Can America’s Dying Cities Be Saved?

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Can America’s Dying Cities Be Saved?

A city shrinking to a shadow of its once-bustling prosperous self is difficult to understand. Buffalo once ranked with New York, Philadelphia, and Boston as among the wealthiest cities per capita in America. The coming of the railroad in the 1860s allowed Cleveland, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, and St. Louis to become wealthy too.  In the early twentieth century, Detroit was emblematic of how a paradigm shift in technology could radically change the destiny of a city. Specifically, when Henry Ford combined the internal combustion engine with the assembly line, he realized his dream of making automobiles a game-changing mass-produced consumer product. In the 1920s, Detroit became the nation’s fastest-growing city and one of the wealthiest. George Eastman’s impact on Rochester, New York, was similar. His breakthroughs in chemistry, manufacturing, and marketing allowed anyone to capture “Kodak moments.” This turned his hometown into a technology center that later birthed Xerox, which helped kick-start Silicon Valley.

In the 1970 U.S. Census, St. Louis became the first city to have 25% fewer residents than it had twenty years earlier, in 1950.  By 1980, the systematic loss of population in larger cities had gathered such momentum that nine cities were at least 25% smaller than they had been in 1960. The trend has since continued without interruption. In 2010, 17 cities were at least 25% below their residential high-water marks. And of course, many have lost even larger numbers: Detroit today is home to just 44% of its 1960 population.

In each of these 17 formerly-much-larger cities, population loss has been accompanied by a near doubling of the population living in poverty, with none of them having less than 20% of their residents living below the federal poverty standard. Data from the 2020 census are likely to show that this count has now increased to at least 20 such cities. Like Detroit and Rochester, each will have lost at least a quarter of its population in the past five decades and, of residents remaining, at least a fifth will be living in poverty.

We call these “dying cities” because there is no evidence that anyone has devised any effective interventions that can reverse their downward course. The nation has actively pursued “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” since the Great Depression, as well as “innovation hubs” and “tech corridors” more recently. Yet, none of these consciously devised revitalization solutions has stemmed decay in any significant way.

Why is this?

According to Carl Schramm, a noted entrepreneurism expert, “To survive and thrive in modern market democracies, cities must be resilient...

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