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Great American Cities

Five that are getting it right

July 20, 2001 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

It isn’t just the new census figures that show populations are rising and prove American cities are staging a dramatic comeback. Strong evidence can also be seen in the skyrocketing real estate prices in many urban neighborhoods. Now mayors worry not about empty neighborhoods but about serious shortages of affordable housing, which is further testimony to the fact that Americans are falling back in love with cities.

The most important factor in urban revitalization are the folks of all ages and social classes who never gave up on their neighborhoods, who rolled up their sleeves to hold the line on urban decay, and who ultimately brought real improvements to their communities.

But there are other reasons too. Worsening traffic congestion convinced some suburbanites to exchange 45-mile commutes down harrowing freeways for 10-minute strolls down city sidewalks. A lot of kids who grew up in homogenous suburban bedroom communities are drawn by the cultural diversity and pizzazz of city living. Many companies find that edgy urban neighborhoods are potent lures for the young, tech-savvy talent they’re seeking. And cities are increasingly attractive to baby boomers with grown-up kids who are eager to trade lawn mowing for concert going.

While not every city, and certainly not every neighborhood, has conquered its economic, social, and racial woes, evidence of an American urban renaissance can be seen all across the country. The trend is especially evident in these five smaller cities, which only a few years ago ranked low on most people’s index of livability and vitality.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Milwaukee is a classic rust-belt city that’s made a fresh start under Mayor John O. Norquist. Mayor Norquist understands that Milwaukee will succeed by promoting its urban charms rather than trying to replicate suburban amenities. A freeway that cuts through the heart of the city is being torn down to build a classic urban district from scratch. Great old industrial buildings are being converted to offices and lofts. The city is also distinguished by miles of lakefront park, architecturally-rich neighborhoods, a grand tradition of ethnic festivals, and the best corner taverns in America.

West Palm Beach, Florida
Once the plain sister to ritzy Palm Beach, this town is now a textbook example of how to revitalize a ho-hum town into a bustling urban center. The downtown now teems with restaurants and street life, and a thriving new arts district pulls in visitors from all over the region. An ambitious park expansion will ring the city with green space, bike paths, and waterways.

One of the most visionary planning departments in America has made this sun-belt town into a walker’s paradise by building pedestrian arcades, narrowing streets, and promoting traffic-calming measures.

Louisville, Kentucky
A comfortable town where big-city advantages can be enjoyed on a modest budget, Louisville features an amazing calendar of arts attractions, the most beautiful square in America (St. James Court, which makes you swear you’re in Europe), other great turn-of-the-century neighborhoods, and a riverfront that is coming back to life. Park DuValle, once a mean-streets public housing project, has been transformed into a thriving mixed-income neighborhood without booting the original residents.

Washington, D.C.

Less a bureaucrats’ town now and more of a blossoming cultural center, Washington has bounced back from the municipal corruption and rampant crime of recent decades. It features an excellent subway system, a growing African-American middle class, tree-lined neighborhoods regaining much of their original elegance, and improving public education, especially from kindergarten through middle school. Washington also opened its arms to the Potomac River, where a walkable entertainment district now thrives in the Georgetown area.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The Iron City has hung on to the assets of a classic American city better than almost anywhere. Downtown survived the ‘60s and ‘70s better than most, and the city wisely kept its streetcars, upgrading them to light rail and adding bus-only lanes to improve transit. It built fewer miles of freeway than other places and the hilly topography fosters strong neighborhood identity. A unique tax system, inspired by visionary 19th century economist Henry George, assesses land at a higher rate than buildings, thus encouraging historic preservation, discouraging a sea of parking lots, and reducing sprawl.

The fact that these five urban centers shine with a new spirit of optimism offers hope to urban neighborhoods everywhere. They also offer practical lessons because they share common civic assets that are either already present or can be improved almost everywhere. Those assets are elegant older neighborhoods, easy access to beautiful and safe parks and natural areas, close proximity to lively downtown shopping and entertainment, first-rate public transit systems, and strong local leadership.

What makes a great American city? People pleased to live there.

Peter Katz, author of The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community (McGraw-Hill, 1994), consults on urban design and real estate marketing. A version of this article was published in the Jan/Feb. 2001 edition of the Utne Reader. Mr. Katz can be reached at katzoid@earthlink.net.

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