"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Playing “Disinvestment” Against a Stacked Deck

(First of a Series)

     As you greet the New Year, those of you living in our smaller urban communities could find yourselves in quite different situations.  Some will wake up in growing, reviving towns that can actually lay claim to the term “community.”  In others, the morning will reveal a reality considerably less optimistic.  This variation represents a historical sea change in urban history since the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s.  Some of our towns are “coming back;” but some aren’t.  We need to closely examine why this has come to be, and I will return to the subject.  But we should begin with what they ALL had in common, the decline of their historical importance as the centers of commerce and culture, whether on a national scale or just within a locality.
     Claiming when anything in history “began” is inherently risky (roots run deep, and academics just love to push the chronological envelope of causation), but I’m on reasonably safe ground when I begin the study of urban decline in the United States after the Second World War.  This is an oversimplification, of course, as is every generalization about history.  It was at the end of the war and afterward however, that the major decisions were made and huge social forces began to take shape that would send our urban areas into the state we find them in today.  As a further clarification, I will focus on the northeast and north central regions of our country, which endured the transformation from Industrial Heartland to Rust Belt.  The basics of the urban dynamic apply in all locations, but cities possess a redundancy that requires analysis of a different order.  My narrative encompasses urban areas of all sizes, but my focus is on the smaller ones. 
     The post-war period began with what seemed like great promise for the return of much of traditional America, now freed from Depression and War.  And so it seemed, for a while, as American downtowns did, on the whole, begin to revive.  But this was deceiving, as fundamental change was already underway.  By the 1950s the economic and social clouds had begun to gather over our urban areas, and by the late 1970s many were experiencing what Billy Joel meant when he sang, “Well, we’re living here in Allentown, and they’re tearing all the factories down.”
     In future posts I will attempt to explain how things got to be the way they were for our urban areas, and in many places still are.  My basic thesis is that in the immediate post-war period, a combination of forces stacked the deck against our urban areas, and then played out a cruel game of "Disinvestment."  None of this was intentional, and by no means a conspiracy, but that doesn’t mitigate its disastrous effects, and should only increase our desire to better understand just what happened.  Some of you are of an age to have lived through what happened when the deal went down. Many others live among its physical and social results.  Yet its true causes are often misunderstood.  We need to understand what happened, and more important, why it happened.  If we don’t, we will carry self-defeating myths into our discussions of what needs to be done.  Bad results are very likely to follow decisions based on myths, and it’s very late in the game to continue making the same bad mistakes because we continue to believe in the same old myths.
     The name of this game was Disinvestment, and my previous post introduced you to the fact that it is not over.  What takes time is explaining even a part of what the word means.  In its broadest sense, it means exactly what it says: the wealth and capital (they are not the same) that had previously been concentrated in our urban areas was removed (or simply not replaced) and directed instead to what we will broadly term “the suburbs.”  Among the most significant of these capital drains was that of human capital; all the rest basically followed.  This depressing subject has been extensively studied; acres of forests and rivers of ink have been sacrificed to tell the story.  I can only touch on a few topics, those most closely related (as causes) to the story, and must employ a host of generalizations as I do so.  So here goes.

     The process went something like this: first we moved our homes out of the cities, then our workplaces and our shopping areas.  Business capital followed the market, and exited the urban centers for the suburbs.  Urban residences could not compete in value or attractiveness with subsidized “modern” housing in fresh, young neighborhoods.  The move of people to the suburbs, powered by the automobile, allowed businesses, from manufacturing to retail, to follow the city residents in their flight to the periphery.  Major firms could establish new, modern factories on previously open land; with the automobile, their workers did not need to live anywhere near their actual place of work.  Retail merchants discovered that grouping of stores and services at the intersections of prominent local roads (along with ample, free parking) was the way serve the population expanding into the countryside, within a marketing area unimaginable just a generation earlier.
     Notice a common factor here?  The AUTOMOBILE.   They existed before the war, of course, as did early shopping centers, most notably Suburban Square in Ardmore.  Ardmore, however, was an already-developed “streetcar suburb,” not open land in the countryside, and after the war it did not take long for the merchants of Suburban Square to realize that they had not moved far enough away; they couldn’t obtain enough parking, and could only be reached by congested local roads.  That congestion was the result of the Second World War’s development of the internal combustion engine and the means to produce huge quantities of the items it powered. 
     Of course the modern soon aged, as did the fresh and young aspect of suburban living.  The neighborhood part was never achieved.  It never had a chance.  Building houses was profitable; building communities was not, and was not considered.  This is, however, only a peripheral part of our story; it should loom in the background as a reminder that gain is always accompanied by loss.  Our focus remains reestablishing community in our smaller urban areas, the ones that existed before the suburbs.
     My mantra is that understanding the past better equips you to live in the present and plan for the future, but I don’t want my consistent historical focus to obscure the fact that Disinvestment in urban areas is still happening today.  That’s why I opened this series with a post about slumlords.  They are among the principal agents of urban disinvestment, so small that they often operate “under the radar,” particularly when a municipality does not provide sufficient resources for code enforcement.  This question of resources is another subject I shall return to, as history should always take a back seat to community activism (where it can provide some back seat driving).

     In subsequent posts I’ll talk about who left our towns, why they left, and who replaced them, but I can’t resist the opportunity to next time turn the spotlight on everyone’s favorite whipping boy, The Federal Government.  Even those of you predisposed to blame it for almost anything might be surprised on how important a part it played.