One day, several years ago, a friend and I were driving across the west side of Cleveland on a beautiful Sunday morning.
As we drove along I-90, somewhere between West Boulevard and W. 44th St, I was admiring the beautiful Gothic and Romanesque architecture of the numerous churches that you can see from the side of the road. I thought about all of the generations of immigrants that had built, and then cherished, those places, finding in them solace and a sense of community.
I looked at the hundreds of modest wooden-frame houses with front porches, in varying states of repair, clustered tightly together around the churches. This neighborhood had seen slightly better days, but, all-in-all, to my mind, the image formed an idyllic, and somewhat winsome, tableau.
I remember thinking to myself, “You know, with a little bit of tender-loving-care, these neighborhoods could really be something special. All of the components of a great place are here, even if it needs to be polished up a bit.”
Suddenly, my friend turned to me and said, “What a shithole! Who the hell would ever want to live here? I wouldn’t live here if you paid me a million dollars.”
Que sera, sera.
The Gathering Storm
All the way from where we came
Built a mansion in a day
Distant lightning, thunder claps
Watched our neighbor’s house collapse
Looked the other way
-Metric, Speed the Collapse
Most of us have driven through a formerly thriving city neighborhood, and have seen the abandoned buildings, the vacant lots, the potholed streets, and the decrepit infrastructure.
Some of us have reflected a bit further upon this explicit physical decay, and have begun to grasp and wrestle with the implicit inequality that is, in part, both its cause and effect.
But the decline and fall of our urban neighborhoods is a devilishly vexing issue, even for the most passionate urban advocates among us.
For every person, like me (and like many of you) that loves our aging cities, and is profoundly concerned about their welfare, there is another person like my friend, that views our cities with indifference, at best; and outright hostility, at worst.
Issues of perception aside, we in Northeast Ohio are dealing with some hellishly difficult issues today. Our 12-county region has lost seven percent of its population since 1970, falling from 4.1 million to 3.8 million people.
But instead of shrinking our footprint, we’ve done the exact opposite. The region developed an additional 250 square miles of land (over three times the land area of the City of Cleveland) between 1979 and 2006 – a 21% expansion.
Meanwhile, our four core cities continue to deteriorate and hollow-out.
People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline. Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today.
These four cities, which, in 1950, all ranked among the 100 largest in America, are today, added together, smaller than Cleveland was in 1950. Cleveland, the 7th largest American city in 1950, ranks 45th (and dropping) today. Akron, Canton, and Youngstown have all dropped out of the top 100.
It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure. We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people that, today, serves less than half of that amount.
This trend, by itself, would be bad enough. But it’s not just a matter of bricks and mortar. As ruinously as the built environment and urban landscape in these cities has fared, many of their remaining residents have fared even worse. The poor are increasingly isolated from social and economic opportunities, as the region continues to sort itself geographically by race, class, and socioeconomic status.
The effect on the most vulnerable neighborhoods located within the core cities themselves has been nothing short of catastrophic. Thousands of houses have been torn down, leaving gaping holes in the urban fabric, while tens of thousands more are sitting vacant and abandoned today.
Short of intentional action to do otherwise, the future of our core cities looks even worse. According to the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), the region can expect to abandon an additional 175,000 houses between now and 2040. That’s a staggering 18 houses per day, day-in and day-out, for the next 27 years. If current trends continue, very few of them will be rebuilt in place.
The cost of removing all of those abandoned houses is estimated to be around $1.75 billion dollars. Federal, state, regional, or private funding to address the problem is unlikely to materialize.
So, in a perverse vicious cycle, the cities themselves will likely be on the hook to dig deeper into their already decimated tax bases, and foot the bill to remove the houses. It is a no-win situation: ignore the problem, and watch the blight and disinvestment spread even farther, or spend money that you don’t have, raise taxes, and drive more residents and businesses away, in order to try to keep things from getting worse.
If you are skeptical about this future projection, the future is already here. Today, over 15,000 houses in Cleveland sit abandoned. In Akron, the number is around 2,300. And in Youngstown, a city of 65,000, that used to have 170,000 residents, an estimated 5,000 abandoned houses and 20,000 vacant lots pose a problem almost too overwhelming to comprehend.
The problems of blight, vacancy, and abandonment have spread to the inner ring suburbs, as well. In East Cleveland today, one in five houses sits abandoned.
It gets worse. The 12-county region, which has about the exact same population that it did in 1960, has spread those people over a much larger footprint, replicating all of the housing, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure that was already there to support them.
So, taxpayers at the federal, state, and local level already paid once to build all of the infrastructure that was in place prior to 1960. Now, they are in the process of paying a second time to build a largely redundant duplicate infrastructure in many of the areas that have been developed since 1960.
The end result, with the region’s population aging, and predicted to grow by less than 100,000 people over the next three decades, is a lot more infrastructure with the same amount of people to pay for it. This means more public debt, higher taxes, and probably both.
In the coming decades, many of the areas developed since 1960 will face a similar dilemma to the one that the core cities are facing today: spend money that you don’t have to maintain infrastructure in an effort to stave off abandonment, or slowly watch previous hard-won investments in housing, economic development, and public infrastructure wither and die.
Death By A Thousand Cuts
Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole,
Just like a faucet that leaks and there is comfort in the sound.
But while you debate half-empty or half-full,
It slowly rises, your love is gonna drown.
-Death Cab for Cutie, Marching Bands of Manhattan
We are living through an abnormal, historic aberration, in terms of the way that we plan and arrange our communities. In the long-run, it is socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable.
In the short-run, it is an abnormal new normal. Our pattern of abandoning thousands of houses, building new ones elsewhere, and building redundant infrastructure, all while (in the case of Northeast Ohio) continuing to lose population, is a social experiment. It is one that is unlikely to end well, as Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has pointed out.
In the long-run, there are simply not enough federal, state, or local tax dollars to simultaneously pay to maintain legacy infrastructure and deal with continued abandonment in our older communities, while paying to maintain (and build more) infrastructure in our newer communities. We are caught between Scylla and Charybdis.
Urban decline, as such, is not the historical anomaly to which I am referring. Cities have grown and declined throughout human history, sometimes due to economic conditions, and sometimes due to things that are even more unpleasant: natural disasters, disease, and war. People died, were displaced, or moved away, and the city shrank accordingly.
What people haven’t historically done, though, is to rebuild a new version of the city right next door to the old one, expected both of them to carry on as they always had, as if nothing fundamental had changed, and had taxpayers at all levels of government foot the bill. That’s the historical anomaly.
To be clear, we are not just talking about people building newer, nicer, dwellings; wanting a little bit more land; or about the rich separating themselves from the poor. These things have always happened.
But they have never happened on such a massive scale, by building what is essentially a duplicate publicly-funded infrastructure of modern utility and transportation networks, with capital, operating, and maintenance costs stretching into the billions of dollars; all (in the case of our region) to serve the exact same amount of people.
And then the storm was overhead
All the oceans boiled and rivers bled
We auctioned off our memories
In the absence of a breeze
Scatter what remains
Scatter what remains
-Metric, Speed the Collapse
The 21st Century will mark the first time the United States has ever had to replace a modern public infrastructure. We’ve never had to comprehensively rebuild a modern water and sewer system, transportation network, or electrical grid. The staggering expenditure associated with doing this is is going to be an unpleasant wake-up call for a notoriously short-sighted culture.
Did I mention that our country is $17 trillion in debt? This wasn’t the case when we modernized our much less extravagant 19th century infrastructure in older cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.
But it is not the maintenance and replacement costs that will be our ultimate undoing. It is the fact that we are doubling, tripling, and quadrupling-down on this unfunded liability, by continuing to sprawl outward. No one in human history has ever attempted to do what we are doing. That is, to build a modern, urban infrastructure at what is, in-effect, a semi-rural scale.
This is uncharted territory. There is an inexorable, compelling, and inherently conservative economic logic that says it is better to serve more people with less infrastructure, rather than doing it the other way around.
The likely consequence of flouting such a reasonable course of action will entail our going broke, or having to abandon much of the modern transportation and utilities grid, or both – neither of which are appealing options.
Looked at from this perspective, it is hard to imagine something more short-sighted and fiscally unsound; a greater breach of the public trust; or a larger waste of human labor and natural resources.
It is at this point that people typically seek to avoid this uncomfortable truth, and prefer to preempt the discussion of what to do about it, by instead dwelling on why they think that all of this has happened.
Everyone has a different pet theory: the automobile, government corruption and/or incompetence; corporate greed; personal irresponsibility; race and class-based social tensions, etc. As Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has astutely pointed out, people from one ideological perspective can find plausible narratives that run completely counter to plausible narratives put forth by people of the opposite ideological perspective.
Both a racist and a civil rights advocate, for example, can explain what “went wrong with our cities” entirely in terms of race. And the more that someone is uninterested in actually trying to address the problems of our cities, the more likely they are to be dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how the problems happened in the first place.
But this is irrelevant right now. What I want to do is to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem that we are facing, not assign blame for why it happened.
So what are we facing? We are facing a situation that is a recipe for fiscal disaster and financial collapse. And if that is not scary enough, I would argue that it is also a recipe for worsening social pathology, civil unrest, and civic decay, as people are further segregated by race, class, and socioeconomic status.
Pushed away I’m pulled toward
A comedown of revolving doors
Every warning we ignored
Drifting in from distant shores
The wind presents a change of course
A second reckoning of sorts
We were wasted waiting for
A comedown of revolving doors
Fate don’t fail me now
-Metric, Speed the Collapse
It’s a death by a thousand cuts.
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
There are some that see any attempt to get a handle on runaway infrastructure costs by stemming the outward tide of development and the continued abandonment of our core cities, as a form of communism (at best); or totalitarianism (at worst); that will eliminate individual rights, private property, and destroy the principles that our nation was founded upon.
There are others, like me, that see this as the very essence of conservatism itself: good stewardship of our tax dollars and our natural resources, a respect for community and tradition, a belief in the social and spiritual importance of place, and an acknowledgement of this inescapable reality of life – that we all need one another, and that, in the end, no one is an island.
The fiscal unsustainability of our current pattern of growth and development should naturally appeal to conservative sensibilities. But the political right has largely drifted away from this type of conservatism (conservation of financial, human, and natural resources).
Meanwhile, the political left has either ignored the issue, or has gone about addressing it in typical tone-deaf fashion, failing to engage the imaginations, hopes, fears, and aspirations of everyday people.
Like so many other difficult issues, it represents a colossal failure for both political parties.
So where are we in Northeast Ohio today?
- Our core cities have collectively lost 750,000 people since 1950.
- Hundreds of thousands of residents currently lack access to social and economic opportunities that people like me (and likely, you) take for granted.
- Tens of thousands of houses in our core cities and inner-ring suburbs currently sit vacant and abandoned.
- An additional 175,000 houses (18 per day, for the next 27 years) are projected to be abandoned, and it would cost close to $2 billion to remove them.
- Suburban areas are building more infrastructure than they will be able to afford to maintain, especially in the long-term.
- Absent a will to change this unhealthy dynamic, we will repeat this cycle in community after community, until we are broke.
We need to have a spirited debate about how to deal with all of these complex and interrelated problems. These are difficult issues that people of goodwill all over the ideological spectrum can and should disagree about how best to address.
The solutions are not immediately apparent and will not come solely from one person, group, or political party. They will not come from a couple of urban planners sitting around a table, but will instead need to involve the private sector, public officials, and all of the citizens that they represent.
But first we have to acknowledge that there is a problem. A problem that that we have a collective responsibility for.
This isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents. It is ultimately about people.
So, our core cities continue to be abandoned, and we develop more land on the fringes of our region into what amounts to a parallel-society that is much wealthier and whiter than the region as a whole.
The poor, the working class, and many minorities are left behind in the places with shrinking tax and resource bases, while the wealthy continue to concentrate themselves in places that are increasingly homogeneous, with greater access to social and economic opportunities.
The deep-seated inequalities and inequities that exist as both a cause and an effect of our current pattern of growth and development should be obvious, but often are not. Most of us see what we want to see, and we see the world through our own two eyes. We know what we know. But we don’t know what we don’t know.
Without a philosophy that allows us to transcend the self, it is there that we will stay – prisoners of our own experiences and expectations.
In the end, it all comes down to our views on people and place, and on this thing we call “society”.
What is society?
Well, for one, “society” really just means “other people”. The term itself is a tacit acknowledgement of the truth that we are all connected to one another, whether we want to be or not.
It is actual individual human people with names and families (and not abstractions like “society”) that are important. But actual human people are inextricably linked to one another in physical space, and through thought, word, and deed. The word “society” reminds us of this reality.
And what is place?
Are the things that are associated with place (like tradition, identity, stability, and community) objective values that are intrinsically important? Or are they just subjective and arbitrary? Are they really just subordinate means to (more important?) ends such as economic development and personal profit?
Are places really nothing more than engines for economic growth that, like machines, can be discarded as obsolete when they are no longer “useful” in the most reductive, narrowly-defined sense of that word? Or do places have an emotional and spiritual significance that we ignore at our peril?
And what about people themselves? Where do they fit into the equation? Where do they stack up on the balance sheet, and in the benefit/cost calculations? Who is measuring the true human cost of abandoning entire neighborhoods, entire communities, and entire ways of life? Is it possible to truly understand the social, economic, and spiritual impact of our collective decisions on where and how to build our communities?
These questions are never considered in conversations about economic growth and development. But they should be.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
How do we see ourselves? Are we stewards tasked with upholding the values of community and stability, acknowledging our interconnectedness, mutual dependence, and our responsibility to look out for one another’s well being?
I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.
-Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Or do we see ourselves simply as consumers of resources, and maximizers of utility; confident in our own self-sufficiency; content to put our faith and trust in the invisible hand to separate the weak from the strong?
Are we just makers and takers? Or are we fellow human beings, created equal, with a mutual responsibility to look out for one another, and to care for the places in which we live?
It is a sad and sorry ideology that sees any type of virtue or courage in simply succumbing to the fatalistic logic of social darwinism; to glorify in being swept to where the tide was going to carry us anyway.
We should fight it tooth and nail until the day that we die.
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
–Robert Frost, Reluctance
It is a decision point for our region.
Happy New Year, everyone.
— Jason Segedy via Notes from the Underground