Thursday, April 19, 2007

How Some American Towns Reinvent Themselves

* no distinction is made between 'towns' and 'cities' since it seems to be a meaningless definition. There are towns like Summit, NJ or Madison that deserve to be called cities and cities like Egg Harbor City, NJ that are not even proper towns.

Pictures: Nice Towns and Not-So-Nice Towns: From Top: Jamaica, Queens, NYC a poorer neighborhood with many West Indians, Africans and Afro-Americans(2) Saint Augustine, Florida: a touch of Spain in Florida plus history galore (3) Wheeling, West Virginia nice natural scenery on the banks of the Ohio river, but a deserted ex-coal mining town(4) Princeton New Jersey, upper class town centered around the famed Princeton University. Lots of cultural events, good food and beautiful houses.

There are nice towns and there are not-so-nice towns in every State. In my travels through 21 States in the South, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and North-East, I have come across small towns that are depressingly derelict, but also small towns which are really attractive. Many small towns that were part of the older Industrial economy based on heavy industries such as auto manufacturing and coal-mining declined with these industries as jobs were lost, the population moved out and the towns fell into a state of disrepair, with the population composed of older, poorer people. Another type of town that is depressing to visit are the old sea-side resorts on the Jersey coastline. Built in the days when long-distance traveling was not such a simple task as it is today, and long before the advent of high-speed cars and inter-state highways, they have since lost out to their cousins in Florida, California and the Caribbean. Visit one of the old sea-side resorts and you will ses the vestiges of their past glory-deserted piers, here and there a mural of sunshine days, swimming and surf painted on now dirty graffiti-filled walls, a rusting Carousel, and many cafes, restaurants and hotels shuttered waiting to be demolished.
Some of these old towns have managed to re-invent themselves, capitalizing on their expertise, their natural wonders or their history to create a 'brand name' and attract visitors. It is because of the characteristic of American government which emphasises small town independence and gives them the leeway to make many decisions at the local level that has enabled each town to carve an image of its own. Elected mayors, volunteers, an interested population and the quality of town management can therefore make a big difference as to what the town will be. Here are some examples of towns which are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of development, management and re-inventing themselves.

1. The coal-mining towns of North-East Pennsylvania and West Virginia are towns which have seen their best days. In towns like Hazelton, PA and Wheeling, WV you find ornate mansions that once belonged to the rich owners of coal mines. But the coal is now gone, and the towns are empty, buildings are run down and few shops manage to stay open for long because the people left behind are too poor to buy much. Only poorer. older people and African-Americans stay for the cheap rent. But some towns like Jim Thorpe in PA, have thrown off the coal -mining image and marketed themselves as a mountain resort with some success.
2. Hoboken in New Jersey, once a railroad hub, just across the river from New York has managed to transform itself into a chic destination for New Yorkers who want sophisticated eateries, shopping and good night life. The old buildings have all been stylishly re-modeled into apartments, restaurants and cafes, and shops.
3. The town of Englewood in North-East NJ, just across the Hudson river is another example. Capitalising on the fact that many famous musicians, actors and other luminaries live or once lived there, and having the Bergen County Performing Arts Center located there, Englewood has become a premium destination for tourists who are interested in music and the arts. At any time you can find top-flight artistes such as George Benson, The Allman Brothers, Connie Francis, Bill Cosby etc performing in Englewood.
4. In Central Florida, the town of Mount Doro has metamorphed into an antiques and handicraft center, attracting those who love to shop for gifts and antiques. The town management has decorated the streets with gaslight lamps and trafic light pedestrian walking signals that call like a cuckoo bird. And to esnure the ambience is preserved, the town encourages owners of small cafes serving home-cooked food while prohibiting fas-food chains like Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds to proliferate.
5. You can tell whether a town is serious about its image and well-managed by a few indicators: In good towns public toilets are conveniently placed and signage on directions and location is good, and the toilets are clean and well-maintained. Free parking is available for shoppers and are indicated on road-signs well-displayed. In fact good road-signs are a feature of well-managed towns. If they don't have a sign on the highway that says 'downtown' and follow it up regularly and clearly so that the tourist won't have any problems getting there, then they are not well-managed. Attractive towns with good signage include Baltimore, Annapolis,Cincinnati and Boston.
6. Saint Augustine in Florida capitalizes on its history, the fact that it was one of the first places to be occupied by the White Man [the Spanish] in the 15th Century, and its unique Spanish-influenced architecture. Key West on the other hand capitalizes on its tropical image, and the unique almost Caribbean culture amonst the people there, just a short distance from Cuba and the Bahamas.
7. New Hope and Lambertville on both side of the Delaware river in PA and NJ respectively have turned themselves into attractive, touristy towns. New Hope is the more successful of the two, having a 'New Age ' theme with many shops selling organic food, New Age gift items, books, resident fortune tellers and antiques, Tibetan and Indian fashion items, candles, aromatherapy, stress relieving spas and so on.
8. Depressing towns include the crime-ridden towns in New Jersey of Camden, Newark and Trenton and some parts of Philadelphia with their ghettoes and gangs. And many, many towns in West Virginia. Its a pity because West Virginia has such nice mountain scenery that even the old ex-coal mining towns sited beside rivers could capitalize on and re-market themselves as tourist destinations .
9. Towns which have 'character' and a distinctive image are: Savannah in Georgia, Newport on Rhode Island, Brattlesboro in Vermont, Ashville in North Carolina, Cape May in New Jersey, Nashville in Tennessee, Princeton in New Jersey and of course New York city with its many boroughs.
10. Some towns have become 'ethnic centers' where a certain ethnic group have made it their home town. So good ethnic food, everybody speaking the langauge , and road signs in the language all bring in other people of the same race. The Chinese in Flushing, Queens ], NYC;the Koreans in Fort Lee NJ, the Japanese in Edgewater, NJ, the Indians in Jackson heights ,Queens, NYC and Iselin NJ, the Greeks in Astoria, Queens NYC, the Latinos in Woodside, Queens, are some examples.
11. An example of a town which is very enterprising is Pigeon Forge in Tennessee. Nothing much about this small town except that Dolly Parton came from there. But Pigeon Forge 'exploited' this fact to make the the town the center of a Dolly Parton industry with a Dolly Partin show, country music concerts, and exhibitions and sale of Dolly Parton memoriblia. As the vistors came, strip malls, restaurants, gift shops, hotels and bowling alleys sprung up to cater for the new visitors.
12. Chattanooga in Tennessee on the other hand marketed itself as a half-way point where the 'snow birds' [people in the North traveling to the warmer South during Winter] can rest on their way to Florida, The Carolinas and Georgia. It also has a railroad theme based on the popular 30's song "Chattanooga Choo-Ch00'

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