Why Does The World’s Richest Country Have So Many Failed Cities?
A century ago our nation was famous around the world for creating beautiful cities. Now, we are known for failing cities. In a recent 60 Minutes report Bob Simon noted that after he left what passes for sparks of new life in downtown, the rest of Detroit reminded him of Mogadishu “the worst place I’ve ever been.”
A failing city, we have at least 25, is one that can never expect to return to its former prosperity. Soon Detroit’s population will be one third of what it was in 1960 – there is no chance it will ever boast two million again. While Detroit’s problems are specific in their particulars, cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Toledo, Scranton and Hartford share histories of similar policy choices that drove their continuous downward spiral.
I recently asked students to determine the best year in the histories of various failing cities. They considered economic growth, immigration, infant mortality, debt capacity, school performance, traffic and parks. Less obvious factors such as a city’s commitment to beautification and its historic success in capturing a unique industrial role in supplying the nation’s marketplace also were weighed.
They decided that Buffalo’s civic apogee was 1901. Its industry was diverse. It received much of the Midwest’s grain in its port, milled it, and transshipped it by rail for export. Pittsburgh’s best year was 1910; Rochester’s, 1928; Philadelphia’s, 1929; Detroit’s, 1950; and Gary’s, 1953.
Interestingly, the students did not settle on the most obvious index of city success, namely, the size of the population. Nearly all failing cities were at their biggest in 1960. The students saw that in earlier decades cities were exuberant in their belief in the future, Sinclair Lewis gave us the word “boosterism” to describe boastful urban pride, but they managed their finances cautiously: pay-as-you-go. The cities, themselves, were building their competitive futures. Buffalo, Detroit, St. Louis would have all the civic assets of Paris, London and Rome – museums, symphonies, universities, hospitals. Paid for locally. The federal government played no role in city life! Being mayor was perhaps the most important political office in public life outside of the presidency.
But the theory of federalism changed in the boom years of the sixties. Mayors changed from autonomous political actors to supplicants inside a federal system of transfers. Washington reshaped cities by conditioning money for slum clearance, Interstate construction, block grants, public housing projects, modernizing schools, and hospital construction on conforming to the utopian visions of experts on the Potomac. Today, cities in ruins are little more than colonial outposts. Mayors pay obeisance to Senators — a century ago it was the other way around.
The prosperity of the 1960s allowed CEOs, union leaders and mayors flush with federal cash to fall prey to the reckless assumption that economic expansion would roll on forever. Consumers would keep buying, union membership would grow, and cities would enjoy continuously expanding tax revenues allowing them to make lavish promises to newly unionized public employees. Cities that failed proved incapable of seeing the contractions that globalization was bringing to high cost urban areas.
Happily there are still very successful cities in America. Many are bursting with new businesses and jobs, whose best years are ahead of them. Most are in states with no income taxes and less government in daily life. Texas is home to four of our ten fastest growing cities.
What can they teach us about fixing failed cities? First, the federal government doesn’t have enough money and most of its attempts to help have actually hurt. Second, without private companies creating jobs nothing happens – there is no other source of tax revenue. Third, failed cities will only succeed if they alone reshape their destiny.
Cities should re-charter under new state laws as autonomous economic entities with lower taxes and reduced regulation, a move that would force states to become fiscally responsible and friendlier to business. Cities should change the part of their economies focused on supporting the poor, often 1/3 of a town’s economy, into market-mediated programs using vouchers for schooling, job training, transportation assistance and rent support programs. In no time the poor themselves, acquiring market competency, would start businesses and the steady march to building a new economy would be underway. Only when cities are again cradles to new business can they ever hope to have better years ahead.