Worth Defending

Steven Shultis is a Strong Towns member and blogger at Rational Urbanism. Today's piece is republished from his blog with permission.

The MGM resort casino was the focus of a news feature on Connecticut Public Radio last week. As one would expect from a CPB production it was generally fair, thoughtful, and well produced; it also took very few risks and generally trod the pathways one would expect. 

No one is going to come to a resort casino in downtown Springfield…and the traffic is going to be horrific!

There were two glaringly contradictory “fear pairs”, each brought up multiple times, but without anyone acknowledging their mutual exclusivity. My favorite goes back to the original anti-casino campaign in the city and it goes like this: No one is going to come to a resort casino in downtown Springfield…and the traffic is going to be horrific! Coming in a close second to that is: “All the jobs created by the casino are going to be crap…and Connecticut is going to fight tooth and nail to keep those crappy jobs here where they belong!”

On a much more important note, especially with the release of Richard Florida’s new book (which, he says, takes an honest look at some of the flaws in his original “creative class” hypothesis), there was the introduction to the CPB piece that showed some marked incredulity at the idea of anyone voluntarily attempting to enjoy themselves in Springfield. Florida’s work tends to be data driven, but I hope he casts an eye on the culture we’ve created which doesn’t allow for love of place unless that place is at some cultural extreme. 

Rather than try to detail how that works in this essay I’d rather take you on a thought experiment. Be patient, this is going to take a few bullet points, but it is precisely that fact which makes my argument

Imagine a friend tells you about a little neighborhood in New York City, or maybe Boston or San Francisco: It has an art museum with works by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Gilbert Stuart, Daniel Chester French in its American collection and Tiepolo, Titian, Picasso, Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, and more in its European collection with a smattering of O’Keefe and Calder to boot. 

Across a little plaza, there’s a classic little Victorian museum with a huge collection of armor and weapons from Asia along with a huge room filled with American landscapes and other pieces from the XIX century.

Nearby there’s a brand new children’s museum dedicated to the work of Dr Seuss and an interactive sculpture garden inspired by his work in the aforementioned plaza. Before you wander off, check out the quirky little science museum and the statue by Augustus Saint Gaudens just outside the park.

On the other side of this cluster of museums is an industrial history museum with a handful of classic cars, including some of the oldest American cars ever produced and a huge collection of classic motorcycles.

On the way up to the nearby National Park, there’s a brand new starchitectural wonder designed by Moshe Safdie, and inside the park there’s a museum with an enormous collection of firearms. The park provides a beautiful view of the area below. 

If you head the other direction from the plaza where the museums are clustered there’s an amazing historic district with a church designed by H.H. Richardson and some really impressively restored French Second Empire row houses. 

Walk a block from there and you'll find a Main Street with some cool buildings and everything from grab-and-go food to some really nice sit-down restaurants: There’s German, Indian, Cajun, Italian, Barbecue, Lebanese, Puerto Rican, and Chinese, to name a few. If you go north, there’s a newly refurbished train station from the golden age of the American railroad. If you go south there’s another Richardson building in the region’s oldest park.

The church in that park is neoclassical, the governmental complex is among the finest City Beautiful monuments in the United States (as is the library you passed on the way to the National Park). 

If you look north, you’ll see two hotels in case you want to stay the night, but walking south you’ll start walking past the new MGM complex: movie theaters, retail shops, a wiz bang bowling alley, a food court, some restaurants on the Main Street, an open air plaza for entertainment and a spot for farmer’s markets and craft fairs in nice weather, and ice skating in the winter. They’ll be taking over management of the performance venues I forgot to mention. There are symphony and theatrical productions during the season, as well as AHL hockey. MGM promises to bring pop music concerts as well as events like Cirque de Soleil.

Once you get beyond MGM there’s a little Italian neighborhood with multiple delis, cafes, restaurants, and even a little florist shop and a bakery. That’s where I spend most of my time.

Yes, obviously this is my neighborhood, and I don’t mean to imply for a second that it’s nothing but sweetness and light here. However, I want to highlight how ridiculous it is that a news outlet would show any incredulity regarding the potential viability of the place as a tourist destination. The only explanation is that even an enterprise like public radio which prides itself on broad-based objectivity is infested with the American invective for small (American) cities.

There has always been a cultural pull toward the biggest cities and the greatest capitals of culture. That I understand, but even George Bailey had people try to argue him out of leaving Bedford Falls. Today, it seems everyone, even family, would not only be telling him to leave but would be packing up to leave with him. With so many of our communities having been hollowed out to the point that a young man’s dying thought of his hometown might be “the curb cut between the Chuck E. Cheese and the Wal-Mart” it makes sense that everyone would yearn to be someplace authentic, but then why do so many of our most genuine places receive more opprobrium than affection?

For me the answer rests somewhere in the culture that can only see black and white: There is one champion and all the rest must be losers. It’s an almost Manichaean worldview where small cities are somehow both the opposite of nature and the opposite of real cities. In this area, people claim Boston (somehow) as a relevant cultural marker, but skip on any allegiance to the closer municipalities that, in fact, provide the economic base on which they exist. In Spain, people take pride in their community of origin no matter how humble; not to is like hating your own mother or father. In the United States, to love your hometown and to stay there is only indicative of a lack of ambition; you must leave the tribe and your family to show independence.

I’ve always had the opposite view: Any idiot can move to trendy place. The iconoclast sees the uniqueness of the place where he or she is and revels in it. My fellow Massachusetts natives Emerson and Thoreau each expressed this same idea, if in somewhat different ways. I have been to 3 continents, 10 nations, 46 states, and countless cities. I’ve lived in Europe and the Mountain West as well as Massachusetts. I’ve travelled with students a dozen times and seen hundreds of historic places; my hometown has no need to be embarrassed by what it has to offer. It has a significance, a value, an attraction all its own, as do so many cities of its size. Treating with disdain the idea that people might want to experience it for the sake of enjoyment, enrichment, and even enlightenment from time to time is ridiculous.

Credit goes to James Howard Kunstler for the title and the curb cut quote.

(All photos courtesy of Steven Shultis)

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