Your City Isn’t Special

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Boy that title really triggered you didn’t it? Good, because to some extent it’s true. Sure, your city has a tremendously nuanced historical narrative that you, as an urban advocate, have deeply identified with. And that’s good… part of creating a sense of local pride is connecting with the historical anchors that give your community a sense of identity.

But don’t for a second think that your city is “special” because it has some historic value. Don’t think that people will visit your city in droves just to unravel the historical story, because, after all, every city in the country has a unique story that they are trying to connect with, highlight and advertise as well.

Take Upstate/Western New York for example. Famed landscape architect and planner Frederick Olmsted called Buffalo, New York “The best planned city… in the United States, if not in the world.”

Rochester, New York features a phenomenal link to the history of equality with Women’s Suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist icon Frederick Douglass. It is also the home of Eastman Kodak, one of the most successful private companies of the 20th century.

Rome, New York will always be aligned with its rich military history and the industrial giant Revere Copper.

The tiny city of Jamestown, New York is the birthplace of Lucille Ball… and there’s a museum in her honor.

Schenectady is “The City Of Light And Power,” referring to the days when residents either worked for General Electric or The American Locomotive Company. Troy and Amsterdam competed for the greatest income per capita in the United States during a portion of the 1800s. Binghamton was the birthplace of the company that would eventually become IBM. Corning is home to Corning Glass.

The never-ending sea of rich industrial, social military history in my home state alone is something special. Every city has history, and while it’s important to market that history as a source of pride and intrigue, realize that it doesn’t make your city unique.

I’ve heard people in my city angrily rant about the fact that Rochester doesn’t highlight its history nearly enough for the purpose of tourism. But while our city does have a rich historical narrative with iconic residents like Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglas and George Eastman, every city in America has a rich history of influential leaders, businesses and events. We have to stop thinking that our city is somehow unique because it has history. Every city has history!

Should we see our city’s historical narrative as powerful and intriguing? Absolutely. But we can’t assume that our cities will suddenly be inundated with hoards of tourists and new investment because we highlight these “unique” stories from our past. History is a draw for a select few… instead we should be looking to honor our past while seeking a new uniqueness that sets our narrative apart today. Pittsburgh, for example, has effectively transitioned from a blue collar capital to a progressive home for the arts, culture and new urban flare. The city has done this while carefully weaving its hard working past into a new identity that welcomes makers, creators, and learners.

Say it with me. Your city is great. Your city has a rich history. But these things alone don’t automatically make your city a place where people want to visit or live. Try as hard as you want, highlighting history has an important but relatively small draw. Instead, blend your city’s history into a new narrative, weaving the pride of a hard working past into a new urban future. Create an undeniable uniqueness around your city as it is today, not as it was 100 or 200 years ago. In a world of “what have you done for me lately,” the cities that look to write new stories in concert with a rich history are the ones that will succeed.