March 28, 2008

State Capitals Uncool

Stupid Question ™
Nov. 8, 2001
By John Ruch
© 2001

Q: Why are state capitals never the coolest city in the state? For example, why did New York choose Albany over New York City?
—Nerdy Thomas

A: This is not always true (witness Boston or Denver), and is obviously a matter of opinion. However, by my reckoning, a majority of capital cities (28 of 50) are indeed not the biggest and/or most glamorous cities in their states. And the cool capitals are usually in states with no cosmopolitan competition.

Of course, there are especially glaring examples: Albany, New York; Sacramento, California; Austin, Texas.

The majority of cool US cities sit on major rivers, lakes or oceans—features that attract a diverse range of interesting people through commerce and travel. The majority of capitals, on the other hand (Ohio’s comes to mind) are plunked down in the central region of the state, often in a fairly arbitrary spot.

Such placement was usually deliberate. In several cases, the cool city actually was the capital before it got put out to pasture. Detroit, New York City, Philadelphia and Houston all used to be capital cities.

NYC and Philly also did stints as the nation’s capital until the creation of Washington, DC—which in fact became the model of the centralized capital city. DC was built to defuse North/South and rural/urban political tensions, being staked out roughly in the middle of the original colonies without actually being in any of them.

Unfortunately, it was also a fetid, swampy backwater with no decent roads or housing. In 1808, a weary Congress actually voted to move back to Philly. (Only the looming political crisis with Britain tabled the bill.)

Many states followed suit, building (or relocating) their capitals in a central region to balance rural/urban constituencies and encourage settlement of the interior. That’s one reason New York moved to Albany in 1797. (Also cited were fears of epidemics, British naval attack and the high cost of living in NYC.) Coolness was not on the political agenda.

But just like DC, the central location often proved isolated and inconvenient. It was made worse by another driving force of the lame-capital-city syndrome: shady real estate speculation that resulted in some of the greatest swampland-selling schemes in history.

California literally auctioned off the right to be the state capital, and its capital city changed seven times in five years before Sacramento finally ponied up. But that was nothing compared to the travesties of Madison, Wisconsin and Lansing, Michigan, which were named “capitals” despite being inaccessible (but centrally located) tracts of forested swamp given to the government by bribe-tossing land speculators hoping to profit from an instant city.

Finding no streets, no hotels and no heating, horrified legislators called Madison an “inhabited forest” and repeatedly voted on moving to Milwaukee.

However, there’s always hope. Houston became the capital of the Republic of Texas when speculators slapped local-hero Sam Houston’s name onto disease-ridden swampland. The capital soon moved to Austin to encourage interior settlement. Undaunted, Houston dug itself a port and became one of America’s cool cities.

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