For more than twenty years (and two separate residences there), I’ve been listening to people babble on and on about how they don’t want Charlotte “to become another Atlanta.” My friends in Sacramento and Fresno have no doubt heard similar fears (or perhaps even hopes) expressed about their hometowns mutating into “another Los Angeles” or “another San Francisco.” Here’s a clue: it’s not going to happen. If Sacramento were to sprout three million extra people overnight — or even over thirty years — it would still be nothing whatsoever like Los Angeles. Ditto for Charlotte and Atlanta. What makes Atlanta different from Charlotte, or what makes San Francisco more appealing to some people than Fresno, is a product of history, not just of simple population or a few surface amenities. A sudden influx of people (or malls, or certain retailers, or sports facilities) cannot change a century of history and urban development, and magically transform a rather ordinary mid-size city into a diverse and exciting urban area overnight. Or even at all, in most cases.
And what the powers that be in these mid-size cities like Charlotte and Raleigh and Tulsa need to learn is that that’s not a bad thing. Not everyone wants to live in a big city with major league baseball, an “arts district,” or an “upscale shopping destination” downtown. And most of the people who do want these things want the real version, not some half-assed imitation that was thrown up as a subsidized marketing gimmick rather than as the result of actual demand by the local population. People who want an “urban lifestyle” are ultimately not going to be satisfied with Charlotte’s (or Sacramento’s, or Phoenix’s) version, all of which was built last week and none of which developed organically. These smaller cities are focusing on surface elements — staged and stucco-covered facsimiles of urban texture and variety, many of which have the added “benefit” of obliterating any real trace of texture that may have bulldozed for their construction.
What smaller cities can do is focus on things that appeal to the kind of people who overwhelmingly choose to live in smaller cities, and by that, I mean working people with families who want low taxes, good housing value, top notch schools, and the sorts of jobs that allow them to spend time with their families. They can focus on the things that they do well and economically, rather than on the things that other cities do well. By leaving the flashy amenities to the “brand name cities” that are uniquely equipped for it to begin with, these “commodity cities” may actually be able to hold their own in a competitive environment. By spending all their energy on boutique projects, though, smaller cities waste money and alienate the core base of residents thay are actually capable of attracting and maintaining. They’re chasing after a demographic they will never fully succeed in obtaining. It’s wasteful, and it’s also a bad business strategy that’s already failed such retailers as Kinko’s and Winn-Dixie, who lost sight of who their bread and butter customers were — or never knew to begin with.