- A Nice Place to Visit: Tourism and Urban Revitalization in the Postwar Rustbelt by Aaron Cowan
On August 17, 2017, the New York Times featured Cincinnati, Ohio, in the latest article in its Travel Section series, 36 Hours in. . . .1 The article highlighted the [End Page 76] central city and adjacent Over-the-Rhine district, redeveloped with restaurants and breweries that play off the city's notable German American heritage. Infrastructure investments in the form of a new streetcar system and renovated performing arts venues signaled to the travel writer Cincinnati's reclamation of its "Queen City" moniker. The Times article could be seen as a triumph in a decades-long effort to rebrand Cincinnati as a vibrant urban tourism destination. As is fitting for an article of this kind, no mention was made of the ongoing strife attending Over-the-Rhine redevelopment and the gradual exit of African Americans who have called the district home for decades.
The shaky foundations of urban tourism are the subject of Aaron Cowan's A Nice Place to Visit: Tourism and Urban Revitalization in the Postwar Rustbelt. The book fills an important gap in urban history, examining Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore for the policies and strategies that helped civic leaders shift from industry to tourism as a commercial lifeline. In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, few American cities held much attraction for travelers, who associated them with sweat labor industries, pestilence, and crowded immigrant neighborhoods. Middle-class travelers who could, decamped to rural places and resort areas accessible by train. Cowan deftly traces the emergence of U.S. urban tourism, from the nineteenth-century world fair expositions and the City Beautiful Movement, to the rise of the convention industry and the postwar urban crisis of deindustrialization (3–8). Politically, Cowan frames urban tourism as an expression of New Right conservatism and a reaction against liberal New Deal-Great Society social programs.
As Cowan demonstrates, urban tourism sought to remake central cities into scrubbed civic playgrounds: machines for consumerism, catering largely to members of the white suburban middle class traveling downtown for a day of shopping, dining, and recreation, or visitors from elsewhere in town for business or sightseeing. Cowan illuminates this best in the Pittsburgh chapter on the quest to build Three Rivers Stadium and the catalyzing role of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The city urban tourism created was a paradox, a place "in the city but not of the city" (118). Highways and other infrastructure projects were frequently used strategically to cordon off these new spaces from the extant urban fabric with its chaotic jumble of uses and ethnic neighborhoods.
Cowan presents his argument as unexamined history, rejecting poststructuralism's "inauthentic" critique of urban tourism, informed as it was by Jane Jacobs on the one hand, and Henri Lefebvre on the other (8–11). Given Cowan's objective to comprehensively delineate this important subject, it is curious that he neglects the important links between urban tourism and urban [End Page 77] renewal. While Cowan frequently describes how highways, the automobile, and suburbanization helped reorganize cities, he does not explicitly examine the role of urban renewal in providing the conceptual basis of the new urban tourist city and its mechanisms of funding and planning. Modernist urban renewal provided the framework for later interventions through "functional segregation," which separated the metropolis into places of work, residence, transportation, and leisure.2 The rise of U.S. urban renewal in the late 1940s and 1950s—rapidly advanced by the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956—laid the groundwork for the tabula rasa that many central city leisure/work spaces became, as well as the transportation infrastructure, primacy of suburban values, funding models, and civic rhetoric that urban tourism advocates employed in the 1950s through the 1990s. Furthermore, as Klemek has noted, the political context for such large-scale transformation was a liberal-conservative consensus, which explains the decades of funding for urban reorganization projects at the federal, state, and...