Transforming Our Grey Towns

By Jason Segedy

July 8, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

There is a widespread belief that Americans hate cities. I think it is probable that Americans hate city failure, but, from the evidence, we certainly do not hate successful and vital city areas. 

-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

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An abandoned house on York Street, up the street from where my grandparents (both the children of Sicilian immigrants) lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. The neighborhood is suffering from increasing blight and abandonment - although hope remains, as a brand-new wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America is slowly breathing new life into portions of it.

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A vacant lot on Vesper Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, where my wife’s great-grandparents lived after moving here from West Virginia. Her grandparents lived just down the street.  Both of the houses where they used to live recently became meth labs and had to be torn down.

The Grey Town

In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, an allegorical meditation upon the afterlife, many of the dead are denizens of a shadowy city called the Grey Town, which is either purgatory or hell (depending on how long one chooses to stay there).  The people of the Grey Town are free to leave it any time that they wish, but most, in their state of near-total narcissism, choose to stay.  

The Grey Town is a place where (unlike Earth) anyone can get any material possession that they wish (although not of very good quality) simply by imagining it.  Unable to cooperate (or even to coexist) with others, each person finds their neighbors so intolerable that they simply wish themselves a new house, and continually move further and further outward from the town’s center, leaving nothing but abandoned buildings behind.  

As each person continues to act in (what they mistakenly think is) their own self-interest, all semblance of community, civic life, social cohesion, and basic human kindness is lost; as the town continues to grow exponentially, ultimately consuming millions and millions of square miles, with an astronomically large central area of abandonment surrounded by a thinly-settled, ever-expanding urban fringe, populated by inhabitants that are increasingly estranged from one another.

What they end up creating is, quite literally, hell - a lonely and hopeless place extending out into infinity, in which each person freely chooses to remain utterly and completely self-centered.  It is a place of self-imprisonment, where the metaphorical door is locked from the inside:

"It seems the deuce of a town," I volunteered, "and that’s what I can’t understand. The parts of it that I saw were so empty. Was there once a much larger population?"

 ”Not at all,” said my neighbour. “The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours - and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing.”

"Leaving more and more empty streets?"

“That’s right. And time’s sort of odd here. That place where we caught the bus is thousands of miles from the Civic Centre where all the newcomers arrive from earth. All the people you’ve met were living near the bus stop: but they’d taken centuries - of our time - to get there, by gradual removals.”

"And what about the earlier arrivals? I mean - there must be people who came from earth to your town even longer ago."

"That’s right. There are. They’ve been moving on and on. Getting further apart. They’re so far off by now that they could never think of coming to the bus stop at all. Astronomical distances. There’s a bit of rising ground near where I live and a chap has a telescope. You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those old ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still. That’s one of the disappointments. I thought you’d meet interesting historical characters. But you don’t: they’re too far away."

"Would they get to the bus stop in time, if they ever set out?"

"Well-theoretically. But it’d be a distance of light-years. And they wouldn’t want to by now…

"Wouldn’t want to?"

"That’s right…

"Then the town will go on spreading indefinitely?" I said.

"That’s right…" 

-C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Lewis’s description is powerful, regardless of whether you are the least bit religious, spiritual, or believe in an afterlife - for its power comes from what it says about human nature in the here and now.  

His description is sobering:  a town full of people who are so completely self-deluded and estranged from one another, that they think they are acting in their own self-interest, when in fact, they are actually destroying the place that they live, and along with it, any chance that they will ever have for real happiness.

For those of us that live in shrinking cities in the Rust Belt, in regions with negative net-population growth and continued outward expansion that are simultaneously suffering from widespread abandonment, Lewis’s allegory is more than a little bit disturbing in its familiarity.

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A dilapidated house on Carpenter Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Increasing Abandonment in Northeast Ohio

Brent Larkin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote two pieces recently, discussing the many problems associated with the ever-increasing spread of blight, vacancy, and abandonment in Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs.  

Larkin makes the case that this problem and its antecedents are not limited to the ones that are commonly perceived as only affecting city residents - crime, poverty, hopelessness, inequality, and paying more in taxes for less in services.  He reminds us that the holistic, interconnected nature of our modern world means that everyone in our region is ultimately affected by the abandonment of our urban core areas, in one way or another.

I addressed this same issue recently in a blog post discussing population loss in our region:

What goes on within a given city’s actual municipal boundaries has incredibly important ramifications for its tax base; its employment base; the performance of its schools; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and restaurants; the delivery of public services; and less tangible, but equally important things like its sense of place and its sense of itself.  As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population:  the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale.  To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality itself.

But it is not just city residents that are affected by decline.  The health of the entire region suffers as a result.  The shrinking tax and resource base of City “A”, is not simply counteracted by economic growth in nearby cities “B” and “C”.  In a region anchored by a declining central city surrounded by dozens of separate municipalities, the redundant duplication and proliferation of local government services (education, public safety, public utilities, transportation infrastructure, social services) ends up costing all taxpayers more. 

The worst-case scenario is a shrinking central city and a shrinking region with an overall population decline, coupled with continued central city abandonment and continued outward expansion.  In a region like this, there is not only more costly “stuff” (redundant public services and physical infrastructure) than there needs to be, but there is more “stuff” with ever fewer taxpayers to pay for it.

It’s an issue that is hauntingly familiar to every resident of a shrinking Rust Belt city.  The statistics on abandonment in places like Akron, Toledo, Dayton, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cleveland, Flint, Gary, Youngstown, and Detroit range from the sobering to the horrifying.  

As I’ve written before, there are explicable, rational reasons for why these cities are experiencing such high levels of abandonment - although no one seems to be able to agree on precisely what they are.

But I’m not so sure that agreeing on why the abandonment of our core city neighborhoods is occurring is all that important.  Yes, there is a logic (that I cannot argue with) behind the notion that understanding the root causes of the problem is important if we are going to address it.  

On the other hand, I would argue that even if we perfectly understood why the problem is occurring (and for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we could adequately understand such a complex socioeconomic phenomenon), I’m not sure that we would be any further along the path toward actually doing something to change it.

In my experience, the discussion of why our cities are being abandoned is largely a useless distraction, and I continue to believe that those who are the most dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how these problems came about in the first place, also happen to be those that are the least interested in actually doing something to solve the problems.

So what should we do about the decline of our cities and the abandonment of our neighborhoods?

The first step is for people to be aware of the magnitude of our vacant and abandoned property problem in Northeast Ohio.

The term “awareness” is itself, multifaceted.  It entails: a) knowledge of the facts; b) acknowledgement that these facts translate into an actual problem that we should be concerned with; and c) a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something to address the problem.

I would argue that (a) is somewhat widespread; (b) is debated by some, with many more people in our region simply living in denial; and c) is still virtually non-existent.

When I say that people lack a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something about the problem, I don’t mean that we simply need to throw lots of public money at the problem, or create a bunch of new, intrusive government rules and regulations, or transfer wealth from some communities to other communities.  

I mean that citizens from all sectors, and all walks of life, from all over the region need to recognize their shared destiny as one civic community, and work together in myriad ways great and small (most of them yet-to-be-determined, because we don’t feel the collective sense of urgency yet) to solve an incredibly complicated, mutual problem that manifests itself in different ways, in many different places.

A common reaction to the abandonment of our city neighborhoods is the belief that it will somehow correct itself, and goes something like this: “Well, eventually the free-market will assert itself, and people working in the private sector will be able to buy these properties so cheaply that they will swoop in and rebuild the neighborhoods.”

This has happened here and there, to be sure, but it is very much the exception, rather than the rule.  For every gentrifying neighborhood like Ohio City, Tremont, or Highland Square, we have a dozen neighborhoods that are disintegrating before our very eyes.

There are a couple of problems with the theory that the free market will save the day.  For one, the market value of many of these properties is already at (or near) $0, and they can’t get any cheaper.  So it’s not just a matter of dollars and cents.

For another, the abandonment of our cities is largely a consequence of the free-market doing what it does, as it has always done it.

But, it is equally a consequence of short-sighted public policy decisions regarding infrastructure, education, housing, and other social services.  

And, of course, we can’t leave out the untold billions of individual choices, great and small, which are incrementally making our cities places that are either becoming better to live in, or becoming worse.

If the free market were solely the answer (and I do believe, incidentally, that it is part of the answer), then the problem would already be solving itself.

But it isn’t.

Clearly, something needs to alter the behavior of the free market.  Just as clearly, our current public policy regimen is not working either, and needs to be altered as well. Ditto for our societal priorities and many of our present-day cultural norms regarding the individual, society, and place.

But how?  And, just as importantly, altered to do what?

Well, that’s a great question.  Because what do we want to see happen in our cities?  What is our vision for what they should look like in the future.

I’m not sure that we have one.

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An abandoned warehouse on Cuyahoga Street in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Today’s Reality in Akron

Here in Akron, where I live, the problems of vacant and abandoned property, disinvestment, and depopulation get a little bit worse every day.

It’s an issue that has perhaps been more difficult for those of us living here to see as clearly as those living in other shrinking cities do - for a couple of reasons.

Compared to our neighbors in Cleveland and Youngstown, we have been relatively untouched by the scourge of abandonment and massive disinvestment in our neighborhoods.  Yes, we’ve seen our share of abandoned properties (there are roughly 2,300 right now) and population loss - we’ve lost 31% of our peak population, declining from 290,000 residents in 1960, to 199,000 residents today.

But most of the population decline has been very gradual, and has been relatively dispersed throughout the city.  Even our most distressed neighborhoods are nowhere close to experiencing the scope and scale of the abandonment that is seen across large swaths of Cleveland or Youngstown.

While I personally believe that a lot of this is due to a strong civic leadership culture and a solid history of successful public and private collaborations, some of it is also due to “dumb luck” - historical factors largely beyond our control.

Akron is a newer city than Cleveland and Youngstown.  By the time that Akron began to grow in earnest (around 1910, when the rubber and tire industry exploded), Cleveland was already a very large, established city; and Youngstown was well on its way to becoming one.  

Akron was also able to annex many neighborhoods that were developed between 1920 and 1960, while many similar neighborhoods in Greater Cleveland and Youngstown ended up in outlying communities.

In addition to containing a newer stock of housing, Akron had the advantage of being home to not just tens of thousands of blue collar industrial workers, but to the white collar industrial workforce, which numbered in the thousands.  

Unlike Youngstown, which contained numerous steel mills that were headquartered elsewhere, Akron was home to the production facilities and headquarters of four Fortune 500 rubber and tire manufacturers (Goodyear, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, and General Tire).

This fact was incredibly significant for the city’s neighborhoods and for the quality of its housing stock, because the numerous executives, managers, engineers, scientists, and other highly-paid workers all built extremely nice houses within the city limits, especially in the neighborhoods located throughout the northwestern quadrant of the city (not coincidentally, uphill and upwind from the noxious air pollution generated by the rubber and tire plants).

To this day, roughly one-quarter of the City of Akron (primarily in the northwest) is still composed of neighborhoods that meet or exceed the levels of education and wealth found in all but the most affluent suburban communities.

So we’ve had a lot of advantages, and we have managed to weather the abandoned housing storm storm pretty well.

But our time is coming, and the chinks in our armor are appearing. They are easy to spot, especially if you know where to look.

Akron has enjoyed strong, visionary leadership from Mayor Plusquellic for close to 30 years now, and it has paid-off, especially in terms of the city’s economic prospects relative to its Rust Belt peers.  Job retention and economic development have been fairly robust compared to other cities in the region (the retention of the Goodyear corporate headquarters and the Bridgestone/Firestone Technical Center, serving as two recent examples).

The city has also done an admirable job of keeping up with the increasingly vexing problem of vacancy and abandonment, and has been quite proactive when it comes to tearing down abandoned properties.

While all of this is extremely important, I would argue that tearing down abandoned properties is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for creating a strong, healthy, and vibrant community that people want to call home.

So, we’ve done pretty well with job retention and economic development, and we’ve done pretty well at tearing down houses.

But what about keeping people here?  Cities are first-and-foremost a place for people to live - and our population continues to decline.

The 2000s were a wake-up call in that respect.  After losing a fairly modest 6,000 residents in the 1990s, we lost nearly 18,000 residents in the 2000s.

Why?  I think a lot of it has to do with housing supply and demand. There is an over-supply of housing that people do not want, and an under-supply of housing that people do want.

Akron was the fastest growing city in the United States between 1910 and 1920, exploding from a population of 69,000 to 208,000 in that one decade.  This means that a very large proportion of the city’s housing stock, which was built during those boom years, turns 100 years old this decade.

Lots of that old housing is blighted, vacant, or abandoned, and much of it is being torn down right now - and at a much faster rate than new housing is being built.  

So, we will continue to lose population unless we figure out how to do more than simply tear houses down - we need to figure out how to rebuild our neighborhoods from the ground up.  It’s simple math: less occupied housing units + less people per household = less people.

No matter how great of a city this is to live in (and it most certainly is), no matter how much we do right (and we do a lot that is) we will inexorably continue to lose population if we don’t learn how to build lots of marketable new housing.

Yes, a city can succeed if it is smaller.  Yes, things like urban gardening, and open space have their place.  But I would argue that for a city our size, with the types of everyday neighborhood amenities that we have come to enjoy and are currently in the process of losing (grocery stores, neighborhood retail, restaurants, doctor’s offices, churches, synagogues, schools, etc.) it is paramount that we figure out how to grow our population again:

Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape. Detroit is rotting from the inside out. The inside, the old city center, the part closest to the river, is destined to be the urban site of highest value in the future. Although it may never resemble the Detroit of 1960, we have the skills and knowledge to rebuild something of appropriate urban quality there again….

But the USA doesn’t need more architectural fashion statements, moral status posturing, or art stunts. It needs places to live that are worth caring about and compatible with the capital and material resources that we can expect to retain going forward, which are liable to be scarcer than what we’re accustomed to.

I don’t think there’s any question that we have to return to traditional ways of occupying the landscape: walkable cities, towns, and villages, located on waterways and, if we are fortunate, connected by rail lines. These urban places will exist on a much smaller scale than what is familiar to us now, built on a much finer grain. They will have to be connected to farming and food-growing places. A return to human scale will surely lead to a restored regard for artistry in building, since the streetscape will be experienced at walking speed.

-James Howard Kunstler

Our only possible means for growing our population are: 1) increase average household size; 2) rehabilitate/renovate existing housing; and/or 3) build new housing.

Long-term demographic trends tell us that option #1 isn’t going to be happening anywhere in the United States.  As for option #2, however you feel about historic preservation (and that’s a topic for a separate blog post), it is clear that it’s an option that becomes more difficult (and impractical on a large scale) every year, as more structures succumb to the wrecking ball.

That leaves us with option #3.  We need to develop a replicable, scalable model for learning how to rebuild entire neighborhoods (both housing and commercial structures).  I think that Akron has the human capital, and the innovative and collaborative culture to pioneer something that we could transfer to other shrinking cities in the Rust Belt.

But we have to get intentional about it.  It’s not going to happen on its own.  On the ground, here in Akron, I don’t see much awareness of this fact yet.  I think that we still think that things are going to somehow take care of themselves.  We have not yet recognized that the greatest challenge of the 21st Century in this town is going to be to learn how to embark upon an ambitious, comprehensive, coordinated, collaborative effort to rebuild large parts of our city.

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The abandoned corner of Cuyahoga Street and Mustill Street, just up the street from where my Sicilian immigrant great-grandparents lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.

Thinking Big, But Doing Small

But when I say “ambitious”, I’m talking about something that is the polar opposite of urban renewal.  It’s not a top-down, big government, command-and-control, out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new approach.  

I’m talking about something that is human-scaled, context sensitive, and collaborative - something that requires public, philanthropic, non-profit, and private sector leadership, in partnership with everyday people working together, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time, to rebuild and transform their community.  

I’m not sure exactly what that looks like yet.  But I’m starting to get a general idea…

Several weeks ago, I had the distinct privilege to meet Jason Roberts of The Better Block.  The entire premise of Jason’s work is to take one block at a time, start small, and actually do something.  It could be some temporary new bike lanes; it could be some temporary street art, or street furniture; it could be a makeshift coffee shop, or art gallery, or beer garden.  The important thing is to do something new in a neighborhood, let people see it, let people experience it, and, most importantly - let them participate in actually creating it.  People build, borrow, or (as a last resort) buy the materials that they need to transform their block.  The process of working together to build something is even more important than what is physically built, because what is really built are relationships and a sense of community.

At a recent event in Akron, Jason talked about the need (especially in the community-development professions - planning, engineering, economic development, public administration) to learn how to think small, and to implement modest, low-cost improvements that can lead to transformative changes later on.  

Instead of simply talking about intangible future plans that will never be realized due to fiscal considerations or bureaucracy, people work together to accomplish small things that they can actually see and touch; and learn to savor that first taste of success, which leads to building the kind of trust and inspiring the type of hope that it takes to transform an entire city.

It’s a simple, but incredibly powerful and profound concept - get people working together on small, but significant and visible projects in their own community, and watch the trust build, see the relationships develop and grow, and watch the hope begin to infect other people throughout the community.

The Better Block concept isn’t a panacea.  But that’s kind of the point - there is no panacea.  We need to start somewhere.  The work of rebuilding our cities begins one person at a time, one block at a time, one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time.  When a grassroots effort like The Better Block is coupled with visionary and innovative leadership from the public sector, the private sector, non-profits, and the philanthropic community, the results can be truly transformative.

I am looking forward to being a part of it here in Akron - and I’ll be sure to keep you posted as it moves forward.

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A potential Better Block location on Jefferson Avenue in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood.

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A potential Better Block location on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood.

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A potential Better Block location on Aster Avenue in Akron’s Firestone Park neighborhood.

Quick Take: Transportation, Equality, and Freedom

By Jason Segedy

June 20, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Flight Memorial Drive, Copley Township (Montrose)

Something’s going on, a change is taking place
Children smiling in the street have gone without a trace
This street used to be full, it used to make me smile

And nothing I could say
Could ever make them see the light
Now apathy is happy that
It won without a fight

Think for a minute, stop for a minute

The Housemartins, Think for a Minute

I just returned from the 8-80: The Doable Cities Forum in Chicago, hosted by the Knight Foundation, which focused on the need to go back to creating traditional, human-scaled places in our cities that can be navigated easily on foot and by bicycle.

It was a great event, and it was encouraging to see people from all across the country talking about (and more importantly - doing something about) this issue.

It got me thinking about transportation; specifically the automobile, and its relationship to equality and freedom.  What do those terms really mean in a transportation context? 

Our transportation system today is so dominated by the automobile, that we have largely lost the ability to have a detached perspective on the ways in which it has shaped our society.  

Cars are a wonderful convenience for many of us, but they are primarily considered such a great convenience, because we have collectively built a society where we have to travel long distances, and therefore need cars. 

The very rationale for their convenience is a bit of a circular argument, and it’s worth considering that it hasn’t always been that way.

The prevalence of the automobile has blinded most of us to the profound inconvenience that an auto-dominated society has created for those that cannot drive. Our over-reliance upon cars is both a cause and an effect of systemic inequality in our transportation system.  

When automobile usage became widespread, one of the biggest selling points was that cars allowed each individual to have more freedom (at least those that could afford to own one).  

But have cars really delivered on that promise?  Yes, they still provide many of us with a fairly quick and convenient way to get to where we need to go.  But again, they are convenient primarily because we have spread our homes, jobs, and other activities out all over the landscape (because we had cars, and cheap gasoline, and therefore we could) and now most of us are in a position where we have to drive to virtually everything whether we want to or not. 

Before the automobile was invented, most people had a fairly convenient and quick way to get where they needed to go - it was called walking. Cities and towns were built to be navigated easily on foot, and barring long trips to distant locales, most people could get to almost everywhere they needed to go in 20 minutes, just like most of us can today - but without having to own or operate a car.  

In the early 20th century, for example, cities and towns were built in a manner which gave most people the freedom to get virtually wherever they needed to go by using their own two feet.  Bicycles, streetcars, and trains were available for longer trips, where walking was not practical.  The amount of money spent (by the individual and by society) on transportation was a fraction of what it is today.

So, how much freedom do cars really provide us with?  And at what cost?

There is an old cliche that says “freedom isn’t free”.  The same logic can be applied to much of the freedom that cars provide.  Yes, cars provide real, tangible benefits to those of us (myself included) that use them, but these benefits also come with real, tangible (and intangible) costs to individuals and to society as a whole. 

As a culture, we have greatly overemphasized the benefits and drastically downplayed the costs.  

So, what are the costs?  

Well, to begin in strictly monetary terms, there is the privately incurred average annual cost of owning and operating a car, which now stands at nearly $10,000 per year, per vehicle.

Then there is the publicly incurred cost of transportation.  Federal, state, and local governments spend an estimated $310 billion on transportation each year; the vast majority of which goes to build and maintain the roads and bridges which make our auto-dominated transportation system possible.

And these are just the quantifiable and explicit monetary costs that we incur to support this social arrangement.  

The implicit social and environmental costs are less easy to quantify, but are perhaps even more significant: the weakening of our sense-of-place, the loss of community, the lack of social cohesion; inequality and lost economic opportunity for those that don’t drive; the 34,000 Americans that are killed each year in motor vehicle crashes, the additional 2.2 million Americans that are injured; the damage to our air quality, our water quality, and our ecology - to name just a few.

Yes, cars give us freedom, but we end up paying a high price for it.  It is a price that we should question more often - especially those of us that are responsible for planning, financing, and building our transportation system.

A technological advance that appears not to threaten freedom often turns out to threaten it very seriously later on.

For example, consider motorized transport. A walking man formerly could go where he pleased, go at his own pace without observing any traffic regulations, and was independent of technological support-systems.

When motor vehicles were introduced they appeared to increase man’s freedom. They took no freedom away from the walking man, no one had to have an automobile if he didn’t want one, and anyone who did choose to buy an automobile could travel much faster and farther than a walking man.

But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society in such a way as to restrict greatly man’s freedom of locomotion. When automobiles became numerous, it became necessary to regulate their use extensively. In a car, especially in densely populated areas, one cannot just go where one likes at one’s own pace one’s movement is governed by the flow of traffic and by various traffic laws. One is tied down by various obligations: license requirements, driver test, renewing registration, insurance, maintenance required for safety, monthly payments on purchase price.

Moreover, the use of motorized transport is no longer optional. Since the introduction of motorized transport the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation. Or else they must use public transportation, in which case they have even less control over their own movement than when driving a car.

Even the walker’s freedom is now greatly restricted. In the city he continually has to stop to wait for traffic lights that are designed mainly to serve auto traffic. In the country, motor traffic makes it dangerous and unpleasant to walk along the highway.

(Note this important point that we have just illustrated with the case of motorized transport: When a new item of technology is introduced as an option that an individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it.)

-Industrial Society and Its Future

It is difficult to argue with the logic that technology (in this case, the automobile) has had many unintended consequences, and that a machine that promised us freedom, has simultaneously limited the freedom of both those who use it, and those who do not.

Yes, the car has helped us cover long distances more effectively.  But it has also made us travel long distances for things that we didn’t always have to - a loaf of bread, a haircut, a postage stamp, or a box of nails.  

The point of this post is not to demonize people that drive. It is to challenge each one of us to think about our federal, state, and local transportation policy framework; our default cultural orientation; and the law of unintended consequences.

Cars are important, and they will remain a vital mode of transportation for the foreseeable future.  But we would do well to question our over-dependence on them, especially at a time when driverless cars are getting far more media attention than the more sensible idea of a return to human-scaled urban design that will help us relate more harmoniously with our built and natural environments, with one another, and that would give us more transportation choices.  

It’s all about balance.  I drove to work today, but I walked to lunch, and I am going to ride my bike to an event tonight.  We should resist the false choices offered to us by the ideologues who tell us that our only two options are either abolishing cars altogether, or a continued spending spree on highway construction and urban sprawl.    

We should think long and hard about the reality of the fact that we’ve reordered our entire society; our built environment; even our very way of life, to serve this machine that we were told would serve us.  

Our generation’s challenge is to create a balanced transportation system that works for all of our citizens - rich and poor; young and old; urban, suburban, and rural.  It is not about getting rid of the automobile, it is about returning to a situation in which it is our servant, and not our master.

The following photos offer some examples of how we’ve lost that sense of balance.

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Northside District, Akron

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State Route 18, Bath Township (Montrose)

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Brookwall Drive, Copley Township (Montrose)

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

By Jason Segedy

May 22, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Cascade Plaza, Akron (completed 1968) - A place with the all of the human warmth of a Soviet gulag, and a living humility lesson for urban planners

Hilary went to her death
Because she couldn’t think of anything to say
Everybody thought that she was boring, so they never listened anyway.

-Belle & Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns writes a great post today about the planning profession, its future, and some of its present challenges.

Excerpt:

We need the planning profession to not only be relevant but we need planners to be leaders in our communities. The current planning paradigm is stuck in 1950’s thinking. It is old, stodgy and defensive. It not only clings to dogmatic beliefs about zoning, projections and centralized planning but fails in the most important duty of any credentialed profession: to systematically challenge itself to improve.

APA comes across as less concerned about great planners and great places than in ensuring continued employment for their dues-paying members (and collecting said dues). 

His critique is spot-on.  The urban planning profession does a lot of good work, but Chuck is absolutely correct when he says that we are stuck in 1950s thinking; and are, far too often, defensive, dogmatic, unapproachable, inflexible, and needlessly abstruse*.

*See: I could have simply said “difficult to understand”

As a profession, we are generally followers, rather than leaders; risk-averse; and poor communicators.  

Indeed, our three greatest weaknesses as a profession are in the realm of: 1) public policy leadership; 2) risk-taking; and 3) authentic, substantive, two-way communication.

Leadership

Take public policy leadership, for example.  Even now, after spending the past 19 years as an urban planner, I am still continually struck by how rare it is to hear or see a planning official actually offer a substantive subjective opinion on anything.

Planners make plenty of definitive statements when it comes to objective matters (e.g. “the code does not allow for that use”; “the design manual clearly states that these lanes must be 12 feet wide”; “the benefit/cost ratio of the project is sufficient to justify public investment”).  

But you hear nary a peep from most planners on matters that they consider to be the least bit subjective.  

Subjectivity is not a dirty word.  It is an inescapable reality of decision-making.  

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us that objective criteria are not subjectively chosen.

The code doesn’t allow for that use, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that that use was a bad idea at that location.  

The design manual states that those lanes must be 12 feet wide, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that wide lanes are better than narrow lanes on that type of road.

All of these supposedly objective criteria reflect someone’s subjective value judgments about what is important. This doesn’t by any means invalidate them, but it should remind us that measures like the “cost-effectiveness” of a project are predicated upon subjective value judgments of what “effectiveness” means.

None of the supposedly “objective” tools that planners use came down from Mount Sinai carved into stone tablets.  They are all rooted in someone’s subjective opinions.

This should be self-evident, but, far-too-often, it is not.

I would argue that it is your job as an urban planner to have clear opinions on urban planning and development issues.  This doesn’t mean that your opinions are the most important ones, or that they are always right, or that they should be written in blood, or carved into those selfsame stone tablets, or that you can never change your mind; but the very essence of public policy leadership is the ability to say “I think that ‘this’ is better (or worse) than ‘that’, and here’s why”.

Then, let the debate begin…

We do elected officials and the general public a grave disservice when we shirk this particular responsibility.

I hear many planners dismiss the entire notion of public policy leadership with statements like “Well, yes, but we only play an advisory role, anyway…And it is the job of others to decide.”

Well, of course.  So what’s your point?

First of all, if you are an adviser, then for the love of God, you should be advising people.  

Secondly, since when was it only the people with the formal, official power to change things, that were the ones who actually changed them?

In reality, hasn’t it often been the precise opposite?  

Those with the formal power to lead, and to change things, have often been the very people that most vigorously enforced the status quo, and kept things from changing.

Think about it: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Abolitionist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement…

Most of the people in this world that have changed it for the better were precisely those that did not have the formal power to change it.  In fact, many of them did things to that were considered inappropriate, illegal, or heretical, and they were often ostracized, abused, jailed, or killed for their trouble.

It is safe to say that few urban planners are going to end up jailed or martyred for their beliefs.  So what is stopping us from becoming thought leaders?

Risk-Taking

It is often fear that is stopping us.  Most urban planners are risk-averse. 

In a battle, or in mountain climbing, there is often one thing which it takes a lot of pluck to do; but it is also, in the long run, the safest thing to do. If you funk it, you will find yourself, hours later, in far worse danger. The cowardly thing is also the most dangerous thing.

-C.S. Lewis

I am fond of saying that the best humility lesson for today’s urban planners is a five-minute meditation upon the fact that our primary job is fixing the mistakes that urban planners made 40 years ago.  It will be all too easy for us to fall into the exact same trap.

At first blush, this would appear to imply that our risk-averse, conservative professional tendencies are justified.  But I would argue that it should lead us to the exact opposite conclusion.

Trends are an inescapable fact of life.  They are not going anywhere anytime soon.  Some trends leave lasting positive impacts, and are healthy reactions to things that truly need to change; some trends leave no impact whatsoever, and are harmless fads; while other trends leave lasting negative impacts, and in retrospect prove to be huge mistakes.

The history of urban planning is full of examples of all three types of trends.  The simple lesson for planners is that we can’t escape from any of these trends simply by staying risk averse.  

It is our job to try to sift through them, figure out which is which, and to do our best to embrace and promote the first type of (positive) trend; to not concern ourselves too much one-way-or-the-other with the second type of (neutral) trend; and to actively resist and fight against the third type of (negative) trend.

This means that we need to be smart, savvy, and vigilant; to provide leadership; to exercise good judgment, and to demonstrate humility at the same time.

We need courage, integrity, and honesty; recognizing that it is not primarily our job to try to look good, or to tell people what they want to hear so they will like us, or to seem smart, clever, or important; but, instead, to tell the truth - to elected officials, to the general public, and to ourselves.

In fact, it is precisely our fear, and our unwillingness to take risks, that ensures that our profession will continue to be marginalized, and considered unimportant by most people.

The job is about helping people, and about making their lives better.  If you are an urban planner, and this is not primarily what you are concerned with, you should clear out your desk immediately and go do something else, because that’s the job. That’s what it’s all about.  The rest is just a bunch of paperwork and technical details.

Which leads me to my last point…

Communication

It’s about people.  

Urban planners, as a general rule, are poor communicators.  This is unfortunate, because (like most jobs) communication is the single most important skill that you can possess.  It is not a substitute for other skills, but it is indispensable if you want to be effective at what you do.

This is especially true in a profession that involves ideas and concepts.  The success of your ideas or concepts is heavily dependent upon your ability to effectively communicate them.

One of the saddest ironies of the urban planning profession is that although it is fundamentally about people and places (two things that most people have a profound personal interest in) we end up managing to boil nearly all of the life out of it, and transform it into one of the most boring and obscure endeavors that there is.

But men love abstract reasoning and neat systematization so much that they think nothing of distorting the truth, closing their eyes and ears to contrary evidence to preserve their logical constructions.

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The reasons for why this is the case could fill another entire blog post, but suffice it to say that much of it has occurred through a mixture of professional arrogance, an affinity for abstraction, sheer ignorance, and a lack of simple human empathy for our constituents.  

Too often, we end up blaming the victim, and when our ideas, or concepts, or intentions are misunderstood; we are far too quick to criticize elected officials or members of the general public (intentionally or not) as being ill-informed, unenlightened, or disengaged.

Here’s a hint: when virtually no one seems to be able to understand what you are saying, perhaps it is time to look in the mirror and consider the fact that you may need to change your approach.

When no one seems to be able to get excited about what you are doing, or promoting, or planning, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the way that you are doing things.

When people are complaining on a regular basis that you are not listening to them, that they do not have a voice, and that you are just going through the motions, perhaps it is time to consider that they may be right.

Urban planning, done well, is one of the most engaging, exciting, and invigorating of all human pursuits.  It is the stuff of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Library of Alexandria, Central Park, the Eiffel Tower, Greenwich Village, and Rockefeller Center.  

At its highest and best, it is about the diverse and wondrous array of people that comprise our society; and about the incredible places and spaces in which they live, work, and play.  At bottom, these are things that every person is interested in, because everyone interacts with other people, and everyone exists within time and space.

Urban planning doesn’t have to be all about lifeless charts, and graphs, and maps, and budgets, and zoning codes, and design manuals, and forecasts, and plans, and other similar abstractions. These are simply tools.  They are means to an end.  Far too often, we portray them as ends in themselves.  And when we do, we only have ourselves to blame.

Chuck Marohn is right:  the most important duty of any credentialed profession is not to ensure continued employment for its due-paying members; it is to systematically challenge itself to improve.

Implementing a Vision For Public Transit In Northeast Ohio

By Jason Segedy

May 13, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Marc Lefkowitz of GreenCityBlueLake was kind enough to ask me to share my views on the future of public transit in Northeast Ohio with him.

Because I think it such an important topic, I’d like to share some of the same thoughts here at Notes from the Underground.

Q: Do we need a big, transformative vision for transit in Northeast Ohio, or do we manage the best we can within our current realities and chip away at needs as they arise?

I think we need a little bit of both:

I think we do need a big-picture vision for transit, both at the metro-by-metro (Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Youngstown) level, but also at the regional (12 county level). 

The key elements of the big-picture vision should involve the following: a) how can we improve cross-county express service between our core cities and our job centers - this should include express bus in the short term and commuter rail in the longer term; b) how can we improve cross-county local service for shorter trips (e.g. going from Bedford to Macedonia); c) how can we make transferring/transitioning from one RTA to the other as seamless, easy, and convenient as possible; and d) how can we improve the sharing of services (and service) between RTAs so that their county sales tax based sources of revenue are not such an impediment to providing service across county lines.

I think we also need a finely-grained, locally-oriented, service-oriented approach to transit fundamentals that is geared toward improving service, attracting “choice” ridership, and improving public transit’s image in the region. 

I would argue that most of these things are not very expensive monetarily, but they do involve a lot of time, energy, creativity, and hard work. 

The kind of things that I have in mind would involve the RTAs focusing even more on things like improving rider safety (mostly perception of safety); ease-of-use (using smart phone technology to give real-time travel information and for electronic fare payment); improving transit waiting environments; improving walkability and bikability to transit stops; and working more closely with local governments and private developers to improve signage, wayfinding, and to institute transit-friendly urban design. 

In Greater Akron, 90% of transit passengers earn less than $20,000 per year, and our level of “choice” (non-transit dependent) riders is extremely low.  A focus on these fundamentals wouldn’t necessarily lead to a sea-change in choice ridership, but it would certainly help a lot, and it would have the equally important benefit of improving service for existing passengers.

Q: What does a bold vision for transit in Northeast Ohio look like? 

I covered the “bold vision” a little bit in the first part of my answer to question #1, but I’ll elaborate a little bit more on two issues I didn’t directly address.

I think a bold vision entails two things:

First, the recognition, realization, and internalization of the fact that the county lines don’t matter to potential transit passengers.  Therefore, each RTA should be operated and administered with this fact in mind, and conduct its business accordingly. 

There are lots of trips between Bedford and Macedonia and between Twinsburg and Solon, for example.  Who is serving these?  Conversely, express connections between core cities and job centers are not very good.  There are good reasons for this (fiscal, administrative, etc.) but we have to do better. 

I think that the state needs to get involved in funding inter-city transit service (Canton-Akron; Akron-Cleveland, etc.) and that a transit counterpart to the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) should be created that would provide general revenue funding for this. 

Second, the vision entails the recognition that land use, economic development, and transportation policy at the state, regional, and local level is generally geared toward undermining the efficacy of transit in nearly every way. 

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if we were just talking about free-market competition between one mode of travel versus another, but it is a lot more than that.  Our current way of doing business in Northeast Ohio has negative ramifications on the natural environment and the built environment; it wastes energy, wastes money, leads to greater inequality, leads to more disinvestment and abandonment in our core cities, and it costs taxpayers far too much. 

I blog about this issue in much greater detail herebut suffice it to say that if we continue with the land use, economic development, transportation status quo, we will never ever have a viable public transportation system.  Period.  

From a public policy standpoint, we have to quit encouraging people and businesses to spread out from our core cities and inner suburbs.  It’s impossible to have a cost-effective, robust, competitive, and useful public transportation system serve a region that is built at a semi-rural population density, and that is essentially what we have in Northeast Ohio - a semi-rural region, from a built-environment standpoint. 

Brooklyn, New York, for example, is roughly the same land area as the City of Akron, and it has 11 times more people.  And we’re talking two “central cities” here.  I’m not advocating that we build at New York style population densities, but we must recognize that when we get below the population density of an Akron, or Cleveland, or Cleveland Heights, or Cuyahoga Falls, it becomes virtually impossible to make transit work, especially when you don’t have significant traffic congestion or parking costs - and we don’t.

So we need to learn to reinvest in our core cities and inner suburbs - by building new higher-density housing, and encouraging business development and job creation in these places. 

Ohio’s statewide transportation policy and investment decisions are a huge impediment to public transit, in this respect.  I think we are fooling ourselves if we think that we can do things like spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to widen I-271, widen I-77, and build the Opportunity Corridor, and simultaneously make transit more attractive and viable.  It can’t be done.  State transportation decisions seriously undermine efforts to reinvest in transit and in transit-friendly places.  We have to stop doing it.

Q: If Northeast Ohio had a new, large infusion of capital funds, what investment(s) in transit would you like to see?

I’d like to see most of these funds go to the “transit fundamentals” that I identified above.  I think doing 1000 small things really well, is so much more important than doing one or two large, high-visibility projects. 

As much as I am a supporter of (eventually) establishing a passenger rail system, I think it would be foolish to build a commuter rail system without getting the transit fundamentals right (not just the transit “service” fundamentals, but - even more importantly - the land use, economic development, and statewide transportation investment fundamentals). 

From the neighborhood, to the local government, to the region, to the state, leaders (elected and otherwise) need to understand the holistic nature of how highway expansion and also non-transportation related decisions can negatively impact the viability of public transit. 

The challenge for sustainability advocates is to advance and articulate a vision for land use and economic development in the region that everyday people can understand and support, which will create the conditions where big capital transit projects can actually succeed and thrive. 

If we try to avoid this political reality simply for the symbolic sake of saying that we built a large capital transit project (like commuter rail) without doing the due diligence to set it up for success, we will set transit back even further, when it fails to attract sufficient ridership, and the taxpaying public justifiably responds with “I told you sos”.

Life Before Death: David Foster Wallace, In His Own Words

By Jason Segedy

April 17, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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The following is an excerpt culled from David Foster Wallace’s brilliant This Is Water commencement address, in which he discusses the challenge (and necessity) of learning to overcome our default setting:  that of being deeply and literally self-centered, and interpreting everything through the lens of self.  

He argues that it is only through learning how to do this (how to exercise conscious power over how and what we think) that we can experience true freedom; life before death:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master”. 

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. 

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about…

 …If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

A Tale of 273 Cities

By Jason Segedy

April 14, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. 

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Since 1790, 273 cities have made an appearance on the list of the nation’s 100 largest places.

Cities of all shapes and sizes have made the list at one time or another - ranging from New York, which has held the top spot in every single census from the very beginning; to little Chillicothe, Ohio, which appeared once in 1830, at #87, and never made the list again.

Examining this list decade-by-decade is instructive, for it largely tracks the entire history of the nation’s settlement patterns - from the initial cultural hearths of Yankee New England and Tidewater Virginia; through the river and canal era; the railroad era; the industrial era; the interstate highway and suburban era; to the decline of the Rust Belt, and the triumph (for the time being) of the Sunbelt - and beyond.

The list tells the story of the relative decline of many cities - places like Providence (1790-1980); Dayton (1830-1990); and Des Moines (1880-2000), which were ranked in the top 100 for decades, have shrunk to one degree or another, and eventually fell off the list, but remain significant-sized urban centers today.

It also tells the story of the absolute decline of many cities - places like St. Louis, Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland - formerly huge cities that all once ranked in the top 10, which have now lost over half of their population.  All five of these cities remain in the top 100, but they are all suffering from the seemingly intractable problems that come with massive abandonment and disinvestment - fiscal instability, poverty, inequality, and a frayed civic and social fabric.  Here in 2014, their collective future, especially in their current form, is increasingly uncertain.

And that - looking toward the future - is why this topic is truly important. Examining this information is about far more than a trivial jaunt down memory lane.  What does it tell us about the future of our cities?

For one, there is this question: Does any of this even matter?

Is the size of our central cities even important? Aren’t city boundaries arbitrary and meaningless?  Isn’t it the surrounding metropolitan region that really counts?

Well, it’s a complicated story.  For years, pundits, prognosticators, and policy wonks have been telling us that the age of the central city is over; that it is the region that is important.  Economies are based on regional job markets, they say, and improvements in transportation and communications are making local places (even large ones) increasingly irrelevant.

The fact that economies are regional is true - as far as it goes.  But like anything viewed through one lens only, it does not tell the whole story.

Are regions important? Of course. But so are places.  Like so many other things in the realm of urban public policy, this is not a binary, either/or, choice.

Indeed, at the same time that we are being told by one set of pundits about the irrelevance of our cities, we have another set of pundits telling us that this is, in fact, a new golden age for our cities.

Cities entered a long cyclical downturn following World War II, they tell us, but they are now on the rebound, and are experiencing an unparalleled renaissance. Property values are increasing, Millennials are moving to our downtowns, and previously declining neighborhoods are coming back to life, replete with upscale shops, bistros, and pubs. 

But this doesn’t tell the whole story, either. For every gentrifying formerly shrinking city like New York, Washington, and San Francisco, and for every sprawling boom town like San Jose, Charlotte, or Columbus; there is a St. Louis, a Cleveland, and a Detroit; and there is a Gary, a Flint, and a Youngstown.

What does the future hold for these cities?  What about the giant places full of the mind-boggling, post-apocalyptic decay and dysfunction that comes with literally losing one million residents, like Detroit?  

And what about the mid-sized places, like Flint, that may not have the assets or the resources to ever turn the corner.  Will they continue to die a slow, agonizing death, and literally disappear?  Or will they continue on in a shadow-form, serving as a cautionary tale, and inhabiting some type of uniquely American, urban equivalent of purgatory?  

Or can they be restored - if not, perhaps, to their former glory, to at least something that is stable, equitable, and workable for those that remain?

This post is full of more questions than answers.  It is an inherently complicated topic.

Big Questions for the Rust Belt

While it is true that cities have grown and declined (and sometimes grown again) throughout American history, it is also true that we have never before experienced the unprecedented population decline that some of our largest cities have experienced over the past 60 years, especially those in the Rust Belt.

Rust Belt cities have experienced the triple whammy of structural economic decline (the outsourcing of manufacturing); continued regional outmigration (to the Sunbelt); and continued suburbanization (in a region with a strong tradition of local government and a deep antipathy toward consolidation).  All three of these things make the shrinkage of its cities unique, from a historic standpoint.

When a large city loses over half of its population, whether that equates to one million people (Detroit); 500,000 people (Cleveland); or 100,000 people (Youngstown), there are very real consequences for the very real residents that remain.  Even if these particular cities were experiencing widespread regional prosperity and economic growth (they are not), it would not fundamentally change the social and economic reality for city residents living with the consequences of widespread abandonment in these places.

Regardless of what some advocates of regionalism might say, city boundaries are not arbitrary and meaningless.  Although some may claim that shrinking cities are no big deal as long as the metropolitan region overall is growing, central cities will continue to profoundly matter, especially to the people (often disproportionately poor) that remain.

Municipal boundaries are not irrelevant, whatever the regionalists may tell you.  Economies may be regional, but in most of the nation’s fastest declining cities, government is not.  Municipal boundaries affect taxation, land use policy, public safety, education, public infrastructure, and the delivery of social services. 

When a city’s population declines precipitously, the proportional demand for the public services that it provides shrinks less than its population, with the end result that its residents end up paying more in taxes, for less in services.  Even if this were not the case, it is expensive and (politically speaking) exceedingly difficult to scale-back and shrink long-term capital investments in public infrastructure – as “shrinking cities” like Detroit and Youngstown have discovered.  

What goes on within a given city’s actual municipal boundaries has incredibly important ramifications for its tax base; its employment base; the performance of its schools; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and restaurants; the delivery of public services; and less tangible, but equally important things like its sense of place and its sense of itself.  As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population:  the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale.  To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality itself.

But it is not just city residents that are affected by decline.  The health of the entire region suffers as a result.  The shrinking tax and resource base of City “A”, is not simply counteracted by economic growth in nearby cities “B” and “C”.  In a region anchored by a declining central city surrounded by dozens of separate municipalities, the redundant duplication and proliferation of local government services (education, public safety, public utilities, transportation infrastructure, social services) ends up costing all taxpayers more. 

The worst-case scenario is a shrinking central city and a shrinking region with an overall population decline, coupled with continued central city abandonment and continued outward expansion.  In a region like this, there is not only more costly “stuff” (redundant public services and physical infrastructure) than there needs to be, but there is more “stuff” with ever fewer taxpayers to pay for it.

And while the conventional wisdom may be that regional, not local, economies are what matter, it is important to understand that regions comprised of dozens of separate local jurisdictions do not typically behave very effectively as “regions”.  It is not impossible for them to do so, but it is exceedingly difficult. 

So why don’t we just go ahead and combine everything?  Problem solved, right?

Not so fast. 

It has always been interesting to me that the Sunbelt is the region of the country that tends to have the fewest number of local governments, the most liberal annexation laws, and is home to most of the cities that have undergone major city/county consolidations (such as Jacksonville, Nashville, Augusta, Lexington, and Louisville). 

This wasn’t always the case.  Philadelphia consolidated with its neighboring suburbs (some of the largest cities in the country at the time) in 1854, and New York City did the same thing (merging with Brooklyn – then the nation’s 4th largest city, and the other three boroughs) in 1898.

From a public policy standpoint, most of the South and the West is typically regarded as “conservative”; while much of the Northeast and Midwest is viewed as “liberal”.  In this stereotypical telling of the tale, conservatives are supposed to be laissez-faire in terms of urban planning and public policy and are supposed to reflexively favor the local over the regional.

Yet it is precisely in the “conservative” South and West where the people have been most willing to change the model of government and public service delivery to align with modern social and economic realities.  Effective government and accountability is still viewed as extremely important, but voters have recognized the benefits of having less duplication and more efficient delivery of services, as well as the regional cohesion and political power that annexation and consolidation can bring with them.

Urban development patterns and public policy decisions on infrastructure are often different in the Sunbelt as well – especially in the West.  New development tends to be denser and more compact than it does in the Rust Belt.  Not many people know that “car crazy” Los Angeles is actually the most densely populated urban area in the United States, or that “sprawling” Las Vegas ranks 10th.  The Los Angeles “suburb” of Santa Ana is twice as densely populated as the “city”of Cleveland.

Some of this has to do with the fact that scarce water supplies don’t allow for scattershot suburban development, and some of it has to do with an increasingly urban ethos that has evolved, especially in California, over the past 50 years.  Cities and urban residents are not viewed with the same degree of mistrust, suspicion, and disdain that they are viewed with in the Rust Belt.

So, the Sunbelt is usually posited as an economic success story, especially in comparison with the Rust Belt.

But the questions remain:  Was it due to less duplication of local government?  Was it in spite of it?  Or did it have nothing to do with it one way or the other?

No one really knows for sure.

There is little doubt in my mind that some of the reason for the growth and economic prosperity of Sunbelt cities, and for the corresponding decline of Rust Belt cities, is the failure of most Rust Belt cities to adjust their local government paradigms to reflect modern economic realities. 

One only need contrast Cleveland with Columbus, or Detroit with Indianapolis to at least get a general sense of the divergent paths that several pairs of Rust Belt cities have taken, and to make some general comparisons between their regional economic outcomes.

But, these comparisons are not “apples to apples”, either, and it is extremely problematic to claim that the key to Columbus’ economic success (in comparison with, say, Cleveland) has solely been due to its aggressive annexation of nearby communities.

But, with Columbus sitting as the 15th largest city in the U.S. today, and continuing to attract new residents, and with Cleveland dropping from 5th to 45th, and continuing to lose population, it is probably fair to say that it had something to do with it.

If Rust Belt cities had annexed or consolidated with surrounding communities earlier, they would be larger and more cohesive today, and it is probably fair to say that they would have more political clout at the state and national level.  They also could have been better positioned to shape how their surrounding regions grew – into something denser, more compact, more cohesive, and less duplicative of public services and infrastructure.

Could have, would have, should have. That horse has largely left the barn.

Today, it is a fair question to wonder how effective (never mind politically feasible) it would actually be to retroactively superimpose the Sunbelt model upon Rust Belt cities.  Making Buffalo look and function like Charlotte, on paper, would be very different from making it look or function like Charlotte, in reality. 

In most Rust Belt cities today, the fact of the matter is that the incoherent and incohesive development patterns have already occurred, the infrastructure has already been duplicated, and the social and economic mismatches and inequities already exist. 

These problems need to be addressed, but clumsily imposing a model that has appeared to work throughout much of the Sunbelt, without taking the time to understand how it would work here, might not be the answer for our region.  It might just be trying to force a very ineffective square peg into a very politically infeasible round hole.

So, what will the future hold for our cities?  How can we knit them and their surrounding regions together to create an effective, politically feasible, governing framework that works for all of our residents, rich and poor, black and white, urban and suburban? 

I don’t know, but I know that it has to do with starting small, working on fundamentals, building trust, inspiring hope, and building authentic relationships between real people. 

It is the urban policy question of the 21st Century in the Rust Belt, and it is something that urban advocates, political leaders, policy wonks, and everyday citizens will need to grapple with for the rest of my lifetime.

Now, for the Maps…

The maps below tell the story of how the 100 largest U.S. cities have changed decade-by-decade since the first census in 1790. Please note that only cities over 2,500 are included, so several of the maps from the earliest census years show less than 100 cities.  The 10 largest cities in each census year are labeled.  

Due to the scale of these maps, Alaska and Hawaii are not shown (Honolulu and Anchorage both rank in the top 100 today).

Below each map you will find a short description of some of the historic, demographic, economic, and transportation trends that were in play at the time of each census. I have also included a breakdown of how many cities in each region of the country ranked in the top 100.

For more detailed information on the 100 largest cities, census-by-census, please click here

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1790 - Northeast (18); Midwest (0); South (6); West (0)

In the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution, all of the the largest cities are concentrated along the eastern seaboard.  At the time of the first census, New York City ranked as the nation’s largest - a title that it will go on to hold for the next 220 years; and likely - in perpetuity.  Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston, and Baltimore round out the top five.

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1800 - Northeast (24); Midwest (0); South (9); West (0)

As the 19th Century dawns, the largest cities continue to be clustered along the eastern seaboard as the brand-new nation begins to expand slowly inland. The nation’s new capital, Washington, D.C., joins the list, ranking 31st.  

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1810 - Northeast (34); Midwest (1); South (11); West (0)

This census marks the beginning of the era of ascendance for the great inland river cities, such as New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.  These cities will serve as key centers of trade and commerce as the interior frontier of the new nation begins to be settled.

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1820 - Northeast (43); Midwest (1); South (17); West (0)

The inland river cities, like Louisville, continue to grow and expand.  The importance of waterways increases further as the canal era dawns, literally putting places like Utica on the map.

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1830 - Northeast (59); Midwest (6); South (25); West (0)

Places throughout the industrial northeast, especially in New England, now firmly dominate the list of the nation’s largest cities. The canals throughout New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio begin to spur new settlement and industry in places like Buffalo, Rochester, and other smaller cities immediately west and east of the Appalachians. The river cities continue to grow rapidly, as Cincinnati enters the top 10, and St. Louis joins the list.

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1840 - Northeast (67); Midwest (10); South (23); West (0)

The Great Lakes region begins to develop, thanks to the canals, as Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago join the list. This region will begin to serve as a staging area for the people and goods needed to develop the areas west of the Mississippi.  The Northeast, bolstered by new immigrants from Ireland, remains the urban heart of the nation. 

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1850 - Northeast (64); Midwest (12); South (24); West (0)

The canal system reaches its mature peak, as strategic locations on the Great Lakes and inland rivers and canals, such as Milwaukee, Memphis, and Syracuse flourish. St. Louis enters the top 10.  The relative importance of the eastern seaboard begins to diminish, especially in the South, as the Ohio and Mississippi rivers begin to rival it in importance. Charleston drops out of the top 10 for the first time since 1790.

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1860 - Northeast (60); Midwest (17); South (21); West (2)

As the Civil War dawns, railroads begin to surpass the canals in importance, as new cities like San Francisco, St. Paul, and Atlanta join the list.  The nation’s largest cities will become increasingly dependent upon the railroads for the next 100 years.  For the first time, Midwestern cities begin to rival eastern seaboard cities in importance, as Chicago enters the top 10, joining Cincinnati and St. Louis.  But the Northeast remains the nation’s urban powerhouse, as Philadelphia consolidates with its neighboring suburban towns to become the nation’s second largest city and New York’s closest, but still distant, rival. 

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1870 - Northeast (54); Midwest (26); South (18); West (2)

New Midwestern cities like Kansas City, St. Joseph, and Omaha flourish as important gateway railroad terminals from which the Great Plains and the remainder of the West will eventually be settled. The South begins a long period of urban and economic decline following its defeat in the Civil War. The cities of the West Coast begin a period of rapid settlement, as San Francisco enters the top 10.

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1880 - Northeast (48); Midwest (27); South (20); West (5)

Westward settlement spreads rapidly via railroad across the Great Plains, the West, and Texas, as new cities like Minneapolis, Des Moines, Denver, Salt Lake City, and San Antonio join the list.

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1890 - Northeast (45); Midwest (29); South (18); West (8)

The nation’s manufacturing heartland and industrial base begins to shift from New England to the Great Lakes, as Youngstown join the list, Cleveland enters the top 10, and Chicago surpasses Philadelphia as the nation’s second largest city. The West Coast begins to grow rapidly, as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland all join the list, along with Dallas; setting the stage for the eventual domination of the nation’s urban landscape by California and Texas.

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1900 - Northeast (46); Midwest (26); South (21); West (7)

As the 20th Century dawns, after nearly four decades of economic decline, the South turns the corner and begins its economic recovery as new industrial cities like Birmingham and Houston join the list.  Mid-sized cities in the Great Lakes region, like Akron, begin to grow rapidly, as a new wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe settles throughout this rapidly industrializing part of the country. With railroads now linking the nation from coast-to-coast in several different corridors, the American settlement frontier officially disappears. New York City consolidates with nearby towns and with cross-river rival, Brooklyn, the nation’s 4th largest city, to reach a population of 3.5 million, and achieves unparalleled domination of the nation’s urban hierarchy.

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1910 - Northeast (45); Midwest (27); South (19); West (9)

The Great Lakes region continues to thrive as its cities grow larger and more prosperous, and Pittsburgh enters the top 10. Cincinnati drops out of the top 10, but remains a vibrant and expanding urban center. Southern cities, like Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, and Jacksonville join the list, giving Florida a top 100 city for the first time.

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1920 - Northeast (40); Midwest (29); South (21); West (10)

Smaller industrial cities in the Great Lakes region, like Canton and Flint, thrive as the steel and automotive industries explode, and Detroit, “The Motor City”, enters the top 10. Charleston drops out of the top 100 for the first time since 1790. Southern California, poised to eventually become the nation’s prototypical urban region, begins its period of automobile-age ascendance as San Diego joins the list, and Los Angeles enters the top 10. 

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1930 - Northeast (36); Midwest (29); South (23); West (12)

Industrialization in the Great Lakes region reaches its apex in overnight boom towns like Gary, as the region becomes the manufacturing center not only of North America, but of the entire world. The Sunbelt’s period of growth begins in earnest, as cities in California and Florida, like Long Beach, Miami, and Tampa expand rapidly.  In contrast, a period of long, steady decline ensues in smaller industrial cities throughout the Northeast, in general, and New England, in particular.

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1940 - Northeast (33); Midwest (28); South (27); West (12)

The preceding decade is a difficult one for the nation’s cities.  Very few cities grow in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression. Northern industrial cities are hit particularly hard, but some southern cities, like Charlotte, begin to flourish.

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1950 - Northeast (28); Midwest (27); South (31): West (14)

For the first time, the South surpasses the Northeast as the region with the most cities in the top 100, as Austin and Baton Rouge join the list. Pittsburgh drops out of the top 10, as industrial decline in the Northeast accelerates after a brief uptick during the war. Washington, D.C. enters the top 10, due in large part to the expansion of the federal government during the Great Depression and World War II.  Phoenix joins the list at #99, presaging the rapid development of the desert Southwest in the coming decades; a small desert crossroads at the beginning of the 20th Century, it will end the century as the nation’s sixth largest city.

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1960 - Northeast (19); Midwest (28); South (35); West (18)

Both suburbanization and deindustrialization become major factors in central city decline, especially in the North, where major cities are hemmed in by adjacent cities and towns, and are therefore unable to expand via annexation. The long tradition of town, borough, and township government throughout the entire North stymies efforts to consolidate governments into units that better reflect modern realities. Boston drops out of the top 10 for the first time since 1790. The expansion of the Interstate Highway System takes its toll, especially on mature Northern cities, by opening up outlying areas for suburban development, and by displacing business and residents in the urban core.  Most cities throughout the Midwest have now reached both the peak of their population and their industrial development.  In the coming years, they will increasingly follow the pattern established in the Northeast 30 years earlier, as the region begins to transition from the “Great American Manufacturing Belt” to the “Rust Belt”.  In contrast, the Sunbelt continues to enjoy explosive growth, as Houston enters the top 10, and San Jose, Tucson, Albuquerque, and Honolulu join the list. 

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1970 - Northeast (16); Midwest (28); South (35); West (21)

Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Riverside join the list, as Southern California continues to attract new immigrants, both foreign and domestic, in record numbers.  The largest Southern and Western cities continue to grow even larger, as Dallas joins the top 10. The industrial Midwest begins to experience a period of rapid decline, as St. Louis drops out of the top 10. 

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1980 - Northeast (12); Midwest (24); South (38); West (26)

Colorado Springs and Las Vegas join the list, as the interior West continues to grow rapidly.  The growth of the West extends to Alaska, as Anchorage makes the list for the first time.  Even the suburbs of sunbelt cities, like Arlington, Texas, and Aurora, Colorado begin to surpass established Northeastern and Midwestern central cities in population. San Diego and Phoenix join the top 10. Midwestern cities continue to deindustrialize rapidly, and begin losing population at a truly alarming rate. Suburbanization, white flight, and the inability to annex or consolidate with outlying areas make the problem of industrial decline even worse, as Cleveland drops out of the top 10. 

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1990 - Northeast (9); Midwest (21); South (40); West (30)

Cities throughout the Sunbelt continue to grow in size, prominence, and influence, as Los Angeles surpasses Chicago as the nation’s second largest city.  Three of the nation’s 10 largest cities are now located in Texas, as San Antonio joins the top 10.  Sunbelt “boomburbs” continue to explode as cities like Mesa, Arizona; Garland, Texas; and Fremont, California join the list, displacing older eastern cities like Syracuse, Worcester, and Providence, which drops out the top 100 for the first time since 1790.

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2000 - Northeast (9); Midwest (20); South (40); West (31)

The previously established patterns of Rust Belt decline and Sunbelt expansion begin to stabilize, although many Rust Belt cities continue to lose population at an alarming rate.  Dayton drops out of the top 100 for the first time since 1830. Sunbelt boomburbs continue to grow rapidly, as Plano, Texas; Glendale, Arizona; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Irving, Texas all reach the top 100.  

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2010 - Northeast (8); Midwest (17); South (39); West (36)

The Sunbelt achieves complete dominance of America’s urban landscape, as 6 of the nation’s 10 largest cities are now located in California and Texas. Rust Belt cities like Cleveland, which experienced a slight respite from decline throughout the 1990s, begin a new period of free-fall, as the housing market collapses in the late 2000s.  Detroit drops out of the top 10.  Akron drops out of the top 100.  Sunbelt cities continue to eclipse their Rust Belt counterparts, as Reno, Orlando, Winston-Salem; Henderson, Nevada; Chula Vista, California; and Irvine, California all reach the top 100.

Why Bother? Musings on Faith, Hope, and Love

By Jason Segedy

April 7, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Image Credit: Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary

My friend, Della Rucker, just published a wonderful new book, entitled Why This Work Matters: Wisdom from the People Who Are Making Communities Better.  

In it, she curates selections from 11 authors who are working to make the places that they live better.  Each author discusses the personal reasons they do the work that they do, with a specific emphasis on why they keep doing it, even when it’s difficult.

Della’s original intention in publishing this book was to give the countless others that do this type of work a shot of encouragement.  But, as the project evolved, she also thought that it was time to change the conversation, and to challenge the pre-conceived notions that many of us have about what the people who work in public service are like.

She and her co-authors do this quite successfully.  If you work in government, if you know someone that does, or if you are simply curious as to what motivates the people that do, I encourage you to check it out. You will be glad that you did.

I am honored to have contributed to this book, to have worked with Della and the other 10 co-authors, and to have been given the opportunity to share some thoughts on what motivates and animates me, especially when the invariable trials and tribulations come along.

You can read my contribution to Why This Work Matters,entitled Why Bother? Musings on Faith, Hope, and Love, below.  The essay here is nearly identical to the one that appears in the book, but I have performed several minor edits for clarity in an online environment.  

NOTE: After you read this, please consider watching my favorite commencement speech of all time: David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water. One would be hard-pressed to find more honesty, wisdom, or truth packed into 23 minutes.  Wallace’s thoughts on, well…thought…are brilliant:

I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

Why Bother?  Musings on Faith, Hope, and Love

But the fact is that in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance

-David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

So, you put your heart and soul into your work and your community, and you got nothing in return but heartache, grief, and trouble.  

Your intentions were pure, your heart was in the right place, and your execution was spot-on.  You had your proverbial shit together.  And, yet, the end result was far from what you had hoped for.  

You were a gold-medal gymnast out there, you just stuck a perfect landing, and the judges were too stupid, too blind, or too arrogant to see it.

It’s enough to make you want to tear your hair out.

Why bother?  Who cares?  What’s the point?  

We’ve all been there.  I know that I have - more times than I can count.  And so have you.

How do I find the strength to keep going in the teeth of adversity?   Lean a bit closer so that I don’t have to say it too loud.  

My dirty little secret:  quite often, I don’t.  I give up, instead.

But sometimes I do manage to summon up the will to persevere.  And on the occasions that I do, it always comes down to a conscious choice to remember, and act upon, these three things:  faith, hope, and love.

I know.  You don’t have to say it.  I will:  it’s a cliché.  

Try this for an infinite regress of clichés:  “There is a reason that clichés become clichés.”

You know what?  The cliché is true.  It’s true in our lives, and it’s true in our work.   

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

-C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Faith

Faith is not a popular idea nowadays.  It goes without saying that “faith” carries with it a lot of religious baggage.

But it’s not just that. 

In our hyper-individualistic and mistrustful culture, faith of almost any variety can appear contemptible.  Most people today would define faith as “a blind, irrational, and stubborn belief; one that persists despite evidence to the contrary.”  Faith is more often associated with gullibility, naïveté, and stupidity than with anything admirable, virtuous, or beneficial.

This is not the way I see it.

I define faith as “a rational belief, based on evidence, but ultimately reliant upon trust; in a concept, an idea, or another person, which enables one to transcend the self.”

Faith, in this conception, is not irrational, but it always involves trust.

Trust is the indispensable element in any relationship, whether in our personal lives or our work, with our colleagues or our communities as a whole.  Without faith, we cannot rise above our self, and we remain the prisoners of our own experiences, expectations, doubts, and fears. People who cannot trust cannot work with others in any meaningful way. And when we fail to trust, fail to choose to have faith, we probably won’t accomplish much of lasting value, personally or professionally.

When you think about it, in our concrete, day-to-day experience - in our lives as we actually live them - faith and reason are not really opposites. In fact, our faith in something or someone is typically based upon reason.

But the human mind is not completely ruled by reason.  I may know, for example, that I have always been able to rely on a certain friend when times get tough.  But this doesn’t alter the fact that in some highly-stressful situation, where I am relying on my friend’s good judgment or discretion, I may still feel fear, panic, and doubt beginning to take hold.

The conflict is between my faith and reason on one side, and my feelings, emotions, and imagination on the other.  It is precisely at that point that I have to make a conscious effort to trust my friend - that is, to have faith in that person.

Faith is the art of learning to trust, despite our changing feelings, despite our fears, and in the face of those times when our moods rise up to discourage us. Faith has to be exercised, and practiced, and fed.

The real kicker is that faith, regardless of how rational its foundation, always involves a possibility that the person or thing we’re trusting could let us down.  It is an admission of our vulnerability - we tacitly admit that our faith could mean we end up deeply hurt.

But if we are going to accomplish anything worthwhile - for our communities and for ourselves - faith is a chance that we have to take.

Hope

We know intuitively that hope and faith are related on some level - that you need one to have the other.

One big difference between them, though, is that faith is directed toward the present, while hope points toward the future.

I am a planner, by profession and by nature.  I tend to live in the future. It is a constant struggle for me to get my head out of the future, and get it back into the present.  At first glance, this might seem like a great characteristic:  the guy who plans ahead, prepares, has foresight, and all that.

But it can be a curse at times.

For one thing, the present is where life is lived, and where everything actually happens.  The future is hypothetical and contingent, and it is never real in the same sense as the present, until it actually becomes the present.

For another thing, in the present you are typically dealing with what is known.  Out in the future, you are dealing with the unknown - anything could happen.  The present might, or might not, be all that bad.  But the future can always be bad - especially if you let it.

It’s difficult, sometimes, to have hope.  But without hope, how do you summon the will to carry on?

But how do you have hope when you think really hard about the future?

Look ahead far enough into the future, and what do you find?  Well, how about this:  the death of yourself and everyone that you know.  Then, the unraveling and disintegration of all human plans, hopes, and dreams.

That’s no good.

Ultimately, you find the collapse of the universe itself, as all atomic particles cease their motion and everything reaches absolute zero.

That’s even worse.

"Hope", you say?

But we always knew these facts, didn’t we?  Has anyone older than the age of 10 not known that one day they will die, that all of their earthly plans will ultimately come to nothing, and that the universe will cease to exist?

Yet, somehow, people carry on.  We make the choice to believe that the future can still be better.

We live in hope.

We have this theme again of making a conscious choice to think, and then act, upon a belief.

Faith is a necessary prerequisite for hope.  And hope must have a sound object. When it does, I do not think that hope is synonymous with escapism or wishful thinking.  Hope recognizes that life is finite, and that the world is imperfect, but hope in something larger than myself enables me to summon my resolve.

Perfection, I will never attain.  But doing the best I can?  That’s still not easy, but it is possible.

But I have to choose to have hope.  Sometimes that’s easier than at other times, especially when that lack of perfection shows up in my colleagues, an elected official, the residents that we’re trying so hard for - or in myself.  

So I have to choose - to have faith and hope.

Love

Nearly everyone thinks that love is important, at least outside of the office.  Love doesn’t carry nearly the baggage that faith or hope does. Even a confirmed cynic can at least occasionally get themselves behind love.

But love is one of those unfortunate English words that means a lot of different things, depending on the context.

I love my wife.  I love my job.  I love my city.  I love music.  I love pizza.  See the problem?

There are a couple of problems, actually.  For one, I certainly do not love pizza in the same way that I love my wife (much to the benefit of our marriage, I assure you.)  For another, the word “love” in all of these contexts is basically a synonym for “I have a fondness for.”  But we already have lots of words to express that feeling.

So, what is love?  First and foremost, love isn’t primarily a feeling at all. It is an action.  

Second, (pizza notwithstanding), love is about people, and the relationships between them.  Love is about wanting what is best for another person, and acting upon it, regardless of how you feel about them emotionally.  It’s about treating other people the way that you would like to be treated.

Nearly everyone knows this already.  It’s one of those many things so easy to say, and so very hard to do.

Especially for me.

How does love fit into the work we do in our communities, into the challenge of unpleasant politics, fearful bosses, a misunderstanding public?  How does love fit into learning that tough art of perseverance?

In a couple of ways, I think.

First, recognizing that love is, at its essence, an action, rather than a feeling, gives me enormous comfort.  It reminds me that I don’t always need to feel incredibly fond of someone to try to do right by them, or to treat them the way that I would like to be treated.

As with faith and hope, we have this recurrent theme:  we make a conscious choice to think, and then act, in a certain way, despite what our feelings, emotions, and moods may be telling us.

I don’t need to deceive myself, or summon up artificial feelings of fondness for someone or some place for whom I feel no such thing. Instead, I have to do something that is much easier, and much harder: offer my help and assistance where I am able, and treat the people and places around me with dignity and respect.

That’s easier because I don’t have to pretend that I feel something that I do not. It’s harder because I have to do something that does not come naturally.  I’d much rather stick to being nice just to the people that I like.

Second, the recognition that love is really about people and the relationships between them puts things into their proper context.  In my everyday life, especially at work, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. If love is about people and their relationships, that reminds me to assess everything that I am doing by asking myself the question:

"Is this really helping other people?"

Because that is really what it all comes down to in the end.  Why am I worried about creating walkable neighborhoods?  Why am I worried about urban sprawl being fiscally unsustainable?  Why do I want to see economic development and revitalization in a struggling urban neighborhood?

It should always be because I want to help other people and help make their lives better.  Everything else is just a means to an end.  If what I am doing is not about helping people, then I need to reevaluate my priorities.

But maybe what I am working on today started out as helping people, but has since morphed into something else, something that has more to do with my own need for attention and accolades.

Or my desire to look good.

Or my desire to tell powerful people what they want to hear so they will like me.

Or my desire to seem smart, or clever, or important.

That morphing presents a constant danger.

Choice

So, we come back to faith, hope, and love - complex, difficult, and interrelated stuff, to be sure.  How do these abstract concepts help me to do work that matters, help me learn and maintain perseverance in the face of adversity?

It certainly isn’t a matter of just meditating upon three lofty platitudes, or repeating how important they are, parrot-fashion.

I have to make a conscious, deliberate, intentional, and personal choice to try to transcend my default settings of stubbornness, cynicism, selfishness, and pride.

This, the internal choice, is the hardest and most important work that I do.

I often fail.

But I have to keep trying.

The only alternative is anger, bitterness, frustration, and despair.  I’ve chosen that alternative too often.  It’s an understandably human, but bad, choice.

I can, instead, make a choice to view my situations in a way that enables me to care for other people and the communities we live in.  I can do this by putting faith, hope, and love into practice every chance I get.  If I can learn to live that reality more often, not only will I be a better person for it, but I will become more able to make my community and region a better place.

I’m working on it.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.  

-David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

The Velveteen Rabbit

By Jason Segedy

March 24, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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This weekend, I finished reading David Giffels’ latest bookThe Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt.  It is brilliant, and it is a must-read for anyone that is the least bit interested in understanding the Rust Belt, in general, and Akron, in particular.

It resonated powerfully with me, as someone who often thinks about, and writes about, growing up in post-industrial Akron, and how that experience has shaped my thinking about what it is like to live here today.  

One of the primary themes of Giffels’ book is just that - what it was like to be a part of the generation that was just old enough to witness the death of the industrial era, but not old enough to experience any of the prosperity, stability, or national prominence that it brought to the region.

Many hands have been wrung about all of the people that have left the Rust Belt: Brain drain.  Net exporter of talent.  A great place to be from.

Baby Boomers, especially, have been the ones that have done the lion’s share of the hand-wringing.  This is understandable, given that they are the generation that witnessed the collapse, but can still vividly recall the prosperity.  

Witnessing destruction first-hand is traumatic, and this makes it difficult for the Baby Boomers to be the ones to pick up the pieces and try to salvage something from the wreckage.

Sometimes one has to be a little bit further removed from the carnage to effectively perform the messy, but necessary, job of salvaging what remains.  The immediate family members cannot linger at the scene of the accident - they are too close to it. It’s the hardened, but caring, outsiders that come in to pick up the pieces.  

Giffels acknowledges the fact that our generation is at the vanguard of the Rust Belt clean up crew.  He recognizes that much ink has been spilled writing about the 1/3 of the population that has left Akron, but not nearly as much has been written about the 2/3 that stayed.

Giffels, and a growing cadre other Generation X writers like him, such as Della Rucker, have written eloquently and movingly about the audacity that animates the people that remain, and their strange mixture of cynical idealism, brutal realism, gallows humor, and stubbornness.

The inscrutable people who revere, respect, and honor the past, but who are also willing, if need be, to cast it all aside at a moments notice, when pragmatism dictates that it must be let go.

They are the Bizarro World Chamber of Commerce - the kind of people that think that most of what the Rust Belt’s self-anointed promoters proclaim is unmitigated bullshit, but that love the Rust Belt more than any Chamber of Commerce ever will.

The Hard Way on Purpose is a title that perfectly captures the spirit of the people that could have left, but have chosen to stay, and not just in the region, but in the perennially-shrinking central city itself:  how they exorcise the ghosts that haunt this place, and how they are building something new out of the rubble of the past.  

Our generation serves as a bridge between the one-for-the-history books past and the yet-to-be-determined future of a region that is, at-turns, both manifest and enigmatic.

Those of us that have no memory of a prosperous economy, of a growing population, of a vibrant central city, or of a championship-winning sports team, but chose to stay anyway - we know who we are and we know where we came from. We stay here for the sheer love of this place. We stay here because we recognize that love is a choice; an act of the will; a verb.

I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.

-Before Sunrise

It’s not completely altruistic.  Love is meant to be given, and it is meant to be received.  We stay because this place needs us, and we stay because we need it.  We love it because of what it’s been, what it is, and what we want to see it become.

For me, this place - Akron - is personal.  

"It’s not personal, it’s just business" - that’s a lie.  Business involves people.  If it involves people, it’s personal - that’s what "personal" means.

Loving this place means being able to face it with both eyes wide open: to simultaneously abide the considerable hope of its promise, the wondrous delight of its many charms, and the ugly depth of its despair.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise. 

-F. Scott Fitzgerald

Through a million different quirks of fate, each one of them individually improbable in the extreme, my great-grandparents arrived from faraway places with crazy names like Csonoplya and Tortorici, to this newly-minted, smoky factory town sprawling across the many hills and valleys of Northeast Ohio.  Akron; Akros - Greek for “high place”, seat of Summit County, Ohio…

Iowa?  No, Ohio.  Oh, Ohio.  Do you have cities there?  I thought it was flat and that you lived on a farm…  

You can’t make this shit up…

My grandparents, George and Helen Segedy; Anthony and Bette Destro; they gave their blood, sweat, and tears to the institutions that built and sustained this place - Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, Saalfield Publishing, and the Akron Police Department, so that their children and grandchildren could have a good life here.

My Uncle Jim, he literally gave his life, killed on the job in an industrial accident at B.F. Goodrich, in 1983.  The company, founded in Akron in 1870, shut down production shortly thereafter, and skipped town altogether in 1987.  

You have to grow up here, and, once you are of legal age and sound mind - make a conscious, informed choice to decide to stay here, to truly understand what David Giffels means when he says things like:

I stay in a place that people leave.

This is a place that always almost wins.

The Hard Way on Purpose.  This is a place that is full of promise, and opportunity.  This is a place that almost always pleasantly surprises unsuspecting outsiders.  

This is a place that is often its own worst enemy.  This is a place that is full of intractable problems, shambling toward the abyss of despair.

This place is not a multiple choice question.  It’s a full-on, old school, blue-book essay.  You’ll need more than a number-two pencil to pass this test. 

This is the place that was the fastest growing city in America, and this is the place that has been losing population for fifty years straight.  

This is the place that was the Rubber Capital of the World, and this is the place that contains a mother-lode of abandoned factories.  

This is the place with some of the most opulent and stable neighborhoods of any city in the industrial Midwest, and this is the place with 2,300 abandoned houses, and with no concrete plan to rebuild them.

This is the place where 1/3 of the people left, and this is the place where 2/3 of the people stayed, and where many of those that did, did it because they love it, and because they still give a damn.

This is our city, and nothing will ever take that away from us.  

Hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat. It’s not a goddamn seminar. Stop trying to control everything and just let go…

It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.

-Fight Club

So, this past weekend, with The Hard Way on Purpose freshly-read, my wife and I set out on a photographic journey to explore this city.  

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The ruins of B.F. Goodrich, south of downtown Akron

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Long-abandoned railroad siding at the former B.F. Goodrich plant

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Rust Belt rust, at B.F. Goodrich

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I love my city, rust and all

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It looks abandoned, but this power plant at B.F. Goodrich is still being used in an ongoing steam-generation operation

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Coal scattered around a sorting screen at the B.F. Goodrich steam plant

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An ongoing legacy of the post-industrial economy in the Rust Belt - graffiti, anger, and angry graffiti

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The Akron Brewing Company: a once beloved place that no one wants - now abandoned, soon to be demolished for a freeway interchange reconfiguration

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A more expansive view of the former Akron Brewing Company on South Broadway in Akron

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Akron’s largely abandoned South Akron industrial area, as seen from underneath I-76/77

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CSX railroad in South Akron - around 30 trains per day pass through here, traveling between Pittsburgh and Chicago - none of them stop here anymore

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In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: The Akron Brewing Company as viewed from underneath the I-76/77 interchange with South Broadway

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Late March in an Akron brownfield - A phrase that doesn’t attract a crowd - not a soul in sight

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But even in a Rust Belt brownfield, in late March, there is always a splash of color to be found - hope springs eternal

Quick Take: “The Hard Way on Purpose” by David Giffels

By Jason Segedy

March 19, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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I am thoroughly enjoying David Giffels’ latest book The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt.

It’s a fantastic title - one that really captures the essence of what it was like to grow up in Akron in the post-industrial era, and what it is like to live here today.  David Giffels tells that particular story better than anyone that I have ever met.  He tells it in a way that is eloquent, smart, funny, cynically idealistic, and ultimately hopeful, with as much love for a place as the human heart can hold - which is exactly the way that the story of the Rust Belt should be told.

This particular set of passages really resonated with me:

Akron, seizing as it so often does on slim recognition, declared itself the Sports Capital of the World, a proclamation splashed across the frontispiece of the 1978 Akron City Directory, which offered the evidence of “famous events like the All-American Soap Box Derby, the National Skate-Board Championships, the World Series of Golf and the $150,000 Firestone Tournament of Champions bowling tournament.”

Hyperbolic superlatives like this always seem to be attached to my place…The Rubber Capital of the World also claimed to be the birthplace of the hamburger and the ice cream cone, and to have spawned the first American punk-rock club outside of New York City.

Hamburgers and ice cream and bowling and rock music and soap-box racers and Chuck Taylors and football!  And blimps!

Children!  Why are you leaving here?

Either Akron was unusually culturally significant - special - or every place had its own version of this and was equally culturally significant, which would mean that my place was not special at all.

The purchase and removal of our major institutions had been the story of the previous decade.  The French company Michelin had bought Goodrich and moved the headquarters to Greenville, South Carolina.  The Japanese company Bridgestone had bought Firestone and moved the headquarters to Nashville.  The German company Continental had bought General [Tire] and moved the headquarters to Charlotte.

So off to Seattle went professional bowling.

When you stay in a place like this and watch people and ideas and institutions leave and you trace the patterns and the imbalances, that becomes part of your generation’s definition, and then it becomes a matter of identity and pride, replacing the old versions, and begging for a new definition.

I stay in a place that people leave.

This book is making me love this strange, underground/underdog city even more, and I didn’t think that was possible.

If you are the least bit interested in the post-industrial experience of the Rust Belt, go out and buy it today.  You’ll be glad that you did.

Shrinking Cities (Back to the Future)

By Jason Segedy

March 19, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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I’ve seen a lot of lists drawing attention to America’s shrinking cities over the years.  These lists normally show population declines since 1950, or since the city’s year of peak population.

Both of these measures are interesting and useful.  1950 is a good year to look back to, since it represents the first census since the end of World War II.  The end of the war is often looked at as the beginning of the suburban boom:  the interstate highway system, shopping malls, separated commercial and residential land uses, and low-density housing that is not walkable or transit accessible.

Examining a city’s decline since its year of peak population is useful for benchmarking a city against itself, but is slightly less useful for making comparisons to other cities.  In the portions of the Rust Belt centered around the steel and automotive industries, the population decline generally begins around 1950, 1960, or even 1970.  

In the portions of the Rust Belt located further east, the decline begins even earlier - generally around 1920 or 1930.

What I haven’t seen a lot of, though, are lists that actually go back this far - to 1920, for example.  1920 is an interesting year to look at, because you don’t find many large U.S. cities that reached their peak population earlier than 1920.  1920 also marks the tail end of the great wave of European immigration.  Most northern cities continued to grow long after 1920, due to high levels of domestic migration, largely from the rural south and from Appalachia.

So, looking back to 1920 cancels out a lot of the statistical “noise” associated with the Great Depression, World War II, and the post-war suburban boom, taking us back to the initial heyday of the industrial era in many Rust Belt cities.

1920 is also a significant date because all of the cities on this list were large enough by then to have developed a substantial urban core with tens or hundreds of thousands of housing units in it.  So, every city on this list has a significant stock of housing that is at least 100 years old.  This means that the cities which have not yet experienced much in the way of gentrification, redevelopment, or neighborhood revitalization (and this is most of them) will be facing increasingly difficult challenges in terms of vacancy, abandonment, and brownfield mitigation.  

For many of these cities, it will be a race against time to see whether they can turn around their residential housing markets - either through rehabilitating older properties, or though constructing tens of thousands of marketable new housing units.  If they cannot learn how to do this, there is little reason to believe that their population decline will slow down.  In fact, it could get even worse before it gets better.

So, here is a list of U.S. cities that had at least 100,000 people at some point in their history that are smaller than they were in 1920.  They are ranked by their net change in population between 1920 and 2010.  

1) St. Louis, MO - loss of 453,603; 772,897 in 1920; 319,294 in 2010

2) Cleveland, OH - loss of 400,026; 796,841 in 1920; 396,815 in 2010

3) Philadelphia, PA - loss of 297,773; 1,823,779 in 1920; 1,526,006 in 2010

4) Pittsburgh, PA - loss of 282,639; 588,343 in 1920; 305,704 in 2010

5) Detroit, MI - loss of 279,301; 993,078 in 1920; 713,777 in 2010

6) Buffalo, NY - loss of 245,465; 506,775 in 1920; 261,310 in 2010

7) Newark, NJ - loss of 137,384; 414,524 in 1920; 277,140 in 2010

8) Boston, MA - loss of 130,466; 748,060 in 1920; 617,594 in 2010

9) Baltimore, MD - loss of 112,865; 733,826 in 1920; 620,961 in 2010

10) Cincinnati, OH - loss of 104,302; 401,247 in 1920; 296,945 in 2010

11) Rochester, NY - loss of 85,185; 295,750 in 1920; 210,565 in 2010

12) Youngstown, OH - loss of 65,376; 132,358 in 1920; 66,982 in 2010

13) Scranton, PA - loss of 61,694; 137,783 in 1920; 76,089 in 2010

14) Providence, RI - loss of 59,553; 237,595 in 1920; 178,042 in 2010

15) Jersey City, NJ - loss of 50,506; 298,103 in 1920; 247,597 in 2010

16) New Orleans, LA - loss of 43,390; 387,219 in 1920; 343,829 in 2010

17) Wilmington, DE - loss of 39,317; 110,168 in 1920; 70,851 in 2010

18) Camden, NJ - loss of 38,965; 116,309 in 1920; 77,344 in 2010

19) Trenton, NJ - loss of 34,376; 119,289 in 1920; 84,913 in 2010

20) New Haven, CT - loss of 32,758; 162,537 in 1920; 129,779 in 2010

21) Utica, NY - loss of 31,921; 94,156 in 1920; 62,235 in 2010

22) Fall River, MA - loss of 31,628; 120,485 in 1920; 88,857 in 2010

23) Syracuse, NY - loss of 26,547; 171,717 in 1920; 145,170 in 2010

24) New Bedford, MA - loss of 26,145; 121,217 in 1920; 95,072 in 2010

25) Reading, PA - loss of 19,702; 107,784 in 1920; 88,082 in 2010

26) Somerville, MA - loss of 17,337; 93,091 in 1920; 75,754 in 2010

27) Albany, NY - loss of 15,488; 113,344 in 1920; 97,856 in 2010

28) Canton, OH - loss of 14,084; 87,091 in 1920; 73,007 in 2010

29) Hartford, CT - loss of 13,261; 138,036 in 1920; 124,775 in 2010

30) Duluth, MN - loss of 12,652; 98,917 in 1920; 86,265 in 2010

31) Dayton, OH - loss of 11,032; 152,559 in 1920; 141,527 in 2010

32) Akron, OH - loss of 9,325; 208,435 in 1920; 199,110 in 2010

33) Lynn, MA - loss of 8,819; 99,148 in 1920; 90,329 in 2010

34) Lowell, MA - loss of 6,240; 112,759 in 1920; 106,519 in 2010

35) Chicago, IL - loss of 6,107; 2,701,705 in 1920; 2,695,598 in 2010

36) Cambridge, MA - loss of 4,532; 109,694 in 1920; 105,162 in 2010

37) St. Joseph, MO - loss of 1,159; 77,939 in 1920; 76,780 in 2010

38) Niagara Falls, NY - loss of 567; 50,760 in 1920; 50,193 in 2010

There are some surprises on this list.  There are cities that are “shrinking cities” by any possible definition that I expected to see on here, which are not.  There are also cities listed here, which are not generally perceived to be “shrinking cities”.

Some of the cities that are smaller than they were in 1920, really have not lost much population since that time, nor since their peak.  These cities generally peaked-out around 1920 or 1930, and could be categorized as “East Coast Gentrifiers” and include places like Lynn, Lowell, and Cambridge - all located within the suburban orbit of Boston.

Other cities are at the opposite end of the spectrum, and their degree of decline, if anything, is understated by looking solely at this list.  Not only have they lost considerable population since 1920, but they have lost at least half of their population since their peak, which generally didn’t occur until 1950.  These cities could be categorized as “Rust Belt Poster Children” and include places like St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, and Youngstown.

There are other cities that could also be classified as “Rust Belt Poster Children” that do not show up on this list at all, due to the fact that their rapid growth occurred after 1920.  They grew in the immediate pre and post World War II years, and then rapidly declined shortly thereafter. Cities in this category include smaller places like Gary, Flint, and East St. Louis, as well as larger cities like Toledo and Milwaukee.

Several cities, some that show up on this list, and some that do not, have experienced numerically significant population loss, but have either slowed or reversed long-standing declines, and are currently in the process of “gentrifying” and redeveloping many of their historic core neighborhoods.  Cities in this category include places like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis.  

As we move further into the 2010s, it will be interesting to see how redevelopment efforts in places like Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. play out.  Is it a permanent sea change that will dramatically improve the economic prospects for all residents?  Is it something that redevelops much of the core, but ultimately leaves most residents in the dark, leading to more inequality, with poverty moving increasingly to the suburbs?  Or is it just a temporary blip on the radar?

For cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Youngstown, where the bottom has virtually fallen out; and for others like Akron, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, whose decline has been more manageable, but are still facing significant challenges, the answer to these questions could prove to be extremely important.