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Back to the Renaissance? A New Perspective on America's Cities Research

Joel Kotkin


The need for a dramatic reassessment of the role of cities has rarely been so pressing. With the development of rapid transportation and ever-easier communications, some observers, like futurist George Gilder, now dismiss cities as "leftover baggage of the industrial era." For the first time in modern history, it is possible to imagine the development of a sophisticated technological civilization detached from the fate of great urban centers.

Post-urban theorists certainly can justify their views on the basis of contemporary economic and demographic trends. In the 1980s, roughly two-thirds of all jobs were in the suburbs; by the mid-1990s, the figure was estimated to be as high as 80 percent. This reflects a truism, documented by economist David Birch, that most new economic growth is inversely related to its distance from the inner city. In an analysis of economic growth rates during the early 1990s, Birch found that activity picked up most rapidly in areas farthest from the central business districts sectors which, in contrast, actually experienced net losses of jobs. Overall, non-metropolitan job growth outpaced that of major urban areas in the early 1990s by almost two-to-one, something unprecedented in recent American history. As one University of Nebraska analyst suggests:

We are right on the edge of a new form of social and economic organization. We are rapidly approaching the point where technology empowers people to live anywhere in the US. People will be able to take their family and their skills and settle somewhere based on the quality of life, not on how close they'll be to a big city job market. That is a departure from the traditional form of social organization in this country.

The drop in the urban population, particularly in older industrial centers, bolsters the validity of such views. Since 1980, for example, Baltimore's population has dropped by almost 100,000 (roughly six percent) while Washington DC has suffered a similar decline, losing more than eight percent of its residents. Even in economically dynamic urban regions such as Puget Sound, San Francisco, and Atlanta, the central city increasingly represents a shrinking proportion of the regional population. This reflects the continuing suburbanization of America: in 1950 only 23 percent of Americans lived in suburbs; today over 50 percent do.

The flight of the middle class from the cities constitutes the core of the city's demographic woes. Roughly one million native born people moved from both New York and Los Angeles areas between 1990 and 1995; Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and San Diego also suffered large-scale domestic out-migration. Perhaps most ominously, recent evidence indicates that many middle-class minorities and even upwardly mobile recent immigrants have shown a marked tendency to follow affluent whites in the rush out to the fringes.

This loss of middle-class population has occurred even in sunbelt cities such as Houston, which during the 1980s lost two above-median households for every one that migrated back. The results were even worse in the older industrial cities: among the highest quintile of earners in Cleveland and Detroit, five households moved out for every one that moved back.

These demographic trends are transforming our major cities into the primary location for America's festering social problems. In 1960, central cities housed roughly 26.9 percent of America's poor, but by 1990 that figure had soared to more than 42 percent. By 1990, median income levels in central cities were almost 30 percent lower than in the suburbs. The urban poverty rate was 18 percent, compared to about 8 percent in the suburbs. Even in Atlanta—the commercial center of the "booming" new South—nearly 27 percent of the population lives in poverty, and rates of violent crime are higher than anywhere else in the nation.

Virtually everywhere, core cities have become increasingly marginal players in their own regional economies. Today, for example, of the top one hundred companies in the Chicago area, fifty-eight now call the suburbs home. And more relocations outside of urban centers seem likely in the coming years. According to a 1992 Ernst and Young study, nearly all the "preferred" locales for corporate expansions in office, manufacturing, and distribution are either in small cities or in the outer suburban rings of the major metropolitan areas.

Cities are clearly losing their appeal for most people. According to the Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who want to live in major urban areas dropped from 18 percent in 1970 to 13 percent in 1991. Cities have become, observes Cleveland's reformist Mayor Michael White, "a code word for a lot of things: for minorities, for crumbling neighborhoods, for crime, for everything America has moved away from."

Given these realities, it is all too conceivable that many of America's major cities could end up as little more than glorified villages, existing-as in the case of ancient Troy or Carthage-only as faint reminders of their past greatness. Such a result would not be historically unimaginable. Rome, whose population reached nearly one million at the beginning of the Imperial era, foreshadowed many of the problems that have plagued America's cities for the past 40 years—the desertion of the central city by the middle and upper strata, a growing underclass, and an increased share of wealth allocated to governmental services. "By the fifth century," observed the historian Joseph Tainter, "men were ready to abandon civilization itself in order to escape the fearful load of taxes."

Following the fall of Rome, there ensued for several centuries a period in western Europe in which cities all but ceased to function. The Dark Ages brought in their wake a "simplification" of culture, a moving inward-what one historian has described as "a time of narrowing horizons, of the strengthening of local roots, and the consolidating of old loyalties." The civilization of that era created a culture based not on classical urban values of commerce, cross-cultural communication, and competition, but on the knight, the world of the manor, seigneurial rights, and the institutions of the Church. It would not be until the second millennium before Europe's cities would achieve the material levels of classical Rome.