James Fallows, a longtime writer for The Atlantic, gave the keynote address at today’s Power of Place Summit, held every couple of years by Grow Smart Rhode Island, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. With wife Deborah, Fallows has written a book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, due out May 8. The Fallowses visited 29 small cities and towns, places that generally, unless there is a newsworthy crisis (“If it bleeds, it leads”), fly under the radar of the media – to whom, by the way, Fallows applied a well-deserved spanking in his 1996 book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.
The Fallowses discovered that, notwithstanding the conventional view, many places between the two coasts have seen some degree of reinvention in civic life. Although I don’t know whether he visited Providence for his book, in his talk he was kind to his hosts, pausing at every turn to say he was very sure that this or that observation applies to Providence and/or Rhode Island. And he was certainly right. He and his wife, who flew from town to town in their small plane over a period of two years, summarize their findings in a list of ten characteristics common to places that have “reinvented” their civic cultures. Below I have followed each bullet point with a hint at how Providence has done on that front.
- Positive self-image. Providence has flipped its “been down so long it looks like up to us” attitude of reverse hangdog braggadocio.
- Puts priority on local politics over “poisonous” national politics. Here perhaps Providence has some work to do.
- Acknowledges local patriots. Providence has many, from developer Buff Chace to WaterFire artist Barnaby Evans to the late architect Bill Warner.
- Supports public/private projects. Providence and Rhode Island have paired, often with the feds, on several major civic projects.
- Not afraid of big plans. Providence history has many big projects, lately including railroad relocation, river relocation, highway relocation, etc.
- Knows its own civic story. From cradle of religious liberty to cradle of industry to, lately, moving our rivers, we locals know our story.
- Has reinvented its downtown. Providence’s Downcity Plan revitalized its downtown by refusing to demolish old buildings. Imagine that!
- Has a research university. Maybe not in so many words, but it certainly has Brown, RISD, URI and other fine colleges.
- Has unusual public schools. Fox Point Elementary School, where my boy Billy attends third grade, is a great public school, which may qualify as unusual.
- Open to diverse subcultures. Providence has been a leader in supporting immigrant, LBGT communities, etc., not to mention artists.
One major characteristic that the Fallowses seem to have left out of their recipe for civic reinvention, or at least didn’t emphasize during today’s talk, is what seems to me the germ of the idea of the Grow Smart summit. The power of place is an allusion to the phrase “the sense of place.” The sense of place represents those qualities that are the essence of a place – its identity, its sweet spot, the part of town you are most like to show off to visitors. Providence has that in spades. Many other cities do not, and under current conditions cannot, have much in the way of sense of place, which may be why the Fallowses did not make a big thing of it today.
Governor Raimondo – who Victoria, Billy and I bumped into recently at the Home Depot off Branch Avenue (an advantage of small places) – followed James Fallows to the podium, and she spoke of how well she has done at helping to revitalize the state economy. But she has been a dud at helping to build its sense of place. I have argued again and again, including directly to her, that the city and state should encourage developers to build projects that strengthen rather than weaken our “brand” – our historical character. That would not just make the city more beautiful but more robust economically. It would make the glide path to solving other problems easier. But what has she done instead? How about our cliché of an innovation district? Yuck! She has promoted projects that most Rhode Islanders find alienating, a dash of cold water on public participation, I would think.
Perhaps I am being too harsh on the governor. Feel free to complain, Gina!
The Providence Journal’s editorial in today’s paper touted a new study that makes the same omission that the Fallowses seem to have made. It touts the economic benefits of historic preservation but, like most preservationists, gives little or no thought to preserving the settings of buildings they work so hard to preserve.
Historic Preservation: Rhode Island’s Economic Revitalization Tool boasts many useful insights – such as the value of state historic preservation credits – but the most obvious tool, new traditional architecture, is left out. Many preservationists love old buildings but not new buildings that look like what preservationists used to want to preserve, which is supposedly “inauthentic.” This is a sad and self-defeating error, driven entirely by the devotion many architects and planners have to city building principles that emerged in the 1950s and have wrecked many cities in America and elsewhere, but have retained the loyalty of many designers and planners.
Among the many problems cities face, this is an easy one to solve. Mayors, governors and other civic leaders need only hint to developers of projects needing various permits that architecture that builds on historical character rather than undermining it is the only way, once historic buildings have been preserved, to further strengthen the sense of place. Developers should want to help cities and towns with this. You’d think they’d be more eager to have government on their side than they are to push tedious architectural styles that most people don’t like.
Civic leaders should avoid pushing us toward the kind of societies feared by Orwell: authoritarian governments that treat people like cogs in a machine. You’ve heard that before. “A house is a machine for living in,” Le Corbusier said. Brrr! Churchill said, “We shape our cities; thereafter, they shape us.” He was not kidding. We are headed in that direction. Listen up, Jim! New traditional architecture is the only easy way to defend against it.
Let me conclude by reminding Jim Fallows of a piece he wrote in The Atlantic, after attending a conference like today’s. He twitted celebrity architect Frank Gehry for dismissing a questioner, Project for Public Spaces founder Fred Kent, with a wave of dismissal that struck him as what a duke might use to repudiate a pesky peon, something Fallows said was last seen in medieval times. Although Fallows did not expand on the implications of that experience, he had unwittingly tapped into the underlying attitude of modern architecture toward the public.
I will have to read the Fallows’s book, Our Towns, when it comes out in a month or so. As it happens, the Fallowses were given a signed copy of my book, Lost Providence, as one of three literary gifts from Grow Smart Rhode Island for appearing today. If they would like to read more about where I’m coming from in this post, that’s a good beginning.
[Tip o’ the cap to several readers who tagged me for calling PPS’s Fred Kent “Frank”! At my first newspaper, the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, my two editors were Frank Adams and Phil Kent. That was back in 1981-82. This may or may not explain my error; of course it does not justify my error.]