Arts, business, and a history of community boosterism

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Arts, business, and a history of community boosterism

Reading, via Twitter, Boston Globe article about Pittsfield and the arts and then ReimagineRural blog commentary about the piece made me think of our article on boosterism, an old tradition that is alive and well in the Berkshire Hills. I’ve been here long enough to be skeptical about sustainable revival of a non-tourist economy here (and, frankly, the Berkshires have had a tourist economy for 150 years, so it can probably continue in some form, no matter what), even though I happily run a business here that has nothing whatsoever to do with tourism. But my business is truly global and virtual, not just in terms of topics and formats but because it could be run from pretty much anywhere.

Actually, as I write this I realize that there are some local, place-based reasons for its working here in the Berkshires,  and I’ll need to examine them in future posts.

Boosterism from Berkshire’s Encyclopedia of Community (Christensen et al., Sage 2003)

Boosterism refers to the efforts of individuals, business leaders, or fraternal groups to enhance a community’s image and to promote its growth and development. The term can describe a booster club’s efforts to raise funds to buy uniforms for the school band or it can apply to public officials and developers who promise cleared land, highway improvements, and tax breaks to induce a corporation to locate a manufacturing plant in a particular community.

Boosterism has long been associated with the attitudes of American businessmen. After visiting the United States, the English novelist Charles Dickens (18121870), in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), caricatured the booster as a sleazy promoter of worthless vacant lots. The American novelist Sinclair Lewis (18851951), in Babbitt (1922), saw the booster as a real estate agent whose pompous talk in praise of civic virtue masked hypocrisy and selfishness. Daniel Boorstin and other contemporary American historians, however, have written appreciatively of nineteenth-century businessmen who not only turned their Middle Western communities into thriving trading centers, but whose efforts in support of libraries, schools, hospitals, and parks created a vital urban culture.

Temples and Holy Relics

“Do you know how to play the fiddle?” The Athenian statesman Themistocles (c. 524c. 460 BCE) was asked. “No,” he said, “but I understand the art of raising a little village into a great city” (as cited in Boorstin 1995, 113). Ever since, boosters have been promising to do the same for their hometowns, though predicting and promoting development is a difficult task. In The Old Testament, it is the Lord who appears to make the great development decisions: pious cities flourish; the proud and profane are destroyed.

The origins of boosterism may date to the competitive Greek city-states such as Athens, which built magnificent temples not only to honor and propitiate the gods but also, in a boosterish sense, to glorify the city. Boosterism may also be seen at work in the medieval European town that promoted market fairs to stimulate trade or that boasted of possessing sacred relics to encourage the pilgrimages from which the town profited.
That a community might promote itself is an ancient idea, but that it should also encourage visitors to settle there is a modern notion that would have been bewildering to the majority of the world’s people, who, throughout history, have lived in agricultural settlements. Because villagers resided in places where land and resources were often scarce, they feared having too many mouths to feed and were wary of strangers, settlers, and change. In contrast, the modern booster, an optimist who believed that there would always be enough food to go around, welcomed newcomers who could contribute to communal prosperity.

American Boosterism

It is probably no accident that “booster” and the related term, “boomer” (as in boomtown) originated in the nineteenth-century United States, where land and resources were abundant and where the success of a community depended on how many people settled there. And because land (at least for white settlers) was neither sacred nor steeped in tradition, it could be bought, sold, and traded like any other commodity. Investors and land speculators were naturally on the lookout for those who promised to turn a village into a city.
The trick was to find a site worth boosting. Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase (1803), when the United States bought from France all the land from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, potential investors pored over maps of navigable rivers and the Great Lakes, trying to locate a waterfront settlement that might become the trading hub of this great agricultural hinterland. At the intersection of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Cairo, Illinois, seemed a good bet, but after a promising start, this swampy village did not live up to expectations. Meanwhile, shrewd New York City investors put their money on a Lake Michigan outpost where in 1830 fifty people lived; thirty years later, 100,000 resided in what had become Chicago.

For the better part of the nineteenth century, U.S. towns competed to surpass one another in trade, industrial output, and population. To make that happen, local boostersmostly a town’s businessmensought to gain improved waterfront shipping facilities and, above all, good rail connections for their communities. Physician Daniel Drake (17851852), an early and exemplary booster, wrote Picture of Cincinnati (1815), touting the virtues of the Queen City while working for an improved transportation infrastructure. He also founded the city’s first medical college. Similarly, William B. Ogden (18051877), a transplanted New York businessman, became Chicago’s first mayor, built the city’s first railroad (Chicago would be come the nation’s rail hub), designed a swing bridge over the Chicago River, and gave land for the Rush Medical College.

Even small towns with few assets promoted themselves as the next Chicago. “To ‘boom a town in Dakota,” The Century Magazine (1882) reported, “ is an art requiring a little money, a good deal of printer’s ink and no end of push and cheek” (Mathews 1951, 162).

Other Urban Frontiers

With their own vast frontiers, Canada, Australia, and Argentina would seem to have been ripe for boosterism. Indeed, wherever cities were highly competitive, they excelled at promoting themselves. David Hamer has suggested, however, that boosterism flourished in the United States as nowhere else because other frontier settlements were under more central-government control than in the United States. Whereas American businessmeninherent promotersmoved into municipal leadership positions, businessmen in other parts of the world deferred to the leadership of well-born or well-educated civil servants who were not inclined to boosterism.

Boosterism was probably not a critical factor in determining whether a population settled in the city or countryside. The general economic conditions of a nation and the outlook of its settlers were far more important: Australia and Argentinawithout much boostingurbanized more rapidly than did the United States. Yet while boosterism may not have been the critical factor in determining overall rates of urbanization, the individual initiatives of businessmen-politicians who were instrumental in realizing such mega-projects as the Erie Canal (New York State) and Owens River Aqueduct (Los Angeles) were paramount in spurring the growth of specific cities and regions.

The Suburban and Global Transformation

During the 1920s, the sardonic economist Thorstein Veblen (18571929) and the critic H. L Mencken (18801956), both Americans, joined Sinclair Lewis in depicting American boosterism as a narrow-minded, self-serving business culture centered about the local chamber of commerce and the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs.

”Old boy” boosterism now seems quaint. Today’s boosters (women as well as men) focus not on the civic and commercial life downtown, but on the development of shopping malls and the building of research and office parks along suburban highways. American suburbs compete intensely for such development, because it generates substantial tax revenues, which make it possible to keep local residential property taxes low. These suburbs often discourage much new housing, fearing that newcomers with children will require tax increases to pay for the construction of expensive new schools. “Come work and shop in our fine community,” says the modern suburban booster, “but please look elsewhere for your housing.”

Meanwhile, boosterism, once associated with small-town Middle America, has been embraced by the world. As tourism emerged as a major component of the global economy, cities moved to retain public relations and advertising firms to burnish their image and to promote their museums, opera houses, sports teams, and upscale shopping districts. From Athens to New York to Seoul, great cities now “boost themselves” to win the right to host the Olympic games, trade shows, and to be become the headquarters for multinational corporations. As the medieval town once lured pilgrims to its fairs and holy shrines, so the city today promotes its attractions, seeking as always tourists and investors with deep pockets.

James L.Wunsch


Further Reading
Abbott, C. (1981). Boosters and businessmen: Popular economic thought and urban growth in antebellum Middle West. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Boorstin, D. (1965). The Americans: The national experience. New York: Random House.
Hamer, D. A. (1990). New towns in the new world: Images and perceptions of the nineteenth-century urban frontier. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lewis, S. (1996). Babbitt. New York: Penguin Books. (Original work published 1922)
Mathews, M. M. (Ed.). (1951). A Dictionary of Americanisms (Vol. 1). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Weber, A. F. (1963) The growth of cities in the nineteenth century: A study in statistics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (Original work published 1899)

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