My current home is a city that is very typical of the post-industrial Midwest. It was clearly a great place in the 1950s, and everything has gone straight downhill ever since. There's nothing special about it; the landscape is dotted with these places. Youngstown. Toledo. Muncie. Saginaw. Flint. Rochester. Binghamton. Scranton. Hartford. Reading. Peoria. Gary. Dayton. Rockford. If you've been to one, you've been to all of them. There are still people to be found there, but they've all fled to the suburbs. The "city" is a largely empty monument to an ancient civilization.
Accordingly, the nation's historical population centers in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest continue to shrink relative to the fast-growing states in the South and West. Much of the industry from the northern states has migrated to places like South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The rapid growth and economic expansion of the South in recent years is a source of great pride in the region. When I lived in Georgia, I noticed that the media and elected officials in particular delighted in, well, gloating about their success at the expense of higher-wage, cold winter states in the Midwest. And it is certainly true that a state like Georgia is growing by leaps and bounds while the Ohios and Michigans continue to wither away.
It is understandable that people in the South – especially the civic leaders and opinion-makers – are in a gloating mood. The giant new auto factories are being built in places like Chattanooga and Spartanburg and West Point, GA, not in Buffalo or Dearborn. But I've always wondered if the bluster is genuine or merely an attempt to drown out the nagging realization that the Rust Belt is a glimpse into their own near future.
They like to brag that the "business-friendly environment" in the Red States (Translation: luring corporate employers with tens of millions of dollars in public money and the promise of an obedient workforce that will do anything one asks for $11/hr) is driving their growth. This is certainly true. However, if the new economy has taught us anything it's that there is always someone out there willing to undercut you. There's always some other city, state, or country willing to lay more subsidies, gifts, and tax breaks at the feet of manufacturers, and to promise an even cheaper and more exploitable workforce. The system has succeeded in creating enough dispossessed, desperate people that someone will always offer to do it for less.
So when the new rapid growing cities in the Sun Belt triple in size in a single decade, you have to wonder if they realize that in 20 years we'll be looking at them the same way they currently look at Detroit. All the money Mississippi lavishes on the industries it lures in will be a distant memory and the next group of suitors will be lining up and offering to cut their own throats. These companies don't care about the cities they were born in. They certainly do not care about some Southern cesspool that paid them to come carpetbagging into town in 2002.
If you've been to any of these places and seen the explosive (and unplanned) growth in Phoenix, the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, Atlanta, Charlotte-Raleigh-Durham, Birmingham, and so on, you can't escape the feeling that everything about them is temporary. The strip mall developments, the chain restaurants, the shoebox hotels, the blocks of identical, crappy "townhomes" that look like minimum security prisons or particularly stylish college dorms – none of it is built to last. It's as if the industries know that they're not going to be here long enough to bother with creating the illusion of permanence. Garland, TX is just a rest stop on the journey from Michigan to Mexico.
Read a million smug news items about Detroit and Cleveland if it makes you feel better, folks. It's going to happen to you in twenty years, too. I'm sure you understand, being "business friendly" and all, that it's not personal. Your new corporate friends are responsible to no one but the stockholders. These new "cities" that have been created seemingly overnight will disappear just as quickly. At least up North we made buildings sturdy enough to stick around and remind us of better days. You'll never even know your strip malls and subdivisions were there.