The 10 Most Underrated Towns in America

Ten great American cities, once dismissed as bad news, that deserve another look.

| January/February 2001 Issue

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, things looked mostly bad for American cities. Outside of a handful of coastal centers like San Francisco, New York, and Seattle, the overwhelming trend was people moving to the suburbs. Millions of middle-class families voted with their feet for open vistas, lower crime rates, newer schools, bigger yards, and shopping megacomplexes. But urban areas now seem to be staging a comeback. Evidence of this trend—good news for some, bad news for others—is escalating real estate prices in many urban neighborhoods across the country. Americans seem to be falling in love with cities again.

Worsening traffic congestion has convinced some suburbanites to trade 40-plus-mile freeway commutes for 10-minute strolls down city sidewalks. For others it’s the realization, driven home by the Columbine High School shootings, that no community is immune to violence, drug abuse, and other woes once seen as exclusively urban problems. A lot of kids who hail from homogenous bedroom communities are coming to appreciate the appeal of city living. Many new dot-coms, for instance, find that edgy urban neighborhoods are potent lures for the young tech-savvy talent they’re seeking. Cities are also increasingly attractive to suburban empty nesters—baby boomers with grown-up kids, who are eager to trade lawn mowing for theatergoing. And most important are the folks of all ages who never gave up on urban life, the ones who rolled up their sleeves to hold the line on urban decay and ultimately bring real improvements to their neighborhoods, even as suburban flight deprived cities of desperately needed tax dollars.

Not every city, and certainly not every neighborhood, has conquered its economic, environmental, social, and racial woes. Yet all around there is a new spirit of optimism—even in places where people once saw little hope. These 10 cities, which ranked low on most people’s livability and economic vitality lists just a few years ago, still face very real problems, especially in their poorest districts, but they are also blessed with classic older neighborhoods, lively downtowns, and residents who are proudly working to make them great places to live.

1. Milwaukee

A classic rust belt city that’s made a fresh start • Mayor John O. Norquist understands what makes cities work as well as anyone in America • A freeway that cuts through the heart of the city is being torn down • A thriving new neighborhood, EastPointe, has been built on land cleared for another freeway that was never built • A delightful river walk lines the Milwaukee River downtown • Great old industrial buildings are being converted to offices and lofts • Miles and miles of lakefront park are lined by architecturally distinguished neighborhoods • A new ballpark and a dazzling addition to the city’s art museum are in the works • A wonderful tradition of ethnic festivals enlivens the town throughout the summer • Strong neighborhood redevelopment initiatives, good housing stock, and the best corner taverns in North America.

2. West Palm Beach, Florida
Once the plain sister to ritzy Palm Beach, now a textbook example of how to revitalize a ho-hum town into a bustling urban center for a mostly suburbanized region • The downtown, moribund just a few years ago, now teems with restaurants and street life • Clematis Street hops every evening • A Saturday market and a thriving new arts district pull in folks from all over • A superb urban master plan drawn up by town planners Duany/Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) helped to jump-start much of the excitement • CityPlace, a massive new retail/residential main street, followed on the heels of the DPZ plan. (Although CityPlace is a strong vote of confidence in the newly revitalized downtown, some fear that its glitz and gloss could overwhelm the fragile renaissance taking place just a short distance away.) • Close-in residential areas are a showcase of classic Florida architecture from the early decades of the 20th century • A big parks push has been proposed, featuring improvements to the waterfront connected to the "Turquoise Necklace"—a network of green space, bike trails, and waterways that will surround the city • Former mayor Nancy Graham and her successor, Joel Daves, have assembled one of the most visionary planning departments in America • Narrowed streets, pedestrian arcades, and traffic-calming measures have been incorporated along with state-of-the-art "typological" planning codes • The same kind of urban resurgence is under way in nearby Lake Worth, Boca Raton, and Del Ray Beach.

3. Louisville, Kentucky
A truly comfortable town where you can enjoy big-city advantages on a modest budget • It could become the next destination for those looking to cash out of expensive houses and harried careers in pricier coastal cities • An amazing calendar of arts attractions and events • The most beautiful square in America, St. James Court, will make you swear you’re in Europe • Park DuValle, once a mean-streets public housing project, has been transformed into a thriving mixed-income neighborhood without booting the original residents • A recently designated state park and interpretive center across the Ohio River from downtown draws attention to the most prolific fossil bed on the continent • The Louisville Slugger factory and museum on Main Street is adjacent to an impressive stand of 19th-century cast-iron storefronts (the grouping is the country’s second largest, just after New York’s Soho district) • The waterfront is enjoying new life, and there’s even talk of tearing down an ugly freeway there • The E-Main neighborhood is rebounding as a work/live/play center for young technology workers • Old Louisville is one of America’s most intact historic districts • The Highlands, Crescent Hill, Beechmont, and other great neighborhoods from the streetcar era are linked by Frederick Law Olmsted–designed parkways • City and county governments recently voted to merge, hoping to bring greater efficiency and more streamlined planning to the greater Louisville area.

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