Who's heard any of the following things said about their city or neighborhood?
- Growing up here, I loved this neighborhood. But we're never going to get back to that place now.
- Our city is in trouble, but we can't change that.
- Our leaders aren't invested and the money has dried up. Nothing we do is going to make a difference.
- People here just don't care...
These aren't merely off-hand comments. They are expressions of a deep-seated sense of defeat that pervades many American towns and cities — especially those post-industrial communities in the Rust Belt and the Midwest.
This mindset about decline has serious consequences that go far beyond a conversation between neighbors in the grocery store or a local newspaper's comment section. Declining cities often face a dangerously cyclical process that looks something like this:
- Residents begin to leave a city for a million reasons. For some, it may be a desire for better employment options, higher quality housing, or a lower crime rate. Others, if we're being honest, are influenced by racial or class prejudice, or a more general discomfort with their city's changing character. There is never just one reason.
- As neighborhoods lose population, they become less safe and desirable due to a lack of resources and a glut of empty spaces.
- The remaining residents begin to feel pessimistic about the future of their city and can't see a way out of this spiral of decline (here's where the comments above start to come in). They stop investing in making their community more prosperous and successful.
- More residents leave because they have lost hope in their city.
- The decline and neglect continue as the energy of these departing residents and the tax dollars they used to contribute to their city dry up. A better future seems even more out of reach...
It takes a major shift in perspective to get the city back on track, and bold new ideas and risk-takers are needed to change this trajectory.
A Bank Run on Confidence
Oswego, New York is one community that has gone through this cycle of decline and experienced that destructive defeatist attitude. Like many post-industrial mid-size cities, Oswego lost a considerable portion of its population over the last fifty years. Paul Stewart, director of the Oswego Renaissance Association, remarked in an interview on the Strong Towns Podcast in 2016 that when he moved to the city in 2001, "There was a negativity that was present. There was a tendency to be wistful about the old days [...] but there was very little that was forward thinking."
Stewart was frustrated by the "wait and see" attitude that seemed to pervade his city and he wanted to do something proactive. He helped bring in a consulting group to conduct a study on Oswego neighborhoods, and one of the core things they discovered was a seemingly simple insight: "We have been spending all our time trying to fix what's broken, rather than trying to build on what we have that is working." That "building on what we have" wasn't going to come from a single, silver-bullet federal grant. It had to come from within — from the residents and business owners of Oswego itself.
What Stewart and the consulting group found, though, was that, while many residents did care and many could even afford to do things like fix up their declining homes and storefronts, they weren't taking that initiative because of what Stewart labels a "snowball loss of confidence" — another term for the cycle of decline I described above.
But it's not enough to merely tell people, "Chin up" and "Have a positive attitude!" Stewart says that it has to really make sense for people to invest in a community before they will actually do it. To that end, the Oswego Renaissance Association gathered local block leaders and, with funding from several local foundations and corporations, offered matching funds for neighborhood improvement projects. This, in turn, brought residents together around common goals and helped them realize they had the power to change the trajectory of their street, their neighborhood and their city.
Fighting Back Against the Inferiority Complex
Akron, Ohio is another city facing this inferiority complex and the cycle of decline that comes with it. The city expanded rapidly in the middle of the twentieth century, but by the 1970s, it was beginning to lose its population as residents left for the suburbs or other metropolitan areas. The vast vacancies in the Akron area have left residents with an over-extended infrastructure system that was built for a much larger population it no longer has. And with tax revenue dwindling, many residents have started to feel hopeless.
This decline psychology is on full display in our Strong Akron Facebook group in the comments on some of our posts, and it's likely to be familiar to anyone else who lives in a city that has lost population and optimism. These are the folks who say things like, "That neighborhood is just a crime-infested garbage heap" and, "Our city sucks. Nothing's going to change that."
If you let the naysayers overwhelm your community, then they'll be right; nothing will change. But just as the negative attitudes can pile on top of one another and grow exponentially into a massive weight that begins to drown your city, so, too, can positive actions pile on top of one another and buoy your town toward a better future.
If you look closely, you'll see that there are already people around you who are starting to take those actions. So, in a city that is spiraling into the cycle of decline, it's vital to find those people, support their efforts, and unite them as part of the wider story of your community. It might be your neighbor down the block who carefully tends her front garden each spring. It might be the hardware store owner who says hello to people as they pass by. It might be the mom who picks up trash with her kids as she walks them to school in the mornings.
Let these people inspire you and start taking your own steps to shine a positive light on your neighborhood. Then join with your neighbors, tell them their efforts matter, and be part of building the future of your community together. Don't let the psychology of decline be the death of your city.
This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.
(Top photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)