Everyone loves a good comeback story like is currently happening in Detroit. However,there are some cities that have languished in a depressed economic state for so long (some for 100 years), that their very name can evoke a negative impression. Getting past that negative first impression is very difficult and such an impression can help perpetuate an economic malaise. Here are 20 examples of cities that many would consider to be struggling, with those exceeding 50% population loss being in particularly grave condition and/or prolonged decline:
CITY PEAK POP. (YEAR) CURRENT POP EST. (DROP SINCE PEAK)
Aberdeen, WA 21,723 (1930) 16,654 -23.3%
Anniston, AL 33,320 (1960) 21,569 -35.3%
Butte, MT 41,611 (1920) 33,901 -18.5%
Cairo, IL 15,203 (1920) 2,281 -85.0%
Camden, NJ 124,555 (1950) 74,532 -40.2%
Chester, PA 66,039 (1950) 34,077 -48.4%
Cumberland, MD 39,483 (1940) 19,707 -50.1%
Danville, IL 42,570 (1970) 31,597 -25.8%
Danville, VA 53,056 (1990) 41,130 -22.5%
East St. Louis, IL 82,366 (1950) 26,662 -67.6%
East Cleveland, OH 40,047 (1950) 17,109 -57.3%
Flint, MI 196,940 (1960) 96,448 -51.0%
Gadsden, AL 58,088 (1960) 35,157 -39.5%
Gary, IN 178,320 (1960) 76,008 -57.4%
Johnstown, PA 67,327 (1920) 19,643 -70.8%
Lima, OH 53,734 (1970) 36,862 -31.4%
Pine Bluff, AR 57,400 (1970) 42,984 -25.1%
Portsmouth, OH 42,560 (1930) 20,340 -51.5%
Saginaw, MI 98,265 (1960) 48,677 -50.5%
Youngstown, OH 170,002 (1930) 64,958 -61.2%
Much research has been done into the underlying causes for certain cities to struggle, as well as be able to reverse the decline. These include post-industrial economic decline, redlining, racist policies and/or lending practices, political corruption, white-flight, disinvestment, natural disaster, aging populations, aging infrastructure, regional decline, sprawl, and many others. But, to my recollection, no studies have explored whether renaming a city and/or rebranding it would stem the decline or help reverse it. At some point, after 40-50-100 years of decline, new and radical ideas should be seriously considered.
Sure, a name change or rebranding might seem superficial, but change has to start somewhere. One can cite numerous companies, products, schools, teams, venues, and cities that have changed their names. And in the competitive marketplace for ideas, business, and residents, communities should be thought of as a product, as well.
There will likely to be push back over such a notion. Local heritage and community identity are important factors, but desperate times may require a reanalysis of whether such a step would be more beneficial than the status quo. As can be seen from the suggestions below, there are alternate names that can still capitalize on the heritage the area, or utilize another portion of the community’s identity.
There also may be push back over the potential cost of renaming a city. Obviously, this would not be a cost-neutral step. Everything from signs to patrol cars to letterhead would have to be updated. For struggling cities with tight budgets, such an option may not be affordable, unless grant monies, private donations, or ear-marked economic development funds can be secured for such a change.
Thoughts on New Names
I’m a strong believer that perception can shape reality. If you call your city a “town,” it will be perceived as being smaller. Allentown, Johnstown, and Youngstown all suffer from this – and only Allentown has been able to maintain its size and status over the years.
In addition, if a city wants to be perceived as important, its name must personify that. Not only does “town” fail in this regard, but any name that is bland, doesn’t sound significant/regional enough, or lacks excitement, will likely have the same problem.
Lastly, the perceptions caused by human-caused environmental disasters, such as the Flint water crisis; the Love Canal contamination in Niagara Falls; the Walkerton, Ontario e-coli outbreak; or contamination in Times Beach, Missouri , can be extremely hard to overcome. To successfully attract potential newcomers, these places have to first allay the variety of fears that arise from these events.
Using the cities identified above, below are some suggested alternative names to consider:
- Aberdeen, Washington – Grays Harbor, Washington (harbor on which the city abuts and already the name of the port)
- Anniston, Alabama – Blue Mountain, Alabama (for the city’s abutting mountain)
- Butte, Montana – Silver Bow, Montana (while I love buttes as a landform, the word itself, without an accompanying adjective is not very romantic or pretty sounding. Silver Bow is the name of the unified county with Butte.)
- Cairo, Illinois – Grand Junction, Illinois (for the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers – akin to Grand Junction, Colorado)
- Camden, New Jersey – Whitman, New Jersey (for Walt Whitman, who lived in Camden)
- Chester, Pennsylvania – Uppland, Pennsylvania (for the original Swedish settlement that became Chester – and use the double ‘p’ to set it apart.)
- Cumberland, Maryland – Potomac Bluffs or Allegheny Passage, Maryland (for the region’s topography)
- Danville, Illinois – Beckwith, Illinois (for the city’s founder, Dan Beckwith. More interesting city name than “Danville” for which there are many)
- Danville, Virginia – Piedmont, Virginia (for the geography/geology of the region)
- East St. Louis, Illinois – Eastgate, Illinois (the opposite of the Gateway to the West should be Eastgate, right?)
- East Cleveland, Ohio – Eastland, Ohio (gives it more self-identity – otherwise East Cleveland should merge with next-door Cleveland)
- Flint, Michigan – Ojibwa, Michigan (for the Native Americans who lived here and move beyond the just an automotive industry identity)
- Gadsden, Alabama – Double Springs, Alabama (original city name)
- Gary, Indiana – Grand Calumet, Indiana or Marquette Dunes, Indiana (either are more interesting and exciting than just “Gary” – one for the river that flows through the city and both suggestions partially capitalize on the new Indiana Dunes National Park designation, while moving Gary beyond a solely steel industry identity)
- Johnstown, Pennsylvania – Cambria or Cambria City, Pennsylvania (either are more interesting names and are familiar to locals)
- Lima, Ohio – Shawnee Park, Ohio (for the first residents of the area)
- Pine Bluff, Arkansas – Grand Bayou or Bartholomew, Arkansas (for the world’s longest bayou that extends to Pine Bluff)
- Portsmouth, Ohio – Scioto, Ohio (for the Scioto River which passes through the city)
- Saginaw, Michigan – Chippewa, Michigan (for the Native Americans from the area) or Saginaw Valley to signify a more regional prominence)
- Youngstown, Ohio – Western Reserve, Ohio (for the portion of the Connecticut Western Reserve that Youngstown once occupied and to move beyond just a steel city industry identity)
- personal knowledge
- en.wikipedia.org pages for each of the cities listed above
- other links provided within the post