The 10 Most Underrated Towns in America

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.

4. Washington, D.C.
Designed as America’s Rome and now, after 200 years, beginning to act the part • It’s becoming less a bureaucrats’ town and more of a blossoming cultural center • The region is beginning to challenge Boston as the East Coast’s leading technology center • Brutal traffic in outer Virginia and Maryland suburbs is driving some folks back to close-in neighborhoods • Excellent subway • Crime is dropping • Substantial African American middle class • Museum heaven. • Many beautiful streetscapes–some leafy and genteel, others urban and hip • The Shaw, Mount Pleasant, and Howard University areas are at the forefront of a growing neighborhood renaissance • Capitol Hill and Logan Circle, once considered edgy, are now well established as comeback neighborhoods • Recalls a Southern graciousness, but balanced by a Yankee work ethic • Bouncing back from the Marion Barry era, although still hampered by a democracy deficit: ruled by Congress, pays taxes but has no voting representation on Capitol Hill.

5. Pittsburgh

The affordable San Francisco: great neighborhoods lining valleys and perched atop hills–and unlike San Francisco, it’s not losing all its working-class character • Steel, once its lifeblood, is down to just a few thousand jobs, but the town has hung on and diversified • Downtown survived the ’60s and ’70s better than most, and still sports four major department stores (although a new plan to level some older buildings there warrants close scrutiny) • Hilly topography fosters strong neighborhood identity and cohesion • The city wisely kept its streetcars, upgrading them to light rail and adding bus-only lanes to improve transit • It passed on building a perimeter beltway and constructed fewer freeways than other cities • The Andy Warhol Museum helped to spark revitalization • A North Shore development replaces the outmoded Three Rivers stadium with a new football stadium, ballpark, housing, and office buildings • A New Urbanist community, now under construction, will extend the popular Squirrel Hill neighborhood across a mountain of industrial slag; it’s the ultimate brownfield reclamation project • Chatham Village, a visionary workers’ housing project built in the early 1900s, today ranks among Pittsburgh’s most prestigious addresses • The stock of old buildings throughout the city is outstanding • A unique tax system, inspired by 19th-century economic theorist Henry George, assesses land at a higher rate than buildings, thus encouraging historic preservation, discouraging downtown parking lots, and reducing sprawl.

6. Spokane, Washington
Seattle’s smaller country cousin, undeservedly overlooked for years, now attracting refugees from California and the Puget Sound region • Many classic neighborhoods offer shaded streets and down-to-earth prices on great old homes • A chain of parks, many laid out by the legendary Olmsted brothers, are scattered throughout the city • The centerpiece of the Olmsteds’ 1913 plan, Riverfront Park, was finally reclaimed from abandoned rail and industrial facilities as the site of Spokane’s Expo ’74 • Now the park provides both a green sanctuary and dramatic views of the swift-running Spokane River right in the heart of the city • Downtown is a historic treasure with 80 blocks of mostly intact early-20th-century buildings • Strong local tax incentives for historic preservation are widely used • Sprawl to the east is a serious and growing problem, but there is earnest discussion of building a light rail line to link destinations there with downtown Spokane • There’s easy access to the great outdoors all around for world-class skiing, kayaking, hiking, fishing, and pleasure boating.

7. Chicago
The quintessential American city full of robust neighborhoods, rich ethnic diversity, and the best cheap restaurants in the nation • Elevated trains, rumbling poetically above the streets, and a great commuter-rail network make car ownership optional • The site of the notorious and now partially demolished Cabrini-Green housing project abuts newly middle-class neighborhoods moving west from the prosperous lakefront • Loft housing, although it was invented in New York, has really found its home here as conversion of older buildings and construction of new ones struggle to keep up with demand in many revitalized sections of the city • The South Loop, once an industrial no-man’s-land, is now a hot spot and home to mayor Richard Daley, who understands that little things make a big difference in urban life • Daley has planted tens of thousands of trees, installed a rooftop garden above city hall, and promotes key livability improvements like traffic calming • Miles and miles of lakefront parks are the city’s number one warm-weather hangout.

8. Cincinnati
This old town has a surprisingly big-city feel, reflecting its 19th-century origins as one of America’s preeminent metropolitan centers • A classy new riverfront park shows off the mighty Ohio River • A magnificent bridge built by John Augustus Roebling, who later designed the Brooklyn Bridge, crosses from downtown into the well-preserved German colony of Covington, Kentucky • They’ve sunk a freeway below ground to better connect the downtown streets with the “Banks,” a new mixed-use neighborhood that features housing, a ballpark, football stadium, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center museum, and other entertainment offerings • Mount Adams, high atop the river bluffs, is a charming village within a city • Over-the-Rhine, a Lower East Side-style neighborhood, is seeing some hipster redevelopment without major displacement (yet) of low-income residents.

9. Richmond, Virginia
After several decades of slumber, this old-line southern tobacco town seems finally to be hitting its stride • Happily, it was bypassed by much of the soulless ’60s and ’70s development, although a failed festival mall from that era still scars the city’s downtown • T.K. Somanath, Indian-born executive director of the Richmond Better Housing Coalition, guides one of the country’s most successful efforts to improve low-income housing • In redeveloping the Randolph Neighborhood, Somanath involved residents in key planning decisions: They wanted a classic Richmond neighborhood with alleys, parks, and houses with front porches and private backyards • Rejecting the usual fortress approach to public housing, the Randolph plan featured a true mix of housing (both market-rate and subsidized) and clear connections to surrounding neighborhoods and commercial streets • The nearby Fan district, once a case study in urban decay, has made a spectacular comeback • A growing gay population continues to play a significant role in Richmond’s renaissance.

10. Dallas
On a quick walk through downtown, you might give Dallas up for dead, but a closer look reveals encouraging signs of life that could show the way for other sprawling sun belt cities • DART, a regional light rail system that succeeded against all odds, is helping to transform entire blocks around several stations • A once-rundown area just across the freeway from downtown, the St. Thomas/McKinney neighborhood, has been redeveloped largely through the efforts of one visionary developer, Post Properties (formerly Columbus Realty) • Post’s solid low-scale apartment buildings combine to form streets and public spaces that have an almost European feel • Post has been so successful in the center city that suburban developers and municipalities have invited them to bring some sorely needed urban charm to the sterile corporate landscapes of Plano and Las Colinas • The Deep Ellum warehouse district is coming back, along with historic neighborhoods in East Dallas • The Dallas Institute, a unique think tank, continues to nurture the spirit of the city; its programs challenge citizens and the city’s leaders to think about Dallas in bold and innovative new ways.

Peter Katz, author of The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community (McGraw-Hill, 1994), consults on urban design and real estate marketing from offices in Washington, D.C. He was founding executive director of the Congress of the New Urbanism and is now co-developer of a new traditional neighborhood, The Peninsula, in Iowa City. He is an associate member of the Citistates Group, a consortium of thinkers committed to the advancement of 21st-century metropolitan regions.
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