Poor City, Rich Suburb: A Defining Characteristic of the Rust Belt


We all know that for decades the suburbia narrative was one of homogenized, sprawled and insulated wealth separated from diverse, dense and isolated poverty. We also know that's changed dramatically over the last 30-40 years. But that distinction really first became codified in the development patterns of cities that boomed in the late 19th/early 20th century: coincidentally, when Rust Belt cities boomed.

Rust Belt cities often claim to be the birthplace of the modern conception of the middle class, because well-paying manufacturing jobs vaulted unskilled workers into a new economic/social status. But the Rust Belt is also where the narrative described above really emerged.

The Midwest has, from its conception as a region, maintained a strong connection to its agricultural roots. The independent yeoman farmer is celebrated and remains the archetype from Ohio to Kansas. It defined this region.

Up until the post-Civil War period Midwest cities were mostly distribution centers of ag goods produced on farms. Midwest cities were dependent on farms and agriculture. Then the industrial boom happens. The shipping and later rail networks that made ag distribution work for the Midwest served the same purpose for manufactured goods. In other words, Midwest cities began to develop an economy a little less connected from their hinterlands.

Like I said, the ag/rural character was established in the Midwest, and it played out in county boards and state legislatures. Rural interests were threatened by city growth fueled by manufacturing but still intrigued by the opportunities it brought.

So what did rural interests do? Mostly sought changes to state legislation that would allow for incorporation of small towns at the urban perimeter. They would fight off annexation by the big city and follow their own path. They'd become modern suburbia.

Look at the incorporation dates of suburbs immediately around Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago. Many were incorporated between 1890-1930 when they were just one stoplight/one train stop towns. They didn't really take off as suburbs in the modern sense until after 1950.

Why? Rural interests wanted to maintain a rural character as long as they could. The built-in anti-city bias of many Midwestern states sparked the growth of small incorporated towns that would later become suburbs.

Stop here and contrast this with what was happening in other regions. Prior to WWII out east citylike development simply spread beyond city limits. For example, Brooklyn, Queens and Hudson/Essex counties in NJ developed more like Manhattan than small towns.

Down south there was their own anti-city bias, but city growth was minimal for two main reasons: 1) the South came later to manufacturing that fueled city growth, and 2) Great Migration of blacks from rural South to urban North stunted growth. Little suburban growth at all.

Out west wasn't so much anti-city as it was just underdeveloped. Had to attract people to their cities. Had to bring water to serve them. Geography (ocean, mountains, deserts, long distances) promoted denser development.

A broad look at metros by region circa 1950:

East: Dense cities; dense inner ring burbs; sparse mid-ring/exurbs

South: Semi-dense cities; sparse, underdeveloped suburbs

West: Semi-dense cities; rapidly developing mid-ring/exurbs

Midwest: Dense cities; sparse suburbs

These different dynamics put in place different development patterns within each region. Out east post WWII and especially post-1970 suburbia was particularly far from the core city, making it a little less attractive.

Southern cities often went on an annexation binge to boost population numbers and tout growth. So did some Mountain West/Desert cities. Most West Coast cities adopted a pattern similar to the East Coast, but at a less dense scale.

Read the rest of this piece at The Corner Side Yard blog.

Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanism and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of the Corner Side Yard, an urbanist blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes Magazine’s online platform. Pete’s writings have been published widely in traditional and internet media outlets, including the feature article in the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has more than twenty years’ experience in planning, economic development, and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.

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