Is bolstering tourism a panacea for Rust Belt cities? Not so fast, says author Aaron Cowan | St. Louis Public Radio

Is bolstering tourism a panacea for Rust Belt cities? Not so fast, says author Aaron Cowan

Oct 11, 2016

The year is 1950. Automobiles, highways and the age of urbanization are upon us. People across the country are flocking from densely populated industrial cities to the white-washed glamour of the suburbs. Manufacturers, called by more lenient tax codes, start moving in the same direction — or out of the country entirely. Discriminatory housing policies keep African-Americans from following suit.

Most cities in the post-war industrial “Rust Belt,” including St. Louis, have already seen their highest population numbers in the 20th century. City leaders, in a panic over lost tax base in those cities, turn their sights on another form of income, now made possible with the advent of jet air travel: tourism.

That’s when you see pushes to tear down large swaths of poorer neighborhoods for the construction of large convention centers, sports stadiums, hotel deals and museums that may have little bearing on local’s lives.

Sounds familiar? St. Louis is not alone in this trend. Author Aaron Cowan, a professor of urban history at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, has spent the last several years studying trends in post-war Rust Belt cities and their growing reliance on tourism as a “panacea” for declining population and industry.

In “A Nice Place to Visit: Tourism and Urban Revitalization in the Postwar Rustbelt,” which was released earlier this year, Cowan shares his revelations about the trend by charting tourism efforts in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. 

He first got the idea for the book as a Ph.D. student at the University of Cincinnati, when he was writing his dissertation and observing the changes in the city’s downtown area.

"A Nice Place to Visit" by Aaron Cowan
Credit Temple University Press

“It got me thinking about why, in the heart of the city, so much of it wasn’t used by locals,” Cowan said. “It got me thinking about why it became that way, if it had always been that way, and got me exploring tourism in Cincinnati and other cities like it.”

While American cities in the early 20th century barely thought of tourism as an industry, American cities can no longer afford not to have a vibrant tourism scene, Cowan said.

“That’s easy if you are a Miami, Honolulu or Las Vegas, a city that is only about tourism,” Cowan said. “But how do you get people to want to have a convention in St. Louis? Particularly St. Louis of the 1950s or 1960s, when the city was declining? How do you get people to want to take a family vacation to Baltimore or these cities that have reputations as dirty, run-down or places that, in fact, people are leaving? The populations of these cities declined pretty quickly after World War II and, so, how do you transform an industrial city into a city friendly to visit?”

Cowan was drawn to St. Louis initially because of the Gateway Arch, which is nationally and internationally known. What he found fit into a pattern he saw in other cities with declining industry in the urban core.

He said that you’ll often find tension in these cities because, in order to create tourism destinations, cities must sacrifice the local: that means tearing down poorer neighborhoods and “building something that has no connection to the local community.” The government often subsidizes these developments.

“At the same time there are declining municipal services and cities are strapped,” Cowan said. “Residents aren’t getting basic necessities: policing, street maintenance. To many local residents, this is a subsidy for something that doesn’t mean anything to them and that may not provide the same sort of economic opportunities they had before.”

Cowan’s book charts the trajectory of tourism trends from building convention centers to amping up “historical areas” in the cities. He eventually concluded that tourism works as a booster for such economies when it is not the primary sector. He pointed to Pittsburgh, which devoted resources early on to developing universities, healthcare and technology to replace steel, as a city that learned to over-rely on tourism to fix everything.

“St. Louis’ story is pretty similar,” Cowan said. “The problem was in many cases that early on, urban leaders thought that ‘if you build it, they will come’ and tourism will be the panacea that solves all of our economic and social woes.”

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