Book Recommendation: Justin Hollander’s An Ordinary City

The full title is An Ordinary City: Planning for Growth and Decline in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Justin is an acquaintance, but I don’t know him well (but if first impressions are any indicator, he’s very nice…). This is just by way of saying I’m not just pimping a book for a buddy of mine. I think this book is genuinely important, and I also think it’s quite well done.

Perhaps the biggest win comes from the concept itself. Hollander has also written very well about shrinking cities in a book of the same name. But as he notes here in this book, cities like New Bedford seldom get much study. Ordinary almost feels like a slap in the face in 21st century late capitalism, where everything is about branding, standing out, finding your audience, etc. It’s not; it seems mean that the city itself is pretty normal. It’s not growing, but shrinking, and doing so slowly. It’s not a world city or a global city or any of the things that tend to preoccupy urbanists. Don’t get me wrong: there are good reasons to write about big regions–a lot of people live there, and the challenge of providing urban services at such a scale is real enough.

Yet the same reason exists for studying the New Bedfords of this world. When you add them up, a lot of people live in the New Bedfords you find throughout the United States. New Bedford, as it happens, is a post-industrial port city. Hollander traces the efforts the city to made to de-densify (reverse transect) and to recover for de-industrialization. He interviews residents who in general like the city but expressed the all-too-common concern that middle-class neighborhoods around them have become increasing impoverished over their lifetimes. It is unfortunately an everyday story.

Managing the changes in New Bedford occurs through a mix of leaders and organization trying to manage slow decline and find new opportunities. In line with his early thinking, Hollander describes the approach as “smart shrinkage”–cities trying to cope with their social and demographic changes to keep things nice for those who remain.

I am greatly irritated by Palgrave for this price on this book, as it’s expensive; I do hope they plan a paperback version but I don’t have high hopes for the pricing there because the ebook version is pricey, too. Dang them–this is a book that really does deserve to be in the hands of more people than will likely happen with this price tag. It’s a worth taking out from the library. Honestly, why do book proposal guides all go on and on about you describing the “popular appeal” of your book if they are just going to put a high price tag on it for libraries purchase?

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