Photo: Detroit Public Library
A city does not die when its last resident moves away. Death happens when municipalities lose the industries and vital populations that made them important cities.Click here to see the cities >
The economy has evolved so much since the middle of the 20th Century that many cities that were among the largest and most vibrant in America have collapsed. Some have lost more than half of their residents. Others have lost the businesses that made them important centres of finance, manufacturing, and commerce.
Most of America’s 10 Dead Cities were once major manufacturing hubs and others were important ports or financial services centres. The downfall of one city, New Orleans, began in the 1970s, but was accelerated by Hurricane Katrina.
Notably, the rise of inexpensive manufacturing in Japan destroyed the ability of the industrial cities on this list to effectively compete in the global marketplace. Foreign business activity and US government policy were two of the three major blows that caused the downfall of these cities. The third was the labour movement and its demands for higher compensation which ballooned the costs of manufacturing in many of these cities as well.
24/7 Wall St. looked at a number of sources in order to select the list. One was the US Census Bureau’s list of largest cities by population by decade from 1950 to 2000 with estimates for 2007. Detroit, for example, had 1.9 million people in 1950 and was the fifth largest city in the nation. By 2000, the figure was 951,000. The city was not even on the top 10 list in 2007.
The Census data also describes the shift of much of the population to cities which were not considered large at all in 1950. Most of these are in the southern part of the US. Rising populations in these locations has been driven by the growing number of retired people and a relocation of the nation’s workforce. This is how San Diego, Phoenix, and San Antonio have moved onto the list of the 10 largest cities in America.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did a study of what they described as America’s 150 forgotten cities. The municipalities on their list were medium-sized and ranked by measurements that included poverty. The reason for their demise largely match the cities on the 24/7 Wall St list. The MIT research work goes beyond a mere list of statistics and points out reasons why some of these cities will never recover. In almost every case, tax bases have disappeared, which has undermined the ability of local governments to spend money on revitalization. Abandoned areas of these cities have high crime rates, which not only keeps people from relocating to these areas but is actually an incentive for them to move away. This in turn, leads to the image of these cities as desolate urbanscapes.
In 1900, Buffalo was the eighth largest city in America. It was located on one of the busiest sections of the Erie Canal, the terminus of the canal on the Great Lakes. Thanks to its location, Buffalo had huge grain milling operations and one of the largest steel mills in the country.
Buffalo prospered during WWII as did many northern industrial cities. After the WWII, the manufacturing plants returned to the production of cars and industrial goods. The population rose to more than 500,000 in the mid-1950s. It is half that today. Buffalo was wounded irreparably by the de-industrialisation of America.
Flint was once a major industrial city and the birthplace of GM, then went into receivership -- the equivalent of municipal bankruptcy--in 2002. The city had almost 200,000 residents in 1960 and has fewer than 100,000 today. The downfall of Flint can be described in a sentence.
In 1960, GM employed 80,000 people in Flint and it employs fewer than 8,000 today. Flint was the headquarters of GM's Buick division for years, but these operations were moved to Detroit in 1998.
Cleveland became a major port and land transportation hub, due to its central location on Lake Erie. A number of the largest rubber companies in the world and other manufactures for the car and steel industry were also located near or in the city.
Cleveland had 914,000 residents in 1950. The figure is below 480,000 today. A number of the large manufacturing operations have left the region or downsized based on the transfer of the steel, rubber, and car industries elsewhere, particularly to Japan.
The location of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi made it one of the most important ports in America for more than 200 years. Oddly enough, New Orleans remains a massive port, but a number of the jobs which were once performed by laborers are now automated.
A great deal of the commercial traffic which once moved by river is now transported more efficiently by truck, rail, and air. The city had also been a financial capital of the south because of the cotton and river trade. Faster growing southern cities like Atlanta became more important financial centres as their populations grew. One of the industries that began to offset the faltering trade and financial sectors was tourism which rose throughout the second half of the last century. But the city suffered from its location, part of it below sea level, and several hurricanes that hit the city, particularly Hurricane Betsy in 1965. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina dealt the city a nearly fatal blow.
In the year after that, the population dropped to just above 250,000, down from 627,000 in 1960. The BP oil crisis has already begun to damage what might have been a nascent recovery, post Katrina.
The Motor City was the fifth largest city in America with a population of almost 1.9 million in 1950. The number of residents increased sharply from the 1920s when Henry Ford created the assembly line and set a wage of $5 a day. Workers streamed in from the deep South and other parts of the Midwest. The huge car companies became defence contractors during WWII.
The auto industry grew abundantly after the war as the American middle class was created by an expanding economy built on the US's ability to take its vast natural resources and turn them into finished products. During the 1960s, American car companies had nearly 90% of the domestic market, and GM had 50% to itself. Detroit's demise began with the rise of Japanese imports in the 1970s. The Arab oil embargo increased the appetite of US consumers for high-mileage cars.
The Big Three (Big Four before American Motors was bought by Chrysler) built products that were acceptable to consumers until they saw higher quality Japanese cars which began to flood the markets in great numbers in the 1980s. Detroit's car manufacturing base was nearly destroyed, symbolized by the Chapter 11 filings of GM and Chrysler.
Now known mostly for its gambling business, Atlantic City was dying before legislation allowed gaming companies to operate there. The city was created as a tourist location in the 1880s and a number of massive hotels were built there.
Atlantic City's hospitality industry also made it a favourite for trade shows and conventions. The Democratic National Convention was held there in 1964. The city's appeal to tourists was damaged primarily by two things: the first was the availability of inexpensive air travel to southern resorts areas like Florida. Vacationers could fly from New York to Miami, Ft Lauderdale, and Palm Beach in less time than it took to drive to Atlantic City.
The second, the rise of Las Vegas as the gaming capital of the world, made it the preferred destination for many conventions. Atlantic City got into the gambling industry in 1978--too late.
This Pennsylvania city had two advantages in the middle of the last century. It was well located for railroads that moved freight from the Midwest through Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the Eastern seaboard. Its proximity to iron ore made it a major manufacturing centre and refiner much like Bethlehem to its east and Pittsburgh to its west.
Like many other Northeastern manufacturing cities, Allentown watched its major product, in this case steel, being produced in greater and greater volumes and at lower prices in Japan.
This Texas city was one of the largest ports in the US a hundred years ago. It was also the location of one of the greatest natural disasters in American history. In 1900, a hurricane killed between 6,000 and 8,000 people.
In the decades after the hurricane, Galveston became a major tourist centre due to its location on the Gulf and proximity to several larger Texas cities. Galveston was also a major military recruitment centre during WWII. The cause of Galveston's demise is unique. It had become something of the Sodom and Gomorrah of the southern US. There was a large gambling industry there, some of it illegal, which was controlled by criminals.
In the late 1950s,Texas state authorities successfully attacked local organised crime. The regulated tourist trade could not replace the illegal business. Galveston's port and hospitality industries had begun to improve, but where trampled by the effects of Hurricane Ike in 2008. The event destroyed a large part of the city's tax base, and set back the tourism industry once again.
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