Monday, May 29, 2006

Why the Borough of Swarthmore sucks

I'd argue it's stuck in a bad equilibrium. There is no reason that Swarthmore, PA should not be a place full of pleasant restaurants and coffee shops. After all, Williamstown, MA has about the same number of students and, if anything, fewer professionals not associated with the school. Yet it manages, apparently, to sustain many nice restaurants and such.

What's Swarthmore's problem? It's stuck in the suburbs. That is, in Williamstown people and their money are stuck in Williamstown and so businesses open and cater to them. In Swarthmore, however, people can go elsewhere: Philadelphia, or other suburbs. So the money of the residents of the Swarthmore is not stuck in Swarthmore proper. Rather, it gets distributed among other suburbs and the city.

Why won't this change? Well, if you are a restaurant person thinking of opening a nice restaurant, where are you going to go? Given that people already leave Swarthmore to find a restaurant -- no one would consider staying in Swarthmore on the off chance that there might be a nice place in town -- your best bet is to locate where the people go: some other suburb or the city. Even if some people would stay, a good portion of people would by habit go off elsewhere for nice food. And you certainly aren't going to get random people from surrounding 'burbs visitng Swarthmore for food. This is very different from Williamstown, where the people, and the money, are de facto trapped.

How did this equilibrium come to be? I don't actually know, but I'd speculate that is has to do with a) the Borough of Swarthmore not allowing the sale of alcohol in its boundaries and b) the downtown being smaller than other downtowns.

I'd further claim that this has something interesting to say about international trade or urban studies: somehow placing a town in suburbia versus the middle of nowhere can lead it produce much lower quality services because of the opportunity for people to go elsewhere.

4 Comments:

Blogger Tom Bozzo said...

The extreme temperance business doesn't help. Somewhat similarly, College Park MD kept a tight lid on liquor licenses, and downtown CP has only a fraction of the amenities of downtown Madison despite the similarly huge campus population. (CP-area bar owners' heads would surely pop off if they saw how many alcohol-related businesses are near UW-Madison.) Then there certainly was a "why stay in CP when DC is so close" factor for those of us who sought something other than bad pizza and cheap beer.

4:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there's a lot more to this particular case. It's not that Swarthmore the town is stuck in the wrong place; it is that it has a very peculiar political balance between older residents who have an extremely deep antipathy to any changes to the commercial landscape of downtown and act to block all such change and bedroom-community folks who will vote to keep up the school district, and if it comes to that, vote for sprucing up the commercial district, but don't care that much about the town itself.

The other local peculiarity is that most of the commercial real estate in the business area is owned by a single person who doesn't seem terribly interested in promoting a viable mix of businesses plus a truly bad layout of road access and parking that couldn't sustain increased traffic. Throw in a smattering of town-gown antagonisms of the ordinary sort and the fact that Delaware County in relative terms is somewhat depressed as far as suburbs go and you've got a very stubborn and immobile mix.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Iz,
A. I am not aware of "bad equilibrium" in urban geography or urban planning as a concept or theory.
B. There are numerous theories and models about urban form and spatiality from Christaller's Central Place Theory, to August Losch to Berry to Hartshorn and so on an so on. Interesting theories and models. However like many things there are no unified theories or models when it comes to urban geography or planning (at least what I'm aware of). Models and theories are fine and I do use and make reference to them. I would expect though that Swarthmore's lack of good restaurants and coffee houses is not because of bad equilibrium --or would that be dis-equilibrium.
C. Williamstown I am quite familiar with--its about 20 miles from the summer cottage. Very familiar with all of Berkshire County. Willamstown and Swarthmore are in most dis-similar spatial contexts. But that has little or nothing to do with the restaurants or coffee houses.
D. You are be far too kind to Williamstown restaurant and coffeehouse scene. Our favorite place is the Water Street Grill.
E. I would argue that Swarthmore would be a great place to locate a fine restaurant or coffeehouse. First if people travel to Phila. to meet a demand, it would seem to me that the demand is already there and would be competitively advantageous because of the time-distance continuum. Why travel a distance over a period of time when something you want is closer? Doesn't time and distance as it increases result in greater costs? The old gravity model, eh.

Well that's it Iz. Hope all and everyone is well.

Zayde Shar

10:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your idea that it is better to be in the middle of nowhere than located in suburbia is born out by the Russian experience with trains. The building of train lines led to the decline of formerly prosperous towns on the route , while towns far from train lines did not decline

8:24 PM  

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