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Thought Leaders in Retreat

How the “legacy cities” movement betrays metros

Everybody reading an independent, city-oriented weekly newspaper is already convinced that it’s better to live in a funky, interesting, diverse city than in a boring, monocultural suburb—and if you are stuck living in a suburb, you read independent, city-oriented weekly newspapers because it’s an identity statement, an assertion of preferences that has less to do with your income than it does with your outlook. But being a member of what the late Daniel Bell called a “consumption community” that prefers cities to suburbs is like identity politics: You may get some group solidarity out of the deal, but the dominant paradigm will still rule.

Two new reports—one about local-government finance, the other about public pensions—have the same message: It’s the dominant paradigm or structure that is the problem. Shrinking cities surrounded by sprawling suburbs; isolated geographies of urban poverty that are administratively marooned; school districts that are overwhelmed by the children of poverty; multiple units of government acting independently within metro economies—these are the elements of a near-universal American reality that, at worst, dooms city-focused revitalization, and at best impedes it.

Cities demonstrably work when their boundaries encompass metro areas. Yet a well-funded and politically wired new movement of consultants, planners, activists, and policy entrepreneurs works hard on the identity politics but assiduously avoids addressing failing cities, stressed suburbs, free-riding exurbs, and the interdependencies among them that can only be addressed if the free-riding stops and the all-for-one collaboration begins. City-loving has become a self-adulating profession, while the suburbs go it alone, and the entire American economy, and the polity as well, suffers from the splintering.

The American way

Localism is everywhere. City and suburban boundaries established in the 18th and 19th centuries were reinforced by two huge Washington policy changes in the 20th century—namely, the 1948 decision to subsidize mortgages for World War II veterans if and only if the houses were new-builds (and almost all of the new-builds were suburban), and the 1974 Supreme Court decision in the Milliken case, which stimulated middle-class flight past city borders to the suburbs.

Boomers briefly “discovered” their parents’ and grandparents’ cities in the 1970s, but the Census data confirms that Boomers acted just like their parents when it came to choosing suburban over urban sites for child-rearing. Boomers and millenials are “discovering” some cities again, but the pattern of childbirth is the same. Suburbs that began life as distinct rural towns a century ago became multi-generational bedroom communities for commuters, then, with job-sprawl, home to office parks, too. The snapshot of most metros these days has led some planners to observe that a convergence is going on: Except for the concentrations of poverty still characteristic of old center-cities, cities now have suburban-style gas stations, strip malls, cul-de-sacs, and over-wide five-lane streets just like the old bedroom suburbs, while low-rise, mixed-use, “walkable” streets that have a distinctly 19th-century demeanor have either survived or are being created in suburbs. City density is evening out with suburban density. The poorest city neighborhoods are as empty as rural areas. The City of Buffalo’s school population dropped from 45,000 in 2000 to 32,000 today; the 140,000 school kids in Erie County are 20,000 fewer than 10 years ago, but the larger share of them are in the suburbs.

The spatial redistribution of them itself, however, is not enough to justify the existence of 28 separate school districts for them. In Raleigh, North Carolina, a larger and growing school-age population in roughly the same geographic area has one single school district.

The new report from Moody’s Investor Services, which is the outfit that rates the credit-worthiness of governments at every level from villages to nations, says that the American norm of separate local governance in all of those places is breaking down. Moody’s says that there will be dire times ahead for local governments and school districts, as there already are for public hospitals, because of several factors—including duplication, especially of administrative overhead, and also because of the way federal funds get spent ineffectively by being sliced up into little pieces. Now, Moody’s says, an additional problem looms: The impasse in Washington will make things worse because even the little pieces of federal revenue won’t be shared, but eliminated, at the same time as the post-2008 crash funds from state governments have withered. The $3 trillion municipal-bond industry, which issues long-term paper that mainly requires the full faith and credit of local governments that rely on property taxes, has been badly shaken over the past few years, because the property-tax base has been shaken and hasn’t yet recovered.

Nor can it be expected to. The reality for a mayor is that, except in what Wharton School economist Stephen Gyourko calls “superstar” cities, population loss and the relentless campaigns for handouts to developers mean that city tax bases are not growing fast enough to pay all the bills. (We celebrate successful adaptive-reuse projects in Buffalo, but the taxpayer subsidies make nullities of the new offices, new lofts, new hotels, and new medical corridor projects.) The reality for county elected officials is different but the stresses are the same: Counties, like Buffalo’s Erie County, see increasing demands from far-flung “new” suburbs for more road maintenance, more county-funded police services, more sewer hookups and water-line extensions, but with population that is simply redistributing itself from city to suburb and then from inner suburb to outer suburb, the annual bill for maintaining what’s getting built rises without any new sources of revenue.

Here’s what’s weird about what the current generation’s thought leaders on cities have to say about any of this: What’s weird is that they are silent.

Attitude versus analysis

Suburbs may have gone out of fashion with the smart set, but suburbs still define American urban reality. Edgy bloggers like Aaron Renn in Chicago, and high-paid academics like Richard Florida in Toronto, and everybody in the intellectual end of planning, historic preservation, or economic development are all about cities, not suburbs.

Yet though the fiscal and demographic realities should be putting boots upside those heads, even those who focus on “shrinking” or “legacy” cities are silent. Greatly successful Chicago, with its Millennium Park innovations and itd brilliant gentrification, has lost 200,000 people in the last couple of decades, down from three million in 1980 to 2.8 million now. Detroit has a very strong and very creative “creative class” development, a meaningful re-migration movement, good adaptive re-uses for old structures, a major commitment to cleaning up broken sewers, a notable urban agriculture movement underway in an area of abandonment that is actually as large as the entire area encompassed by the boundaries of the City of Buffalo—but Detroit is in demographic free-fall, and in fiscal crisis, too. Detroit is in such bad shape that Detroit is about to get what Buffalo got during Anthony Masiello’s term as mayor: a financial control board.

Today’s city-loving classes, however, don’t want to talk about that yucky stuff—nasty old racism or boring old municipal finance. The news about imminent bankruptcy for the City of Detroit should not be news in insolvent Buffalo, but somehow, some folks in Detroit, and here, and in Cleveland, and in other fiscal-critical-list cities, think the day will be saved by restaurants and seasonal diversions. Detroit has infrastructure for three million people, but its population today is 750,000. So few of them are taxpayers that there isn’t enough revenue to keep traffic lights lit. Ditto Buffalo, Cleveland, Syracuse…the money to keep the lights on is in short supply if the supply is bounded by the city limits.

You would think that the hundreds of economists, professors of law, municipal bond experts, and elected officials would collectively have figured out that if a city built for three million people now houses only one-quarter that number, and that the metro area there, as here, consists of people who used to live within one box but then moved to another box, with no net new population in the combined boxes, then something about the boxes should change.

But in the Rust Belt, a foundation-funded industry of city-lovers leaves the boxes alone. The industry consists of folks who are so focused on the arts, restaurants, loft apartments, urban gardens, and whose leading suggestion for shrinking cities is to withdraw services from whole swaths of territory, that they miss the urgent realities that face the lowly public servants who are supposed to make the toilets flush, the spigots flow, the streets navigable, and the trees trimmed so that they neither hide criminals nor crash limbs onto perambulators.

As we speak, major foundations fund a producer-class of progressive academics and some former and would-be planners, and the middle-man class of politically wired consultants who arrange for these report-writers to stay at hotels, give papers at plenary sessions, and generally talk that talk about good ideas for saving old cities, but somehow never get around to explaining how the folks who govern today are going to pay the bills tomorrow when the users of their services pay taxes outside but not inside their boundaries. The Ford Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, the Tides Foundation, and a few others pass millions of dollars to independent entities like the Center for Community Progress in Washington, and to various state-based coalitions and research institutes, and of course to consultants and meeting-arrangers. Seances are held, speeches are delivered, panelists present, dinners are eaten, and in the aftermath, reports are published, and broad-swath recommendations about how to make cities richer, smarter, greener, and happier pile up, as if cities exist without suburbs, and suburbs without exurbs.

And realities remain. The first reality is that the suburbs of distressed old American cities still sprawl while the old cities still shrink. Second, the tax bases of old cities continue to be so inadequate to providing sufficient revenue to fund services that places like Buffalo and Detroit get control boards while other places just cut services and personnel, while others, like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, go bankrupt. The third reality, especially in the Rust Belt, is that neither progressive-minded consultants nor their funders ever discuss metropolitan government, city-county merger, or the two-sides-of-the-same-coin issue of abolishing elective offices or creating new regional governments. Cities remain governed separately from their suburbs, not only in New York State, but just about everywhere else in America.

In a couple of places—most notoriously in Miami and Dade County in Florida—the failing, corrupt city dissolved itself and became the county.

Strangely, legal scholars, who are usually a reactive group in that they write a whole heckuva lot more about recently decided cases than about policy ideas, are chiming in where other intellectuals fear to tread. There is an impressive and growing scholarly literature in law journals about what has been called “the new regionalism.” The lawyers are even using the “d” word these days: dissolution. They look at the Miami miasma of corruption and voter fatigue, and some suggest that Miami’s is the teachable case. Voters there flushed out at least one nest of corrupt politicians. They did not choose to downsize them incrementally as Kevin Gaughan has suggested here, but instead just lopped off a layer of government entirely.

But that is not a discourse that has any legitimacy in the “shrinking” or “legacy cities” movement. Failure is failure, stress is stress, broke is broke, but when consultants change the name of a problem in order to make its sting less sharp, it’s time for a reality check. When the people who rate the bonds say that everybody’s ratings are going to go down unless certain realities are addressed, the time for spin is over. All over.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

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