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Roadside explores the back road and Main Streets of America. Our recipe for an American renaissance: Eat in diners, ride trains, shop on Main Street, put a porch on your house, live in a walkable community.

The Potemkin Card

Fifteen years later, I finally have an answer to a very good question. It begged a lot of thought, and I can only hope that the people who asked it will get to read this. But I doubt it.

Fifteen years ago, I found myself in the living room of a very lovely, retired couple chatting about their town. They lived in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and we all wondered aloud what would become of New England’s historic mill towns now that their manufacturing bases had withered away. Good fortune and good planning had spared Great Barrington. Its downtown still displayed considerable life, all the more amazing because it lacked an obvious catalyst. It had no single significant local attraction, major university nearby, or Fortune 500 headquarters.

Still, my hosts fretted about its future and what would continue to drive any kind of economic growth. This couple mentioned ongoing efforts to promote tourism in the town, for which I expressed my misgivings. “It’s rather sad to see these places resort to marketing itself as some kind of playground,” I said. To which my hosts responded, “But what else are you going to do?”

I thought for a moment, but I could only stammer a poorly formed opinion. Towns once defined by their people and the culture they nurtured would become defined by a market research firm in an office park miles away. What’s an alternative?

The answer, as it turns out, has much to do with the reason why I like to road trip in the first place. I travel to discover and to understand why communities become what they become. And to get to the heart of that, I endeavor to meet those responsible and who proudly call themselves residents. I go out there because I seek a good story to bring it home and share with you, with my daughter, or my friends over a meal, a coffee, a beer in my own community, hoping that this cross-pollination of ideas might spark something interesting where I live.

In much the same sense that I do not collect what I cannot use, I’d rather not visit places that inspire no story. Hardly a month goes by when someone doesn’t ask me if I’ve been to Disneyworld, especially now that I have a child. Undoubtedly, Walt Disney’s achievements are as emblematic of our culture as just about anything ever produced in this country.

However, I’d rather spend my limited resources exploring our large and still-diverse country -- before Disney-fication wipes it away. Dumping a week’s salary into someone else’s interpretation of America makes no sense to me, not when I’ve yet to try every diner, coffee shop, barbecue joint, and/or brewpub or walk down as many Main Streets as still exist.

To me, the character of a community is defined by what it produces, and gratuitous tourism produces not much of anything, really. The former industrial town that bets it all on peddling escapism and packaged history exemplifies the adage about dressing up but going nowhere. What then becomes of its sense of community and its pride in place? Are we not just building modern Potemkins?

I understand, though, why towns will go down this path. It works to a point. It can rescue the retail economy and possibly stave off a wholesale outflow of population. North of Great Barrington, the city of North Adams has found new life as the host of a huge modern art complex, MassMOCA. Its downtown (or what remains of it) has sprouted new restaurants and boutiques that cater to museum patrons. North Adams has a way to go, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. More typical is my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. Springfield is the birthplace of Dr. Seuss and basketball, both hugely popular cultural institutions and attractions. The Basketball Hall of Fame brings thousands to the city every year, and the Seuss-character sculpture garden is a must-see for any fan as is the Seuss-themed “Bright Nights” Christmastime light show in Forest Park.

Sadly, this does little to make the historic industrial center, once home to the Springfield Armory, American Bosch, Westinghouse, Rolls Royce, and the nation’s first automobile manufacturer Duryea, an inviting place to raise a young family. The schools are far from the educational showcases they once were. Crime remains a major problem. The tax-base is decimated. And except for the bars, its downtown mostly shuts down after six. To paraphrase my Great Barrington hosts, what else can it do?

Failing cities need do only three things:

  • Fix the schools
  • Secure the streets
  • Clean the parks.

In other words, instill a pride of place. When people love where they live, if they feel safe to walk around, and feel confident sending their children to its schools, they return the investment. They fix their yards. They set up shop. They attract more people to move their shops. Forget about special tax breaks and sports stadiums. Companies establish themselves where CEOs want to live. Before you know it, your community and neighborhood becomes a tourist attraction all by itself, not unlike the cities of San Francisco, Boston, and lately, even Philadelphia.

Easier said than done, I know, but anyone charged with the responsibility of improving any community has to ask themselves what makes productive people choose a place to live and raise a family? The answer to this question should be the sole focus and ultimate goal of any plan for revival. All else springs from there.

The Countertop