All over the world, we're told, people are pouring into cities. For the first time in history, more than half of all humans now live in cities. In the age of globalization, the future of civilizations will be written in cities.
If that's true, the Midwest has a problem. With two notable exceptions, none of its biggest cities are growing. This shrinkage has been going on for 50 or 60 years now, but many cities thought they had bottomed out.
The latest official statistics from the 2010 census are in, and they make grim reading for Midwestern cities. Two results jump out:
- Virtually every old Midwestern industrial city is still losing population.
- The only cities gaining people are places like Indianapolis and Columbus, which didn't have the legacy of heavy industry to overcome, and equally, weren't dominated by single industries, such as cars.
This raises the question whether old industrial cities have futures or are destined to wither. It's a question that applies both to relatively prosperous places like Chicago, which manage to thrive and shrink at the same time, and to down-and-out cities like Detroit, which are only shrinking.
Here are the latest census figures for some of the Midwest's biggest cities:
- Chicago lost 200,000 people in the decade just ended, a 6.9 percent drop. It now has 2,695,000 people, which is a 25 percent drop from its peak of 3,620,000 in 1950.
- Detroit lost no less than 25 percent of its population in the last decade, a decline of 238,000 people. The city now has only 713,000 people, a slide of 62 percent since its peak of 1,850,000 in 1950.
- Cleveland lost another 17 percent of its population in the last decade, a loss of 82,000 people. At 396,000, it is only 43 percent of what it was in 1950.
- St. Louis lost 30,000 people, an 8.3 percent decline in the last decade. It now has 319,000 people, down nearly two thirds from its peak of 856,000 in 1950.
- In Ohio, all major cities except Columbus are losing. Dayton was 262,000 in 1960 and is 141,000 now, a fall of 47 percent. In the last decade, it fell 15 percent.
- Akron was 290,000 in 1960 and is 199,000 now, a 32 percent decline. It lost 8 percent in the last decade.
- Toledo was 383,000 in 1970 and is 287,000 now, a 20 percent decline. It also lost 8 percent in the last decade.
- Youngstown, the original "shrinking city," was 168,000 in 1960 and is 67,000 now, a 61 percent decline. It lost 18 percent in the last decade.
- Cincinnati was 503,000 in 1950 and is 296,000 now, a 42 percent decline. It lost 10 percent of its people in the last decade.
- Canton was 117,000 in 1950 and is 73,000 now, a 38 percent decline. It also lost 10 percent in the last decade.
- Outside Ohio, Flint, another experimental lab for the "shrinking city" concept, was 196,000 in 1960 and is 102,000 now, a 48 percent decline. It lost 18 percent in the past decade.
Some major cities that lost population over the past half-century may have stanched the bleeding:
- Milwaukee was 741,000 in 1960 and is 594,000 now, a 20 percent decline. But its population stayed stable in the past decade.
- The same is true of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Together the Twin Cities were about 830,000 in 1960 and are only 667,000 now, a 20 percent decline. But they also held steady in the last decade.
By far the standout cities are Columbus, which grew 10 percent in the past decade, to 787,000 people, and Indianapolis, which grew 6.1 percent to its present population of 829,000.
There are a number of reasons for growth in Columbus and Indianapolis. Both are state capitals. Columbus has a major university. Indianapolis has worked hard to revitalize its city center and to turn itself into the motor sports capital of the nation. Both cities also are surrounded by smaller towns and cities that have been hard-hit by economic decline and are drawing in young Indianans and Ohioans who have nowhere much else to go. In a sense, both have benefited from their states' problems. As isolated islands of growth in seas of decline, both would reward further study: this is a subject for future postings.
But for today, let's focus on the other cities -- the old Rust Belt behemoths that haven't come back.
We all wring our hands over Detroit and Cleveland, and rightly so. There may be a tipping point for cities: when a city loses half or more of its people, it may have passed the point of no return. This is the thinking behind the "shrinking city" movement -- that these cities, like Youngstown or
Flint, will never ever recover their former population, and the best thing that can be done is to make them smaller but decent places to live.
Chicago is never mentioned in the same breath with these hollowed-out cities. But the statistics cited above should give us pause. Chicago, like Detroit, is an old industrial city that lost much of its industry. But unlike Detroit, it has turned the economic corner, put its industrial past behind it, and become a certified "global city," a fully paid-up member of the 21st-century economy. The Economist magazine called Chicago "a success story." Recent surveys rank it sixth or seventh among all the global cities on the planet.
And yet -- Chicago has lost 25 percent of its population over the years, a bigger percentage than Toledo, Milwaukee or the Twin Cities.
Many of these people left in the grey, grim Rust Belt years, from the '60s through the early '80s. But they aren't coming back. The city gained 4 percent in population in the 1990s, probably through immigration but then tumbled nearly 7 percent in the last ten years -- the only one of America's ten largest cities to lose population in that decade.
The fact is that Chicago, for all its glamor and all its success, supports 25 percent fewer people and has 25 percent fewer jobs than it had at the height of its industrial power. Yes, it's more beautiful, and cleaner, more connected to the world than before. But all this glitz and all this new economy doesn't add up to a city as rich and vibrant as the old City of the Big Shoulders.
This tells us something about this new global economy and its ability to support the people who live within it. If even a place like Chicago is a "shrinking city," what does this mean for Cleveland, St. Louis, Detroit and other less favored places?
There's more to this than just numbers. Another question is -- who's leaving? Who's staying? Who's coming? As important as the number of people is who they are.
In Chicago, a black exodus accounted for most of the loss. If the city lost 200,000 people altogether, it's black population alone went down by about 180,000. White population also fell, but by less, and the Hispanic population grew, but by less than expected.
The decline in the black population is key, and no one knows for sure yet what it means. Was this a flight of the black middle class to prosperous suburbs? Was it the former residents of the housing projects, many of them torn down in the past decade, who have moved to impoverished inner suburbs or who have returned to the American South? One school of thought contends that the housing project residents, forced to move, went to more established African-American neighborhoods, bringing crime and violence with them, forcing out more established residents.
Many African-Americans in Chicago are the descendants of people who came north during the Great Migration, before and after World War II, to work in the factories here. When those factories closed, these people were stranded. Some moved into the middle class: others descended into the underclass.
Either way, their departure indicates there's nothing in Chicago -- certainly nothing like the factory jobs of old -- to keep them here. For other old Midwestern manufacturing Midwestern cities with large African-American populations, this continued exodus means that they themselves probably face continued declines in population for more years to come.