Cities in Their Old Age

Continuing the morning’s theme of “crushingly depressing stories from the New York Times,” there’s also a downer article about cities where there are more deaths than births:

What demographers call a natural decrease has been occurring for years in tiny rural towns and in some retirement meccas in the South. But the phenomenon is relatively new in metropolitan areas in the Northeast, the Rust Belt of the Middle West and Appalachia.

Hospitals are closing obstetrics wards and converting them to acute care. Local governments and other social service providers are adjusting to the emergence of entire neighborhoods where the average age is soaring, and private foundations are awarding scholarships to retain students and attract new ones.

In Pittsburgh, public school enrollment plummeted from about 70,000 two decades ago to about 30,000 and continues shrinking by about 1,000 a year.

Now, to some extent, this is inflating the problem– as the map accompanying the story shows, the vast majority of the country is just barely above a 1:1 ratio of births to deaths. This is pretty much what you’d expect, given the slowing in the rate of population growth over the years. There is a real issue here for a lot of cities, though, and it hits close to home– the Mohawk Valley in New York is cited as a region that is experiencing or will soon experience this “natural decrease,” and I’d be surprised if Broome County (where I grew up) isn’t close to that point as well.

I end up feeling a little conflicted about this, though, in the same way that I’m unsure of what to think about the many recent stories about the depopulation of the northern Great Plains states (Patrick Nielsen Hayden has linked a lot of these, but apparently mostly through the sidebar, because I couldn’t find a specific post to link). On the one hand, it’s sad to see a once-vital community fade away, but on the other hand, it’s hard to think of a compelling reason why people have to live in Pittsburgh. Or North Dakota, or Buffalo, or Schenectady, or Binghamton.

Don’t get me wrong, here– I have nothing against these communities, and in fact live in an area that’s seen better days. Schenectady is making a good effort to rebuild, but the city has never completely recovered from GE pulling most of its operations out back in the 80′s (or thereabouts– it might’ve been early 90′s).

For many of these cities, their whole development is highly contingent on some particular factor or industry– Pittsburgh was built by the steel industry, the Mohawk Valley cities by the Erie Canal, the Great Plains were populated because of agriculture. When the factors that built those cities go away or are supplanted by other things, there’s no longer necessarily a reason for people to stay there. Which is sad, but it’s a natural process, and has been going on for millennia– look at all the abandoned ancient cities that archaeologists study.

It’s sad to watch the process happening, but at the same time, I’m not sure it can be stopped, or should be stopped. I’m pulling for Schenectady to find some way to re-invent itself, and I do what I can to support local businesses, but if the city can’t find some reason for people to want to be here, I can’t blame them for packing up and moving elsewhere. Similarly, if there’s no need for large numbers of people to support the agricultural industry in North Dakota, then why shouldn’t the younger generation head for the city as soon as possible.

A lot of these articles end up having a slightly creepy undertone to them, in a way that reminds me a little of hand-wringing articles about the disappearance of traditional ways of life in impoverished Third World countries. While I agree that there’s something sad about the disappearance of a unique culture, I’m always a little uncomfortable reading articles lamenting the fact that people are rejecting subsistence farming in favor of moving to the cities. Because, you know, subsistence farming kind of sucks, no matter how noble and ancient the culture that produced the farmers may be.

It’s easy for reporters for the New York Times to write sad pieces about indigenous people abandoning traditional ways, or the depopulation of some flyover state, but you don’t see them queuing up to move to those places and take up those practices, for good reason. I’m highly uncomfortable when those articles start to imply that there’s something wrong with the people who choose to leave, as if it were an easy decision, or they were eager to shake the dust of their home towns from their feet and make a new start in the cities. Sure, there are a lot of stories like that, but there’s no shortage of people for whom the decision to move away is a difficult one, driven by necessity, not a passing whim to be regretted later.

So, as I said, I’m conflicted. And that’s without even getting into the class aspects of who stays and who goes, or the thorny question of what to do with these places as they empty out.

Comments

  1. #1 Mary
    May 18, 2008

    Yeah, I thought the conclusion was overstated based on the diagram too.

    On a TV story I saw recently they were talking about the move back to the old cities for sustainability reasons. These cities were often designed pre-happy motoring lifestyle, and now could be more effective localizing opportunities.

    The prices of gas are currently killing the exurbs. So the demise of the cities may be premature, I think.

  2. #2 Ron
    May 18, 2008

    There’s some motion in the other direction, too. A couple friends recently moved from the San Francisco bay area to Pittsburgh: they could buy a house in Pittsburgh, PA for about the price of a few months rent here. (Yes, a major fixer-upper, but still!) A result of all those people walking away from mortgages. Houses were cheaper still in Buffalo, NY, but they found it too depressing there. When home ownership out here is inconceivable for a lot of people, Pittsburgh looks rather attractive.

  3. #3 Uncle Al
    May 18, 2008

    Income redistribution made it impossible for productive citizens to reproduce and mandatory for the lowest classes to go genitally hog wild. President Johnson’s “Great Society” and its social advocacy metastases doomed America. Here we are! Let’s levy a Carbon Tax on Everything.

    Death to historic patriarchal White Protestant European oppressors! Government can provide everything to everyone for free – food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, transportation, energy, education, entertainment, make-work… and security. Every resident a shareholder, every resident protected, every resident effortlessly fulfilled in every way. Urban Washington, DC is America the Beautiful.

  4. #4 caerbannog
    May 18, 2008


    Income redistribution made it impossible for productive citizens to reproduce and mandatory for the lowest classes to go genitally hog wild

    This must mean that nations like Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, etc. are going down the tubes. So let’s wander on over to the CIA factbook web-site and see how badly they are doing (relative to the USA)…

    All figures in US dollars.

    Sweden current account balance: +30.2 billion (+3.3K per person)

    Finland current account balance: +11.25 billion (+2K per person)

    Denmark current account balance: +4.7 billion (+830 per person)

    Netherlands current account balance: +59.3 billion (3.5K per person)

    And what about the USA?

    USA current account balance: -747 billion (-2.5K per person)

    So it looks like some of those socialist European nations are kicking the USA’s ass in the global marketplace.

    Each socialist Swede is effectively producing 3300 dollars more goods and services than he/she consumes, while each American is effectively *consuming* about 2500 dollars more than he/she produces. Even if you were to zero out America’s defense budget, America would *still* be running a sizable current account deficit.

    How do you explain that, Uncle Al?

  5. #5 guthrie
    May 18, 2008

    ACtually, its a fact that income distribution in the UK is going towards the richer folk. Yet they refuse to breed more! How selfish is that?

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    May 18, 2008

    Ron #2 said: When home ownership out here [SF Bay area] is inconceivable for a lot of people, Pittsburgh looks rather attractive.

    But are there jobs in Pittsburgh to support your friends?

    Sure, house prices in the Bay Area reached insane levels. But there is a good reason why housing in certain coastal cities like San Francisco is higher than in rust belt cities like Pittsburgh: the former have many more high-paying jobs to attract people to live there. A $100k house in Pittsburgh is just as unaffordable to somebody earning $20k a year as a $500k house in Silicon Valley is to somebody earning $100k a year.

  7. #7 kevin
    May 18, 2008

    Because, you know, subsistence farming kind of sucks, no matter how noble and ancient the culture that produced the farmers may be.

    I sort of fully agree. It’s sad and conflicting and confusing and disapointing all at once.

    But I’ve been in many of these places. Subsistence farming is actually great in many ways, and many people in the cities miss it for those things — family, friendships, social cohesion, a sense of place, sometimes control over your own life. It’s just hard to enjoy those things when you are so dirt poor, hungry, sick, on the verge of not being able to feed your children at all, etc.

  8. #8 Janne
    May 18, 2008

    Even if a country or region has a balanced population overall, it doesn’t mean that some communities gain and other lose. There is a long-term worldwide trend towards the major metropolitan areas.

    This has been a subject of intense scrutiny in Japan, which at this point has a steady population and looks to contract over the next generation or so. I wrote an analysis of this last year, which might be of interest:

    Introduction: http://janneinosaka.blogspot.com/2007/11/decline-of-japanese-countryside.html

    Population decline: http://janneinosaka.blogspot.com/2007/11/population-decline.html

    Urbanisation: http://janneinosaka.blogspot.com/2007/11/urban.html

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    May 18, 2008

    Much of this is unsurprising. The colleague in the office across the hall from me is from one of those dark brown counties. Sad as it is, he only goes home to be sure he sees people before he has to go there for their funeral. I once heard it said that caskets were the leading form of air freight out of south Florida. The map confirms that.

    There are jobs in Pittsburgh, but not the ones that the local populace was expecting to get without a HS degree.

    By the way, if Uncle Al were correct, Detroit and Cleveland would not be be neutral growth areas on the map.

  10. #10 Carl Brannen
    May 18, 2008

    The US accounts deficit has nothing to do with our growth rate, or what policy is going on here and only a little to do with our economy. Dollars get sucked out of the US because people in other parts of the world see them as a store of value and prefer to keep them than to use them to buy our stuff.

    When I was a kid the US ran an account surplus. We are returning to those sorts of times. This will be very good for the smokestack industries and people are probably going to move back to some of these places.

    One of the US’s big exports is agriculture and as that business improves, money will flood into the northern plains. Farmers will spend money locally and those towns will probably expand again. In a lot of these places it’s probably still a good time to buy city property.

  11. #11 Upstate NY
    May 19, 2008

    I live in Glenville, NY a suburban community just outside Schenectady. Right now the outside temperature is 44 and I just turned the heat up. Our short growing season lasts from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Historically people have been leaving the Mohawk Valley for the warmer and more productive climates of the West and South since the 19th century.

    GE’s mid twentieth century prosperity reversed this trend for a while, but GE was establishing facilities in the south (Greenville, SC, Atlanta, GA) since the 1970′s. Jack Welch’s infamous pullout during the 1980′s was only another nail in Schenectady’s coffin.

    Large industries like GE or Alco are never coming back, because they have all moved to China; and the image of an engineer sitting behind a computer and doing “creative” work, that we were sold on in the Reagan years, would now as likely include a sari wrapped Indian woman at the keyboard as it would an American engineer.

    Schenectady’s loss has been Atlanta’s gain. GE’s engineers are now headquartered there instead of Schenectady. And on a recent visit to my son, who is a college professor living in the Atlanta area, housing construction appeared to continuing at a frenetic pace despite the countrywide credit crisis.

    One of the reasons for this is that Georgia’s milder climate attracts retirees as well as executives. Even in April the temperatures were up in the 80′s and the humidity low.

    Least this sound like a dirge for Schenectady and other rustbelt cities, it is not. (cliche alert) We are, of course, a nation of migrants leaving our homelands for the golden streets of America and then spreading out to populate a continent. I worry more about population movements, and other homogenizing factors, creating a landscape of interstate highways, suburbs with well manicured lawns, shopping malls and power centers, where everywhere looks like any place else, then I do about particular depopulated farmlands and industrial cities.

  12. #12 Colin M
    May 19, 2008

    I moved to Pittsburgh for grad school and currently live there. It’s an OK city, but it’s clear that a lot of people coming here for the education don’t plan on staying around. Demographically it’s one of the oldest cities in America. There’s a large contingent of people in the city looking to tax the non-profits (universities and hospitals) because they’re now the biggest employers in the area.

    On the other hand, what you said about real estate is true… if we wanted to live in a not-the-best neighborhood (but not a terrible one, mind you), we could buy a small house, with the cash we have on hand — saved from five years’ worth of our *graduate student stipends*.

    This Calvin and Hobbes comic is quite popular on our university’s office doors:
    http://www.s-anand.net/calvinandhobbes.html#19851220

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