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April 18, 2010 11:47 AM   Subscribe

You know those cities which seem to balance for years in a precarious state somewhere between gentrification and collapse? Is there any way to predict which way they will go?

I lived for a while in a small city which on paper has a ton of potential, and in reality seems to have a lot of promise, but which just can't seem to get its shit together. I could imagine this city becoming slightly gentrified. Not in the expensive boutiques and hipsters way, not to the point where I couldn't afford to or wouldn't want to live there, but just to a level where there are enough everyday services (like a real grocery store within the city limits) and a wider range of cultural/recreational activities (like anything that isn't another new art gallery.) I could also imagine it becoming a mini-Detroit, or being engulfed by nearby strip-mall suburbia until it is nothing but sketchy take-out places and Verizon stores with an uninhabited downtown consisting of a few historic buildings. The idea of settling down anywhere terrifies me now. However in the future, theoretically, this city would be perfect as a base to live in and frequently travel from...if something like the first option happened.

I was there yesterday after 6 months away and I saw some signs which seemed positive: many new businesses opening, buildings which were dilapidated being fixed up, etc. But I realized I don't know enough to say if these things are positive at all: a really high turnover of businesses, many of them of the same type (how many restaurants does one town need?) could be a sign of instability, right? There's also a lot of renovation and construction stuff going on, both touristy public spaces and private housing. But I don't know how to judge whether these projects are smart investments by the city and/or developers, or folly. Also I don't know how much any of that matters in the question of whether more people might decide, for reasons like the good location or cheap rent, to move there and do interesting things.

I'm not asking about this city specifically, which is why I'm not naming it. I'm wondering more about the general concept of forecasting what will happen to a place, particularly a place that isn't and will never be a major, important location. My instinct is to be wary of statistics, simply because I can think of some places where the stats would indicate things like high crime or declining population, but when you go there the impression is largely of a very vibrant place. But are there any statistics or facts (which industries are coming in or going out? real estate prices? more nuanced population information? type of city government?) that are more indicative of whether a place will renew itself or decline? Or are there other features (historical importance, transportation options, distance from major cities, etc.) that are known to factor into which places end up doing well? I'd also like to hear anecdotes, personal tipping points that signal to you that a place is becoming less depressed and more livable, or what books/magazines/websites you've read that deal with this kind of thing.
posted by DestinationUnknown to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I would be interested in the schools (young professionals may settle in the city only to move out when they have kids if the schools are very bad), the level of civic engagement (lots more human resources to draw on if people are engaged with the city), and how many people who go to college return to live there. There's a certain amount of "up-and-out" with any small city as young people seek broader horizons, but some cities it seems like everyone's desperate to get out of Dodge and other cities many young people return when they start their careers, or as a mid-career move. I think that speaks well to a city's strengths when people WANT to come back to it.

I live in a small city and I'm interested in these issues as well; it seems like it can be a little hit-or-miss in terms of encouraging local industry, making tax decisions to encourage development, focusing only on essential services, whatever. I think a certain amount of it is simply luck! (particularly getting the right business at the right moment.)

A somewhat diverse economic base seems to help (more choices for people who settle there, more economic stability in downturns), as does some kind of largely recession-proof industry -- which I think is one reason college towns do well, since education is counter-cyclical. Health care is another good one; it's hit more by the economy, but people don't stop getting sick. Federal and state government is another one.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:17 PM on April 18, 2010

I would look at the city's leadership. Are they old timers or newer residents? Are they active in the community and do they have a financial stake in it? I would look at the schools as well. Who is on the school board? Is the agenda financial or academic or a combination of both. Generally, I would look for reasons why other younger folk would want to live there over somewhere else. Is the an active Chamber of Commerce? Are there a lot of professionals such as doctors, attorneys and accountant types?

That sort of thing.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:22 PM on April 18, 2010

I have a theory that the success of improvement efforts might depend some on political and social culture. I live near a small/medium sized city in Lansing, MI, which comes close to fitting your description of "being engulfed by nearby strip-mall suburbia until it is nothing but sketchy take-out places and Verizon stores with an uninhabited downtown consisting of a few historic buildings." (though Lansing also has some restaurants that are only open during the day, to serve lunch to state workers, since Lansing is the capital).

There is a little neighborhood on the north side of the city where people have been making an effort to gentrify for ten years or so; a little more even. It's got little restaurants and galleries, one development of condos, that kind of thing. It hosts a couple of jazz-in-the-street type festivals every year. It seems to have reached a kind of equilibrium of seeming like a kind of low-rent creative area, but there's pretty high turnover in the businesses. I don't know if it will ever get enough momentum to not feel like it might sink back into empty storefronts. I'm just not sure that Lansing has a high enough population of hip liberals of the sort who liked to wander galleries and have coffee in sidewalk cafes to ever make that neighborhood feel solid. And it's not attractive enough, I don't think, to draw people to live near it, especially since Lansing does lack such amenities as grocery stores and restaurants you can go to after 5 p.m. in the downtown area. It seems like the folks who are involved in the effort are working really hard to maintain it and try to promote it, but it doesn't seem to me like it would take much, if that effort slackened, to let it die.
posted by not that girl at 1:20 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Urban planning is a field devoted to this kind of study (with an eye towards making infrastructure decisions to keep cities growing). List of planned cities. Obviously most cities grow more "organically" but as case studies, intentionally planned cities are quite interesting.

Livable streets has a series of blogs about this, although being founded in NYC a few years ago, might be a bit off topic for your small city make/break interest... it has since grown to being a very good resource in general for transportation planning, education, and getting a general mood of the residents over these kind of decisions (see the extremely heated comments on streetsblog).
posted by shownomercy at 3:11 PM on April 18, 2010

My observations tell me that you can tell whether a low-rent area is on its way up or down by considering whether the local businesses are static or expanding. If they're mostly charity shops, second-hand bookshops, beauty parlors and the like - the area is on its way down. None of these businesses has much expansionary potential and they act as a drag on the expansion of neighboring businesses. If the businesses are things like cafes, art galleries,boutiques and so forth, the area is probably on its way up. Cafes are an especially good sign - they follow increases in traffic.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:06 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding shownomercy regarding the field of urban planning: take a look at this book as well. The thesis the book is based on is available online too.
posted by stratastar at 4:23 PM on April 18, 2010

I live in another city that could arguably go either way, and from what I've seen the success that has been initiated so far has been in spite of the city government rather than in conjunction with it. Grassroots efforts create the best blossoms, and then the city tries to "jump on the hipster wagon" by associating with these activities after they've proven themselves to some extent.

Governments like spending money, because it looks good and it's not theirs. However, a lot of those capital projects (I'm thinking about things like developing iconic buildings for particular industry or creative groups) are often out of reach of the local community members that would be best served by them and are nominally the target market. There seems to be a significant disconnect that's hard to bridge.
posted by lowlife at 4:33 PM on April 18, 2010

One thing I'd think about is what anchors people to the area? Is there a university or other employer that is guaranteed to bring in some percentage of people who would also enjoy the kind of amenities that you would? My guess is that if there is a steady number of people who want the town to be better AND can't immediately just pack up and leave for somewhere else, growth will happen.
posted by MsMolly at 7:44 PM on April 18, 2010

I live in a place that is bitterly fighting gentrification and the reason they are losing are a) a couple of key retailers and music venues that attract tons of traffic which has led to a lot of very successful secondary business like cafes b) its the next cloest place now that the former cool neighbourhood is all remodeled up and c) its super convenient to all modes of transport from cars to bikes. It's also got a bit of an off beat history which seems to attract people who would like to kill that very vine.
posted by fshgrl at 8:40 PM on April 18, 2010

This book is the most comprehensive book to date to be written about the issue. There are many potential indicators, and even some economics models to predict this sort of thing. If you're really interested in the subject, it's worth the read.
posted by lunit at 10:16 PM on April 18, 2010

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