Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part VI: Voices of Decline

July 13th, 2017

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

In Voices of Decline, Robert A. Beauregard traces the national discourse about urban decline over the majority of the 20th Century. This is done primarily by reviewing historical sources like magazines, journal articles, and opinion pieces that discuss the current state of urban affairs. He traces how commentators and intellectuals discussed urban issues over time and how that served to create a collective set of narratives about declining cities. This discourse is not always based in objective reality, but Beauregard demonstrates how the discourse impacts public perception and potentially, the realities that cities themselves face.

Beauregard argues that the discourse over urban decline is rooted in American ambivalence about urban life which can trace its roots to the founding of the country. The tensions between the city and the countryside eventually morphed into the more contemporary tensions between central cities and their surrounding suburbs. Many of these tensions are related to space and migration – as either the city or the countryside/suburbs attract residents, they must leave the other place behind. Political power requires population, so shifts away from one location to another means a loss of political power as well. Due in part to this political reality, the discourse around cities is rarely neutral as to their value or their moral position.

Portsmouth Historic Buildings 2

Even in the 1920s before urban decline took hold, commentators focused on how congestion and slums made cities unappealing. At this point, some of the ambivalence about cities was due to their role in pulling youth away from rural areas. Still, for the most part, cities were still considered to be the centers of action and any dark clouds were still faint on the horizon. The discourse about cities really began to shift during and after World War II as the urban population losses created by wartime and the Great Depression were not reversed. Suburbanization that began during the 1920s was clearly an enduring trend, and commentators began to recognize the the growth of outlying areas came at the expense of the central cities. Still, many commentators believed that no clear change in the prospects of cities had occurred and that there were technical solutions to the problems at hand, such as annexation. Others began to call for a rethinking of what exactly constituted the city itself, claiming that the broader metropolitan region might be the essential urban unit.

The growing number of African-American migrants from the South moving to northern cities in search of jobs and an escape from Jim Crow presaged a rapid, racially-charged change in the discourse about urban decline. The prospects for recovery were no longer seen as being as bright, and some commenters began to argue that cities were no longer worth saving. Others, however, began to see the moral dimensions of allowing cities that were rapidly growing poorer to decay and sought to show the growing inequalities between the central city and the suburbs. Federal urban renewal programs provided some momentary enthusiasm about reversing decline, but an increasing focus on race and the clear failures of that program quickly deadened any predictions of an urban turnaround. At this point, the rhetoric around urban decline was not about physical deterioration, but shifted to a social and moral deterioration that was deeply rooted in racism. With the election of Richard Nixon, the federal government no longer took direct responsibility for dealing with urban problems and a new focus on replaced traditional anti-poverty programs aimed at rebuilding industrial cities that were continuing to lose jobs and population.

But then, beginning in the late 1970s but coming fully into view in the 1980s, things began to briefly turn around as some higher income people began moving back into the cities. As the service-based economy consolidated their headquarters into central cities, higher educated workers followed them and began to gentrify neighborhoods that had previously been abandoned by the white middle class. Although this trend continued only in fits and starts, it did signal a major change in the perceived function of central cities – they were no longer centers of production, but of consumption. Beauregard’s analysis ends in the early 2000s, but it is easy to see how this trend has extended on into today.

Beauregard concludes by pulling at a deeper meaning in the discourse about urban decline. He argues that urban decline is a central part of American identity and political economy because a He claims that and cities are the essential loci of this interaction. Beauregard argues that the focus of the discourse on the cities themselves shields the broader issues of capitalism from public view. As cities become symbols for broader social forces that cause anxiety, the decline of cities is viewed with ambivalence and even acceptance.

This article is part of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.