Looking for America: Forgotten Cities

Unfortunately, the United States has a lengthy history of being a throw-away society. During the colonial era, residents simply tossed the trash out their windows. Today, we abandon last year’s gadget for this year’s gizmo, we design products for short-term use, we demolish historic buildings to build glass boxes, we abandon one big box to construct a new one right across the street, and we even toss our hometowns into the trash heap when greener pastures come calling.
Needless to say, this is extremely inefficient and wasteful methodology. Build and abandon, build and abandon might have worked when there were millions of acres of undeveloped land just waiting for pioneers in Conestoga wagons, but today it leaves a dismal legacy of urban decay, deep scars on the land, and disenfranchises those left behind to pick up the pieces, which are most often the poor, immigrants, and minorities.
Forgotten cities dot the map; they are not just a Rust Belt phenomenon, though they are more prevalent in the Northeast and Midwest.  Forgotten cities are defined by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as meeting the following criteria:
Old—cities with an industrial history, meaning they had a population of more than 5,000 inhabitants by 1880;
Small—cities with between 15,000 and 150,000 residents according to the 2000 US Census; and
Poor—cities with a median household income of less than $35,000 according to the 2000 US Census.
According to the 2007 report prepared by MIT, in conjunction with Policy Link and Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, entitled Voices from Forgotten Cities, there are 150 forgotten cities located in 30 states.  States containing the most forgotten cities are:
Pennsylvania (21)
New York (20)
Ohio (15)
Illinois (11)
Indiana (8)
Michigan (7)
New Jersey (7)
Connecticut (6)
Kentucky (6)
Virginia (6)
Missouri (4)
Iowa (4)
Texas (4)
Due to the criteria set by MIT, struggling large metropolitan cities like Cleveland, St. Louis, New Orleans, Baltimore, or Detroit are not included. A few examples that are included, some of which greatly surprised this author (surprises *), are:
Pensacola, Florida*
Savannah, Georgia*
East St. Louis, Illinois
Evansville, Indiana*
Muncie, Indiana
Lawrence, Kansas*
Owensboro, Kentucky*
Hagerstown, Maryland*
Fall River, Massachusetts
Flint, Michigan
Saginaw, Michigan
Mankato, Minnesota
Natchez, Mississippi*
Hannibal, Missouri*
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Camden, New Jersey
Ithaca, New York*
Syracuse, New York
Wilmington, North Carolina*
Newark, Ohio
Youngstown, Ohio
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Lancaster, Pennsylvania*
Columbia, South Carolina*
Galveston, Texas
Waco, Texas
Burlington, Vermont*
Fredericksburg, Virginia*
Wheeling West Virginia
La Crosse, Wisconsin
Another surprising item is six state capitals are considered forgotten (Albany, Augusta, Columbia, Harrisburg, Hartford, and Trenton). That is one-third of all state capitals that meet the population criteria. Kind of a sad commentary in itself.
Shock – most often a large plant closing
Slippage – flight of capital and investment dollars
Self-destruction – arson, crime, blight, and abandonment
Stigmatization – negative images from news or word of mouth
Shame – chronic disengagement and lack of faith in the city
So, how does this sad legacy get reversed? The taxes invested in infrastructure alone would be a terrible waste to abandon. Why build new, when existing services are already available? The MIT report recommends the following steps:
  • Start small.
  • Bring people together to talk about something they care about, not just something you think they should care about.
  • Do one thing well. It should be concrete. It should be visible.
  • Be consistent, persistent, and relentlessly hopeful.
  • Build trust.
  • Raise expectations.
  • Convene a group of committed and talented people who can support each other.
  • Respect yourself and your community. Don’t act desperately or discount your future.
  • Save the treasures of the past.
  • Be intentional—do your work strategically and well.
  • Generate enthusiasm around a long-term vision for the community.
  • Outlast everyone.
  • Enable a range of rooted stakeholders to brainstorm and invest in the vision.
  • No zero sum games. Play a different game. Make the pie larger.
  • Remember the basics: clean and safe streets, access to jobs, education, housing, and recreation.
  • Attend to the internal market; it does exist.
  • Focus on the needs of working-class families—if they thrive, so will your city.
  • Be positive. Don’t rehash old history.
  • Make it possible for people to participate—provide food and child care, and meet during off hours.
  • Focus on the present and future: What can we do now?
  • Recognize the importance of active organizing, creating partnerships, and coalitions.
  • Create a demand environment where hundreds of people expect things to work right.
  • If people aren’t excited about an initiative or project, it’s not working. Stop doing it.
  • Creative failure is vital; that’s why you start small.
  • Don’t get too invested in organizational structures; build a form that follows function.
  • Keep it fun. If it’s not, then there will only be a few true believers

Beyond the ideas from MIT, another option is to build incentives for rebirth through establishing policies and encouraging action. Policies that promote adaptive reuse, revitalization, rehabilitation, and preservation instead of green field development and more sprawl. Actions that show you are putting your money where your mouth is by participating in the rebirth, not just talking about it.

Excellent examples include outgoing Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm who put policy into action by requiring state agencies to re-locate back into central cities whenever possible. In the private sector, both Compuware and Quicken Loans have both moved their headquarter back from the suburbs into downtown Detroit, while Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan is in the process of doing the same.
As MIT stated, start small. It is amazing how small steps can start a trend, which can then lead to observable progress, a renewed sense of pride, and later rebirth. As Hillary Clinton noted, “it takes a village to raise a child.” That is very true, but without a village from which to build those foundations, many children living in the forgotten cities of America face a bleaker future than is necessary or acceptable.


This entry was posted in Cities, civics, economics, land use, poverty and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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