If the editorial perspective is that a place is doomed you just interview different folks, take pictures from different locations, and make sure any statistics and quotes support the decline hypothesis. The truth is always more complex to be sure, parts of New York and Boston are still struggling, and there are things about Newark and Toledo to celebrate I have little doubt. The bottom line is that to be confidant from the outside that a narrative of rebirth, renewal, and revival is accurate it takes multiple sources confirming the same trend over many years.
What surprises me is, that even after all these years, and even while knowing that it is the broader trends which matter most as far as the likelihood of long term success is concerned, I still feel mostly “freudenshade” when I read another article on how awesome Portland is, or about how Denver is doing all the right things, or about Worcester’s rebirth. The truth is, even when I know that what I’m reading, whether it’s in a book, a blog, a journal, or a magazine, is really more about an author selecting evidence to make a predetermined point, I get upset that it’s not my city, my neighborhood, my block that’s being celebrated for making some great strides towards relevancy.
This is just a confession really. When I’m in Spain I don’t feel it at all, but when I travel in the United States and I see vibrant, attractive, successful urban locations my enjoyment is always tinged with envy, and if the city in question is in the south or west, the regions which have stolen so much in the way of population and industry from my northeast, the envy spills over into outright hostility. I can’t help but feel that somehow the vibrancy I see has come at the expense of my community.
When I hear Michael Klare and James Howard Kunstler assert that Phoenix and Las Vegas are going to dry up and blow away, and that Atlanta and Houston are destined for the ash heap of history I feel premature schadenfreude, but I justify it with my belief that the political and environmental degradation the increased power of the south and west have caused make their downfall an objective good…but deep down I know it’s more out of a sense of revenge than justice. I know that some things aren’t rational and objective, and I also know that not everything is a zero sum game. Arguably nothing could have saved an industrial city in the north from the ravages of the last 50 years of suburbanization, de-industrialization, and population shift, but we didn’t have to allow our cities’ most beautiful landmarks and streetscapes to be destroyed in the process. We did that to ourselves. And that doesn’t make it any easier when we see what might have been.