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United States of Failed Cities

Carl Schramm defines a failing city as one that can never expect to return to its former prosperity, and says we have at least two dozen here in the United States. But entrepreneurs don't make the best geographers.
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One of the tens of thousands of abandoned houses in Detroit. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

One of the tens of thousands of abandoned houses in Detroit. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

The geography professor, an expert in geopolitics, asked me to define a failed state. I wasn't prepared to provide a good answer. I remembered the mention of controversy about defining a failed state. That was about the extent of my knowledge, save that I could list nation-states popularly understood as failed. I failed.

Carl Schramm, booster for a more entrepreneurial America, fails. Somalia may or may not pass the failed state litmus test the professor wanted me to apply. Thinking fast from Black Hawk Down to Tom Hanks battling contemporary pirates, Somalia occupies the metaphorical shorthand that helps us make sense of our world. Chaos. Failed, like Detroit:

A century ago our nation was famous around the world for creating beautiful cities. Now, we are known for failing cities. In a recent 60 Minutes report Bob Simon noted that after he left what passes for sparks of new life in downtown, the rest of Detroit reminded him of Mogadishu “the worst place I’ve ever been.”

A failing city, we have at least 25, is one that can never expect to return to its former prosperity. Soon Detroit’s population will be one third of what it was in 1960 – there is no chance it will ever boast two million again. While Detroit’s problems are specific in their particulars, cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Toledo, Scranton and Hartford share histories of similar policy choices that drove their continuous downward spiral.

I recently asked students to determine the best year in the histories of various failing cities. They considered economic growth, immigration, infant mortality, debt capacity, school performance, traffic and parks. Less obvious factors such as a city’s commitment to beautification and its historic success in capturing a unique industrial role in supplying the nation’s marketplace also were weighed.

They decided that Buffalo’s civic apogee was 1901. Its industry was diverse. It received much of the Midwest’s grain in its port, milled it, and transshipped it by rail for export. Pittsburgh’s best year was 1910; Rochester’s, 1928; Philadelphia’s, 1929; Detroit’s, 1950; and Gary’s, 1953.

Interestingly, the students did not settle on the most obvious index of city success, namely, the size of the population. Nearly all failing cities were at their biggest in 1960. The students saw that in earlier decades cities were exuberant in their belief in the future, Sinclair Lewis gave us the word “boosterism” to describe boastful urban pride, but they managed their finances cautiously: pay-as-you-go. The cities, themselves, were building their competitive futures. Buffalo, Detroit, St. Louis would have all the civic assets of Paris, London and Rome – museums, symphonies, universities, hospitals. Paid for locally. The federal government played no role in city life! Being mayor was perhaps the most important political office in public life outside of the presidency.

Emphasis added. Why are cities such Pittsburgh failing? Blame the federal government. Schramm sure does, as if urban life was but a dream until Big Brother forced itself on these golden palaces. Schramm can't resist the population abstraction because it fits his preferred narrative. He ignores the peaks his students defined. Too messy.

Schramm has a video online introducing his Failed Cities/Fast Cities course. It's a rant against the evils of urban planning. Really, it's a rant against the social science hubris of logical positivism. But I digress. The grand experiments of urban renewal failed, which is where Schramm's argument starts and ends.

Urban economic history isn't so convenient. Schramm buys the Rust Belt narrative uncritically. His students, doing actual social science, see "failed" cities that don't fit neatly into a belt. Buffalo goes down first. About 50 years later, Detroit and Gary start sliding. Left out, conveniently, are other shrinking cities such as Chicago and New York. The stories of decline are more different than they are the same. A little reminder from Pittsburgh, my muse:

Population decline is not a debatable story since 1960 of course. Most will say 1950 was the peak. It is actually worse than that. Official stats will peg 1940 as the peak in the city's population, but you need to parse even more. It turns out that what little population gain the city had in the 1930s was the result of annexations that expanded the size of the city. You can make a case the city of Pittsburgh has been on a population glide since 1930. Folks long before me figured that out, but take that into account and the population within the city was declining in the 1930s as well.

Emphasis added (in bold). Epic fail for Schramm's failed city thesis. Entrepreneurs suck at geography.