Detroit and the Decline of American Cities. Once More With Feeling.

Detroit is in the news again. The New York Times just ran a human interest story about the Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood in Detroit, a nice place whose rresidents have banded together and are doing their best to preserve it. Nice, uplifting stuff. See A.G. Sulzberger, Trying to Save a City, or at Least a Part, N.Y. Times, March 26, 2011, at p. A12.

What caught our eye is this article’s recitation of the familiar mantra about why what happened in Detroit happened. Here goes:

“The many forces behind Detroit’s shrinking population are well known by now: the decline of the auto industry, the high taxes and insurance, the troubled schools, the concerns about crime.”

All this is true but it does not explain things. The decline of older northern and northeastern cities has been widespread — it’s not uniquely a problem of Detroit or other automobile-manufacturing cities. What the Times does not mention is the government’s role, such as the support of both political parties, as far back as the 1930s, for stimulating the growth of suburbs. This was followed by decades of generous financing and subsidizing of suburban housing that provided irresistible incentives to urban populations to move out of cities to the suburbs, as noted by Jane Jacobs in her famous book  The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1993).

Then there were the urban riots that began in the 1960s, and the decline in  law enforcement of the 1970s, as well as the rise of gangs and drugs associated with it. The deinstitutionalization of mentally disturbed persons who took to roaming city streets, didn’t help things.  Then there were the urban freeways that displaced large numbers of city dwellers.  And what happened to urban schools was not that they became “troubled,” as the Times would  have it, but that  they suffered a catastrophic collapse in quality and safety. To say nothing of forced student bussing. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided Milliken v. Bradley, holding that bussing was OK but only within the boundaries of the school district  being desegregated, it provided a powerful incentive for parents of the affected urban kids to head out of the city into the suburbs.

We are hardly the first to take note of this. During the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, a fellow named Charles Haar, then undersecretary of HUD and now a retired Harvard law professor, was tasked with studying the condition of American cities. He did. His conclusion was that cities were at a fork in the road — given the developing conditions, they would either become armed camps or the urban exodus to the suburbs, which was then underway, would continue apace. Johnson got wind of that study, and having his hands full with the Vietnam war, he ordered Haar’s study classified for thirty years. Those 30 years have gone by and Haar’s study became accessible to the public. It was all written up by Roger Biles  in Thinking the Unthinkable About Our Cities, Thirty Years Later, 25 Jour. Urb History 57 (Nov. 1998). You should read it for yourself.

Finally, there was urban redevelopment that for decades was an effective machine for destruction of  low and moderately priced urban housing, displacing at its peak hundreds of thousands of people per year.

Julia Vitullo-Martin summed it up concisely in her Wall Street Journal review of Samuel Zipp’s book Manhattan Projects, May 18, 2010, at p. A15:

” The disaster that befell many American cities in the post-World War II era is drearily familiar. We know that the building of interstate highways combined with the Federal Housing Authority’s red-lining of inner-city neighborhoods, encouraged the flight of urban middle class to the suburbs. We also know that the federal government then ensured the ruin of much of what was left by pursuing ‘urban renewal’ — that is by demolishing working-class neighborhoods, destroying the traditional street grid and gouging the classic urban fabric with fortress-like public housing projects [some of which have since been demolished].”

While all this went on, the suburbs kept looking better, safer and more economically attractive to a growing number of people. The rise of feminism contributed when it brought about greater incomes for women who could now pool their resources with those of their husbands and buy upscale family homes in the better suburbs, thereby enjoying a more pleasant lifestyle that was unattainable in cities. Given the choice between that and the increasingly undesirable cities, moving to the suburbs became a no-brainer.

 So is it surprising that the cities are in a state of continuous decline, while the suburbs keep attracting more people of all races? And it’s cities, not just  Detroit. There are also Flint, Gary, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City, Hartford, Bridgeport, Camden, Philadelphia, etc. All these cities are in a serious state of decline, but none of them (save Flint) have in the past been dependent on the automotive industry. No, the problem is bigger.

What can be done about it? Good question. Americans have grown accustomed to desirable suburban living which, among other things, has contributed to the quality of their life style and to their wealth through rising home equities. The 2008 crash of the housing “bubble” may have reduced those equities, in some cases substantially, but in many cases they remain much higher than they were 20 or 30 years ago, and the many families who bought suburban homes then are still enjoying substantial nest eggs. The wave of foreclosures may have hit more recent homebuyers, particuly those who had no business taking on the large debts they did, but the majority of suburban homeowners still enjoy an enviable economic status. Do you suppose these people are likely to abandon all that and to move back  into cramped city apartments? Not very likely, is it? Out here in La-La land, we are not aware of the elites moving from their posh digs in, say, Calabasas or Westlake Village, to close-in city apartments in Echo Park. We suggest you not hold your breath waiting for that to occur.

Bottom line: ideas have consequences, and the 1930s-1940s idea that good living meant a suburban home with a lawn in front and a barbeque in back, where kids could safely walk to school without fear of being robbed,  perforce required that people leave cities and move to the suburbs. This they did. So to the trendy planners who are now wringing their hands over the condition of American cities, we have this bit of advice — be careful what you wish for because you may get it.

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