Posted by: Jeff | January 20, 2011

Urban Decay

Abandoned Row Houses in Baltimore, MD

I’ve finally started watching The Wire, and can confirm that the hype is entirely justified.  It is a tremendous work of drama, and speaks to a host of societal issues ranging from crime, corruption, race relations, justice, and urban policy.  Set against the stark background of urban Baltimore, the show highlights the hopelessness endemic in blighted urban areas across the country, with failing public education options, falling high school retention rates, poor job opportunities, and decaying infrastructure.  Add an economic recession into the mix, and brainstorming ways to rescue Baltimore is an exercise in frustration and despair.

I’ve been thinking a lot about urban decay and abandonment lately, as a result of questions and issues posed by both The Wire and a girlfriend with a degree in Urban Planning and Policy.  Growing up in suburban Minnesota, in a town that experienced a boom through my formative years, issues of American decay were far from my mind.  Living in Washington, D.C., and speaking to friends from places like Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore, has been eye-opening.

I certainly don’t have any answers – or even a coherent line of thought – in this post, but here are a few of the disparate threads that have really absorbed my attention recently.

Suburban Flight – With the release of the latest 2010 Census data, Washington, D.C., celebrated its first period of growth since the 1950’s.  Over the previous 60 years, D.C. shed 200,000 people.  By no means does the District feel empty to me, and my perception had always been that the city was looking for ways to increase density as a means of ensuring infrastructure capacity.

The idea of a shrinking city is fascinating to me because land area remains constant.  In the case of Washington, and many cities that have seen even greater loss of population over the past fifty years, geographic territory remains constant but population has been cut by a large percentage.  Theoretically, at least, this means that a great deal of infrastructure development and expenditure, designed to support such large populations, now sits unused or obsolete, designed to function for a much larger population – and at funding levels consistent with a much larger tax base.

All this led me to the Census data for several post-industrial American cities to find out more about population loss.  I knew of white flight, and general population shifts to the suburbs with the rise to dominance of the automobile, but I had no idea just how much population American cities actually shed.  In the case of Detroit, the city has shrunk by over 900,000 people since 1960!  That means that, on average, over 150,000 people have left Detroit every decade in the last five.  In Cleveland and St. Louis, more than a quarter of the population left in the span of ten short years between 1970 and 1980.

What happens to the infrastructure of a city that shrinks by 25% – or more?  In Washington, loss in population meant the end of street car lines and the rise of vacant properties.  As property values fell, crime rates rose, and Washington spent a bleak couple of decades in the 1980s and 1990s fighting a deserved reputation as a city infested by drugs and violence.  Washington is bouncing back, but other cities – like Baltimore – are not so lucky.

Here are some of the population trends for American cities dating back to 1930 (I charted census data using Google Documents) – it’s pretty startling:

“Ruin Porn” – The Atlantic Wire today featured an ongoing conversation in the blogosphere about photographic and journalistic depictions of urban decay and whether they take advantage of those who still live in these areas – many impovershed, unemployed, and without access to basic services.  The framework of this discussion is familiar to me, as a student in the International Development field – flooding Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum, with cameras and photojournalists does little to raise standards of living, and often leads to the objectification of the poor.  Local inhabitants are subjects captured for detached pity or contemplation, and are not treated as human beings with their own dignity.

I’m torn on this debate, because I do think there is merit to arguments like Matthew Newton’s that “the glut of disaster porn photography currently cycling on the Internet has outsiders convinced Detroit is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, devoid of hope or humanity.”  There is a dehumanizing aspect to it, but I can also see merit to the argument that it is the dehumanization that so desperately needs exposure.  By seeing places like Detroit in all of its despair, one can understand on a much deeper level just how badly America’s urban areas are hurting.  I, for one, had no idea until seeing pictures like those in Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s new gallery of images of Detroit:

 

Michigan Central Station. Credit: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Dearth of Good Choices – There are numerous moments in The Wire where a youth turned to a life of gangs and crime expresses interest in reform.  Whether it be Wallace pledging to go back to school, D’Angelo asking for a new start in a new place, Bubbles trying and failing to stay clean, or Cutty trying to make ends meet in the shadow of the lucrative drug trade, the viewer comes face to face with the difficult choices made every day by those trapped in a life of poverty in cities increasingly incapable of reaching them.  How do we fix a school system that can’t even retain its students?  How do we give youth alternatives to gangs when there are no jobs or after-school programs?  How do we help the growing number of homeless in an era of budget tightening?  How do you lower crime, transform vacant properties, and attract business when the tax base is fleeing to the suburbs?

America may be the best country in the world, but many of our cities are undergoing a painful transition to old age, with no help in sight.

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  1. […] touched all the right notes about urban renewal, American spirit, and innovation.  Touching on Detroit’s urban blight, Chrysler turned it into a broader point about resilience and perseverence in the face of […]


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