A Tale of Three Cities

A community is a group of individuals and organizations bound together by geography and self-interest to efficiently carry out common functions.

Community and Regional Resilience Institute

One of the things that frustrates me the most about communities and community resilience is that too few community professionals and researchers seem to recognize that communities are open systems. Even for cities whose total population remains almost unchanged from year to year, there is a roiling of the humanity hidden by the statistics. Old faces disappear, new voices are heard. For example, at this time, the number of people moving into San Francisco, California, is roughly the same as the number of people who are leaving. San Francisco’s thriving economy and vibrant cultural scene provide employment and entertainment opportunities which continue to attract many, especially young professionals. However, the high cost of living, the increase in crime and the ineffectiveness of the city in protecting people and their property have forced many to leave, especially those with families or small businesses. Both those arriving and those leaving are “voting with their feet” based on their perceived self-interest.

It should be no surprise that this phenomenon is universal. The Huns, Vandals and Goths stormed into Europe to plunder and then settle because they saw the promise of a better life – better than staying where they were. The Choctaw and Chickasaw formed cities up and down the Mississippi basin, and then abandoned them periodically to find fresher land for farming. During the ‘20s and ’30s, African-Americans left the American southland by the tens of thousands to find better jobs and lives in the North.

In that sense, our cities’ vitality depends on their ability to provide people with the quality of life that they want. Self-interest thus is a major component of a community’s resilience. The following comes from a book that I’m writing with the help of Jennifer Adams. It illustrates the influence that self-interest – seeking a better quality of life – has played in the evolution of three cities.

Over the last seventy years, no three cities in the US have experienced population declines comparable to those of Youngstown, OH; St. Louis, MO; and Detroit, MI. Over that period, each has lost approximately two-thirds of their population. They each illustrate how residents’ perceived self-interests can impact a community’s vitality.

Throughout its history, St. Louis has been a major transportation hub. It was the jumping off point for most of the wagon trains that settled the West. By 1950, it had reached its population zenith of almost 860,000. However, its growth was limited by its geography, and after World War II, many left for the suburbs. This led to a drop in tax revenue, limiting the city’s ability to provide essential services, causing more people to leave – if they could. Qualitatively, parents felt the quality of their kids’ schooling had gone down. Many of the employers gradually followed their workforce out of the city – it was just more convenient for both employers and employees. This vicious cycle of people leaving, lowering taxes that pay for services, leading more people to leave, has continued. The city is a shadow of its former self, and has become one of the most dangerous in the nation (in terms of violent crime per capita). However, the growth of the rest of its metropolitan area (MSA) has more than made up for the city’s losses. While immigration is certainly a factor in the growth of the MSA, it appears that many who left the city merely moved out into the suburbs, seeking a better quality of life.

Detroit has a similar story to tell, with a slightly different twist. After World War II, Detroit boomed along with the auto industry. It reached its maximum population of almost 2 million in 1950. Like St. Louis, the city’s middle-class – white and black – began moving out of the city and into suburban areas starting in the late 1950’s, just as the auto industry began its slide due to foreign competition. Detroit then began spinning through the same dismal vicious cycle as St. Louis of people leaving, tax revenues dropping leading to reduced services which drove more people to leave the city. The poor level of service was compounded by poor governance which resulted in the takeover of the city by the state of Michigan in 2013, and a declaration of bankruptcy. One statistic exemplifies the sorry state of the city – in 2014, approximately 40% of the city’s streetlights weren’t working, leading to thousands of abandoned homes and soaring crime rates. Outside the city’s center, police response times were in hours not minutes. Public safety seemed the exception not the rule.

However, unlike St. Louis, the increasing population of the surrounding areas has not compensated for the losses of the city. There has been growth in the MSA, but it has been dampened by the gradual decline of the auto industry, increased automation and the resultant loss of jobs.

Up until the 1960’s, Youngstown, Ohio’s, economy was booming. Based on coal and then steel, throughout the first half of the twentieth century the city’s economic vitality provided jobs for native-born and immigrant Americans. Unfortunately, the city’s economy was not diversified; the city’s economic decline mirrored that of the American steel industry, starting in the late 1960’s. It is estimated that Youngstown lost 40,000 steel jobs, 400 small businesses closed and about one-half of the school tax revenues disappeared. Much of the population moved from the city to find jobs so that they could provide for their families. The population today is only about one-third that in 1950.

Unlike St. Louis and Detroit, Youngstown’s surrounding area has seen little net growth. The population of surrounding areas experienced a small expansion from 1950 to 1980, reflecting at least in part people moving from the city to more suburban areas, seeking a better quality of life. Beginning in 1980, Youngstown’s MSA also began contracting, reflecting the dependence of the area on steel industry jobs (and the steel industry’s interdependence with a declining American auto industry).

Taken together, these three stories point out how people’s perceptions of their self-interest – what’s best for them and their families – impact their communities. Starting in the 1950’s – while American industry was booming – families began moving to the suburbs. The suburbs were cleaner than the cities; they had parks and playgrounds and good schools for the kids; their white picket fences epitomized the American Dream.

And then, American industry stopped booming. The manufacturing jobs so necessary for the viability of cities like Detroit and Youngstown started to disappear. And the workforce that had made these cities such vital places in 1950’s then left to find new jobs so they could support their families.

The cities they left behind them are husks of their former selves. While other cities such as Pittsburgh also suffered through the same travails as these three, those cities have reinvented themselves and have become – perhaps – more livable than ever before. They have found ways to once again provide the services and amenities and jobs – the quality of life – that make for a viable city.

People eventually leave cities that don’t fulfill their needs – their self-interest. This is what makes the slow-motion suicide of cities like San Francisco and Baltimore so sad. Pittsburgh, and other cities that have reinvented themselves, have found ways to appeal to people’s self-interest. And as a result, these cities have regained some of their once-lost resilience.

Population of three cities and their Metropolitan Statistical Areas

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