March 31, 2010    Volume 17, No. 5

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Dozens of U.S. Cities Lose Half Their Population In A Generation: A Record Last Set During The European Plague

By Richard A. McCormack

Dozens of American cities throughout the industrial Great Lakes states and Midwest have lost half of their populations over the course of one generation -- places like Cleveland, Youngstown, Detroit, Warren, Buffalo and Flint. This is the first time that so many cities have lost half of their populations in such a short amount of time since the Plague struck Europe in 1348, according to Hunter Morrison, director of Youngstown State University's Office of Planning and Partnerships.

Morrison, former director of the Cleveland City Planning Department for 20 years, has studied the health of global cities over the centuries. He has looked for similar trends worldwide in which such a large number of cities have fallen into despair. He studied what happened in Great Britain when deindustrialization struck places like Newcastle, Glasgow, Birmingham, Sheffield and Belfast. He looked at what happened when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and tens of millions of people were expected to abandon dilapidated Eastern European cities.

None of those regions experienced what the U.S. Midwest has experienced because other countries understood how vital it was for their cities to remain healthy. They committed themselves and the resources required to keep their old cities vibrant.

No such attitude or policy prevailed in the United States.

In the Great Lakes region, each city and town felt that it was on its own facing its own unique dilemma -- that it was engaged in its own battle for survival -- as well they were, since the cities are not linked in a large megalopolis as they are on the East Coast.

"We all look at these places as separate places and what we are learning now is that it is like being in a family with alcohol or drug dependency," says Morrison. "When you go into intervention and recovery one of the first things you discover is that there are lot of other people who are dealing with the same thing."

That realization is now occurring in many of the "Forgotten Cities" (as they were described by MIT in 2007) or "Weak Market Cities" (as they were described by the Brookings Institute in 2006). But it has been a long time coming and with the current economic downturn it might be too late.

"As I sit in my apartment on Pennsylvania and Park [Avenues in Youngstown, Ohio] until three months ago I was looking out at six abandoned houses," Morrison explains. "Today I am looking out at six vacant lots because in November we had arsonists who burned down all six houses. This is the experience of Youngstown -- disinvestment, destruction of property and values, the weakening of our cultural systems -- the orchestra is struggling because it was dependent on wealthy industrialists and they have disappeared from the scene."

A pandemic of destruction that continues to be rationalized by economists has struck a "nation within a nation -- the entire Great Lakes Nation," says Morrison. This region "grew around a business model that created enormous wealth that rebuilt the postbellum South and built the West, the Northwest and the Southwest. If you go back to the 1930s and Roosevelt, the wealth of the industrial centers was transported via various [WPA] programs to create Charlotte Airport, Atlanta Hartsfield -- the new southern cities were funded by wealth created in the North."

Now that wealth is dissipating, and dozens of cities stretching from upstate New York down the Appalachians to St. Louis through the upper Mississippi to Lake Superior and Duluth, Minn., are in ruin. It is the industrial heartland, the old Northwest Territory -- the alternative to the slave economy of the South and the Anglo-centric economy of the East Coast. It is a section of the country that still maintains a certain class structure that the rest of the country does not have. It grew up around immigrants, industrialization and heavy investment in infrastructure to move products to more densely populated areas of the country: canals, locks, railroads and highways that fostered further industrial investment.

Cities grew up around mills and factories and along rivers. Most of them developed core industries and monocultures. But suburbanization in the 1950s started to drain the cities. Unionization and good wages allowed residents to live the American dream and move to the suburbs away from the smoke. In the 1960s, investment in capital equipment and productivity improvements started replacing workers with machines. Featherbedding rules (hiring more workers than is required) were revoked. The rush of immigrants from places like Poland and Ireland dried up and the cities emptied out. Today, young people leave and are never expected to return.

"I started to read histories of the Plague years and I realized in these accounts that in the course of a year or two, cities would lose half of their populations," says Morrison. "It happened all over Europe, from the Urals all the way to England. Nothing on that scale has occurred since except in the United States."

So Morrison went to England and visited Glasgow and Newcastle, cities that were facing similar difficulties of deindustrialization and abandonment. What he found was significant differences in national policies between those of Britain and the United States. "In the 1980s on a national level, the British government determined that inward investment was essential to keep the population of these cities from flooding into London and coming to the Southwest of England and overwhelming that infrastructure," he explains. "So there was a deliberate effort to make places like Cardiff, Birmingham and Newcastle viable. Is it perfect? No. But there was a clear understanding that the UK existed as a system of communities not as a beggar thy neighbor situation."

Similar policies were implemented by the European Community with the opening of Eastern Europe. Huge investments flowing eastward for more than a decade effectively transformed communities and allowed local people to accept change and "see a new future," says Morrison.

"So when you go to Newcastle and you talk to the Geordies up there, they are still working class, they still have Newcastle Brown Ale and they still speak their own language. They still love to party -- they promote Newcastle as the best party city in Europe. They love their football. They haven't ceased to be working class. They are tough as nails, but they are proud that their biomedical community is one of the best in Europe. They are proud that their universities have been transformed and they have come to a point where the value proposition is they have a proud past and a promising future. It didn't happen in isolation. What you see in the United States is individual communities trying to figure this out on their own. But individual communities can't do it on their own."

America is more interested in building Baghdad and Kabul than it is in assuring the viability of its own cities. "I grew up in Cleveland," says Morrison. "It is disheartening. There is a lot of energy, hope and faith. But it's disheartening. It's like having diabetes or lupus. It's a chronic condition that never seems to get better. You take one step forward and two steps back. If there are going to be another 100 million people in this country by 2050 and they are all going to the coasts and Florida, how are those places going to accommodate that growth in fragile ecosystems? You have to step back and ask if it is in the national interest to continue to pump more people into a place like Florida to accommodate that growth."

What needs to be done to turn the situation around?

"A way to address a problem is to recognize that you have one," says Morrison. "It's not Cleveland's problem or Elyria's problem. It's not saving Cleveland. It's the way we operate as a nation -- a nation of places. What has been brought to the table is that deindustrialization is something that is good because it is cleaner. But it is nothing of the sort. It is a diminution of wealth creation. If deindustrialization was such a good thing, then why is China industrializing? The reason you do manufacturing is to create wealth by adding value. It's real simple. We've gone away from that."

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