How the Crash Will Reshape America

The crash of 2008 continues to reverberate loudly nationwide—destroying jobs, bankrupting businesses, and displacing homeowners. But already, it has damaged some places much more severely than others. On the other side of the crisis, America’s economic landscape will look very different than it does today. What fate will the coming years hold for New York, Charlotte, Detroit, Las Vegas? Will the suburbs be ineffably changed? Which cities and regions can come back strong? And which will never come back at all?
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This article has been corrected since it was published in the print magazine.

My father was a child of the Great Depression. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1921 to Italian immigrant parents, he experienced the economic crisis head-on. He took a job working in an eyeglass factory in the city’s Ironbound section in 1934, at age 13, combining his wages with those of his father, mother, and six siblings to make a single-family income. When I was growing up, he spoke often of his memories of breadlines, tent cities, and government-issued clothing. At Christmas, he would tell my brother and me how his parents, unable to afford new toys, had wrapped the same toy steam shovel, year after year, and placed it for him under the tree. In my extended family, my uncles occupied a pecking order based on who had grown up in the roughest economic circumstances. My Uncle Walter, who went on to earn a master’s degree in chemical engineering and eventually became a senior executive at Colgate-Palmolive, came out on top—not because of his academic or career achievements, but because he grew up with the hardest lot.

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My father’s experiences were broadly shared throughout the country. Although times were perhaps worst in the declining rural areas of the Dust Bowl, every region suffered, and the residents of small towns and big cities alike breathed in the same uncertainty and distress. The Great Depression was a national crisis—and in many ways a nationalizing event. The entire country, it seemed, tuned in to President Roosevelt’s fireside chats.

The current economic crisis is unlikely to result in the same kind of shared experience. To be sure, the economic contraction is causing pain just about everywhere. In October, less than a month after the financial markets began to melt down, Moody’s Economy.com* published an assessment of recent economic activity within 381 U.S. metropolitan areas. Three hundred and two were already in deep recession, and 64 more were at risk. Only 15 areas were still expanding. Notable among them were the oil- and natural-resource-rich regions of Texas and Oklahoma, buoyed by energy prices that have since fallen; and the Greater Washington, D.C., region, where government bailouts, the nationalization of financial companies, and fiscal expansion are creating work for lawyers, lobbyists, political scientists, and government contractors.

No place in the United States is likely to escape a long and deep recession. Nonetheless, as the crisis continues to spread outward from New York, through industrial centers like Detroit, and into the Sun Belt, it will undoubtedly settle much more heavily on some places than on others. Some cities and regions will eventually spring back stronger than before. Others may never come back at all. As the crisis deepens, it will permanently and profoundly alter the country’s economic landscape. I believe it marks the end of a chapter in American economic history, and indeed, the end of a whole way of life.

Global Crises and Economic Transformation

“One thing seems probable to me,” said Peer Steinbrück, the German finance minister, in September 2008. As a result of the crisis, “the United States will lose its status as the superpower of the global financial system.” You don’t have to strain too hard to see the financial crisis as the death knell for a debt-ridden, overconsuming, and underproducing American empire—the fall long prophesied by Paul Kennedy and others.

Big international economic crises—the crash of 1873, the Great Depression—have a way of upending the geopolitical order, and hastening the fall of old powers and the rise of new ones. In The Post-American World (published some months before the Wall Street meltdown), Fareed Zakaria argued that modern history’s third great power shift was already upon us—the rise of the West in the 15th century and the rise of America in the 19th century being the two previous sea changes.

But Zakaria added that this transition is defined less by American decline than by “the rise of the rest.” We’re to look forward to a world economy, he wrote, “defined and directed from many places and by many peoples.” That’s surely true. Yet the course of events since Steinbrück’s remarks should give pause to those who believe the mantle of global leadership will soon be passed. The crisis has exposed deep structural problems, not just in the U.S. but worldwide. Europe’s model of banking has proved no more resilient than America’s, and China has shown that it remains every bit the codependent partner of the United States. The Dow, down more than a third last year, was actually among the world’s better-performing stock-market indices. Foreign capital has flooded into the U.S., which apparently remains a safe haven, at least for now, in uncertain times.

It is possible that the United States will enter a period of accelerating relative decline in the coming years, though that’s hardly a foregone conclusion—a subject I’ll return to later. What’s more certain is that the recession, particularly if it turns out to be as long and deep as many now fear, will accelerate the rise and fall of specific places within the U.S.—and reverse the fortunes of other cities and regions.

By what they destroy, what they leave standing, what responses they catalyze, and what space they clear for new growth, most big economic shocks ultimately leave the economic landscape transformed. Some of these transformations occur faster and more violently than others. The period after the Great Depression saw the slow but inexorable rise of the suburbs. The economic malaise of the 1970s, on the other hand, found its embodiment in the vertiginous fall of older industrial cities of the Rust Belt, followed by an explosion of growth in the Sun Belt.

The historian Scott Reynolds Nelson has noted that in some respects, today’s crisis most closely resembles the “Long Depression,” which stretched, by one definition, from 1873 to 1896. It began as a banking crisis brought on by insolvent mortgages and complex financial instruments, and quickly spread to the real economy, leading to mass unemployment that reached 25 percent in New York.

During that crisis, rising industries like railroads, petroleum, and steel were consolidated, old ones failed, and the way was paved for a period of remarkable innovation and industrial growth. In 1870, New England mill towns like Lowell, Lawrence, Manchester, and Springfield were among the country’s most productive industrial cities, and America’s population overwhelmingly lived in the countryside. By 1900, the economic geography had been transformed from a patchwork of farm plots and small mercantile towns to a landscape increasingly dominated by giant factory cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Buffalo.

How might various cities and regions fare as the crash of 2008 reverberates into 2009, 2010, and beyond? Which places will be spared the worst pain, and which left permanently scarred? Let’s consider how the crash and its aftermath might affect the economic landscape in the long run, from coast to coast—beginning with the epicenter of the crisis and the nation’s largest city, New York.

Whither New York?

At first glance, few American cities would seem to be more obviously threatened by the crash than New York. The city shed almost 17,000 jobs in the financial industry alone from October 2007 to October 2008, and Wall Street as we’ve known it has ceased to exist. “Farewell Wall Street, hello Pudong?” begins a recent article by Marcus Gee in the Toronto Globe and Mail, outlining the possibility that New York’s central role in global finance may soon be usurped by Shanghai, Hong Kong, and other Asian and Middle Eastern financial capitals.

This concern seems overheated. In his sweeping history, Capitals of Capital, the economic historian Youssef Cassis chronicles the rise and decline of global financial centers through recent centuries. Though the history is long, it contains little drama: major shifts in capitalist power centers occur at an almost geological pace.

Amsterdam stood at the center of the world’s financial system in the 17th century; its place was taken by London in the early 19th century, then New York in the 20th. Across more than three centuries, no other city has topped the list of global financial centers. Financial capitals have “remarkable longevity,” Cassis writes, “in spite of the phases of boom and bust in the course of their existence.”

The transition from one financial center to another typically lags behind broader shifts in the economic balance of power, Cassis suggests. Although the U.S. displaced England as the world’s largest economy well before 1900, it was not until after World War II that New York eclipsed London as the world’s preeminent financial center (and even then, the eclipse was not complete; in recent years, London has, by some measures, edged out New York). As Asia has risen, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore have become major financial centers—yet in size and scope, they still trail New York and London by large margins.

In finance, “there is a huge network and agglomeration effect,” former assistant U.S. Treasury secretary Edwin Truman told The Christian Science Monitor in October—an advantage that comes from having a large critical mass of financial professionals, covering many different specialties, along with lawyers, accountants, and others to support them, all in close physical proximity. It is extremely difficult to build these dense networks anew, and very hard for up-and-coming cities to take a position at the height of global finance without them. “Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo are more important than they were 20 years ago,” Truman said. “But will they reach London and New York’s dominance in another 20 years? I suspect not.” Hong Kong, for instance, has a highly developed IPO market, but lacks many of the other capabilities—such as bond, foreign-exchange, and commodities trading—that make New York and London global financial powerhouses.

“A crucial contributory factor in the financial centres’ development over the last two centuries, and even longer,” writes Cassis, “is the arrival of new talent to replenish their energy and their capacity to innovate.” All in all, most places in Asia and the Middle East are still not as inviting to foreign professionals as New York or London. Tokyo is a wonderful city, but Japan remains among the least open of the advanced economies, and admits fewer immigrants than any other member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 30 market-oriented democracies. Singapore remains for the time being a top-down, socially engineered society. Dubai placed 44th in a recent ranking of global financial centers, near Edinburgh, Bangkok, Lisbon, and Prague. New York’s openness to talent and its critical mass of it—in and outside of finance and banking—will ensure that it remains a global financial center.

In the short run, the most troubling question for New York is not how much of its finance industry will move to other places, but how much will simply vanish altogether. At the height of the recent bubble, Greater New York depended on the financial sector for roughly 22 percent of local wages. But most economists agree that by then the financial economy had become bloated and overdeveloped. Thomas Philippon, a finance professor at New York University, reckons that nationally, the share of GDP coming from finance will probably be reduced from its recent peak of 8.3 percent to perhaps 7 percent—I suspect it may fall farther, to perhaps as little as 5 percent, roughly its contribution a generation ago. In either case, it will be a big reduction, and a sizable portion of it will come out of Manhattan.

Lean times undoubtedly lie ahead for New York. But perhaps not as lean as you’d think—and certainly not as lean as those that many lesser financial outposts are likely to experience. Financial positions account for only about 8 percent of the New York area’s jobs, not too far off the national average of 5.5 percent. By contrast, they make up 28 percent of all jobs in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois; 18 percent in Des Moines; 13 percent in Hartford; 10 percent in both Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Charlotte, North Carolina. Omaha, Nebraska; Macon, Georgia; and Columbus, Ohio, all have a greater percentage of population working in the financial sector than New York does.

New York is much, much more than a financial center. It has been the nation’s largest city for roughly two centuries, and today sits in America’s largest metropolitan area, as the hub of the country’s largest mega-region. It is home to a diverse and innovative economy built around a broad range of creative industries, from media to design to arts and entertainment. It is home to high-tech companies like Bloomberg, and boasts a thriving Google outpost in its Chelsea neighborhood. Elizabeth Currid’s book, The Warhol Economy, provides detailed evidence of New York’s diversity. Currid measured the concentration of different types of jobs in New York relative to their incidence in the U.S. economy as a whole. By this measure, New York is more of a mecca for fashion designers, musicians, film directors, artists, and—yes—psychiatrists than for financial professionals.

The great urbanist Jane Jacobs was among the first to identify cities’ diverse economic and social structures as the true engines of growth. Although the specialization identified by Adam Smith creates powerful efficiency gains, Jacobs argued that the jostling of many different professions and different types of people, all in a dense environment, is an essential spur to innovation—to the creation of things that are truly new. And innovation, in the long run, is what keeps cities vital and relevant.

In this sense, the financial crisis may ultimately help New York by reenergizing its creative economy. The extraordinary income gains of investment bankers, traders, and hedge-fund managers over the past two decades skewed the city’s economy in some unhealthy ways. In 2005, I asked a top-ranking official at a major investment bank whether the city’s rising real-estate prices were affecting his company’s ability to attract global talent. He responded simply: “We are the cause, not the effect, of the real-estate bubble.” (As it turns out, he was only half right.) Stratospheric real-estate prices have made New York less diverse over time, and arguably less stimulating. When I asked Jacobs some years ago about the effects of escalating real-estate prices on creativity, she told me, “When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave.” With the hegemony of the investment bankers over, New York now stands a better chance of avoiding that sterile fate.

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Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here
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