September 18, 2011
The whole history of this and other societies is of people compacting themselves into dense groupings. For safety; commerce; access to food, water, utilities, and other essentials; and amenities, cities have lured people for eons.
Recently, my wife and I visited the eastern Mediterranean. In Mycenae, on the Peloponnese Peninsula southwest of Athens, lie ruins of a people perched upon a hilltop. The ruins are roughly 5,500 years old. A great wall insulated them from attacks. From here, one of their leaders (Agamemnon) conquered Troy (Turkey). At least several thousand people lived in the sheltered city until they suddenly dropped off the map about 1500 B.C.
We traipsed through Ephesus, Turkey, with breathtaking ruins of a metropolis housing roughly 250,000 people in the first century B.C. In Rome, by 200 A.D., a million or more people resided.
For 500 years after the sacking of Rome, nomads and barbarians ruled the roost. By 1000 A.D., the largest city in Europe (Cordoba, Spain) laid claim to about 250,000 residents, and by then Rome’s populace had shrunk to 30,000. In the 18th century, Cordoba was down to 20,000.
This extraordinarily brief history of ancient people underscores a point: Humans crave density; they build cities and, sometimes, cities collapse.
Do cities still matter? They surely do. They headquarter corporations, jobs, government, cultural legacies, and entertainment. Because of so many producers and retailers, consumers benefit from relatively low prices for higher quality goods and a plethora of choices. Talent thrives when confronted by a critical mass of other talent.
Young people flock to cities. They ditch their cars and ride public transit. They shop and play within walking distance of their apartments. Tourists, too, love cities because of their cultural and entertainment vitality and their historical treasures.
Cities are gritty and not simple. We put up with the often ill-tempered mood of frenzied residents and with jam-packed, sweat-laden buses and trains and horrific traffic. High prices. Dinky dwellings. Tons more concrete than greenery. Crime. Often poor schools. But for at least half of human history, the more people who live in a place, the more people who want to live there.
Against the grain of history and in contrast to most populous states, the last couple of generations of Michiganians have eschewed cities. Of our 20 most populous cities, 15 lost people between 2000 and 2010. The gainers (Sterling Heights, Dearborn, Troy, Wyoming, and Rochester Hills) lie outside the central cities of their regions (Detroit and Grand Rapids). In these 10 years, some cities lost astounding percentages of residents: Detroit (25 percent), Flint (18 percent), Pontiac (10.3 percent), and Southfield (8.4 percent).
Michigan’s population declined by 54,852 between 2000 and 2010. Detroit lost 237,493 people and the remaining 19 largest cities recorded a net loss of another 66,000 souls. Were it not for the outflow from our largest cities, the state would have shown a gain of a quarter million people during the aughts.
My hometown of Saginaw really sticks out as an example of the decitification of our state. In the early 1960s, as I was moving from elementary to junior high school, the city had about 102,000 people living in it. The city accounted for 51.5 percent of Saginaw County’s populace. In 2010 city residents numbered 51,508 (almost precisely half that of 50 years before) and only 24.5 percent of the county’s residents. In the last 10 years it lost 16.7 percent of its population.
The decline of Michigan cities has been a half century of a withering diaspora. The excruciatingly painful discarding of homes and commercial property cannot simply be ascribed to the dreadful economy of the past decade. If anything, a poor economy drives more people from rural areas into cities, typically where jobs are more plentiful. Yet, deindustrialization surely accounts for much population loss in cities, not just in Michigan but throughout the Rust Belt.
I recognize that our metropolitan areas, which include core cities, are holding their own. Indeed, they represent nearly 90 percent of all jobs and gross domestic product of Michigan. We may need to expand our thinking about what is urban — what is a city — to include the areas and people living places nearby cities.
Why Michiganians fled cities, in defiance of a long global and current national experience, unsettles me greatly. It is terribly destructive economically. You cannot explain cities’ depopulation simply because a downturn of this or that industry, important as that often is. Abandoning cities is damn near unique to Michigan (although one easily can point to other once-powerful cities, such as Cleveland, that share our cities’ distress) and requires you to suspend economic logic and the historical record.
Decitification in Michigan is a pressing matter. State public policy has not been on the side of cities. The State must take the lead in bolstering them. Our attitudes and behavior, too, are way out of synch with global societies. We have an attitude (I go so far as to call it a sickness) that begs for analysis. Our cities have characteristics, like woeful public transit and few outlets for groceries, that cling to a car-frenzied industrial age.
Cities do not appeal to a lot of people in Michigan. A couple of hundred years from now, historians may say that by letting cities wither we were, as Heath Ledger (The Joker) so creepily uttered, “just ahead of the curve.” That’s a bit like betting on the longest of long shots.
Michigan today, with nearly 10 million residents, has but one city, Detroit, that houses more people than Ephesus in the 1st century B.C. or Cordoba in the year 1000. From Ephesus, Cordoba, and Rome, we are unlikely to learn much about the reasons for Detroit’s evacuation and the decline (possibly fall) of less populated cities of Michigan. We learn far more from Chicago, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Denver, and a host of American cities that attract people in the modern era.
In future columns, I plan to examine race, health, schooling, housing, taxes, transportation, architecture and design, entertainment, taxes, city services, and commerce as factors in how we, in Michigan, part company with civilization. I will weigh in on state public policy choices that may help revitalize cities.
Does Michigan need cities? Unequivocally, I say “yes.” Getting there is a whole ’nother kettle of fish. Why we, virtually alone and voluntarily, turned vibrant cities into detritus defines us and, very sadly, forecasts our future.