Can America’s small cities be saved? I spent quarter of a century managing programs to address this question. And I am probably just one of thousands of practioners in the fields of historic preservation, parks and recreation, and community development across the country who have tried to tackle this problem. In Pennsylvania, my home state, small cities are poster children for economic distress. Over 30 municipalities, almost all of which could be characterized as small cities, have been designated financially distressed under Act 47 a state law passed in 1987 that was designed to provide failing municipalities with some relief. All across the commonwealth those small cities not yet designated under Act 47 were and are teetering on the edge. All of them had a similar litany of problems declining population and tax revenue, high pension and health care costs, a large inventory of blighted or tax-exempt properties, and heavy burden of municipal debt.
Once upon a time I administered programs that provided advice and assistance to preserve historic buildings, to revitalize main streets, to revamp park systems, and reimagine former canals and railroad beds as recreational assets. While there were some successes, even an enthusiastic supporter as myself could see that these initiatives and all the good intentions in the world were not going to turn these places around.
Now I have been out of this line of work for quite a few years. However, I felt my past frustration and despair rush back when within the space of three days, I was confronted by two opinion pieces concluding that many small cities are probably doomed. Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times (December 30, 2017), posits that while once these places had a clear rationale for being as service centers for the surrounding countryside and later adding on whatever industrial enterprises came along, this is no longer a winning strategy. The modern economic supply chain, one that is cut lose from the landscape as well as the pressures of globalization will inexorable erode the viability of small urban centers. See The Gamblers Ruin of Small Towns .
The other piece was a more in depth article in the Washington Post by Harrisburg native Heather Long titled “America’s Forgotten Towns: Can they be saved or should people just leave? . The article starts out by saying that …. ‘One of the great debates in American politics and economics in 2018 is likely to be how to help the country’s forgotten towns, the former coal-mining and manufacturing hubs with quaint Main Streets that haven’t changed much since the 1950s and ’60s.’
Well I thought – I do not hear a great debate going on in Pennsylvania although it would be great, if it were happening. As of now I have not seen the issue receive increased political attention. But if it was to receive attention, there is still no consensus about what strategies might revive small towns and cities or even if it is possible at all. Some economists have concluded that the best solution is for populations to move to where the jobs are located. But according to the census data that is not happening. The American people are moving at about half the rate that they did in the 1970s and ’80s.
Why are people opting to stay put? Heather Long’s article suggests that one reason may be risk aversion to moving to another place that might also have an uncertain future and face the same problems. Even more importantly, people may have have the rational desire to stick with the trusted and familiar. A local support system of friends and family has real value that will be lost upon relocation. So if residents want to stay put and it is unlikely that many of these places are going to completely close down, then what?
Again there are no good answers. A recent report by the Pittsburgh Foundation found that Pennsylvania communities in the state’s Act 47 distressed municipalities program generally performed worse than average despite state assistance that in some cases has stretched for decades. Other programs like Main Street designations and other targeted grant assistance are just not game changers. And if indeed the problems are caused by global shifts in the national economy, local economies are not likely to respond to such small interventions. Heather Long is hopeful that the social capital of people and place will serve as the “Magic Fairy Dust” to help build a better future. I hope so too, but experience has lead me to believe it will just extend the long goodbye.