Richard Florida and the reshaping of America

In the new March issue of the Atlantic, Richard Florida ponders how our current financial crisis may reshape America. Regardless of what you might think of Florida and his academic research, it’s a question worth considering. Given what we know about demographics and trends, which regions of the United States are most likely to weather the storm successfully, and which are likely to dry up and blow away?

OK, let’s cut right to the chase and see what Florida makes of Detroit’s chances. Here’s a clip:

…The Rust Belt in particular looks likely to shed vast numbers of jobs, and some of its cities and towns, from Cleveland to St. Louis to Buffalo to Detroit, will have a hard time recovering. Since 1950, the manufacturing sector has shrunk from 32 percent of nonfarm employment to just 10 percent. This decline is the result of long-term trends—increasing foreign competition and, especially, the relentless replacement of people with machines—that look unlikely to abate. But the job losses themselves have proceeded not steadily, but rather in sharp bursts, as recessions have killed off older plants and resulted in mass layoffs that are never fully reversed during subsequent upswings.

In November, nationwide unemployment in manufacturing and production occupations was already 9.4 percent. Compare that with the professional occupations, where it was just a little over 3 percent. According to an analysis done by Michael Mandel, the chief economist at BusinessWeek, jobs in the “tangible” sector—that is, production, construction, extraction, and transport—declined by nearly 1.8 million between December 2007 and November 2008, while those in the intangible sector—what I call the “creative class” of scientists, engineers, managers, and professionals—increased by more than 500,000. Both sorts of jobs are regionally concentrated. Paul Krugman has noted that the worst of the crisis, so far at least, can be seen in a “Slump Belt,” heavy with manufacturing centers, running from the industrial Midwest down into the Carolinas. Large swaths of the Northeast, with its professional and creative centers, have been better insulated.

Perhaps no major city in the U.S. today looks more beleaguered than Detroit, where in October the average home price was $18,513, and some 45,000 properties were in some form of foreclosure. A recent listing of tax foreclosures in Wayne County, which encompasses Detroit, ran to 137 pages in the Detroit Free Press. The city’s public school system, facing a budget deficit of $408 million, was taken over by the state in December; dozens of schools have been closed since 2005 because of declining enrollment. Just 10 percent of Detroit’s adult residents are college graduates, and in December the city’s jobless rate was 21 percent.

To say the least, Detroit is not well positioned to absorb fresh blows. The city has of course been declining for a long time. But if the area’s auto headquarters, parts manufacturers, and remaining auto-manufacturing jobs should vanish, it’s hard to imagine anything replacing them.

When work disappears, city populations don’t always decline as fast as you might expect. Detroit, astonishingly, is still the 11th-largest city in the U.S. “If you no longer can sell your property, how can you move elsewhere?” said Robin Boyle, an urban-planning professor at Wayne State University, in a December Associated Press article. But then he answered his own question: “Some people just switch out the lights and leave—property values have gone so low, walking away is no longer such a difficult option.”

Perhaps Detroit has reached a tipping point, and will become a ghost town. I’d certainly expect it to shrink faster in the next few years than it has in the past few. But more than likely, many people will stay—those with no means and few obvious prospects elsewhere, those with close family ties nearby, some number of young professionals and creative types looking to take advantage of the city’s low housing prices. Still, as its population density dips further, the city’s struggle to provide services and prevent blight across an ever-emptier landscape will only intensify…

Not a very rosy picture, huh?

On the bright side, though, he didn’t use the phrase “cannibal holocaust.”

And, no offense to Mr. Florida, but predicting that things are going to get worse in Detroit as the population continues to fall, and as the auto industry does its death rattle, doesn’t require a great deal of insight… I also think it’s worth pointing out that Florida, in his analysis, hasn’t taken into account that Michigan has the water. Nor has he considered what might become of the coastal communities as sea levels rise and storms become more severe in the wake of global warming. But, with all that said, I still think he’s right. Things are accelerating, and it doesn’t look good for either Detroit or Michigan in the short term.

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  1. roots
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 4:32 am | Permalink


  2. Paw
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    In These Times offers another perspective.

    Here’s how the article begins:

    Detroit is a city of Hope rather than a city of Despair. The thousands of vacant lots and abandoned houses not only provide the space to begin anew but also the incentive to create innovative ways of making our living—ways that nurture our productive, cooperative and caring selves…

    Read the rest:

  3. Robert
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    WHAT? The good times in Detroit are over?!?! Please. In Detroit, we eat depression for breakfast. Bring it on!

  4. Seven Larry Seven
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    What happens when a city dies? I’m completely serious. What happens when there are no tax revenues to pay for fire, police, etc?

  5. Meta
    Posted February 18, 2009 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Wildlife will reclaim Detroit.

    Just watch.

  6. Brackinald Achery
    Posted February 18, 2009 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Seven Larry Seven, tax revenues didn’t always pay for fire and police. That doesn’t answer your question though. I always wonder about Rome, city of. I haven’t researched it at all, but my impression is that it sort of died, but not really. I don’t know if it’s true, but in my imagination, people kept living there and a bunch of public works just kind of stayed there, unmaintained and falling apart while everyone left went about their less luxurious Romy little lives. Again, I’m really ignorant here, just curious. Do cities ever really die unless some army comes in and kills everyone, or fire rains down from the heavens?

  7. Posted February 19, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Well, the Romans did a pretty good job on Carthage (from Wikipedia’s “Third Punic War” article):

    Many Carthaginians died from starvation during the later part of the siege, while many others died in the final six days of fighting. When the war ended, the remaining 50,000 Carthaginians, a small part of the original pre-war population, were, as was the normal fate in antiquity of inhabitants of sacked cities, sold into slavery by the victors. The city was systematically burned for somewhere between 10 and 17 days; the city walls, its buildings and its harbour were utterly destroyed.

  8. Posted February 19, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Dangit! I hit “post” too soon. That comment should have continued:

    Within 100 years the Romans rebuilt Carthage, and it again became one of the major cities of the Mediterranean world, until it was re-destroyed in the Muslim conquest of 698 AD.

    From the Wikipedia “Lost city” article:

    An Arabian city named Ubar (Iram of the Pillars) was abandoned after much of the city sank into a sinkhole created by the collapse of an underground cavern, which also destroyed its water supply. The city was rediscovered in 1992 when satellite photography revealed traces of the ancient traderoutes leading to it.

    Various capitals in the Middle East were abandoned; after Babylon was abandoned Ctesiphon became the capital of the new Parthian Empire, and this was in turn passed over in favor of Baghdad (and later Samarra) for the site of the Abbasid capital.

  9. Brackinald Achery
    Posted February 19, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    So unless Detroit sinks into the salt mines, or is destroyed militarily, it should stick around in some form or another.

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