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.

What The Berlin Wall Taught Me

By Jason Segedy

February 21, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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The Berlin Wall, as viewed from West Berlin, March 1987. I shot this from an observation platform.

Meine Reise nach Berlin

In 1987, when I was 14 years old, I went to Germany.  It was a journey full of personal firsts. 

It was the first time that I had ever been outside of North America.

It was the first time that I had ever been on an airplane - a 24 hour, multiple-layover odyssey, courtesy of Pan-Am and TWA, which took us from Cleveland, to New York, to London, to Frankfurt, to Berlin.

And it was the first (and only) time that I had been behind the Iron Curtain. 

Twenty-seven years ago, this March, I crossed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie and visited Soviet-occupied East Berlin.  Twenty-six years before that, in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed.  The wall separated the totalitarian east from the democratic west.  It separated friends and colleagues from one another, divided families, and served as a major flashpoint in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. 

The “wall” was actually two walls, separated by hundreds of feet.  The empty area between the two walls was flanked by coils of barbed wire, patrolled by dogs, and guarded by snipers in towers.  You would be unlikely to make it more than halfway across before you were killed – as several hundred people were, trying to do just that.

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It was easy to see what the West Berliners thought of the wall – every square inch was covered with (mostly political) graffiti.  The side that faced East Berlin, however, was virgin concrete, unsullied by graffiti.  It bore mute testimony to the voiceless East Berliners that had been silenced by their own government, the German “Democratic” Republic (a.k.a. East Germany).

When we crossed into East Berlin, it was like crossing from a color world into a black and white one.  West Berlin was like New York, with a little bit of Las Vegas thrown in for good measure. 

East Berlin was like…I was going to say “Detroit”, but that’s not nice…and not really true, either.

Crossing over into East Berlin, you could actually feel the oppression.  Some areas of the city were still bombed out from World War II, and piles of rotting lumber sat unused at vacant construction sites, where it looked like nothing had happened for decades.  There were far fewer people on the streets, and far fewer shops and stores.  It was primarily a city full of drab blocks of apartments, with a few communist monuments thrown in for good measure.

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Yours truly, in front of the Berlin Wall, 1987

In the west, people smiled, and would make eye contact with you.  The place was lousy with advertisements, neon signs, and street level kiosks selling cigarettes, snacks, newspapers, and lots of pornography.  Late-model Volkswagens, BMWs, and Mercedes-Benzes filled the streets, and edgy electronic music emanated from the ubiquitous discotheques, seemingly located on every block.

In the east, no one really made eye contact.  The streets were largely silent, and looked empty by comparison.  There were few pedestrians, and even fewer cars.  The cars that we saw were these little two-cylinder numbers that looked like you could kick them apart.  It looked depressed, and felt depressing.  It was a place without hope.

When we returned to the west, Russian soldiers spent about 45 minutes searching us and our bus on the way back, to make sure that we were not smuggling anyone or anything back across the border.

My Dad was there with me.  He had always wanted to be stationed in Germany when he was in the Army, but the only overseas gig that they offered him was Vietnam. 

I wish that I could go back and do that trip over again.  Although I was pretty mature and well-behaved (for a 14 year old), there are so many more things that I would have noticed and appreciated as an adult. 

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On the other hand, seeing the Cold War up-close-and-personal, as a 14 year old, offers a valuable perspective, too.  Growing up, I honestly believed that there was a decent chance that I would be vaporized by a Soviet ICBM.  Like a lot of other kids in the 1980s, I put my odds at surviving until adulthood at around 50/50.

I became an adult in 1990.  The Cold War ended the very next year.  Who knew? 

Here in the present-day, it is all-too-easy to forget that I went to bed every night knowing that a global thermonuclear war was a horrifyingly real possibility.  Millions of people in Berlin were forcibly separated by a wall that served as a constant reminder of the atomic sword of Damocles that hung over the heads of an additional billion people, like myself, living throughout North America, Europe, and the U.S.S.R. 

Even harder to grasp is the fact that just 42 years before my visit, that very city, Berlin, served as the capital of the most technologically advanced, rational, scientific, and so-called “civilized” nation on earth – a nation that convinced tens of millions of its own highly-educated, rational, thoroughly modern citizens that murdering six million Jews in cold blood was “progress”, and was the right thing to do.

Twenty-seven years after my visit, it is starting to hit home that my trip to Berlin actually is a “historical” event, just like World War II was when I visited.  Time is a funny thing.

The Scourge of Fatalism

So what did the Berlin Wall teach me?

It goes back to that “Who knew?” 

No one did, of course.  Not, for sure, anyway.

We never know.

So why is it that we so often pretend like we do?

Fatalism might be the single biggest thing that holds us back as a culture.  We forget that what we do here, in the present, controls what happens in the future.

Fatalism is to the 2010s, what irony was to the 1990s – a defense mechanism that we employ to avoid confronting the crushing reality of free human choice. 

We cannot help seeing that only the degree of virtue which we now regard as impracticable can possibly save our race from disaster even on this planet…a consistent practice of virtue by the human race even for ten years would fill the earth from pole to pole with peace, plenty, health, merriment, and heartsease.

-C.S. Lewis

At times, we simply cannot bear the great and terrible responsibility implicit in the fact that what each of us chooses to do individually, and what all of us choose to do collectively, affects our world and our future in great and profound ways.  

It is the collective sum of the untold billions of human choices, great and small, that each of us make each and every day, which (excepting what is truly beyond our control - accident, natural disaster, disease, and death) are directly responsible for every ounce of misery and suffering on this planet. 

We have met the enemy and he is us.

On the other hand, we collectively have the power and the capacity to make our world into a virtual paradise. 

But what can we really do?  We are just individuals.  What can any of us, even the most virtuous or noble among us, really change in the end?  We are, each one of us, simply one of a billion of grains of sand on a desolate beach.  How can we be expected to make a difference?

So, instead, we resort to fatalism.  It makes the conundrum of free human choice a lot easier to deal with, and it assuages the feeling of helplessness that come with the recognition of our individuality and our dependence upon others.

It’s a cold comfort, that some may argue is better than nothing.  But, the thing is, it doesn’t help us. 

In fact, it makes our situation even worse.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

See, we know that the future is going to be such-and-such, so there’s really no point in trying to change it.

Sound familiar?

How about these:

We know that people of different races are just never going to get along.  People are people.

We know that there is no way that we are going to be able to produce the energy that we need, and protect the environment at the same time.  We’re powerless to change it.

We know that, no matter what we do, we are never going to be able to provide enough health care, food, or shelter for those that need it.  So why bother trying?

We know that Americans love their cars and their big houses, and there is no point trying to promote alternatives to driving, or to urban sprawl.  That’s just the way it is.

But, see, the thing is, we don’t really know any of these things.  Take a look at history.  Most of our prophecies about the future have been wrong.  And most of the prophecies that were not, were of the self-fulfilling variety. 

Some of the people in Warsaw, in May 1942, were undoubtedly just as sure as the Nazis were, that the German Reich would last for a thousand years.

By May 1945, the Reich was gone.

Some of the people in Berlin, in March 1987, were sure that the Cold War would never end, and that the Wall would never come down.

By November 1989, the Wall was gone.

Some of the people in Northeast Ohio, in 2014, are sure that we are destined to remain the “Rust Belt” from here to eternity.

We’re not.

My trip to Berlin in 1987 was a reminder to never give up hope, even when things seem dark. 

History is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion.  It is whatever we choose to make it.

There will be new Berlin Walls in the future, and there will also be new people to tear them down.

Fatalism is the logical conclusion of an age of philosophical naturalism (i.e. materialism) that believes that at bottom, we (our thoughts and our very consciousness) are no more than the sum of our biochemical and physical parts, and that our actions are (by the inescapable logic of naturalistic determinism) simply nothing more than the products of mindless and purposeless collisions of subatomic particles, and electrical impulses in our brains that simply give us the illusion of free will, consciousness, and self-hood itself.

There is no free will.  No objective beauty.  No objective truth.  No purpose. 

No hope. 

What you do ultimately makes no difference.  All human plans, hopes, dreams, and loves will come to nothing in the end, when the sun goes supernova, the universe collapses in upon itself, all atomic particles cease their motion, and all matter (which is all there is, and which is all “we” are, anyway) reaches absolute zero.

Fatalism.

Don’t believe it for a second.  Reject it, and choose your future.  What you choose to do today matters. 

Live it out.

Where the Sidewalk Ends

By Jason Segedy

February 18, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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The people of Akron are having a healthy and productive conversation right now regarding the importance of keeping pedestrians (especially schoolchildren) safe and keeping sidewalks clear of snow and ice

Creating a better and safer environment for pedestrians is something that is long overdue.  The City of Akron and my organization, the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS), are partnering with the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) to develop a Safe Routes to School travel plan in Akron. 

The Safe Routes to School program, and other public policy initiatives like it, geared toward pedestrian safety, are a great start, but much work remains to be done.

For far too long, people that do not drive a car have been treated as second-class citizens in this country.  Those without access to cars are often our most marginalized and vulnerable residents – the very young, the very old, the disabled, and the poor – people who have no choice other than to get from place-to-place by bus, by bike, and on foot. 

Sadly, they are often invisible to a society and a culture whose devotion to the automobile borders on the obsequiously slavish.

My co-workers and I have been working hard to publicly and vocally advocate for a more holistic approach to transportation, which recognizes the importance of safe and reliable public infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders. 

I discuss this issue with people all of the time, and often hear people say “Why waste the time or money on this?  No one walks anyway.”

My translation:  “I don’t walk anywhere, no one that I know walks anywhere, and since I occupy a place of privilege in society, I really don’t notice anyone that does walk.”

In addition to being patently false, the generalization “no one walks anyway” misses the point entirely.  Social equity and fairness in transportation is not about a tunnel-vision view of the needs of the majority that drives, considered in a vacuum; but rather, about looking out for the needs of the minority that does not drive.

In fact, what we are dealing with here is not fundamentally a transportation issue at all.  It is really a socio-cultural issue.  Inequality in transportation is just one more manifestation of the inequality that we see (or often don’t see) all around us.

Case in point:  I was driving down a busy four-lane street several weeks ago and people were walking in the street because the sidewalk was covered with ice.  Their options (all bad) were basically: a) risk getting hit by a car in the street; b) risk slipping and falling on the ice; or c) staying home until the snow melts.

I thought to myself:  “Why do we make clearing streets of snow and ice such a social priority, but not sidewalks?” 

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To be clear, this is not an either/or proposition.  It is possible to keep both streets and sidewalks clear of ice and snow.  In Downtown Akron, for example, the City of Akron and the Downtown Akron Partnership do an admirable job of accomplishing just that.  The preceding photo of clear streets and sidewalks in downtown Akron was taken just a few hours after seven inches of snow fell earlier this morning.

The immediate, specific, and tactical answer to the question of “Why don’t we make safe and accessible sidewalks a priority?” has to do with a panoply of thorny and interrelated fiscal, legal, and property issues. 

But the holistic, general, and strategic answer to that question is simply this:  our culture does not value or respect people on foot the way that it does people behind the wheels of cars. 

To be clear, this cultural orientation is not the result of conscious antipathy toward pedestrians, or an intentional organized conspiracy to disenfranchise or disrespect the marginalized and the poor. 

Instead, it’s simply the way that our society has evolved over the past 60 years, as the automobile has achieved near complete dominance as a mode of transportation – at least for the affluent majority.    

In the end, it simply comes down to indifference.  In our culture, pedestrians are all-too-often not even an afterthought.  Instead, they are simply not thought of at all. 

Our cultural indifference toward pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders is a manifestation of the system that we have collectively (and often unwittingly) created to reinforce the dominance of the automobile as a mode of transportation.  This system will continue to go on of its own accord until we (especially those like me that have some power, influence, and responsibility for it) decide to change it.

This is not a problem that is unique to Akron, or to Northeast Ohio.  It is a problem all over the United States.

So, my intent is not to criticize or lay blame.  It is to observe, question, provoke thought, understand, and work toward changing the status quo.

There is a lot of buzz in the planning community right now about walkable streets.  Planners are debating whether, or to what degree, walkable cities attract young people, “talent”, etc. 

But the whole debate is irrelevant.  The bottom-line on walkability is that people should be able to walk easily and safely in cities.  Period.  Properly understood, walkability is not a means to end.  It is an end in itself. 

Wringing our hands over whether more young professionals will want to move to our community if we have better sidewalks, is really a distraction from a much more important and fundamental issue.  In our region, the poor and the marginalized are those most likely to get around by walking.  Making our streets safer and more accessible for pedestrians is ultimately a social justice issue. 

So, suppose that we can agree that we want more walkable streets.  Are there difficult challenges ahead for us?  Absolutely.  There are all sorts of complex and interrelated fiscal, legal, and property issues to sort through.  Making streets safer and more walkable will cost a lot of money, take a lot of time and energy, and require a lot of collaboration and cooperation.

But too often, people use fiscal and legal issues as a distraction, and hide behind them as an excuse for doing nothing.  Someone wants a new sidewalk, or says that it should be made free of ice and snow, and the response is “we are worried about a lawsuit if the sidewalk is improperly maintained, or if an attempt is made to shovel it”. 

The fact of the matter, though, is that you can be sued for not having a sidewalk just as easily as you can be sued for having a (poorly maintained) sidewalk.  You can be sued for shoveling the sidewalk and you can be sued for not shoveling the sidewalk.  So let’s do the right thing - build sidewalks where we need them, and ensure that they are kept safe, and clear of snow and ice. 

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I think that worries about sidewalk maintenance, for example, are greatly exaggerated.  The preceding photo is of the original stamp in the concrete on the sidewalk on my street on the west side of Akron – from 1929.  This 85 year old sidewalk is over twice my age, and has aged a lot better than I have.

In the end, the United States, with its $16 trillion Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and its complex, but robust network of federal, state, and local transportation funding sources, has the financial resources and technical expertise to make walking just as safe and convenient as driving.  It just doesn’t have the will to do it.

That is something that we can collectively change…if we want to.

The 1939 Map That Helped Drive Greater Akron Apart

By Jason Segedy

February 3, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972​

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The eternal battle between tolerance and discrimination. The conflict between private property rights and the public good.  The dynamic tensions inherent between different kinds of people living in different kinds of places.  It’s a story as old as that of the United States itself.

And it’s a story that has played out, and continues to unfold, in every sizable metropolitan area in the United States.  This is the story of how an obscure (and obscured) real estate map from 1939 helped to reinforce, and in some cases, cement, patterns of urban residential development in Akron, Ohio.  

It’s a story about race, ethnicity, and class; tolerance and discrimination; and about the sometimes unfortunate ways that people choose to act upon the legitimate desire to protect hearth and home.  

But it’s also about learning from the past so that we can make a better future for everyone in our region - black and white; rich and poor.

The Great Migration

Akron was the fastest growing city in the United States between 1910 and 1920, tripling in size and growing from a population of 69,067 to 208,435. Its period of rapid growth coincided with the expansion of the rubber and tire industry, which, in turn, corresponded with that of the automobile industry.

Prior to 1910, Akron was a small, but regionally-important center for manufacturing, trade, and commerce, populated primarily by native-born WASPs, and by more-recent newcomers hailing from Germany and Ireland.  

By 1920, it was the 32nd largest city in America - a multi-cultural industrial powerhouse, producing half of the world’s tires and rubber goods.

The WASPs that dominated the civic, cultural, and political life of the city throughout the 19th century could trace their roots back several generations to New England.  This portion of Northeast Ohio had been known as the Connecticut Western Reserve prior to the American Revolution, and was subsequently settled primarily by New Englanders looking for good farmland and commercial opportunities in the new frontier.

The next wave of settlement was dominated by Germans from Pennsylvania, and then by the Irish, who began to establish a presence in the community due to the construction of the Ohio & Erie Canal, which was completed in 1832.  

The Protestant Scots-Irish assimilated relatively easily, but the Roman Catholic Irish faced animosity and discrimination, as they did elsewhere in the country.

The African-American population was negligible at that time, numbering only 73 (out of 3,266) residents in 1850.  

Akron’s racial legacy was conflicted and complicated from the start.

On the one hand, the city was a stronghold of anti-slavery and abolition sentiment.  Underground Railroad activity was considerable, both in the city, and elsewhere in the region, in towns like Hudson and Oberlin.  Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech in Akron in 1851, and anti-slavery zealot, John Brown, had strong ties to the city, making it his home in the 1840s.

On the other hand, Akron was a hotbed of nativist sentiment and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) activity in the early 1920s, when it had the dubious distinction of being home to the largest Klan chapter in the United States.

By the early 20th century, Akron’s racial and ethnic composition had changed significantly from its early years as a small town dominated by New England Protestants and German Quakers.  

Beginning around 1910, southern and eastern European immigrants established a strong presence in Akron, as wave after wave of predominately Roman Catholic Hungarians, Italians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, and Poles poured into the city, along with Greeks, Lebanese, Serbs, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews.

Similarly, native-born whites, primarily from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, streamed into the city for work in the rubber and tire factories.  So many people from West Virginia settled in Akron, that it jocularly became known locally as “The Capital of West Virginia”.  

The African-American population also began to grow rapidly at this time, increasing from just 525 in 1900, to 5,580 in 1920.  It would grow even faster in the years to come, with the Great Migration.

Led by the KKK, animus against newcomers, especially blacks, was strong. But some of the city’s old New England elite joined forces with the newcomers and fought back.  By the mid-1920s, the KKK began to rapidly lose power and influence in Akron, as opposition to its activities solidified.

Even so, less overt forms of discrimination and racial animosity persisted, as blacks, especially, continued to be relegated to the worst-paying and most difficult factory jobs, and were often denied equal access to housing and mortgage lending opportunities.

Redlining

It was against the backdrop of this multi-cultural mosaic that the federally-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) began creating “Residential Security Maps" in 239 American cities, in order to assess the level of financial risk for real estate investments in specific neighborhoods.  

The maps were based on a mixture of objective data and subjective assessments, and were accompanied by narrative descriptions of each neighborhood.

Neighborhoods were classified into one of four categories, reflecting their desirability for lending purposes: (A) Most Desirable (shown in green); (B) Desirable (show in blue); (C) Declining (shown in yellow); and (D) Hazardous (shown in red).

Some of the information that was analyzed in order to assess lending risk was quite legitimate, such as the condition of the properties, the availability of utilities and transportation, the proximity to jobs and shopping, and topographical features.

Other information, including the racial and ethnic composition of the neighborhood, was anything but.  Neighborhoods were routinely scrutinized in terms of which racial or ethnic groups lived there, and biased (often overtly racist) assumptions were made as to what the composition of the population portended for the future well-being and desirability of the neighborhood.

Data were collected on the predominant class and occupation of the residents; the percentage of “foreign families” and “Negros”; and charged terms such as “encroachment” and “infiltration” were used to describe patterns of settlement by non-WASPs, in general, and blacks, in particular.

What is simultaneously fascinating and odious about these maps is: 1) they were produced by an administrative agency of the federal government, in conjunction with local realtors and lenders; 2) they were used to deem large swaths of urban neighborhoods unsuitable for home mortgage investments, based, in part, on their racial and ethnic composition; and 3) they were hidden deliberately from public view.

Most controversially, these maps were often used in the practice of what is colloquially known as “redlining”, which made it either difficult or impossible for racial and ethnic minorities to receive mortgage loans, especially in certain neighborhoods.  

Neighborhoods classified as “A” or “B” were viewed by realtors and lenders as “off-limits” to blacks (and often to Jews, and those of southern or eastern European heritage).  

Conversely, neighborhoods classified as “C” or “D” were often portrayed as being in worse condition, or declining more rapidly, than they actually were, which frequently served to drive disinvestment in, and abandonment of, those areas, especially by native-born whites of means.

There Goes The Neighborhood

When I first came across Greater Akron’s 1939 Residential Security Map, and its accompanying neighborhood descriptions, I was fascinated.

(AUTHOR’S NOTE:  a warm and heartfelt “Thank You!” to Ideastream’s Nick Castele for bringing this to my attention)

As I began to delve into the neighborhood descriptions, my fascination turned to bemusement, when I (a person of both Hungarian and Sicilian ancestry) came across narratives like this:

Slow infiltration of Italians and Hungarians in upper north end of area.

I laughed somewhat sardonically - hope my neighbors don’t find out my secret!  Then I reflected for a second on the fact that my sense-of-humor was predicated upon my place of privilege as a white, upper-middle class, third-generation American male, reading this 75 years after the fact.  

I began to wonder how my great-grandparents, or grandparents would have felt upon reading descriptions like:

Heavy foreign occupancy (Italian predominating) slowly increasing; colored infiltration negligible.

And, from the context, it was clear that the above text was to be interpreted unflatteringly - the same way that something like “homes are poorly constructed”, “basements experience frequent water problems”, or “backyards are prone to frequent landslides” would be.

I read further, and as I worked my way through the descriptions from neighborhoods classified as “A” and “B” to those classified as “C” and “D”, it got worse:

Heavy settlement of West Virginians (hillbilly type) in districts lying north of Municipal Airport.

Fairly heavy infiltration of Slavish.

Heavy settlement of colored, Italians, and other nationalities.

Heavy settlement of Hungarian population.

This section has no detrimental influences such as Foreign or Negro occupancy.

Generally free from the usual detrimental influences. Only three Negro families located in entire area and these are better-type colored.

Colored population scattered throughout entire area.

Beginning in 1929 a gradual influx of high-type Jewish occurred in this area, flowing NW on Merriman Road.

Settlement of better-type colored (servant class).

And just when I thought that I had read it all:

Declining district, heavily populated by low-class Jews - all stores on Wooster Ave (traversing artery) are Jewish-owned. Present heavy Negro encroachment.

It goes without saying that these descriptions are offensive and racist.  Only the people that wrote them (if they were still with us to ask) would be able to tell us whether they were also misanthropic and hateful.  Maybe they were a little bit of both.  Perhaps, more charitably, in some cases, they were simply the unfortunate cultural legacy of a much different time. 

Racism and xenophobia are old stories, that are, sadly, still with us today.  But in this post, I am not interested in dwelling too heavily on these distasteful descriptions, or on bashing those, long-dead, for their participation in what was the prevailing culture of their time.  

What I am interested in doing, though, is exploring the ways in which this map affected the way that Greater Akron subsequently grew and developed; and examining the subtle but powerful way that this map was both a cause and effect of our community’s continued segregation by race and class.

The legacy of this map, and the sentiments expressed by the generation that created it, continue to drive us apart, in ways both great and small.

It is the job of our generation to learn, to understand, and to do things differently.

Neighborhood Settlement Patterns

When I first looked at this map, two things struck me immediately.

The first thing was the fact that this map, even 75 years later, uncannily reflects today’s reality in terms of property values, socioeconomic status, and the commonly-perceived level of desirability of Greater Akron’s various neighborhoods.  

If one were to overlay a current map of median household income or educational attainment over this map, it would correspond quite closely with the neighborhoods that are colored green and blue.

It would correspond less well, in terms of race, for reasons (both positive and negative) that I will go into at the end of this post.

The second thing was the degree to which residential sprawl, outward migration, and transportation have changed the urban landscape in Summit County.

In 1939, almost all of Summit County’s population was concentrated in Akron, Barberton, and Cuyahoga Falls.  Other than several fledgling pockets of development in Silver Lake, Stow, Tallmadge, Lakemore, and the Portage Lakes, nearly every other adjacent community is rural farmland.

It was also striking to observe that the most prominent transportation features are railroads, rather than highways, since the Interstate Highway system had not yet been constructed.

Fascinated by the map, I turned to the narrative descriptions of each neighborhood.  I read through all 67 of them, word-by-word.  

To be fair, while the descriptions of the racial and ethnic characteristics of each neighborhood are all-too-prominent, much of the narrative discussion revolves around things that one would assume would be important drivers of residential desirability - housing type; housing condition; proximity to jobs, shopping, and recreation; availability of utilities; and, of course, transportation.

Indeed, transportation is a theme that factors heavily into the narrative descriptions of many of the neighborhoods.  For example, the gradual dismantling of the streetcar network and the rise of the automobile is discussed:

East North Central Section, Cuyahoga Falls, B2:  Another factor which seriously affected this section was the discontinuance of the Cleveland & SW and Youngstown-Warren interurban lines and removal of their shops here in 1925-26.

Cascade Valley Section, Akron, D2:  However, death blow to desirability of this area was the complete diversion of N. Howard Street traffic [AUTHOR’S NOTE: i.e. primarily streetcar traffic] by construction of the North Main Street Viaduct over this entire section in 1926.

The auto-dependence of affluent residents in outlying neighborhoods is also acknowledged:

Fairlawn Heights Section, Akron, A3:  Transportation [AUTHOR’S NOTE: i.e., public transportation] is only fair, but not important to this type of resident.

So, even looking as far back as 75 years ago, one can see the beginning stages of the city’s division by race and class that presaged the “white flight” of the 1960s.  

One can also see the way in which publicly-funded investments in transportation (highways, in particular) and utilities affected residential housing market behavior, and private investments in real estate development.

So, let’s put it all together: 1) a heightened desire on the part of many native-born whites (strongly encouraged by realtors) to separate themselves from blacks, the foreign-born, and those of a different socioeconomic class; 2) a new publicly-subsidized, automobile-dominated (private) transportation system which enabled people to easily do just that; and 3) the expansion of public utility networks into outlying undeveloped areas, now accessible by automobile, and therefore marketable.

What do we have?  A recipe for urban decline, abandonment, and continued outward migration.

While the overt racial overtones in the real estate industry are (for the most part) long gone, the legacy of previous development decisions has remained with us, in the form of continued residential segregation.

What’s more, the seeds of the basic pattern of “brownfield” abandonment and no-net-growth “greenfield” development that plagues our entire region, and is currently in the process of bankrupting it, had been sown.

Moving Forward

Earlier in the post, I mentioned the fact that a map of population distribution in Greater Akron, by race, would no longer correspond very well to the 1939 map at the top of the post, and that that was both positive and negative.

If you check-out the Cooper Center's racial dot map of Greater Akron, you will notice that Akron is still a fairly segregated place.  Blacks are still concentrated in the neighborhoods of West Akron, East Akron (southeast of downtown), and the western portion of North Hill, while whites are concentrated heavily in Kenmore, Firestone Park, Ellet, and most suburban areas.

However, many portions of the City of Akron, especially, are quite integrated, including much of West Akron, Highland Square, and several other inner city neighborhoods.

On the positive side, the region, and the City of Akron, especially, have made a lot of progress in terms of race relations, and in terms of residential segregation by race.  

Greater Akron is the least segregated major metropolitan area in Ohio, and is ranked as the 40th most segregated metropolitan area nationwide (in terms of black-white segregation index, among those with a total population of 500,000 or more); placing it far ahead of Cleveland (#5); Cincinnati (#8); Youngstown (#13); Dayton (#14); Toledo (#20); and Columbus (#33).  

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Today, 32% of the residents of the City of Akron are black.  Most of the city’s neighborhoods are within approximately one standard deviation of that figure.  Many of the “desirable” neighborhoods (colored in green or blue on the 1939 map) are quite integrated today, and are home to a proportion of white and black residents which largely reflects that of the city as a whole.  

The city neighborhood where I grew up and live today (Sunset View and Elmdale Section, A7, on the 1939 map) is both one of the city’s more integrated, and relatively more affluent.  Doors opened (literally and figuratively) in the 1960s for large numbers of middle class African-American residents to call this still attractive West Akron neighborhood home.

On the negative side, as you explore the racial dot map beyond the City of Akron’s borders, you realize that some of the progress made in integrating the “desirable” 1939 neighborhoods, has come about simply due to the “white flight” of the 1960s, and the development of new de facto segregated neighborhoods.  

As blacks were able to migrate into previously inaccessible neighborhoods, the residential footprint of Greater Akron expanded accordingly; keeping the proportion of neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly white or overwhelmingly black relatively consistent over time.  So, taking the region as a whole, we are not as far along the path of integration as we could be.

Nevertheless, while the state of our society’s race relations is still not perfect, much progress has been made since the Civil Rights Movement, both in terms of public policy and in terms of the changing of our culture (hearts-and-minds).  This progress is likely to continue.

While segregation by race is an ongoing (albeit improving) legacy of the 1939 map, the ongoing cycle of decline, abandonment, and continued outward migration and development is perhaps the more intractable and vexing problem of the two.  

The same cultural patterns that were evident at least as far back as 1939 are all still with us: private disinvestment in, and then, abandonment of “declining” neighborhoods; all aided-and-abetted by public policy decisions regarding infrastructure (transportation and utilities); and all in the name of “economic development”.

I would like to suggest that the root causes of our vicious cycle of disinvestment, abandonment, and building ever more infrastructure and housing in outlying areas, for the same amount of people, are primarily systemic and cultural.  They are not the result of an organized conspiracy, or an intentional effort to do social, economic, or environmental harm.

Instead, they are simply what happens when the system continues on as it always has.

So how do we most effectively and equitably change that system?

Well, coming full circle, back to the issue of race, which started this discussion, perhaps there is something quite important that our generation can learn from the Civil Rights Movement.

Like the Civil Rights Movement, there is an important role for changes in our public policy at all levels of government.  But I don’t think that this cycle is something that we fix simply by creating additional levels of government, more rules and regulations, or through some type of legislative fiat.  It is far more complicated than that.

The responsibility for changing the dynamic of this vicious cycle has fallen to Generation X and the Millennials.  Like the reformers involved in the Civil Rights Movement we are going to have to wrestle with these questions:

When and how are pulling the levers of public policy the appropriate approach?

And when and how is working to change our culture (the hearts and minds of the public sector, private sector, and everyday citizens) the appropriate approach?

I would argue that these are not either/or questions and that our ultimate role is to help craft a politically feasible and effective synthesis of the two.

Let’s get to work, so the people 75 years from now can talk about how we changed our world for the better.

Today is Yesterday’s Tomorrow

By Jason Segedy

December 30, 2013

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Do You See What I See?

Where a gothic spire raked her nail across a concrete sky
Where onion domes from Slavic homes grew round a vale of fire
Where Irishmen from tenements kept the furnace burning white
Where the rod and staff that smote the fascists rolled off of the line

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

One day, several years ago, a friend and I were driving across the west side of Cleveland on a beautiful Sunday morning.  

As we drove along I-90, somewhere between West Boulevard and W. 44th St, I was admiring the beautiful Gothic and Romanesque architecture of the numerous churches that you can see from the side of the road.  I thought about all of the generations of immigrants that had built, and then cherished, those places, finding in them solace and a sense of community.  

I looked at the hundreds of modest wooden-frame houses with front porches, in varying states of repair, clustered tightly together around the churches.  This neighborhood had seen slightly better days, but, all-in-all, to my mind, the image formed an idyllic, and somewhat winsome, tableau. 

I remember thinking to myself, “You know, with a little bit of tender-loving-care, these neighborhoods could really be something special.  All of the components of a great place are here, even if it needs to be polished up a bit.”

Suddenly, my friend turned to me and said, “What a shithole!  Who the hell would ever want to live here?  I wouldn’t live here if you paid me a million dollars.”

Que sera, sera.

The Gathering Storm

All the way from where we came
Built a mansion in a day
Distant lightning, thunder claps
Watched our neighbor’s house collapse
Looked the other way

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

Most of us have driven through a formerly thriving city neighborhood, and have seen the abandoned buildings, the vacant lots, the potholed streets, and the decrepit infrastructure.   

Some of us have reflected a bit further upon this explicit physical decay, and have begun to grasp and wrestle with the implicit inequality that is, in part, both its cause and effect.

But the decline and fall of our urban neighborhoods is a devilishly vexing issue, even for the most passionate urban advocates among us.

For every person, like me (and like many of you) that loves our aging cities, and is profoundly concerned about their welfare, there is another person like my friend, that views our cities with indifference, at best; and outright hostility, at worst.

Issues of perception aside, we in Northeast Ohio are dealing with some hellishly difficult issues today.  Our 12-county region has lost seven percent of its population since 1970, falling from 4.1 million to 3.8 million people.   

But instead of shrinking our footprint, we’ve done the exact opposite.  The region developed an additional 250 square miles of land (over three times the land area of the City of Cleveland) between 1979 and 2006 – a 21% expansion.

Meanwhile, our four core cities continue to deteriorate and hollow-out.

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People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline.  Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today

These four cities, which, in 1950, all ranked among the 100 largest in America, are today, added together, smaller than Cleveland was in 1950.  Cleveland, the 7th largest American city in 1950, ranks 45th (and dropping) today.  Akron, Canton, and Youngstown have all dropped out of the top 100.

It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure.  We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people that, today, serves less than half of that amount.  

This trend, by itself, would be bad enough.  But it’s not just a matter of bricks and mortar.  As ruinously as the built environment and urban landscape in these cities has fared, many of their remaining residents have fared even worse.  The poor are increasingly isolated from social and economic opportunities, as the region continues to sort itself geographically by race, class, and socioeconomic status.     

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The effect on the most vulnerable neighborhoods located within the core cities themselves has been nothing short of catastrophic.  Thousands of houses have been torn down, leaving gaping holes in the urban fabric, while tens of thousands more are sitting vacant and abandoned today. 

Short of intentional action to do otherwise, the future of our core cities looks even worse.  According to the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), the region can expect to abandon an additional 175,000 houses between now and 2040.  That’s a staggering 18 houses per day, day-in and day-out, for the next 27 years.  If current trends continue, very few of them will be rebuilt in place.

The cost of removing all of those abandoned houses is estimated to be around $1.75 billion dollars.  Federal, state, regional, or private funding to address the problem is unlikely to materialize. 

So, in a perverse vicious cycle, the cities themselves will likely be on the hook to dig deeper into their already decimated tax bases, and foot the bill to remove the houses.  It is a no-win situation:  ignore the problem, and watch the blight and disinvestment spread even farther, or spend money that you don’t have, raise taxes, and drive more residents and businesses away, in order to try to keep things from getting worse. 

If you are skeptical about this future projection, the future is already here.  Today, over 15,000 houses in Cleveland sit abandoned.  In Akron, the number is around 2,300.  And in Youngstown, a city of 65,000, that used to have 170,000 residents, an estimated 5,000 abandoned houses and 20,000 vacant lots pose a problem almost too overwhelming to comprehend.

The problems of blight, vacancy, and abandonment have spread to the inner ring suburbs, as well.  In East Cleveland today, one in five houses sits abandoned.

It gets worse.  The 12-county region, which has about the exact same population that it did in 1960, has spread those people over a much larger footprint, replicating all of the housing, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure that was already there to support them.

So, taxpayers at the federal, state, and local level already paid once to build all of the infrastructure that was in place prior to 1960.  Now, they are in the process of paying a second time to build a largely redundant duplicate infrastructure in many of the areas that have been developed since 1960.  

The end result, with the region’s population aging, and predicted to grow by less than 100,000 people over the next three decades, is a lot more infrastructure with the same amount of people to pay for it.  This means more public debt, higher taxes, and probably both.

In the coming decades, many of the areas developed since 1960 will face a similar dilemma to the one that the core cities are facing today: spend money that you don’t have to maintain infrastructure in an effort to stave off abandonment, or slowly watch previous hard-won investments in housing, economic development, and public infrastructure wither and die.

Death By A Thousand Cuts

Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole,
Just like a faucet that leaks and there is comfort in the sound.
But while you debate half-empty or half-full,
It slowly rises, your love is gonna drown.

-Death Cab for Cutie, Marching Bands of Manhattan

We are living through an abnormal, historic aberration, in terms of the way that we plan and arrange our communities.  In the long-run, it is socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable.

In the short-run, it is an abnormal new normal.  Our pattern of abandoning thousands of houses, building new ones elsewhere, and building redundant infrastructure, all while (in the case of Northeast Ohio) continuing to lose population, is a social experiment.  It is one that is unlikely to end well, as Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has pointed out

In the long-run, there are simply not enough federal, state, or local tax dollars to simultaneously pay to maintain legacy infrastructure and deal with continued abandonment in our older communities, while paying to maintain (and build more) infrastructure in our newer communities.  We are caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

Urban decline, as such, is not the historical anomaly to which I am referring.  Cities have grown and declined throughout human history, sometimes due to economic conditions, and sometimes due to things that are even more unpleasant:  natural disasters, disease, and war.  People died, were displaced, or moved away, and the city shrank accordingly.

What people haven’t historically done, though, is to rebuild a new version of the city right next door to the old one, expected both of them to carry on as they always had, as if nothing fundamental had changed, and had taxpayers at all levels of government foot the bill.  That’s the historical anomaly.

To be clear, we are not just talking about people building newer, nicer, dwellings; wanting a little bit more land; or about the rich separating themselves from the poor.  These things have always happened. 

But they have never happened on such a massive scale, by building what is essentially a duplicate publicly-funded infrastructure of modern utility and transportation networks, with capital, operating, and maintenance costs stretching into the billions of dollars; all (in the case of our region) to serve the exact same amount of people.  

And then the storm was overhead
All the oceans boiled and rivers bled
We auctioned off our memories
In the absence of a breeze
Scatter what remains
Scatter what remains

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

The 21st Century will mark the first time the United States has ever had to replace a modern public infrastructure.  We’ve never had to comprehensively rebuild a modern water and sewer system, transportation network, or electrical grid.  The staggering expenditure associated with doing this is is going to be an unpleasant wake-up call for a notoriously short-sighted culture.

Did I mention that our country is $17 trillion in debt?  This wasn’t the case when we modernized our much less extravagant 19th century infrastructure in older cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

But it is not the maintenance and replacement costs that will be our ultimate undoing.  It is the fact that we are doubling, tripling, and quadrupling-down on this unfunded liability, by continuing to sprawl outward.  No one in human history has ever attempted to do what we are doing.  That is, to build a modern, urban infrastructure at what is, in-effect, a semi-rural scale.

This is uncharted territory. There is an inexorable, compelling, and inherently conservative economic logic that says it is better to serve more people with less infrastructure, rather than doing it the other way around.  

The likely consequence of flouting such a reasonable course of action will entail our going broke, or having to abandon much of the modern transportation and utilities grid, or both - neither of which are appealing options.

Looked at from this perspective, it is hard to imagine something more short-sighted and fiscally unsound; a greater breach of the public trust; or a larger waste of human labor and natural resources.

It is at this point that people typically seek to avoid this uncomfortable truth, and prefer to preempt the discussion of what to do about it, by instead dwelling on why they think that all of this has happened.

Everyone has a different pet theory:  the automobile, government corruption and/or incompetence; corporate greed; personal irresponsibility; race and class-based social tensions, etc.  As Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has astutely pointed out, people from one ideological perspective can find plausible narratives that run completely counter to plausible narratives put forth by people of the opposite ideological perspective. 

Both a racist and a civil rights advocate, for example, can explain what “went wrong with our cities” entirely in terms of race.  And the more that someone is uninterested in actually trying to address the problems of our cities, the more likely they are to be dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how the problems happened in the first place.

But this is irrelevant right now.  What I want to do is to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem that we are facing, not assign blame for why it happened.  

So what are we facing?  We are facing a situation that is a recipe for fiscal disaster and financial collapse.  And if that is not scary enough, I would argue that it is also a recipe for worsening social pathology, civil unrest, and civic decay, as people are further segregated by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

Pushed away I’m pulled toward
A comedown of revolving doors
Every warning we ignored
Drifting in from distant shores
The wind presents a change of course
A second reckoning of sorts
We were wasted waiting for
A comedown of revolving doors
Fate don’t fail me now

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

It’s a death by a thousand cuts.

Who Cares?

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

-Elie Wiesel

There are some that see any attempt to get a handle on runaway infrastructure costs by stemming the outward tide of development and the continued abandonment of our core cities, as a form of communism (at best); or totalitarianism (at worst); that will eliminate individual rights, private property, and destroy the principles that our nation was founded upon.

There are others, like me, that see this as the very essence of conservatism itself:  good stewardship of our tax dollars and our natural resources, a respect for community and tradition, a belief in the social and spiritual importance of place, and an acknowledgement of this inescapable reality of life - that we all need one another, and that, in the end, no one is an island.

The fiscal unsustainability of our current pattern of growth and development should naturally appeal to conservative sensibilities.  But the political right has largely drifted away from this type of conservatism (conservation of financial, human, and natural resources).

Meanwhile, the political left has either ignored the issue, or has gone about addressing it in typical tone-deaf fashion, failing to engage the imaginations, hopes, fears, and aspirations of everyday people.

Like so many other difficult issues, it represents a colossal failure for both political parties.

So where are we in Northeast Ohio today?

  • Our core cities have collectively lost 750,000 people since 1950.
  • Hundreds of thousands of residents currently lack access to social and economic opportunities that people like me (and likely, you) take for granted.
  • Tens of thousands of houses in our core cities and inner-ring suburbs currently sit vacant and abandoned.
  • An additional 175,000 houses (18 per day, for the next 27 years) are projected to be abandoned, and it would cost close to $2 billion to remove them.
  • Suburban areas are building more infrastructure than they will be able to afford to maintain, especially in the long-term.
  • Absent a will to change this unhealthy dynamic, we will repeat this cycle in community after community, until we are broke.

We need to have a spirited debate about how to deal with all of these complex and interrelated problems.  These are difficult issues that people of goodwill all over the ideological spectrum can and should disagree about how best to address.  

The solutions are not immediately apparent and will not come solely from one person, group, or political party.  They will not come from a couple of urban planners sitting around a table, but will instead need to involve the private sector, public officials, and all of the citizens that they represent.

But first we have to acknowledge that there is a problem.  A problem that that we have a collective responsibility for.

This isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents.  It is ultimately about people.

So, our core cities continue to be abandoned, and we develop more land on the fringes of our region into what amounts to a parallel-society that is much wealthier and whiter than the region as a whole.

The poor, the working class, and many minorities are left behind in the places with shrinking tax and resource bases, while the wealthy continue to concentrate themselves in places that are increasingly homogeneous, with greater access to social and economic opportunities.

Who cares?

Not everyone.

The deep-seated inequalities and inequities that exist as both a cause and an effect of our current pattern of growth and development should be obvious, but often are not.  Most of us see what we want to see, and we see the world through our own two eyes.  We know what we know. But we don’t know what we don’t know.

Without a philosophy that allows us to transcend the self, it is there that we will stay - prisoners of our own experiences and expectations.

In the end, it all comes down to our views on people and place, and on this thing we call “society”.  

What is society?  

Well, for one, “society” really just means “other people”.  The term itself is a tacit acknowledgement of the truth that we are all connected to one another, whether we want to be or not.

It is actual individual human people with names and families (and not abstractions like “society”) that are important.  But actual human people are inextricably linked to one another in physical space, and through thought, word, and deed.  The word “society” reminds us of this reality.

And what is place?

Are the things that are associated with place (like tradition, identity, stability, and community) objective values that are intrinsically important? Or are they just subjective and arbitrary?  Are they really just subordinate means to (more important?) ends such as economic development and personal profit?

Are places really nothing more than engines for economic growth that, like machines, can be discarded as obsolete when they are no longer “useful” in the most reductive, narrowly-defined sense of that word?  Or do places have an emotional and spiritual significance that we ignore at our peril?

And what about people themselves?  Where do they fit into the equation?  Where do they stack up on the balance sheet, and in the benefit/cost calculations?  Who is measuring the true human cost of abandoning entire neighborhoods, entire communities, and entire ways of life?  Is it possible to truly understand the social, economic, and spiritual impact of our collective decisions on where and how to build our communities?

These questions are never considered in conversations about economic growth and development.  But they should be.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

-Matthew 5:13

How do we see ourselves?  Are we stewards tasked with upholding the values of community and stability, acknowledging our interconnectedness, mutual dependence, and our responsibility to look out for one another’s well being?

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

-Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Or do we see ourselves simply as consumers of resources, and maximizers of utility; confident in our own self-sufficiency; content to put our faith and trust in the invisible hand to separate the weak from the strong?

Are we just makers and takers? Or are we fellow human beings, created equal, with a mutual responsibility to look out for one another, and to care for the places in which we live?

It is a sad and sorry ideology that sees any type of virtue or courage in simply succumbing to the fatalistic logic of social darwinism; to glorify in being swept to where the tide was going to carry us anyway.

We should fight it tooth and nail until the day that we die.

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

-Robert Frost, Reluctance

It is a decision point for our region.

Happy New Year, everyone.