The lure of small cities

I enjoyed the excerpt from Witold Rybczynski’s new book on Wednesday’s Slate, titled ‘The Cities We Want’:

(T)he age-old desire for human contact, crowds, variety, and expanded individual choices… has breathed new life into many small cities, especially college towns, which, with their attendant research facilities, office parks, university hospitals, and cultural amenities, have blossomed and are among the fastest-growing and most attractive places to live and work. Part of this blossoming is the result of technology. Cable television, regional airlines, catalog shopping, and the Internet have brought big-city conveniences to small cities. But when college towns succeed as attractive and vital places to live—and by no means all do—the result is a potent synergy between higher education, information-age industries, and people’s preferences for smaller, more intimate communities…

Rybczynski seems to have his hand on the pulse of the Midwest, in particular the Great Lakes region, where more than anywhere else the metros of college towns are becoming economic and cultural anchors.   Our largest cities in this part of the country were developed for and around heavy manufacturing, and catastrophically handicapped by racial segregration and low rates of college attainment.  Thus far, Chicago is the only one of this cohort of the classic old industrial cities to have overcome that legacy.  The energy in the Great Lakes has shifted to college towns and state capitals more than in any other part of the country:  Madison, Indianapolis, my Ann Arbor, the Lansing region, and of course Columbus, the leader of this newer generation of smaller but nimbler metros.

Rybczynski continues:

(S)ince 1970 the proportion of the urban population living in large cities has steadily declined, while the percentage living in small cities has grown, suggesting that what Americans don’t want is to live in large metropolitan areas… In 2007, the fastest-appreciating residential real estate values in the nation were not in San Francisco, Boston, and New York City but in Corvallis, Ore. (population 53,000); Grand Junction, Colo. (population 46,000); and Wenatchee, Wash. (population 28,000). These small cities are examples of what Joel Garreau has christened the Santa Fe effect… ‘There isn’t a single answer to the question “What kind of cities do we want?” because different people want so many different things. While the majority of us appear to prefer dispersed small cities, a significant minority want to live in concentrated big cities, and a tiny fraction is prepared to pay the price of living in the very center of things. Most of us want lively downtowns, at least to visit if not to live in. Nor is it simply a question of individual preferences; we want different things at different times… Since American cities are shaped by popular demand, one can expect them to exhibit a variety that is no less rich and diverse than the variety of Americans themselves.

I wonder if it is also partly this impulse for smaller towns that scattered Metro Detroit over dozens (hundreds?) of tiny municipalities in Southeast Michigan.

My own great-grandparents arrived in Highland Park when they immigrated from Canada in the 1920s, but quickly moved on to Royal Oak, which was then still a village that had sprung up around a railroad stop, far from the edge of urbanization.  This is very typical of old Detroit, where the only thing that kept people in the city were jobs with the Big 3.   Detroit’s population exploded in the course of two generations (roughly 1900-1945), which was simply not long enough to convert the country folk who had migrated there into city-lovers.  Even before the freeways were constructed and FHA programs unleashed in the 1950s, families left the city as soon as they had enough money to buy their way out.  (Of course, for Jewish people and especially for blacks, the price of homeownership in the suburbs was much dearer, certainly impossible even for Jews til at least the 1960s.)

Unlike Chicago, San Francisco, and the other long-established northern cities Jacobs wrote about in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, most Detroiters simply did not have the rich experience of urban living, the acceptance of smaller lots and acquaintance with public transportation and living cheek by jowl with people who were different.   They came from Appalachia or the Polish countryside or, in the case of my ancestors, rural Ontario, and rushed back to the countryside at the earliest possible opportunity.

For most of its supposed “Golden Age,”  Detroit was inhabited by people who fundamentally did not understand city living and did not care for it — and consequently did not care for the city itself.  When things got tough in other U.S. cities in the mid-to-late twentieth centuries, other cities were eventually stabilized by the love of the people who lived there.  Detroit, despite all of its assets a place to make your fortune and get out as quickly as possible, simply didn’t have the love of enough of its own citizens.  And that, more than anything I think, explains why Detroit’s outcome has been so different.

So the impulse for small towns Rybczynski describes is also, I think, at least part of the explanation for the exodus to the suburbs that has continued to this day.  I think a lot of the people who ended up swelling our largest cities in the first half of the twentieth century did so only for economic reasons; they went where the high-paying jobs were; but their natural inclination remained for small town life, which they then tried, and failed, to find in suburbs.

In the last couple of decades, the opportunity costs of leaving a major urban area have decreased substantially, thanks to the Internet and many other factors, like increasing tolerance of gays.  You just don’t have to sacrifice as many urban amenities when you move to a smaller metro as you used to.

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One response to “The lure of small cities

  1. Pingback: Changing how we get around | Motown To Tree Town

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