Why the Recession Spared America's Dying Cities

We often hear the Great Recession compared to a tsunami or a steamroller that swept clean across the country, but that's not really the right analogy. Tsunamis and steamrollers destroy everything in their path. The recession was more like a tornado winding its way unevenly through the country, wiping out some major metro areas like Southern California while barely grazing others cities like San Antonio.

The recession's serpentine path of destruction has created a bizarre patchwork of strong and struggling cities. The metro areas in California, Florida and Nevada that saw the highest highs before the recession are feeling the lowest lows. Meanwhile some cities that chugged along at a medium or slow pace are still chugging.

With that in mind, let's look at this list of "America's 10 Dying Cities" from the folks at 24/7 Wall St (who've contributed some great work for our site). Number one on the list is Buffalo. Number seven is Albany. I mention these dying cities in particular because they're not really dying. In fact, they're among the 20 strongest metro areas in the country, according the Metro Monitor, a survey published by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy department.

Albany has weathered the downturn with a classic trifecta of recession-resilient industries: government, health care and education. It's a state capital with a large education sector and sizable social assistance sector. Buffalo for its part has also hitched its wagon to the steady-trotting health care industry. It has the second lowest year-over-year unemployment bump and one of the 10 most stable housing markets in the country. Its three-year change in housing prices is 2.6 percent, about one-tenth of the national average for large metro areas.

The authors who wrote the list are equating city death to population change since the middle of the 20th century. It's true that northern industrial cities have had a rough time reinventing themselves for the new service and information based economy. But the paradox of the recession is that some of the cities that barely looked like they were alive in the aughts suddenly look like they're moving, compared to the parts of the country torn down by the tornado. If Buffalo and Albany are "dying" today, what would it mean for a city to be alive?