In Search of New Life for Smaller Cities

Chris Kelley, Marzo 1, 1996

A proud outpost of America’s Industrial Revolution, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, survived the Great Flood of 1889, when a 40-mph wave swept the city into the Conemaugh River. Johnstown rebuilt itself into a dynamic city teeming with factories and steel mills. Yet what the flood couldn’t kill, a changing economy nearly has.

In the space of a generation, Johnstown has hemorrhaged 40 percent of its population and seen its job base disintegrate–joining the growing ranks of U.S. industrial cities teetering on the brink of terminal illness. They are becoming places without purpose, experts say, ill-prepared for a new economic era except as recipients of transfer payments and warehouses for the poor, the aged, the infirm and, in big cities, the violently deviant. “Johnstown is a place where wealth has moved out, where there is no middle class and where the town frantically searches for a magic solution to stay alive,” said anthropologist Bruce Williams of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

As the Information Age unfolds, urban scholars see a disturbing new set of forces converging viselike on Johnstown and many U.S. cities. While the problems of a New York City or a Detroit command popular attention, smaller cities such as Johnstown–those with populations of 25,000 to 100,000–might be suffering most from wrenching economic changes. No longer are place and distance such vital factors. The new economy is driven by technological changes that allow those with means to live and work largely where they want. New suburbs are still the number one choice for both business and residential developers seeking large plots of cheap land.

Struggling for Relevance

Many old industrial cities, meanwhile, struggle for relevance. Their residents lack the training for–and access to–the modern work force. New offices and industries require less labor. Isolation and segregation of the urban poor feed a cycle of despair. Advantages such as a coast, river or rail line matter less. With dwindling public investment and little or no market for their services or products, scores of these older cities can’t nurse themselves back to health.

“If a city lacks the basics for economic viability, what does it have left except some type of massive support by the federal government?” said Dr. Irving Baker, a retired political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “Those cities . . . are expendable,” he said.

This phenomenon links aging central cities, decaying inner-ring suburbs and exploding Mexican border cities. One of every five U.S. cities larger than 25,000 people has a poverty rate greater than 20 percent–a prime symptom of urban decay, an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data indicates. Dallas and other Sun Belt cities are repeating the trajectory of distressed Northern cities, where poverty rates soared and the concentration of poor worsened.

As the debate continues over Washington’s shifting budget role, some experts wonder whether one result might be disposable cities, like the 19th-century ghost towns that predated federal bailouts. Solutions seem elusive, the experts agree, because neither government-run urban renewal nor private enterprise alone appears equal to the task.

“I think we are in a struggle for America’s heart right now,” said Peter C. Goldmark, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, whose programs support efforts to revitalize communities. “Because I don’t think America can live if its cities are dying.” Neal Peirce, an urban affairs commentator and writer, noted: “As I see it, we have a civilization to defend. If we really come to the point of writing places off as cities and neighborhoods of no return, we have reached the point of giving up what made this country the civilization I think many of us really have much pride being in.”

Disturbing Trends in Distressed Cities

Analysis by The Dallas Morning News–based on more than 125 interviews, a review of hundreds of reports and creation of a computer-generated index of 148 distressed communities–documented a number of alarming urban trends:

The United States remains an urban nation. But of all urban dwellers, 60 percent now live in suburbs — not in the nation’s 522 central cities.

Concentrations of the poor are increasing in all cities, including Sun Belt cities. In 1968, 30 percent of the nation’s poor lived in cities. Now the figure is 42 percent.

Jobs are leaving cities in massive numbers and are not being replaced. About 70 percent of new jobs, most requiring extensive technical training, are being created outside cities. Although the number of poor Americans dropped in 1994 for the first time in four years, the gap between rich and poor continued to widen as low-skill, low-wage jobs disappeared, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Many older cities are burdened with foul physical sites created for a smokestack economy that no longer exists. Mayor Freeman Bosley said St. Louis’ dramatic population decline–a 50 percent loss since 1950–relates directly to his city’s inability to reclaim contaminated properties, known as brownfields. “Right now, there is no way the city of St. Louis can attract business to abandoned industrial sites,” he told a congressional panel recently. “The existing cleanup standards and related costs exceed the property’s value, and there are no compensating incentives.”

The revival of rural America comes at the expense of many cities. Following a decade of decline, three in four rural counties gained population between 1990 and 1994. Most of the gain was caused by migration from cities, not urban encroachment.

Few places have been able to reverse these trends once decline sets in. Said Brian Berry, an internationally recognized professor of urban geography at the University of Texas at Dallas: “To be blunt and brutal about it, there’s very little that policymakers can do [about these cities] short of bringing in the aspirins and making people feel a little better.”

The success stories of recent years have enjoyed some attractive geographic asset or been the target of a sustained intentional effort. Hoboken, New Jersey, once a rundown manufacturing hub, capitalized on its waterfront view of the Manhattan skyline. It is now a trendy suburb for young couples with children. Cleveland, Pittsburgh and St. Louis have stabilized after shedding population for decades. Yet even though each has poured tens of millions into successful downtown revitalization efforts, many neighborhoods remain deeply troubled.

Smaller cities such as Johnstown dominated The News’ list of distressed communities. “Small and medium-sized cities don’t have the great urban assets to draw on,” said David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and now an urban consultant in Washington, D.C. “They don’t have the legacy of parks, museums and recreational facilities that big cities have. And, most of all, they don’t have the old downtown core.”

What can be done to assist these communities? Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, said, “If I were a mayor, my number one effort would be to try to help people to understand how serious these problems are and to convince the people in the rest of the society that if they don’t share in the solution, they are going to be sharing in a much, much more radical problem in the future.”


Chris Kelley is urban affairs writer at The Dallas Morning News. This article is excerpted from a four-part series titled “Whither the Cities?” which ran December 3-6, 1995. A series reprint is available by calling The News at 1-800-431-0010, ext. 8472, or on the Internet at Kelley participated in the Lincoln Institute’s 1995 Land Policy Forum for Journalists.