Guest Editorial: The Stigma of the Small City

I have recently returned to Cleveland after several years in the “Capitol of the Midwest,” Chicago. Chicago is filled with Midwesterners from all corners, and those who have committed to living there have a mixture of disdain, pity, and guilty longing for the places they left behind. The opinion they expressed was that leaving Chicago for a smaller Midwestern city would stifle career ambitions and deprive one of big city amenities. All they saw outside Chicagoland was corn fields and closed factories. In a discussion of urban development, one economist (originally from upstate NY) asserted, “Detroit and Cleveland no longer have an economic reason for being.” When I told people in Chicago that I planned to return to Cleveland, most looked dejected and some said, “I’m sorry.”

Having spent a year now in Cleveland, I realize that it is not a small city with nothing going on. It is truly a major city with sufficient scale for most things you find in major cities. We have finance and legal industries. We have designers and publishers. We have bicycle messengers. We have at least a half dozen companies that do nothing but walk dogs for busy professionals. We have a sand volley ball league, a dozen ski clubs, and thirty-some yoga studios. We have immigrants from all over the world in our universities and running ethnic groceries. We have commuter trains, valets, and loft condos with concierges. Life in Cleveland is much more like life in Chicago than people there, here, or elsewhere recognize. Is our perception about smaller cities also wrong?


Photo by David Richardson via Flickr.

Just as Chicago collects people from Detroit, Minneapolis, and Columbus, I have found that Cleveland has no small number of people who grew up in Youngstown, Lima, and Wooster. From time to time, I find myself in smaller cities or reading blogs about them – Erie, Jamestown, Flint, etc. I start to wonder about these places as the people in Chicago wonder about Cleveland. How can they have an economic future? Who would move there? If I were a young, educated person, how could I justify staying there? Would I have returned to Flint if that’s where I grew up? If so, who would I work for? Who would my spouse work for? What if I had to change jobs mid career but there’s only one local employer in my field?

Looking at the latest population change estimates, I was struck once again by the falling populations in “small” places near “big” places – shrinking counties south of Atlanta and Charlotte and west of Dallas and Austin (

What do you think about roll-up? Should we be promoting the gathering of educated young people of our region from rural areas to cities? From small cities to large cities? From large cities to Chicago? Should we be trying to save every urbanized area? At some point, do we have to say to some small places, “You are just too small. You will never have the jobs or amenities to stop your shrinking. Let your young people go to a bigger city. At least we can save that city, and they can visit you on long weekends.”

Even though Cleveland has a lot to offer, we are struggling with inadequate numbers to fill and hold desirable urban neighborhoods. There are places in Cleveland with dozens of rehabbed homes and new condos. Young professionals live in these and support local businesses and artists. But for every young professional household there are three or more rentals. The nice housing is mixed in with blight. The surplus space keeps rent low and intimidating characters outnumber friendly neighbors. I wish we had a few thousand more young professionals so we could make at least one neighborhood feel as safe as Lakeview or the West Loop in Chicago.

I see people making a valiant effort to save Jackson, MI, and Findlay, OH, and I feel like saying to them, “Let it go. We can’t save everything. Cleveland needs all the young talent we can get, and we’d love to have you as a neighbor here.” At the same time, I know exactly how it feels to hear that. The difference, if anything, is that Chicago doesn’t need any more young professionals. Cleveland needs more educated people to slow and reverse its decline. But Erie needs more educated people too. What should we do?



Filed under Brain Drain, Editorial, Headline, Real Estate

24 responses to “Guest Editorial: The Stigma of the Small City

  1. schmange

    I agree with your point. I do think smaller cities are unfairly maligned.

    A few years ago, I moved from Columbus to Youngstown for a job and I went in with a fairly poor attitude about my new city. But I ended up loving it. Living in a smaller city was very fun for me socially. Every night when I went out, I would see all my friends. There was only about one degree of separation between me and everyone I wanted to know in the city.

    What you said about employment is real, however. In a class I’m taking right now we’ve talked about the disadvantage smaller cities have in recruiting talent. People change jobs so frequently, they worry that a smaller city will limit their career trajectory.

  2. To connect the author with another person thinking about the urban economic hierarchy:

  3. Kevin

    Richard Longworth also writes about these issues, both on his blog and in his book, Caught in the Middle.

  4. The logic of the “bigger city”, taken to its logical conclusion, means we should all be living in New York. Most of the logic that applies to moving from Cleveland to Chicago applies just as well to moving from Chicago to New York or London. In fact, see here for an example of someone making that very argument re:startups moving to Silicon Valley

  5. No brilliant insight here. Just let me say that my sister and her family have lived in Erie for 20+ years. I live in Madison, Wi. For the last ten years, the best art exhibits I’ve seen (my husband and I both have are backgrounds) have been in Erie. A tiny public gallery in a 19th century bank building with insightful, intelligent, quirky, unforgettable shows. I don’t know what that proves but I am always excited every time I go to Erie. Could I live there? That’s a different question …

  6. Ryan

    Good post. I just moved from Cincinnati to San Francisco. Anyone interested in this subject should read Richard Florida.

  7. Yo Momma

    Doesn’t this equate with putting all of your eggs in one basket? isn’t concentrating your populations into a very few, large cities just asking for trouble, whether it comes in the form of an act of terrorism, or a natural disaster or whatever kind of anarchy you can think of? Isn’t diversification the #1 rule in economics (well, maybe not, but then I’m certainly not a trained economist).

    Smaller cities also have a feel of “place” about them. feeling a part of something is important, especially when you are talking about your home community. There are many reasons to be grumpy in Youngstown, but I know so many people here, and I feel like I fit somehow. And are things really all that different or all that better somewhere else, where I don’t know so many people?

  8. Pingback: » Looking for the Future of Small Cities

  9. Travis

    “The nice housing is mixed in with blight. The surplus space keeps rent low and intimidating characters outnumber friendly neighbors. I wish we had a few thousand more young professionals so we could make at least one neighborhood feel as safe as Lakeview or the West Loop in Chicago.”

    Heh. Intimidating characters. I know I sure do get scared when I’m riding my fixie around Ohio City and pedal past some of the neighborhood’s original residents not yet priced out of the neighborhood. Moar urban colonists please.

    • schmange

      I don’t know about that actually. I think it’s good that Cleveland hasn’t banished it’s poor like Chicago. Of course, we’ve done more the opposite by abandoning poor near the city center.

      There is definitely some tension there. I actually wouldn’t want Cleveland to be like Chicago or San Francisco in that sense. I’d like to see more middle class people in the city and I’d like to see the new population creating some opportunities for the old population. That’s my dream for my neighborhood, anyway.

  10. Paz

    It’s not Cleveland with the problem. It’s Akron, and Youngstown, and Dayton, and Flint, like you said. It’s cities that aren’t cities, so to speak. There’s some cutoff where a city goes from being a place that I might be able to get a job if I grew up there to a place I would actively go in search of a job. I mean, I have a list, I’m sure a lot of young professionals do. I assume that if I were in Cleveland, and my (hypothetical) job fell through, I could find another job in a related field. I don’t feel the same way about Erie.

  11. -Anonymous

    Thank you all for the comments. Perhaps there was too much in this piece, but the main question is meant to translate into action (possibly). Should a city like Cleveland, Buffalo, or St. Louis actively recruit young talented people from smaller cities nearby? Or just make due with whoever is there or whoever wanders in and likes what they find? When rustbelt cities had their growth spurts in the past, a large part of their new population was coming off the farms and out of small towns. There was a lot of natural increase (4-8 kids/family) so they weren’t necessarily depleting the countryside.

    Travis, I can’t hear your tone of voice, but I take it you’re joking. There is no pricing-out or gentrification anywhere in the Cleveland MSA. You can buy a house in Ohio City for $15,000 and you can rent in Shaker Heights with a section 8 voucher. We have our problems, but high cost housing isn’t one of them.

  12. David Frank

    This is a nice little editorial about the plight of small cities such as Pittsburgh, although the focus here is Cleveland. The article goes on to say that “we [small sized cities] are struggling with inadequate numbers to fill and hold desirable urban neighborhoods.” I think that this can be seen first hand in Pittsburgh, in places like Lawrenceville and the self proclaimed West End Village (see some of my pictures for highlights of a tour Jason and I went on of there last week). I hope that the 2010 census data will show use positive population trends in traditional “Rust Belt” cities.

    The article touches upon increased home ownership for young professionals and getting the word out that small sized cities, like Pittsburgh, defy their traditional stereotypes, both initiatives that I wholeheartedly support. Although Pittsburgh has done a great job changing the image of our region through the media spot light we received during the G-20, we cannot drop the ball and rest on our collective laurels. I hope that regional groups like Pittsburgh Connect ( develop a plan to market our region, and all that we have to offer, to residents of larger cities that draw young professionals away. Great programs that support home ownership in the city, such as the Pittsburgh Home Ownership Program of the URA (, the program that I bought my house through, also need to be marketed more. We all know that increased homeownership has a bevy of positive side effects. We have a lot of great assets in our region and one should not have to dig in order to find out about them.

  13. Statisticaly, the state of Indiana is shrinking but the Indianapolis region is growing rapidly more along the old lines.

    I certainly, don’t think any community should be subsidised by the state. The ultimate situation is that people migrate to places they see value in and feel they can make the best use of.

  14. Hi from NC, Greensboro to be exact. Our whole state in a way has the small city problem and I’m still shaking myself gradually from it. The key is to encourage young people with entrepreneurial spirits to come to and stay in areas, where they in turn can create opportunities. If they don’t have the entrepreneurial spirit themselves, we should encourage people to volunteer/work part-time with startups as these can become career opportunities. They aren’t perfect ones, but with the market as it is, it’s a start.

  15. I would offer that these cities are places of possibility especially when it comes to crafting the new face of urbanity for our country. A new, more sustainable city actually has a much higher probability of coming to fruition in a tier-2 or tier-3 city than one of our urban bellwethers.

    Cities like Syracuse, Providence, Hartford, Albany (I’m from the Northeast) all are examples of former glories that never really recovered from the fading of the industrial revolution, but what they took away is the bones of great urban constructs. Public spaces, quality building stock, connection to regional, national and sometimes international transit. They are already plugged into the grid, they just have to be switched on.

    Furthermore, these cities are more pliable because of their struggling state of affairs. Tax breaks for new development are high, property values are low, and as a result they are cities that can change their course of action to be more sustainable in a myriad of ways. Changing the direction of NYC is like doing a u-Turn in an ocean liner.

    All that is missing is the catalyst–new business bases to call these cities home with fresh new citizen populations. I’m not saying it definitely will happen, but all of the pieces are there. These cities could become the new models for urban growth in the country.

  16. Detroit Dan

    Detroit and Cleveland don’t make you feel suffocated like the “real” big cities do. When’s the last time you were in a real traffic jam in Detroit or Cleveland. If you actually live downtown in these cities, traffic does not exist except during sporting events.

    I love living in downtown Detroit and I feel like I have the whole city practically to myself. Big city life mixed with small city life. I think it’s perfect. Plus the people who live here want to live here. Most weren’t transplanted for some reason beyond their control. Tourism doesn’t water down the people you meet who you will never reall get to know (although I don’t dislike tourism… it’s like a necessary evil, I feel.) The people who share your similar mindset are the people who are your neighbors. What’s to feel afraid about that?

    A couple weekends ago, I was walking around downtown Detroit late at night after bars closed and there wasn’t a soul or a car around. It was perhaps a little eerie but after thinking about it, it actually felt great because I felt like I could look up into the night sky. I could stop wherever I wanted to, for however long I wanted to, and there was no one to bother me as if I was in the way or doing something wrong.

    Detroit and Cleveland are places where we actually get to decide what our future is here. Is that the case in the other big cities?

  17. I find it interesting that you’d scorn rental housing and then cite Lakeview and the West Loop; these are both vibrant neighborhoods, yes, but they’re also both about two-thirds renter-occupied. I would argue that this has a lot to do with why those neighborhoods have the kind of vitality that you wish Cleveland had more of. Young professionals move a lot, from job to job and city to city. If you want more of them, rental housing isn’t a bad thing; in fact, creating a social climate in which people see rental housing as a bad thing probably has a direct negative effect on neighborhood vitality. If renters don’t feel welcome somewhere, there are plenty of other places they can go — and nothing to keep them from leaving.

  18. I strongly agree with that. From what I can tell the strong bias against rental housing has become self fulfilling. Students and most of the high value people we should be attracting are offered the worst possible student slums, often owned by non residents. Attempts to even allow improvements are almost always opposed. Look at Ann Arbor which just shot down the right to build a modest apartment tower on one of it’s main streets in an area where gas stations and parking lots are common.

    A careful look behind the Nimbyism is likely to reveal landlords protecting their substandard housing monopoly.

  19. -Anonymous

    You’re missing the point. The problem isn’t renters. Its a mismatch of supply and demand, low rents, and the inability of rents to screen people.

    If Lakeview has 5% vacancy and rents above the area median, then its no problems if a 100% of the residents are renters. Only working or prefessional people could afford to be in the area. It would likely be safe and have a vibrant street life.

    The problem is when there are too many units, 15-20% rental vacancy, and rents are low and falling. In metros that have a major crime problem, low rents attrach people who are just out of prison, drug dealers, prostitutes, and people who work only occassionally (and thus have a lot of free time to bother their neighbors).

    With low-rent units all over the place, its very difficult to make a neighborhood attractive to people who are in town interviewing for a job, scouting a place to locate a start up, or just thinking of moving in from the suburbs. That’s why so many people go to high-rent areas of Chicago, Seattle, or New York. The high rents filter out the people they don’t want to deal with.

  20. Theodore

    The economist from upstate NY that said “Cleveland and Detroit don’t have a reason for being…” is 100% correct! 14,000 foreclosures a year in Cleveland…I say, start tearing down everything more than 50yrs old and require owner-occupation on all new builds.

  21. I think many of the most desirable properties in these cities are in fact the old ones.

    I think Cleveland had lots of trouble with subprime loans and honestly exploitive or loan fraud involved in new infill construction.
    A house a person cannot afford is not really owned and creates much more potential instability in a neighborhood than many rentals.

    Thanks a lot for your help but honestly no too areas are exactly alike.

  22. It’s interesting, I live in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside, an area with lot’s and lot’s of rental housing, that’s considered one of the most stable desirable parts of town. The Pittsburgh region has 25 colleges, with most of the big ones in the city.

    One size fits all government policies forcing everyone to either buy or rent or favoring certain types of housing were a very big factor in causing our current mess.

    Housing a person cannot afford paid for with a loan they cannot pay back does not create ownership.

  23. Pingback: Is The Renaissance of Cleveland a Model for Other Midwestern Cities? - General U.S. - Page 17 - City-Data Forum

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