The Shrinking Services Problem

ericscorsoneDr. Eric Scorsone joins us from Michigan State University to outline solutions to shrinking budgets in legacy cities, particularly in his hometown of Saginaw, MI.

Legacy cities often face the difficult task of providing critical public services like police and fire protection and code enforcement, just when their tax base and fiscal capacity are shrinking. These very problems are occurring just as state and federal governments are reducing their support to city governments to balance their own budgets. Higher tax rates often become necessary just to try and maintain revenue streams. Cuts to public services, which are often an important element in attracting and maintaining population, are also implemented.

Witness the city of Saginaw, MI where a shrinking tax base and falling state support has led to the police force being the same size as it was in 1900. Saginaw also faces a huge underfunded liability related to retiree health care that will force further cuts or higher taxes in the future. Public services were over-consumed in the past and the city did not set aside enough funds for pensions and health care. Thus, legacy cities often face the double whammy of declining services and higher tax rates which only compounds their overall economic challenges. The solution lies in breaking this problem through two complementary solutions:

1) major changes to state laws that restrict local tax options or increase state aid
2) growing the tax base where possible via new economic development programs and attracting the empty nester boomers and millennials seeking an urban lifestyle

The second solution will require investments in some public services and new funding strategies.

Dr. Eric Scorsone is an Extension Specialist and Co-Director of the State & Local Government Program at Michigan State University. Dr. Scorsone’s work focuses on assisting local governments in the areas of performance measurement and reporting, service delivery options and strategies, intergovernmental cooperation and board governance. Dr. Scorsone previously worked as as an economist for the Colorado Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budget and as senior economist for the City of Aurora, Colorado.

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Media Round-Up!

This week in legacy cities news:

The Persistence of Failed History: “White Infill” as the New “White Flight”?
by Richey Piiparinen at Urbanophile
Piiparinen explores the “back-to-the-city” movement, an inversion of 1968′s flight to the suburbs, challenging the little proven trickle-down effect of “white infill” in the inner city.

Can Youngstown Make It On Its Own?
by Alan Mallach at Rooflines
“The entire region [has] to realize not only that Youngstown isn’t going away, but that their decline and that of the city are totally intertwined—and that the region isn’t going to revive until or unless Youngstown does.”

When Will We Hear About the Actual People in Detroit?
by Bill Bradley at Next City
Bill Bradley wonders when public officials will talk about the real problems in Detroit: poverty, crime and social inequity.

How to Make Detroit’s Data Accessible
By Nancy Scola at Next City
Also at Next City, an interview with nonprofit Data Driven Detroit director Erica Raleigh.

The U.S. Cities Where the Poor Are Most Segregated From Everyone Else
by Richard Florida at Atlantic Cities
7 of top 10 most poverty-segregated American cities are legacy cities: Milwaukee, Hartford, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, and Baltimore.

Reading, Writing and Renewal (the Urban Kind)
by Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times
An article and slideshow on Henderson Hopkins, a school (and “community center, library, auditorium and gym”) at the center of a new redevelopment project in Baltimore.

“Baltimore demolished many great old school buildings in the 1950s and ’60s and replaced them with incredibly depressing places,” recalled Christopher Shea, president of East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit organization overseeing the plan. “We wanted to go in the opposite direction. We wanted Henderson-Hopkins to be an inspiration and magnet for the neighborhood.”

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Community Gardens as Arenas of Change

marouhMarouh Hussein writes on the transformative effect of community gardens in distressed neighborhoods and offers insight as to what legacy cities might learn from Harlem’s community garden movement.

Community gardens are not a new phenomenon but they have received increased attention in recent years because of their proven benefits. Whether they are spaces of food production, leisure, or recreation, the presence of a community garden in a distressed neighborhood often catalyzes change beyond these usages. The community garden movement in the mid-1970s and 1980s in Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City that, like legacy cities, experienced dramatic population decline, was a powerful tool that residents used to reclaim their neighborhood.

The first community gardens were used as a defense against the dilapidation and poverty that were plaguing Harlem in the 1970s. They were a means for residents to turn vacant lots that had become playgrounds for drug dealers, prostitution, gangs and rodents into spaces for the community to gather. Community gardens became arenas of change — spaces where residents could meet, collaborate, celebrate, protest and more. They symbolized residents taking control of development in their neighborhood and making their priorities heard.

Joseph Daniel Wilson Memorial Gardens in Harlem
Joseph Daniel Wilson Memorial Gardens in Harlem
Image credit to Project Harmony:

The community gardens in Harlem that have been most successful prioritize community input and access. For a community garden to thrive, it is crucial to emphasize the community aspect of it. These spaces should be desired, planned, maintained, and utilized by the community they support. If these criteria aren’t met, establishing a community garden is no different than someone maintaining their front lawn. Yes, the space is cleaner and perhaps less of an eyesore, but the property does not serve the neighborhood residents and remains accessible only to a select group of people. For community gardens to help revitalize distressed neighborhoods in Legacy Cities, it is necessary to have intensive input and collaboration that transcends one small group of active neighbors and instead includes a broader cross-section of community members.

However, even if a community garden is fully supported by its immediate surroundings, there are several external threats that can lead to the destruction of these spaces. In the 1990s, numerous community gardens were painfully razed as a result of Mayor Giuliani’s administration’s efforts to revitalize Harlem. Several gardens were permanently destroyed to make room for high-rise condominiums and commercial buildings. Other gardens were fortunate enough to be destroyed only partially, but they still lost land that was being used for food production. As legacy city revitalization plans are proposed, it will be crucial that policymakers and planners recognize the importance of the community-strengthening aspect of these spaces and push regulation that protects them from development. Initiatives that ease the process of establishing community gardens (like Baltimore’s Homegrown Baltimore Program) are good starting points and should be investigated further in other legacy cities to ensure that green space and community needs are not ignored in these efforts. Groups like 596 Acres arm individuals and communities interested in turning a vacant lot into a community asset with data, information and organizing tools to help get started.

Marouh Hussein is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is pursuing a Master of Public Administration in Development Practice with a focus on urban development and food systems. Marouh currently works at Project Harmony, a non-profit organization located in New York City, where she has worked to support community gardens in Harlem for over three years. She is also the Social Media Coordinator at Cairo from Below.

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From Kiev to Cleveland: Immigrants & Industry in Legacy Cities

annetrubekAnne Trubek is the founding Editor-In-Chief of Belt magazine and publisher of Rust Belt Chic Press. She has published articles in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Wired, and has appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition, The Diane Rehm Show, and Talk of the Nation. She is currently writing The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting (Bloomsbury USA, Fall 2014).

This article originally appeared in Belt magazine and is reposted with permission from the author and publication.

Say Cleveland manufacturing and many think steel. But there was a large, influential, and vibrant garment industry in the city, too. By the middle of the 20th century, a good percentage of the clothes that Americans wore were produced in Cleveland. At one point, one in seven Clevelanders worked in the garment industry, the city employed thousands of seamstresses and pressers, was second to New York in size and the source of much America’s ready-to-wear clothing. Richman Brothers was once the largest retail manufacturer in the world in its imposing building on E. 55th street. Joseph & Feiss was the country’s largest manufacturer. And there were hundreds of other businesses. They were almost all family run, and they were almost entirely Jewish.

Image courtesy of Belt Mag

Why have we forgotten this part of the city’s history? Most of the garment businesses were small—Richman Brothers and Joseph & Feiss are the exceptions—and thus lesser known. Nor did they garner the headlines of the New York sweatshops because they had better labor relations, as most of these Cleveland businesses stopped using the sweatshop model by the 20th century.

It might also be that garment manufacturing—unlike steel and other more familiar Cleveland industries— had more diverse owners and employers. It has always been an industry that employed women. It has always been a low-entry business for impoverished immigrants. The vast majority of garment employers in Cleveland were Jewish immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe.

Read the full article on Belt magazine’s website »

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Is Gentrification Different in Legacy Cities?

headshottoddswanGuest contributor Prof. Todd Swanstrom joins us to share findings on changing neighborhoods in St. Louis.

Most research on revitalizing neighborhoods views them as instances of “gentrification,” the movement of young, often single, professionals into low-income, heavily minority, neighborhoods near urban employment centers. The dominant view in the literature is that low-income and minority residents are pushed out by gentrification as the local culture and consumption patterns are taken over by upwardly mobile professionals.

Most of the research on gentrification has been conducted in strong market metros, like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. Hank Webber (Washington University) and I recently conducted research on upwardly trending neighborhoods in the St. Louis metropolitan area. What we found does not fit the gentrification model.

We began by identifying all of the older parts of the region that were built up by 1950 – what the Census Bureau calls the “urbanized area” (basically all census tracts with a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile in 1950). We then developed a Neighborhood Vitality Index with three components: 1) Economic (per capita income); 2) Social (poverty rate); and 3) Physical (vacancy rate). We classified any tract as a “rebound” tract if it increased at least a decile (10 percentage points) in its ranking on the index for 1990-2000 or 2000-2010 (throwing out any census tracts that were not in the bottom 50 percent at any time in the period 1970-2010). Below is a map of the urbanized area as of 1950 in St. Louis; areas in red are “rebound” census tracts.


We found that rebound neighborhoods in St. Louis come in many different types and no neighborhood fits the classic gentrification model well. For example, some rebound neighborhoods are in inner–ring suburbs. The suburb of Maplewood, for example, has modest brick-frame housing stock but it has revitalized by creating a funky pedestrian friendly retail street with a local brew pub as an anchor.

Maplewood, Missouri
Maplewood, Missouri

Another rebound neighborhood is Botanical Heights which has the world-famous Missouri Botanical Gardens as its anchor. One of the keys to revitalization here was the creation by activist parents of a public charter Montessori School. St. Louis City Schools have a generally poor reputation but families are moving into Botanical Heights just to get their children into the Montessori school.

There are even a few rebound neighborhoods in the overwhelmingly African American North Side which has suffered from extensive housing vacancy and abandonment. In the Mark Twain neighborhood the anchor is historic cemetery which has created a foundation to fund housing rehabilitation.

Perhaps most surprising to us was the Central West End (CWE) which is widely considered the most successful rebound neighborhood in St. Louis. CWE does fit some aspects of the gentrification model. It is located near a major center of professional employment, Barnes Jewish Hospital and Washington University Medical School and the percentage of young people ages 18-34 increased dramatically from 26 percent to 44 percent between 1970 and 2010. But what is striking is that the area is still remarkably diverse both racially and economically – with large numbers of African Americans, Asians and poor people still living in the area.
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Legacy City States More Prone to Overspend

ChrisProfileGuest contributor Chris Eshleman reports on the recent release of US Census Bureau data set on state deficits.

In late January, the US Census Bureau compiled and released data showing that in 2012 state governments spent well beyond their means — for the third time in four years. Revenues lagged behind expenditures in 34 states.

The implications of state deficits for city-level fiscal health are myriad. They cover everything from the future of revenue-sharing programs and borrowing rates to state legislatures’ ability to compile healthy annual capital budgets.

But when you break the numbers down, the implications were worse for some states than for others. The 20 states with at least one legacy city overspent in 2012 by $391 per state resident — that’s the amount that state expenditures eclipsed revenues divided by the number of state residents (as counted in the 2010 census).

StateSurpandDefThe states with the largest deficit (New Jersey, Massachusetts and Louisiana) are home to legacy cities; the three states with the largest surplus have none.

The equivalent figure for the 30 states without a legacy city was only $64 of overspending per state resident.

Analysts at the Census Bureau noted that the shrinking size of federal grants was a big factor in states’ inability to craft balanced budgets. Click here for the bureau’s full analysis and the data set.

Chris Eshleman is a Master of Public Administration candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, focusing on urban policy and quantitative analysis. He also holds an MS in Economics from the University of Alaska. Follow Chris on twitter here.

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Placemaking in Legacy Cities Must Be “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper”

The interview below was reposted with permission from Center for Community Progress. The original post is located here.

Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit focused on solutions for vacant properties (of which legacy cities see a lot of – upwards of 20% in some cases), has recently published Placemaking in Legacy Cities: Opportunities and Good Practices. The report explores how residents and leaders in Legacy Cities have used placemaking principles to transform blighted public spaces into revitalized community assets.

CCP recently spoke with the authors of the report, Francis Grunow and Sarah Szurpicki, to get a bit of an overview of what placemaking means in Legacy Cities. You might already be asking yourself, “What IS placemaking?” Well, let’s get started.

In short, what is placemaking?

Placemaking is a fairly new term used to describe the steps needed to achieve a very old idea. The old idea is that when people come together to form communities they often like to create great public spaces designed to express their values and connect with each another. Think about a place like Central Park in New York or the Spanish Steps in Rome. But great places don’t have to be in big cities. They can just as easily be a small town square, or an ancient marketplace halfway round the world. What goes into the decisions that get people together to create a great public place, a place that people care about and invest in, over time, generation after generation. That’s the concept of placemaking in a nutshell.

How does placemaking fit into revitalization efforts in Legacy Cities?

Legacy Cities have suffered decades of disinvestment and population loss. Not surprisingly, some of their great public places have suffered as well. What’s more, leaders and practitioners in Legacy Cities are searching for strategies to remake Legacy Cities, reinvest in them, and make them more livable and vibrant. Placemaking strategies offer ways to think about reinvesting in Legacy Cities, not just in the great places that have already been identified by communities, but as an opportunity to create new great places for the public to gather, sometimes in surprising and unconventional ways.

What different types of places does the upcoming report, “Placemaking in Legacy Cities: Opportunities and Best Practices,” feature? How does successful placemaking differ for these different types?

For this report, we decided to consider four different geographies: downtowns, anchor districts, neighborhoods, and greenways/corridors. While most people understand what downtowns and traditional residential neighborhoods are, there can be variation in their conditions. This can especially be true when discussing neighborhoods, which may face a huge range of factors, from crime to blight to vacancy. Anchor districts are usually centered around “sticky” institutions, like universities and museums – entities that are not likely to pick up and move – and which have a long history of investment (and potential for investment) in their surrounding neighborhood. Finally, greenways and corridors are often places that in Legacy Cities have been underutilized as the result of deindustrialization, like along waterfronts and railways. These places offer huge opportunities for Legacy Cities to connect residents and visitors to different parts of their city, create value, and encourage new investment nodes where none existed before.

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Strong Cities: Flint, Gary, St. Louis, Macon & more

The Obama Administration and the Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative (SC2) have recently announced its expansion to include seven new cities:

Brownsville, Texas;
Gary, Indiana;
Flint, Michigan;
Macon, Georgia;
Rockford, Illinois;
Rocky Mountain, North Carolina;
and St. Louis, Missouri.

SC2 is a program that helps link urban leadership with federal resources and expertise with the hopes that it will help reduce red tape and improve local capacity. What this means is that the federal government has placed capable officials in cities that could use them. People like Kathleen Fox, SC2 Fellow and recent Legacy Cities Design Initiative participant, have been on the ground for nearly two years in several legacy cities, including Cleveland, Youngstown, Detroit and New Orleans.

SC2 reports positive results from the pilot cities:

In the two years since SC2 was announced, it has enabled its partners to more effectively utilize roughly $368 million in existing federal funds and investments. This ultimately translates into more economic revitalization investments, workforce training and job creation, improved services for the community and increased public safety.

It is with this success that SC2 announced its expansion. While we are excited to see the success of the program in the newly announced cities, we are also patiently awaiting the arrival of SC2′s National Resource Network, which would essentially filter back the lessons learned in each city through an online portal. Closing this feedback loop will help extend the program’s reach to other cities in need, and more importantly, the resulting knowledge network will not be limited to government officials, but will be accessible all civic leaders, which in some cases (especially in legacy cities) might be community organizers, entrepreneurs, educators, etc.

Click here to read the announcement from HUD »

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Historic Preservation Conference: Call for Presentations by Feb 1st

The American Assembly has posted a call for presentations for an upcoming interdisciplinary meeting to discuss the role of historic preservation in revitalizing America’s legacy cities.

The Assembly is partnering with Cleveland State University and the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, CEOs for Cities, and over two dozen other organizations to bring together key stakeholders and decision-makers from cities where entrenched population loss and economic decline present difficult challenges for the future of the urban built environment to discuss historic preservation.

From the CSU call for presentations:

At this crucial juncture, cities face difficult questions. What is the role that preservation can and should play in shaping the future of legacy cities? How can historic assets be identified and leveraged for planning and revitalization? What benefits and impediments exist in integrating preservation into community and economic development? How should we make decisions about what to save and what to destroy? This convening will be an opportunity to collaborate, share ideas, and devise solutions, with the goals of launching a more integrated approach to planning for the future of legacy cities, bringing preservation into urban policymaking, and crafting a 21st‐century preservation profession that is responsive to current needs and conditions.

The convening will take place in Cleveland at the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University from Thursday, June 5 through Saturday, June 7, 2014, and will include a mix of speaker sessions, roundtable discussions and local tours.

For complete information regarding the call for presentations, which are due February 1st, please click here.

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The New Spirit of Detroit

Feral Cat Embodies the Spirit of Detroit, is Forever Memorialized in a New Statue Downtown →
A headline we hope to see in 2014.

WJBK in Detroit posted the following video of a woman being attacked by a cat (after serious provocation, it should be noted).


Rust belt cities destined to fail?



Killing incentives for investment in communities that need it?



Not a lot in the bank but bankrupt in spirit?


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