For decades, “going downtown” meant something special – probably from its very first use as a term to describe the lower tip of Manhattan, which was then New York City’s heart of business, commercial and residential life.
Downtown was literally “where it was at” – jobs, shopping, cultural attractions and all.
But then, beginning in post-World War II America, many downtowns lost their luster, as people were drawn to the suburbs thanks to cheap land and easy means to traveling to and fro.
In some places, downtowns and the areas immediately adjoining them became places of high crime, industrial decay, shopworn appearances and various socio-economic pathologies.
Things hit rock bottom in the late 1970s, as personified by the Times Square area of New York City. But since then, many downtowns have slowly come back from those near-death experiences, spurred by new types of residents with new and different priorities.
Dan Cort, author of the book Downtown Turnaround, describes it this way: “People – young ones especially – love historical buildings that reintroduce them to the past. They want to live where they can walk out of the house, work out, go to a café, and still walk to work.”
There are a number of cities where the downtown areas have come back in the big way over the past several decades. Everyone knows which ones they are: New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis …
But what about the latest success stories? Which downtowns are those?
Growth in the number of restaurants, bars, grocery stores and food trucks per capita
Growth in the number of independent realtors per capita
Growth in the number of jobs per capita
Home price appreciation since 2012 (limited to cities where the 2012 median home price was $400,000 or lower)
Price premium of purchasing a home in the downtown district compared with the median home price of the whole city
Residential and commercial vacancy rates
Based on these criteria, Realtor.com’s list of the Top 10 cities where downtown is making a comeback are these:
#1 Pittsburgh, PA
#2 Indianapolis, IN
#3 Oakland, CA
#4 Detroit, MI
#5 Columbus, OH
#6 Austin, TX
#7 Los Angeles, CA
#8 Dallas, TX
#9 Chicago, IL
#10 Providence, RI
Some of these may surprise you. But it’s interesting to see some of the stats that are behind the rankings. For instance, look at what’s happened to median home prices in some of these downtown districts since 2012:
Los Angeles: +63%
And residential population growth has been particularly strong here:
In the coming years, it will be interesting to see if the downtown revitalization trend continues – and spreads to more large cities.
And what about America’s medium-sized cities, where downtown zones continue to struggle. If you’ve been to Midwestern cities like Kokomo, IN, Flint, MI or Lima, OH, those downtowns look particularly bleak. Can the sort of revitalization we see in the major urban centers be replicated there?
I have my doubts … but what is your opinion? Feel free to share your thoughts below.
If that’s the case, then the ~128,000 people who participated in the Condé Nast TravelerReaders’ Choice Awards survey in 2015 must count for something when it comes to which cities are America’s friendliest.
… And the survey results show that if you want to find America’s friendliest folks, head south and west.
That is correct: Of the ten cities rated the most friendly, just one is located in the Northeast … and absolutely none are in the Midwest.
For the record, here are the ten friendliest American cities based on the Condé Nast survey:
#1 Charleston, SC — America’s friendliest city
#2 Park City, UT
#3 Savannah, GA
#4 Nashville, TN
#5 Austin, TX
#6 Santa Fe, NM
#7 Asheville, NC
#8 Jackson (Jackson Hole), WY
#9 New Orleans, LA
#10 Burlington, VT
Of course, there are also the ten unfriendliest cities as determined from the same survey — no doubt the subject of just as much curiosity.
Those seem to be just as clustered — but elsewhere — primarily in the Northeast, but also a few in California. And Detroit, too:
#1 Newark, NJ — America’s unfriendliest city
#2 Oakland, CA
#3 Atlantic City, NJ
#4 Detroit, MI
#5 Hartford, CT
#6 New Haven, CT
#7 Dover, DE
#8 Wilmington, DE
#9 Los Angeles, CA
#10 Baltimore, MD
I have no earthly idea if these rankings are accurate or not; it’s actually well-nigh impossible to have a definitive listing based on a ranking criterion that’s so subjective.
But having lived in both Nashville and Baltimore — and having visited 13 of the other 18 cities — I do get a sense of where the Condé Nast survey respondents are coming from.
How about you? Do you think that any of these cities are unfairly ranked? And what other cities do you think should have made it on either list? Like New York City or Philadelphia, for instance?
Incidentally, the 2016 Readers’ Choice Survey results are currently being tabulated and are due to be published in October. It will be interesting to see if there are any big changes in the listings …
But the most recent volume, Detroit: An American Autopsy, authored by journalist and reporter Charlie LeDuff and released earlier this year, is perhaps the most impactful of these — which makes it required reading.
That’s because not only is this book the most contemporary one on the subject – with up-to-the-minute references to the city’s most recent governmental follies – but also because the author happens to be a Detroit native.
In my view, Charlie LeDuff is one of the most fascinating reporters in the news industry today, with a background that is hardly common for journalists.
Prior to joining the staff at the Detroit News in 2008, LeDuff’s reporting career included more than a decade at the New York Times, along with a stint as a writer for an Alaskan trade publication. His reporting has taken him all over the country and the world, including the war theater in Iraq.
So LeDuff approaches his topic with all the insights of a seasoned reporter – yet he is not the dispassionate observer. After all, Detroit is his hometown. And throughout the pages of the book, you can distinctly feel the anger, the despair, and the grief the author feels about his city.
Indeed, the saga of Detroit “hits home” in many personal ways for Charlie LeDuff. Consider these points:
Witnessing the 1967 race rioting mere blocks from their family home in West Detroit, LeDuff’s parents, like so many other middle-class residents, choose safety for their children, moving out of the city in a matter of days following.
LeDuff’s mother’s florist shop, located on Jefferson Boulevard on the east side of town, is broken into multiple times – with a final act of vandalism forcing her to move to a suburban location. (The site of her former shop is now a pile of rubble.)
Battling chemical dependency, LeDuff’s only sister is sucked into a life on the streets, becoming a prostitute and dying one evening while leaving a dive bar on the city’s far west side.
LeDuff’s three brothers become casualties of Michigan’s worsening business climate, bouncing from one dead-end job to the next – each one a step lower on the economic ladder as meaningful employment for high school-educated workers dries up.
LeDuff’s niece, barely 20 years old, dies from a heroin overdose.
The author may have been drawn back to Detroit because of the pull of family. But what he discovers is an urban environment that has a corrosive effect on all who come into contact with it. Although he moves his wife and young daughter to a suburban enclave just outside the city limits, LeDuff finds that no one is immune to its negative effects.
In the pages of his book, LeDuff reports on the unscrupulousness and/or incompetence of entire classes of Detroiters: politicians, government bureaucrats, street hustlers, business leaders (the car company executives come in for particular opprobrium) – and even the artist community.
But the author is also quick to point out that most Detroiters are simply attempting to survive in an urban environment that is so dysfunctional, so stress-inducing, that civil behavior is nearly impossible to practice.
During his time at the Detroit News, Charlie LeDuff would pen many columns exposing the squalor and corruption he witnessed in his city. For that, he received many an irate phone message or e-mail missive lobbed his way, criticizing him for failing to spotlight the “good” attributes of Detroit.
In his book LeDuff has this to say to those people:
“[They] complained that I was focusing on the negative in a city with so much good. What about all the galleries and museums and music …? What about the good things?
It was a fair point. There are plenty of good people in Detroit. Tens of thousands of them … There are lawyers and doctors and auto executives with nice homes and good jobs and community elders trying to make things better, teachers who spend their own money on the classroom, people who mow lawns out of respect for the dead neighbor, parents who raise their children, ministers who help with funeral expenses.
But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm. And when that happens, you might as well put a fork in it.”
It’s a journalist’s duty to report the news, of course. But sometimes he or she can attempt to do more. I have no doubt that Charlie LeDuff felt a certain sense of “mission” when he returned to his hometown.
But traces of any significant progress are hard to find, five years on. After a string of corrupt mayors, Detroit elected the affable but ultimately unsuccessful ex-NBA player and businessman Dave Bing to the office.
LeDuff evokes this sense of “no hope left, writ small” as he describes the family scene at the burial of his 20-year-old niece:
“[I] looked up at the old people around the grave and considered the great turmoil of human history that they represented. My mother, her ties to the Native people of the Great Lakes and the drifting whiskered French settlers. My stepfather, whose people emigrated from the port of Danzig, the long-disputed city claimed by both the Germans the Poles, which ignited World War II. My niece’s other grandparents, hill folk who hailed from Appalachia and traced their heritage back to the Lowlands of Scotland and the warrior William Wallace.
People from all corners of the earth who came to Detroit to work in its factories and make it one of the most significant cities of history.
I looked up over the grave and surveyed the heaving sobs of my nieces and the strained faces of my brothers. Jimmy looking for work. Frankie on the verge of losing his house. Billy in the screw factory. Somehow, the city of promise had become a scrap yard of dreams.”
Yet then … LeDuff adds this glimmer of light:
“But fighters do what they do best when they’ve been staggered. They get off their knees and they fight some more.”
The question is, how much longer can Detroit go on fighting?
But in recent years, beset by organization troubles along with spirited competition from other domestic and imported automakers, Chrysler had lost its first-rank position to the Honda Odyssey while its overall share of the minivan market declined.
For December, the Town & Country’s unit sales were over 102,000, compared to the Odyssey’s ~98,000. Chrysler’s sister brand, Dodge, racked up minivan unit sales of ~89,000, the same as the Toyota Sienna. That puts Chrysler on pace to lead the minivan pack for all of 2010 and reclaim the sales crown.
It’s no secret that Chrysler considers the minivan to be one of the keys to its brand identity – and a key component of its comeback strategy. “Our goal is regaining leadership. We consider we own it and we need to regain what once belonged to us,” the Detroit News quotes Olivier Francois, head of the Chrysler brand, as saying.
[Another reason Chrysler might have lost its edge over the years in the “minivan derby” was a perception of quality issues and the way its vehicles handled. But speaking as someone whose family has driven Chrysler minivans since 1990 – and currently owns four Dodge Caravans spanning ten years’ worth of model years – we’ve never encountered any major quality issues beyond the expected maintenance requirements for vehicles we routinely run for close to 200,000 miles each.]
If a car maker is making a major push for product sales, it makes sense to place more inventory in the showrooms for consumers to buy. Significant “upgrades” to Dodge and Chrysler minivans are being introduced for 2011, and greater numbers of vehicles will be delivered to dealerships, it’s being reported.
Of course, no one believes that Chrysler’s goal to maintain the sales crown for minivans will be slam-dunk easy. Japanese automakers are introducing their own all-new minivan models in 2011.
And why not? They’re seeing an increase in consumer interest in the minivan segment just like everyone else. While no one expects sales of minivans to return to the stratospheric levels of the late 1990s, stories about the “death” of the minivan that were being published in more recent years have now completely disappeared from the newswires.
One of the interesting questions Chrysler will be facing in the coming years is whether to continue to cultivate two separate minivan nameplates or to consolidate them into one. Chrysler has tended to lavish more “design” attention on the Town & Country and more “performance” focus on the Dodge Caravan. As a result, the Town & Country is now more popular with female consumers and the Caravan more popular with men.
This “gender-focused” targeting finds its penultimate manifestation this year with the introduction of Dodge Caravan’s so-called “man-van” – a high-performance version of the Grand Caravan featuring a “macho” all-black interior with red stitching. Can’t wait for one of these show up in the auto showroom!
While there’s been evidence of significant shifts in U.S. population growth over the past decade, the decennial census performed earlier this year gives us an opportunity to learn precisely what’s been happening and end some of the “speculation.”
And now, with the U.S. Census Bureau releasing its preliminary population reports, we’re seeing how this has played out in cities across the country. While it’s true that the American population has grown pretty steadily at about 2.5 million people per year, some areas have grown much faster than others as a result of being better positioned through the education of their workforce and/or their business- and technology-friendly environments.
Alas, other areas haven’t merely stagnated, but actually lost residents because of failing industries and unattractive business climates, sparking net out-migration of their residents.
Interestingly, many of the cities in the “industrial heartland” of America have managed to stay on the positive side of population growth – even if just barely. But some cities have experienced such hardship that their populations have dropped dramatically in the past decade.
New Orleans tops the list … and who’s surprised about that? After all, Hurricane Katrina effectively robbed the city of one-third of its residents – with most of them electing not to return after establishing new livelihoods in Houston, Shreveport, and other localities further yon.
But New Orleans surely represents a “special case” if ever there was one. Other cities have suffered greatly due to their dependence on industries that took a beating over the past decade. And really, any city with a major focus on traditional manufacturing saw thousands of jobs disappear.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Census report on the nation’s largest cities — ones with 100,000+ population — the seven experiencing the biggest percentage declines in population over the past decade are:
1. New Orleans, LA – Dropped by ~129,000 to ~355,000 (-27%) 2. Flint, MI – Declined by ~13,000 to ~112,000 (-11%) 3. Cleveland, OH – Fell by ~45,000 to ~431,000 (-10%) 4. Buffalo, NY – Dropped by ~22,000 to ~270,000 (-8%) 5. Dayton, OH – Declined by ~12,000 to ~154,000 (-7%) 6. Pittsburgh, PA – Dropped by ~22,000 to ~312,000 (-7%) 7. Rochester, NY – Declined by ~12,000 to ~207,000 (-6%)
[I was a bit surprised to see Detroit missing from this list. After all, it’s the poster child for urban decay and depopulation. But Detroit’s population percentage decline was actually smaller than the cities above, and it remains the nation’s 11th largest city. However, the 2010 census will likely show that its population has fallen below 800,000 for the first time in nearly a century – and the figure is even more startling when you realize the city’s population was nearly 2 million as late as the 1950 census.]
Unfortunately, the negative implication of population declines in these proud American cities go far beyond the loss of social prestige and political clout.
Once decline sets in, it can go on for years. The loss of residents contributes to a drop in tax receipts and the subsequent curtailing of social services ranging from police and sanitation to schools and recreation. Home vacancy rates say volumes about the precarious position in which the cities above find themselves – they’re above 15% in every single case (and sometimes dramatically higher).
Confronted with such a reality, too often the result is more people fleeing the urban core, creating a continuing downward spiral that seemingly has no bottom. Representative examples of where this sorry state of affairs can end up can be found in two smaller but particularly grim urban communities: Camden, NJ and Chester, PA.
From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to accept these population reports … and it seems like people should step in and do something – anything – to arrest the decline.
And in the abstract, it’s only natural to feel that this is what should happen. But in the “real world,” who are going to be the ones to step up to the plate and expose themselves (and their families) to the harsh reality of urban pioneering?
Would I do it? Would you?
For most of us, the answer to that question falls into the “life’s too short” category.
One of the sadder stories to hit the television airwaves in recent days concerns Marabel Chanin, an elderly woman living alone in an urban “ghost” neighborhood. When Marabel, a single woman, moved to Detroit’s North End back in 1964, the area, adjacent the Palmer Park Golf Course, was a beautiful, established Detroit neighborhood graced by roomy, circa 1920s single-family homes and lush landscaping.
Moving forward some 45 years later, Marabel was the last person on her block of Robinwood Avenue, living in daily (and nightly) fear of break-ins, gunfire, or worse. Complaints to police went nowhere, so her phone call to the local Detroit Fox News affiliate TV station (WJBK’s Problem Solvers) was a last-ditch attempt to find a solution to her dilemma.
Marabel’s story, profiled by the station last summer, brought the issues of crime & grime, urban decay and danger down to the most personal level and struck a nerve with viewers across the Detroit viewing area. The story ended up on the Internet, where I viewed the news clip on YouTube while researching my blog entry on the city of Detroit’s decline. It was so moving, I felt compelled to contact WJBK-TV, hoping to hear a good end to the story.
Unfortunately, as was chronicled in a follow-up report by the station broadcast last week, there was no good end. In fact, Marabel passed away in her home right around Christmas and was discovered days later. And now, five months on, her body remains at the county morgue, claimed by no one. Because of severe budget shortfalls, there are no funds to bury her or the nearly 100 other unclaimed bodies that are being kept there.
A story like this is gripping enough on a purely personal level … but it is also powerful in a larger context. To what degree does someone like Ms. Chanin — a single person of middle-class means but without close relatives — bear the blame for allowing herself to become the last person living on her city block in a trashed neighborhood? Or are there also larger forces at work that overwhelm the ability of someone of modest means (and elderly as well) to figure out a solution and act on it?
It was the southern agrarian writer Andrew Lytle who wrote in an essay years ago about the potentially dehumanizing effects of urban living. Lytle believed people were meant to live in smaller communities, where folks know each other and look out for neighbors in need. He also warned against large-scale industrialization, arguing that economic downturns lead to massive unemployment and thus dislocation of workers, whereas people who work the land usually can get by in a bad economy.
Of course, Lytle did not anticipate the advent of “industrialized agriculture” and the effect that would have on small farmers. But when you consider the economic landscape in 2009 and its effects not only on Detroit but also communities like Elkhart, IN, Lytle’s essay suddently takes on a very contemporary significance.
And what of Marabel Chanin? WJBK-TV has established a fund to provide a burial ceremony for her — and to do the same with some of the others unclaimed at the morgue. Tax-deductible donations to the “Marabel Chanin & Friends” fund are being accepted c/o National City Bank/PNC (First National Bank Building, 660 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48226). Reportedly, community response has been strong.
On a trip to Detroit a few days ago, my family and I stayed downtown in one of the city’s newly renovated grande dame hotels. The 1920s-era Fort Shelby Hotel, now part of the Doubletree chain, reopened last December after being closed for more than 25 years. It’s a jewel of a property stuck in the middle of one of the most depressed cities in America. Reportedly, a whopping $80 million was spent on its renovation.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Just up the street is the even more palatial Westin Book-Cadillac, which was the world’s largest hotel when it first opened in 1924. It, too, stood vacant starting in the early 1980s, miraculously avoiding the wrecking ball before being rescued in a $200 million+ renovation and reopening this past October.
So what will help fill the rooms of these showcase hotel properties? If a flood of reservations actually materializes, it will be for the myriad lawyers, accountants and government officials descending on the city to pick apart General Motors and Chrysler Corporation.
The city of Detroit can’t seem to catch a break. First, there’s the real estate crisis that has seen property values plunge even faster than the national average. Today, the city’s median home sales price is below $10,000, which has to be the record low for a major U.S. city.
Next up, the spectacle of dilapidated infrastructure, a dysfunctional school system plus governmental corruption, nepotism and favoritism run amok – all culminating in Detroit’s mayor being sent to prison.
Sadly, this is Detroit. Riding the People Mover, the 2.5-mile monorail system that loops the perimeter of downtown, one can peer into the second-story levels of building after vacant building. It’s truly a metaphor for the entire city … and a peepshow for the rest of the nation.
Is there a natural bottom? The investors in Detroit’s old hotels seem to think so. But you have to wonder, would those investors have moved forward with these initiatives knowing what they know today?
It was photographer and social commentator Camilo Jose Vergara who suggested more than ten years ago that the empty skyscrapers of downtown Detroit be preserved in their current state as a memorial and monument to a vanishing industrial age. Of course, the city government leaders were horrified at the idea and objected loudly. But really, what other use could they possibly come up with for these relics – silent and stark reminders that a city once the nation’s fifth largest has shrunk in under 50 years to less than half its former size.