Facebook pixel The Future of the Center: The Core City in the New Economy Research | Part 2: The Rise And Decline Of The Traditional City Center | Pepperdine School of Public Policy Skip to main content
Pepperdine | School of Public Policy

The Future of the Center: The Core City in the New Economy Research

Joel Kotkin


The earliest American cities essentially cloned this European model, although some, such as William Penn's Philadelphia, were designed along what were hoped to be more logical and humane lines. The vast scale of North America, the availability of cheap land and the agrarian orientation of many of the nation's settlers initially helped discourage urban growth. But eventually the growth of population, the increasing volume of both cross-oceanic and internal trade, and the early stages of industrial development promoted urban development. As they grew into fair-sized towns, each of them quadrupling in the last half century before the revolution, New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia planted the seed-bed of urban culture, complete with central markets, commons, and cultural institutions. This process accelerated after independence, as trade and the beginnings of manufacturing expanded. A visitor to Baltimore in 1853 described the city as:

A delightful place, either for a man of bustle and business, or a man of quietude and pleasure; for one can find oneself in a flourishing port of entry, of immense traffic, of numerous manufactures, and about the largest market for tobacco and flour in the Union, while the other may enjoy all the advantages of its several literary and scientific institutes. . . .

The onset of the industrial revolution both quickened and profoundly reshaped central-city development. Long a predominately rural nation, the United States by the 1860s witnessed the rapid development of its cities. As the urban percentage of the population grew—from 8.7 percent in 1830 to nearly 20 percent three decades later—there was an increasing concentration in a handful of larger cities, notably New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston on the East Coast. In the emergent West, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis were also developing enough critical mass in terms of population and wealth to develop their own central business districts, financial centers, and even entertainment districts.

Within these cities, railroads, telegraphs, and the setting up of vast factories served to consolidate further urban functions, and the population, towards the geographic center. In 1860 New York, over 95 percent of Manhattan's population lived within a nine-square mile-walking city." Three decades later the Lower East Side registered a density of over 500,000 people per square mile, making it one of the most-crowded places in history.

As the nation and its iron network of rail expanded westward, this dense geographical pattern was duplicated in the nation's vast interior. As frontier commerce shifted from mere subsistence to trade, and the rural population swelled, there emerged a vast new market for interior villages and towns to transform themselves into cities. Although still far smaller than their European or East Coast cousins, these entities sought to duplicate the culture, industry, and economic forms of their predecessors. Suddenly, rising amidst the frontier, one saw the nascent metropolis which, as one western writer commented, sought to bring "a little of Paris, a section of Broadway, a slice of Philadelphia to the backwoods. . . ."

Yet it was not trade or the arts that sparked the rapid growth of many of these new cities, but the dramatic expansion of the industrial economy. The fastest-growing cities of the late 19th century were not New York or Boston, the historic cultural centers and trade entrepots, but industrial cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Akron, and Brooklyn. These cities may have used the same brick and mortar, and copied New York's sense of style, but their economic hearts were sustained not by trade or artisanal activities, but the demands of mass manufacturers, their suppliers, and executive elites.

Mass industrialism also determined the demographic groups who would predominate in these cities. As the demand for low- and semi-skilled labor arose, these cities became magnets for immigrants with lesser educations, poor whites, and, particularly after World War II, African-Americans fleeing the poverty, degradation, and the automation of agriculture in the South. This migration reached the more commercially oriented metropolises of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, but took on its densest form in industrial cities such as Detroit, Newark, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Oakland, California.

Yet by the 1960s these "flowers of industrial urbanization " were wilting faster than the more commercially minded traditional metropolis. Having been built to perfection for the industrial age, they were most vulnerable when manufacturing jobs began fleeing for the suburbs or overseas. Industrial cities such as St. Louis, Detroit, Baltimore, and Buffalo increasingly seemed "overgrown," too large for an economic base that was shrinking and ill-suited to exploit those Renaissance functions that other cities performed more expertly.

To be sure, pockets of vitality exist in areas such as Detroit's Greektown, St. Louis's Soulard, Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, or Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Yet for the most part these downtowns have surrendered much of their central geographic role. As recently as 1988, downtown Baltimore's Central Business District accounted for one-fourth of its region's office leasing activity. A decade later it was less than 10 percent. Two out of every five jobs came from the public sector, while the vast majority of new investment was concentrated not in the historic downtown, but in a small entertainment area around the Inner Harbor and the Camden Yards baseball stadium.

Attempts to revive cities around such things as casinos, football stadiums, and arenas at best created a kind of showcase that provides a patina of prosperity inadequate to reverse a more widespread secular decline. Downtown Cleveland boasts an impressive array of symbolic centers—the heavily subsidized Gateway project, which includes Jacobs field and Gund Arena (home of the NBA's Cavaliers), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and several other retail-oriented developments—but the results for most Clevelanders have been negligible. The city's overall share of employment and income has continued to decline, while its portion of poverty households has increased.

At best these efforts have helped prevent Cleveland from becoming a modern-day Carthage. Suburbanites, who took most of the new jobs created by the downtown "recovery," may feel better about working in the core, but the bulk of the job creation continues to move to the periphery. "We didn't create a booming economy," explains Richard Shatten, a leader in the comeback effort who now teaches public policy at Case Western Reserve University. "We found a reason to exist."

For all its limitations, this approach is being taken by other old industrial cities, such as St. Louis or Detroit, whose city leaders believe it will arrest their precipitous decline. Both cities have lost roughly half their population since the 1950s and continued to lose population throughout the 1990s despite nearly three decades of civic efforts to turn themselves around. Yet for the most part these cities are likely to remain mere shadows of their past greatness. As in ancient Carthage, one can still admire the magnificent infrastructure—train depots, art-deco office towers, old department-store buildings, decorative streetlights, and clocks. Yet for the most part, these treasures remain derelict or at best underused, much like an old man's clothes now several sizes too large.