Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

The Three Generations of Black Mayors in America by Pete Saunders

[ This week is the Thanksgiving holiday in the US, so I’ll be away and enjoying it for the rest of the week. As a holiday long read for you, I’m posting this very important piece about the three generations of black mayors in America and how the timing of the election of the first black mayor affected the trajectory of those cities, with implications even today. Pete is the best writer on urbanism and race that I know and you can read his writings about this and more on his site Corner Side Yard – Aaron. ]


The Monument to Joe Louis, commonly known as “The Fist”, in downtown Detroit. For more than thirty years, the sculpture has been a controversial symbol of black power in Detroit.  Source: Pete Saunders

A select group of cities elected black mayors during the brief and tumultuous Black Power Era, seeking to implement an activist social justice platform.  These cities – notably Cleveland, Gary, Newark and Detroit among large cities — became stigmatized in a way that few have been able to recover from.   A negative narrative was developed about most of them that stuck, despite considerable efforts to dispel them.  Cities that elected “first black mayors” after the Black Power Era, during a period of relative calm, were able to adapt as the political skill set grew in the African-American community.  However, the Black Power Era’s near-toxic combination of heightened white racism, black disenfranchisement and disillusionment – and ill-prepared black political leadership – accelerated the downfall of these select cities.

If the cities that elected black mayors during this tumultuous period are ever to move forward, to achieve their potential, they must be released from the purgatory they inhabit.

Just as many people have well-developed thoughts and opinions on the American Civil War but little understanding of the turbulent Reconstruction Era that followed, many are familiar with the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement, yet are far less knowledgeable about the local social and political events that followed it.  The Black Power Movement supplanted much of the Civil Rights Movement after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, with an emphasis on turning social activism into political empowerment.  Several cities elected their first black mayors during that period.  Cleveland was the first with the selection of Carl Stokes as mayor in 1967.  Gary, Indiana followed suit the same year with the election of Richard Hatcher, and the federal government appointed Walter Washington to become Washington, DC’s first black mayor as well.  Later, Newark (Kenneth Gibson), Dayton (James McGee) and Cincinnati (Ted Berry) followed suit by 1972, and culminated with the elections of Tom Bradley (Los Angeles), Maynard Jackson (Atlanta) and Coleman Young (Detroit) in 1973.  A new era of African-American political empowerment had begun.

Taking a long historical view, it’s clear that the people who became first African-American mayors beginning in the late ‘60s and continuing through today held different views, developed different paths to victory and methods of governance, and had differing perceptions of their skills among their constituents.  Mayors elected through about 1975 were often activists straight from the Civil Rights Movement, and were looking for ways to turn the movement into actual political power.  The group of black mayors that followed them, from about 1975 to 1990 or so, had more distance between them and the Civil Rights Movement and were less concerned about implementing movement politics; they were more concerned about developing the kind of coalition that could get them elected and help them win legislative victories once in office.  The third group of “first black mayors”, coming after about 1990 and continuing through today generally came to terms with a different demographic landscape in most major American cities.  Whereas first black mayors elected twenty years prior could dependably rely on a supermajority of black votes in their favor – and an equally large supermajority of white votes against them – the most recent group works in a more nuanced and less racially charged environment.  Younger white residents without the racial grievances of their parents or grandparents were returning to cities, and Hispanics were rapidly increasing in numbers.  Anyone who would attempt to become a “first black mayor” in that environment would have to develop an appeal that goes beyond racial boundaries.

And yes, the decade that followed Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination was as tumultuous as they come for America’s largest cities.  That period, well remembered by those who lived it as a time of particularly strong urban and social tensions, coincided with the downward slide in momentum of the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent rise of the Black Power Movement.  Older adults likely remember the period well: urban riots, fights over school busing, Affirmative Action battles, efforts to eliminate long-entrenched policies like blockbusting and redlining.  Skyrocketing crime, heated debates on the inequity of public services, and the development of a new, rapidly expanding land called “suburbia” that was looking very appealing to a growing number of city residents.  Nearly all large cities developed scars during that period.  The question is whether they healed, and healed well.

“It’s Our Time”


Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.  Source: Detroit News

Coleman Young, elected as Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973, in many ways epitomizes the first group of black political leadership that emerged following the Civil Rights Movement.  One might call them the Black Power set.  Born in 1918, Young was part of a generation of African-Americans who stood tantalizingly closer to economic prosperity and social equality than any previous generation, yet were reminded that they could never achieve it.  After serving as a bombardier and navigator for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, Young returned from his service disillusioned by the segregation he and his fellow troops suffered.  He went on to become a labor leader with the UAW and later built a political base as a state representative and state senator in the Michigan Legislature, representing Detroit’s East Side.

Young became a vocal critic of local leadership after the 1967 riots, and targeted the heavy-handed efforts of Detroit police to reduce crime.  Young announced he was running for mayor in 1973 in large part to work to disband the Detroit Police Department’s STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) unit.  The unit was often mentioned as the initiator of police brutality complaints, and was allegedly responsible for as many as 22 deaths of black residents over a 2 ½ year period.  Young ran against John Nichols, the city’s police commissioner and staunch supporter of the troubled unit.

Young won a narrow victory over Nichols in 1973 in a race that was almost entirely split along racial lines in the nearly 50/50 city.  In his inaugural address, Young famously told “all those pushers, (to) all rip-off artists, (to) all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile Road! And I don’t give a damn if they are black or white, or if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road.”  Young maintained that his message was that criminals were not welcome in Detroit; the quote has often been interpreted by white former Detroit residents as a throwing down of the gauntlet, urging whites to leave the city for the suburbs.  Young went on to win four more terms in office.  He balanced budgets yet struggled to maintain services in a city with a rapidly declining tax base.  He remains one of the most controversial leaders in Detroit history.

Conversely, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes and Newark’s Kenneth Gibson may not have provoked similar passions in their respective cities, but they did not fare much better.  Stokes obtained his law degree in 1956, served three terms in the Ohio Legislature and narrowly lost a bid for mayor in 1965.  His eventual win in 1967 garnered him plenty of national attention as he became the first African-American mayor of one of the nation’s ten largest cities.  He was successful enough to pursue and win a second two-year term in 1969, but his tenure in office was characterized by constant feuds with the Cleveland City Council and the Police Department.  Stokes left office at the end of his second term.  After studying civil engineering in college, Gibson worked for nearly two decades as a structural engineer with the New Jersey Highway Department, the Newark Housing Authority and the City of Newark.  He pursued the mayor’s office as a reformer wishing to restore honor to the office following the corruption scandals of incumbent Hugh Addonizio.  Gibson won in 1970 but perhaps his attachment to people like Newark poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, who challenged Gibson to push the city’s corporate interests to take a more active and responsible role in the community, served as a lightning rod to the city’s remaining middle class element.  Gibson was elected to four terms, but Newark’s slide continued unabated.

Black National Political Convention

It’s probably fair to say that the political pinnacle of the Black Power era took place between the elections of Gibson and Young, with the advent of the Black National Political Convention in 1972.  Held in Gary, Indiana and hosted by Mayor Richard Hatcher, delegates from the entire spectrum of black leadership convened to establish a black political agenda for urban America.  More than 8,000 people attended the three-day convention, with 3,000 selected to be voting delegates.  Newly elected black officials attended, along with celebrated black nationalists and revolutionaries.  Delegates with more moderate position also attended.  However, whites were not invited.  No white speakers whose views were sympathetic to the movement; not even white reporters.  This exclusion caused groups like the NAACP and the Urban League to skip the event and be critical of the gathering.

Renee Ferguson, a former Chicago local news television reporter and currently the press secretary for U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), attended the convention as a 22-year-old reporter for the Indianapolis News.  In an interview with Chicago public radio station WBEZ remarking on the 40th anniversary of the convention in 2012, she spoke about the frenzied nature of the event.  “When I got there it was very disorganized, much bigger than anybody had planned for and impossible actually for anybody to see what was happening. The speeches were long and there were a lot of egos and there weren’t many women.”

Ferguson said that the agenda of the convention was framed by a basic question, and was the source of great tension.

“Are black people going to work on the inside with the system, or are they going to have their own and work on the outside? And that was the big argument no matter what else they talked about,” Ferguson said. “That was the underlying intrigue and the most interesting thing for me to document as a young reporter.”

In the end, black nationalists won the day.  The prevailing theme of the convention was that African-Americans would seek to create change outside of the system.  The agenda included platforms that had support from other liberal factions (elimination of capital punishment, national health insurance), but also included platforms that sought to consolidate political control with the growing number of leaders (community control of schools, busing for school integration).  Perhaps the biggest message of the convention, however, was that “White politics had failed Black people”.  And a new group of leaders set out to implement that vision.

Coalition Builders


Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the day after winning the election in 1983.  Source: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Almost immediately after the convening of the convention, a group of rising black political figures who rejected the premise of the Black Power era leaders sought to ascend through coalition building.  Rather than work exclusively outside of the system, and alienating those who disagreed with them, this group stressed their ability to work within the existing power and political framework.

As a state representative at the time representing Illinois’ 26th legislative district, Harold Washington would’ve been eligible to serve as a delegate to the Black National Political Convention.  Whether he attended is uncertain.  But it is clear that he adopted a coalition-building style that served him well as he ascended to the office of Mayor in Chicago.

Born in 1922 and just four years younger than Detroit’s Coleman Young, Harold Washington nevertheless followed a different path to mayor of Chicago.  Washington also served in the Army during World War II, building runways for long-range bombers in the North Pacific.  Upon his return from service he graduated from Roosevelt College in Chicago in 1949, and from Northwestern University Law School in 1952.  Washington immediately became immersed in local Chicago politics after law school, working for 3rd Ward Alderman and former Olympic athlete Ralph Metcalfe.  While working with Metcalfe Washington became intimately familiar with Chicago’s brand of Machine politics – a spoils system, patronage, and a personal approach to bringing out the vote on Election Day.

Contrary to Young’s experience in Detroit, African-Americans in Chicago experienced a fair amount of political enfranchisement.  In many respects, African-Americans were just one part of the ethnic milieu that made up Chicago’s political landscape, like the Germans, Poles, Italians and Irish.  The foundation of Chicago’s political machine was its ability to meet the specific needs of those who could be convinced to depend on them, and convincing as many people to depend on them as they could.  The Machine’s success meant that it could not ignore or exclude potential votes, wherever they came from, and that included the African-American community.  The Machine’s strength was derived from its network of precinct captains, committeemen and elected officials that would convene regularly to discuss its political platform, slate of candidates vote targets and distribution of benefits.    Washington received a sound political education in coalition building through his work in Chicago’s Machine.

Washington was elected into the Illinois House of Representatives in 1965 and to the U.S. Congress in 1980.  Over the years, he developed a reputation of independence from the Chicago Democratic Party leadership, often becoming an unreliable member of the Machine’s state legislative contingent.  As a State Senator Washington was one of a group of independent black Democrats who partnered with white liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans to push forward the Illinois Human Rights Act of 1980.  His ascension to Congress later that year, defeating Machine loyalist Bennett Stewart, further alienated him from the Machine.

This effort afforded Washington a unique political perspective.  He enjoyed strong independent support from his African-American base, largely developed apart from the Machine.  He had strong connections with members of Chicago’s “lakefront progressive” community, which had a fairly large contingent in the city’s Hyde Park community, where Washington also lived.  It was likely evident to Washington and others that this pairing provided him a wider base than other black elected officials who rose through the ranks and focused solely on serving the needs of their African-American constituents.  Furthermore, Washington likely realized that the Hyde Park progressive community’s networks with other progressives, particularly on the North Side, opened up opportunities for offices beyond Congress.

Washington rode the wave of his unique coalition into mayoral politics in 1983.  Bolstered by support from his African-American base and reform-minded white progressives, Washington won against Republican Bernard Epton that November.  Once elected, however, he was confronted with a solid bloc of 29 aldermen (out of 50) firmly wedded to the “Democratic Organization” structure that had survived for so long in Chicago.  The bloc led a four-year period of legislative gridlock in Chicago known as Council Wars – the bloc assumed control of all Council committees, allowing it to set the legislative agenda; the bloc voted down virtually all of the mayor’s appointments; the bloc fought bitterly with Washington’s supporters on budget and appropriations.

Despite the challenges, however, Washington’s coalition held firm.  Federal lawsuits led by Washington allies challenged Chicago’s ward redistricting following the 1980 Census.  At the time, Chicago’s population included approximately 40 percent white and black residents, and 15 percent with an Hispanic background.  However, Washington supporters argued that wards were gerrymandered to maximize the number of white aldermen in the racially polarized city – at the time of Washington’s election as mayor there were 33 white, 16 black and one Hispanic aldermen.  Federal courts ruled in favor of Washington’s supporters in 1986, causing a redrawing of seven wards and special elections.  Washington supporters won four elections, creating a 25-25 split in the City Council and effectively giving the mayor control of the Council through his ability to cast a deciding vote.  Unfortunately, Washington’s control was short-lived.  He died of a massive heart attack on November 25, 1987, just months after his defeat of the obstructionist bloc.

Whereas Harold Washington’s political acumen made him a coalition builder, Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke’s stellar athletic and academic pedigree, wonky sensibility and personable nature drew coalitions toward him.

Schmoke attended the prestigious Baltimore City College for high school, where he excelled in football and lacrosse.  He entered Yale University in 1967, where he played quarterback for the freshman team and developed into an undergraduate student leader.  After graduating from Yale with a degree in history in 1971, Schmoke studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1976.

Schmoke’s first electoral victory was as Baltimore State’s Attorney in 1982.  He defeated William Swisher in a surprise landslide, running a race-neutral campaign against the law-and-order, and (according to some) racially insensitive incumbent.  Schmoke was technically not Baltimore’s first black mayor; that title goes to Clarence “Du” Burns, who was elevated to mayor after the election of the previous mayor, William Donald Schaefer, as Maryland’s governor.  But Schmoke inherited much of Schaefer’s progressive and business establishment, as they saw him as the one who could articulate their agenda in a largely black city.  Schmoke challenged Burns in 1987 and won narrowly.  Recalling Schmoke’s victory for an article in Baltimore’s City Paper, City Council member Bill Cunningham said it was a “new-day-is-dawning thing.”  In the same article, the Rev. Arnold Howard of Enon Baptist Church said, “We were looking for someone to encompass our hopes for the future, someone who would validate our own journey.  He went into office with all that on him. He was the new savior. He was the one who would fulfill our dreams.”

In the end, however, despite being twice re-elected, Schmoke’s analytical approach to leadership alienated coalitions who thought they were getting something else.  He developed a reputation for establishing bold policy goals that were difficult to build consensus around – improving adult literacy, drug decriminalization – and put in place department heads who brought the same policy wonk approach to their work that he did.  The business establishment and African-American community alike thought they were electing a dynamic “mover and shaker” who could energize them as they pushed toward new heights.  But Schmoke was perhaps more manager and caretaker than mover.  As a result he left office in 1999, deciding not to seek a fourth term, with a frayed coalition: a business community slightly betrayed, and an African-American community slightly disillusioned.

Trans-Racial Appealists

With the start of the 1990’s a new type of black political figure began to emerge.  Gains made through increased access to education and job opportunities were putting more African-Americans in previously unattainable positions, and allowing them to pursue previously unattainable avenues.  Wellington Webb, the first black mayor of Denver, fits this bill.

Webb was born in 1941 in Chicago and arrived in the Mile High City at age 11.  In his autobiography, he chronicles a difficult childhood; his mother had a drinking problem and he ended up being raised by his grandmother, and he had academic difficulties at Denver’s Manual High School.  But Webb fought through his family problems and personal demons.  He attended and graduated from Northeastern Junior College in Colorado in 1960, and obtained his bachelor’s degree from Colorado State College in 1964.  He was introduced to politics by his grandmother, who was a Democratic Party district committeewoman in Denver.  Webb wanted to become a teacher, but found it difficult to obtain a position in Denver’s public schools, and thought local political involvement in some of the federal “War on Poverty” programs of the late 1960’s might help.  He transitioned from working in a potato chip factory to working in city government, and later obtained a master’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado in 1971.

Webb developed a reputation as a numbers-cruncher and policy wonk in city government, and was pulled into politics rather than pushed into it by any sense of bitterness.  He was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1972 and represented the Northeast Denver neighborhood he grew up in.  In 1977 he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as regional director of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and in 1981 he was appointed by Colorado Governor Richard Lamm to be executive director of the state Department of Regulatory Agencies.  Webb held that position until 1987, when he ran and won in the election to become Denver’s city auditor.

Webb’s political ascendance through the ‘70s and ‘80s certainly put him on a path to consider pursuing citywide and even statewide positions, but it was unclear whether an African-American in a city with a small minority population, in a state with a small minority population, could be competitive.  He did not start with a built-in large political base like Young or Washington; nor did he have to ability to strengthen a base through coalition building the way Washington did.  His only strategy, should he pursue another office, was to make a trans-racial appeal that would highlight his experience, skills and vision.

Webb entered the campaign in late 1990.  Three leading candidates emerged: Webb, Denver District Attorney Norm Early (also African-American), and Republican lawyer Don Bain.  Webb carried out his “Sneaker Campaign”, going door-to-door in virtually all of Denver’s neighborhoods while preaching a message of competency.  He surprised everyone by forcing a runoff with Early in the May 1991 primary, finishing with 30 percent of all votes to Early’s 40 percent.  Webb was able to consolidate the support from other candidates with a law-and-order platform prior to the general election against Early in June 1991.  Webb won with 57 percent of the vote.


Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.  Source: gbmnews.com

Perhaps a better version of a first black mayor who won with a broad trans-racial appeal would be Kevin Johnson of Sacramento.  Johnson was born in Sacramento, where he was a standout student and athlete.  He excelled in basketball and baseball, and accepted a scholarship to play basketball at the University of California, Berkeley.  From there he went on to a storied college basketball career and a long professional career with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns.

Even during his playing days Johnson maintained strong roots with his native Sacramento.  He established the Kevin Johnson Corporation, which focused on real estate development and business acquisitions, and the St. HOPE nonprofit organization as an after-school program in the Oak Park neighborhood he grew up in.  After his retirement from basketball in 2000, he broadened St. HOPE to include charter schools and nonprofit development in Sacramento.  Today, St. HOPE is a network of four charter schools in Sacramento, and a development company with more than a dozen new construction and renovation projects in Sacramento.

Johnson had intimated his political ambitions for years, but finally announced his run for mayor in 2008.  Race was hardly a factor in the race; indeed, Johnson was viewed as a decorated favorite son of California’s capital city.  Johnson received numerous endorsements from Sacramento’s business and political establishment, and was the highest vote getter in the nonpartisan election that June.  He forced a runoff against two-time incumbent mayor Heather Fargo, and soundly defeated her in November.

Johnson has parlayed his athletic, corporate and nonprofit success well in the government sector.  He has been a staunch supporter of charter schools, along with his wife Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, DC Public Schools.  He was actively involved in keeping the NBA’s Sacramento Kings basketball team from fleeing the city, orchestrating the team’s sale to a group of local investors.  He easily won reelection in 2012, and in April 2014 was elected as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

There are other black mayors who fit the trans-racial appeal profile, but are not the first black mayors of their respective cities.  Kasim Reed of Atlanta, Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, and Cory Booker of Newark each brought impressive academic credentials, strong corporate backgrounds and youthful passion to their positions as mayor, distinguishing them from their predecessors.    Reed interned for U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II before earning his juris doctorate from Howard University, and became a partner at a law firm prior to entering politics.  Nutter earned a business degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Booker earned his bachelor’s and masters degrees from Stanford, earned a Rhodes Scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, and earned his juris doctorate from Yale.

Because of their academic and corporate credentials, Reed, Nutter and Booker are as comfortable in corporate boardrooms as they are in churches or community centers.  Each has forged partnerships with political opponents, and adopted a pragmatic bipartisan approach to governing cities.  Each has focused on effective service delivery rather than empowerment or redistributive policies.  Booker’s success as mayor of New Jersey’s largest city propelled him to his current position as New Jersey’s junior U.S. Senator through special election in 2013.

The Power of Perception

Detroit, Cleveland, Newark, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore and Sacramento occupy different positions on the success spectrum of American cities.  Of these five Chicago would certainly occupy the highest perch.  Chicago clearly is a global city – a world financial center, the home of a dozen Fortune 500 companies and the critical link in the nation’s rail and air transportation network.  The Windy City has extensive economic connections throughout the world.  Indeed, world-class architecture firms based in Chicago are designing the gleaming skyscrapers sprouting everywhere in China’s large cities.  Denver would rest in a position not far behind Chicago.  Denver has become the capital of the Great Plains and Mountain West, a mid-continent transportation hub that built its wealth on its access to mineral resources in the Rocky Mountains.  Sacramento would likely occupy a position behind Denver.  Sacramento’s growth has been more recent than the others, and it still sits in the shadows of much larger California metropolises.  But as the capital of our nation’s largest and most influential state, it has heft.

Baltimore, Cleveland and Newark would occupy another place on the spectrum.  All are well known for enduring the storm of industrial decline, and in Cleveland’s case, fiscal insolvency.  They’re slowly recovering from a nadir reached perhaps a decade or two ago and have made small steps toward improvement.  They’ve worked hard to revitalize their cores – Newark has leaned on its financial services sector to turn the tide, while Baltimore and Cleveland have relied on their assets in education, health care services, and biomedical and biotech research.  However, all are far from being complete success stories.

Then there is Detroit.

Each city has had African-Americans serve in the city’s highest office.  Chicago’s Harold Washington endured tough times as mayor of Chicago, but he built a lasting coalition that allowed him to prevail.  Denver’s Wellington Webb learned to adapt in a pluralistic environment and raised the profile of a Western city.  Cleveland, Newark and Detroit each elected first black mayors during the turbulent post-Civil Rights era and paid a steep social price for doing so.  Cleveland and Newark began their turnaround some years ago; perhaps Detroit’s, with its recent bankruptcy filing, has just begun.

If anyone doubts the impact of electing an African-American mayor during the racially tumultuous late ‘60s-early ‘70s era, examine the general perceptions that formed of the cities during that period and have endured ever since.  Newark and Detroit, already tainted by the aftermath of urban riots, were effectively shunned by white residents after the elections of their first black mayors.  Cleveland may have been headed down the same path after the election of Carl Stokes in 1967.  But Stokes chose not to run for a third two-year term as mayor, leaving a wide open field.  Stokes was followed by three consecutive white mayors — Ralph J. Perk, Dennis Kucinich and George Voinovich – before the election of the city’s second black mayor, Michael White, in 1990.  Atlanta touted itself as the “City too busy to hate” in the ‘70s, but Maynard Jackson’s 1973 election coincided with rapid white flight out of the city, at the same time that Sun Belt migration from the north was strengthening the suburban base.  In Washington, DC, black political empowerment there was often wrapped up in the controversy of federal political representation for the District.  Mayors in the District were federally appointed until Walter Washington was elected mayor in 1975.

Perhaps the best way to view perceptions of cities that elected “first black mayors” during the Black Power Era is to examine the fortunes of Detroit and Philadelphia during and after this period.  Entering the 1970’s the Motor City and the City of Brotherly Love had similar populations (about 1.5 million people in Detroit, 1.9 million in Philadelphia), with a similar geography (about 140 square miles) and similar demographics (approximately a 60/40 split between whites and blacks).  As noted, Coleman Young was elected mayor of Detroit in 1973, narrowly winning against Police Commissioner John Nichols.  It was clear that Nichols’ candidacy was an effort by his constituency to restore order to a city during a difficult time.  Meanwhile, another police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, assumed power as mayor of Philadelphia in 1971.  As mayor Rizzo was regarded as having a strained relationship with the city’s African-American community.  Rizzo’s “law-and-order” tactics were viewed positively by his white ethnic base and have been credited by some for keeping Philadelphia from suffering the same fate as other cities.  Could the Nichols campaign have been modeled after the successful Rizzo election two years earlier?

Possibly.  Yet it is instructive to view the difference in perceptions of both cities since that time.  Philadelphia was certainly hit hard by the decline of the nation’s manufacturing sector.  Philly had substantial losses in the shipbuilding, oil refining and food processing industries over the decades, losing thousands of jobs as a result.  Yet did Philly endure what was in effect a boycott of the city by white residents?  Troubled North and West Philadelphia are well known, but did their troubles define the entire city?  I think many people could imagine a real-life “Rocky Balboa” coming from Philadelphia in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but far fewer could imagine a similar character coming from Detroit.

Philadelphia’s national perception took a tumble over the last 40 years, but the city has fought back hard to rebuild itself as a premier city with a strong economic foundation in education, health care and financial services.  Detroit, however, continued on a descent no other city endured.  High crime rates, racial tensions, dilapidated abandoned buildings in a desolate post-industrial landscape  — all defined Detroit then and continue to define it today.

Between 1970 and 2010, Philadelphia’s population dropped by 22 percent, from 1.9 million to 1.5 million.  The decline was largely driven by a substantial loss of its non-Hispanic white population over the period, which declined by 56 percent.  Over the same period, Detroit’s population dropped by 53 percent, from 1.5 million to just over 700,000.  Its decline too was largely driven by a loss of its non-Hispanic white population, which dropped by 93 percent.  Ninety-three percent.

Something happened that kept a base or core of white residents in Philadelphia.  Something happened in Detroit that led to their virtual disappearance.

Cities that elected their first black mayors during the Black Power Era deeply suffered in national perception because of the gamut of social challenges they had at the time, and found it difficult to stabilize poor economies or for revitalization to gain traction.  But they suffered far worse than other cities because they were in effect shunned.  They suffered from the greatest increases in crime.  They experienced the largest declines in school quality and performance.  They witnessed the steepest drops in property values.  They had the widest divides between police and community.  They had the highest numbers of white middle-class residents departing for the suburbs.  Newark was shunned.  Gary was shunned.  Detroit was shunned.  Maybe Cleveland, Los Angeles, or Cincinnati, or Dayton did not suffer the same fate because African-American populations there did not approach parity with whites, who were eventually able to “reclaim” the city’s highest office.  In the end, however, select cities paid a price for the election of black mayors during this time, a price not paid by cities that elected black mayors after them, or not at all.

Another Transition


Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on election night in 2013.  Source: wikipedia.org

On January 1, Michael Duggan assumed the difficult and unenviable responsibility of becoming the 75th mayor of Detroit, Michigan.  Given the most recent difficult period that Detroit has endured, and the continued difficult times ahead, Mayor Duggan’s inauguration was a subdued affair.  There was no inaugural ball or celebration.  The new mayor was simply sworn in with a short ceremony in his new 11th floor office in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

The new mayor said he would focus on operations – removing blight, snowplowing streets, repairing lights, making sure buses run safely and on time.  The mayor suggested he would move into Manoogian Mansion, the palatial mayoral residence on the Detroit River that was deeded to the city in the 1960’s.  As far as the focus on operations goes, he really has little choice in the matter.  The State of Michigan-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr, brought in with exceptionally broad powers to resolve the city’s financial mess and currently leading the Motor City’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, has a lock on policy decisions right now.  Mayor Duggan says his focus is to “return the city to elected leadership on October 1,” the day that Orr’s 18-month appointment from the state ends.

And with that, Mike Duggan became the first white mayor of Detroit since 1973, mayor of a city with a population that is 83% African-American.  This most recent election, most observers believe, is a venture into the unknown, and is as much an experiment as Detroit’s bankruptcy itself.  An era of African-American political leadership has ended in Detroit, but no one is certain of what the next era might be.

Perhaps the bankruptcy, the election of a white mayor and the growing urban pioneer spirit that is visible in parts of the city means that the shunning of Detroit has ended.

This post originally appeared on August 10th, 2014 in Corner Side Yard.

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Philadelphia Center City Stations by Robert Munson


Philadelphia Market East Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/acetonic

This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.

In the series introduction, I divided America’s stations into four categories based on how they are evolving to sustainability. The first was “The Likely Sustainables.” While most cities have plans to reutilize their central station, these cities are doing it best. These stations serve compact cities and are using these economic advantages to help their transit system achieve fiscal sustainability over time.

How we define “fiscal sustainability” ultimately depends on taxpayers; since it is their subsidy that makes it possible for the systems to run. But for the purposes of this series on train stations, fiscal sustainability means that a particular central station has led its transit system on to a path that can reverse the four decade trend of rails requiring ever more public subsidy.

According to this series’ current scorecards and analyses, there are five to seven stations in this category and most will be described during the balance of 2013. For today, The Sustainables are represented in this post by an analysis of how through-routing connects Philadelphia’s three downtown stations.

Philadelphia’s Through-routing Triumvirate: 30th Street (Penn), Suburban & Market East Stations Help To Approach Europe’s Standard For Commuters

Score: 84 (see full scorecard)
Category: Likely Sustainable

Summary: For transit towns struggling to improve their network, Philadelphia teaches them that through-routing helps make most things better. Connecting the legacy lines of Philly’s two main commuter rail companies has increased ridership and helped improve downtown real estate. If boosters of other cities cry “unfair advantage” because Philly gets evaluated with three connected stations instead of just one, my response is: connectivity is the key to sustainable stations and its subtleties create special rewards.

What Transit Is Supposed To Create: The Synergy of Passenger Convenience and Higher Real Estate Values


Three commuter rail stations connected by the dashed horizontal black line that runs one block above the main subway, the blue line.

A useful theory to test is whether Philly’s transit innovation has been fostered by good urban bones. Starting with the 18th Century walkable grid laid out by William Penn, this narrow land between two rivers — called Center City — prospered using boats, the young nation’s first mode of transportation.

The grid also helped the next mode as it helped Philly develop more densely around rail stations. Eager to spread this new mode to outlying areas, Center City annexed the rest of Philadelphia County before the Civil War. Philly’s foresight gave it a three decade lead before annexation sprees in New York and Chicago caught up. Also, Philly’s suburban rail consolidation seems pioneering: with the Pennsylvania RR (Pennsy) and its rival Reading RR overtaking their competitors before other cities’ rails did. With only two spheres to consolidate in the 1980s, SEPTA’s takeover emerged better.

But Philly’s lead truly widened with the first through-routing of a major U.S. metropolitan commuter system. In October 1984, the Center City Connection opened, a commuter tunnel connecting the Reading stub terminal to the Pennsy system. Simultaneously, the new system converted from dirty diesel to quiet electric, though at the loss of some diesel lines. As recognition of this strategic investment, The American Society of Civil Engineers could barely wait for early results and, in 1985, gave this tunnel its top infrastructure award.

Since making this investment to integrate into one system, the tunnel’s impact clearly is positive. Center City’s residential population has grown by over 50%: making it the third most populous downtown in the U.S. (Most residential is not shown on the model below because it is on the left of this westward view of the model.) Also, Center City employment numbers have rebounded and compete better with suburban job creation.

This model looking straight up Philly’s transit corridor shows centuries of integrated planning. From Market East station in the middle foreground (next to SEPTA’s red-blue logo); then carry your eye up the street to the next logo (on Love Park in front of Suburban Station); then cross the river to the monumental 30th Street Station. Completing this tight transit corridor, the main street running just to the left is Market and has street cars and a subway.

And what are the economics of this corridor?


Philadelphia Suburban Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/ireneillee

Real estate values around Suburban terminal have improved consistently since it became a through station. Tied together with underground passages to the station, there are 11 buildings of Penn Center, plus Comcast Center. Together, they average 33 stories. Since the 1980s, 86 stories have been fully renovated equalling those un-renovated stories built in the 1960s (50 years is a normal life-cycle before a major renovation.) Over 164 stories have been built anew in Penn Center. In 2006, the redesign of the centerpiece Suburban Station was completed; improving HVAC, waiting areas, retail, passenger flow and the 20 commercial stories above (called 1 Penn Center)… all earning it an Energy Star rating.

Only one-half mile from Suburban Station (but a world away from office work), the former Reading Terminal has been redeveloped as the main Exhibition Hall of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. A touristy, mid-scale mall of almost 120 stores, called The Gallery, adjoins the new Market East Station at the end of the commuter tunnel.

After suffering decades of disinvestment, this area also has benefitted greatly from the 1984 through-routing. The Convention Center successfully got through most of its second phase expansion despite a deep real estate recession. The Gallery has stabilized through the upheavals in retail anchors and the station’s overall success has given Amtrak reason to consider it as its preferred stop for high-speed rail.

Making greater passenger convenience, the Commuter Tunnel integrates the former Reading (5 lines) and Pennsy (8 lines) to bring customers directly to each others’ stations without the hassle and cost of transferring. Through-routing clearly contributes to sustainable downtown redevelopment around these three stations.

Rounding-out the trio… One mile west of Suburban is the model of how to honor rail’s past and invent the future. Unlike many other cities, Philly kept its jewel, Penn Station. Finished in 1933 by Burnham’s successor firm, Penn Station’s grand neoclassical exterior blends well with an exquisite art moderne interior with aesthetics reflecting Philly’s transit innovations. Owned by Amtrak, it was renamed as 30th Street Station. But its owner has kept every bit of the original grandeur; making it a joy to visit and even relax.


Philadelphia 30th St. Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/afagen

As grand and gorgeous as this station is, real estate redevelopment along the Center City mile between 30th and Suburban stations has improved dramatically since through-routing. Looking on this model from 30th Street towards the CBD, south of the tracks now has 60% more floor space than 30 years ago and nearly all of it is updated or new. North of the tracks, more than half of the buildings have been renovated. An urban wasteland also has been transformed on 30th Street side of the river. The sleek, glass tower to the Station’s right (in the photo) is The Cira Centre — also designed by a star architect’s firm (albeit 100 years later than Burnham). The 29 story tower now serves as commercial anchor to the area; built above an ugly railyard that many earlier proposals had failed to conquer. A more sprawled anchor is nearby University City; hosting campuses for Drexel and Pennsylvania universities and Philly’s largest medical center. This area was in particularly bad shape thirty years ago.

Fit all this into the big picture and Philly is relatively more transit-friendly than its larger rival, Chicago, which has similar per capita transit usage but no commuter through-routing.

Suburban Station borders Love Park, where young and old lovers come to encourage their relationship and be photographed under the iconic LOVE sign. Since Suburban is has the greatest traffic, the Park also has a Visitor Center that looks up the diagonal of the Ben Franklin Pedestrian Mall and museum campus; somehow capturing urbanity’s best. As I walked through at lunch hour, a rapper in the Visitor Center bandshell was singing about his struggles with and love for his father. When I absorbed all this and entered the best commuter station I have ever seen, the uplift was too multiple and I wiped my watery eye.

How Philly’s Transit Could Improve: Reinvent SEPTA; Find New Funding

I agree with Aaron Renn’s 2012 post: “Philly’s commuter system has the greatest potential in the US to create a system on a par with the European standard; without major investments.”

SEPTA has been better than most region’s agencies at integrating commuter rail well with subway, light rail and busses. SEPTA even has revived trolley lines. A key example for the entire system is these modes integrate tightly within a block of these three stations.

Despite accolades from me and others, SEPTA still can improve on the road to fiscal sustainability by increasing ridership and lowering costs. Criticized in this “Transport Politic” post, SEPTA is not doing the simple, inexpensive innovations such as clearer map and signage that highlights the advantages of through-service. Also in SEPTA’s takeover from Reading and Pennsy over three decades ago, a bruising strike derailed an opportunity to bring commuter-rail up to rapid-transit labor efficiency standards. Instead, SEPTA has adjusted to fiscal realties by reducing services; and in other ways, doing little to contain the cost side of the equation.

As for Philly’s future transit improvements, refer to this “TP” post. While the proposed innovations focus on Center City and giving the public the most bang-for-their-bucks, some proposals seem suitable as Public-Private Partnerships. But PPPs still will require new public dollars. As a funding innovation, targeted special transit assessments in Center City might be worth a try for specific projects that show quick results.

I conclude with a telling anecdote about how SEPTA runs an integrated system and has flattened the rail hierarchy. At 30th Street Station, I was told to use my Amtrak ticket to get to the other two downtown hubs. After I expressed amazement that one rail system would not take advantage of an opportunity to collect again, the suburban conductor clued me in on a key to SEPTA’s success: “You have come into our system and our job is to get you where you need to go.”

I was so simultaneously startled and refreshed, I had to take a deep breath to recover before I could say to the conductor “Thank you.”


Photo Credit: Flickr/ddyates

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

What Killed Downtown? by Eric McAfee

What Killed Downtown?: Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls
by Michael E. Tolle

For those of us who have grown dyspeptic on the over-indulged topic of the collapse of the American city center, Michael Tolle’s What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls earns much of its anodyne appeal by straying from a commonly accepted convention in urban studies—that an analysis of the socioeconomic decline of a community should draw heavily upon socioeconomic variables. Isn’t there another way to get the point across? And more importantly, aren’t there other contributing factors?

This compassionate narrative of the 20th century rise and fall of an older Philadelphia suburb avoids graphs and charts for the most part, becoming much more engaging for its alternative approach. And likeability is exactly what it will need to win over skeptics, or the merely apathetic, because most people in the US probably have never heard of Norristown. In fact, it’s likely that quite a few people on the other side of the Keystone State aren’t familiar with it either. After all, the borough at its 1960 peak only had 39,000 inhabitants (the 2010 Census records a population of 34,000). But Norristown merits further observation, not so much because its downtown has declined in the mid-20th century—that happened everywhere, in municipalities of all sizes—but because Norristown sits squarely in the middle of Montgomery County, an expansive bedroom community of Philadelphia with 800,000 people and a median household income of over $78,000, placing it within the top 100 wealthiest counties in the nation. Meanwhile, Norristown’s median household income, according to the latest Census, is approximately $43,000 and its poverty level of 16.4% is almost triple that of the county’s 5.7%, and still a fair amount higher than the state’s rate of 12.6%. While Montgomery County boomed over the last half century, Norristown has not shared in that prosperity. It is by no means a devastated town—many old neighborhoods remain charming and fully intact—but the commercial heart of Norristown has never healed.

The above paragraph contains a higher concentration of raw data than one should ever expect to encounter in Tolle’s new book. Rather than delving into the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US Census Bureau, or rankings from Urban Land Institute or the Brookings Institution, Tolle manages to chronicle the rapid ascent of this suburban outpost, its 75-year dominion over commercial activity within the county, and its precipitous decline shortly after the Second World War—and he achieves it through a diligent perusal of old city directories, interviews with almost two dozen of Norristown’s older citizenry, and a vigorous exploration of the internal machinations of the Borough Council. He applies an anthropologist’s lens to a subject that sociologists have long overcrowded.

While Norristown’s early history—first as a manor under one of William Penn’s initial surveys, followed by a subdivision into smaller farms by Isaac Norris in 1712—is clearly never the focal point for Tolle’s methodical dissection of downtown, he avoids glossing over it. Not surprisingly, Norristown emerged as the most desirable plot of land in the sprawling manor because of its accessibility: it abutted the “canoeable part of the Schuylkill” and the interconnected American Indian trails that allowed for easy fording of the river. By 1784, the Pennsylvania Assembly carved Montgomery County out of the existing Philadelphia County, and a subsequent deed conveyed lots reserved for county buildings at the intersection of two of the only extant roads at the time. Due to its advantageous location, it became a nearly self-sufficient Town of Norris within a few years, abiding by Penn’s “Town Model” for Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania cities, employing tightly organized, gridded streets that maximized uses of available space. The construction of some of the earliest turnpikes helped to stimulate the town’s steady growth and prepare it for its incorporation as a borough of 520 acres in 1812, followed shortly thereafter by the rail networks that galvanized further expansion.


Swede Street just north of Main Street, known by some as Lawyers’ Row. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.

The early chapters of the book may only provide a backdrop for Norristown’s 20th century rise and fall, but Tolle chronologically accounts for the factors that helped Norristown emerge as the primary urban center in Montgomery County. And unlike neighboring 19th century boomtowns that dot both the Delaware and Schuylkill Valleys, Norristown “lacked the characteristics that define similar towns of sufficient size and influence that could easily explain the downtown’s decline. . . [It] was never a one-company town. It was never dependent on [a] single employer whose corporate fate might have led it to a catastrophic domino effect; rather Norristown’s workforce has always been distributed among many workplaces.” It owed much of its steady growth to its fortuitous location 17 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the convergence of several modes of transportation, and its role as the administrative center of a large and increasingly prominent county.

By the book’s twentieth page, Tolle reveals the real heart of his study: the bustling commercial core of Norristown’s six-block Main Street. At the borough’s Centennial Celebration, population approached 30,000, swelling largely from immigrants who arrived to work in various industries: first the northern European Protestants, then the Irish, then, in by far the highest concentration, the Italians, overwhelmingly from Sicily. Mennonites, Amish, and Jews (predominantly of German heritage) along with African Americans arrived in smaller numbers. While the population self-segregated along largely ethnic and economic lines (working and lower-middle class Protestants on the West End; the wealthy, Northern European original settlers in the North End and DeKalb Street; Italians and African Americans in the blue-collar East End), all the strata converged along Main Street’s densely commercialized blocks. Tolle explores the full week’s worth of celebratory activities, from the details of the floats in the Industrial Day parade to overhead weave of flags, bunting, and electrical wires. The pace of the narrative slows at this point, but Tolle employs a humanism that he retains across the ensuing pages. When he intermittently bogs down in relentless detail, he’s easily forgivable—even a little admirable for not shying away from his obsessions.


A view of DeKalb Street, Norristown’s most affluent residential address, from its southern junction with Main Street. This was once the center of commercial activity in the borough. Tolle details the controversy of the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan to make DeKalb Street one-way northbound in 1951, a restriction which remains today. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.

The Directory of the Boroughs of Norristown and Bridgeport, Montgomery County, Pa, for the years 1860-1861 serves as the bedrock for his chronological exploration of the commercial health of downtown Norristown. For some of the most resilient businesses—Chatlin’s Department Store, Egolf’s Furniture, Zummo’s Hardware—Tolle offers vignettes on their immigrant backgrounds and the financial maneuvering necessary to start their trades. Interspersed with these brief accounts are updates from subsequent City Directories, chronicling the change in business composition over time. But Tolle generally eschews tables and charts—with few exceptions, he narrates the changing commercial landscape of Norristown by integrating the livelihoods of the proprietors with the demands of the consumers. Because the authorial voice depends so heavily on firsthand accounts of the business climate—articles from the Norristown Times Herald, advertisements (including misspellings and solecisms), and, in the later years, eyewitness accounts—the routine references to City Directory data never grow stuffy or monotonous.


What Killed Downtown? is a concatenation of anecdotes. While such an indulgence in human-interest nostalgia could take a maudlin turn, Tolle again counterbalances these episodes with moments of acerbic subjectivity, as any conscientious anthropologist cannot help but do. My two favorite anecdotes feature a building and a person. The Valley Forge Hotel emerged in the roaring 1920s, purely driven by the local business community, who felt that the proud city demanded a first-class hotel. A stock subscription campaign raised enough to complete the massive six-story brick structure by November of 1925. Though it rarely made a profit, its size and relative opulence made it an icon for the city, and as an emblem of civic pride, it succeeded. The other great anecdote involves the detailed account of the life of the city’s most colorful politician, the recalcitrant Paul Santangelo. Lacking greater aspirations than borough administration, Santangelo earns more ink on these pages than any other civic leader, including the mayors. He fiercely defended the interests of the poorer Sicilian immigrants who comprised much of his district, voting ferociously in their favor but often—in Tolle’s opinion—at the expense of city progress as a whole.


Norristown Main Street, west of Swede Street and looking westward. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.

Tolle’s account of Norristown’s Main Street after its 1950 apex avoids mind-numbing predictability even has he identifies the usual culprits contributing to its decline: growing dependence on the automobile, competition from suburban shopping plazas like the now-mammoth King of Prussia, shift of the population center toward the far-southern part of Montgomery County, construction of limited access highways outside of the borough’s limits. And of course, all these factors converge with the suburban amenity that wounds Norristown the most: “free, ample parking”—a mantra which Tolle repeats enough that it tacitly answers the question to his book’s title. Anyone with a scintilla of knowledge of American urbanism will know where this is headed. But by the1950s, Tolle reaches a point in time where procures firsthand accounts of Main Street’s changes. The worm’s-eye view continues, imbuing the narrative of Norristown’s saddest days—by the 1970s it is not safe to walk Main Street at night—with empathy and hope.


Courthouse Plaza along Main Street, one of many mid-century projects that removed commercial buildings and replaced them with staid, largely unused civic space. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.

For a person as enamored by details as me, Tolle’s worm’s-eye view never really grows old, even when he’s a fussbudget over counts of shuttered storefronts from year to year. At the same time, this intricate approach to an already small subject could easily undermine the ability for What Killed Downtown? to find a broad audience. What happens to a little-known suburban city can hardly resonate as much as if he had explored the devolution of downtown Philadelphia—or even Allentown or Erie. The fixation on downtown storefronts—at the expense of geographic context—firmly ensconces the book in the “local interest” category. His 250-page narrative rarely explores impacts on Norristown Main Street outside of Montgomery County. From an early point in the book, he describes street intersections with specificity that would only mean anything to a local; then he only provides two referential maps.

None of these cavils really amount to an inherent weakness of the book—after all, it might prove just the right medicine for Tolle’s fellow Norristowners. But the narrowness of scope does foretell an oversight as to the broader implications for this city’s decline, which could have made for a much bolder peroration than the one the book currently provides. The only atypical bogeyman contributing to downtown Norristown’s precipitous decline is the persistent political gridlock and resultant incompetence of the Borough Council, which he relates with the same humanist eye he applies to his wonderful vignettes of immigrant entrepreneurialism. But Tolle had the chance to make this story matter on a scale that could mean something to someone from Ashtabula or Waukegan, and he spurned the opportunity.

My knowledge of Philadelphia, having lived there for a time, gives me an unfair advantage, but I can’t help but ask a few questions. Norristown, the seat of wealthy Montgomery County, declined and its main street is moribund to this day. But Media, the much smaller seat of neighboring Delaware County, boasts a flourishing main street of local shops and restaurants—all despite the fact that Delaware County, while equally urbanized, is much less affluent than Montgomery County. Meanwhile, cities like Chester (also in Delaware County) and Camden, New Jersey can claim a similar lifespan to Norristown, strong transportation access, and an industrial boom. But today these two cities are not only among the most devastated municipalities in their respective states, Chester and Camden are among the poorest cities in the country. Perhaps most interestingly, after several decades of population decline, Norristown began to trend upward again in the 2000 census, and by the 2010 Census the city grew virtually 10%–an unprecedented occurrence for a city that still has the reputation of being the poorest place in its respective county.

What Killed Downtown? remains a welcome contrast to countless other chronicles of downtown decline whose narratives depend on sociological detachment. Recognizing that true objectivity is impossible, Tolle instead depicts the Norristown transformation from the perspective of people who experienced it. Because its vision is geographically precise and obscure to people outside southeast Pennsylvania, I suspect our author felt driven to write it even if it enjoyed a readership of zero. Such an endeavor could reek of self-indulgence, but Michael Tolle’s opus has way too much empathy for that. Hopefully Norristown’s coterie of model train owners and newspaper collectors will put this book on their to-do lists—and then recommend it to others.

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Reason #763 Why Houston Is Prosperous by Keep Houston Houston

Matty G has a short post up on the economy of Breezy Point, Queens and my first reaction is “right, this is reason #763 why Houston is so prosperous.”

Mostly it has to do with annexation. At one extreme end you have a city like Philadelphia. Philly isn’t all that bad of a place, but when you look at the massive growth of NYC and DC, you have to consider the city’s development trajectory to be a failure. Philly lost population during the nineties and was flat during the aughts, and the city largely coasts on the infrastructure of previous generations. Roadway expansion (e.g. double-decking the Schuylkill) and transit expansion (e.g. Roosevelt Subway, Swampoodle Connection) have both gone nowhere. Taxes are high, services are low, and what little growth has occurred mostly takes the form of cancerous exurban development which has consumed productive farmland without much housing to show in return. Detroit follows the same pattern.

But if you look at the city boundaries this all makes sense. The place is hemmed in on all sides by small boroughs and townships. In some directions you can go from Center City to out-of-the-city in less than four miles.

The fun continues outside the city boundaries. There are no big suburbs outside Philly; instead, counties are a bouillabaisse of boroughs and townships of a couple thousand acres each. This is about the size of your basic Sunbelt master-planned community, so it isn’t particularly surprising that the local governments function more like homeowners associations. Exclusionary zoning is the norm, and most residential subdivisions are required to include large swaths of “open space” which is mostly about maintaining the visual deceit that you live in the “country” and not a suburb.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the annexation distribution you have a city like Dallas. Dallas goes out about eight to ten miles, plus Far North D, which is like an extended middle finger of garden apartments sticking into the adjacent cities. An east-west trip across Dallas is about 20 miles. But while Dallas is in the middle of the “city annexation” distribution, DFW as a whole is hardly in the 50th percentile in terms of prosperity and quality of life.

There is a reason for this: Where Dallas ends, the mega suburbs begin. Arlington and Plano are respectable cities in their own right, holding about 360,000 and 270,000 people, respectively. Carrollton, Frisco, Irving, and Grand Prairie each clock in well above 100,000. Large suburbs are not always favorable to “urban” things like mid-rise and high-rise structures, or LRT and other rail transit. Frisco in particular opted out of the DART taxing area, using sales tax money to subsidize commercial development instead. But large suburban jurisdictions generally tend to have coherent transportation planning, well-developed park systems, and a variety of housing types, including multifamily and small-lot single-family.

Big suburbs also make more effective use of land. The easiest way to measure this is population density. Bellevue, Washington clocks in at 4000 people per square mile. Plano “sprawls” at 3800, Arlington at 3900. Irvine, California holds 3200 a mile, and has what is perhaps the most coherent bike network in SoCal, combining near-100% arterial bike lanes with continuous off-street paths.

Meanwhile, back outside Philly, Exton – a major Amtrak and SEPTA stop – contains fewer than 1400 people per square mile, while neighboring East Whiteland township contains fewer than 1000. Density scarcely improves as you get closer in. The major corporate centers and edge cities of King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting straddle multiple townships which each contain fewer than 2000 people per square mile. By contrast, even Frisco – which is exploding in population and has annexed a lot of vacant land in anticipation of future development – is already at 1900 people per square mile.

Which brings us to Houston, the opposite extreme. Houston’s expansion knows no geographic or political boundaries. When other cities incorporate, it just goes around. Suburbs like West U, Bellaire, and the Villages become enclaves. Strategic annexations of roadways and other tracts of land extend Houston’s reach even further. A cross-section of strategic Houston annexations from Prairie View to Lynchburg measures 65 miles across. A trip from Willowbrook to El Dorado is forty.

When your city is this large, it leads to some interesting paradoxes. Houston’s nominal population density of 3600 people per sq. mile is surpassed by many of the enclaves. West U, in particular, is north of 7000. But Houston is scattered with pockets of density above 10,000/sq. mi, and portions of Gulfton and Gulfgate check in north of 20k. Houston’s 3600 is also almost exactly 30% higher than Phoenix, which pursues the exact same transportation and annexation policies but with Euclidean zoning.

Really rough back-of-the-metaphorical-envelope calculations tell me that if you drew a line at Beltway 8, you’d come out with a population density in the 6000s. (Note: see followup post.) Which is really incredible. That’s higher than Portland or San Jose, and almost to Minneapolis and Seattle, both of which have more constrained geographic boundaries. And this density is achieved in a relatively young, Sunbelt city, that grew up almost entirely around cars.

Not bad.

The reader may note that the title of this blog post said “prosperous,” while an earlier paragraph on Dallas mentioned “quality of life.” This because the two are indirectly related. Prosperity is inextricably linked to population; you need people to have an economy, you need people with skills to have clusters, the more people you have the more skills there’ll be and the more clusters you’ll get. Likewise, life is typically more enjoyable if there’s more stuff. What the stuff is doesn’t matter – it might be restaurants, museums, churches, or death metal. People do stuff and the more people you put in reach of yourself the more stuff there is and the more likely it is you’ll find stuff you like.

Now there’s two ways to gain access to people and stuff. The first is you can put people closer together. The second is you can build faster transportation so it’s easier to get to them. The Chicago “L” is a slow loris, but at 11000 people per square mile citywide, it’ll still take you to a lot of places. The intersection of North and Halsted affords a view of a set of three successive 10mph corners on the Ravenswood and Evanston Ls. But as you can see there’s also a whole of stuff built there. On the other side, Phoenix is not particularly dense, but you can always hop on this thing and go wherever. Of course the best option is to combine density with high-speed transportation infrastructure which gets you the spur through Midtown or perhaps Roppongi.

Both of these things, land use and transportation, are more easily accomplished in a larger governmental jurisdiction. The primary opposition to land use is NIMBY – “I don’t want to look up at the Ashby high-rise while I’m mowing my lawn.” The primary opposition to transportation infrastructure is, again, NIMBY – “I don’t want to live next to this freeway.” The latter is somewhat more understandable, since freeways generate noise and pollution externalities that residential towers don’t. But in both cases you’re pitting NIMBY concerns against regional concerns. The larger a city you have, the more diluted the NIMBY voices are within the overall governmental framework.

About the only way to screw this up is to devolve decision-making authority to sub-units. DC and NYC do this with zoning decisions, which is sort of exactly why DC and NYC have ludicrous zoning policy. By contrast, Houston’s super neighborhoods are strictly advisory bodies. If you had any doubts you can check out the official site which uses the words “stakeholder,” “plan,” and “priority” twice each in the span of three paragraphs. Anytime you see those words, you know that no actual, real decisions are being made. And that’s the right way to do it.

This post originally appeared in Keep Houston Houston on November 1, 2012.

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Time Lapse Philadelphia

Here’s a pretty new time lapse of Philadelphia from Angelo Leotta. Great to see this city get a quality time lapse. I particularly like the way workaday scenes like dirt being loaded into a dump truck or a juggler were included to complement the typical architecture/streetscene/waterway shots. The music is nice too. As always, viewed best in full screen high definition. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

h/t @justupthepike

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

David Gunn on Amtrak’s $151bn NEC Plan and How He Rebuilt the Harrisburg Line by Stephen Smith

[ If you didn’t read Stephen Smith’s two great recent pieces on why US transit costs are so high over at Bloomberg, you should check them out now. See: US Taxpayers Are Gouged on Transit Costs and Labor Rules Snarl US Commuter Trains. He also writes over at Forbes and the great blog Market Urbanism, which takes a free market view of boosting cities. He followed up on these pieces with this one talking about Amtrak. I hope you enjoy – Aaron. ]

First order of business: I wrote two articles for Bloomberg View (the opinion counterpart to Bloomberg News) on the high cost of US transit – one on private-sector gouging, and one on public-sector gouging.

Secondly, I’ve been talking to former Amtrak president David Gunn a lot recently – at first for the labor piece I just linked to, but the conversation has veered into other topics. (If you have any burning questions you’d like answered, leave them in the comments.)

The other day I got around to asking him what he thought about Amtrak’s $151 billion proposal for the Northeast Corridor and the $7 billion Union Station plan.

His verdict? “It’s all a f—in’ pipe dream.”

His response was basically that big, flashy plans never work out, and that the only way to get things done at Amtrak is to do them under the radar.

He used the rebuilding Amtrak’s Harrisburg line from Philadelphia to Harrisburg as an example. The Harrisburg line (the eastern half of Pennsylvania’s original Main Line) is the most important stretch of tracks that Amtrak actually owns after the Northeast Corridor, so I think there’s a lot to be learned Corridor itself.

Here is my transcription of what he said about rebuilding the Harrisburg line. Most parts are verbatim, but there are a few sentences that I wrote from memory, and a few things that I probably missed.

The Harrisburg line was a wreck. From Paoli on in [towards Philadelphia – i.e., SEPTA’s most important regional rail line], it was a bad 60 mph railroad, and from Paoli to Harrisburg it was a bad 70-80 mph railroad. The signals were ancient, the track was rough, trees were brushing up against the cars, weeds were growing on the ballast.

I rode the line with a fellow who’s got a private car, and we were handling it on one of our trains. I was embarrassed. Being a railroader, you want the railroad to look good, you want the ditches to be clean, the ballast to be clean. This stuff’s important – it’s not just for looks.

I got back, and I said, what the hell are we doing? I had a meeting with my operations guys – the chief engineer, the head of track, power, signals, bridges, structures, and the car guys and the locomotive guys. It was a small meeting, maybe 10 people. Plus I had my planers (who didn’t survive much longer!). I said, what the hell are we doing? It’s a good railroad – electrified, designed for 115-125 mph operation.

The operations guys said, you wanna fix it? We can fix it. I said, you come back and give me a plan for what we need in terms of rail ties, ditching, what we’re going to do with the signals (to go to electric push-pull trains).

Long story short, my guys came back and said that for $300 million, we can give you a first class, 115 mph railroad.

But the planners said, “We have to get a consultant on board!” It was a tie and servicing job – ”TNS” (?). I threw the planners out. I went to Governor Rendell, and they had $100 million set aside for improving that corridor. I said, you give me the $100 million, I’ll give you a railroad, and I’ll put $100 million of our money in. Norfolk Southern also gave us $3-4 million, because they used the tracks.

So we put it together, and I had to get approval from DOT and the Bushies [i.e., the Bush Administration people]. I never called it a program to rebuild the Harrisburg line – what I did is I went in and said, I need 50 miles of rail, 300,000 ties, this much wire, and I gotta rebuilding signal houses, etc. [might have been some more things in here that I didn’t catch].

They thought it was a lot – why would he need that many supplies, they thought? – but in two and a half years (they fired me just before we finished) we had it done. And it’s been a great success!

My point with this whole thing is, you get it done by bits and pieces. You don’t do it in these great leaps forward. Lots of stuff you can do on the Northeast Corridor doesn’t sound sexy – put high-level platforms on the lower level at DC Union Station, for example – but there’s all kinds of things your an do to make it faster.

And for reading this far, you get a bonus! Not horribly relevant to policy, but a funny story nonetheless about his time at Boston’s MBTA:

What you find in a lot of these transit systems, like Boston, is that it’s unionized up to the very top [of management]. We used to say, “Oh, Joe, he’s got relative ability!” In other words, he’s got powerful relatives.

The T was an example of a place that was absolutely inbred, totally politicized.

I was the director of operations, and I remember one night I was out at Matttapan, I was just walking around, and I went into the little car maintenance facility that we had there for the high-speed streetcars. I walked in, and here’s the car house repairman, drunk as the lord, and I said, “What’s your name?” I said, “You’re drunk!”

“That’s right sir,” he responded, ”I’m drunk! But you know who my son is? Senator so-and-so” – state senator.

I said, “Really? You’re still suspended, and you’re going home right now!”

We suspended the guy, sent him to our AA or whatever, and when I got back to the office on Monday, everybody there said, ooooh boy!

So I got a call early Monday from the state senator, and he says, “Is it true that you suspended my father from work?”

“Yup,” I answered. “And he’s not coming back to work till Timmy O’ says he’s fit for duty.”

And the senator said, “Thank God! I’ve been trying to get his drinking problem under control for years!”

This post originally appeared in Market Urbanism on September 1, 2012.

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Brief Notes from a Trip to Philadelphia

I’ve always said that Philadelphia is the biggest city in America you wouldn’t notice disappearing. With six million people, it’s the sixth largest metro in America. And while, because of the vagaries of metro area definitions, I think that overstates its rank a bit, without a doubt, Philly is one of America’s largest metro areas. A 1.5 million people, Philadelphia is also America’s 5th largest municipality.

So why doesn’t Philly loom larger in the national consciousness? When we think of Philly, mostly we think of stuff that happened a long time ago – Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and stuff like that. But what does Philadelphia do today? Most people might know the large pharma concentration in South Jersey, but beyond that, not even I knew much about the economy of Philadelphia.

Part of it could be a lack of a signature industry that resonates in the public consciousness. Or it could be, as some have said, Quaker modesty that precludes the city from tooting its own horn too much. Or perhaps the fact that the city has been in decline for an extended period of time. While places like New York, Boston, and DC recovered from their nadirs, Philadelphia seemed not to.

I spent the weekend in Philly a couple weeks ago. Believe it or not I’d never really been to the city, unless you count connecting in the airport or one brief suburban business trip. That by itself was telling. Nothing really draws you here.

But after spending some time touring around the area, I came away impressed. I avoided the center city mostly, just doing drive bys of City Hall and the like. Nor did I take in museums and such as I normally would. Instead, a friend of mine took me around, showing me not just downtown, but outer neighborhoods like Germantown, Chestnut Hill, and Manayunk, along with troubled places like Kensington. I also managed to do a little exploring of the Main Line suburbs.

Philadelphia has beautiful geography. There are gentle hills for the most part, with an extensive tree canopy. There are also two major rivers to provide an enjoyable waterfront experience.

The key to understanding Philadelphia, I’m told, is that unlike most places, it isn’t really a city at all. Rather, it’s a collection of towns (both in-city neighborhoods and suburbs) in which the various parts of the region really have little to do with each other. It’s like they live in different worlds. Unlike with say Chicago, where there is huge neighborhood consciousness but also a fierce attachment to Chicago the city, Philly is more fragmented. Or at least that’s what I was told. The City of Philadelphia was shaped the 1854 act of consolidation, which implemented a city-county merger with Philadelphia County, dissolving all existing municipalities there. Yet some of them seem to have independent lives yet today.

The city itself has very good bones. I was surprised to see it so intact. Philadelphia is known for its murals, which it uses to enliven areas where there have been demolitions. So I was expecting wholesale destruction on the lines of Detroit or some traditional Rust Belt burg. Make no mistake, Philadelphia has endless miles of slums. But the city seems to have mostly survived. Unfortunately, a lot of the buildings are in horrible shape, so whether they can be saved is another story, but at least they aren’t already gone.

Another surprise to me is that Philly is a two-story city. Most neighborhood buildings, including the ubiquitous row houses, are only two stories tall. I was expecting more verticality. Still, the dwelling unit density and lot area coverage are pretty high.

One exception to the positive is the Delaware River frontage. The city is cut off from the river by I-95. And on the river side of the freeway are huge numbers of strip malls, strip clubs, and assorted other depressing establishments. You’d never know you were in a city driving through them. There are a few nicer places along the waterfront itself, but there’s a long way to go to reclaim this area.

The transport network was of course of interest. Philadelphia seems vastly under-freewayed by big city standards. Other than I-95, the other main spoke route is the Schuylkill Expressway, which follows along the river of the same name. It rapidly drops to a mere two lanes each way, and congestion must be nothing short of awful.

Parts of the city still have streetcar tracks and overhead trolley wire, though only a few of these appear to have active streetcar service. There are streetcar tracks on Germantown Rd., for example, but sitting at an outdoor cafe for over an hour, I didn’t see one.

The most interesting part of the system to me is the suburban rail system. Philly has an extensive commuter rail system like New York, Chicago, and Boston. But it’s very unique. Philly has the only fully electrified commuter rail system in the country. It also built a tunnel many years ago linking the downtown terminal stations to enable through running of trains, something no other commuter system can do. (Penn Station in New York could through-route commuter trains, but I don’t believe that it does). Every line appeared to be fully grade separated. And Philadelphia’s system seems to largely rely on EMU type trains. All goodness.

My friend lives in suburban Paoli, and that line is fairly impressive. It has four mains with concrete ties, etc. This is the route used by Amtrak’s Keystone Service to Harrisburg. It’s already rated to 110MPH with, I believe, plans to further increase top speeds to 125MPH. With the SEPTA (Philly’s transit agency) Silverliner V EMU cars rated at 100MPH, it’s easy to see how you could create a premier commuter corridor here. I would say that there’s enormous potential in Philly’s commuter system to create a regional transit system on par with Europe, without ridiculous investments being required either. I may do a future post on this, but there may be more potential in Philadelphia’s commuter system than anywhere else in the United States.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to ride the SEPTA system itself, but did take the Keystone into NYC for a meeting. I was able to board in Paoli. I’d say the train was about 2/3-3/4 full on a Monday morning, with the bulk of the passengers exiting in Philadelphia. It seems to be mostly another set of passengers who board there for the trip into NYC.

The train boards in Paoli at 6:19am but isn’t scheduled to get to Penn Station until 8:38. This route might have reasonably frequent service, but the journey time is too long. With the Acela making the trip from NYC to PHL in only 1:05, there would seem to be plenty of room for improvements.

The availability of frequent Amtrak service to New York and Washington puts Philadelphia in an enviable position. As the south axis of the Northeast Corridor has taken on more importance, Philadelphia has started to rise along with it. The city gained population for the first time since 1950. You can see construction and investment in many places throughout the city, though clearly some transitioning neighborhoods got caught out by the housing collapse.

With the skyrocketing cost of real estate in New York, some folks are unsurprisingly looking south. Philadelphia Magazine just ran a story on the migration from New York and the sixth borough effect might finally be starting to happen for real. Though housing costs are high by the standard of the Midwest and South, they are dirt cheap by comparison to other East Coast big cities. With the impressive urbanism, extensive transit system, amenities, and good transport, it’s unsurprising people are looking to take advantage of what Philadelphia has to offer. If the catenary in New Jersey is finally upgraded, and modern rolling stock purchased to enable frequent, high speed trips to New York in times less than many outer borough commutes, Philadelphia might really end up taking off.

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Back to the City

Update: The NYT just ran an interesting story called “In Shift, More People Move In to New York Than Out” that provides further info on this trend using recent Census data.

My latest post is online over at New Geography. It is called “Back to the City?” and examines the question of whether in fact there has been a movement back to the city. Census figures suggest that while many downtowns flourished, albeit often showing large percentage gains on a small base, cities generally underperformed in the 2000s vs. the 1990s.

In this piece I look at intra-metro migration to measure people moving from the city to the suburbs and vice versa. Because data is only available at the county level, I selected four cities where counties offered a good proxy for the urban core: New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

As you can see from the chart above, there has been a shift in trends in the 2000s, with out-migration falling off late in the decade, while in-migration remained steady or even increased. The most striking trend was in Philadelphia, as shown above. That chart shows the migration values plotted as a index to render them in the same scale. There is still a net out-migration to the suburbs, but the gap has narrowed in these places. Here we see that on the chart with raw numbers:

Obviously with the late decade featuring a steep recession and housing bust, migration has been affected. It remains to be seen what will happen in the future. But these numbers do clearly show improvements for core cities in the underlying migration trends.

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Replay: A Better Road to Clean Water Act Compliance

I’ve noted before that the astronomical cost of Clean Water Act compliance for our cities was a killer. Most older cities are also struggling with deteriorated street infrastructure that would require another massive dose of spending to correct. Also, in the Midwest, most cities have street networks that are not even right in their very conception for the modern day anyway. And, they need to make major investments to create a more green city as well. A plan out of Philadelphia shows the way to kill three birds with one stone.

With the most ambitious program of its kind in America, Philly is looking to remediate its combined sewer overflow problem with a massive program of green building designed to prevent the problem in the first place.

Philadelphia has announced a $1.6 billion plan to transform the city over the next 20 years by embracing its storm water – instead of hustling it down sewers and into rivers as fast as possible.

The proposal, which several experts called the nation’s most ambitious, reimagines the city as an oasis of rain gardens, green roofs, thousands of additional trees, porous pavement, and more.

All would act as sponges to absorb – or at least stall – the billions of gallons of rainwater that overwhelm the city sewer system every year.

The plan’s complex funding formula would raise rates somewhat but also attract grants and encourage private investment.

Further, the Water Department says the city’s greening would result in more jobs, higher property values, better air quality, less energy use, and even fewer deaths – from excess heat.
[ link to online article expired ]

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a combined sewer is where storm water runoff and sewage from buildings is carried in the same pipes. This was how sewers were built back in the day and were a huge improvement in public sanitation at the time. However, in heavy rains, the storm water runoff overwhelms the capacity of the treatment system, and the rest backs up in basements, pools on the streets, or is simply dumped into a nearby river, contaminating the environment with untreated sewage. Cities are being forced to largely eliminate these combined sewer overflows as part of the Clean Water Act.

The typical solution to this is to spend a few billion dollars building a “deep tunnel”. This is a huge storage pipe bored into bedrock deep underground, which holds excess sewage until after the storm when the treatment plant can process it.

There are a few problems with deep tunnels:

  • They are ridiculously expensive. Washington, DC is spending $2.2 billion on one, Indianapolis $1.6 billion, Cincinnati $3.5 billion, and Cleveland $5 billion – or thereabouts. The prices seem to vary depending on the source you read, but the operative term is always “billion”.
  • Like all projects designed to deal with peak of the peak capacity, it will be un-utilized or under-utilized 90% of the time. It’s mostly wasted capacity. If you can, it is generally better to use demand management techniques to smooth out demand spikes, such as congestion pricing for roads.
  • It’s a hack. We’re still basically taking clean water (well, not entirely clean, but that’s another post), combining it with raw sewage, and creating even bigger amount of, well, sewage. That doesn’t sound too smart.
  • It adds zero to the city. What does your city get for a deep tunnel no one can see? Not much. The environmental benefits will never generate a rational economic or recreational ROI and no one even attempts to justify it on that basis. We are simply doing this because we’ve decided it is the right thing to do.

The cost of this will add yet another incentive for people to move to suburban or exurban districts that are not part of the combined sewer zone to escape paying the sky high bills that will result. Those newer areas were built from the ground up with separate storm water and sanitary sewer systems. Sewer bills in Indianapolis are on their way to over $100 per month – triple suburban rates. This will certainly hurt low income people and make them look even more strongly at the collar counties.

Philadelphia is showing a better way to tackle this problem. Instead of building a deep tunnel for billions and getting more or less no return, it is looking to spend money at get something for it in terms of improved street and green infrastructure and more trees and greenery – while preventing the creation of billions of gallons of contaminated water in the first place. In short, exactly the type of demand management solution we should be looking at. There’s no guarantee the EPA will go along with them. Cincinnati floated this idea and it got shot down. But given the potentially huge benefits, it ought to be pushed with full vigor.

Consider the possibilities. Instead of a place like Indianapolis tripling sewer rates to dig a deep tunnel, then having to turn around and sell its water utility (a moving Cincinnati is also looking at) to raise funds to repave streets that, even if fixed up, still are not relevant to reinvigorating the urban core for the 21st century, why not instead do something like this? I was thinking about it just the other day walking past a construction zone on the Cultural Trail and seeing the rain gardens being built there. Why not use the billions for sewers to rebuild the streets with rain gardens, new curbs and sidewalks, bike lanes, new permeable pavements, trees and native grasses, etc? This would not be gold plated a la the Cultural Trail, but just what the new basics of a thriving urban environment today ought to look like. Think of the possibilities:

  • CSO overflows fixed
  • Streets re-imagined and upgraded
  • New state of the art green infrastructure built

That’s called a trifecta. Any city that hasn’t already built a deep tunnel should launch a full court press on this – even it has already reached a settlement with the EPA. There are certainly challenges to overcome – I hear permeable asphalt can’t be salted, for example, a problem in a region with lots of snow – but technology is getting better every day and where there’s a will, we can find the way.

Cities that don’t do this, and go with the old school approach, face the serious of risk of building the civic equivalent of the new Comiskey Park. That is, the last of the 70’s style stadiums that were obsolete as soon as they opened as a new era of fan friendly ballparks debuted. Don’t be that city. Kudos to Philadelphia for really leading the charge.

President Obama is bringing a new focus on cities to the White House. If I could pick only one area he could make a huge difference in for our cities, it is in changing the game on Clean Water Act compliance. If he pressed the EPA to embrace a forward looking vision of using this type of green infrastructure program, it could be a huge force in increasing the attractiveness of our urban cores in an era when that is more critical than ever. And if the feds picked up the cost of this – and nothing would help cities more since it would remove a huge financial disincentive to live in the city – it would be the ultimate urban game changer. I’d urge the President to make this happen and our city leaders to go all out for it on their end.

This post originally ran on October 13, 2009.

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Richard Florida: How to Revitalize Rust Belt Cities

How to revitalize America’s great industrial cities? How to balance people- vs. place-oriented policies? And why mega-projects and bailouts don’t work, but organic, community, bottom-up efforts do. Richard Florida explains in this excerpt from “The Death and Life of Great Industrial Cities”, Chapter 12 of his recent book The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity.

One response to the problems of rusted-out industrial cities such as Detroit has been a new urban reclamation effort called “shrinking cities.” The idea, perhaps inspired by Pittsburgh, has caught on in smaller cities in the American Midwest, such as Youngstown, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan, and their European counterparts. The basic notion is that older industrial cities need not grow to improve. They can be better places by making do with less, by focusing on improvements in the quality of life for their residents, and by bringing their level of infrastructure and housing into line with their smaller populations. A June 2009 story in the U.K. newspaper the Telegraph bore the wince-inducing headline “U.S. Cities May Have to Be Bulldozed to Survive.”

The concept that certain places would be better off by shrinking has been around for a while. The notion of “planned shrinkage” was originally proposed in the 1970s by then New York housing commissioner Roger Starr. The late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan once suggested that benign neglect could be part of an urban policy. Though Moynihan meant to focus attention on dying cities – a cause he worked on over his entire career – the term “benign neglect” ultimately came to represent the Nixon administration’s neglectful attitude toward America’s urban centers: let hopeless neighborhoods fall to dust, and support the healthier areas that remain standing.

Today’s shrinking-cities advocates are much more sensitive to the issues facing older industrial communities. They recognize how globalization and market forces work against some older communities and sensibly suggest that such places would be better served by proactively managing the process of economic transformation and adjustment and by devising strategies to enable those communities to improve their quality of life and realign with the new economic and fiscal realities.

The most successful examples of shrinking, such as Pittsburgh’s, result not from top-down policies imposed by local governments but from organic, bottom-up, community-based efforts. While Pittsburgh’s government and business leaders pressed for big-government solutions – new stadiums and convention centers – the city’s real turnaround was driven by community groups and citizen-led initiatives. Community groups, local foundations, and nonprofits – not city hall or business-led economic development groups – drove its transformation, playing a key role in stabilizing and strengthening neighborhoods, building green, and spurring the development of the waterfront and redevelopment around the universities. Many of Pittsburgh’s best neighborhoods, such as its South Side, are ones that were somehow spared from the wrath of urban renewal. Others, such as East Liberty, have benefited from community initiatives designed to remedy the damage done by large-scale urban renewal efforts that left vacant lots in place of functioning neighborhoods and built soulless public housing high-rise towers. That neighborhood is now home to several new community development projects, including a Whole Foods Market, which provides local jobs as well as serving as an anchor for the surrounding community. This kind of bottom-up process takes considerable time and perseverance. In Pittsburgh’s case, it took the better part of a generation to achieve stability and the potential for longer-term revival.

The sad but unavoidable fact is that overall, and with few exceptions, places in the United States and in other advanced nations where the regional economies are based on blue-collar industries are headed for trouble. In my detailed statistical studies on hundreds of cities and regions, I found that those regions with large working-class concentrations have lower levels of economic output, lower incomes, lower levels of innovation, and lower levels of happiness. Our studies found this to hold true in a comparison of the fifty states and across the nations of the world, in a sample of more than one hundred countries. Stop for a moment and think about that. In both the nations of the world and U.S. states, locations with large working-class concentrations are far less happy. In fact they appear downright unhappy. Perhaps Marx was right after all about the alienation that comes from industrial work, or, for the purposes of our discussion, the unhappiness found in working-class locations.

The bigger question, then, is this: Should public policy toward hard-pressed, economically strapped cities focus on people, not just by encouraging retraining but also by helping them relocate to places with a better job market? Or should policies focus on places, by fostering geographically targeted reinvestment? For many urban economists the answer is simple – put people first. “While regional diversity within the United States might prompt politicians to pursue policies that target aid to distressed regions,” writes Harvard’s (Edward) Glaeser, “that seems likely to be counterproductive. America has always dealt with regional economic disparities through migration. … Today’s recession will also prompt mobility, probably toward more skilled, more centralized cities with less historical commitment to manufacturing.” My own view is that in most cases it makes sense to put people first. At the end of the day, people – not industries or even places – should be our biggest concern. As Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, aptly put it, “The plight of these people is also in a way our plight.” We can best help those who are hardest hit by the crisis by providing a generous social safety net, investing in their education and skills, and encouraging them, when necessary, to move from declining places to ones that offer better opportunity. Especially in tough economic times, we’re all better served by helping people. People need education and skills to shift from old industries to new jobs. And since these jobs are often in different places, they have to be able to move where the jobs are. This imperative is strongest for members of less-advantaged groups in declining areas, who we must prepare for new economic realities. There are times when it’s simply better for families to relocate to where the jobs are than to wait for longer-term efforts to rebuild declining industries to take hold.

That does not mean we should give up on places altogether. There is intelligent help we can offer to declining places that wish to turn around or at least stabilize themselves. First and foremost, their elected officials need to get over their love affair with big renewal projects. If we’ve learned anything over the past generation or two, it’s that large-scale top-down government projects to revitalize communities do not work and frequently do more harm than good. Bailouts of old industries are also a poor use of limited resources, because they simply forestall the inevitable and do little to bolster the prospects for older industrial regions.

So what can be done? Instead of spending millions to lure or bail out factories, or hundreds of millions and in some cases billions to build stadiums, convention centers, and hotels, use that money to invest in local assets, spur local business formation and development, better employ local people and utilize their skills, and invest in improving quality of place. One leading economic developer, who has extensive experience in economic revitalization in the United States, Canada, and Europe, explained the shift in economic development toward older industrial regions this way: “Urban revitalization based on luring so-called big game projects no longer has a place in the advanced countries,” he said. “If economic developers want to do that today, they should move to China. That’s where all the big corporate projects are or are heading. Revitalizing older cities in North America and Europe increasingly depends on being able to support lots of smaller activities, groups, and projects.” He talked about how efforts to support local entrepreneurship, build and nurture local clusters, develop arts and cultural industries, support local festivals and tourism, attract and retain people – efforts that he and his peers would have sneered at a decade or two ago – have become the core stuff of economic development. When taken together, seemingly smaller initiatives and efforts can and do add up in ways that confer real benefits to communities. These are the kinds of initiatives that Jane Jacobs and others have advocated as plain old good urbanism. [O]ne of the most effective things the federal government can do to help revitalize older Rust Belt cities and regions is to invest in a high-speed rail network that would better connect them to one another and to other, more thriving economic hubs, shrinking the distance between them and building economic size and scale required to compete more effectively.

Cities can take bold steps beyond the remaking of their physical space. One brilliant and beautiful example can be found in the City of Brotherly Love, an initiative called “Graduate! Philadelphia.” I’ve been making the point for years that cities with a higher percentage of college graduates in their populations are better positioned for long- term prosperity. The city of Philadelphia recognized this, too, and also knew it ranked poorly among cities in the level of educational attainment of its residents. Civic leaders also knew, however, that a very high percentage of the people, although they had no college degree, had accumulated some credits along the way. A partnership among the city government, foundations, and other private institutions formed to offer guidance and support to any Philadelphian who wanted to go back to school and get a degree. Quite a few nearby colleges and universities became partners in the project. A related project, Campus Philly, has worked to make the city and region more attractive to college students and to retain as well as attract recent college grads. And the city’s major universities, especially the University of Pennsylvania, devised new, more cooperative approaches for revitalizing their surrounding neighborhoods by investing in local schools, supporting home and storefront improvements, and making their own health centers and facilities open to residents as well as students and faculty. Here is a city looking toward the future, developing a strategy to raise its competitive position by preparing more of its people to succeed in the postindustrial, knowledge-based economy of the Great Reset. It seems to be paying off. In 2009, while older Rust Belt and sprawling Sunbelt cities were literally hemorrhaging people, the city of Philadelphia saw its population increase.

As with so many things in life, the small stuff really can make a difference to the people living in cities. That sounds like an easy thing to say, but there is considerable research to back it up. The quality of life in the place we live is a key component of our happiness, according to surveys of tens of thousands of people conducted by the Gallup Organization. There are three key attributes that make people happy in their communities and cause them to develop a solid emotional attachment to the place they live in. The first is the physical beauty and the level of maintenance of the place itself – great open spaces and parks, historic buildings, and an attention to community aesthetics. The second is the ease with which people can meet others, make friends, and plug into social networks. The third piece of the happiness puzzle is the level of diversity, open-mindedness, and acceptance: Is there some equality of opportunity for all? Can anyone – everyone – contribute to and take pleasure from the community? My own work with cities across the United States and Canada and around the world convinces me that none of these things can be accomplished by government-sponsored megaprojects. Instead, they are organic in nature and require real leadership and the active engagement of the community.

This excerpt from The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette. Reprinted here with permission of the author.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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