Relying on the basics once worked for cities – but not today

My grandmother always said, “It’s the little things that matter.”
Throughout the 20th century, Alton could rightly call itself a factory town.  Up until the mid-1960s, manufacturing was a “tailwind pushing our sails.”  Alton grew rapidly and became quite wealthy.  However, by the year 2000, virtually all of our large factories were gone. Times sure have changed.
Throughout much of America’s manufacturing boom, out of necessity people lived close to the factory jobs.   Cities boasted about their industrial might, and people looked past the grittiness of industrial cities because that’s where the jobs were.  Smokestacks were a sign of prosperity.  Factories were considered good because they created jobs, wealth and growth, even though they were dirty and ugly.  People worked hard, focused on the basics, and life was simple.
The de-industrialization of the Rust Belt and the suburban movement changed all that.  While many issues encouraged suburbanism, automobiles and America’s growing wealth fueled the movement.  People could finally live somewhere beyond the shadows of the factory smokestacks where they worked.  This profoundly changed people’s priorities when determining where to live.  Quality of life basics such as good schools and parks grew in importance.
Over time, continuing growth in wealth allowed people to become increasingly choosy, and finer quality of life elements such as beauty and cleanliness (“little things”) played a growing role when deciding where to live.  Alton’s Dr. Gordon Moore was truly a man ahead of his time in this respect.  You probably remember him, back in the 1960s and 1970s, working to increase Alton’s quality of life.  He convinced the city and volunteers to plant several thousand street trees, build fountains, improve our parks, add bike routes, and conduct litter cleanups.  His work primarily was done before these “fluff” issues had really grown in importance, and their benefits to Alton were not measurable due to the offsetting decline from factory job losses.
2015-08-22 2015-08-22 001 007
One of literally hundreds of street tree wells in Alton that are now filled with concrete, at great cost to the taxpayers.

Alton’s decline affected the city budget, and beautification was among the first things cut.  But it wasn’t all about money: as street trees have died, the city has inexplicably spent considerable money filling many of these empty tree wells with concrete, rather than simply planting another tree.  Dr. Moore would be sad to see his work to improve Alton being undone throughout the city.  As cities across America rapidly add street trees, Alton continues to get rid of them.  Many formerly industrial towns across America have returned to growth by reinventing themselves on a foundation of improved quality of life, while Alton has forged its own path and continues to decline.  Perhaps you see a connection here.

Many of us still consider Alton a factory town, and that factory town tradition of focusing on the essentials still affects our mindset.  This attitude made sense when we were a factory town, but today it’s a liability hindering our renaissance.
Alton Riverfront v Davenport's Riverfront
Above: Alton’s Riverfront “park.” Below: Davenport, Iowa’s riverfront park.  Which is more appealing?

If we want to return to growth, we must adjust our priorities, adapting Alton to reflect what people today really want in a city.  Those requirements have changed dramatically from the days when manufacturing was king.

We once again can prosper if we believe in ourselves and have the will to adapt.  In this increasingly competitive world, getting right the “big things” has become a basic requirement we must address.  But getting right the “little things” is also now one of the keys to Alton’s renaissance.  Perhaps my grandmother had a point.

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