Friday, March 11th, 2011

Giving up on the idea of growth

NPR’s Planet Money posted an interesting story of how Youngstown, Ohio is dealing with its shrinking population after the close of its steel mills: its giving up.

It isn’t shutting its doors and moving to Pittsburgh, not like it would find many mills there. No, its giving up on finding new schemes to entice industry to Youngstown and, instead, consolidating. That is, they are bulldozing entire neighborhoods, not piecemeal like they do in Philadelphia, they are figuring out where the abandoned houses are, and then helping the remaining neighbors move out as well.

My knee-jerk reaction is that, yes, Philly should do it too. And, I guess that is my reaction. However, yesterday the news came out that Philly’s population actually grew the last census cycle…in fact, we’ve retaken #5! A minor miracle. Scratch that, a major miracle. A whopping 9.4 percent growth. Whoa.

Still, Philly could use a Youngstown-style reorganization. When Mayor Street began bulldozing abandoned houses in earnest, it turned whole neighborhoods into wastelands. Where once there’d be an entire block of rowhomes, now you see two, maybe three solitary homes, their sides a windowless expanse of stucco, like they were amputated. Inevitably, these homes fall two. I’ve witnessed it slowly progress that way over the last ten years, just on my morning train commute.

It worked like cancer. First one house would become abandoned, then its neighbors, until only two or three occupied houses remained. The abandoned houses would then rot, decay, catch fire or be broken into by kids or druggies or duggie kids. Then the city would come out to knock down the abandoned houses, leaving the block looking empty and gap-toothed like a carney’s smile.

So, there’s reasons for both Youngstown and Philly to celebrate. Youngstown is going to circle the wagons and probably will be better off for it. Philly is booming. Whether it can overcome its baser instincts and be the world-class city it could and should be is another question.