Detroit: A Conservative Disaster Story

Detroit’s bankruptcy is exceptional – but its decline is part of a larger trend. Between the 1950 and 2010 censuses, St Louis lost 63% of its population, Detroit lost 61%, Cleveland lost 57%, Pittsburgh and Buffalo lost 55%, and Cincinnati lost 41%. Considering the 30 most populous American cities in 1950, Milwaukee did the best in the midwest, shrinking 20% since its population peaked. Even Chicago lost 25%.

When you eliminate the effects of the Great Recession and look at population loss between 1950 and 2000, the pack gets even tighter, and Detroit drops to 4th place: St Louis lost 59%, Pittsburgh 52%, Buffalo 50%, Detroit 49%, Cleveland 48%, Cincinnati 34%.

Remarkably, while every big midwestern city has lost 20-60% of its population since 1950, the population of their surrounding metropolitan areas are all larger today. People left town, but they didnt going very far. The fact is, before the advent of the automobile and highway, US cities were geographically tiny. Detroit was among the biggest in 1950, at almost 140 square miles. St Louis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati were and are about half that size – Buffalo only one-third. Leaving town is often a five-minute drive or a ten-minute walk.

While all of these cities maintained their pre-war city limits, others in the region annexed their suburbs, which is sensible, given that the automobile and other 20th century technologies allow a much larger area to function as a cohesive whole with an integrated infrastructure.

Columbus, for example, sprawls across 220 square miles, making it the same size as Chicago, with one-quarter the population. Kansas City at 320 square miles is now larger than New York – and Indianapolis is even bigger. Louisville lost 35% of its population between 1960 and 2000 – then it annexed its entire county. Now it spans 1000 square miles – more than triple the size of New York, with less than one-tenth the population.

The old city limits of rust belt cities are artifacts of history, serving only to isolate poor minorities in ghettos of crumbling roads and failing schools. Not coincidentally, among large cities, Detroit has the most people living in poverty (42%); Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St Louis and Milwaukee are all in the top 10. Consider that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department serves four times as many people OUTSIDE Detroit as inside it! These cities long ago spilled over their nominal boundaries – the forces that keep the city limits fixed in place are political.

Often around MLK Day, children In grade school are taught that Plessy v. Ferguson legitimized separate-but-equal in 1896 – but that in 1954 Brown v. the Board of Ed. overruled it. They dont learn that in 1974 Milliken v. Bradley nullified them both, and that separate-and-UNEQUAL has been the law for Detroit and many northern cities and states for decades. Plessy, with Dred Scott, is commonly cited as the single most deplorable decision ever issued by the US Supreme Court. But if it were decided today, it would IMPROVE the quality of education for many.

Milliken dealt large midwestern cities their worst blow of all, making it possible for states to segregate poor, black students into poor, black schools; away from middle-class white students in well-funded white schools. Under the rules of Milliken, this is readily accomplished as long as black and white share different municipalities. Decades of redlining had already deeply segregated city and suburban neighborhoods – Milliken validated ethnic and economic variation between school districts and across municipal boundaries, and created a perverse incentive to maintain antiquated political divisions.

A city begins as an area of concentrated human activity, whose boundaries are naturally delimited by that activity. Old American cities have extended their infrastructure far beyond their 19th century perimeters, and their political borders should expand to reflect that reality. Western cities that grew up alongside modern highways and water/sewer systems are more likely to have borders that bear some resemblance to actual life, industry and infrastructure. Austin and El Paso, e.g., are almost as large as New York – Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio are all larger – and Houston is twice New York’s size – but the six of them combined have fewer people than New York. This isnt a testament to Texan vanity, but to modern urban planning.

Maintaining fictional cities as island-ghettos at the center of modern metropolitan areas is wasteful and regressive. The cure is for these urban agglomerations to reclaim their historic center through incorporation. Suburbanites’ fear of being dragged down by inner-cities is baseless, given that the suburbs are now far more populous. Detroit today is a city of 700,000 in a metropolitan area of 4 million. St Louis is 300,000 among 3 million. Buffalo is 260,000 among 1.1 million. Cleveland is 390,000 among 2.8 million.

So the next time a conservative tells you that Detroit is the victim of liberal policies run amok – inform him that Detroit is in fact the archetypal conservative disaster story: the real world changed; and disaster ensued because of a conservative clinging to the status quo; and a failure to progressively change the system to keep up with the facts on the ground.








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