Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tourists Suck, Cultural Or Otherwise.

A FEW YEARS AGO, a Japanese friend came to Philly for a few days. We did all the requisite stuff - took pictures with the Liberty Bell and ate cheesesteak sandwiches, blah, blah, blah. But I wanted my friend to see authentic Philly.

So I took him to work.

That day, I photographed a college basketball game where a Drexel University player crashed to the ground but continued to play defense. When an opposing player ran over top of him, the Drexel player pantsed him (above).

It may not have been a classic Philly moment but it was real. And few tourists would leave Philly saying that they had witnessed such a thing (while sitting on the floor of the court, below the basket, no less). It was way better than riding a stinky horse around Old City or touring a history museum that would carry no relevance for my foreign friend.

Living the life of a local was way better than being a tourist.

I listened to a lecture by Columbia University's Kenneth Jackson one time and he said that a city that relies upon tourism is a city that has nothing else to offer (paraphrased, of course). I completely agree. We shouldn't design or renovate our cities to suit outsiders. There has to be more to us, right?

I understand that Lowell, Mass. had multiple reasons for glorifying it's manufacturing past. It wasn't just to draw tourists. But the first step in the revitalization of the pioneering industrial town was to bring in outsiders - tourists. Economic stability would stem from there, the theory goes.

After reading Cathy Stanton's The Lowell Experiment, I see traces of that outsider-attracting philosophy in other cities, including Philadelphia.

To combat Lowell's post-industrial decay, Massachusetts added Lowell to it's system of state heritage parks in declining mill towns. A few years later, the town was designated a National Historical Park. The intent was to inform people about the culture and history of the town. But there was also an element of using federal funding to spruce the joint up and bring in tourist dollars.

The immediate impact was job creation and cleaner looking properties. The downside seems to be that the jobs were much fewer than the former industrial businesses created. The new jobs were either for high-end positions that went to educated outsiders, or low-paying service-industry jobs. The divide between rich and poor has grown, according to Stanton.

Philadelphia has been expanding the convention center in order to draw more and more outsiders. And we are likely to see similar results - the jobs created will be service-industry positions with low ceilings. The benefit to the city will be minimal (except we'll have a mammoth facility that sits empty for much of the year).

Why, Ed? Why?

I appreciate the notion of preserving history, as Diane Lea wrote about in her introduction to A Richer Heritage. Nationally significant landmarks and historic places with relevance to their communities should be saved and maintained (despite the difficulty in defining what is significant or relevant).

But manipulating the past in order to reinvent a city seems misguided, a temporary fix. As Stanton noted, it has taken an obscene amount of public money to renovate Lowell. Why should they receive more money than Altoona? Or Philadelphia?

If the past is such a burden on the city and it can't maintain it's glorious heritage, maybe it should just crumble. That would be real, like Rome or Athens. Or Detroit. Besides, the renovations have no authenticity except in the light of post-urban renewal guilt.

I bet there is a reason that we hear very little from actual, long-time residents of Lowell in Stanton's book. I bet they see right through the facade of the subsidized village.

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