On the rise and decline of America’s cities in the 20th century.
The United States is one of the most urban nations on the planet, with 81% of its total population residing in cities. Of course, it wasn’t always so; at the turn of the 20th century, the majority of citizens lived on farms, in small towns, and around other rural outposts, but by 1920—after decades of industrialization—the scales tipped in favor of urban living. Waves upon waves of immigrants coalesced with other drastic socioeconomic changes to bolster city growth in the ensuing decades. Throughout the 20th century (and still today) the steady rise of urban populations seemed unstoppable—and by and large it was. But while the growth never stopped, it did sputter—substantially.
That sputtering, often characterized by “white flight”, rising crime, and derelict buildings, took place predominantly over the course of the late-60s through the 80s, and it is this moment that forms the point of departure for Stephen J.K. Walters’ Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream. As Walters notes “library shelves groaned under the weight” of books trying to diagnose the causes behind the baffling decline of and divestment from America’s cities—none of which, by Walters’ estimation, quite hit the nail on the head. In his book he posits what he sees as the real culprit behind urban decline—still at large today, hamstringing growth and capping the potential for citywide prosperity. What follows is an excerpt from the first chapter of his book, “What We’ve Lost—And Why” in which he describes the boom and post-World War II bust of the U.S.’ major industrial cities.