Sunday, June 27th, 2010

Buffalo, You Are Not Alone

It hurts. When a bigtime Harvard economist writes off your city as a loss, and says America should turn its back on you, it hurts. But Ed Glaeser’s dart tossing is but the smallest taste of what it’s like to live in place like Buffalo. To choose to live in the Rust Belt is to commit to enduring a continuous stream of bad press and mockery.

I write mostly about the Midwest, but whether we think Midwest or Rust Belt or something else altogether, the story is the same. From Detroit to Cleveland, Buffalo to Birmingham, there are cities across this country that are struggling for a host of historic and contemporary reasons. We’ve moved from the industrial to the global age, and many cities truly have lost their original economic raison d’etre. Reviving them requires the hard work of rebuilding and repositioning them for a new era, a daunting task to be sure.

But beyond their legitimate challenges, these cities also face the double burden that they are unloved by much of America, and all too often by their own residents. They are forlorn and largely forgotten, except as cautionary tales or as the butt of jokes.

These cities aren’t sexy. They aren’t hip. They don’t have the cachet of a Portland or Seattle. The creative class isn’t flocking. They are behind in the new economy, in the green economy. Look at any survey of the “best” cities and find the usual suspects of New York, Austin, San Francisco. Look at yet another Forbes “ten worst” list and see Cleveland and Toledo kicked again when they are down. They are portrayed as hopeless basket cases with no hope and no future.

But I reject that notion. I do not believe in the idea that these cities are beyond repair and unworthy of attention—or affection.

Someone asked me once why I bother. Why does it matter that these cities come back? Why not just let nature take its course? Why not let Buffalo die, and its people scatter to the winds?

It’s because it doesn’t just matter to a few proud people in Buffalo, it matters to America. The idea of disposable cities is one that is incompatible with a prosperous and sustainable future for our country. Fleeing Rust Belt cities for neo-Southern boomtowns is nothing more than sprawl writ large. Rather than just abandoning our cores, we’ll now abandon entire regions in the quest for new greenfields to despoil. We can’t have a truly prosperous and sustainable America with only a dozen or so superstar cities that renew themselves from age to age while others bloom like a flower for a season, then wither away. An America littered with an ever increasing number of carcasses of once great cities is not one most of us want to contemplate.

But beyond that, it’s because I believe we can make it happen. Look closely and the change is already in the air. Globalization taketh away—but it also giveth. Cities like Buffalo or St. Louis now have access to things that even people in Chicago didn’t not that long ago. Amazon, iTunes, and a host of specialty online retailers put the best of the world within reach. Where once you couldn’t get a good cup of coffee, there are now micro-roasters aplenty. Where once your choices were Bud, Miller, or Coors, an array of specialty brews are on tap, often brewed locally. Restaurants are better, with food grown locally and responsibly. Slowly but surely the ship is turning on sustainability, with nascent bike cultures in almost every city, LEED certified buildings, recycling programs, and more. House by house, rehab by rehab, neighborhoods in these cities are starting to come to life.

Where once moving to one of these cities would have been likened to getting exiled to Siberia, it’s now shocking how little you actually give up. And for every high-end boutique or black tie gala you miss, you get something back in low-cost and easy living. The talent pool may be shallower, but it’s a lot more connected.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still a long and hard journey ahead. And not every place is going to make it, particularly among cities without the minimum scale. We have to face that reality. But more of them will revive than people think.

That’s because a new generation of urbanists believes in these cities again. These people aren’t bitter, burdened by the memories of yesteryear and all the goodness that was lost. The city to them isn’t the place with the downtown department store their mother used to take them to in white gloves for tea. It isn’t the place full of good manufacturing jobs with lifetime middle class employment for those without college degrees. The city isn’t a faded nostalgia or a longing for an imagined past. Most of them are young and never knew that world.

No, this new generation of urbanists sees these cities with fresh eyes. They see the decay, yes, but also the opportunity—and the possibilities for the present and future. To them this is Rust Belt Chic. It’s the place artists can dream of owning a house. Where they can live in a place with a bit of an authentic edge and real character. Where people can indulge their passion for renovating old architecture without a seven-figure budget. Where they have a chance to make a difference—to be a producer, not just a consumer of urban life, and a new urban future. Above all, these people, natives or newcomers, have a deep and abiding passion and love for the place they’ve chosen—yes, chosen—to live.

Still, it can get lonely, and often depressing. It so often seems like one step forward, two steps back. Making change happen can seem like pushing a rock uphill, like you are up there on some far frontier of the country alone, fighting a quixotic battle. Every historic building demolished, every quality infill project sabotaged by NIMBY’s, every massively subsidized business-as-usual boondoggle, every DOT-scarred transport project is a discouragement.

But Buffalo, you are not alone. It’s not just you, it’s cities and people across across this country, from St. Louis to Pittsburgh to Milwaukee to Cincinnati to New Orleans to Birmingham, fighting to build a better future. There’s a new movement in all these cities, made up of passionate urbanists committed to a different and better path. Sometimes they are few in number, but they are mighty in spirit— and they are making a difference. Together, they and you can win the battle and make the change happen.

It won’t be easy. The road will be long. Some, like the great cathedral builders of Europe, may never see completely the fruit of their labors. But the long-ago pioneers who founded these great cities never got to see them in their first glory either. We’ve come full circle. We are present again at the re-founding of our cities. This is the task, the duty, the calling that a new generation has chosen as its own, to write the history of their city anew.

Go make history again, Buffalo.

This article originally appeared at Buffalo Rising.

Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Buffalo

42 Responses to “Buffalo, You Are Not Alone”

  1. Wad says:

    I am presently reading Roberta Brandes Gratz’s “The Battle for Gotham,” about Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses determining the course for New York City.

    The opening pages show that America’s largest and most important city went through decades where it was at the end of its rope as well. By the 1970s, the general consensus had been that New York City was so hopeless that it would forever be doomed to be captive to degeneracy.

    But then, New York City hit a capitulation point. It rebounded when it shouldn’t have. Yet the point was unnoticed, and the turnaround was only noticed when it became obvious. Few paid attention to the upswing.

    The same could happen in Buffalo or Cleveland, but it’s one of those “watched pot never boils” recoveries.

    Talking up a recovery may be a road to disaster. There’s a tendency to use peak population as a reference point against which all progress is judged.

    Even a dynamic region like the San Francisco Bay Area is prone to this behavior. Economic endeavors are measured against the 1990s tech bubble, a high and virtually impossible hurdle to clear.

    The expectations of the Rust Belt may be to produce a level of economic activity that produces the employment and wealth when the factories were running at full capacity. New, innovative or speculative activities may end up being smothered because they don’t help these cities get back to where they were.

    Areas with high unemployment tend to give entrepreneurs short shrift (!) because upstart firms don’t hire enough people, don’t hire from the local labor pool or just limit their presence to a mailing address. Upstart firms also have the highest failure rates, so cities don’t want to compound their losses.

    Also, cities in decline tend to embrace a flight to safety, preferring to deal with well-established private companies, major retailers or government entities because their immediate needs are met. These don’t come free, as the cities must offer incentives and/or lean on elected officials to get results. Embryonic firms don’t show up on the radar.

    Yet even these areas tend to attract urban renegades and pioneers. Renegade, in this sense, is a group of people that manages to subvert the institutional challenges and still manage to thrive. (Think of how some industrial art colonies got their start from illegal conversions or even squatters, or how immigrant communities established streetfront food sales that fly in the face of local health ordinances). Cities like Cleveland and Buffalo have better potential because there is a level of Cleveland-ness and Buffalo-ness about them. They have the advantages of nature and “good bones”. Both have bodies of water that are ripe for beautification, and in their better days, these cities were able to sustain pro sports teams as well as build colleges, libraries and architectural treasures.

  2. Cindy says:

    Your post resonates with me. My husband and pre-teen daughter just returned from a week-long mission trip to Detroit’s inner city. They were struck by the resilient and hopeful people they met there, all working to bring the city back. “Detroit isn’t dead,” my 12-year old said, “because the spirit of the city is alive in the people who live there.”

  3. cdc guy says:

    I just read that the BBC is featuring Kokomo in a story about Rust Belt rebounds.

  4. Jeff says:

    I agree. I may not be like most, but I love rust belt cities. Great buildings, train stations, old breweries, churches,textile buildings, industrial relics, and bridges. Something interesting around every corner. To me, this is where creative types should really like and flock to. These old cities themselves are unfinished creative canvases.

    I live in Baltimore, a place that is not a “creative capital” city, but I see artists and counter culture types increasing all over central Baltimore. Mixed together with all the people in medicine and the African-american population, it will be interesting to see where the city goes.

  5. the urban politician says:

    Aaron, I can’t begin to express how much this post resonated with me as well. I too often feel like I’m on a quixotic journey when I see beauty in older, “dying cities” while others cast them off as “ghettoes”.

    This post can almost be summed up as the battle cry for our generation of urbanists.

    But the reality is, I actually believe that Americans are far too ignorant and far-gone to ever embrace these cities again. Sure, well-meaning urbanists and an accompanying cadre of artists and specialty restaurateurs, grocers, and entrepeneurs can breathe some life to some districts of these cities, the majority of these cities are still likely to decay.

    Americans have been fattened (figuratively and literally) with the creamy notion that life absolutely must consist of large homes, wide lawns, winding roads, and plenty of parking at all times. Any other way of life is un-American, regardless of the fact that previous generations, likely representing 90% of all Americans who have ever lived, never lived that way.

  6. daveydoo says:

    I think it would be interesting to know the background of Ed Glaeser and the author. Knowing where they grew up would give us some perspective on where they’re coming from. As someone who grew up in Buffalo I don’t feel down with the pity party that these articles seem to throw. If you grew up in a place like NYC, I understand that you might miss the energy and couldn’t possibly take the comparative desolation of a rust belt city. When I was growing up, if my family wanted to experience the “big city” we would go to Toronto for the day. It’s not a big deal that the city for the most part isn’t “happenin’.” There’s still a major art gallery, a philharmonic orchestra, a decent-sized theater district and Olmsted parks. From the perspective of a New Yorker, it’s certainly not the Met, Carnegie Hall or Broadway, but these amenities do provide a professional level of entertainment that most in the area appreciate and support. The job market is anemic. As someone whose job is in New Jersey, I have no argument there. But so many times we hear stories of people from small towns who wouldn’t think of moving back home. And yet for many ex-pats like myself, Buffalo is definitely not one of those places. There is a bond there that is only weakened by the job market and not much else.

  7. Thank you for the passionate, succinct, and heartening essay in defense of Rust Belt cities and those of us who love them…Detroit, in my case. The disdain, and worse than that, the apathy of many suburbanites here is numbing. A vibrant city benefits the whole region…how hard is that to understand?

    I know I will return to this post often to be reminded I have not lost my mind in thinking that Detroit is beautiful…and yes, even sexy here and there.

  8. AF says:

    For what it’s worth, southern boom towns will NEVER have the history, urbanism, or “good bones” of rust-belt cities like Buffalo or Cleveland. I firmly believe that that’s worth quite a bit.

  9. aim says:

    “Americans have been fattened (figuratively and literally) with the creamy notion that life absolutely must consist of large homes, wide lawns, winding roads, and plenty of parking at all times.”

    But the current incarnation of this lifestyle was paid on credit and paper wealth that has melted with the crash of the housing markets and financial institutions. How will that be sustained in the future?

  10. mack otto says:

    Wad, love your point about cities measuring themselves against their historic population numbers. I think many of us have probably had the experience of visiting small cities with a quality of life orders of magnitude beyond that in larger, decaying cities. The key for many of these cities is to really internalize the notion that smaller can be better. As the piece points out, many of the traditional advantages of big city life are, as a result of technology, now available in smaller cities a fraction of their size. You can live in a small college town and have access to great restaurants, independent film, micro-roasted coffee and micro-brewed beer, and with negligible crime, taxes and pollution. Many people are starting to wake up to this reality and choosing where to settle down accordingly.
    So what lessons can these large industrial dinosaurs take from these smaller places? Stop focusing on things like pro sports, convention centers, skyscrapers and expensive, inflexible light rail projects. Forget how your skyline looks from miles away and focus like a laser beam on improving the quality of life at ground level. Knit your downtowns and surrounding inner-city nabes into a small town-like environment, with more bike lanes, better and more frequent bus service, better police protection etc. Most of these cities are too busy trying to be mini Chicagos or Manhattans, when they should be looking towards small, livable cities in the 20K-150K range (recently I had the good fortune of taking a road trip through New England – Burlington, VT, Portland, ME, Concord and Portsmouth, NH, all offer a good balance of livability and urbanity). With cultural assets left over from their golden ages, most of these rust belt cities would end up “punching above their weight”, so to speak, if they embraced the small city mentality. If St. Louis decided to be a culturally rich small city instead of a not-quite Chicago, it could dominate the category, not to mention vastly improve the self-image of its citizents.
    I realize I’m mostly preaching to the choir here, but I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on what, if any, lessons these large, stagnant cities can take from smaller locales. It really shouldn’t take a Detroit or Katrina scale event for these cities to realize that smaller can be better.

  11. AmericanDirt says:

    Each paragraph here falls into such a smart sequence. As I was reading you rhapsodize about “Rust Belt Chic” and “the new generation of urbanists” who “see the decay, yes, but also the opportunity” I can’t help but think why every urbanist success story seems to be such a Pyrrhic victory. The new generation of urban supporters share a collective love with a certain aesthetic, to which they have worked furiously to objectify–to convince the non-urban majority that urban ways of living are inherently better, better for the environment, for social equity, for economic development/diversification, for reduced crime, etc.

    But a sizable portion of the population–probably a majority–still isn’t biting. They see, probably better than we do, that just as strong of an argument can be made for the suburbs, pulling the statistics and weaving them into a different context. And thus your subsequent paragraph, on “every historic building demolished, every quality infill project sabotaged by NIMBY’s” and so forth–this captures response we get for loving these old built forms, sometimes to the point of fetishization.

    Clearly on a blog like this you are preaching to a choir, but everyone else? People who right paeans such as these are droll curiosities, getting fussy about things that just don’t matter. I think you’ve acknowledged in the past that probably 95% of people don’t necessarily identify with their city as a malleable organic entity in which they can participate–it’s just a big collection of homes, shopping, and a job, and if it’s safe then that’s all it needs to be. You are wisely careful not to sneer at this mentality–the more the public at large sees urbanists as neurotic busybodies, the less credible they become. But where does that leave a city like Buffalo and its urban boosters? Most have come to terms with the fact that it probably won’t meet the realization of their aesthetic vision in their lifetimes, but they/we trudge on, elated by incremental positive change. Dostoevsky’s time-worn observation remains cogent–that “Columbus wasn’t happy when he discovered America; he was happy while he was discovering it.”

  12. John says:

    I love you Dayton Ohio!

  13. cdc guy says:

    “Americans have been fattened (figuratively and literally) with the creamy notion that life absolutely must consist of large homes, wide lawns, winding roads, and plenty of parking at all times. Any other way of life is un-American, regardless of the fact that previous generations, likely representing 90% of all Americans who have ever lived, never lived that way.”

    Those of us whose parents (or who themselves) grew up in suburbs, in small towns, and on farms would disagree. Among my parents, their siblings, my siblings, and my cousins, and our adult children only a handful actually live in a good-sized city. All the rest live in suburbs, small towns, or in the country.

    Remember, the US population was significantly small-town/rural well into the 20th century. So wide lawns, wide-open roads in the countryside and plenty of free parking is really in a significant segment of the American DNA.

    In almost every metro area today, more than half of the population is suburban. In a gross sense, all that has happened over the past three generations is that population has relocated from farms and small towns to the suburbs…even if some families initially migrated to cities.

  14. cdc guy says:

    “For what it’s worth, southern boom towns will NEVER have the history, urbanism, or “good bones” of rust-belt cities like Buffalo or Cleveland. I firmly believe that that’s worth quite a bit.”

    This is a hyperbolic exaggeration. Atlanta and Nashville have plenty of history and urbanism and pretty good bones for American cities. Sure, it’s not the history or culture of the teeming masses of 19th and 20th century White European immigrants who settled in the North, but it’s still history and culture.

    That Southern boomtowns are surrounded by suburbs is not significantly different from Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago…

  15. Kristen says:

    I really liked this too. Honestly, I think it will be a slow change, but eventually, there will be a better ratio between urban/suburban and rural areas. My hope is that each segment of the built environment will return to quality and not quantity and profit at any cost. As a resident of a Southern city that ran on textiles and furniture as recently as 20-25 years ago, watching it die was hard. However, we have a vibrant downtown district, neighborhoods that have a suburban character, but have city-style connections and an un-matched density. We have farmers markets and we still have old style agriculture within reach. It will be a fight, but I do see a return, due to the oil and also economic crisis, of some traditional urbanist, suburban and rural elements that were beneficial, not over the top.

  16. the urban politician says:

    cdc guy,

    I get your point, but in general I am referring to metropolitan Americans, not rural Americans. I am referring to the Americans who choose to live a life associated with a metropolitan economy (industrial, corporate, service-oriented) and demand the amenities that only a metropolitan region can offer them.

    Those Americans, only recently, have demanded their cake and to eat it too. That was not the case with Americans generations past. Modern metropolitan Americans simply cannot fathom any other way of life than the one they, and perhaps the generation before them, lived.

  17. the urban politician says:

    Their are plenty of southern cities with good bones. They probably aren’t as massive as their northern counterparts, but they certainly suffer from the same malady.

    A great example is Richmond, VA. It’s downtown area has great “bones”, but white people have largely abandoned it and left it for African Americans. I used to drive through that downtown regularly and say to myself “what a great, vibrant, and beautiful downtown this is!” No suburb–NONE, no mall, nothing out their in sprawlville could possibly evoke the kind of pride in a community that a downtown like that would have.

    Yet I’m guessing most Richmonders who’ve moved on to the suburbs probably see this as the “bad part of town” and never bother to go there. If they do, they probably see these older buildings as well as streets full entirely of black people and it reconfirms their belief that this is the part of town they must never venture into.

    Nevermind what this place once was to their grandparents. Are they even aware? Do they even care? Modern Americans’ priorities are so warped now that I think we have actually become a changed, perhaps even mentally ill, society. We don’t take pride in our communities any more. Now the focus is on privacy, personal amenities, and cutting our obligations to society as much as possible. More than anyone, America covets the guy with the big house far away on a hill, who perhaps has managed to find some great tax breaks. That is the true American idol.

  18. Alon Levy says:

    The only thing the suburbs have in common with prewar small towns is low density. Small town America typically did not have the wide, auto-friendly, anti-pedestrian winding roads of modern suburbia; it had a straight surveying grid, unpaved or paved to low-speed standards. It had relatively large houses, but people didn’t regard that as a great amenity any more than people regarded a high floor as a great amenity in late-19th century Paris. And while there was plenty of residential parking because of the low density, the local market towns didn’t get gobs of free parking until well into the automobile era.

    And the Southern and Northern suburbs differ in some key aspects, which can be summarized by saying the Southern suburbs are more rural. The big Northern cities’ suburbs began their life as railroad suburbs, so they have a walkable downtown, which is now surrounded with winding single-use arterial roads. They’re denser, at about 1,000-2,000 people per km^2 versus less than 500 in the South. And politically, they’re way, way more conservative.

  19. cdc guy says:

    Alon…my point is that low density in a rural area or small town = lots of open space, and that’s what postwar US suburban subdivisions were built to mimic.

    Urbanization is the anomaly in North America. Even today our larger cities (not metros) hold well less than half our people. Most pre-industrialization immigrants to the US settled in rural regions or small towns. They lived there until well into the industrial age when city populations exploded.

    It is not surprising in the least that such people bolted for the suburbs starting in the streetcar era (1900-1920). The ‘burbs looked like “home” places (i.e. had plenty of open space around), a very strong construct in American society despite our relative mobility.

    It is this instinct (or cultural imperative, I daresay) that American urbanists ignore at some peril.

  20. cdc guy says:

    “I get your point, but in general I am referring to metropolitan Americans, not rural Americans. I am referring to the Americans who choose to live a life associated with a metropolitan economy (industrial, corporate, service-oriented) and demand the amenities that only a metropolitan region can offer them.”

    Remember…half or more of “metropolitan Americans” are suburbanites. I do believe, as I wrote above, that they are largely honoring an inherited cultural imperative to live with space around them.

    I do not think it is just the last generation or two of over-consumers; separate out the McMansions and luxury cars and today’s suburbs look much like those from the 1950’s and 1960’s in form and function.

    I hasten to add that I am explaining, not necessarily defending, from long acquaintance with suburbia across America and from knowing the suburbanites in my own family.

  21. Karl Denton says:

    I live in a town about 45 miles North West of Detroit. I am an artist and photographer and a member of the historic Scarab Club which is right out the back door of the Detroit Institute of Arts. I have been recently elected to it’s board of directors and last November after getting laid off from my engineering position at a local jet engine manufacturer I decided it was time to make a change. I was offered one of the six artist studios at the club and took it.

    My incredibly conservative neighbors (we are one or two liberals that live in a community of 162), could not believe why I would spend even a cent to go “down there”! I spend on average 6 hours a day in Studio 3 and in that 6 hours am inspired by Detroit, the revival of this once great city, the people, the view out of my studio window. In 6 hours I produce what takes me 3 or 4 weeks when I work out of my home studio. The city is enchanting, beautiful the people are very into the protection of there city and it’s reputation. I have not yet met a single person who has had a hard time or problems in the area.

    For me being back in Detroit with the studio reminds me of city living in Paris or Rome, it is alive, wonderful to experience. My daughter (just graduated from High School) will be attending Wayne State for her art degree and will be using Studio 3 as a place to relax, create art and crash if needed. Last years Noel Night resulted in well over 1000 people touring through the Scarab Club, the D.I.A. and the entire area.

    My conservative neighbors were too frightened to come down and experience a truly fun and exciting evening, most have yet to step foot in my studio because they are still afraid of “what the press” says about Detroit. Despite folks who have going down and enjoying the area, these folks refuse to “risk” it and choose to keep there heads buried in the sand.

    Kind of shameful if you ask me!

  22. the urban politician says:

    Karl, your post says it all.

    Too many Americans are too ignorant and foolish for us to rely on them to revive our older cities.

    The best we can hope for is a few hipster districts in otherwise dying places.

    Does that mean we give up the fight? Of course not. You were able to produce more art in Detroit than at home. Hearing things like that reminds me that our cities are worth preserving as much as possible.

  23. Matt Petryni says:

    Aaron, this was an excellent post. I’m a little disappointed the commentary in response to it has descended into another one of these “urbanists like downtowns, but America still wants suburbs!” arguments. I figure most of the people reading Aaron’s blog should know better than that.

    Few of the urbanists–or New Urbanists–actually have this delusion that America isn’t going to be suburban for the near-to-distant future. Yes, there are a few doomsayers out there, and their voices are very loud (James Howard Kunstler is a prime example), but most of us that consider ourselves “urbanists” aren’t pretending that suburbia is drying up and going away tomorrow.

    What urbanists are trying to acknowledge is a pretty obvious reality that the landscape of urban development is much different now than it was when the Baby Boom was growing up and settling down. Gas is more expensive, environmental impacts are better understood, congestion and traffic are ubiquitous both in dense urban and sprawling suburban environments, and much of the suburban infrastructure was built quickly out of modular materials that are now aging and in need of repair. It’s not urban planners that really slowed down the suburban project. It was suburbanites that can’t afford or aren’t interested in new development nearby. The costs of dealing with neighbors, the fact suburban housing stock is oversupplied, and urban service limits have made suburban projects less attractive to developers.

    Even the most fervent suburban advocate like Joel Kotkin will probably acknowledge that, while Americans still overwhelmingly prefer suburban living (and will continue to do so), the price tag of providing it equitably in the face of these problems is becoming more of a hurdle.

    So, at this point, I’d guess I’d just suggest that the argument for urbanism is much less ‘cultural’ than people seem to believe it is. The idea that “urban living is so cool” may be a part of the “urbanist agenda,” but I believe it’s more marketing and pop culture than it is the fundamental theory. That idea is used to “sell” urbanism to a country that largely prefers suburbia, as AmericanDirt rightly points out.

    Urbanism, at is core, is rooted in environmental and economic arguments: the idea that, if the United States is to remain economically competitive and environmentally sustainable, it must find a way to reduce the economic and social costs of its transportation, urban development, civic infrastructure, and creative economy. In part, this will rely heavily on ideas never before tried. In other cases, it will require the replication and adaptation of ideas already implemented in other parts of the world or other times in history. Critiques to urbanist principles don’t get very far if they rely solely on aesthetic arguments and suburban sentimentalism. Which is too bad, because I think urbanists need more effective critiques of their ideas.

    All that being said, I thought Aaron’s post here was fantastic. I too feel like there is a downtrodden picture painted of these impressive cities, and one hardly deserved. We shouldn’t forget that many of these upper Midwestern towns now cast off as “dying” were home to the people who built this country, and this legacy should provide testimony to a spirit of hard work and creativity that is far from dead today.

    On top of that, their urban infrastructure remains. Many of these cities were built within the context of an excellent urban planning tradition, and have the groundwork already laid for a post-Industrial local future. That’s more than I can say for a great deal of the modern world.

  24. Kristen says:

    @ Matt- I can’t agree more, especially at those who scoffed at the idea of Southern cities with a history. Yes, the history is bad at times, but I know for a fact my city was built as a railroad stop. We just restored that turn of the century depot, and our city buses and our Amtrak stop is there. I come at urbanism from the perspective of restoration of urban renewal mistakes and as a result of the gas spike the summer of 2008. I’ve always liked urban style building, but now, in many places, it’s a necessity.

  25. cdc guy says:

    Here’s one critique of urbanist ideas, from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. (It was written by a community-development professional in NYC.)

  26. Steven J. Lee says:

    Like many have said about this post, it has strong resonance for me. I’m from Southern Ontario, but many of the lessons are the same. This is a real rallying cry for anyone passionate about their city that is doing less well than they would like.

    It seems like the areas of growth – California, the Southwest, the South, are running out of steam due to the housing bubble, economic stagnation, political deadlock and/or budgetary problems in the state government. Millions of Americans will be born or immigrate to America in the decades to come and they’ll need to find a home. The Pacific Northwest and the Northeast don’t seem poised to take them. I think the Midwest could position itself very well in the coming years to be THE centre of growth in the country in the post-Great Recession period.

    It’s energetic communities and effective state governments (like in Indiana, New York City, New Jersey) that must lay the ground work, but if they set the right tone I think these cities can and will revive.

  27. Anon says:

    All this back and forth about do people prefer urban or suburban is pointless. This is like debating do people like to spend money or have it in the bank? Do they like to eat or be thin?

    I’d say a good 70% of Americans, especially those between 30 and 70, would like to walk out of their 3000 sq ft home, off their 10,000 sq ft lot and down the block to a commercial district. The commercial street would have shops, restuarants, and boutiques for all their daily needs. It would be lively with lots of friendly neighbors on foot. Maybe there would be train stop where frequent fast trains take them to a downtown office.

    Of course, this is impossible. If everyone has a big house and yard, you can’t get the density to support the walking distance shops. People with the further houses will have to drive, which means there has to be parking. If you already have paid for a car and run your errands in it, then you might as well just go to the big box store because its cheaper. Then the commercial strip is half vacant and unpopulated, so why choose a house near it?

    Eat vs. thin, we get fat. Spend vs. save, we’re broke. Urban vs. suburban, we’re all in the burbs.

  28. Regine says:

    Race is the big silent elephant in this conversation.

  29. Matt Petryni says:

    Thanks for that, cdc. His argument falls horribly short on specifics, but it is right to point out that Jacobs’s views might be at this point so dogmatic in planning that flaws in them are going unexamined.

    HIs examples of her “failures” though, are weak: that she identified Lincoln Center as a potential failure, but it’s done fairly well, and that Greenwich Village has become too expensive to be the diverse enclave she loved. I mean, those are both pretty problematic choices of Jacobs’s “mistakes.” It makes me feel like they were the best ones he could think of, and they’re not all that good. Plus, he’s done nothing to attack her core critiques in suggesting some of her more specific predictions haven’t played out. His suggestions that she’s too uncriticized and that obstructionism is now all too common are valuable, though.

    Anyways, responding to other comments, Anon’s got a good point. The problem is not what people are choosing versus what they are not, the problem is that by the time they’re asked, most of the decision has already been made.

    And Regine raises a legitimate issue. But I’d suggest race is far from silent: traditional suburban development excluded people of color systematically, and created a kind of mass housing segregation (that played out later in schools and services). This isn’t an inherently suburban quality, as many suburbs are fully integrated while many urban areas can entirely lack diversity.

    But I don’t think urbanists are ignoring racial problems, and in fact, it was often social justice activists that pushed for urban reinvestment the hardest–especially before anyone “wanted to live there.” But now that we’re reinvesting, they’re becoming too expensive and sucking in the kids from the suburbs. This is having the devastating effect of pushing people out.

  30. Bugsy says:

    This is the line that especially hit home for me:

    “Where they have a chance to make a difference—to be a producer, not just a consumer of urban life”

    It couldn’t be more true. Thanks.

  31. Wad says:

    To cdc guy, the urban politician and others asking about converting suburbanites to urbanism, I think that’s an approach urbanists need to avoid.

    Instead, the focus ought to be on urbanists cultivating the place where people love to live, love to work, love to play and love to spend their time. Then, without a sales spiel or evangelizing, people will want to come on their own.

    The last thing urbanism needs to become is another dogma. Urbanists don’t need to tell people that it’s wrong to own a house or drive cars everywhere. Urbanists actually need to let people have that space; it would be counterproductive to acclimate someone in an urban lifestyle if they are just going to be miserable in that type of environment.

    Make a place interesting, and people will come on their own. Most great places came before the era of urban planning and city functions appropriated according to a script; the places became great out of splendid chaos. Plans were not overthought, and in time (about a generation), splending chaos becomes a splendid order.

  32. cdc guy says:

    “Anyways, responding to other comments, Anon’s got a good point. The problem is not what people are choosing versus what they are not, the problem is that by the time they’re asked, most of the decision has already been made.”

    That’s just not true. We all have a choice where to live, and we all choose how and where to spend our time and money daily.

    One problem of urbanism today is that the majority of people with children are still choosing suburbs because they perceive it as a cheaper and safer choice (in personal physical safety, in education and activities for their kids, and in monetary investment terms) and because it just looks like “home”. I’ve commented at great length on the latter (non-rational/emotional) drive, and I’ve not addressed the three main (rational) safety issues:

    1. Cities generally have more crime than their suburbs.
    2. Cities generally have worse “default choice” schools than their suburbs, even when they have one or two excellent options present.
    3. Cities’ older, pre-WW2 single-family-house neighborhoods typically have more blight and on average, fewer popular features (master baths, closets, large eat-in kitchens, open floor plans), lower property values and lower appreciation than newer suburbs. I acknowledge this varies widely and can even invert in upscale, gentrified neighborhoods. But then the issue is that the favored places and features are much more expensive than ‘burbs…and the city locations still fall short in #1 and #2.

    And, of course, one can still be a part-time producer and consumer of urban life while living (safely) in the ‘burbs.

  33. cdc guy says:

    “The last thing urbanism needs to become is another dogma. Urbanists don’t need to tell people that it’s wrong to own a house or drive cars everywhere. Urbanists actually need to let people have that space; it would be counterproductive to acclimate someone in an urban lifestyle if they are just going to be miserable in that type of environment.”

    Amen…but Urbanism already is another dogma: the Gospel According to Jane. And many urbanists do strongly imply that owning a yard and driving alone in a car are bad behavior and should be avoided at all times.

    “Make a place interesting, and people will come on their own.”

    I think (as I wrote above) it is necessary to make a place feel safe as well as interesting/engaging.

  34. wkg in bham says:

    Aaron – if it’s of any consolation – economic psudoscientists have don’t have much of a track record when it comes to forecasting the future. Do you have a link to the artical you’ve made reference to?

  35. Wad says:

    CDC guy, anybody who claims to love or respect Jane Jacobs or her work ought to know that Jacobs herself spent much of her life after “Death and Life” to stop and disavow dogma.

    Her work on urbanism was always about how things happened, not what should be done or what people are supposed to do.

    In interviews Jacobs gave and statements from her friends and confidantes, she made it very clear she had a complete disdain for urban planning as a discipline.

    As for urbanists disdaining the suburban lifestyle, it’s just urbanist self-righetousness as a reaction to suburban self-righteousness. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

  36. Wad says:

    With regards to the urban schools issue, the irreverent site The Straight Dope wrote a three-part series on how middle-class parents turned around an inner-city campus.

    It’s a serious piece, and it’s set in Chicago and might be of consideration for the Urbanoscope:

    Part 1:
    Part 2:
    A follow-up:

  37. bham, here’s the link:

    It’s worth noting that City Journal is the quarterly magazine of the free market Manhattan Institute.

  38. Matt Petryni says:


    “That’s just not true. We all have a choice where to live, and we all choose how and where to spend our time and money daily.”

    Alas, but I would suggest it is true. We do make decisions about how and where to spend our time daily, but those decisions are deeply informed by price signals, social norms, and regulation. All of these factors, of course, are decided long before we make our decision. In this way, our choices are somewhat made for us.

    We then have a tendency to perceive of a lot of these constructed societal and economic conditions as “natural”, when really they’re not: for example, if it wasn’t for zoning regulation, the market would not nearly provide the amount of suburban housing stock common to most cities. If that housing stock wasn’t so made so cheap by government intervention into the mortgage market, it’s unlikely as many would prefer it. And if they weren’t made so easy to get to by socialized transportation infrastructure, they might not find a market at all. And so on. So that’s really all I meant by that. I’m sorry if that was unclear.

    That aside, I don’t know. It’s not that I think these critiques are totally off-base, it’s that they’re often insubstantial. Most of the critiques of urbanism seem to focus less on theory and more on “personality.” I caution too against any set of urban theories–urbanist or otherwise–becoming “dogma.” So too I feel there are preferences and needs for suburbia that should not be ignored. Some of these preferences are rather inherent (such as the safety concerns raised by cdc) while others are more or less matters of perception (say, that it’s “cheaper”). Finally, both sides must acknowledge that no matter what preferences are or historically have been, they can and will constantly change.

    But the majority of critiques of urbanism seem to have little to do with theory. I’ll agree that urbanists might “self-righteously disdain” suburbia, but again, claiming this says nothing in response the reasons they propose for their disdain. Neither does calling something “dogma.” Dogma only becomes a problem when its dogmatic nature allows realities to be ignored or ideas to go unexamined. But attacking something as “dogma” neither presents these realities nor examines the ideas.

    In other words, the “personality”-based critique does little to persuade urbanists that their theories are misguided, only that their messaging might be. Further, they introduces little new information. Urbanists are aware of their self-righteousness, they just feel it’s justified. (Else it would not be called “self-righteousness.”)

    Most reasonable urbanists see a place for suburbia in the future, and aren’t trying to end it full stop. But they don’t see it as the whole picture. They’re advocating very gradual deregulation of land uses for specific reasons, and in specific circumstances. It’s the philosophy behind deregulation that should be confronted, especially in those cases where it might make sense for the government intrusion that causes suburbia to continue. I don’t think every existing neighborhood should be deregulated a-la Jane Jacobs’ home-rule libertarianism, either. But in some areas, that might make some sense.

  39. Alon Levy says:

    CDC Guy: I think you’re getting the history of US suburbanization wrong here. It didn’t begin in 1900-1920; it began in 1860-1880. It had strong racist elements, but not against blacks, who at the time were largely confined to the South; instead, it was against immigrants. The patrician reformers of the time hated cities and hated immigrants’ values, and thought that to turn Italians and Jews into proper Americans, it was necessary to demolish their neighborhoods and move them to single-use, single-family, owner-occupied houses in suburbia. It’s these ideas that underlay the early push for rapid transit in New York, first the els and then the subway, to allow people to commute. The reason the ensuing development was still mixed-use urban is that those rapid transit projects involved too much bickering and were therefore built too slowly to reach truly greenfield areas.

    Jacobs mentions a little bit of this history in The Death and Life, but she doesn’t link it to the social attitudes then. She tenuously links it to 19th century ideas of progress and planning, but mostly ignores the racial dimension. A better source is the Historic American Engineering Record’s report; the politics is contained in the first part, by Wallace Katz, and somewhat in the second, by Clifton Hood.

    On another note, the WSJ article you link to is meh. The article gets Jacobs’ history right, but completely butchers the role of the community boards in New York. In calling them obstructionist and not really representative, it ignores the fact that their recommendations are non-binding, and often add more housing units than the city’s zoning process, without the evictions and Kelo takings that have characterized the more recent megaprojects.

  40. James says:

    There’s no hope for a city like Buffalo. I attended school there and tried unsucessfully to stay up there but the lack of jobs made it impossible. Unless you want to wait tables for a living these cities are just weigh-stations for people that are educated and qualified for better jobs.
    There was an article published in the Buffalo News (a rag) that boasted about what a great city Buffalo was to live in. They interviewed two people who just moved from two bigger cities. These new residents loved the cheap cost of living, no traffic, always tickets available for plays; etc. At the end of the article they mentioned what these people did for a living. One was the new head of the Roswell Cancer Institute, the other a new president of UB. With these well paying esteemed positions no wonder they ‘loved’ Buffalo.
    So I moved back home to Long Island got a job immediately and the rest is history. My story is one in a million. The city of Buffalo has an erodong tax base and when I left the city and county was controlled by the state. Buffalo was also the ONLY city in the US that had less population at the turn of this century than last. Looking back the only thing I miss was my rent which was $525. Buffalo just doesn’t compete with NYC and will never so please don’t ever compare the two.

  41. SanderWilliams says:

    I know I’m a little late to the game in regards to this post, but for what it’s worth, I think any revival of the “Rustbelt” cities (personally I prefer Snowbelt) will hinge on a return to the idea of cities being the locus of productive activities, not just a forum for consumption functions like shopping, dining, entertainment, etc. So much of today’s urbanism focuses on the ‘cake and ice-cream’ attributes of city life, but it’s the ‘meat and potatoes’ of a sound economy that really fuel urban living. That almost goes without saying, of course, but it is what makes the contrast between the obeservation that Buffalo still has many urban amenities, but no jobs, so poignant. It will be hard to capitalize on the “good bones” of the older cities if they can’t produce opportunites that allow people to enjoy them. But having said that, I don’t think that all is lost for these cities, as there are real advantages they enjoy over the Sunbelt cities. There is still a tremendous amount of technical know-how locked into the economies of cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, know-how that very few places in the Sunbelt have been able to reproduce. And although the rise of China has probably dimmed the prospects for manufacturing in America forever, there will soon be a rebalancing in the economics of trade (fueled by rising energy and labor costs in Asia) that will bring some production back to the U.S. If the Snowbelt cities can recapture a portion of that returning production, they will have something to build upon. Perhaps if new modes of production could be identified and nurtured in the Snowbelt, modes that are hinted at in the emergence of these so called ‘hack spaces’ that have bloomed all over the country, the future could brighten for places like Buffalo.

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