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Legacy Cities in a Post-COVID World: View From Experts in the Field

Sep 22, 2020

By Jason Segedy

To explore what the present moment means for the future of legacy cities, I conducted over 15 hours of interviews with practitioners working on-the-ground in municipal government and community development in 10 cities located in the Great Lakes region. Each of these cities – ranging in size from Chicago to Sandusky, Ohio – is at a different place in its post-industrial development trajectory, and each is facing a slightly different set of challenges.  

The legacy cities that are located in the Great Lakes region are no strangers to world-altering change. Long before 2020 and its unprecedented series of economic and social disruptions, these cities weathered several decades of repeated storms as a result of deindustrialization, mass suburbanization, and regional outmigration.  

Despite significant challenges, none of these legacy cities are without opportunities. As the adjective “legacy” implies, to varying degrees all of them possess civic and cultural assets that are a legacy of time when they were relatively more economically prosperous places.  

There has been a lot of speculation about what the events of the past six months will mean for American cities in the future. Although most of the legacy cities of the Great Lakes region have been spared some of the most dramatic social and economic disruptions that have roiled their bigger coastal counterparts, their future, too, is unclear, particularly in the longer-term.  

So, the question remains:  how will the present’s cascading series of catastrophic and interrelated social and economic problems affect our cities?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Those of us who live in legacy cities understand that there is no such thing as a city that is too big or too important to fail. There is no place that is immune from potentially significant, long-lasting decline.  

It is possible that legacy cities, in the medium-to-longer term, could benefit from social and economic disruption in many of the nation’s superstar cities, as residents, businesses, and investors rethink the wisdom of concentrating so much wealth and opportunity in so few places. The affordability and quality-of-life that legacy cities offer have been touted as mostly unrealized advantages for a long time now. If coupled with modest improvements in economic outlook and better job opportunities, these advantages may finally give these places a competitive edge. 

On the other hand, many legacy cities have been hurting for decades now, and despite the pain that is being felt in many of the nation’s most prosperous places, it is difficult to imagine that this current time of economic hardship, social unrest, and institutional dysfunction will do anything other than make legacy cities’ already fragile position more precarious in the short-term. Some of the largest of these cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, have been held back and continue to be hampered by racial economic disparities and levels of residential segregation that are among the worst in the nation.

Not all legacy cities are the same. They differ greatly in terms of size, scale, and competitive position. It is possible that some of those that are economically healthier, or that were beginning to trend in the right direction prior to the pandemic, may benefit in the medium to long-term by the forces unleashed by 2020. Some of the mid-sized cities, in particular—those which are large enough to contain a critical mass of economic activity, at a small-enough scale to be more manageable in a time of national crisis—might be able to use their size to their advantage.  

Although it is still too early to know how these places will fare in a post-COVID world, it is not too early to think about how they might best position themselves to overcome their current challenges and build on existing, and perhaps new, opportunities.  

For the remainder of this two-part series, I will be sharing what I learned from these interviews about what the future may hold for legacy cities in a post-COVID world.

Theme #1:  MOVING BEYOND THE “EDS AND MEDS” ECONOMY

The “Eds and Meds” economy has sustained legacy cities across the country, to varying degrees, since the collapse of manufacturing that began in the 1970s. The healthcare and education economy has affected each of these cities differently, ranging from Pittsburgh, where it has been transformative; to Baltimore and Cleveland, where the results are a bit more mixed; to cities like Youngstown and Flint, where it has perhaps helped at the margins but has failed to come anywhere close to replacing the robust industrial economy that came before it.

For the past few years, there have been real questions about how the “Eds and Meds” economic base will fare as the 21st Century wears on, particularly in light of demographic changes and spiraling, increasingly out-of-control education and healthcare costs. Is an economy that relies heavily on these sectors really sustainable in the long-run?  Even in the short-run, has it been enough to create broad-based prosperity and equitable economic growth? In his brilliant book, The Divided City, Alan Mallach devotes an entire chapter to asking these types of questions. And it is clear that they are more important than ever.

The onset of the pandemic has caused this already somewhat unsteady “Eds and Meds” economic base to teeter, and it is in serious danger of toppling in many places. Many universities have been absolutely devastated, as the pandemic has completely disrupted traditional in-person classroom instruction, college sports, and many of the other social activities that make college enjoyable and worthwhile. More families than ever are now unwilling or unable to pay the increasingly-exorbitant costs to send their children to college. As a result, many universities have had to lay off or let go of faculty and staff, as budgets have dipped deep into the red. For years, many analysts have been predicting that the college bubble would burst. It is looking like the future may have finally arrived.

Healthcare is not faring much better than higher education, despite the somewhat counterintuitive outcome that hospitals would be struggling in the midst of the greatest healthcare crisis of any of our lifetimes. Many hospital systems, which are typically the largest employers in most legacy cities, have lost millions of dollars as normal revenue streams have been severely disrupted throughout the pandemic.

As lockdown restrictions have eased considerably in most places, things are slowly “getting back to normal” at many hospitals. But, as with universities, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many underlying structural problems with the business model behind our healthcare systems; including, but certainly not limited to, long-term debt incurred by massive capital expansions at many facilities, as well as opaque, burdensome, and often financially-devastating costs to the patients themselves. 

It is unclear, as of yet, what reform of our higher-education and healthcare systems might look like and how, in turn, those reforms might impact the economic base in legacy cities. What is clear, however, is that both sectors are almost certain to undergo significant disruption over the next decade or so.  

In many places, “Eds and Meds” have been a significant (if imperfect) backstop that took the edge off of some of the economic pain experienced after the collapse of heavy industry. But it is clear that legacy cities will not be able to rely on healthcare and education alone to sustain them over the next decade. It will be more important than ever for legacy cities to build diverse and resilient economic bases that can attract more capital investment, more people, and more innovation. Transitioning beyond “Eds and Meds” will be a heavier lift in some places than in others. As Pete Saunders, the community and economic development director of Richton Park, a suburb just outside of Chicago, remarked, “A city like Chicago can absorb disruption to these sectors far easier than a city like Saginaw.”

Theme #2:  THE ENDURING IMPORTANCE OF PLACE

Despite significant social, economic, and technological changes, geography, in many ways, is still destiny. Although many legacy cities have lost much over the past four decades in terms of people, jobs, and national prominence, all of them still have significant place-based assets to build upon.  

At the macro level, they still remain advantageous geographic locations for transportation and logistics, are located in a part of the country that is largely free from natural disasters and blessed with fertile and productive farmland, and, perhaps most importantly, in an age of climate change and environmental degradation, are clustered around the Great Lakes, which contain over 20% of the planet’s freshwater.

At the micro level, each of these cities contains a wealth of cultural institutions, historic architecture, a diversity of housing, and walkable downtowns and neighborhood business districts that despite years of decline, in most cases, still far outclass those that can be found in many Sunbelt cities of a similar size.

All of these geographic and place-based assets give these cities a lot to build on. In order to take advantage of and leverage these assets, it is critical that they develop their capacity for placemaking, in order to improve how their neighborhoods look, feel, and function.  

Ian Beniston, Executive Director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC) points out that doing this well means “incremental and relentless” improvement. In Youngstown, this has meant things like demolishing some vacant and abandoned structures, while identifying, acquiring, and rehabilitating others. It has meant beautifying and stabilizing neighborhoods, particularly those located near important civic assets, such as parks, universities, or key business districts.

In South Bend, Indiana, the city has played an active role in capitalizing on legacy assets, creating new public spaces and recreational activities along the St. Joseph River, overhauling the city’s zoning ordinance, and making streetscape improvements and providing façade grants to businesses in some of the city’s key neighborhood business districts. Joseph Molnar, Zoning Specialist with the City of South Bend, discussed how these types of improvements were intentionally leveraged in the city’s Western Avenue corridor, which runs through a previously-Polish immigrant neighborhood which is now populated by Mexican immigrants, who have opened small businesses in the corridor, such as the popular and successful La Rosita ice cream parlor, which received a façade grant from the city.

In Akron, Ohio, the city awarded $651,000 in façade grants to 35 property owners for exterior renovations. All of them were located in designated Great Streets areas, which are older neighborhood business districts that the city has prioritized as key reinvestment areas. The Great Streets program also allocated over $300,000 in capital improvements in these locations for improved lighting, street trees, and street and sidewalk improvements.     

As in South Bend, many of the older business districts in other legacy cities have benefitted from the stabilizing presence of recent immigrant groups, including the Ahiska Turks in Dayton, the Nepali-Bhutanese in Akron, and a wide array of immigrants from throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in Erie. The beneficial linkage between older places and new arrivals demonstrates the potential value of new public policy ideas such as Heartland Visas, which could help to further stabilize and revitalize these places.

Theme #3:  THE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF SMALLER-SCALE

Most legacy cities are small to mid-sized places. The smaller-scale of these cities carries with it a unique set of advantages and disadvantages.

Two of the most obvious advantages are lower cost of living—lower housing prices, in particular; and quality of life assets, such as less traffic congestion, improved access to parks and nature, and, for natives, closer connections to friends and family. If anything, the social and economic disruption catalyzed by the pandemic has brought these advantages into even sharper relief.

There is also a certain level of love for a mid-sized city like Dayton that is often not as present in larger places, where many people might be there for less emotional and more utilitarian economic reasons. This can lead to higher levels of civic engagement and community support. Innovators, entrepreneurs, and the civically-engaged and community-minded can potentially have more of a positive impact, being bigger fish in a smaller pond. “When you really love something, you want to make it better,” says Torey Hollingsworth, senior policy advisor to Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.  

At the same time, the way that the economy has changed over the past four decades has made it far more difficult for these cities to succeed. Consolidation of major industrial corporations has really hurt cities like Akron and Dayton, as these cities first lost thousands of blue-collar production jobs and then ultimately lost most of the white-collar professional jobs that remained.  

In 1980, even after losing most of its tire production jobs, Akron was still home to the corporate headquarters of four Fortune 500 rubber and tire manufacturers. Today it is home to only one. In 2009, Dayton lost NCR, the last Fortune 500 company headquartered in the city, to Atlanta. It was founded locally in 1884.

Global forces have severely disrupted the economic base of these cities, destroying many of the best-paying jobs, and contributing to a perception that these once prominent-places and centers of innovation are now economic has-beens, as distant owners of what were once local home-grown companies turned their backs on them.

Consolidation of other key industries has proved to be just as devastating, as once-local banks and newspapers have been bought up by increasingly-distant conglomerates, hampering lending, capital formation, and high-quality journalism. “We don’t even have a bank headquartered here in Dayton anymore,” says Hollingsworth. Airlines, too, have consolidated and shifted service to larger hubs, furthering hindering economic activity and opportunity in mid-sized places.

Previously strong local institutions have been picked-off one by one, and had their carcasses picked apart by birds of prey that have carried wealth and decision-making authority off to far-away places. Consequently, mid-sized markets in the top 75 nationally, like Dayton and Akron, and even larger markets like Cleveland and Cincinnati, have come to be seen as backwaters by investors and globally-focused conglomerates who increasingly can’t be bothered with the goings-on in such places.  

The nation’s midsection was hollowed-out first by deindustrialization, and then by the continued consolidation of nearly every type of economic activity, as wealth, prestige, and power has transferred from many places to just a few. It is an extremely unhealthy dynamic that is sure to hold these places back, no matter how much they do right at the local level. It calls for a serious and substantive national public policy response, which I will discuss in the next installment of this series.   

Jason Segedy is the Economic Innovation Group’s inaugural Legacy Cities Fellow. You can learn more about EIG’s Legacy Cities Fellowship and Jason’s background here

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