Allentown Is Undead

The Pennsylvania city is a winner—except that it isn't.
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The Pennsylvania city is a winner—except that it isn't.


With a song, Billy Joel put dying Allentown out of its misery. Upward mobility hollowing out the city for decades, the urban core imploded. Then a strange thing happened. Allentown came back to life, like a zombie:

But today, many factories sit empty in overgrown lots—a decline lamented as far back as Billy Joel's Reagan-era hit "Allentown." Discount stores line the city's downtown. The largest employers now are PPL Corp., an energy and utility holding company, Lehigh Valley Health Network, a health-care system, and state and local government. Its schools consistently rank among the state's poorest performers. ...

... Allentown's population grew 11% from 2000 to 2010 to a total of 118,000, making it the fastest-growing city in the state. But its new residents largely are low-income transplants from New York City and New Jersey, drawn by the city's low rents.

In the early 1980s, its median household income was on par with the state and nation as a whole. But by 2011, it was $35,700, compared with $51,600 for the U.S., according to the U.S. Census. Nearly 26% of residents live in poverty, double the 13% nationwide.

Emphasis added. The population gain is the only good news in an otherwise dismal Wall Street Journal article about municipal finance. Desperate for revenue, Allentown echoes Detroit. Not lacking for people, the undead city smacks of the Sun Belt.

Gentrifying New York City feeds plenty of Northeastern Rust Belt towns with real estate refugees looking for affordable housing. The likes of Reading, Pennsylvania, and Schenectady, New York, sport surprising growth over the last Census decade. Folks vote with their feet. Allentown is a winner.

Except that it isn't.  The dismal data concerning income and poverty tell a different tale. This influx won't balance the books. Population growth isn't an end unto itself.

A city can receive more migrants than it expels, skirt bankruptcy, and still be worse off than Detroit. Demographic decline and fiscal mismanagement compound Detroit's problems. They don't define them. Like Detroit, Allentown has wealth in the burbs it can't tap. The urban neighborhoods are dead, packed with people.