The Prophet of Micropolis
Article originally published on "The Place Master" in September of 2018.
Vincent DeSantis, the author of “Toward Civic Integrity: Re-establishing the Micropolis,” published eleven years ago, works in the spirit of Holly Whyte: quietly, carefully and with great acuity. Vince was my host, at his B&B, on my trips to Gloversville, New York. He is a Gloversville native, an attorney, served as the City Court judge in town for years and is now the at-large member of the city’s Common Council. He’s the moving force behind many of the good things happening in Gloversville. What I didn’t know, I suppose because of his reserve and modesty, is that he wrote a book that was years ahead of its time and that even today should be essential reading for everyone involved in placemaking. Back in 2007, Vince was conclusively making the case for small cities and how to revitalize them.
“Towards Civic Integrity” describes why the small city is a rewarding place to live and how it provides a fruitful medium for supporting an enriched civil society, using Gloversville as an example. Vince discusses how the economies of small cities work – how they add value to raw materials by making things and selling them to the world beyond, thereby creating wealth. He describes the social bonds that are created among citizens of small cities – and how small cities promote civic engagement and simple neighborliness. The book identifies the problems created for localities by capital markets and large corporations driven by lowering the prices for manufacture – and both their utility and their indifference to localities and human impacts. His vision for the future for Gloversville, articulated a decade before I came to similar conclusions after a couple of visits, was of a relatively low-cost, high quality of life for creative people (in the broadest sense) who engage in small-scale manufacture of high quality goods and delivery of unique services. This is economy made possible by the internet and efficient modern delivery systems – and replaces the manufacturing economy.
Main Street, Gloversville, New York. 1913
In Vince’s narrative, small cities faced disinvestment as a result of globalization of labor markets and the movement of manufacturing, which formed the economic base for most small cities, to outside the U.S. The lowering of the costs of manufactured goods, as well as the efficient delivery of services through national brands produced substantial benefits to consumers. At the same time, national companies cannot replace local firms as community pillars, and fast food restaurant and big box retail jobs do not provide the kind of lifetime employment with benefits that characterized manufacturers. This led to both lower populations and lower incomes in small cities across the country. Gloversville lost its six glove factories, which employed Vince’s parents, and half its population in the last fifty years. But as I’ve written before, its main street is lined with attractive structures, it has many beautiful homes (including Vince’s) and it is in a great natural setting near lakes and mountains.
Vince recognizes the importance of public space and of preserving the high quality vernacular physical infrastructure of cities passed by the depredations of “urban renewal.” He argues for adaptive reuse of old commercial and manufacturing buildings for mixed use. He promotes the advantages of downtown living in small cities. He describes the benefits of farmers’ markets for both rural and urban residents. Vince advocates for improving the pedestrian experience and slowing down cars as they pass through downtowns. He describes the benefits of local retailers – and how they can stay competitive. Perhaps most importantly “Toward Civic Integrity” recognizes the fundamental importance of the perception of safety in public space, and discusses how to manipulate subtle cues in public spaces to improve that perception. All of these are ideas that were advanced thinking a decade ago and have been proven since that time to be the essential elements of downtown revitalization. Vince lays them out in clear, economical language. It’s as succinct a discussion of the basics of placemaking as any I know.
“Toward Civic Integrity” is an ambitious book – perhaps overly ambitious. It doesn’t include footnotes. Vince tends to make broad, sweeping statements, drawn from his wide reading, but without arguing for them or citing the source. The vision of the books is also drawn from Vince’s personal lifestyle and aesthetic preferences – and these are interests and concerns that not everyone shares – or even should share. But it’s not necessary that these preferences be universal (some people really do love cars and suburbs as Joel Kotkin has argued), only that they be widely held. Some of his assumptions are just plain wrong. Vince held the view that oil prices would inevitably skyrocket in the short-term in the late 00’s as a result of limited supply. That didn’t happen, and doesn’t look like it’s going to soon as a result of new technologies for energy extraction. But none of that matters to his central arguments about the quality of life provided by small cities, how their economies operate and the actions that need to be taken to encourage economic activity and population expansion.
The question arises as to why Gloversville hasn’t made more progress towards revitalization, given its substantial assets and Vince’s decades of right thinking. Vince says that it has only been in recent years that people who understand placemaking have taken control of city government (something of an accomplishment in a city that is historically quite politically conservative – Gloversville voted 53% for Donald Trump). That may be true. However, I would urge Vince, Downtown Revitalization Specialist, Jennifer Jennings and others to hone in on creating a critical mass of activity centered around the excellent Coop market on Main Street. I would also prioritize doing whatever it takes to get a couple of dozen people to move to Gloversville and move to Main Street, as close to the Coop as possible. That ought to jump-start things. It should increase the level of activity at the Coop, and induce the establishment of a couple of bars and restaurants downtown. Efforts to date have been too widely spread both around the downtown and over time. For example, my recent visit to the weekly farmers’ market located in a parking lot a couple of blocks from the main street on a weekend was distressing – it had a very small number of vendors and a complete lack of customers. It needs to move near the Coop, and other activations need to be programmed around it to draw more visitors. The market, from what we saw, is a wasted asset and isn’t being properly leveraged to promote activity. By contrast, the farmers market in nearby Saratoga Springs is large and vital. What’s different in Gloversville?
Comparing recent policy making in Gloversville to those in the nearby cities of Hudson, Saratoga Springs and Catskill, would tell us a good deal about how to promote downtown revitalization. All are similar sized, have good physical environments and at one time were equally distressed. Saratoga Springs and Hudson are huge success stories. Catskill and Gloversville continue to struggle, facing somewhat different problems. We need to understand the details of why that is. In “Toward Civic Integrity,” Vince DeSantis lays out a sturdy and proven intellectual foundation for people-oriented downtown redevelopment. While there is still much work to be done, many if not most, larger cities have recovered from the disinvestment that took place in them in the third quarter of the twentieth century – and many college educated adults are returning to their centers. At the same time, many smaller cities and towns have been left behind, and their residents seem to have disengaged from the public sphere (as evidenced, in part, by the opioid plague). Many of their residents appear to resentful and angry about their communities and their prospects. Place-based strategies, which have proved to be so useful in revitalizing the big cities and their public spaces, should be deployed in smaller cities to make them lively and attractive and to re-engage their residents in the process. We all can learn from Vince in pushing forward in improving public spaces and main streets in small cities and towns – as he has been doing successfully, if slowly, in Gloversville.