Leave urban neighborhoods to rot: Will it pay?

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Michael Brown, temporary mayor of Flint, Michigan, recently floated the idea of shutting down portions of his beleaguered city. The comment, which was apparently an off-the-cuff suggestion, has spurred conversation about the best ways for depressed municipalities to deal with abandoned and underperforming areas.

The decline of cities like Flint, Detroit, Buffalo, and Cincinnati offers a powerful argument that the country's manufacturing sector is, largely, a thing of the past. As companies have moved operations overseas, many of their former headquarters have become ghost towns, where bands of stray dogs and squatters roam among houses whose property values are rapidly approaching zero.

Of course, the same thing can be said of many suburban neighborhoods, where defaulted mortgages have left behind boarded-up houses and overgrown lawns. Between the empty factory towns and the emptying neighborhoods, one thing has become clear: there is no absolute, hard-and-fast rule that property values must rise and that homes must be occupied.

Mayor Brown's idea certainly has its strengths -- and its advocates. A year ago, Youngstown, Ohio followed a similar track. The town's razing initiative, named Plan 2010, involved bulldozing homes, tearing up streets, and transforming huge portions of the city into green spaces. When people fought to stay in a condemned area, the city offered them up to $50,000 to move.

The benefits of Plan 2010 are obvious: cities that raze will no longer have to pay police and firemen to patrol empty neighborhoods. They can worry less about underutilized schools, decaying streets, or wild packs of dogs. Razing denies squatters places to squat and drug addicts places to hide. It can save money, increase efficiency, and reduce crime.

On the other hand, it feels a little bit like giving up. When one considers the time and money involved in building a road, the idea of bulldozing one seems like a tragic waste. What's more, given the outrageous rents in New York, San Francisco, and other thriving cities, it seems foolish to destroy prime urban real estate.

The key, of course, is convincing people to move into Rustbelt industrial towns. Buffalo and Pittsburgh suggest, however, that this may not be the impossible task that it seems. By aggressively courting businesses, Pittsburgh is working its way out of the bust it experienced in the early 1980s. Similarly, by offering a compelling lifestyle alternative for New Yorkers, Buffalo may have found a way to revitalize its creative class.

Detroit, Cleveland, Flint, and numerous other former manufacturing cities have become victims of geography. Although they once benefited from easy access to shipping, the movement of manufacturing overseas made their location irrelevant. As workers transitioned to non-factory work, they moved to other areas.

The ironic thing is that telecommuting is, essentially, extending the Rustbelt phenomenon to other industries. If a publicist or editor can report to a Madison Avenue office from the convenience of home, there is no need to pay New York rents. In fact, he or she could just as easily live in Boston, or Buffalo, or ... Flint.

The combination of cheap rents, attractive architecture, and waterfront locations could make former industrial cities into very attractive destinations for rootless internet workers. The main requirements would be an effective internet grid and the perception that Rustbelt cities offer a compelling lifestyle alternative. Since the development of a "smart grid" is a major part of Obama's stimulus package, the first element seems to be under control.

As far as offering a compelling lifestyle alternative is concerned, Detroit and other Rustbelt towns must free themselves from the Kwame Kilpatrick school of mayoral leadership. If they can do so, the future could indeed be bright. If not ... well, the bulldozer awaits.


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