Aaron Cowan

 

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

Cover Interview of May 10, 2017

A close-up

Chapter 3, which explores the campaign in the 1970s to build a convention center in downtown St. Louis, is probably the chapter that really cuts to the heart of the conflicts taking place in these cities. City leadership proposed a $21 million public bond issue to build the center, at the moment that the city’s economy was in free fall, and suburban migration was rapidly depleting the residential tax base.

The proposed convention center site was also controversial – it sat right on the northern edge of downtown, adjacent to the city’s Northside, a struggling working-class, largely African American, neighborhood. Standing at the site, one could see underfunded public housing projects, potholed city streets, and blocks of dilapidated housing owned by absentee slumlords. Working-class political activists, especially in the Black community, mounted a strident campaign against the publicly financed convention center, but ultimately lost their battle. The Northside continued to decline, and the convention center continued to absorb millions in public subsidy over the following decades.

The St. Louis story is a stark depiction of the shifting priorities of urban leadership in the postwar era, when large flashy development projects became more important than things like housing, schools, and basic governmental services. Cities began to believe they could build their way out of economic decline, and it had real consequences for people’s lives.

On a somewhat brighter note, Chapter 5, on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, is another favorite because there I relate fantastic examples of local residents refusing to cede tourist spots over to out-of-towners completely. To give just one example: in the city mayor’s papers, I found numerous letters from suburban white visitors concerned about groups of black teenagers gathering on the promenade, playing loud music, and dancing.

I finally figured out that Harborplace (the “festival marketplace” built on the Inner Harbor) had become, in the early 1980s, one of the key spots for the city’s early hip-hop scene. It provided a central meeting place for kids from all around the city, and a built-in audience for rappers and dancers. So this demonstrates one of the ways in which urban residents exploited the opportunities provided by Harborplace to create and nurture a singular culture not dictated by the official power structures that defined their lives in so many other ways. The function of tourist sites, like all urban spaces, is never simply defined by the elites – it is always contested and layered with different meanings.