Magazine article The American Conservative

Recycling Cities

Magazine article The American Conservative

Recycling Cities

Article excerpt

Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, Catherine lumber, MIT Press, 192 pages

In her second book, Massachusetts Institute of Technology historian Catherine Tumber explores the vexed question of our blighted cities and how to revive these superannuated structures for the 21st century. In the tradition of the iconoclastic James Howard Kunstler, who blurbed this volume, Small, Gritty, and Green urges that, for cities to move forward, they need a renewed purpose. Increased localism is Tumber's prescription--production of everything from foodstuffs to energy at the community level.

As Kunstler has maintained throughout his career, the coming end of the fossil-fuel era will demand that fewer resources be expended on transporting goods from far away. Tumber's analysis is more sentimental than Kunstler's, however. Downtrodden industrial cities--Youngstown, Ohio or Flint, Michigan, for example--may be shrinking, but their loss of population provides opportunity for reinvention.

She is excited about the potential of these smaller cities, places that once were thriving parts of regional corridors that have since stopped thriving with the erosion of their industrial base. She theorizes that "smaller-cities could be at the center of a low-carbon world," and she attempts to prove it by taking the reader through a series of case studies that illuminate pieces of the puzzle.

The author spends time with agrarians in Janesville, Wisconsin--a former General Motors town in the heart of Paul Ryan country--who seek to create farmland amid the suburban sprawl. She depicts the small-scale agricultural efforts of Puerto Rican immigrant farmers in Holyoke, Massachusetts. And she introduces the reader to the troubles of Youngstown, Ohio, the former Jim Traficant stronghold hit hard by the twined issues of industrial collapse and Mafia corruption. Youngstown, argues Tumber, would benefit from high-speed rail and more green space. The latter is easier to achieve than the former since the Buckeye State's Republican governor, John Kasich, opposes rail.

Tumber for the most part does well when she describes the mechanics of what is working in various places. But she often bogs herself down in the tired language of partisan politics--blaming Republicans for opposing everything from the aforementioned rail project to efforts to bring back neighborhood schools to North Carolina. …

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