Aaron Cowan

 

On his book A Nice Place to Visit: Tourism and Urban Revitalization in the Postwar Rustbelt

Cover Interview of May 10, 2017

In a nutshell

A Nice Place to Visit explores how four American cities – Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis – coped with the problems of economic decline after World War II, and how and why tourism gradually gained a vital position in their postindustrial economies. The book is organized into case studies of each city, paired with a particular type of tourist development. So, for example, in Cincinnati, I look at the transformation of downtown hotels in the postwar decades, or in Pittsburgh, the story of professional sports and stadium development. In each case, I focus on the story in one city to illustrate broader consequences of tourist development in these four cities, and postwar urban America generally.

The urban tourist industry began with the growth of business conventions in the post-World War II period. Beginning in the 1950s and accelerating thereafter, cities rushed to build massive convention centers, new convention hotels, and develop aggressive marketing campaigns to recruit trade and business meetings. For the first time, city governments played a direct role in facilitating, and often subsidizing, construction of this infrastructure. Even in the 1950s and early 1960s, the loss of manufacturing jobs and residents left city leaders increasingly desperate to spur a new economic base. St. Louis mayor A.J. Cervantes spoke in the 1960s of tourism as one business “that cannot move to the suburbs.”

Other types of tourist development sought to create attractions – for example, St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, or Baltimore’s Inner Harbor – that would both draw leisure travelers and provide an easily-marketable “front door” that could reshape the perception of the city in public media. Again, public subsidy and public-private partnerships played a key role in these sites. By the 1980s, cities across the nation pursued new tourism trophies – festival marketplaces, aquariums, “experiential” museums, casinos – in a seemingly endless competition to capture the tourist dollar.

These developments had varying degrees of success, but even the most popular failed to fully address the problems of poverty, underemployment, crime, and suburban flight. And tourist-oriented construction often absorbed increasing percentages of city’s precious public resources, while remaking major portions of the city’s downtown to serve visitors, not locals.

Historians, geographers and cultural scholars have written a great deal about tourism in places like Las Vegas, New Orleans, and major resort areas. This book reminds us that the rise of the tourism industry also reshaped less exotic locales, in both positive and negative ways.