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The Death and Life of Smaller American Cities

Zelda Bronsteinbyline‚ Jan. 24‚ 2013

One of the most irritating terms in the current discourse of civic boosterism is “world-class.” It’s a phrase bandied about by many public officials, including the mayor of my city—as if Berkeley (pop. 113,000), should (or could) vie with New York, London and Tokyo. In her 2012 book, Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, historian and journalist Catherine Tumber presents a welcome corrective to “the cult of giantism”: environmentally grounded “civic modesty.” Her argument is doubly provocative, drawing its examples of sustainable, smaller-scale urbanism from places long since written off by cosmopolitan sophisticates: midsize industrial cities of the Rust Belt.

By “midsize” or “smaller,” Tumber means cities “that at their peak in, generally, 1950, had populations of roughly 50,000 to 500,000 souls, and whose numbers today have dropped (though not universally) by at least 20 percent.” She has a firsthand acquaintance with such places, having grown up in a farming village outside Syracuse and spent most of her life in Syracuse and Rochester, as well as Albany and Detroit.