The Rust Belt’s Unfortunate Divide

Abandoned building in Cleveland.  Source: Cleveland.com
As the saga of Detroit’s bankruptcy continues, my mind often drifts into thinking about what we can learn from the experience.  While the unions, pension fund execs and city officials are arguing about how well funded the city’s pension plans are, questioning the merit of the bankruptcy, I’m still left wondering – how did the city of my youth even get to this?
I have to admit that the conventional economic reasons that most people give for Detroit’s collapse don’t mean much to me.  To be sure, Detroit’s job loss over the last 60 years puts it in a class nearly of its own.  But that’s exactly the point – other cities lost just as many jobs, yet didn’t fall quite as far.  That’s why I believe Detroit is as much a social failure as it is an economic one.
I’ve given one rationale here in the past – white flight did occur in Detroit at a level unseen in other cities.  I even called it abandonment.  But then in reflection, I realized that all Rust Belt cities shared some population and development pattern dynamics that cloud our perceptions to this day.

In the entire nation, only in the Rust Belt does the conventional suburban development pattern that most of us recognize (post WWII large lot SF homes, office parks, strip centers, etc.) perfectly align with the suburban political entity (incorporated municipalities beyond the core city).  This has had huge impacts on how Rust Belt cities are perceived, and contributes to the general malaise that prevents city residents to think of new futures for their cities.  
Let me explain.  On the East Coast typical urban development extends far beyond core city boundaries, giving urban views greater sway than they have in other metro areas.  In the New York area, for example, Jersey City, Newark and Yonkers are every bit as “urban” as NYC is, in terms of development pattern.  They are nearly as dense, have a mix of uses, and are as developmentally complex as anything in the five boroughs.  Conversely, in the Sun Belt South and West, the core cities are very nearly typically suburban in development pattern as their outlying suburbs.  I think this has given Sun Belt city advocates a false view of them:  Sun Belt cities have made their suburban-type growth in a core city look like a Sun Belt city preference.  Furthermore, their growth over the last 60 years or so makes them feel they are more “urban” than they really are. 
Meanwhile, Rust Belt cities are left with perhaps the deepest social divide of any region’s cities in the nation.  History fated the Rust Belt as being the only region where the city/suburb divide is as stark as it is, politically, economically and socially, and has a role in the way things played out there.
There are some exceptions to this.  Chicago was largely able to escape this because it is unique in the Rust Belt for having an extensive commuter rail network that connected suburbs to city and allowed suburbanites to enjoy the city’s jobs and amenities.  Indianapolis was able to bridge the divide through Unigov, Columbus through aggressive annexation.  But look at the rest of the Rust Belt: Buffalo, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Dayton, Toledo, Flint all fit the pattern.  All have considerable (but not exclusive) pre-WWII development patterns within core city boundaries, with large black populations, and considerable post-WWII development patterns beyond the core.

Can it be that this is a big reason that Detroit and other Rust Belt cities are viewed as negatively by the American public as they are?

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