The Demise of American Cities Is Greatly Exaggerated

CityI beg the indulgence of my good friends in the non-urban parts of Conservatia, to explain that perception is not reality and all things in American cities are not really what they seem. Plus a little history. :)

Some morning this week, before heading off to “the office,” I came across a post discussing the imminent death of American cities, and thus, soon to follow, America herself. The comments were caustic, as usual, including the sentiment that cities started dying in the 60’s due to democratic, liberal social policies spawned by the Great Society and all that jazz. Then there was another article about the gangs of black kids roaming the streets, trying to look tough and scaring adults not used to seeing them. (We’ve all had them. They moved out of suburban malls and to the streets in the last few years. Don’t leave cell phones and wallets on the tables of sidewalk cafes or they will disappear.) This apparently is contributing to the decline.

Welllll, not so fast.

It is true that American cities have been materially damaged in the last sixty years (that’s longer ago than the 60’s, BTW), but that doesn’t mean they are dead or even dying. It’s more like recovering from some really stupid urban planning, social engineering, and, I hate to say it, learning to live around the interstate system which was put into place by a well-respected Republican who had no problem splitting apart the very people who we all would like to have as neighbors. Add to that the circle of life and that the next generation of idle youth with nothing better to do are now old enough to congregate without adult supervision, and, well, the impression that American cities are being killed off is starting to take hold.

Seriously, not so fast.

See, right after World War II, when the smaller, older housing stock in the cities was no longer adequate for families birthing the baby boom, and those who could afford it moved out of the cities themselves to the brand spanking new and serially repetitive “suburbs,” prices dropped for “city housing.” Those who could afford less and needed a place to live close to where they could find work (factories in the cities) moved into the old neighborhoods. On top of that, in a lot of older cities where the wealthy were moving out of their aging, but sound and sizable houses (with hand carved millwork, stained glass windows, inlaid floors, pocket doors, huge marble fireplaces, crystal chandeliers, newel post lamps, sun rooms, BIG porches…uh, sorry), said domiciles were rezoned and many times split into multiple family dwellings with improvised kitchens, bathrooms, and huge locks dug into twelve inch cherry or mahogany panelling and doors adding to the shoehorning of the not quite middle class into parts of the cities which were never meant to hold so many people.

Remember, this was BEFORE Eisenhower was president. Prior to that and during that time, most of what are now known as “rust belt” cities, were huge centers of industrial activity where rivers caught on fire (Cuyahoga in Cleveland, the worst being in 1952) and the pollution was so thick, street lamps burned all day (St. Louis for a solid week in November of 1939). Children from these places were sent to the country to solariums in order to have enough vitamin D for bone development. Once the lower middle class moved in, suddenly the crime waves that accompany those living in poverty started to appear, and the planners of the day started one of the most well meaning and disastrous social experiments of world history – The Projects.

Hard to believe with all that’s happened and the misinformation and historical skewing that has gone on, but The Projects as we know them were a product of the 1950’s, a full decade before the Great Society.

Pruitt Igoe 2The original housing authorities in the US and large scale housing developments were WPA projects and FDR era “improvements” for the poor before WWII. Once the above mentioned methods of crowding started after the war, Title One and the Housing Act of 1949 was passed to help raze “blight” and build affordable housing units which, in the end, did not come close to replacing the number of residences destroyed. The most notorious of the housing projects, Pruitt-Igoe of the near north side of my hometown, was built in 1955 and 1956…and demolished with dynamite from 1972-76. (It was a trash dump for decades after that).

During the same years, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, former supreme commander of the allied forces in the European Theater during WWII, moved to replicate the super highway system he saw in Germany (and really the rest of Europe) while he served as an Army general that connected all the major cities of the Third Reich with the Interstate Highway System, which so many of my fellow conservatives now cannot live without. (Nope, sorry, it was NOT an original idea.)

The problem with the interstates is not the highways themselves or even the concept, but that the federal government appropriated huge tracts of land within the cities, including city centers, to build them splitting apart some of the stronger neighborhoods and paying people to relocate. As a result, a lot of good, law-abiding people moved to the ‘burbs, and American cities were further segmented (Previous segmenting happened with the installations of the railroad lines). The Europeans at least connect their cities via road without going through them. But, that just didn’t seem to be the American way.

All this combined with rising union labor costs, obsolete factories that were rebuilt in countries where the environmental laws are less stringent, housing stock that aged faster when it wasn’t maintained (and eventually just had to be demolished), people suddenly afraid to “go downtown” when that used to be the center of commerce in town, and steep increases in convenient crime, started the downward trend. That was roughly about the time JFK was president, maybe a little later, but mostly before.

Each American city is different, just due to variety, industry, weather, which river dumps into which larger body of water, and the like. The downfall may well have started or been in the 1960’s across the board (more likely started in the 1940’s), but not every city fell far and the vast majority actually started rebuilding in the 1970s while at the same time falling the rest of the way.

We don’t really think about it much now, but San Francisco was one of the cheaper cities to live in the early 70’s. Silicon Valley was affordable, and a gathering place for techies. Apple computer and Microsoft hadn’t been founded yet. Starbuck’s was brand new in Seattle, where Pike’s Market was a local thing. Pittsburgh was a pit. The gorgeous art deco of South Beach in Miami REALLY needed a coat of paint at the very least. My own hometown started the great downtown office space vacate resulting in the implosion of a number of older buildings (the remaining old buildings are now all on the National Register and are being converted to other uses or have trees growing on the roofs. We’re still working on it). Failure on this scale takes time. It is not an overnight phenomenon. (Not getting into Detroit. That place hasn’t hit bottom yet.)

And then it started happening. New skyscrapers started going up all over the country with new, innovative designs which, unlike their cousins from the 50’s, still are functional (and hopefully earthquake proof). Think World Trade Center, the Sears Tower, the TransAmerica Building, the Mercantile Tower with the superstructure on the outside. Older, unique and funky neighborhoods which were signs of decay suddenly had new businesses, usually a good bar or two, where people with a sense of adventure would hang out. That would anchor a block, and gradually the district would grow.

Pre-WWII construction buildings with window space at street level were renovated for small stores. People who liked to work with their hands and had a love for aesthetics (the millwork, inlaid floors, stained glass, etc., listed above) started buying “fixer uppers” in select areas bringing them back from the dead slowly, but surely, returning them to the brilliance of their builders’ intent, and raising property values and prices. A variety of cities with a lot of available office space became magnets for tech entrepreneurs as such people can live without amenities. Boston, Austin, Pittsburgh and more became known for their entrepreneurship. (More than one of those overshot, to be honest.)

It’s called urban renewal. It’s an ancient phenomenon that happens in cities all over the world. And when it’s organic and allowed to proceed at its own pace, it sticks. It seems strange to American conservatives who do not live in the larger urban areas where the politicians all seem to have Ds after their names (some of them are more pragmatic than the Republicans, actually), but the cities are not dying and it’s not just because of the risk taking of venture capitalists, baristas and bar owners.

With a handful of exceptions, American cities, like their counterparts elsewhere worldwide, due to this little activity called commerce, or trade, were founded strategically at the mouths of rivers, where rivers come together, on bays, and more, thus developing huge ports and warehouse systems that existed before the cross country railroad tracks were built connecting the metropolises in the mid 19th century (well, except for Cincinnati. Getting there via rail has always been a pain, I understand). Again, with few exceptions, the commodities that keep this country going flow through those very ports and over those very track beds even now. Other businesses are built around transportation, and having them located in the places where transfers from one mode to another happens only makes sense. To move all of it is going to be prohibitively expensive, not to mention logistically nightmarish. The infrastructure is in place, including the interstate system. For any one city to completely die and collapse would put a hole in the entire network.

That’s not all that’s keeping American cities alive, but transportation and trade is a huge part of it. That vast centers of high culture and architecture grew around commerce is a function of cities everywhere, some so old they are named in the Bible and still are vital. Why? Because they were able to renew, just like Chicago which, thanks to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, got a do over.

For so many American cities, after decades and centuries of growth and progress and then the collapse of industry, renewal was needed, although not through social engineering and rezoning. That was tried and it really did not work out well. People are moving back into city centers where properties with no other function, like old warehouses, have been converted to living space and some really great offices. Conservatives at large may not see this as being progress, but it is fun and a lot of us love it.

As for the people, honestly, we of the cities are not all that different from our fellow Americans other parts of the states. Believe it or not, honest city dwellers do not like those who scam the system and cheat on welfare any more than rural America does. That’s not what we are about. We don’t like crack houses or meth or weed or want “family planning clinics” in our neighborhoods. We don’t like the gangs of kids roaming around and have authorized police to deal with it. We’re not even really wild about too much government. Government does need to work, though. It’s true that a lot of urbanites are detached from natural reality, but that does not make us any less American. We’re just different. Plus, we are making inroads in converting our friends. It just takes time. The same sort of time it takes to hit bottom and renew over and over again.

Not all that different from Rome, Athens, Damascus, Beijing, Moscow, London, Barcelona…..

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Categories: History

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6 replies

  1. Very good history here, correct too. I would note that Cincinnati was the quintessential River City (even more than St. Louis) most of its growth (other than P&G) was in hog slaughtering, to the point that it was referred to as Porkopolis before the Civil War. Much of that had to do with the Old Northwest feeding the Old Southwest.

    Can’t say I really understand you city folk, but I sure like some of you :-)

    • Hey, we all have stockyards. Although, ours are on the other side of the river.

      I just wish Detroit would not be the poster child for “dying cities”. They haven’t hit bottom yet. The rest of us have been on the rebound for years.

      • We sure do, goes with feeding the world.

        You’re right, I don’t know where Detroit’s bottom is but, they ain’t there yet, in truth their problem, like Gary, IN’s, is corruption, not Democrats. Chicago used to have what I call honest corruption kind of like the Pendergrast’s were, and it didn’t work too bad, now, I don’t know-haven’t been there enough.

        And what I forgot was, Cincy was always a bit of a pain to get to by rail, or air.

      • To be honest, Detroit’s other big problem was the industry that built it. When there was no variety in the American automobile landscape, they were sitting pretty. No more. Pittsburgh, with steel, had a similar problem. One of the reasons the Brew Triangle, New York, Los Angeles, and some of the other cities either fell early or not as far, is industry diversity. We’re not dependent on one product.

        Something about all the eggs in one basket.

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  1. Has Detroit FINALLY Hit Bottom? « The Constitution Club

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