In Tennessee's Northeast Kingdom (as in Vermont, the handful of upland counties to the north and east of Washington) the urban centers (as in Vermont, but more so) are in decline. I'd guess, from personal observation, that Johnson City-three times the size of Rutland City-shows proportionally as much business and residential flight and I'd further guess that it's trying just as hard to reverse the trend. Two recent events, one local and one national, illustrate aspects of their task.
Local: In Johnson City, recent underground utility work revealed long-forgotten brick street pavement and street-car trackage, bringing forth a host of then-and-now photographs evoking both nostalgic memories ( even though none of the rememberers were living urbanites when the "then" photo's were taken) and optimist downtown-renaissance predictions which would improve on the fairly bleak-looking "now" photo's.
No question that such photo's are immensely attractive. If you thumb through such urban histories as Douglas Rae's "City" or Lloyd Ultan's "The Beautiful Bronx" you'll see illustrations of streetscapes with the sidewalks civilized and busy, the building facades ornate, the street-cars functional, and the overall impression one of lively urban society-in-action.
Rae labels that late 19th /early 20th century period "the age of urbanism" and his description of the flight to the suburbs even then in its early stages is compelling reading. Almost none of us who admire the "then" photo's would choose to live there, which explains why our grand-parents and parents began fleeing the downtowns of walk-up flats over stores, street-car transport to mill or city park, schools with phys-ed space up on the roof, and so on as soon as they could affords to do so. Somewhere between 5 and 10% of contemporary American households have actually participated in the much-publicized back-to-the-city movement, and all the rest of us, as surveys have repeatedly shown, want no part of it.
National: A recent conclave of urban-renaissance advocates in Dayton was convened to brainstorm alternatives to the pervasive decline which Rae calls "the end of urbanism" which is exemplified by such 50% population-loss basket cases as Detroit and Youngstown. One recommendation: urge the media not to call them basket cases. Another: bring in street theatre and puppet shows to emphasize the "creative economy". A third: level the abandoned buildings, sell the scrap lumber and brick, and plant subsidized gardens. And a fourth, from Dayton's Mayor: "we are developing a boutique city". She declined to elaborate. On her behalf, I will.
I'd guess that iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright's advocacy for, and prediction of, the total disappearance of the traditional (think cubistic high-rises, brick-paved streets and light-rail trackage) city and its replacement by a very green and low density Broadacre City with no centers, is over-stated, and that small to mid-sized urban cores in particular can survive and prevail by offering small-scale industry, research, business, commerce, and professional services. Maybe that's what she calls "the boutique city" but then chooses, in a nation-wide venue, not to describe.
The conference chose not to recognize the serendipitous and synchronous urban-future news event of the decade: the first step in the departure of the New York Stock Exchange from lower Manhattan in downtown New York City. A decade ago, NYC paid the NYSE a more-than-half-billion bribe to stay, but now, in the first tranche of its exit-by-stages, the Exchange's fast-trade hub is about to depart for exurban Mahwah on the New York\New Jersey line.
Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.