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Monday
Jan132014

Huntington Calling

Last November I had the opportunity to visit Huntington, West Virginia, for a Curbside Chat. The day before I arrived in town I did a rather crazy interview for a radio show hosted by two of the city's local mayors (which we released last week as part of a podcast). The impression of Huntington they left me with was not flattering.

When I arrived, I was delighted to find that Huntington is a beautiful city, albeit with a little bit of rust and wear. It has a fantastic downtown with some landmark buildings, nice destinations and endless potential. That core is surrounded by some really solid neighborhoods, structures that continue to express their elegance even when not fully loved. I was enchanted.

The only thing truly depressing about Huntington is the miles and miles of decaying post-World War II development that surrounds this strong core, the same kind of mindless stip malls, drive throughs and cheap housing that you find almost everywhere else in North America. The desperation of these areas was made even more vivid when contrasted with the downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods, places that still shine despite decades of neglect and decline.

I don't know as I've seen a more powerful example of the innate strength of the traditional development pattern. I can't imagine how amazing Huntington would be today if the energy they had expended over the last sixty years chasing growth and prosperity on the periphery had been diverted into their traditional neighborhoods.

It's not too late.

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Reader Comments (7)

I lived in Huntington for four months back in 1998. It's a beautiful city with a lot of potential, if they could just learn to protect their downtown and traditional neighborhoods.

January 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike Christensen

Great video. I'm sure you've mentioned this elsewhere, but I feel compelled to add:

For a lot of small towns the growth scheme is even more troublesome because those localities expand horizontally on the backs of the state DOT's road network. Doing it that way they get to minimize local short-term expense even more, and stick long-term liabilities on the state. Since the cities nearly always fail to build their own major street network as the state highway strips out, it makes the pattern far worse from a development and fiscal standpoint. Once that pattern is in place, it's also very, very hard to change.

January 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Klinkenberg

Great video! Really hammers home the point. Don't worry, even Jamie Oliver had significant troubles showing the people of Huntington a different (read: better) way of doing things on ABC's Food Revolution. He showed kids how disgusting McNuggets are and they still chose to eat them. In your case, the kids are 65+ years old and still make bad decisions...

January 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErik

Huntington and Charleston are fascinating in their hyper-linear development pattern that follows the narrow river valleys of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. As much as these places have tried to sprawl, they simply haven't been able to do it to the extent you see in flatter terrain. Sure they've tried, and the hilltops surrounding them are littered with wormy subdivisions, but the core cities aren't as reamed out as they could be, and the sprawl is pretty limited. I'll grant that the Teays Valley/I-64 corridor between Huntington and Charleston is a suburban nightmare. Still, what surprised me the most is just how urban these cities are, while they're quite frankly tiny. Each only has a population around 50,000 people, with larger metro areas sure, but had I not looked it up I would have expected these to be cities two to four times their actual size.

January 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

How great it would be to have a website with a map where you could click on a building and get its value per acre. Or even a thematic/temperature map showing buildings of higher economic value. Then everyone could see for themselves which places provided value and which ones didn't.

January 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Fantastic video. I was one of presumably many nearly shouting out loud at the ex mayors' on that podcast. Love the image of Joe stroading at the end!

January 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterneil21

I finally had a chance to listen to the podcast, and man, those two are just so clueless it's really quite frightening. In many cases they kind of made Chuck's point for him, without even realizing it. Like saying that municipalities in West Virginia are required to have a balanced budget, while following it up that without federal and state grants they wouldn't be able to meet that mandate. Well duh! Is it any wonder that their sidewalks are all crumbling and they need federal grants and bonds out the wazoo to pay for anything?

Chuck made a good point about how the city has such good bones because they never had the money to tear all the good stuff down, it just sort of sat and pickled for a few generations. That's why there's so many fantastic buildings and cute brick streets, because they couldn't afford to demolish them or pave them over. I'm not saying that's a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, but nobody can point to the underlying financial situation that caused that and say the city is well run because of it.

They also made a comment that it's the city's responsibility to provide streets, sewer, water, fire protection, etc., seemingly without any consideration of cost. That's pretty scary too when you think about the ramifications, but I can at least see how they get that idea since that's been standard operating procedure for pretty much the entire life of everyone who's alive today. I wonder just what percentage of the population thinks exactly like them though. I'd like it to be a vanishingly small number of course, I suspect it's probably a significant majority, but I fear it could very well be just about everybody.

January 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk
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