As many of you know I recently moved out of Georgia and back to the flatlands from whence I came. Having spent my entire life in the Midwest with the exception of the last three years in Georgia there is no culture shock or adjustment period upon returning. It is as I remember it, which is to say that it's equal parts comfortable and depressing.

The city in which I live now is a perfect example of what people on the coasts think about the Rust Belt. If you look up "post-industrial" or "urban decay" you might not see an actual picture of where I live, but it would be hard to tell the difference. Even if you have never been here, there's a great chance that you've been to one of the dozens of places exactly like it across the Midwest or New England.
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If you've seen one Youngstown you've seen 'em all – cities that were awesome in about 1958 and everything has gone downhill since then.
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The factories all left, everyone with the means to do so left, and now the downtown area looks like a set for one of those movies wherein the protagonist wakes up to find that everyone else is gone.

What surprises me about this city is that the population has fallen over that time but it is spread over an area that has doubled in size. The population density has plummeted and left us with the familiar "donut" pattern: an empty shell of a downtown surrounded by unplanned, idiotically sprawling suburbs. As a result, a city that could be somewhere that people actually want to live feels like a ghost town. Just imagine if everyone actually moved back to the city. Wouldn't that be neat?

But that would entail suburbanites living near, like, black people and poor people and stuff. And they wouldn't be able to have those giant yards they don't actually use. And the houses might not all have 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms (which is the minimum necessary for four people). And if you don't have to drive absolutely everywhere, how are you going to show off the car? Who wants to live so close to other people? What are we, peasants?

All the policy solutions in the world – tax incentives, harebrained "renewal" schemes, endless/fruitless talk about luring "high tech" industry to the city – can't overcome the warped attitudes and preferences that led us to the current state of affairs. We don't care if we never see or talk to our neighbors; in fact we prefer it. When people think the bugs are actually features, it's hard to expect any logic from their collective decision-making.

47 thoughts on “THE SPREAD”

  • Middle Seaman says:

    It seems that the move to fewer yet much bigger cities is universal. Even in China were the Midwest industries are now located is emptying out the rural areas and the non-central cities and moves them into the huge urban areas.

    Culturally, socially and geographically this process is a major decline; the end of a world of hardworking and decent people is painful. This process makes the big cities much more difficult to live in.

    It almost system like physics.

  • Granted, a lot of this is a cultural problem. But there are some policy solutions that would have a big effect if we wanted to use them though. For example, we could choose to not use public funds to build giant, free expressways for everyone to drive across town. We could also choose to not fight endless wars in the middle east to guarantee oil supplies, and put a tax on air pollution from burning fossil fuels. If we did all that, then living in the exurbs might not be such a bargain.

  • So, if not "high-tech" jobs, what jobs should be encouraged in order to entice people to live in the rust belt city cores again? Retooling factories to turn out products which are competitive with producing them in China?

    I ask, because I honestly don't know.

  • Of course, there's another side to this: gentrification. When well-off whities *do* decide to move back into down-towns, they immediate loft the shit out of the place, sending housing prices so high that the minorities/impoverished (not always the same thing) who held down the fort all those years can no longer afford to live there. In short, as much as white folks don't want to move back, non-whites don't much want them to, either.

  • I couldn't get past the first sentence of the linked piece. Please tell me that when Fee says that an urban area is defined as a city with over 2,500 residents, that was a typo. Because otherwise, I can't talk with him.

  • "But that would entail suburbanites living near, like, black people and poor people and stuff. And they wouldn't be able to have those giant yards they don't actually use. And the houses might not all have 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms (which is the minimum necessary for four people). And if you don't have to drive absolutely everywhere, how are you going to show off the car? Who wants to live so close to other people? What are we, peasants?"

    There is more provocative thought in that one paragraph than in entire issues of Harpers, the New York Times Magazine, or any given day on HuffPo. I'd add that the only alternatives to "driving absolutely everywhere" are (1) nasty public transportation (sitting next to THEM, not to mention discarded soda cans, etc.) or (2) having to put one foot in front of the other in a primitive, retro practice of individual locomotion. Neither desirable. So it's not even about showing off the car, though of course that's important.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    J. Dryden nails it.

    When the white folks DO move back to the inner city, they "yuppify" it, and the area loses whatever 'flavor,' or blend of 'flavors,' it had, and becomes plain old vanilla.

    The Lower East Side of NY City, back in the late 70's and early-mid 80's, when I worked and lived there or nearby, was a blend of minorites, from pretty much everywhere in the world.
    And sure, there was a lot of crime – drug use was pretty rampant back then. But for the most part, everyone got along. There were terrific little ethnic restaurants and shops all over the place.

    Then, the sons and daughters of the people who moved out in the post WWII white flight from the inner cities, started moving back in.

    And today, while most of the old buildings, once tenements for newly-arrived immigrants, still stand, the whole area has lost whatever "character" (good, bad, or indifferent) that it once had.
    The people, and their children, who lived there, 20, 30, 40 years ago, have moved – forced out by sky-rocketing rental and condo/home purchase rates.

    Yes, crime is down in that area.
    And yes, it looks neater and cleaner.
    But to save the East Village, was it necessary to destroy it?

    And, pet peeve – is there some yuppie zoning law, where a Starbucks is required on EVERY SINGLE FECKIN' STREET CORNER?
    Or does it just seem that way?

    And don't get me started on 42nd Street!!!

    Still, I guess it's better that people still live there.
    Vanilla's better than nothin'.
    It's just too bad that vanilla's so damn expensive, and the other flavors have a hard time staying in the ice cream shop.
    Vanilla's pretty damn boring.

  • Networks like HGTV have gotten unwatchable because they feature so many 20-something couples where the wife is pregnant with their first child, so they *have* to ditch the 2500-square-foot, three-bedroom house for some sprawling monstrosity.

  • I live in a suburb of Columbus Ohio.

    I'd love to be able ride my bike or even walk for small errands, but I can't get to the grocery store that's 1.7 miles from my house without going on a major highway and facing certain death by a cell-phone wielding SUV driver.

    If I want to ride my bike, I have to put it on the car and then drive to some place I can ride it. Very silly when you think about it.

  • It's not like the only options are sprawlburbia or Manhattan.

    Go look at one of the inner-ring suburbs of your city sometime. The ones that were built after the trolley lines were built but before widespread automobile ownership.

    There was a "main street" with businesses, clustered near the light rail and then single-family homes with small lots and sidewalks.

    Today these inner suburbs are often rehabbed and quite expensive, so there's obviously a demand for that kind of setting.

  • If we built a strong social safety net we could clean up those neighborhoods and people might be willing to resettle in them. But that would require a tiny fraction of a white man's taxes to go towards buying a black man free food, and boy howdy, we can't have that, can we?

  • Yeah, it's much cheaper to buy them free food and housing – in prison.

    Spending dollars to save pennies…..

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    There are some policies and programs (mixed-use zoning, inclusionary zoning, etc) that can help somewhat, but yeah, basically middle class white people do not want their kids going to the same school as poor kids, particularly if those poor kids are also black.

    At the end of the day, you can do everything you want to promote integration, but you can't make it illegal to move.

  • At some point the price of energy is likely to make commuting 30 miles each way in a 5000 pound vehicle from your 4000 sq ft McMansion cost prohibitive for most people.

  • Major Kong,
    Conservatives suppress the votes any way they can.

    In a lot of states, if you have an "F," for felon, next to your name, you won't be allowed to vote for a person with a "D" next to theirs. Or an "R", either – not that THAT'S likely to happen too often!

  • I'm guessing the number of convicted-felon Republican politicians will at some point hit critical mass and the GOP will need to start rescinding these laws.

  • Not unless or until the Democrats actually start charging them with something.

    One might think being a War Criminal by starting a couple of pointless wars and occupations, and torturing people, might at least be some degree of assault.
    And that running the world's and this countries economy off the rails, and still pocketing your bonuses after tax-payer bailouts, might be some form of petit larceny.

    But, then, one would be wrong, wouldn't one?

  • History (from W.P):

    "The roots of felony disenfranchisement laws can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman traditions. Disenfranchisement was commonly imposed on individuals (particularly Black Romans! – bb) convicted of "infamous" crimes as part of their "civil death", whereby these persons would lose all rights and claim to property.

    Most medieval common law jurisdictions developed some form of exclusion from the democratic process, ranging from execution on sight to rejection from community processes."

    Non-issue pretty much in the US…

    From Wikipedia

    "As of 2011, only two states, Kentucky and Virginia, continue to impose a lifelong denial of the right to vote to all citizens with a felony record, absent some extraordinary intervention by the Governor or state legislature.[3] However, in Kentucky, a felon's rights can now be restored after the completion of a restoration process to regain civil rights.[3]

    In 2007, Florida moved to restore voting rights to convicted felons. In March 2011, however, Republican Governor Rick Scott reversed the 2007 reforms, making Florida the state with the most punitive law in terms of disenfranchising citizens with past felony convictions.[4"


  • It's not hopeless. Detroit is already shrinking, turning vacant lots into community gardens on their way back to straight-up farmland.

  • I think that there complicated hoops that someone needs to go through to get there voting rights restored, so there is a lot more ex-con voting disenfranchisement that than Kentucky, Virginia and Florida.

    I understand that people in prison shouldn't be allowed to vote, and I understand that it applies to people on probation as well. But it is a damn shame that we have lost the concept that 'a man has paid his debt to society' and his rights need to be fully restored.

  • Grammar Nazi Pat says:

    "Whence" means "from where." To say "from whence I came" is redundant, as would be "to whither thou goest."

  • Back on subject: I watched white-flight, urban decay, urban renewal and gentrification in Chicago up close and personal.

    Big, massive urban renewal projects never work. (Let's support the arts by building an opera house!!!! Yippy!!!!!!).

    What works, is hipster/artist/gays moving into neighborhoods, and working the tails off to fix the houses and build businesses. Period. End of story.

    Yes, yuppie scum will move in and turn everything vanilla, but honestly some (not all) of these neighborhoods needed to be fixed.

    You want to fix your small midwestern city? Give away enough old run down houses to hipster/artist/gays. They are creative and they can fix a lot of shit cheaply.

  • @Sluggo: back in the 1980s, the city of Baltimore was selling their decrepit houses in horrific neighborhoods for a dollar to anyone who signed a promise to rehab them and live in them. Entire blocks turned into middle-class neighborhoods.

  • @sluggo

    "we have lost the concept that 'a man has paid his debt to society' and his rights need to be fully restored."

    It is Ok and often a good thing to change things when we collectively decide to. However, one point of my post is that felony disenfranchisement is a part of the traditional payment of your 'debt to society' for your felonious behavior.

    It ain't something nasty White people in the US thought up to punish dark skinned felons.

    It was done in Greece and Rome and Great Britain where most of our common law traditions descend from and most citizens were the same color and background (if not class)

    We don't like it, let's change it – but it ain't new (i.e. less than 250 years old.)


  • @bb

    First of all, my behavior has never been legally proven to be felonious.

    Secondly, I never considered race,creed color etc. in my statement. Once someone is off probation, they need to have voting rights (actually, VOTING RESPONSIBILITY) restored, and not by complicated legal wrangling and paperwork that proves to be a roadblock.

    Third, I think we have moved beyond Greece,Rome and British olden times voting traditions.

  • @ Anonymouse


    That seems to have worked out fairly well in Balitmore, not perfect but certainly better than letting housing rot.

    That could happen in thousands cities across the country! Imagine Detroit as the world's largest artist colony!

    The government selling land for a dollar is how the midwest got populated in the first place.

  • @sluggo

    I'm sorry that I did not use the proper form of 'One's felonious behavior' rather than 'Your.' That is a little pedantic on YOUR part.

    The whole tone here, as usual, (perhaps not specifically YOU) is that everything is racial – that's why I referenced that aspect.

    I agree with your last point and that might be why 47 states appear to have done away w/ lifetime loss of the right/responsibility/privilege.

    What administrative BS that ONE must go through to get that status restored is gonna vary.


  • I'd like to think we've a bit beyond Roman (crucifixion anyone?) and 12-century English (hanged, drawn and quartered perhaps?) methods of law enforcement.

  • @ bb

    There is nothing pedantic about it. I have reputation to uphold. I have gone pains to avoid prosecution, usually by finding a conservative from the south to take the wrap and do the time.

    Good God!! Lighten up it was a joke!!!! I think you are suffering from an irony deficiency.

  • @Sluggo: back in the 1980s, the city of Baltimore was selling their decrepit houses in horrific neighborhoods for a dollar to anyone who signed a promise to rehab them and live in them. Entire blocks turned into middle-class neighborhoods.

    I seem to recall reading about a similar program in New England, with the difference being long-term leases (~25 years or thereabouts) as opposed to purchases. I'd look for the link and post it, but I have computer issues right now. It should still be on Yahoo somewhere.

  • Alex SL nails it – $8 or $10 gas is going to put quite a kink in the suburban lifestyle –

    Eh, maybe. When gas was $2 and rising everybody was screaming about how $3 gas would kill us. We are now coming up on $4 gas and as far as I can tell people are not only still driving, they're still driving the gas guzzlers (although the lesser earners are downsizing) and showing no signs of slowing down on the roads. I drive 55 on my local interstate where the speed limit is 65 and people regularly do 70+ (because I'm a poor college student and I'm trying to economize where I can) and I see these people drive that way. Obviously they don't care about what they're doing to their own wallets, so it's a sure bet that they don't care that they are driving up the price of gas for everyone.

  • And, pet peeve – is there some yuppie zoning law, where a Starbucks is required on EVERY SINGLE FECKIN' STREET CORNER?
    Or does it just seem that way?

    Years ago I met somebody who said she didn't consider a city to be a "real" city unless it had a Starbucks which was not attached to a Barnes & Noble. Yes, really. So, yeah, apparently.

  • I want to see cities larger and small as much as anyone, but I don't see people not driving. People like the convenience and freedom.

    Hopefully, a killer app will be developed sooner than later so that cars can be environmentally friendly and have low fuel costs.

  • @Sarah

    I know you're trying to economize, but 55 in a 65, while legal is about as unsafe as the person trying to do 80.

    Any miniscule fuel savings you may have realized will be far outweighed by the repair costs when someone hits you.

    Depending on what you drive, you're probably not saving more than about 1 mpg.

  • mel in oregon says:

    the article is kind of reminiscent of the pretenders when chrissie sang about everything being replaced by shopping malls & her city was gone. kind of an old story.

  • Voting is the least of the problems that ex cons face. With all the background checks they do for EVERYTHING these days, someone with a record can't rent an apartment, get a loan on a car, or find employment.

  • I agree with the overall tenor of most of you above, but I think we're overlooking something when we call out the awful cultural values of suburbanites: kids.

    And what I mean is this: I know a LOT of young, affluent, industrious, mostly white folks who are quite happy to live near the core of the city–prefer it, in fact. But that starts to change when people have kids, for the simple fact that KIDS ARE FUCKING NIGHTMARES IN SMALL SPACES. Less density becomes a near necessity when you have more than one child, especially if you live outside of walking distance of a good park. And in most of the country (the Midwest especially) it is either too damn cold or too damn hot to take advantage of it, anyway.

    Then we have the problem of public schools related to the racism and bad policies talked about above: generally speaking, "urban" schools are crappy, or more fairly, are hindered by the sort of problems associated with poverty and/or racial/ethnic strife. However someone might feel about cultural diversity, not many people are willing to risk their kids' educational futures for that kind of enrichment.

  • White society can be so sterile and hollow, that i do understand. white bread and non thinking. the concept of helping each other has been drummed out of American psyche. that is the real evil here. like Thatcher said something to the effect of " there is no such thing as society." Reagan's British counterpart.

    that is the curse of why and how we got to this point of the Culture war. the trashing of the other. the attack on the other as worthless. as losers

    at this point i can hardly imagine any reason to care about either Obama or Rmoney. both are puppets of the Elites. Rmoney will push us quicker into the morass of revolution, feudalism and inequality. Obama is the lesser evil, as his moderate Republican behavior as shown by throwing the Left under the bus. but Obama will get us to the same place as Rmoney, eventually.

    what really scares me is i know judges, lawyers in that stratum of society who buy into the whole Fox lie propaganda even without having to watch Fox.
    the "evil" that the Left has been castigated as subsumes the whole consciousness that white society's successful members live in and rule. the FEAR of the Other is more important than anything else. and the Moderates have come to believe the Rigth as the "safer" path, the lesser of two evils, even if the Right is crazed over certain things. Moderates have been told that the Left could never be trusted or be good for America. no matter how wrong the Right is. Global Weather change and Religious Right to Lifers are perfect examples where reality loses to the irrational fear implanted by the Right of the Left. i.e. Better Dead than Red. and all those slogans work slowly but incrementally.

    the country will have to be in the throes of a revolution where the Rigth is actively killing the "other" before the Moderates even begin to want to trust the "Left". killing the "Other" is okay up to a certain point. as teh Right to Life killings have shown over the last few decades. kind of like where we are and have been. killing others to stop Abortion is okay apparently, by both sides.

    so now we are at a point where we have two losers running for Dear Leader. One more competent at destroying American Society quicker than the other.
    and i even wonder why voting matters on such levels.

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