Every city is either vibrant these days or is working on a plan to attain vibrancy soon. The reason is simple: a city isn’t successful— isn’t even a city, really—unless it can lay claim to being “vibrant.” Vibrancy is so universally desirable, so totemic in its powers, that even though we aren’t sure what the word means, we know the quality it designates must be cultivated. The vibrant, we believe, is what makes certain cities flourish. The absence of vibrancy, by contrast, is what allows the diseases of depopulation and blight to set in.The problem is that no really seems to know if spending money to turn downtown Flint into a destination spot with restaurants, bars, art walks, music venues, and a variety of other cultural activities will actually work. But as Frank points out, that isn't stopping civic leaders and big-money foundations from pursuing it wholeheartedly.
This formulation sounded ridiculous to me when I first encountered it. Whatever the word meant, “vibrancy” was surely an outcome of civic prosperity, not its cause. Putting it the other way round was like reasoning that, since sidewalks get wet when it rains, we can encourage rainfall by wetting the sidewalks. But to others, the vibrancy mantra is profoundly persuasive.
My target here is not their power, but their vacuity. Our leadership class looks out over the trashed and looted landscape of the American city, and they solemnly declare that salvation lies in an almost meaningless buzzword— that if we chant that buzzword loud enough and often enough, our troubles are over.The worry, of course, is that the latest urban planning trend is just another futile attempt to combat fundamental economic and societal problems that artwalks and farmers' markets won't solve.
It is time to acknowledge the truth: that our leaders have nothing to say, really, about any of this. They have nothing to suggest, really, to Cairo, Illinois, or St. Joseph, Missouri. They have no comment to make, really, about the depopulation of the countryside or the deindustrialization of the Midwest. They have nothing to offer, really, but the same suggestions as before, gussied up with a new set of clichés. They have no idea what to do for places or people that aren’t already successful or that have no prospects of ever becoming cool.Read the entire essay here.