The Age of Central-City Shrinkage

As Figure 2-1 indicates, the decades after World War II saw metropolitan areas grow rapidly in absolute terms and also as a percentage of total population. Within metropolitan areas most growth occurred outside the central cities. However, the picture is a mixed one. Much growth occurred in a number of western central cities. Some of this was genuine urban growth. But in many western cities, the city limits extend well beyond the urbanized area. Therefore, much growth that is suburban in character occurs within the city boundaries and appears as part of the central-city total. Then, too, if the city is not surrounded by incorporated municipalities that resist annexation, the city may grow substantially in land area. This was and is the case for many western cities.

In the older and larger cities in the east- and north-central parts of the nation, the general rule was shrinkage. Cities were usually surrounded by other municipalities, so that growth by annexation was difficult or impossible. Then, too, high population densities and a pre-automobile street pattern made it difficult to compete with the surrounding suburbs for residents and jobs. From 1950 to 2000, the population of Buffalo shrank from 580,000 to 293,000, St. Louis from 857,000 to 348,000, Cleveland from 915,000 to 478,000, Chicago from 3,621,000 to 2,896,000, Boston from 810,000 to 589,000, Pittsburgh from 677,000 to 335,000, and Philadelphia from 2,072,000 to 1,518,000. New York City, an exception, grew slightly, from 7,891,000 to 8,008,000, for reasons discussed subsequently.

The population losses in many older cities were also related to the regional trends noted before. The city in a lagging region is, all other things being equal, more likely to lose population because the market for the goods and services it produces is not growing; nor is there increasing population pressure on it from surrounding areas. Thus, for cities like Cleveland or Buffalo, internal forces predisposing to population and job loss were augmented by regional trends. Conversely, sunbelt cities like Fort Myers, Dallas, Houston, or Phoenix grew rapidly, in part because they are situated in growing regions. Central-city population losses were, as one would expect, paralleled by employment losses. Manufacturing jobs continued to move to suburban and exurban locations, drawn by lower land costs, often lower wages, and the availability of large blocks of land that facilitated the building of singlestory plants. As suburban populations grew, their buying power necessarily drew both retailers and the wholesalers who serve them out of the city. The growth of the suburban labor force also pulled many business services and headquarters operations out of downtown and into the suburbs, since there is no greater determinant of business location than the availability of labor. Because of the decentralization of employment, there is now much more cross-commuting (commuting from suburb to suburb) than there is commuting from suburb to central city. The day when many suburbs served largely as bedroom communities for the central city is now several decades behind us.

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