Sadly and unjustly, the places likely to suffer most from the crash—especially in the long run—are the ones least associated with high finance. While the crisis may have begun in New York, it will likely find its fullest bloom in the interior of the country—in older, manufacturing regions whose heydays are long past and in newer, shallow-rooted Sun Belt communities whose recent booms have been fueled in part by real-estate speculation, overdevelopment, and fictitious housing wealth. These typically less affluent places are likely to become less wealthy still in the coming years, and will continue to struggle long after the mega-regional hubs and creative cities have put the crisis behind them.
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.
That’s the challenge that many Rust Belt cities share: managing population decline without becoming blighted. The task is doubly difficult because as the manufacturing industry has shrunk, the local high-end services—finance, law, consulting—that it once supported have diminished as well, absorbed by bigger regional hubs and globally connected cities. In Chicago, for instance, the country’s 50 biggest law firms grew by 2,130 lawyers from 1984 to 2006, according to William Henderson and Arthur Alderson of Indiana University. Throughout the rest of the Midwest, these firms added a total of just 169 attorneys. Jones Day, founded in 1893 and today one of the country’s largest law firms, no longer considers its Cleveland office “headquarters”—that’s in Washington, D.C.—but rather its “founding office.”
Many second-tier midwestern cities have tried to reinvent themselves in different ways, with varying degrees of success. Pittsburgh, for instance, has sought to reimagine itself as a high-tech center, and has met with more success than just about anywhere else. Still, its population has declined from a high of almost 700,000 in the mid-20th century to roughly 300,000 today. There will be fewer manufacturing jobs on the other side of the crisis, and the U.S. economic landscape will be more uneven—“spikier”—as a result. Many of the old industrial centers will be further diminished, perhaps permanently so.
That’s not to say that every factory town is locked into decline. You need only look at the geographic pattern of December’s Senate vote on the auto bailout to realize that some places, mostly in the South, would benefit directly from the bankruptcy of GM or Chrysler and the closure of auto plants in the Rust Belt. Georgetown, Kentucky; Smyrna, Tennessee; Canton, Mississippi: these are a few of the many small cities, stretching from South Carolina and Georgia all the way to Texas, that have benefited from the establishment, over the years, of plants that manufacture foreign cars. Those benefits could grow if the Big Three were to become, say, the Big Two.
This phenomenon, a sort of lottery whereby some places win merely by outlasting others, will not be limited to towns built around automobiles, or even around manufacturing. As the recession continues and large companies in a variety of industries fail, their remaining competitors may grow stronger, along with the places where those competitors are situated. Charlotte, North Carolina, offers an interesting case study. The financial crisis left one of the city’s two big banks, Wachovia, ailing; this fall, Wachovia was acquired by San Francisco–based Wells Fargo, in a deal that will cost the city many thousands of jobs. But things could have been much worse; the deal also preserved many jobs. What’s more, at roughly the same time, Bank of America, Charlotte’s other large bank (and the biggest bank in the U.S.) bought Merrill Lynch for pennies on the dollar.
A business truism holds that when your competitors are retrenching, it’s a great time to grow your market share. Deborah Strumsky, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told me she believes that in the end, both Charlotte’s banking industry and Charlotte itself will emerge from the crisis all the stronger: “The Wells Fargo deal has saved thousands of jobs by keeping Wachovia afloat. More importantly, Bank of America has taken to the banking crisis like a shopaholic with a new credit card; it has been bargain-hunting and cutting some astonishing deals. Bank of America will come out the other side far better than in any fantasy it might have entertained previously.”
In recent years, Charlotte’s leaders have made some smart decisions about how to attract businesses and professionals, enabling the city to grow into the nation’s second-largest traditional banking center; in the lottery of business failure and consolidation, it was well positioned to win. But it was also lucky, and last fall, it escaped losing, big-time, by no more than a hair’s breadth. Overall, the roster of places that benefit from the failure of their champions’ rivals will probably be pretty short, and the names on the roster somewhat unpredictable. Especially among cities built around declining industries, more places will be weakened than strengthened; as with all lotteries, most players will lose.