Urbanism and its end

In Tennessee's Northeast Kingdom (as in Vermont, the handful of upland counties to the north and east of Washington) the urban centers (as in Vermont, but more so) are in decline. I'd guess, from personal observation, that Johnson City-three times the size of Rutland City-shows proportionally as much business and residential flight and I'd further guess that it's trying just as hard to reverse the trend. Two recent events, one local and one national, illustrate aspects of their task.

Local: In Johnson City, recent underground utility work revealed long-forgotten brick street pavement and street-car trackage, bringing forth a host of then-and-now photographs evoking both nostalgic memories ( even though none of the rememberers were living urbanites when the "then" photo's were taken) and optimist downtown-renaissance predictions which would improve on the fairly bleak-looking "now" photo's.

No question that such photo's are immensely attractive. If you thumb through such urban histories as Douglas Rae's "City" or Lloyd Ultan's "The Beautiful Bronx" you'll see illustrations of streetscapes with the sidewalks civilized and busy, the building facades ornate, the street-cars functional, and the overall impression one of lively urban society-in-action.

Rae labels that late 19th /early 20th century period "the age of urbanism" and his description of the flight to the suburbs even then in its early stages is compelling reading. Almost none of us who admire the "then" photo's would choose to live there, which explains why our grand-parents and parents began fleeing the downtowns of walk-up flats over stores, street-car transport to mill or city park, schools with phys-ed space up on the roof, and so on as soon as they could affords to do so. Somewhere between 5 and 10% of contemporary American households have actually participated in the much-publicized back-to-the-city movement, and all the rest of us, as surveys have repeatedly shown, want no part of it.

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