My wife, mother-in-law and children are off for some Memorial Day flower watching at Phipps. I might meet my wife later for a movie--if so, I'll walk over to the center of our neighborhood and meet her at one of our two neighborhood movie theaters. This has me thinking again about what I like about my neighborhood and about what a great city this is (despite any problems some people might have in obtaining the custard of their choice). It also has me thinking about cities in America again and I thought I would collect a few thoughts here and perhaps spark a discussion. A while back I promised some more thoughts on declining population in the Northeast. An article in yesterday's Boston Globe discusses the aging of New England (Maine is pushing past Pennsylvania in the race for oldest populace).
Here are some points I want to raise for discussion in the empty chamber that is this blog:
Issue 1, as I see it, is this: The Northeast and the Midwest educate a disproportionate share of the population and the South and West reap the benefits. Many have discussed the unfairness of funding school districts through local tax revenues. But I have seen no discussion on the question of the fairness of Pennsylvanians paying to educate the Texans of tomorrow.
If Pennsylvania were to create economic conditions that encouraged job growth, say the free market types, by lowering business taxes and streamlining regulation, then the Pennsylvanian kids of today might stay to be the working adult Pennsylvanians of tomorrow. Yes, I answer, but then we might have to cut spending on our education system and then the kiddies won't be trained for the knowledge industries. And then we have to hope Massachusetts keeps exporting people. Meanwhile, the conservatives in Massachusetts are pushing the same thing. And, I argue further, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts can cut taxes to the bone, cut programs for the kids and the elderly (all the parents of those Texans and Arizonans), and it will still be cheaper well into the future to put those software engineering jobs in Bangalore.
In any case, it may be that Pittsburgh and Boston and Chicago have no hope anyway, as the result of the invention of air conditioning. (See Drake Bennet, “It’s the Weather, Stupid,” Boston Globe, Ideas section, May 1, 2005--it’s no longer on the free/recent section of the Boston.com site. Sorry.)
Issue 2: The house I live in has 3 bedrooms (for tax assessment purposes, 4 bedrooms, but I’m sitting in that 4th upstairs room right now and I’m not sure how one would get a bed, a dresser, and a nightstand in here) and 1.5 bathrooms. That means for a middle class American family of the early 21st century, this is considered a starter home. But when this house was built, it was most likely designed to hold a family of 5 or 6 or 7. A big family now is a family of 5. And a household with 2-3 people, living in a single family detached house, is not unusual in today’s America.
People have smaller families but want bigger houses, and as Froma Harrop, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer explains, this means an inexorable drive to the suburbs for the native-born. Cities are left to the elderly, the childless, and some families--often the poor, immigrants, or academics.
What this suggests to me is that you could have the same number of occupied houses in Pittsburgh in 2005 as in 1955 and the population would still be smaller. I haven’t seen statistics, but I’m guessing that in some neighborhoods of Pittsburgh (or Boston or Philadelphia or Buffalo, etc.) there are many fewer households in 2005 than in 1955 but I would also guess that there are many neighborhoods with roughly the same number of households but with many fewer residents--and many fewer schoolchildren.
In other words, how much of the decline in urban populations is due to flight/abandonment and how much is due to changes in lifestyle? Even if every last one of the abandoned rowhouses of North Philadelphia were occupied, I think Philadelphia would still show a population loss from the 1950 census to the present. But how much of a loss?
Let me be clear about why I think this is an important question: I am all for restoration of urban neighborhoods, for renovation of older housing, for building new housing in cities and inner-ring suburbs, for improvement of streetscapes, and for trying to restrain sprawl at the outer edges of metropolitan areas. But even as such efforts show success, population growth (even minimal population growth) and the consumer preferences of middle-class Americans will likely mean that central cities and inner-ring suburbs will continue to see their proportional share of population in any given metro area decline. To my mind, this is another reason for the need for metropolitan government.
There is another related issue here: in every “successful” urban or older suburban neighborhood I have ever spent any amount of time in, I have noticed lots of empty storefronts: Center City Philadelphia, East Arlington Massachusetts, Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh. Why?
The answer I think, lies in the way we shop: even those of us who cherish our walkable havens and feel sorry for those “suburbanites” who have to drive everywhere do most of our shopping at big stores. I might buy the occasional box of cherries or carton of milk from the local Mom and Pop store but I do most of my grocery shopping at the big Giant Eagle down the street (that at some point in the 40s or 50s or 60s must have knocked out a lot of houses and/or small businesses in Greenfield to put in a supermarket and a parking lot). There are only so many cute bookstores, cafes, vintage clothing stores, gift boutiques, and nail salons that can fill up all those empty storefronts. Suggestions? (In Philadelphia they fill up empty storefronts with public art. This can be visually pleasing but it always has the effect on me of drawing my attention to the emptiness behind. In any case, it’s certainly not a long-term solution.)