American Cities — It Isn’t Just Detroit

We recommend that you read John Fund’s recent article America’s Suicidal Cities posted on NRO ( — click here — which tells the sad story of Detroit, at least as seen by Mr. Fund, a noted journalist and national commentator. By phrasing it that way, we do not mean to disparage Mr. Fund’s work. Not at all. He is a cool dude. But he is a journalist, and therefore it is no surprise that he sees things through the lens of a journalist, not a land-use maven or a dirt lawyer. So it isn’t surprising that he misses a thing or two.

The decline of American cities is a subject close to your faithful servant’s heart, and we have written and lectured about these things a number of times. So it seems to us that it may not be a bad idea to include here one of our pieces from the Daily Journal, (California’s leading legal newspaper) to provide our readers with what is missing from Mr. Fund’s otherwise admirable article.


Los Angeles Daily Journal      March 30, 2011

 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 residents 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, at p. A12. What caught my eye is this article’s recitation of how the calamity that befell Detroit came about. 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 what happened. The decline of older northeastern cities has been widespread; it is not uniquely a problem of Detroit or other automobile-manufacturing cities. What The Times does not go into is the government’s role, beginning with the support of both political parties, as far back as the 1930s, for stimulating the growth of suburbs. This was followed by the post-World War II generous financing and tax subsidies of suburban housing that provided irresistible incentives to urban populations to move out of cities, 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 urban gangs and drugs associated with it. The deinstitutionalization of mentally disturbed persons who took to roaming city streets did not help things. Then came 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 in Milliken v. Bradley, that bussing was OK within the boundaries of the school district being desegregated, it provided a powerful incentive for parents of the affected urban kids to move out of the urban school districts into the suburbs.

I am hardly the first to take note of all this. During the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, a fellow named Charles Haar, then undersecretary of U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, and now a deceased 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, and 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 it classified for 30 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 (November, 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 city dwellers 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, where she said: “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 had to be demolished].”

The decline of older northeastern cities has been widespread; it is not uniquely a problem of Detroit or other automobile-manufacturing cities.

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 conferred higher incomes on women who could now pool their resources with those of their husbands and buy upscale family homes in the better suburbs, thereby gaining access to an agreeable 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. Flint, Buffalo, Gary, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City, Hartford, Bridgeport, Camden, and Philadelphia are in a serious state of decline, but none of them (save Flint) have in the past been dependent on the automotive industry.

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 on the whole they remain much higher than they were 20 or 30 years ago, when many families bought suburban homes, and who are still enjoying substantial nest eggs in the form of home equities. In our neck of the woods, the weekend real estate advertising tabloids are still full of seven-figure homes being offered for sale. The wave of foreclosures may have hit more recent homebuyers, particularly those who had no business taking on the large debts they did, but the majority of suburban homeowners still enjoy enviable home equities.

Do you suppose these people are likely to abandon all that and move back into cramped city apartments? Not very likely, is it? I am not aware of the elites moving from their posh digs in, say, Calabasas or Westlake Village, to close-in city apartments in Echo Park. I suggest you not hold your breath waiting for that to occur.

Bottom line: Ideas have consequences, and implementation of the 1930s-1940s idea that good living means 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 only yesterday exhorted suburan living as the cat’s meow, and are now wringing their hands over the condition of American cities, I have this bit of advice: Be careful what you wish for because you may get it.



Gideon Kanner is professor of law emeritus at the Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.

This article was edited on February 5, 2013