'What Is Special About My Town': Harrisburg, New Bedford, Rochester

A state capital, a former whaling town, and a company birthplace. 
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We continue to select highlights from among the 650+ locales that readers recommended we visit for American Futures. Today, readers advocate for towns in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York. The above map is just a screenshot; see our special American Futures page for live maps to accompany this post. 

New Bedford, MA (2010 population: 95,072)

I was first introduced to New Bedford a little over a year ago when I moved here to work as a reporter at the local newspaper. I knew very little about the city -- which at approximately 100,000 people is the sixth largest in Massachusetts -- except that Moby-Dick starts there. It's a former whaling town and a former textile town and a former fishing town and like many "former" places, there's high unemployment and low education levels that go back decades. People here like to say that it's a small city with big-city problems, and it is. It's hard to think of a national story that the city doesn't take and make its own: immigration, green energy, machine politics, education reform, health care, judicial reform, stop-and-frisk, abandoned housing, community colleges. I could go on and on, pointing toward the 2007 Bianco raid, the nearby Cape Wind offshore wind farm, and more. But despite the city's challenges, its residents have a real passion and love for the place, which has started to turn around in the last 10 years through a combination of strong political stewardship, careful city planning and a community of artists and historic preservationists. If there's a city in Massachusetts that has things to say about the possibilities for the American future, both economically and socially, this is it! There is also an airport.

Harrisburg, PA (2010 population: 49,528)

Two notable nominations. First:

As the state capitol--and one of the most notorious "cautionary tales" of governments borrowing money on poorly thought-out premises--it could very well be an interesting stop on the trip.

I grew up and lived there most of my life until relocating out of state for work. The city has always been a big-city-in-miniature between i's culture, crime, budgetary problems and the like. Over the years, I read the city had a larger per capita rate of AIDS, murders and (strangely) lawyers than any other city in the Commonwealth. The infamous incinerator loans have made it a household name (even more so than the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear accident years ago).

There's also a lot of good there, too--museums, symphony, fine dining and a lot more than one might expect out of a city of its size.

And:

All the press is terrible -- "bankruptcy!" "corruption!" -- but I really liked it when I was working there. Charming downtown, cool redevelopment, and more industries than just the state government -- one of the leading global clusters for high-end electronic connectors.

Rochester, NY (2010 population, 210,565)

Rochester received five thoroughly enthusiastic nominations. Here are three, edited for length:

Rochester is a great example of a city reinventing itself with the decline of once all-providing companies like Kodak and Xerox. Over the past 15-20 years Rochester has been making a successful transition from the manufacturing economy to one now dominated by healthcare and higher education, led by the University of Rochester (and its world-class medical center) and the Rochester Institute of Technology. For a variety of reasons the city was also one of the few places in America that survived the Great Recession relatively unscathed; the housing market never declined, technology-oriented businesses continued to grow and prosper. Cost of living is low, quality of life is high.

The other side of the story is that Rochester remains one of the most racially segregated places in America, with areas of severely concentrated poverty and a failing urban school district. Gang violence and a disturbing homicide rate are a daily reality in the 50% black 50% Hispanic neighborhoods of northern Rochester; receiving little notice from residents of the more affluent mostly-white urban neighborhoods or the nearly all-white suburbs that surround the city.

It's an interesting place! There is also a large amount of local pride, people are always very eager to talk about the city and receive recognition from outsiders.

And:

Rochester New York is in many ways a microcosm of America's past, present and possible future. . . . It's a small "town" but the birthplace of industries and movements that have impacted the world. Rochester's been home to Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony and other lesser known human rights leaders.

Western Union was founded here. So was Kodak, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb. Gannett Media started here. A boom town for the late 19th century and most all of the 20th, it's been a company town until the past couple decades as those giant firms have shrunk, moved out or almost disappeared. Yet, in the recent economic collapse, Rochester and its metro area have remained relatively steady. New companies are emerging in nanotech and energy, helped in part by Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester. The University's medical school and Strong Hospital network are having increased impact locally and are nationally and internationally recognized. Wegman's chain of supermarkets, a private, family-owned company, is a national industry leader, especially in employee satisfaction. And Monroe Community College is one of the premier community colleges in the country.

Rochester has been called "Smugtown, USA" (from a book by Curt Gerling) and vestiges of how it got that moniker remain visible. Some things haven't changed since the July 1964 riot or, as some called it, uprising that made national news. Child poverty is an issue here as elsewhere in the country. Its murder rate is second only to New York City in this State and may be higher on a per capita basis.

But some things have changed. The city elected its first black mayor years ago; the current county executive is a woman; there is a sizable, multi-ethnic population of recent immigrants from Russia, Southeast Asia, India and Africa. Rochester is known as a gay-friendly town.

And:

When I started college in New England, the typical ice breakers were common place. When asked where I was from, I got the many follow-up questions running the gamut from "is that in Westchester?" to "do you go to the city often?"

For too long, Rochester, and western NY, have gone unnoticed beneath the shadows of Manhattan. And while my college friends from the boroughs to Duchess County claim to be "real New Yorkers," I beg to differ.

Rochester and the surrounding region to the west of the city and alongside Lake Ontario boast many attractions. A prominent wine region along the picturesque Finger Lakes is idyllic for any end-of-summer or autumnal trip. Rolling hills of colorful foliage are reminiscent of New England, with the quaint towns to accompany it.

And Rochester is the capital of the region (said with only some bias). While Buffalo and Syracuse have been largely reduced to large mall fronts and strips of sprawl inundated with the usual chains, Rochester retains an urban feel. Quaint neighborhoods range from Park Avenue to the South Wedge, offering restaurants and shops. The city is young, and crawling with affiliates of the various colleges and universities in the metro area.

The greatest thing about Rochester, however, is the history and loyalty of its population. As the birthplace of women's rights and film, Rochester retains time tested pride. Such pride is shared by residents who are composed of loyal born-and-raised "Rochesterians," some who have been here all of their lives; others who have left and could not resist returning. In today's age where young people are fleeing east to Manhattan (a city that Patti Smith was quoted in a previous Atlantic article saying, "doesn't want you [young people]), fighting for a five by ten jail cell in the West Village, Rochester scoffs. Along East Avenue lines a historic row of beautiful mansions which have been renovated into apartment buildings. Amongst these mansions is George Eastman's former home. These mansions offer spacious and unique apartments for an affordable rent.

I could go on and on, for I am sick and tired of the raised eyebrows I receive when I inform my peers that I am six hours west of New York City. I am sick of the ignorant condescension that I receive from those who pity me for not living near a major metropolitan area. I am "Rust Belt chic" and I think it is high time our neighbors to the east, as well as the world around, recognized the cultural and historical density beyond the Big Apple.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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