New Urbs

After Two Decades of Growth, Philadelphia Still Feels Left Behind

South Philadelphia’s rooftops offer a stunning panorama of a city balancing its past and future. A sea of row homes, occasionally broken by old school buildings and church steeples, flow northward toward Center City, where towers of glistening glass spread symmetrically within the confines of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers.

The 60-story Comcast Technology Center, nearing completion, is the tallest skyscraper, its structure reminiscent of a nineties-era cellphone. Nearby is Liberty Place, comprised of two office towers that imitate New York City’s Chrysler Building. In the mid-1980s, One and Two Liberty Place broke the “gentlemen’s agreement” that Center City’s buildings should not exceed the height of the statue of William Penn atop City Hall. Three decades later, City Hall—a gigantic Second-Empire pile once described by Walt Whitman as “silent, weird, beautiful”—is overshadowed by Philadelphia’s contemporary architectural landscape.

The occupants of City Hall, especially in the 1990s, played a pivotal role in Philadelphia’s resurgence. At the time, the city was confronting skyrocketing crime, stark population loss, shuttered manufacturers, fleeing employers, a public housing crisis, and the prospect of bankruptcy. Ed Rendell inherited this perfect storm when he became Philadelphia’s 96th mayor in January 1992. Rendell’s first term, often credited with reinvigorating the city, was the focus of Buzz Bissinger’s 1997 masterpiece, A Prayer for the City.

It’s now been two decades since Bissinger chronicled the spectrum of feelings that a city conjures for its mayor and constituents—and revisiting the landmark book reminds us how dramatically Philadelphia has transformed since those dark days of Rendell’s first term.

Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist widely known as the author of the West Texas saga Friday Night Lights, composed a story that reveals the urban experience with clarity and empathy. In the anthology of books on American cities, Robert Caro is celebrated for The Power Broker, his magisterial biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses. But A Prayer for the City should be remembered as the book that best describes a city on the brink of salvation or perdition.


A Prayer for the City movingly describes the boundless optimism generated by mundane moments, the tensions aroused by the slightest provocations, and the heartbreak and despair induced by the unknown. Bissinger successfully documents the American city with all its intensity, violence, decay, and political intrigue. He reveals an urban culture from a period when only negative trends prevailed.

Bissinger’s main characters are Rendell, the city’s beleaguered yet resilient guardian, and David L. Cohen, his affable and brilliant chief of staff. Rendell, a larger-than-life figure, enjoyed a political comeback with the 1991 mayoral election. In the 1980s, Rendell hoped to leverage his District Attorney years by running for governor. In 1986, Rendell was crushed by Bob Casey, Sr. in Pennsylvania’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. A year later, Rendell ran against Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, but the outcome remained the same. In Bissinger’s telling, Neil Oxman, a political consultant, recalls that somehow, in 1990, Rendell “woke up…and said, ‘I’m going to do this the right way.’” Rendell prevailed in the 1991 Democratic mayoral primary. Then his general-election opponent, the legendary former Mayor Frank Rizzo, died suddenly over the summer. Rendell coasted to victory that November.

When Cohen was named Rendell’s campaign manager in 1990, he was working at one of the city’s top law firms. Despite their contrasting personalities, a loyal friendship commenced between the two men. A meticulous professional, Cohen was “known for the way he learned the nuances of group insurance by reading some five thousand pages on it.” He was also “known for the way he personally inspected every piece of mail his secretaries typed up for him, even the envelopes.”

Rendell, meanwhile, was often a canvas of emotions ranging from charm and irreverence to rage and gloom. But neither Cohen’s efficiency nor Rendell’s charisma could prepare them for City Hall’s chaos. “To be the mayor of an American city meant facing potential tragedy twenty-four hours a day,” writes Bissinger.

Philadelphia City Hall (Wikimedia Commons)

Post-election developments, whether anticipated or unexpected, left the Rendell-Cohen duo with limited time to save Philadelphia from its seemingly endless problems. In early 1992, a computer model forecasted that Philadelphia faced a $1.246 billion budget gap over the following five years if the city didn’t take action.

Rendell went public with the city’s dire fiscal situation. Candor proved an advantageous strategy, with the Rendell administration ultimately winning significant concessions from Philadelphia’s omnipotent unions. Bissinger, who had open access to City Hall for four years, reveals the backstage negotiations that subsequently protected Philadelphia from financial collapse, scored bipartisan praise and media accolades, and insured Rendell’s political future.

As mayor, Rendell embraced 1990s-era revitalization strategies. He favored the entertainment approach common among big cities. A new convention center, the construction of luxury hotels, and the opening of major-chain restaurants like Hard Rock Café heralded hope for Center City’s future. But citywide challenges often overshadowed Rendell’s efforts to improve downtown, promote tourism, fund the arts, and attract suburban visitors.

Philadelphia’s post-industrial trends, far from unique, proved overwhelming. Rendell delicately navigated the city’s demographic complexities as a peacemaker, hoping to subdue or maintain support from aggrieved politicians and resentful residents. The statistics fueled the tension. In the early 1990s, Philadelphia’s poverty rate was 20 percent, its high school dropout rate was 40 percent, and only 32 percent of the region’s jobs were within city limits. Philadelphia was no longer a “Workshop of the World,” where the working class thrived in a neighborhood-centric city with sprawling mills and factories. As Bissinger recounts, the city had “become the Manufacturing Mausoleum of the World.”

Bissinger features a supporting cast alongside Rendell and Cohen, unveiling city characters who represent the cycle of urban life. He profiles Jim Mangan, a welder who must regroup when the federal government closes Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. Mike McGovern, an assistant district attorney proud of his city, grapples with its realities, and aggressively pursues justice against violent criminals. Linda Morrison, a libertarian reformer, meets defeat in her pursuit of city living. Fifi Mazzccua, a loving matriarch, finds comfort in her church despite family tragedy in the city’s “Badlands.”

In the background, Rendell and Cohen aggressively respond to Clinton-era policies that risked placing the city on life support. “Forget all the good things I’ve done; Philadelphia is dying,” Rendell says during a conference call. “It’s happened a lot more slowly since I took office, but we’re dying.”


A new elevated park, modeled on Manhattan’s High Line. (Photo by C. Smyth for Visit Philadelphia)

Philadelphia has transformed since Bissinger’s mid-90s portrait. City Hall now enjoys the fruits of an expanding higher-education sector, growing hospital systems, start-up companies, and new real estate development. Millennials flock to neighborhoods that only a decade ago were ridden with crime and blight. North Philadelphia’s Francisville, for example, is a haven for bike-riding residents living in newly-built apartment buildings. As the U.S. Census notes, as of 2017, Philadelphia’s population has risen eleven years in a row. An expanding job market, with suburban companies opening Center City offices, continues to attract new residents.

The city’s Navy Yard, which dates to 1776, is now a mixed-use campus with over 11,000 employees working in the office, industrial, and R&D sectors. Penn’s Landing, along the Delaware River, is being redevelped to connect the waterfront to neighborhoods by capping a portion of I-95 with a 12-acre park. Even the Divine Lorraine Hotel, long a source of wonder for its deteriorating majesty, is enjoying a $44 million rehabilitation.

Across from 30th Street Station, Philadelphia’s central transportation hub, the Schuylkill Yards project will transform 14 acres of barren, Drexel University-owned land into 7 million square feet of commercial buildings, retail space, and research labs. The 20-year, $3.5 billion project is part of West Philadelphia’s rapid gentrification. As WHYY Plan Philly’s Jim Saksa recently reported, in 1995 the average home in the University City neighborhood sold for about $80,000. Homes just west of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus are now valued at nearly $500,000.

Philadelphia’s 10-year property-tax abatement played an important role in the city’s population growth and construction boom. The measure, introduced in 2000, exempted new or renovated residential properties from taxation on improvements for a decade. The abatement created a construction frenzy, reshaping the character of neighborhoods like Northern Liberties and Fishtown. But the policy, while economically critical, also has downsides. In many cases, developers replaced historic properties with cheap, stucco-clad apartment buildings. Property taxes, in turn, increased for existing residents already dealing with a burdensome wage tax. For many families, the city’s struggling public schools have made private school tuition an additional unavoidable expense.

West Philadelphia, 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)

The city has changed since the Rendell years, but negative socioeconomic trends linger. Philadelphia continues to have one of the nation’s poorest populations and it trails the growth of other U.S. cities. In 2017, the Brookings Institution released a report addressing how Philadelphia can excel in a global economy and serve its local population. While Brookings acknowledged improvements in Philadelphia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, it also warned that the city ranked lower in innovation and growth measures compared to its metro peers.

And so, Philadelphia, despite its renaissance, still wrestles with cognitive dissonance. The city embraces its future, but history and tradition restrain its forward pace. The city attracts new employers, investment, and residents, but the statistics remain sobering. The city even pursues efforts at reform, but machine-style politics—Lincoln Steffens famously called Philadelphia “corrupt and contented”—inhibit lasting improvements.

Bissinger showed how a big city’s economic, cultural, and political complexities can make its imperfections an inescapable reality. He captured how Rendell, as mayor, triangulated Philadelphia’s political ecosystem to restore the city’s future. Looking back, it’s indisputable that the city’s comeback began with Rendell’s administration. His efforts, largely successful, delivered career success. Following his chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, Rendell served two terms as Governor of Pennsylvania. Cohen, who remained his chief of staff until 1997, is now Senior Executive Vice President at Comcast.

Would Rendell thrive in Philadelphia’s current political landscape? He was a Democratic mayor in a Democratic city, but a political leader capable of working with all sides. Of course, there are not many Republicans in Philadelphia. Registered Democrats presently outnumber Republicans by 7 to 1. This majority has its origins in the 1950s, when Joseph Clark broke up the GOP machine that had ruled the city for decades. The Democratic City Committee has ruled Philadelphia since that time, perpetuating the very machine politics that Clark hoped to extinguish after World War II.

But questions are now arising about the establishment’s lasting power. In May, progressive Democrat Elizabeth Fiedler, a former reporter, pulled off an upset primary victory in the South Philadelphia legislative seat held by retiring state Rep. Bill Keller. Left-wing, grassroots-based groups played a pivotal role in Fiedler’s win. Based on national trends, it’s unlikely that candidates like Fiedler would replicate the spirit of moderation and compromise favored by Rendell.

Will the old machine withstand this left-wing ascendance? Corruption does not help their cause. Between 2000 and 2015, nearly 40 Philadelphia politicians found themselves under investigation. In recent years, the city’s district attorney went to prison for bribery, a long-time Congressman was sentenced to prison for influence peddling, and five state legislators were caught trading favors or laundering money. The Traffic Court, meanwhile, dissolved after a ticket-fixing scandal, and the FBI raided the City Council majority leader’s office.

For now, the construction boom continues, the Democratic machine endures, and city leaders celebrate favorable trends. It’s a city that retains an almost chiaroscuro quality, finding enlightenment through investment and population growth, but also darkness as a one-party system maintains its tribal grip over the city. Bissinger captures these qualities in A Prayer for the City, which is not only Philadelphia’s story, but also a history of the American city. Reading the book twenty years later, one can draw an encouraging conclusion. Despite the challenges, Philadelphia’s prayers were largely answered. As Bissinger shows, the path to resurrection is long and perilous, but it can be successfully navigated, particularly by a gifted politician like Rendell.

Charles F. McElwee III works in the economic development sector in northeastern Pennsylvania.

This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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A New and Misleading Story of Small Town Revival

Small town New Mexico (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock)

Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, James and Deborah Fallows, Pantheon, 432 pages.

For many people, the story of small towns outside the country’s major metropolitan areas is one of decline and disinvestment: businesses moving to more central or more populous locations, and factories and farms employing fewer people thanks to automation. As people move out, small businesses suffer from a reduced customer base—and now local retailers face even more competition from warehouse giants such as Amazon.

The causes of urban decline, especially among smaller cities, can seem obvious, but revival is less understood. But even the simple narrative of decline and revival can be misleading. For instance, the Rust Belt is regarded as a place in decline, where a lot of jobs have gone away, but a closer examination reveals that while many traditional industrial jobs have left cities, other sectors of the economy have become prominent, concentrating jobs in city centers while the employees live in more distant suburbs.

Revival is also more complicated. Take Columbus, Miss., a city recently profiled in a bestselling travelogue. A town of about 23,000 people in southeast Mississippi, its initial prosperity was based on labor-intensive manufacturing—there was a toilet seat factory, and mattress and textile plants, along with a U.S. Air Force base. Like in many other communities, the traditional factories closed, resulting in high unemployment and an empty downtown. But the state’s Congressional delegation was able to prevent the base’s closure, and the local community college worked with remaining employers to help residents get the skills demanded by today’s industries. Regionally, Columbus is located in the Golden Triangle, with Mississippi State University in nearby Starkville keeping young people in the area, along with the Mississippi University for Women (now coed).

By now Columbus is thriving, with multiple high-tech manufacturing concerns, including a helicopter factory, an unmanned aerial vehicle plant, and a Steel Dynamics mill. There are also hospitals and the universities themselves are important employers.

But there are signs that “revival” is not the best term for what’s happening in this part of the rural South. None of the major employers is “home-grown” and the factories are as much attracted by expensive infrastructure projects like work on the Golden Triangle Regional Airport and two Tennessee Valley Authority megasites. For readers of sites that promote fiscal sustainability, such as Strong Towns, this is the kind of thing that sets off alarm bells. How was the airport and megasite work paid for? Are they depending on growth and more factories coming in to sustain municipal budgets? Are they building places that generate a lot of tax revenue per square foot of property, or are they building miles of unneeded roads so WalMart can offer customers lots of free parking?

These are the sort of questions that are important for towns to ask themselves—and for journalists to be asking boosters. But too often the latter elite group of reporters ignores these key issues, making their work seem superficial. One recent prominent case of this missed opportunity is the multi-year journey of Atlantic writer James Fallows and his wife Deborah.

* * *

Between 2012 and 2017, the two Fallows crisscrossed the United States in a light aircraft, reporting on urban revival. These stories, expanded and repackaged into a coherent narrative, have now been published in book form: Our Towns: A 100,000 mile Journey into the Heart of America. The places they visited ranged in size from the 94 inhabitants of Uncertain, Tx., to the aforementioned small town of Columbus, Miss., to the over 800,000-strong metropolis of Columbus, Ohio.

According to the Fallows’s reporting, towns that appear to be in the midst of a revival certainly have some features in common. Our Towns emphasizes things like the presence of a research university or liberal arts college, openness to immigrants, a successful community college, a microbrewery, a local arts scene, and so on—until they sound like a parody of once celebrated theorizing about the “creative class.”

Yet if these features are common to successful towns, it does not seem like they necessarily generate new growth. For all the places that have been revived, there are just as many places in the nation’s forgotten corners that continue to be mired in high unemployment and blight. Some small cities defy all expectations: Lynn, Mass. is a post-industrial city less than ten miles northeast of Boston. It has a commuter-rail station, comparatively cheap real estate, and the sort of old brick mill buildings million-dollar tech startups love to repurpose for their incubation. Despite being so close to the heart of one of the most dynamic metropolitan economies in the United States—if not the world—Lynn’s economy persists in lagging behind. As far as most theorists of urban revival are concerned, Lynn ought to be full of entrepreneurs priced out of Cambridge’s Kendall Square or the Seaport Innovation District. Instead, in Lynn one can buy a three-bedroom condo on the water for less than $400,000—possibly the only place in all of Massachusetts where that’s possible.

The Northeast seems to be full of similar counterexamples. The whole Knowledge Corridor—as the stretch of Interstate 91 between Brattleboro, Vt. and New Haven, Conn. has been branded—contains a higher-ed cluster that includes the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Yale University, and the University of Hartford, with the University of Connecticut not too far away. These towns have microbreweries, community colleges, art scenes, and the whole nine yards. But they still have high unemployment, high levels of poverty, and the other signs of decline. One of the Knowledge Corridor cities, Springfield, Mass., even attracted a casino using Massachusetts’s expanded gaming law.

Perhaps the story of urban decline and revival is about more than statistics. Yes, residents and officials need to face their reality and stop pursuing economic development strategies around tax incentives and factories or big box retailers—and start supporting local entrepreneurs and adaptive reuse instead of demolition. But the most important thing seems to be loving the place. The real story of Our Towns is not one of economic incentives and kitschy art shops, of craft beer and land-grant universities, but of committing to a place and persevering to help overcome the obstacles.

As GK Chesterton wrote of a 19th-century workaday London district, “If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.” As with Pimlico, so with Eastport, or Bend, or Lynn.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.

This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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The Mysterious Roman Who Shaped Modern Cities

The origins of European urbanism lie deep in a long-forgotten past. But any discussion of the tradition could not go on for long without reaching Vitruvius. The renowned Roman writer on architecture, though hardly the first urbanist in the classical world, remains a leading light of Western urbanism for the simple reason that he is the earliest author whose work on the subject is both extant and extensive. A Roman proverb is appropriate: Verba volant, scripta manent. Spoken words fly away, but written words remain.

At least, some do. Vitruvius, the man, is an enigma. Surprisingly little is known about his life. The words that would have told us were either lost, or never written down. His work is cited a few times by Pliny the Elder in the Natural History, indicating that he was a known name in his field. A 19th-century classicist argued that Vitruvius was actually a pen name for a wealthy Caesarist, Marmurra—an enticing theory with little corroboration. Vitruvius (whose full name may or may not have been Marcus Vitruvius Pollio) probably came from a small town in Campania. After more than twenty centuries, maybe it is not surprising that there is more mystery than certainty.

What we know about Vitruvius’ life, we learn mainly from his own asides, peppered throughout the text of De architectura, and by inference, from our general knowledge of his time. He tells us that his parents had valued his education. We know that he began a career as a military engineer, traveled throughout the provinces, and eventually worked for Caesar. He also writes that he was involved in the design of a basilica (that is, a public building) in the Adriatic seacoast town of Fano. No other building projects are definitively linked to him. Those are the hardest facts.

Scholars have even debated the publication date for De architectura. If it is true, as many believe, that it was published in the same decade as the Battle of Actium, then, about its time, we know quite a bit. It was a time with historical themes that would be uneasily familiar to an American in the early 21st century: Rome was politically dominant and it fostered the best of the fine and practical arts. Its trade routes were well worn, with the diverse nations of the Mediterranean fully within its economic and political realms. Wealth was being created and displayed with fervor.

And yet, in the midst of this heady time, the culture of Rome was coarsening. Customs once shaped by the proven traditions of disciplined, patrician farmers whose citizen armies had first conquered Italy, and then the known world, were dissipating. In the wake of Caesar’s murder, and in the midst of a raging civil war, cracks had appeared all over the republican edifice of the state. If its date has been pegged with any accuracy, De architectura was written in the last days of the Republic, and dedicated to Caesar Augustus —Octavian, the victor of Actium—whose building projects would transform the city at the very dawn of the Empire.

De architectura reflects the contradictions of its historical moment. At times, Vitruvius shows a brittle, almost obsequious reverence for the forms of tradition, while displaying a lack of knowledge about the plasticity of the actual tradition from which those forms emerged. Scholars have observed, for example, that his discussion of temple architecture seeks to categorize the arrangement of columns into a set of idealized forms that, in practice, had never truly existed. This criticism has been supported by the facile contradictions between his proffered forms and the dimensions found in most actual, surviving Greek and Roman temples.

Yet the text also reflects, in its great breadth of technical instruction and its very nature as a treatment of the myriad forms of building, the striking ingenuity and ambitious dynamism of the Imperial moment. And even as he falls short, at times, in his interpretations of established customs, Vitruvius embodies, with the very same impulse, a prescient awareness that something of deep value is being lost all around him; and that he has the power, because of his own imperfect observations, to write down a record of what remains—before it flies away.

A heartbreaking proportion of classical writings would not survive the fall of the Western Empire, nearly five centuries after De architectura was written. By some estimates, more than 95 percent of classical texts were lost. By fortune or fate, De architectura would be one of the few that survived, preserving and transmitting the practices of ancient architecture down to the modern world. But given the scale of loss, we cannot be certain Vitruvius’ treatise on the building traditions of the Roman world was unique in its breadth. Even less can we judge that it was the best.

Nevertheless, since its popular rediscovery in Renaissance times, De architectura, unique as an artifact (and a talisman, of a sort), has become a touchstone for students of classical planning and architecture. Its author’s sometimes clumsy treatments of important topics, such as temple architecture, are thus forgiven and his imperfect analyses have served as starting points for modern attempts to decode, understand, and revive the traditions of the ancient past.

Much like Leon Battista Alberti, the 14th-century Florentine who studied Vitruvius and is credited with reviving the classical building tradition for modern times, Vitruvius encompassed many urban planning topics in his writings on architecture. Accordingly, a reading of his work is pertinent to understanding the planning traditions of Western Europe that continue to influence and shape our neighborhoods.

For example, following some introductory formalities about the objectives of architecture, the first topic Vitruvius explores in Book I is one of the most basic questions of urban planning—the selection of a site for a new town. Writing at a time of significant expansion (as Caesar had recently conquered most of Gaul), he describes a number of intriguing traditional practices for choosing a site, many of which looked to health as a paramount concern.

The Romans believed that the situation and orientation of a town had a vital impact on its inhabitants—a concept not so different from today’s study of microclimates, or the more traditional vinicultural interest in terroir. In particular, he advised that, within a town, the directions of new streets should be determined with reference to prevailing winds, to avoid the creation of wind tunnels. But there was more, particularly with respect to site selection:

First comes the choice of a very healthy site. Such a site will be high, neither misty nor frosty, and in a climate neither hot nor cold, but temperate; further, without marshes in the neighborhood. For when the morning breezes blow toward the town at sunrise, if they bring with them mists from marshes and, mingled with the mist, the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes to be wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants, they will make the site unhealthy…. [I]f the town is on the coast with a southern or western exposure, it will not be healthy, because in summer the southern sky grows hot at sunrise and is fiery at noon, while a western exposure grows warm after sunrise, is hot at noon, and at evening all aglow.

Themes of sunlight and prevailing winds recur throughout De architectura. They reflect a resourceful principle to which Vitruvius and others in the Western European tradition have long subscribed. In the pre-industrial world, with limited technical knowledge, it was essential to identify natural phenomena that could assist builders in their goal of creating comfortable, durable, low-maintenance built environments. Studying and acceding to the predictable patterns of nature was the surest way to do this. Plainly, the roots of today’s interest in sustainable development can be found in the texts of classical antiquity; perhaps earlier.

The most planning-relevant section of De architectura is found in Book V. Here, Vitruvius identifies and describes an index of vital public sites. While the author’s primary focus is on architecture, his enumeration of purposes is valuable to the student of planning because the scaling and assemblage of these sites fundamentally shapes the physical character of the city, including surrounding urban interstices. The same text also provides a rich vein for Roman customs, because each of the sites the author notes reflects (and helped transmit, in its own time) the life patterns of the people that built it.

Each site that Vitruvius describes has a corresponding, firmly established cultural practice. Forums provided a venue for assembly and participation. Theaters reflected the primacy of music and drama. Harbors and treasuries showed the vitality of markets. Basilicas and senate houses, the practice of politics and the rule of law. And so on. In light of this manifest dynamic between sites and customs, one could also identify strands between the cultural forms of classical antiquity and those of more recent times in the modern West.

No single element of Western urbanism is more essential than that which the Romans instantiated in the forum. In Town and Square, an excellent (and sadly out-of-print) mid-20th-century book about the role of public spaces in traditional European cities, urbanist Paul Zucker taught that spaces like the Vitruvian forum corresponded tightly with the customs of politically participatory societies. He argued that no true public squares could be identified predating the classical Greek experiments with various degrees of self-government. (In classical Greece, the agora served a similar purpose; in the modern West, the town green or the plaza inherits the same.)

Vitruvius showed how the forum was the heart of the Roman plan. Around it, the more specialized civic sites should be arranged. These would include legal, political, and religious spaces. The author’s instructions for composing a new forum are simple. First, reserve an open space with a 2 to 3 ratio (roughly equivalent to the golden mean) at a scale befitting the importance of the town or city. Next, develop the blocks overlooking this space with buildings that comprise both street-level and upper-tier (i.e., balcony) access for pedestrians. Finally, over the course of several sections, he expands on a number of the special buildings that should be built in proximity to the forum. Notably, Vitruvius never prescribes the Roman frontier practice of establishing the forum near the origin of a town grid, at the intersection of the cardo and the decumanis maximus.

One site adjoining the forum was the basilica, which typically housed a mix of courtrooms and political chambers. One could compare the basilica’s purpose to that of a modern city hall or municipal building. (Today, basilica is typically a descriptor of church architecture, but in classical antiquity it did not carry religious overtones.) Ever cognizant of the potential benefits of astute site selection, Vitruvius advises building the basilica on the most sun-scorched lot facing the forum. This, he believed, would facilitate winter usage and, presumably, ensure convenient public access.

For basilica design, Vitruvius draws on elements from temple architecture, making reference to his formulae, presented in Book III, as starting points for the proportioning of columns, tiers, and other elements. Vitruvius also recommends situating the treasury, prison, and senate house at the forum presumably with complementary architecture. Thus, we see an early written example of a practice that has remained common throughout the history of Europe: the conscious incorporation of classical temple elements into secular, civic buildings.

Away from the forum, the outdoor theater implicitly forms a second node in the Vitruvian plan. It will draw crowds to a new destination and actuate a new center of urban development. In addition to addressing the structural and visual elements of theaters, Vitruvius delves into acoustic considerations:

Voice … moves in an endless number of circular rounds, like the innumerably increasing circular waves which appear when a stone is thrown into smooth water, and which keep on spreading indefinitely from the centre unless interrupted by narrow limits, or by some obstruction which prevents such waves from reaching their end in due formation. When they are interrupted by obstructions, the first waves, flowing back, break up the formation of those which follow.

After incorporating design considerations for optimal sound, Vitruvius recites a short history of Greek theaters, and presents a unique list of site-selection criteria. Notably, his unusually detailed treatment of public theaters illustrates an interesting marker in the timeline of Rome. In the last days of the republic, theater remained at the top of a cultural hierarchy that continued to reflect the philhellenic biases of old times. But as Jérôme Carcopino noted in Daily Life in Ancient Rome, in tandem with the growing authoritarianism and decadence of imperial society, competitive games and bloody spectacles at the amphitheater would supplant traditional drama at the center of Roman entertainment in the next century.

Forming a third node in the plan, Vitruvius describes a bath complex. Befitting the theme of architecture, his focus is on the fundamentals of construction. Similar to the forum, he recommends building at a scale proportionate to the population. Thus, a smaller town would reserve a smaller site for a bath complex, while a larger city would reserve a larger site. Like the public theater, only more so, the bath complex could be expected to attract frequent visitors. Hence, we could imagine a locus of activity in its vicinity.

The author advises selecting a site with a long southwestern or southern exposure for the bath. The southern element reflects a belief (as with the basilica) that prolonged natural sunlight is valuable to a public site. The western element, particularly for the warm bathing rooms, further incorporates the Roman custom of visiting the baths in afternoons and evenings. We can glean a bit more about the bath customs from Vitruvius. For example, he confirms the traditional, tripartite division of a bath complex into temperature-distinguished chambers, and that men and women had separate bathing areas as well.

Vitruvius rounds out Book V with a discussion of harbors. Depending on the topography and trade patterns of a particular town, waterfront activities may form a fourth node in its plan. In some places, however, the waterfront will simply adjoin the urban fabric of other neighborhoods; or, more likely, will create the initial node of settlement, onto which others are appended. One might surmise that a waterfront district would include warehouses, workshops, inns, taverns, and restaurants—as could be found in traditional ports throughout the ages. Vitruvius’ discussion, however, provides little guidance on adjacent development. Instead, he offers specific advice for the improvement and construction of maritime facilities.

The other books of De architectura do not touch as directly on the urban plan, but are nevertheless relevant to traditional Western urbanism. For example, the architecture of individual buildings forms a salient characteristic of urban fabric. His investigation of temple design identified, broadly, many of the building blocks of classical architecture that would continue to shape the face of Western urbanism down to the present time. In addition, he covers a number of allied arts, like the construction of aqueducts, agricultural land use, and a survey of Roman technical knowledge. One of the most curious points of De architectura is Vitruvius’ departure in Book IX into a long discussion about the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars.

A voice from a distant past, Vitruvius offers many of the same assets to urban planners and cultural historians that he does to architects. He also generates similar mysteries. The illustration he has left us of the late Roman republic is unique, if imperfect. De architectura offers a glimpse into the urban world of a decisive moment in classical antiquity—and into the mind of a man who quite literally helped to shape it. Through his writings, Vitruvius provides special insights on an early phase of a rich tradition that would evolve, over centuries, into modern European urbanism. And in light of its cultural influence since the Renaissance, De architectura remains the cornerstone of a canon of readings that have helped shape the traditional urbanism of the modern West.

Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at

This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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New Housing Can Spur Growth In Cities Left for Dead

Editor’s Note: This is part two in a two-part series on Rust Belt urban revitalization. Last week, in part one, Jason Segedy challenged the advocates of “managed decline.” Part two explores the new policy ideas leaders in Akron are using to spur growth in housing and residents.

AKRON, Ohio—There is much discussion about the decline of the Rust Belt—in capital, jobs, influence, and most especially, residents. But the one thing that America’s post-industrial Rust Belt cities do not have a shortage of is vacant urban land ready for residential redevelopment. As the population has declined over the past 70 years, tens of thousands of residential structures have gone through a long and tortuous cycle of neglect, vacancy, abandonment, and tax delinquency, culminating in demolition.

By 2017, Detroit had lost 64 percent of its peak population; Youngstown lost 62 percent; Cleveland lost 58 percent; Buffalo lost 55 percent; and Akron lost 32 percent.

The sheer number of vacant parcels in the hardest-hit of these cities is staggering. In Youngstown, there are 23,831 vacant lots, or 38 percent of all parcels in the city. In Detroit, there are 116,378 vacant lots, or 31 percent of all parcels in the city.

The surfeit of vacant parcels is both a huge opportunity and challenge. The cost of simply managing, mowing, and maintaining these properties can be daunting, especially for cash-strapped local governments with fiscal difficulties of their own. As such, cities have ample incentive to get these properties into private hands, whether those be the hands of next-door neighbors, community development corporations, or real estate developers.

From a land-availability standpoint, the opportunities to build new urban housing are nearly boundless. In Akron, the city alone owns over 1,400 vacant residential lots, and the Summit County Land Bank owns 500 more.

Residential lots that once contained houses are not the only places that new housing can be built. Vacant school sites can be particularly attractive for residential development, given their sheer size and often strategic locations. As the enrollment in the Akron Public Schools has dropped by nearly one-third in the past 20 years, the City of Akron has begun acquiring vacant school sites, between three and eleven acres in size, for future residential reuse. Even in a mid-sized city like Akron, thousands of new houses and apartment units can be built on the land that is already under public control.

But who is going to buy these houses? To answer that question, we need to talk about the real estate market.

How the Urban Real Estate Market Works

The real estate market boils down to supply, demand, and of course, location, location, location.

Before we get into specifics, let’s establish a few things about urban housing:

  • A person cannot buy a house that does not exist, so we need supply of marketable product in the city;
  • People can just as easily move from a suburb to the city, as they did from the city to a suburb, provided there is demand to do so;
  • Demand for urban housing has nothing to do with whether or not the city needs more jobs, because prospective home buyers already have jobs.

In many Rust Belt metros, there is an oversupply of housing in the regional real estate market. Northeast Ohio is a textbook example of this. This 12-county region of nearly 4 million residents, containing Cleveland, Akron, Canton, and Youngstown, has lost 7 percent of its population since 1970, yet it has seen massive suburban sprawl, with an additional 250 square miles of land developed for residential use over that same period. The oversupply of housing, coupled with low overall demand, leads to depressed home values, and contributes to vacant housing in the core cities, as middle-income buyers filter from older to newer housing.

But this isn’t a complete picture. While there is an oversupply of housing in the region, there is an undersupply of saleable housing in the urban market. A scrapyard technically has a large supply of cars, but none of them are drivable. A similar situation exists in the urban housing market. All of the high-quality older homes, in the desirable neighborhoods, are already occupied and cared-for, leaving behind a large stock of defunct and obsolete vacant housing which no one wants, that is slowly rotting away.

There are two other things that you need to know about housing markets in Rust Belt cities.

The first is that the housing is old. Cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Rochester contain the oldest overall stock of housing in the nation. These are places where close to 80 percent or more of the housing was built before 1960. Some of the old houses are great (I live in one of them), but many of them are not marketable, which is one of the reasons why these cities are shrinking. There is a self-reinforcing vicious cycle at work: Because there is not a lot of demand, new housing is not built in the city; and because there is little new housing available, no one wants to move there.

Some people love older houses and have the time, energy, and money that it takes to properly maintain them. Many others do not—and, as such, they are probably not going to find what they are looking for in the urban market. Cities which fail to update their housing stock are losing out on a huge number of potential buyers, due to lack of supply.

The second thing to know is that housing prices are low—often too low. The median value of an owner-occupied house in Buffalo is $83,500. In Cleveland it is $66,800. In Detroit, it is $43,500. And these are owner-occupied houses. Once rental properties are factored in, the average sales price for a home is even lower. Price points like this are not even close to what it costs to build a brand-new house.

When houses begin selling for less than $50,000, they have essentially reached the point where it is no longer worthwhile to maintain them. No one is going to buy a house for $10,000, and put $60,000 into renovating it, only to have it sell for $40,000. A $10,000 house is not an asset. It is a liability.

In order to unlock latent demand for urban living, the first thing that a city needs to do is to increase the supply of marketable housing. In Akron, we have tackled this problem by launching a citywide, 15 year, 100 percent residential property tax abatement program. Any new house or apartment built anywhere in the city is eligible to be exempted from property taxes for 15 years, and any renovations of existing houses or apartments, totaling over $5,000, which contribute to the taxable value of the property, are eligible to be exempted.

This powerful incentive, which helps bridge the gap between the cost of new construction and the sales price of the home, is already reaping dividends. In 2015, over 500 houses in Akron were demolished, while less than 10 were built. Since the residential property tax abatement program was launched in April 2017, there are nearly 1,000 housing units (both single-family and multi-family) that are in varying stages of development throughout the city.

Supply is one piece of the puzzle. Demand is another. People often ask me “Where are all of these new people going to come from?” My answer is “They are already here.” There are nearly four million people living within 50 miles of downtown Akron. If we build an attractive enough community, we can compete for them. The roads run in both directions.

Generating demand for urban living is a complicated topic, and space does not allow me to do it justice here. Suffice it to say that it involves doing dozens of things to make the city look and feel better—improving public safety, repairing neglected infrastructure, reforming zoning and urban design codes, improving schools, and enhancing neighborhood business districts—to name just a few.

People often mistakenly conflate housing demand with job creation. “How are you going to get more people in the city without more jobs?”, they ask. But the fact that the city needs more jobs, or better-paying jobs, is a completely separate issue. The prospective buyers of urban homes living in nearby suburbs already have jobs. Eighty-one percent of the people who work in Akron, and earn over $40,000 a year, do not live in Akron. If we reduced that number to 50 percent, the city would gain thousands of new middle-class residents.

Finally, as we all know, real estate ultimately comes down to location. Not all vacant lots are created equal. The likelihood that a new house or apartment will be built on a given vacant parcel is heavily dependent upon where it is located. Housing demand, even within the urban market, varies greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood. One of the strategic challenges for a city is to identify and successfully market vacant properties to developers—particularly those located in “middle neighborhoods”—places which are neither firing on all cylinders, nor experiencing widespread decline. These are the most important neighborhoods in a city from a redevelopment standpoint, because they are at a tipping point and will either change for the better, or for the worse.

Same Old Challenges Need New Answers

When land is available, and when sufficient market demand exists, there are still many challenges that cities which are seeking to build new housing must work hard to overcome.

One set of hurdles involves financing. Multi-family projects, particularly those that involve renovating older buildings, can encounter daunting challenges in terms of building the capital stack needed to implement a complicated project, which may include everything from conventional bank loans, to state and federal historic tax credits, Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, HUD 108 loans, and Tax-Increment Financing (TIF) packages offered by local governments.

For single-family housing projects, it can often be difficult to find the comparable sales transactions required to generate the appraisals needed to secure financing for the project. Lenders and investors are often reluctant to invest in unproven urban markets, so developers and municipal governments often need to collaborate and work tirelessly to sell these projects to risk-averse lenders.

Administrative procedures can present another set of challenges. Developers must often run the gauntlet through a series of Byzantine administrative processes involving zoning, subdivision regulations, street and public utilities design standards, planning commissions, urban design and historic preservation commissions, and city councils. Even in the most cooperative and receptive municipal environment, these processes take time and resources to navigate.

Zoning codes and subdivision regulations, even in older cities with densely-developed, traditional neighborhoods, often contain suburban-style default requirements regarding setbacks, lot sizes, and parking. Similarly, civil engineers, public works managers, and fire departments frequently create street design standards that make building new neighborhoods with the design attributes of old neighborhoods, such as smaller lots, and narrower streets and sidewalks, a challenge.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all in successfully executing a new housing project involves people.

City councils usually have the final say in authorizing the sale of publicly-owned land, and in granting zoning variances. Navigating the complex politics of a city council, and getting to know and work with the various personalities can take a lot of time, energy, and effort.

Neighbors and nearby property-owners typically have a wide variety of reactions to new housing. Some are very supportive, while others are extremely hostile.

Although you might think that people living in neighborhoods with a large number of abandoned houses and vacant lots would be thrilled to see new houses being built, you might be surprised to learn how often this is not the case. Sometimes neighbors prefer to have the vacant lot remain as green space. Sometimes they worry that the new housing will not be expensive enough, and will bring their property values down. Other times, they worry that the new housing will be too expensive, and will bring their property values (and taxes) up.

When it comes to new housing, everyone is a critic. I have heard people complain that housing which they will never live in is too dense; that housing which they will never purchase is too expensive; that housing which they will never be inconvenienced by will generate too much traffic; and that housing which they will never look at is not architecturally appealing.

After 23 years as an urban planner, I can honestly report to you that, contrary to popular belief, most people are strongly in favor of heavy-handed and draconian government regulation of private property—as long as it is someone else’s private property, and not their own.

Residents and community activists who are opposed to new housing often demonize the real estate development profession as being “greedy”, overlooking the fact that their own home was developed by a developer, built by a builder, and sold by a realtor—most likely for a profit. This isn’t to argue that every development professional is a white knight, but it is important to remember that the vast majority of people who work in the real estate and construction sectors are not the enemy of neighborhoods. Without them, there would be no neighborhoods.

When new housing is proposed, many people who don’t even live in the neighborhood will come out of the woodwork to oppose it. Sometimes they provoke class conflict by seizing upon the dubious marketing term “luxury housing.” This is especially true of far-left activists and academics, many of whom reflexively label any new development in a lower or middle-income neighborhood as “gentrification.”

The only reason that I continue to use that word is because other people use it. But it has become a useless word, and means so many different things to so many different people that it is no longer of any descriptive value.

People who describe any new market-rate housing as gentrification need to get their story straight, because they often have contradictory, and self-refuting notions about urban redevelopment. They often claim to want to see economic and racial integration, but oppose the new housing in lower-income or minority neighborhoods which could actually bring it about.

I have heard self-described gentrification opponents claim that a new housing development will be home to people who “do not look like” those who live in the neighborhood, while simultaneously calling for diversity and inclusion; and remaining blissfully unaware of the irony that they are the ones who are making stereotypical, unwarranted assumptions about the characteristics of those who will buy the new houses in the first place.

Outside activists who come into a neighborhood and invoke the bogeyman of “gentrification” are denying opportunity to nearby residents who could benefit from the new housing, discouraging private investment in places that need it, and serving to further urban decline in the community.

The Economist recently described this dynamic well:

Those who bemoan segregation and gentrification simultaneously risk contradiction…[Gentrification] boosts racial and economic integration. It can dilute the concentration of poverty—which a mountain of economic and sociological literature has linked to all manner of poor outcomes…Gentrification steers cash into deprived neighbourhoods and brings people into depopulated areas through market forces, all without the necessity of governmental intervention.

There is little empirical evidence that gentrification has led to the displacement of people living in the urban neighborhoods of the Rust Belt. On the other hand, there is incontrovertible proof that thousands of middle-class residents are displaced by urban decline every year in these cities. A shrinking city, with a declining tax base, that is getting poorer will help no one—the poor least of all.

Alan Mallach, in his new book The Divided City, explains, at length, why the changes occurring in a handful of gentrifying neighborhoods in Rust Belt cities, are on balance, good for these places, and also makes the point that these positive changes are dwarfed by the economic and social decline that is happening elsewhere in these cities. We need more gentrification in the Rust Belt (if you insist on calling it that), not less.

New housing can ultimately bring equity and opportunity back to urban neighborhoods. When middle-class people return to the city, they have disposable income that can help create markets for retail and small business, which, in turn, provide basic services and job opportunities for the urban poor. Business districts and housing markets, long dormant, begin to approach at least minimum levels of functionality and attractiveness to prospective entrepreneurs, investors, and residents.

For existing urban homeowners, the gradual rise in property values, in areas with extremely depressed home prices, often means the difference between a house ultimately being rehabilitated or being demolished. So urban infill housing is not just about building new homes—it is also about creating market incentives to preserve and restore the old ones.

The construction of new houses, one at a time, may not be the sexiest of urban development topics, but it is the most fundamental. People are the lifeblood of any city. A city exists, first and foremost, for the people who live in it. Each humble house that is built forms one more building block of a great place.

Jason Segedy is director of planning and urban development for the city of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban-planning field for the past 23 years, and is an avid writer on urban development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground. A lifelong resident of Akron’s west side, Jason is committed to the city, its people, and its neighborhoods. His passion is creating great places and spaces where Akronites can live, work, and play.

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The Rust Belt Can Do Better Than ‘Managed Decline’

Theater in Akron. Ohio. (Mark Turnauckas/Flickr)

Editor’s Note: This is part one in a two-part series on Rust Belt urban revitalization. Next week, return for part two on the new policy ideas leaders in Akron are using to spur growth in housing and residents.

AKRON, Ohio—A decade ago, the concept of “smart decline” began to gain serious traction in the post-industrial cities of the Rust Belt, particularly in places like Detroit and Youngstown.

The concept makes some theoretical sense. Nearly every economic and social trend in the United States since the 1950s has produced significant headwinds for the cities of this region. Many people believe that those trends are going to continue indefinitely. If you’re not going to grow, why not be realistic about your prospects, and begin to work toward mothballing infrastructure and relocating residents from declining neighborhoods?

There is an argument to be made that this is a pragmatic approach to present-day economic realities. But one could also argue that managed decline is fatalistic, and that it can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Are Rust Belt cities simply hapless victims, subject to the whims of the fates? Or can wise leadership, creativity, and strategic planning create demand to live in a place, and bring about a reversal of fortunes? People who remember Brooklyn in 1977, or East Berlin in 1983, would probably agree that places can change in dramatic and unexpected ways, and that it is sometimes darkest before the dawn.

As Cleveland State University’s Richey Piiparinen puts it, “Perfecting managed decline. . .[assumes] that yesterday’s trend lines will carry on indefinitely. But we don’t know the future. Rust Belt cities need to stop planning that there isn’t one.”

Managing decline effectively requires a level of organizational efficiency and sophistication that eludes most declining places. It is much harder work than managing growth. Take Detroit, for example. Detroit talked about managed decline for years, but never really did it. To imagine that a place like circa-2008 Detroit, which did not even have the resources to adequately maintain core public services like fire protection, or to keep the streetlights on, could have somehow been able to implement a highly-complex, top-down program of resident relocation and infrastructure removal, defies credulity. It was never going to happen.

On this point, James Howard Kunstler is worth quoting at length:

Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape. Detroit is rotting from the inside out. The inside, the old city center, the part closest to the river, is destined to be the urban site of highest value in the future. Although it may never resemble the Detroit of 1960, we have the skills and knowledge to rebuild something of appropriate urban quality there again….

Under Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership, Detroit has rejected “smart decline,” and it is beginning to reap dividends. Back in 2010, a few years before Duggan was elected, Dan Gilbert moved the headquarters of Quicken Loans to downtown Detroit, lighting the spark for a wave of private investment which would follow.  That wave is continuing to gain momentum. In June, Ford Motor Company announced that it was buying the long-abandoned Michigan Central Station, a symbol of Rust Belt decay if there ever was one, and restoring it as a job hub for 2,500 workers—an announcement that created a sense of hope across the entire city.

Rather than embracing decline, Duggan ran under a slogan of “Every neighborhood has a future.” He was elected by a 72 percent landslide in 2017.  People have begun to move back to Detroit’s urban core for the first time in several generations.

Detroit still has a long way to go.  Even as the core revitalizes, most of the city’s outer neighborhoods continue to disintegrate and the population loss continues.  But there has been an undeniable sea change in terms of local leaders coming to believe that the city can once again be a place where people who have a choice would want to live.

The point is an important one. While many cities never explicitly bought into the fatalism of the “smart decline” philosophy, they still embraced a variant of it.  Over the past three decades, Rust Belt cities have spent billions of dollars on stadiums, convention centers, casinos, and economic development incentives, accepting the premise that becoming an entertainment hub for suburbanites and attracting jobs that would be filled by commuters was probably the best that they could ever hope for. The idea that the city could ever again be a place where people who had a choice would want to live was seen as naive and unrealistic.  What about crime? What about the schools? The vast majority of the leaders of the major institutions in these cities didn’t even live in the city themselves. If they didn’t believe in the place enough to live there, who else would?

It is refreshing to see city leaders fighting for the new housing that will help to revitalize and restore their neighborhoods. Akron’s Mayor Dan Horrigan, my boss, has established a bold goal of growing the city’s current population of 198,000 back to 250,000 by 2050. He unequivocally states that “I refuse to manage this city’s decline.”

To combat decline in Akron, we are focusing on the key aspect of attracting new residents—housing. To do this, the city is creating tax incentives for renovations of older, low-value housing stock and attracting suburbanites back to urban neighborhoods, even if they work outside city limits. We also must change attitudes around new development and supposed “gentrification,” a term that may be relevant in booming coastal cities, but is misleading in the Rust Belt context.

In a city with a declining stock of marketable housing, building new housing is mission-critical.  Without it, the city is doomed to continue to lose population and wealth.

This isn’t about chasing a number. A chronically shrinking population and the concomitant loss of household wealth has incredibly important ramifications for a city’s tax base, employment base, and school performance; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and basic services; the delivery of public services; and the overall well-being and health of its residents.

Cities have the same amount of infrastructure to maintain and the same level of public services to provide, whether they grow or shrink. Permanent contraction of the population means the same amount of services to pay for, with less people to help share the cost of paying for them.

In fact, urban decline often means paying for even more city services than before, because the poverty and abandonment that comes along with decline is expensive—often necessitating more robust police and fire protection, demolition of vacant buildings, maintenance of vacant lots, and the provision of additional social services for the poor.

As neighborhoods decline and hollow-out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population—the jobs disappear, the retail disappears—relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible suburban locale.

Where a person lays their head each night matters.  People will always be far more invested in the place that they actually live, than the one in which they work, shop, or watch a ballgame. It is time for the cities of the Rust Belt to recognize this, to put housing first, and to vigorously compete with the suburbs as a place to live. Our residents, both existing and future, deserve no less.

Jason Segedy is Director of Planning and Urban Development for the City of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban-planning field for the past 23 years, and is an avid writer on urban development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground. A lifelong resident of Akron’s west side, Jason is committed to the city, its people, and its neighborhoods. His passion is creating great places and spaces where Akronites can live, work, and play.

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Sometimes You Just Need to Move

BRAINERD, Minn.—I grew up on the farm that was homesteaded by my great-great grandparents. When I was a kid, we tore down and replaced the house they had built, and that others had subsequently added on to. The saying “if those walls could only speak,” has extra meaning for me, because we found many things within those walls—old newspapers, letters, trinkets long forgotten. My parents still live there.

In fourth and fifth grade, I attended Lowell Elementary. This is the grade school my mother attended, as well as the one my grandmother attended. Fridays during lunch I would walk to my grandmother’s house for pizza and Norwegian cookies. It was with great pride that I sent both of my kids to this same school. Many Fridays I would go there and have lunch with my kids, thinking of my grandmother.

This past weekend my youngest and I were biking past the cemetery and I suggested we stop. We visited one of the family plots—my mom’s side—and I shared with my daughter (again) what I knew about them. We’ve often done the same thing when we’re in the neighboring city near the place where my Marohn ancestors are buried. Those are moments I value.

Up the street from where I live today is the Franklin Arts Center. When I was a teenager it was known as Franklin Junior High. I’ve shown my daughters, on multiple occasions, the exact spot where I met their mother on my way to geometry class. I’m sure they will tell the story to their kids someday.

But when they do, there is a big part of me that hopes it will be as a visitor to this town, and not a resident.

I love this place. I have deep, deep ties in this area and I care about it immensely. And not just the place, but the people. My neighbors—some of them relatives, but many not—may be called deplorables by some, but I experience them as beautiful people.

Still, I spend a great deal of time wondering if I should have left and not come back. And more importantly, while my children will ultimately determine their own paths in life, I wonder: should I nudge them to consider a life far away from here?

We’re currently having a national conversation about immigration. The backdrop to that dialogue is that nearly every one of us—admittedly with some obvious and notable exceptions—either came to this country as an immigrant or is a descendant of someone who did.

I don’t want to debate immigration policy circa 2018, but I do want to point out something important: The act of being an immigrant requires one to leave one place and travel to another. To the extent that we have an aspirational national identity (and I’m perhaps one of the naïve few remaining who believe that we do), it’s the embodiment of a restless spirit, of the notion—Go West, Young Man—that a better life can be forged by moving over the next ridge, onto the next state, or across the continent.

In the past week, I’ve had two different people contact me for advice. The first person wanted to know what to do as the city they were living in became unaffordable, and grew even more so by the day. What should they do to make their place a strong town, to bring the cost of housing back in line with what they and their neighbors could afford?

The second person lives in the quintessential suburb, a place that has no chance of aging well and even less chance of voluntarily changing course. This person wanted to know how to convince those around them that they were in a Ponzi scheme, that things weren’t going to end pleasantly, that they needed a revolution in how they do things and it should have started yesterday.

I would never discourage someone who loves a place and wants to stick around and pour their heart and soul into making it work; I would be a hypocrite of the worst kind if I did. But with both of these people, I asked the same question: Have you thought about moving?

interviewed New Urbanist Andres Duany on the Strong Towns podcast back in 2016. That conversation infuriated many listeners because of Duany’s suggestion that millennials need to stop complaining about gentrified cities being so expensive and move to—in his words, “pioneer”—someplace that isn’t so expensive, and then do the work to make it great. Here’s a quote from that interview:

Who’s really complaining about gentrifying are the new, young people who want to come in. But my feeling is: Hey, somebody else did the job, somebody else pioneered. Why don’t you go to Buffalo? Why don’t you go to Detroit? Instead of inheriting the work of others, do the work yourself.

I think if Brooklyn is over-gentrified, those people should go to Detroit and to Buffalo and to Troy and should go to the great small towns of America and get to work on them. People should, like proper Americans, move on.

My family is primarily of Norwegian descent. Most Norwegians came to the United States, not because of opportunity, but because of disasters—crop failures, blights, poor harvests—that caused poverty and starvation. They left places that were experiencing hardship and moved to places where there were better opportunities.

Pause and take a deep breath. I’m not excusing modern hardships and I’m not wishing them away. I’m here, after all, working to make my place better, despite the many challenges. All I’m saying is that sometimes you might need to move. And that’s okay.

I feel like living in a place is a little like a marriage. There are times, especially early on, when it’s bliss, but there are way more times when it’s simply a lot of work. Marriage—or some form of binding two people together—isn’t an institution that has been around for all of recorded history because it is easy. Rather, it’s endured because a committed relationship provides benefits—security, support, hopefully love and fulfillment—that are worth the effort.

Incremental developer Monte Anderson has said that we should all find a place that suits us and stay there. Focus on it and work to make it better. He’s saying, essentially, marry a place; stick with it through good times and bad, even after the bliss evolves into ongoing hard work.

I agree, but being born in a specific place is a little like an arranged marriage. And like any marriage, if it’s really not working out, it’s okay to leave. If it’s not the right place for you, if the opportunity for you is not there, then go someplace else.

I drew the ire of Steve Shultis, a founding member of Strong Towns and the author of the blog Rational Urbanism, when I suggested to students at a university near his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, that Memphis, Detroit and Buffalo were exciting places, that if those students wanted to make the world a better place while improving their place in it, those three cities were not only affordable but dripping with opportunity.

Steve was upset with me for not encouraging people to stay where they were, to make the Springfields of the world— which also need them—better places.

Just like a marriage, you need to choose your town freely. Sometimes you need to move out of a town that needs you, to find a place you need back. And that’s okay.

Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, has spoken in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He was recently named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by PlanetizenIn October 2017, The American Conservative cosponsored his “Curbside Chat” in Washington, DC.

This article originally appeared at Strong Towns and is republished with permission.

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Why Small Places Still Matter

My mother’s family settled in Oklahoma in 1889, in that great moment of pioneering pandemonium known as the Oklahoma Land Rush. They settled in the southwest part of the state along the Red River near a small farming community called Hess. Poor farmers from Texas and Tennessee, they came—like so many others—looking for good land to raise their crops, a house to call their home, and a community in which they could put down roots and raise a family, thankful for all that God had provided.

It was, perhaps, not the most ambitious vision of the good life, but it was their vision, and they set to the task with fervor. From their dugout they eventually built a house, and with their neighbors they helped to build the Baptist church, a local grocery and dry goods store, and a clubhouse for the ladies’ quilting club.

Today, if you were to drive through Hess, you might be tempted to call it nowhere—as if a place of so little global importance was not worthy of being called a place at all. But the value of a place, a home, a people, is not determined by its importance in world affairs or the global economy. Rather, it is in deep-seated affection that all true places have their origin—affection for the land, for the people, for the buildings and the memories they contain.

These kinds of affections are particular to each place. They cannot be manufactured or synthesized. Rather, they must be nurtured over generations, through the communal stories that make up our common life.

Today, America has almost entirely forgotten itself—shedding like a snake its local affections and destroying its best-loved places in the never-ending quest for “progress.” Amidst our sprawling modern life, we have lost the American Story. But in these times, the small places—our towns, our villages, our hamlets—offer a glimmer of hope. For inasmuch as they have participated in and suffered at the hands of the Great American Story, every small town preserves in part those local affections that arise from its own particular story.

From Plymouth, Massachusetts, settled by the Mayflower pilgrims escaping religious persecution, to Princeville, North Carolina, established following the Civil War by Americans newly freed from the shackles of slavery, every American small town has a story. And because these places have such stories, they are more genuine places than nearly anywhere else built in America today.

If we are to renew our culture and our nation, if we are to—as the Charter of the New Urbanism suggests— “dedicate ourselves to reclaiming our homes, blocks, streets, parks, neighborhoods, districts, towns, cities, regions, and environment,” then such reclamation must start with the small towns that still preserve the seed of local community within them. For as the poet and author Wendell Berry says, in this cause “the common denominator is the local community. Only the purpose of a coherent community, fully alive both in the world and in the minds of its members, can carry us beyond fragmentation, contradiction, and negativity, teaching us to preserve, not in opposition but in affirmation and affection, all things needful to make us glad to live.”

Ryan Terry is principal and managing partner with R + T Studio, a real estate development and consulting firm in Bryan/College Station, Texas.

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Vermont’s $10,000 Gamble

Stowe, Vermont (Don Land/Shutterstock)

The small state of Vermont usually makes the national news for producing progressive politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders and legalizing same-sex marriage.

But recently Vermont made the news for a different reason. Republican Governor Phil Scott (yes there are still Republicans in New England) signed a bill into law that will grant remote workers up to $10,000 to move to the state. According to the New York Times, the program will run for three years, with allocations of $125,000 for 2019 and 2021, and $250,000 in 2020.

Vermont is a very rural state and outside of the Interstate 89 corridor between Burlington and the capital, Montpelier, even what isn’t rural is still post-industrial. Towns like Springfield, Newport, and Rutland aren’t strictly mill towns or gateway cities like the kind found in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but there are similarities. Like other rural and post-industrial areas, young people are leaving, and while there are some people moving in, they are frequently middle-aged or retired.

And even where there are signs of life, there aren’t exactly many jobs available. Making artisanal cheese or opening a nanobrewery don’t require a large labor force.

By offering to compensate people for their moving expenses, the state hopes to attract people who are already employed and enjoy the Green Mountain landscape. They hope that the beauty and outdoor lifestyle will beckon the create class, so they won’t have to go through the expense and hassle of trying to lure a factory or some other industry.

The beauty of Vermont has certainly been attractive in the past. The influence of the Rockefeller and Billings families, for example, helped preserve Woodstock as a quintessential New England village, allowing them a brisk tourist trade, even if locals can no longer afford to live in town. The “sweeping mountain vistas reminiscent of their beloved Austria” brought the Von Trapp family to Stowe. Local legend has it that Thomas Watson, Jr. of IBM liked the skiing so much he had a facility located in Essex Junction, near Burlington, so as to shoehorn in some skiing around actual work.

Unfortunately, Vermont is not alone in offering deals for warm bodies. Buffalo, N.Y. will sell people houses for $1 if they agree to stay for at least five years. Numerous small towns throughout Italy, many of them just as picturesque as Vermont, if not more so, offer free homes and even castelli or other deals in order to get them occupied, maintained, and economically vibrant again.

Even if Vermont’s relocation program can outcompete the others and attract remote workers, the state’s leaders will still have to come up with ways to be more attractive for its own high school and college graduates.

If the state is willing to spend $500,000 over three years as part of a reimbursement program, perhaps they could offer a similar amount to promote entrepreneurship, reimbursing young people up to $10,000 to start a business.

One important thing the state could do is overhaul its approach to transportation. Currently, public transit is an afterthought because in the conventional thinking the state is too sparsely populated to make it work.

As a result, Vermont must balance the construction of ugly roads and parking lots against the preservation of the natural beauty that attracts the tourists. It would do no good to pave paradise to put up a parking lot.

Transportation in Vermont consists of two Amtrak services, the Ethan Allen Express and the Vermonter trains, and an intercity bus service known as Vermont Translines. Extending the New York City-based Ethan Allen Express from Rutland up to Burlington would not only make Burlington and the college town of Middlebury accessible by rail, it would likely make the service that much more financially viable. Further improvements would come from rerouting it so it could stop at Bennington and Manchester.

Another improvement Vermont could make is getting some kind of rail connection to Boston. This could be best be done with a route paralleling Vermont’s State Route 103 to Rutland and then sharing the track with the Ethan Allen Express to Burlington. This would bring tourists to Ludlow and Killington, connect entrepreneurs in Burlington and Boston, and make it much easier for me to visit my family in Rutland.

While plans have been floated for building a commuter rail network using diesel multiple units, the state could also get more bang for the bucks it spends on bus service. The bus network has three routes in the southwest of the state, and is expensive, slow, and only runs once a day. Considering the way younger people drive less and are buying fewer cars, making it easier to live in the state without a car would help attract them.

There are many steps Vermont can and should take to ensure that its $10,000 gamble doesn’t turn out to be a gimmick.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.

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A Cleveland Revival Must Include Manufacturing

Cleveland’s West Side Market (Wikimedia Commons)

My home city of Cleveland was lucky to get poor at just the right time.

Poverty is the great preserver. The reason we have such architectural wonders as Venice, Italy, and Charleston, S.C., is that they too timed their poverty well. Had Venice remained rich in the 19th century, it would almost certainly have been rebuilt, like Paris and Vienna, in the latest style. To visualize what might have happened to a Charleston that became wealthy after World War II, think of Atlanta.

Cleveland was also a rich city at the right time. From the late 19th century up into the 1930s, Cleveland had the money to build. And we built well. On weekdays, when commercial interiors are open, I can take visitors on an architectural walking tour of downtown Cleveland that makes their eyes pop. The Old Arcade, one of the few surviving edifices of the wrought iron construction of the 1870s and ’80s, suggests the framework of a Zeppelin, with the addition of acres of polished brass. One bank interior mirrors the Parthenon, another the Pantheon. Some interiors offer splendid historical murals in a style suggesting N.C. Wyeth; the artist who painted those in the Cleveland Trust building and the Old Post Office went down on the Titanic.

We still have these treasures because just when American architecture turned to crap (thank you Mies van der Rohe) in the 1950s and ’60s, Cleveland’s economy also started downhill. We didn’t have the money to rip down what was old and good and replace it with new and bad.

It wasn’t just St. Francis who was befriended by Lady Poverty. So was Cleveland.

We did suffer along the way, as downtown Cleveland kept its buildings but lost its people. When I was a boy in the 1950s, downtown sidewalks were so crowded with well-dressed people it was sometimes hard for my mother and I to make our way. By the 1970s and ‘80s, if Ohio had tumbleweeds they would have been blowing down Euclid Avenue. With the people went the life of the city. The great department stores—Higbees, Halles, Sterling Linders—failed and closed, although their buildings still stand. Beggars took over. Those sidewalks, a living city’s arteries, were otherwise empty. “Seedy” was one of the more generous adjectives applied to Cleveland.

But we are seedy no longer. Downtown Cleveland is coming back to life. The disfiguring post-war facades that lined Euclid have come down, revealing the wonderful 19th-century buildings beneath. Old department stores, office buildings, and warehouses are being turned into apartments at a frenetic pace, with Millennials lined up to move in. The restaurant scene is lively (Cleveland’s motto is “Fat as we are, we’ll fit you in.”)

Cleveland Arcade (MaxPixel)

Cleveland is becoming a tourist destination, not just for our architectural splendor, but also because of our inherited cultural wealth. Our art museum is one of the best in the world, as are both the Cleveland Orchestra and its venue, Severance Hall. We have at least three baroque orchestras; one of them, Apollo’s Fire, is building a fine reputation not only here but in Europe. My modest downtown church (we’ve been in the same building since 1890), St. James’ Anglican Catholic Church, hears Haydn and Mozart masses.

So can we now count Cleveland among New Urbanist success stories? Not really. New Urbanism has so far not had much impact there. That’s a shame, as it has much to offer Cleveland.

One urbanist offering we need is streetcars. As with so many American cities, downtown Cleveland’s decline began when the city ripped out its streetcars—the last ones ran in 1954—and replaced them with buses. People like riding streetcars; no one likes riding a bus. With the streetcars gone, they drove their cars to go shopping instead, which pulled the stores out into the suburbs. Across the country, cities are drawing middle-class people with disposable income to the city center by bringing back the streetcars. Cleveland should too.

But what Cleveland needs more than the New Urbanism is the Old Urbanism. Cleveland did not once become the country’s sixth-largest city and a wealthy place because it had busy sidewalks, tree-lined boulevards, craft breweries, and streetcars—although it did have all those. Cleveland became rich by making things.

Decades ago, George Will wrote a column in praise of Cleveland. In it, he told the story of an Easterner who visited our city in the late 19th century and complained to a Clevelander about the smoke. The Clevelander replied, “Smoke means business, business means money, and money is the principal thing.” He was right.

Today, as you drive over the new Innerbelt bridge that carries I-90 through Cleveland, you may detect an unfamiliar smell. It is the smell of steel being made. Unlike Pittsburgh and many other “Rust Belt” cities, Cleveland has not lost its heavy industry. We still make steel—really make steel, from iron ore, coke, and limestone—not just melt scrap. Watching a long ore freighter maneuver up the Cuyahoga (which means “crooked river”) is as much of a thrill today as it was when I was ten. “The Flats,” the industrial zone that lines the river for miles, still makes steel, refines oil, and does other things that pay skilled workers good wages. Even today, over half the foreign-born in Cuyahoga county come from Europe, where they acquired the heavy-industry skills that quickly get them jobs here.

But if Cleveland is still alive as a place that makes things, it is among the walking wounded. We make a great deal less than we did in the 1940s, 50s, and ‘60s. The vast blue-collar middle class that lived a comfortable life on one income is now small. As with the rest of the Rust Belt, free trade struck its dagger into our back. We have witnessed whole factories torn down and re-erected in China.

Beyond Cleveland’s downtown, we are a city of abandoned factories: Warner & Swazey machine tools, which employed 5000 people in World War II; Richman Brothers Suits; the Ford engine foundry, now an empty lot; the list is endless. Some of the industrial buildings closer to the urban core are being repurposed and thus saved. But where are the jobs? Gone to people in other countries.

I fear the downtown revival Cleveland is now enjoying is a hot-house plant. Bingen-am-Rhein may prosper though tourism, but tourism does not bring in money in the industrial quantities a city like Cleveland needs. If we are to again become a rich city, we must make more things. The New Urbanism, if it is to be sustained, needs the Old Urbanism.

The old cities were above all places where people worked. Can we bring it back? Of course we can. We industrialized this country under tariff protection and we can re-industrialize under tariff protection. When President Trump slapped tariffs on foreign steel, Cleveland cheered. In nearby Lorain, Ohio, another steel center, a steel company announced it would reopen a shuttered mill, hire hundreds of people, and was prepared to fill all domestic orders. We can make everything America needs in America—and much of it in Cleveland. China has a plan to make everything it needs by 2025. Why can’t America have the same plan? After all, we already did it once.

Most New Urbanists are members of the coastal elite, which means most of them look on President Trump with loathing. Which is ironic, because their New Urbanism depends on President Trump’s trade policies. The elites of both political parties are in the freetrade camp, for reasons perhaps not unrelated to Wall Street’s ability to fill the coffers of politicians who favor free trade. (On the other side there’s no money, just jobs.)

But without the Old Urbanism, where cities grew and prospered by making things, there is not likely to be much New Urbanism, at least not for very long. Baristas and personal trainers can’t afford the nice new apartments being built in the Halle building on Euclid Avenue. New Urbanism will either build on a revival of American manufacturing or it will be building on sand.

William S. Lind is the author of Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation.

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Photographing the Ruins of Rural America

For 23 years I have been driving country roads, photographing the ruins of rural America for a documentary I call “Lost Americana.” As population decline claims town after town, I’ve been talking to those who remain. Whether it’s in the place I’m photographing or in the cities where I’m showing my photos, all conversations lead to the same question: “How do you stop it?” The simple answer is, you can’t.

If you are already feverishly typing your reply about how your farm town is alive and well, chances are you’re probably not as rural as you think. That or you’re one of the lucky few who have a secondary economy that is keeping your area stable.

I don’t claim to be an expert in rural economics, nor am I a tenured professor with a team of undergrads working on a study about rural life. I am, however, in touch enough to know that there’s a dairy farm crisis for milk producers, corn prices have been down the last few years, and farmers from coast to coast are worried about the effects of a looming trade war. I’ve talked to enough folks in rural towns from South Carolina to North Dakota, New York to Kansas, and beyond, to know that it’s not a cliché that young people are dreaming to get out. And that’s if the town still has young people. In a good number of rural counties, residents over 60 are 30 percent to 40 percent of the population.

The author with his children on Main Street in the town of Manchester, Kansas in front of a building, like so many places he visits, that is no longer standing.
Copyright Vincent David Johnson.

So who am I? I’m just a photojournalist from Chicago who started taking photos of old barns to make pretty pictures. But then the journalist inside me started asking questions like “Why are all these farmsteads abandoned?” and “What’s with the vacant storefronts in all these towns?” That was almost 25 years ago. Today America is on its third economic upswing, even as the places I visit have continued to fade away.

In fact, rural America has significantly faded away. This is not something I take joy in writing about. From college through early adulthood, I opted to spend my spring breaks driving around Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, while my friends went to Cancun. I skipped backpacking in Europe and opted to hit up small towns from Dalhart, Texas, to Bowman, North Dakota. Typically one family vacation a year involves me taking my kids on a week-long road trip across rural America as I document it in photos. From the Soda Fountain in Chugwater, Wyoming to Comer’s General Store in Union Grove, North Carolina, and all the rolling hills and endless horizons along the way, I want them to be able to remember what rural America was like, even as vast parts of it have slowly vanished.

It is sad for our country that this is happening. It’s even sadder that it has barely been talked about.

From the pilgrims to the beginning of the 20th century, America was an agricultural country. Westward expansion saw thousands of towns rise from the ground on the prairies of the Midwest and in the Great Plains, just like the crops their residents would plant.

Agriculture would see its heyday during the first half of the 20th century, boasting a peak average workforce of over 30 million farmers from 1900 to 1940. Norman Rockwell images come to mind when most think of rural America from the 1940s through the 1960s: red barns, families with several children helping on the farm, small schools, parades honoring the local veterans, all in the town square where everyone knows each other.

An abandoned farm house sits at the beginning of the Rita Blanca National Grasslands in the panhandle of Texas just outside the town of Texline in Dallam County.

 Copyright Vincent David Johnson.

The 1960s began an exodus of residents from rural to urban areas. Had it been focused in just one time and geographical location, it would probably have been regarded as the largest migration in world history. That peak of 30 million farmers shrunk to 15 million, as smaller rural towns in the Great Plains states started to disappear. Danzig, North Dakota (peak population 100) lost its post office in 1955, and its entire population soon after. Today the town is all private property, and Main Street leads to the driveway of a nearby farmer.

In the simplest of terms, “it’s the economy,” but not the economy of the country as a whole, which is seeing record-low unemployment rates and all-time highs on the stock market. This is about the economy of agriculture and how it has changed over the last half of the 20th century.

With the focus on manufacturing, almost no one has taken notice of the slow decline in the number of people working on farms. The number of farmers in the U.S. began to rapidly decline after World War II, as agriculture shed almost 40 percent of its workforce decade to decade, before bottoming out in 1990. Broken evenly by state, the loss of farm labor was about 12,000 workers per year. Meanwhile, companies like Bethlehem Steel were making national news in 1983 as planned layoffs of 10,000 workers in New York and Pennsylvania loomed. Both states theoretically had been losing that number yearly in farm labor since 1950, but this slow attrition went largely unnoticed.

The growth rural agricultural areas saw around the turn of the 20th century began to slow and then tapered off. The overall population of the country shifted from 60/40 percent rural/urban in 1900 to 80/20 percent urban/rural by 2000. In 2015, for the first time in history, the U.S. Census reported that the overall rural population in the country had declined. Which leads us to the term “rural.”

At its core, “rural” just defines an area where people live based on their proximity to other people. Chicago was at one point a rural town on the prairie but grew to be (temporarily) the second largest city in the United States. New Jersey, despite plenty of farms and dairies, doesn’t have a single rural county. Almost two thirds of the over 3,000 counties in America are defined as rural, making up 97 percent of the land, while only accounting for 19 percent of the total population. One person’s “rural” may vary greatly from another’s.

For example, Grundy County in Illinois is surrounded by farmland. The largest town, Morris, has 14,000 residents, many of whom would consider themselves rural. However, according to the USDA and U.S. Census, they are considered a metro county because of their proximity to Joliet (150,000 residents) and the greater Chicago area. Yet 200 miles southwest to Lee County, Iowa, which has similar fields and the towns of Keokuk and Fort Madison (about 11,000 residents each) is considered a non-metro county, or rural county. Both counties may feel rural, but their closeness to resources place them apart.

If Lee County appears more rural than Grundy, then Logan County in North Dakota, could make both feel like a mini version of Chicago. With 787 residents in its largest town, Napoleon, residents of Logan County face over an hour’s drive to any town with a population greater than 2,500. While residents of all three counties may consider themselves rural, the economic opportunities set the population of all three apart. Much is made today of America’s rural/urban divide; more often overlooked is this rural/rural divide.

Market Street in Ruby, South Carolina, is similar to many rural farm towns; the buildings are there, but the businesses aren’t. A drone flight over town would reveal that not only are the stores empty, but the roofs are missing. Copyright Vincent David Johnson.

To really understand the decline of rural American farm towns, look no further than why these towns originally sprang up. Settlements around the world exist for the purpose of commerce, and farm communities are no different. Even as America spread out and train tracks connected small towns dotting the landscape, getting around was nothing like it is today. You shopped and worked in the town you lived in. Train depots and grain elevators made sure the crops and livestock went out and the commercial items came in.

Many rural residents today drive 25 to 50 miles each week to get groceries and supplies, but even by the 1950s traveling to the next town to get groceries wasn’t something most people did. 30 percent of rural households didn’t even have a car.

During the first half of the 20th century there were a record six million farms in America that averaged between 150-200 acres. Even a town like Danzig, North Dakota with its two grain elevators, could have been the hub for over a hundred local farmers. Talking to farmers today it’s not uncommon for Midwestern and Great Plains farmers to work over 2,000 acres. A former cotton farmer in Texas told me that almost all of the agricultural land in their county is now managed by just four farms.

As farm technologies and logistics improved, so did efficiency. In 1930, it took 15-20 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat; five hours by 1960; and under three hours today. Improved irrigation and fertilizer, along with the beginnings of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, meant farmers could produce more and ship more quickly and easily. A typical farm even in the 1950s would have required five farmers, but by 1970 that was down to around three per farm. Today, it’s just over one.

As farm work became increasingly less available, many who relied on it moved away, becoming one less customer at local businesses, and removing one or two children from a local school.

Keokuk, Iowa lost 6-10% of its population each decade from 1970-2010. The Danzigs of the plains—towns under 500 people—started to disappear too.

As people moved, the stores, schools, and even churches closed. The good folks from Danzig moved to Napoleon, their children moved to Bismarck. The people in Keokuk and Fort Madison made their way to Des Moines.

Little did I know that when I started, the 1990s in many ways would turned out to be a pivotal decade for small farm towns and rural America, almost the beginning of the end. Just over a century since millions of people rushed onto the Great Plains, the ’90s would mark the beginning of a time when the quantity, size, and labor of farms in America would flatline.

Chugwater, Wyoming.

 Copyright Vincent David Johnson.

I still see hope in things like the restoration of a Masonic Temple being converted to a home in Adams, Tennessee; the converted gas station that is the Cottage Café in Amboy, Minnesota; or the Historic Society of Jefferson County, Nebraska trying to preserve the school in Steele City. But the Main Streets that are vacant in Ruby, South Carolina; Turin, New York; Revere, Missouri, and so many other places leave me to fear that most of our small farm towns will be gone by mid-century.

It’s a hard truth and I hope I’m wrong, but for every person claiming their farm town is still going strong, there are 20 others telling me how they miss the farm town they grew up in, but had to leave, as there was nothing left.

Vincent David Johnson is a Chicago based photojournalist, filmmaker, and the person behind the Lost Americana documentary project. When he’s not working on Michigan Ave, chances are you can find him in rural America checking out a town you’re not going to see on a travel show.

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