What comes to mind when you think about New England? I have to admit that before moving here, my view was almost cartoonish. I expected Massachusetts would be about evenly divided between the high-tech, prosperous Boston metro and idyllic colonial towns and pastureland. As it turns out, that view is very wrong. Although Massachusetts has education rates and income levels that other states drool over, success on some measures obscures the fact that there are huge gaps within and between cities in the Commonwealth.

In Massachusetts ,”Gateway Cities” are some of the places that don’t fit within that binary. Gateway Cities are a legal classification of city developed in the last decade to focus attention on neglected parts of the state. Part policy response and part branding push, the Gateway Cities cover 11 midsized post-industrial Massachusetts cities outside of the Boston metro area (although the number has since expanded to 26, including some high poverty areas right outside Boston).

Gateway Cites

The 11 original Gateway Cities. For some background on “Gateway Cities,” you can read the MassINC/Brookings Institution paper that created the concept.
Source: MassINC

Massachusetts’ prosperous reputation does have some basis in fact. The state generally and Boston in particular post some impressive numbers in almost every metric of economic growth. But the fruits of this prosperity are spread very unevenly. In terms of jobs, personal income, and economic diversity, Gateway Cities have been lagging for decades: in aggregate, the number of private jobs in these cities is the same as it was in 1960. Industrial legacies have acted like a millstone around the neck of growth and economic diversification. Unsurprisingly, they are also the areas that have the largest reputational problems to overcome. At the same time, Gateway Cities contain some of Massachusetts’ richest historical, cultural, and even economic assets, and were each at some time in their history places alive with people, ideas, and trade.

As a series on the blog, I plan to visit the 11 original Gateway Cities in Massachusetts and write about what I see in each. My goal is to provide just a bit of context on each economy, community, and region. I’ll be trying to answer some basic observational questions (What does this city say they want? Are they following through on it? Is it working?) from a skeptical but contextualized viewpoint.

I want to do this for two reasons. First, the current coverage is bad. If you follow the major urbanism or placemaking websites, you know when Boston, San Francisco, or DC wins a major victory or starts an interesting new experiment but no one really knows what’s happening in the struggling communities down the road. The media gap is especially pronounced in these small cities, which usually have a single, nationally-owned news outlet hanging on by the fingertips. The drive to come up with a positive strategy becomes doubly important because without constant forward progress, these places cannot sustain the press’s attention. If reputation matters to economic success, it spells trouble for these places. In the age of the internet, there are no information vacuums – only empty repositories yet to be filled with negativity.

Second, the problems in Gateway Cities get at a timely and fascinating question in economic development: “What economic strategy will help small- to mid-sized cities, especially those with a strong industrial heritage, move forward?” Do they focus on tech? Cultivate a class identity? Plan to shrink? Though big cities are popularly seen as being in resurgence, no one thinks that the way forward is clear for smaller rust-belt cities. Don’t get me wrong, bigger metropolitan areas have huge challenges – they struggle with inequality, gentrification, and suburban retrofitting in ways that smaller cities don’t – but big metros have at last started to get some of the attention they deserve.

By contrast, small-to-mids like the Gateways face a wide array of challenges. They don’t have the same heft to force state and national governments to pay attention. Their problems are controlled by such local circumstances – sometimes as local as a single company – that orthodox economic development strategies aren’t helpful. There’s no Mayor Bloomberg to command headlines or Ed Glaeser to relentlessly champion small cities as a class. Well-meaning leaders in small cities sometimes just try to copy what’s going well in the big cities, rather than try something bold and original that could move the region forward but poses a high risk of failure.

Although I think most Gateways get an unjustified bad wrap, I don’t mean to suggest that what I write will be relentlessly positive. Exposure and growth can come from acknowledging an area’s shortcomings. I hope by personally visiting them I can get across a better understanding of the gap between their rich history and the present, and try to find a little bit of what’s work is left on their path to success.

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