You might be surprised to hear that I believe “pessimism” may be one of Alton’s biggest problems. It’s preventing us from moving on after the death, years ago, of our factory-based economy. A review of Alton’s history gives perspective to the issue.
Alton’s history can be broadly divided into three eras. Settled around 1818, Alton began its first era, with growth primarily from trade, lasting about 75 years. Alton prospered by adapting to the times and exploiting its advantages: access to 3 major rivers, and later, railroads, plus its location on gentle hills that afforded great views and protection from flooding.
Following national trends, factory employment here surged in the late 1800s, especially after Alton’s Mississippi river railroad bridge opened in 1894. Thus began Alton’s second era, also lasting 75 years. Alton adapted to the times and leveraged its great location for factories, becoming a prosperous industrial city. By 1960, Alton’s population grew to 43,047.
By the late 1960s, factory employment here started to decline, mirroring national trends. So began Alton’s third era, “decline,” lasting 50 years so far. Factories downsized, then by the year 2000, virtually all our factories were gone. Across America, non-factory jobs surged, suburbs grew and people increasingly demanded a high quality of life; things such as parks and beautification.
Meanwhile, about 25 years ago, many of America’s older cities returned to growth, on a dramatic resurgence in the popularity of old architecture, traditional neighborhoods and the unique lifestyle only an older city can provide. Even St. Louis, which has faced problems far worse than ours and has lost well over half of its population, has essentially stopped its decline. Alton’s population, about 27,000 today, continues to decline at the rate of 6% to 8% per decade, the same rate it’s been declining for the past 25 years. As older cities like Alton came back in vogue, why hasn’t Alton rebounded, too?
Alton hasn’t been an industrial city for years, yet in some ways we still think and act as if we are. Many think we are nothing without our factories, and all we can do is hope they return. This pessimism, and hesitancy to believe that a post-industrial Alton could be prosperous, is holding us back.
Because Alton has been declining for 50 years, most locals have never experienced a prosperous and growing Alton, and to old-timers it’s a distant, fading memory. It’s not surprising there is a massive inferiority complex and cloud of pessimism looming over Alton. But that doesn’t make it right.
Pessimism can become pervasive, affecting how we look at everything, the decisions we make, and even how we appear to others. Many conclude: “Why bother fixing up Alton? It won’t matter.” Homes and businesses slowly become run-down. The nicest new places are condemned with a smug: “that’ll never succeed here.” Visitors and newcomers hear us talk negatively about our city, and we dismiss any compliments they dare utter. We assume ideas successful elsewhere wouldn’t work here. Potential area improvements are rejected as a waste of effort. Local businesses hesitate to expand. Indeed, pessimism is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Research reveals plenty of other small, older cities that, like Alton, lost their factories. Yet growing numbers of them have turned themselves around, using time-proven strategies that could be adopted here, too.
The big question remains: how bad must things get before we finally decide we must adapt like the others, allowing our fourth era, “Alton’s renaissance,” to begin?