Declining Cities ? How Did We Get Here?

detroitThe shutoff of water service?in Detroit?is only the latest example of the American capitalistic system’s inability to deal with the reality facing Declining Cities. Detroit has threatened to cut water off to 46,000 households or nearly 10% of its population. After declaring bankruptcy in 2013, Detroit has begun taking proactive measures to emerge from bankruptcy more fiscally responsible. Water, a basic municipal service, along with various health and public safety services such a hospital care and police presence have been cut in order to maintain a balanced budget.?? Although this may work to balance the municipal budget, this measure makes the unbearable living conditions of poor residents in Detroit even more untenable. In short, Detroit is a prototypical example of a Declining City.
What exactly is a Declining City? Declining Cities, due to a long term decline in population and tax base, are unable to provide even basic public services to its citizens. All residents expect their cities to pay for public safety in the form of a robust police force; public health in the form of professional hospitals and clinics; sufficient water supply to all residents, and healthy pensions for former municipal workers. Declining Cities are unable to provide even these basic services.?

Many older American cities were built during the advent of America?s second industrial revolution. Between the 1880?s to the 1920?s, roughly the same time frame between the Civil War and the Great Depression, America experienced an unprecedented increase in industrial production. Similar to the explosive growth currently occurring in China, America, during this time, produced goods and provided various raw materials for the entire world. The greatest example of this is the automobile industry. The unprecedented increase in industrial production was met with an unprecedented increase in population from foreign immigrants from Europe, as well as immigration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North. Cities, such as Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia welcomed these immigrants and began planning for their cities to accommodate this surge in population.

Infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, housing, and water systems, was increased to meet the needs of the expanding populations in many cities in the Northeast and Midwest.?

After World War II, industry began fleeing the Midwest and Northeast for warmer locations in the South and cheaper locations in foreign countries. By 1950, Detroit had nearly 2,000,000 residents. Today, Detroit has less than 900,000 residents and the number continues to decline.? Residents pay taxes. Fewer residents means less revenue generated for Detroit to pay for services such as water services or other services.? However, the basic infrastructure of these cities (i.e. hospitals, schools, water systems, housing, streets, etc.) which was built in an earlier time still remains.? The maintenance of this infrastructure is a real cost to cities. Whether or not residents use this infrastructure, cities still must maintain this structure. When the city can no longer afford to pay for the maintenance of these structures, blight occurs.

Ever wonder why there are so many vacant row homes in Baltimore or vacant public school buildings in Philadelphia?

Detroit is the tip of the iceberg. Many older American cities including Newark (NJ), Chicago, Harrisburg (PA) and others face a ticking time bomb with their municipal finances. These cities are simply unable to sustain their current expense structures. Just like someone who brought nice clothes and a car on credit and is forced to return those items when they are unable to pay the credit card company, these cities can no longer borrow and are now forced to cancel or lessen certain expenses.
American capitalism is failing Detroit and other Declining Cities.? Capitalism works well to promote growth but is unable to humanely address cities in decline.? David Bing, the former mayor of Detroit, summed up the problem of Declining Cities when he said in a recent New York Times article, ??We?ve got to focus on being the best 900,000 populated city that we can be and stop thinking about ?We can turn the clock back to the 1950s and ?60s? (

We need to identify new strategies which address the unique needs of these Declining Cities and provide a humane quality of life for its residents.

* -Edward Poteat is an adjunct professor at Columbia University, an affordable housing developer,? and author of the Fiscal Cliff which chronicles the plight facing many older American Cities.