If you live in or hail from the Midwest you have a more acute understanding of the term "urban decay" than any other Americans. You know what grainy Kodachrome movies of Flint, Buffalo, Gary, Dayton, Fort Wayne, or Harrisburg looked like in the 1950s compared to the post-industrial, vacant, demilitarized no man's lands they are today. You know how every single harebrained government, academic, or think tank "revitalization" plan from the 1970s and 1980s was test-cased somewhere in the region (almost inevitably St. Louis or East St. Louis). You've seen the Sarajevo-like relics of American experimentation with Soviet panelak housing such as Pruitt-Igoe, Cabrini-Green, and the Robert Taylor Homes. The suburbs in which you probably grew up talked of nothing but explosive population growth for the past several decades while as a society we have waffled along the thin line between trying to save our rotting urban cores or abandon them to fate and poor (usually black) people.
Robert Taylor Homes – Poverty Containment Unit #14b
The depths to which many urban areas sunk in the 1970s and 1980s – most glaringly Detroit, New York City, and St. Louis, but certainly others as well – cannot be overstated. It spawned an entire genre of white revenge/vigilantism films like Death Wish, Dirty Harry, and Robocop. It led many well-meaning reformers to throw up their hands and many ignorant policymakers to wonder what the hell was happening. It caused many Americans to wonder, apparently with straight faces and no hint of irony, why the idea of vertically stacking 100,000 dirt-poor, jobless people on a 4 square mile footprint in areas devoid of civic, educational, or economic/employment opportunities was not working. And huge numbers of urbanites just packed up and fled.
After, for example, the Robert Taylor homes experienced 28 murders in a single 48 hour period it became kind of hard to defend the status quo. Cities began quietly demolishing their concrete and rebar prisons. The game of "Who can offer potential employers the biggest tax break handjob?" began in earnest (which is effectively government job and income subsidy, but we don't call it that because we believe only in the majesty of the unfettered free market). Crackpot renewal and beautification schemes, usually involving red brick, bunting and lame "attractions", petered out. Reality began to sink in. Some cities modestly recovered or are beginning the long, slow climb towards recovery. Others have just said "fuck it" and abandoned all hope of recreating their halcyon days.
Take Youngstown, for example. They've given up on trying to return to their heyday as the third largest steel producing city in the nation. Instead, they're literally destroying vast swaths of the city – abandoned housing, potholed streets, and vacant commercial spaces. Urban renewal with bulldozers. They plan to lure back some industry (my money's on "casino" or "state prison") with a novel pitch: This place has been abandoned. Cheap land and desperate job-seekers abound. We are so poor that we're willing to bend over and take it with no lube. You can literally do as you please. If this sounds familiar, it's essentially the argument that Bangladesh makes to get Reebok factories.
So it has come to this, I guess.
It makes some sense – when 50% of the population has fled in a few decades there is no logic to maintaining city infrastructure where it is no longer needed – but goddamn is it depressing. The decay represents a complex, contentious mix of socio-political-economic forces. We can't figure out how to fix it (or even begin fixing it) so we're dismantling cities and hoping to start fresh. I wonder how long it will take some Cato Institute urban planner to recognize the efficiency of leveling urban rot with fuel-air explosives instead of bulldozers. Maybe the folks of Youngstown could return to work making bombs.