Aaron Cowan

 

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

Cover Interview of May 10, 2017

The wide angle

As a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, I recall walking around the city’s downtown at the time and thinking how much of the central city around me – the massive convention center, a half-dozen chain hotels, the restaurants locals never patronized – was intended for people who didn’t live there. This seemed strange somehow, but I also knew Cincinnati was not unique in this regard. This got me thinking about the historical transition of downtowns away from being the hub of local life, as they had been in the early-mid twentieth century, to these places dominated by office buildings and tourist developments.

So the big questions the book addresses are, how and why did this happen? And what is lost when so much of a city is remade to appeal to visitors? Is it possible to create urban spaces that attract visitors but also have meaning and significance to local residents?

Another big theme of the book is the tension between a city’s image and reality. Today we see the “branding” of cities, carefully cultivated through multi-million dollar advertising campaigns that attempt to define a place by the consumer choices available to visitors. This can have a sort of Potemkin village effect, in which tourist experiences come to represent a city in the media and public perception, deliberately obscuring problems that might be unappealing to visitors.

For example, you mention Baltimore, and someone might say, “Oh, I went there for a convention once – what a beautiful, vibrant city.” And then you find out they never really left the tourist-friendly Inner Harbor. So they didn’t see West Baltimore. They didn’t visit Cherry Hill. They didn’t see the hyper-segregation, the abandoned housing, and the underfunded schools.

And of course Baltimore is beautiful and vibrant in lots of ways, and not just in the Inner Harbor. But it is also a city still reeling from the consequences of racism, the war on drugs, and deindustrialization. That doesn’t show up in the tourist brochures. I think about this every time I read a travel story in The New York Times or other national media touting how Detroit or Cleveland is now “reborn” because they have a microbrewery district, hip new art museum, or fashionable boutique hotels. There’s nothing wrong with those things, of course, but I think the historical narrative of A Nice Place to Visit also raises important questions about the degree to which these attention-grabbing developments make a substantial improvement in the lives of most city residents. I have significant doubts that they do.

At the same time, the book’s not a jeremiad against urban tourism – I try to push back against a lot of the scholarly critique of tourist development, much of which seems to perceive tourism as inherently exploitative and “inauthentic.” Understanding the historical context, in which these decisions were made, when options for renewing the city were limited by major political and economic constraints, gives us a much more complex picture, as well as some degree of empathy for decisionmakers. In the end, the mixed record of postwar urban tourist development reveals not a straightforward narrative of a “devil’s bargain.” Rather, the story of Rustbelt tourism reveals just how complex and difficult a project it is to truly revive an American city.