April 29, 2009
The fall (literally?) of certain American city neighborhoods …
Cities rise and fall. Famous places such as ancient Jericho, Chang-an, and even Rome declined and nearly disappeared, and their abandoned buildings were torn down, as the cities’ economic or political reasons for being dissolved. There has been a lot of talk recently about how American industrial cities are going to cope with “depopulation.” Not surprisingly, much of the attention has focused on Michigan, with the decline of its linchpin auto industry. (And if you think that the federal government will save the big American automakers by forcing them to build small cars, consider the observation that there are two kinds of auto buyers in the country – those who buy big American trucks and those who buy small Japanese cars (see the stats here) – and then tell me how building more American small cars will save the car companies.)
From Flint, Michigan, infamous as the focus of Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” and as the place hurt perhaps more than any other by the decline of the auto industry, comes an idea to try to shut down entire neighborhoods of the city. After all, Flint holds barely half as many people as it did 50 years ago. The cash-strapped city could save much money and avoid many social and land use ills if it could simply move the handful of residents who live in certain neighborhoods and then level and shut down entire sections of town.
But the idea of city-shrinking could be considered on even broader scales in municipalities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis, the populations of which have fallen over the past half-century even more rapidly than Flint’s. All of these big cities have less than half the populations they did in 1950. Bulldoze sections of the city and turn them into parks or (perhaps safer) farms? This is not easy to do politically, especially if a number of existing residents want to stay. Remember the much-ballyhooed efforts to shrink New Orleans after Katina? These ideas foundered, in large part, on the shoals of public opposition. Complicating matters further is that all of these big cities have (as has Flint) a black majority. Why does government consider kicking people out of their homes instead of, perhaps, encouraging white suburbanites to repopulate the cities (where houses can be bought for pennies)?
We are likely, therefore, to suffer, for years to come, though the extraordinary phenomenon of mostly abandoned but standing neighborhoods in the middles of cities in the world’s biggest economy and third most populous country …
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