How Not to Save Your Hometown

A Philly suburb's wrongheaded plan to revitalize itself

The city of Coatesville last week welcomed home 10 huge 50-ton “trees” that were manufactured in steel mills there more than 40 years ago and once framed the lower floors of the World Trade Center in New York City. The “trees” are destined to be planted in a memorial that’s the intended central exhibit in a new National Iron and Steel Heritage Museum. The museum’s planners say it will spur a revitalization of the city, attracting crowds from all over the United States and the world to learn about the process of making steel.

People, people. All together now: This. Does. Not. Work. [SIGNUP]

I mean no slight to the people of Coatesville, nor to the members of its Graystone Society, which is creating the museum and sent me a press release on the 28-tractor-trailer convoy that brought the trees back home. But it’s about time we got more level-headed about revitalizing the small cities and towns throughout our region that have lost their industrial bases and are left foundering, desperately trying to figure out how to distinguish themselves from the pack, attract new residents and visitors, fill the empty storefronts on Main Street, and — well, survive for another, in Coatesville’s case, 200 years.

I’m sure an iron and steel museum seems like a logical jumpstart to Graystone Society members. I’m equally sure the creators of Jonesport, Maine’s Maine Coast Sardine History Museum thought it would revitalize its hometown. As did the founders of Bedford, Pennsylvania’s National Museum of the American Coverlet, and the Zippo Lighter Museum in Bradford, and the (now defunct) Mushroom Museum in Kennett Square. And as a proud resident of a town whose Main Street has more vacant than filled storefronts, I understand the impetus to, well, do something to reclaim my town’s heritage. But niche museums are a fool’s game. Sure, they provide employment for a handful of folks with museum-studies degrees, and another handful of grant-writers (who are in all likelihood former journalists, so I should just shut up), not to mention the senior-citizen volunteers who man the gift-shop counters. But unless your town is blessed with the international name recognition of, say, Gettysburg—is inextricably linked in the public mind with what your museum is dedicated to—I’ve got news: No one is going to come. And that’s a good argument for the City of Philadelphia to permanently yank its on-again, off-again support of a Civil War museum here, by the way. I defy you to name one vital Civil-War-connected event that happened in Philly. Besides, we already have one perfectly good Civil War niche museum. Enough already!

Thomas Wolfe put it beautifully in You Can’t Go Home Again: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time. … ” The only way for small towns to resuscitate themselves is to examine how they’ve changed, to discover what they have now that’s worth celebrating and presenting to the world. That’s much harder than looking backward. But the result will be a garden instead of a grave.

SANDY HINGSTON is a Philly Mag senior editor.