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.