Q & A with Meghan Ashlin Rich on revitalizing small cities

     Scranton is known as the ‘Electric City’ for its early installations of electricity and their electric trolley system. The iconic sign was restored in 2004.  (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Scranton is known as the ‘Electric City’ for its early installations of electricity and their electric trolley system. The iconic sign was restored in 2004. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Meghan Ashlin Rich is a professor of sociology/social justice and women’s studies at University of Scranton.


    Meghan Ashlin Rich is a professor of sociology/social justice and women’s studies at University of Scranton. Her research involves issues like race, class, and social change in urban neighborhoods. Rich has studied revitalization efforts in Scranton and Baltimore, Maryland. Keystone Crossroads’ Kate Lao Shaffner spoke with Rich about Scranton’s revival, the advantages of small cities, and whether big city revitalization ideas can work in smaller communities.

    You hear a lot about city revitalization and renewal these days—this idea that cities are making a comeback and “here’s why.” But many of those studies or reports that make it to the mainstream media focus on really big cities like DC or Seattle or LA. You actually wrote a paper on Scranton’s revitalization–looking at how big city renewal ideas apply to a small city. I was really excited to find your paper because there are so many small cities like Scranton in Pennsylvania. As an academic, do you think those big city trends apply to small cities?

    I think there are some really unique differences when it comes to small city revitalization. I do a lot of research in Baltimore–that’s where I’m from–and the things that Baltimore can do are not things that places like Erie or Altoona or Harrisburg or Scranton can do.

    When you only have a population of less than 100,000, there’s not the critical mass that you would need in order to, say, have an opera house or have a major league baseball stadium or football stadium. You know, these kind of things that these big cities do, they just can’t be done in small cities.

    But what small cities do have is the small footprint, the concise downtown where it is walkable. It’s much easier to connect to natural beauty, especially in a place like Pennsylvania where you’re just surrounded by either mountains or water or some kind of natural habitat that’s within a short distance from the city. You have a population that is really connected to that town that they grew up in.

    So I think there are a lot of bonuses to small cities. They can’t do the same things that big cities do—and they shouldn’t want to. Because big cities also have big city crime, big cities have big city traffic—and small cities don’t. So there are some really unique challenges but also unique pluses to being in a small city.

    In your paper, ‘From Coal to Cool’: The Creative Class, Social Capital, and the Revitalization of Scranton,” you talk specifically about the creative class theory, which focuses on the idea that it’s essential for cities seeking urban renewal to attract people who are involved in arts, culture, innovation. What are some of your observations as it applies to a small city like Scranton?

    One of the things that I really noticed when I first came to Scranton in 2007 is that there was a lot of activity going on in the downtown. The downtown was going through a lot of revitalization of what had previously been—well, people called it the red light district. Coming from the city of Baltimore, it wasn’t that seedy to me, but it certainly needed some changes, some revitalization of old buildings. There are a lot of beautiful old historic buildings in downtown Scranton so there’s a lot of focus on how can we get downtown to be revived, to be an exciting place to go where people will go to shop and go see a movie, go to some of these nice new restaurants and bars instead of going out to the suburbs.

    I was really interested in how a lot of the same people kept popping up over and over–the people who were opening up bars or opening up new businesses. A lot of very young, energetic people seemed to be coming back to Scranton who had originally grown up here, went away to college, and then came back. And so I just started meeting people.

    It’s a very small city. In a way you might think that’s a detriment, but it actually really helps because there are a lot of very tight-knit communities here and everyone seems to know each other. It’s always, “I went to high school with him, or I grew up in the neighborhood with her.” Because of the tight-knit character of a small city like Scranton, it is hard when you’re an outsider to break into it, but it helps the people who know the right people. And it’s not that hard to meet people here to actually take part in revitalization.

    You talk about how small cities really should focus on their strengths—like strong social ties—because there are people who live there for those reasons.

    A lot of the people I talked to really talked about this idea of authenticity—that Scranton is a very authentic, real place.

    Often times [in] the media it’s derided as kind of a hardscrabble place. It’s been called the armpit of America. And when I came here, before I even set foot in Scranton, that’s really what I thought—I thought this is going to be a horrible kind of de-industrialized nightmare of a place. [But] I got here and I was really surprised at really how nice it was. It’s very charming.

    People are, once you get to know them, overall very friendly. They want to help you meet other people. And in fact, I was able to talk to anybody in politics I wanted to, which in a big city like Baltimore where I’m coming from, is not easy.

    You interspersed your findings with conversations with locals. Do they feel like there’s a lot of hope for the future or are they discouraged by the reputation that Scranton has?

    I think people felt really hopeful. I did a lot of my interviews right after the beginning of the last recession–around 2008, 2009. Rendell was the governor of Pennsylvania and he was very, very focused on small city revitalization. He loved cities. He really wanted to help to revitalize Scranton specifically. And then [former] Mayor Doherty, at the time, he was a big booster. He had actually gone to the Memphis summit with Richard Florida—Florida is the one who created the idea of the “creative city” and how you want to attract the creative class. 

    So a lot of the people I talk to are very aware of the political pushes and the interest from the people who are in power and actually held the purse-strings. And they were definitely worried thatsome of these projects wouldn’t come to fruition.

    They felt overall that Scranton has improved in leaps and bounds over the past 10 or 20 years, that we were getting more and more people coming from other places and that was a good thing.

    The population in Scranton has actually grown in the past 10 years and that has everything to do with immigrants coming in. The people I talked to attributed Mayor Doherty with being a welcome mat for people, saying Scranton is going to die if we don’t attract new people in our community—people that would go to the churches, the schools, and start up new businesses.

    Do you find that inclusiveness is important in the growth or revitalization of a city?

    I think yes, absolutely. Really in order to make the city seem like a welcoming place, a place where you have a lot of energy, where you have young people coming in, and also to get people to not just grow up here but to stay here after they grow up—you really need to make it open to the outer world.

    Scranton has a reputation for being very insular, very parochial. Not welcoming to outsiders. But for the people that I talked to, they really understood that you do need to be more welcoming.

    I’ve done some research here on the south side of Scranton, which is becoming more of a Latino neighborhood. For many in the neighborhoods who are older, they don’t necessarily welcome those changes. But for the younger people I talked to, they said this is great. Scranton is being revitalized; people are buying up these old houses and fixing them up.

    The more you can bridge between those communities, the more that the neighborhood will continue to be revitalized.

    Our focus [at Keystone Crossroads] is the challenges and solutions that Pennsylvania cities are facing. We see common themes, a lot of which you’ve already mentioned, like the departure of major industries, declining population, financial distress, or even having just to fight this “good old days” mentality. I’m not going to ask you to give us a one-size-fits-all solution for every small city, but what are some lessons learned from what Scranton’s doing to try to revitalize?

    Well, I think one of the major things is to really focus on the quality of life for the people who live in your city already but people who also are interested in moving there. If your parks are not clean and don’t serve the community, if your schools are not strong, if your downtown is kind of falling apart and doesn’t have services for the people who want to live there… 

    Downtown city living is really the next step in revitalizing a small city. People want to live downtown. They want to walk everywhere. They want to say, jog by the riverfront and not have the riverfront covered over or hard to get to. They just want walkability in general.

    So making the quality of life and improving that as much as you can for the people who already live there and also for people who might be interested in coming in is, I think, one of the major takeaways from Scranton.

    It would be great if FedEx or one of those major companies [would] come into Scranton and employ a large section of the population who no longer have those blue-collar jobs to go to anymore. A small city like Scranton may not be able to do that, but what they can do is to try and really focus on “How can we improve education here? How can we grow small businesses so that people feel like they can have a business here, they can stay here? And their children can have opportunities here?” Because that’s really one of the major parts–that so many people would love to stay in Scranton but they cannot find a job. So obviously job growth is a major part of it.

    This interview has been edited for clarity. 

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