Monday, February 9, 2009

Cycles of Decay: Post-War Urban Decline and Social Division

[ I have decided to post a college paper of mine from March 1996 on this blog. It focuses on the decline of U.S. cities in the post-WWII era, placing heavy blame on the Federal Government and so-called "progressive" policies. I am including this because the paper contains lots of good facts and I would like to use it as a reference.
I hope my readers will forgive its academic style and Marxist overtones. Reading my blog's eager support of profit and free enterprise, this Marxism might come as a surprise.
First, I want to categorically assert that I am not a Marxist. The two thinkers of greatest impact on me were Max Weber and Edmund Husserl -- both of whom accept human freedom in a way Marx could never have understood.
But there is some usefulness in Marxism as a meta-narrative tool. First of all, I think anyone who takes him seriously has to conclude with an embrace of free-market capitalism. Most of Marx's critiques had more to do with the abuse of government and religious authority by those in positions of power than with the concept of capitalism itself. In fact, he applauded capitalists for creating modernity at the same time he called for their liquidation. (No one ever said Marx was sane.)
Something else about Marx I like is his recognition that culture, religion and economics can form a self-reinforcing feedback loop -- the so-called social superstructure. It has some flaws, and is overly conspiratorial in nature, but can be a useful narrative tool. (Like many 19th century thinkers, Marx assumes a teleology and fails to demonstrate that the actors deliberately did things like design religion in order to keep people pacified. This is why I am a Weberian at heart, for he never fails to explain causation.)

This paper draws on these two observations of Marx to describe the process by which North American cities degenerated from a position of economic vitality to backwardness at the same time that the country at large grew richer. It also discusses the seldom-explained historical paradox of how black people grew poorer and more disadvantaged at the same time the Civil Rights movement was underway.
I also want to add that since writing this, my regard for Reagan has increased -- especially for his foreign-policy decisions. Furthermore, in the 13 years since I wrote this paper, it has become clear that the new post-industrial economy is increasingly favorable to urban centers over suburbia. I now expect that most of the factors I credit in this paper for supporting sprawl have now gone into reverse as the housing bubble breaks.
Finally, the footnotes do not work, so please scroll to the bottom of the essay for attribution. ]


"Cycles of Decay: Post-War Urban Decline and Social Division"



In our February 22nd seminar, we ran through a varied list of indisputably appalling social indicators for American cities. They describe a general array of material poverty, including hunger, inadequate housing, and lack of medical care. These conditions reflect how, in less than fifty years, the traditional urban centres of the Northeast and Midwest have gone from being economically and socially significant, sporting a wealth of manufacturing, residence, and financial services to being economic wastelands and social backwaters enduring Third World social conditions.
How could this happen during the nation's greatest economic boom ever? Why, in the midst of broad national economic expansion, did cities regress, becoming peripheral and socially-segregated within America? I shall proceed to explain these paradoxes as inherent to the specific nature of post-war American national development: Various economic, social, and political factors interacted to engender a general structure of national development. One way to interpret this development is as a processual condition, derived, on one hand, from convergent historical factors, while assuming, on the other hand, a specific trajectory with its own logic and character. Its specific character--including its own economic, social, and political aspects--in turn was initially inherited from pre-existing circumstances, but then grew integral to the system itself.
As an implication of a systemic process, urban decline resulted from specific structural biases inherent to that process--namely, biases against established, manufacturing-based central cities that had developed well before the Second World War. The factors that converged to produce this structurally anti-urban process were multiple and varied: Many, such as sundry actions by the Federal Government, were essentially accidents of history never explicitly intended to harm urban areas. Other factors, such as the economic importance of consumption, race, and settlement patterns were inter-related and self-perpetuating. Regardless of their origins, they all had a devastating combined effect on the United States' established urban centres and populations that is best understood as a self-perpetuating and marginalising cycle inevitable given the particular direction of post-war American history.
Analysis of this period requires a look at economics, politics, and general social trends--including shifting income and occupational patterns, racial relations, and cultural values affecting the public's relationship with different levels of government. Historians and sociologists generally refer to approximately the first thirty years of this era as "modernist", and the last twenty years as more or less "post-modernist". These titles entail broad generalisations of categories ranging from architecture and film to economics and politics. An intensive examination of these developments is beyond the scope of this essay; what instead pertains to my argument is the more visible and concrete consequences of this larger shift. The driving forces that existed within political and social modernism, particularly a general trend of "destructive creation"[1], will surely be visible in this discussion. Even more obvious will be the ambivalent nature of this destructive creation, especially in the field of state intervention into the "private sector" seeking to promote a specific ideal social model, leading one to ask, "development for whom?" and "by whom?". Such uncertainties and their implicit ideological biases were an important aspect of a general continuity that systematically produced profound discontinuities, such as yawning social differentiation along racial, economic, and spatial lines. Political economy and culture interacted in this highly dynamic phase of national reshuffling, making urban marginalisation a matter of economic and social shifts. Due to the inter-connectedness of factors generative of post-war development, one cannot isolate any specific issues without missing the larger picture. Hence, certain points will repeatedly enter my discussion, though I have done my best to minimalise redundancy. But, some is necessary to establish the structural nature of post-war national growth and its related urban decay.
After the Second World War emerged a specific modernistic form of political economy, "Fordist-Keynesianism". It was a synthesis of various pre-existing values and practices that quickly became dominant and influenced American society. Characterised by mass-production and mass-consumption, the Fordist-Keynsian model was a highly-rationalistic vision of a society in which semi-skilled factory workers organised into large-scale production manufactured a broad range of consumer durables. Unlike in earlier industrial production which sought to exploit labour with low wages, these workers received relatively high wages so that they could, in turn, become mass-consumers of these new goods.
Fordist-Keynesianism, however, was not merely a static cycle of production and consumption. Rather, it relied upon particular dynamisms that would ironically grow dominant to slowly render the system obsolete. Expansion was perhaps the most significant: Firms thrived by intensive re-investment of profits that ever increased their productive capacities. Accompanying this indefinitely swelling production were growing markets which firms actively sought to maintain through advertising and planned obsolescence. Another necessary dynamism contained within the Fordist-Keynesian paradigm was improved productivity. A single firm can earn profits by simply lowering its production costs in relation to its competitors. But, industry's need for a well-paid work-force and pro-labour government regulation prevented firms from simply cutting wages, so they maximised their production efficiency in two inter-related fashions. One was an intensive rationalisation of industry, demanding ever more efficient production arrangements, including assembly line organisation and plant relocations in search of cheaper transport and operating costs.[2] Relocations, in particular, as we shall see, were especially devastating to established urban centres. Linked to rationally lowering costs amid rising wages was the need for technological inputs that increased the productivity of labour. Together with a growing consumer market, these expansive aspects of industrial production made Fordist-Keynsianism grow into a self-perpetuating economic system that was to re-shape American society.
Before turning to its social impacts, however, I must emphasise that the Fordist-Keynesian cycle was by no means a self-contained private sector phenomenon. Both previous and continuing historical and political developments prepared the state to play a central role in the new system. The combined effects of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the nascent Cold War all converged to give the Federal government a new political paradigm: Modernism. The Depression experience and Roosevelt Administrations had re-defined the state's responsibilities to American society. Adopting the demand-led economic theories of Sir John Maynard Keynes and prevailing popular demands to assist the nation's poor, the American state assumed the authority to maintain wage levels, hence supporting large national markets of mass-consuming workers. It also sought to provide jobs through national modernisation programs, such as the building of infrastructure and power stations. During and after the war, these programs, especially highway construction, were actually expanded, despite the rapid fall in unemployment. Destined to reshuffle the spatial organisation of American society and industry, road transport and a rapid increase in reliance upon automobile transport were fundamental to post-war development--a factor that can scarcely be overstated and will re-emerge several times throughout this essay.[3]
The growth of the defense industry during both World War II and the Cold War also had a profound impact. First of all, Second World War industrial production was entirely Fordist in nature, well-paid and rational.[4] Secondly, the war-effort created an enormous fixed capital accumulation of factories which were quickly converted to civilian production, while War Bonds provided American consumers with large savings to spend.[5] And, even with a decline in arms manufacturing immediately following the War, the defense industry regained lost ground in the 1950's in the midst of the Cold War and the perceived Soviet threat.
The Cold War, and its related defense industry, is an oft-neglected component in the decline of established American cities, but it produced an undeniable spatial re-configuration of American society detrimental to established urban centres. Put simply, government spending during the Cold War served essentially to subsidise the rapid expansion of previously insignificant regions at the expense of older areas--In 1981, northeastern states paid $70b in taxes going directly to defense, but received only $44b in local defense industries.[6] Given the perceived threat of Soviet aggression, it was natural for Washington to build bases throughout the nation's entire territory and to scatter strategically-important arms manufacturers. Furthermore, given the relative novelty of most new Cold War-era weapons, there were no pre-existing factories so that their manufacturers could locate virtually anywhere. The "Sunbelt" proved a perfect choice. Consisting of the general South, the South-West, and Southern California, this broad region offered several advantages to established Northeastern and Midwestern cities. For one, many of the western states contained great expanses of desert ideal for testing and designing the new weapons like jet fighters and missiles. Secondly, most state and local governments in the Sunbelt actively courted large corporations with low taxes and right-to-work laws (effectively anti-union legislation). Finally, the national expansion of Interstate Highways (initiated in 1956) made the Sunbelt suddenly much more attractive for a myriad of inter-related reasons. By depending an infrastructural spine consisting only of belt-ways, highways, and roads, Sunbelt cities were highly flexible production areas; it was no longer necessary to locate in more expensive central zones with established transport nodes such as railroads and canals. The reliance upon personal cars for transport also rendered unnecessary public transport, permitting lower taxes. And, perhaps most importantly, personal automobiles made possible a new way of life for the workers in these newly-developing urban areas such as Houston, Dallas, or Phoenix: Mass-consuming suburban life.[7]
Suburbanisation was a staggeringly broad and national phenomenon not confined to the Sunbelt--the Sunbelt cities merely had the privilege, or curse, of being totally suburban in nature. Obviously dependent upon the car, the rise of suburbia after the war was an integral aspect of the Fordist-Keynesian system. Not only did suburbs generate massive demand for automobiles, but they also became the primary market for all consumer goods--seen in the virtually infinite number of appliances perceived necessary to run a home: electric washers, toasters, and, of course, televisions. These commodities were indispensable to the new life-style. A case in point is the air-conditioner. Though banal, the air-conditioner was completely necessary to accommodate the northerners pouring into the Sunbelt and spurring the region's rapid growth.[8] Hence the mass-market crucial to Fordist-Keynesianism had emerged and promised to remain, if not grow.[9]
Suburbanisation, or ex-urban movement of people and economic activity, had actually begun long before the Second World War. It simply became dominant in the post-war era and was completely designed around automobile transport, unlike earlier exurban movement based upon rails and streetcars. Although one must be cautious when generalising about these suburban areas due to their great economic and social diversity, we can discern specific unifying characteristics. Most important is that, like urbanisation itself, their development both reflects and supports the nation's economic structure. As products of capitalism, they are totally intertwined with the unending search for more profitable production, so that when technological improvements in transport made possible suburban production cheaper, capital seized upon it--especially in areas like the Sunbelt which also offered lower taxes and living costs. Their residential characteristics were likewise dependent upon nuances of capitalism. Residential suburban growth shares with industry a dependence upon transport technology and industrial capacity--suburban houses, for example, were constructed from mass-produced pre-fabricated commodities only available after the war. And suburban residential patterns are also highly influenced by the nation's financial structure, as we shall see. Finally, their growth generates, as David Harvey (1975) notes, strong "multiplier effects" in specific sectors of the economy at large, generating greater demand central to Fordist-Keynesiansm, but also spurring their own indefinite expansion so that suburbanisation becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of destructive creation. Unfortunately for cities and many of their residents, they saw more of the former than the latter; suburbs and suburban cities were created at the expense of established cities. Thus, while a cycle beneficial to some, suburbanisation augmented certain pre-existing social divisions, placing them in a new, and possibly more confining, social and economic context. In some cases, especially with residential patterns, exurban growth actually depended upon these divisions for its continuation. Given the United States' unique forms of local government and education, suburbanisation galvinised and required specific forms of economic and social exclusion.
Exclusion and inclusion are components of any creative act. Just as a painter or student must discriminate between features to include in a painting or essay, residential suburban development, influenced by legislation, banks, and private citizens, "selected" only specific features as desirable. On one level, these were characteristics that Miller[10] recognises as part of mass-consumption in general: Purchased commodities all fit into processes of social life and meaning. Offering greater space for living, the freedom afforded by a private car, and commoditised modernity, suburbs and all of the purchased commodities of suburban life were appropriated to construct the individual suburbanite's self-image. Suburbia also consisted predominantly of single-family detached homes, helping to objectify familial relations and concern for one's children. Hence, sizable lots and public education are still highly prized in the suburban house market. On another level, inclusion and exclusion of specific housing patterns and social groups became an economic consideration--if not necessity--for individual families.
But before turning to residential suburbanisation and its economic features, it is necessary to examine the process at large. Suburbs, or cities essentially suburban in nature, characterised by outward sprawl requiring personal automobiles and new infrastructure designed for the subsequently heavy traffic, have now become dominant in the United States. When considering the impact on older urban centres, it scarcely matters whether they are relatively new, as in the case of Phoenix, which was scarcely a city at all just a half-century ago, or whether they grew up around existing metropolises such as Chicago. The spatial re-arrangement of urban areas had basically the same effects on almost every old central city: Employment, income, property values, and tax bases all declined, while, in turn, newer "exurban" areas enjoyed higher incomes and massive employment growth. Industrial relocation, it should be noted, was not a new process in American urban areas; as early as the 1920's established cities such as Chicago were experiencing rapid outward expansion into cheaper areas. What was so significant in the post-war era was the use of highways for transport which allowed a far greater decentralisation than early forms of urban transport such as streetcars while requiring personal ownership of an expensive commodity.
During the first ten years following the war, an irreversible process of industrial relocation from central city areas to suburbia was underway. Chicago, for instance, during this period saw 591 of its industries move to suburbia, which also received 528 new firms. While Chicago itself did receive 533 new firms, they tended to locate outside of the traditional central areas. A trend was clearly underway and is visible in the case of most other older cities whose SMSA's gained manufacturing establishments at the same time that their central areas lost firms.[11] Also damaging to traditional urban areas was the Sunbelt's awesome expansion, which grew 112.3% between 1940 and 1960, plus another 44.1% between 1960 and 1980. The Northeast, in contrast, grew by a comparatively meager 41.9% and 11.4% respectively, both far below overall national urbanisation figures for either period.[12] And, even worse for older cities was the fact that, not only were they funding much of the Sunbelt's economy through federal taxes, but most migrants to the Sunbelt were highly-skilled white-collar workers with high income, creating a general drain of wealth and skills.
Social and economic characteristics like education, racial composition, and income levels also differentiated older cities from their suburbs. During the 1950's, for instance, blacks' percentage of central city population consistently grew while remaining stable at minor levels in suburbia. Suburbanites simultaneously had proportionately more white-collar workers and High School graduates.[13] By 1960, the suburbs surrounding every single older city had higher family incomes, High School completion rates, and proportion of white-collar workers.[14] Suburbs did vary in their economic activities, being either industrial, residential, or intermediate. Their racial composition, however, unified the three types, being well below 10% non-white for each in 1960.[15] From Christian (1975), it is clear that the industrial relocation to suburbs that gave many formerly black unskilled or semi-skilled jobs to white suburbanites was simply an accidental social implication of capitalist firms' natural search for cheaper production. The integration of racial difference into residential and social division also began largely as accident of history, but, once established, became a recurring product of the financial structure perpetuated by intentional discrimination.
The nation's financial structure (including tax laws), strongly favoured (and still does) residential suburban growth for specific Americans. As was the case with the federal government's role in the Fordist-Keynsian system, these pro-suburbanisation conditions (and a complimentary urban decline) resulted from a mix of various factors, most of which are related to Federal actions. For one thing various anti-monopoly laws that had been passed periodically over the previous fifty years produced a highly diverse financial system suited to mortgage lending. Furthermore, ever since the first national income tax in 1913, home mortgage payments could be written off as tax deductions (actually following a precedent dating to the 1860's), granting homeowners a subsidy unavailable to tenants, which most urban dwellers were. (In 1973, this amounted to a $6b concession.[16]) But, most important of all was the Roosevelt Administrations' encouragement of private home-ownership as an anti-Depression policy. (It was hoped to stabilise property markets and to spur the construction industry.) Following a highly modernistic model with specific inherent priorities, Federal programs were both instrumental to suburbanisation and determinative of specific features that the process was to assume. Federal Savings and Loans institutions, specially designed to provide home mortgages, were created during the Depression and after the war grew into the single most important source of credit for the new suburban dwellers.[17] In addition to S&L's, the Federal Homeowners' Administration (FHA), designed to insure private mortgages, acted upon an obvious bias that sought disproportionately to develop low-density suburban areas that openly excluded lower-income groups and blacks. (In St. Louis, for example, despite roughly equivalent amounts of construction in the city and the county between 1934 and 1960, the FHA provided five times more mortgage capital to the county, and more than twice as much for home repair.[18]) By lowering interest rates and extending loan periods, the FHA produced an enormous growth in private home-ownership that followed the Administration's normative criteria. This growing suburban market would engender among private financial institutions and homeowners a long-term developmental biases against established urban areas in favour of wealthier and white suburbs: Given that the FHA created a market for specific types of development, financial institutions and private homeowners alike were inclined to follow its guidelines. And, worst of all for cities, these programs proved economically viable; by the early 1950's the FHA had pushed monthly mortgage payments for a suburban owner-occupied house lower than the rent paid by a middle-income family in central urban areas. Suburban home-ownership, in other words, became cheaper than urban renting for middle-class white families. (see Jackson on Levittown for the racial exclusion inherent to suburbs.)
Partially because of the FHA's criteria, a great social and economic divergence was implicit in exurban growth. Race became, almost immediately, a salient issue and category along which a largely economic division grew. Having migrated to northern cities throughout the 1920's and 1930's, urban blacks quickly suffered under the changing conditions for two clearly discernible aspects of the post-war urban reshuffling. First was the simple effects of industrial re-location from their areas. Blacks lived mainly in central city manufacturing nieghbourhoods. Between 1965 and 1971, for example, these areas in Chicago lost over half their job opportunities, and in most cases, these jobs relocated directly to white, suburban zones.
The second major problem for urban blacks was the fact that they were themselves unable to move with their jobs. Transportation was a basic obstacle. Being urban and relatively poor, few had cars at a moment in history when automobiles were becoming indispensable for personal transport. Furthermore, even when an exurban zone was served by public transport the long commute from the city tended to be economically unfeasible. It should be noted that Washington's utter bias in favour of Interstates over public transit clearly augmented this problem, directing 75% of all transport-related expenditures towards Interstates and 1% towards public transport over the entire post-war period. [19]Complimenting this was a complex socio-economic phenomenon usually popularly known as "discrimination" which kept blacks in the declining central cities. While a lot of American popular sentiment tends to describe residential discrimination as sheer racial hatred, it was just as much of an economic issue and owed much of its force to the FHA.
The most important factor that made race a significant issue in suburbia was the widespread increase in home-ownership and residence-related debt, making suburban residents much more personally interested in their homes' market values. During the 1950's alone, mortgage debts doubled in aggregate terms, underpinning an equal expansion of per capita debt as a percentage of personal disposable income. Over a longer period the change was even more dramatic, in aggregate expanding more than eight-fold between 1950 and 1973.[20] This aspect of the suburbanisation process conditioned a great potential for economic and social division. For one thing, even the U.S. Congress found that suburban owner-occupancy was an economically rational option for only middle- and upper-income groups, injecting a wealth differential into the suburban-urban divide. (Most suburban homes were owner-occupied.) And, with an increased personal stake in their homes as an investment, suburbanites universally sought to protect, if not stimulate, local property values--especially since capital gains from real estate sales were often tax-exempt, making family homes a potentially profitable investment.
This suburban synthesis of entrepeunership and residence led Sonstelie and Portney to liken suburban communities to private firms that do everything within its power to maximise property values as a firm would maximise profits. (1975: 50-1) But, rather than relocating plants or intensifying capital inputs, suburbia increases its "profits" through zoning legislation and education that have a positive effect on property values. As most suburbs surrounding older urban centres were legally separate municipalities with the power to stipulate building patterns, they tended to prohibit high-density rented housing suitable for poorer citizens in favour of low density detached owner-occupied dwellings--very much following the FHA's original directives.[21] Furthermore, each municipality tends have and fund its own distinct school district, producing two divisive effects. First, suburban communities would court higher-income populations with better educational facilities, which have always been a key factor determining a town's property values. Second, suburban schools, enjoying a proportionately larger tax base because of its residents' greater incomes, would improve as the suburbs grew richer, attracting more out-migrants from the cities, whose flight in turn lowered urban tax bases and subsequently their educational standards. Public education, ironically a state service intended to equalise all citizens' opportunities, thus became an important component in an exclusive social system.
This socio-economic cycle began in the 1950's with blacks in a highly disadvantageous position. Non-racist profit-seeking industrial relocations into areas that had income-related factors precluding black populations' movements were the most important general problem. Within suburban communities, however, the economic reality of home-ownership did favour the growth of outright racial discrimination. Put simply, white suburban homeowners sought to exclude lower-income blacks from both their towns and schools. Although exclusionary zoning was technically restricted to building regulations, it has been widely recognised as racially-motivated. Unfortunately for blacks, its strictly de facto segregating effects--as opposed to Southern de jure segregation--has maintained its constitutionality.[22] Seeking to maintain for their schools a "good" image, suburban municipalities have also staunchly defended their local school districts and prevented urban blacks' attendance. While racist school district gerrymandering within a city was ruled unconstitutional in 1972, the traditional correspondence between municipal boundaries and school districts remains legal and contentious to this day. (e.g. Connecticut's Sheff v. O'Niel)
It is, of course, impossible to reduce this pattern to either racism or economics because the two have interacted in the context of post-war social re-ordering. Once the bias against blacks was in place, it was destined to continue: Burdened with a large, long-term mortgage debt and knowing that other homeowners, or potential homeowners, will be in the same situation, each suburban owner-occupant-investor would inevitably fear blacks entering the area. The old axiom of perceptions being 90% of the market rings true.
The cyclical effects of such perceptions have been highly detrimental to blacks, confining them to economically declining city nieghbourhoods. For one thing, they clearly encourage people to fear black neighbours. Linked to this prejudice and perhaps even more discouraging, the financial structure has deliberately discriminated against black borrowers. A good example is David Harvey's study of Baltimore where all financial institutions denied mortgage credit to even well-off blacks. As capitalist, profit-oriented enterprises, it can scarcely be argued that they wished to deny blacks access to better housing simply for the sake of being racist. Banks did, after all, happily lend to white speculators, knowing full-well that they would, in turn, develop the land specifically for the same black population. As was the case with protective homeowners, surely thinking of the long-term security of their homes as investments and anticipating long-term costs such as sending their children to higher education, these were a rational business decisions--albeit influenced by what we would probably see as an irrational business climate. The financial conditions engendered by a particular combination of historical factors that initially situated people differently grew into a system that categorised blacks for essentially economic reasons.[23] In sum, therefore, exurban growth was a divisive process that drew jobs and wealthier citizens away from established urban centres. A myriad of historical factors converged to give suburbs a great economic appeal--lower taxes, and a possible investment opportunity. In conjunction with their cultural appeal as a consumer good, especially as a site of familial appropriation, it was almost pre-ordained that suburbanisation would sweep the land, given the widespread prosperity of the post-war era and Washington's political support. But, suburbanisation's dark side was considerable. As an industrial site, manufacturing firms relocated to exurban areas, creating growing unemployment in central cities. As a residential area, its growth was exclusive of blacks and lower-income groups, two categories that became increasingly equivalent as jobs left black areas. And, their mere presence prevented serious private sector investment in urban areas, discouraging the entrance of higher income groups, cutting urban tax bases, which in turn worsened public services like education. With poor education and unpromising property markets, not only were urbanites at a disadvantage for improving their own economic prospects, cities failed to attract wealthier citizens seeking to buy homes.
Running through this process, complete with all of its exclusion and selective privileges, is the federal government and its policies. But in this lies an irony, for, in the 1960's, the Federal government enacted an entire Civil Rights program, including measures aimed at both Desegregation and urban renewal. Riding a large wave of popular support, these programs categorically failed to help cities in the long run. Why? How could there be such a contradiction as a government economically supporting exclusive suburbanisation while rhetorically endorsing racial equality and justice? The explanation is the cruelest irony of all: The co-existence and interdependence of profit-oriented media needing to attract audiences and popular democracy have produced a political discourse dramatically divorced from reality. The discussion of political issues, especially those not affecting voters (as urban dilemmas do not affect suburbanites), are inherently superficial, appealing more on symbolic than pragmatic grounds. Such were the 1960's well-celebrated, yet half-baked, social movements and related federal legislation. Desegregation, for example, was very popular because Segregation was so obviously--in a symbolic sense--unfair. Laws forcing blacks onto the rear of buses, banning them with large conspicuous signs from public facilities, and hooded red-neck Klansmen raping and lynching by night all provided easy targets for popular outrage. More subtle problems, such as exclusionary zoning and structural racism, had much less symbolic appeal and, by not mobilising popular passions, never merited Washington's attention.
Desegregation did succeed in the South, probably because Segregation was not thoroughly imbedded in financial structures. Urban renewal programs, on the other hand, universally failed, largely because they were more symbolically-inspired than intelligently designed to work correctly.[24] Given their own inadequacies and the uninterrupted continuation of the patterns I have already discussed, this was really no surprise, especially when one considers the great political success of interests groups benefiting from suburbanisation, such as the powerful Interstate lobby of the 1950's, which consisted of automobile manufacturers and road builders.[25] One scholar noted that, given the structured formalised economic and social patterns of selective economic growth, only a well-funded, intelligent, and long-term federal policy could affect urban rebirth.[26] This would have required an unlikely mass-excitement over boring issues such as zoning laws and financial institutions. Furthermore, any popular interest in the structural inequalities of American society would force suburbanites to hold themselves at least partially responsible for urban populations' misfortune. What sort of capitalist newspaper would dare to so accuse its readers? What kind of politician, relying upon the media to present his platforms, would therefore even consider such an option politically expedient? Given this bias in the political-media discourse, it was natural for Washington to do nothing constructive about urban blight. When the idea was popular, simply doing something symbolically was sufficient; no matter if these actions were futile or even damaging, as was the 1968 FHA Act.[27] And, when the issue failed to stimulate popular subscription, which is exactly what happened throughout the 1970's, it could be disregarded outright. Hence, the 1980 Presidential election.[28]
From Ronald Reagan's 1980 Presidential victory onwards, the federal government has essentially abandoned any attempts at urban renewal.[29] Reagan himself started a pattern of opposing cities' interests by endorsing tax reforms that favoured rich suburbanites while cutting various social programs.[30] This unprecedented assault on urban centres and their people augmented the general anti-urban structural conditions that I have already described, undoubtedly accelerating cities' decline to the conditions in which one finds them today.
Three coexisting aspects of the United States politics, economy, and culture have interacted to permit these developments. The capitalist media was most important, engendering a certain type of discourse that prefers image and superficial appeal to substance and thoughtful action. As a Reagan press aide put it, "...Reagan fundamentally understands that politics is communication with leadership, and he probably puts communication above substance," while Carter was just the opposite, putting "...substance above politics."[31]. Reagan's dependence upon superficial imagery was almost total; not surprisingly, a highly-trained and intelligent P.R. team made him into a political success by carefully managing his statements and appearance.[32] This team was quick to exploit the general empathy and uncertainty that characterised the national press in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Knowing that most Americans were generally disenchanted with Washington and politics in general, the press was cautious and consistently refused to confront Reagan--he was too nice of a personality to challenge. They were, therefore, quick to elevate him to hero status, even though many of his programs directly opposed Americans' own desires.[33] Events like the end of the hostage crisis and an attempt on his life were especially romanticised. They also blindly approved of his Cold War policy, despite the fact that even Reagan's own advisors often recognised it to be utterly impractical and unacceptable to the Soviets. (e.g. Hertsberger ch 12; Dallek ch 5) Reality, it would seem, was not allowed to ruin a good image.
Conditioned by this particular political-media discourse were two other factors permitting Reagan to directly oppose urban welfare. One was the obvious spatial separation between cities and the rest of America. As the main beneficiaries of Reagan's economic programs, exurban people were particularly happy with Reagan, and had no reason therefore to be interested in the subsequent harm to cities. Whether they were simply richer suburbanites or Sunbelt dwellers, Reagan's tax cuts and increases in defense spending were all good news to them. This spatial division, with all of its coincident economic and social differences, has increasingly shaped American politics. Both parties have now turned their interests away from cities[34], de-emphasising federal programs designed to provide for cities what their own local economies cannot: educational funds, medical programs, welfare, etc. Living in a totally different America than do poor urbanites, exurban peoples are far enough removed from cities to quickly embrace the entire moral system associated with Reagan: self-help and independence from government charity.[35] These same people, of course, are simultaneously unwilling to see themselves, especially those working for defense contractors and private home-owners, as perhaps the largest federal hand-out recipients in the nation. So, the press need not bother to make issue of it and no one has to worry.
The second factor relevant to urban decline was a general economic transformation of the nation at large. For about thirty years, Fordist-Keynsianism had prospered, but certain aspects of the system grew dominant by the 1970's, creating a strange hybrid, flexible accumulation. Maintaining the same quest for profit, flexible accumulation borrowed and emphasised aspects of Ford-Keynsianism to function in a radically different way. Rational business decisions, such as seeking cheap production, continued, as did a dependence upon technological inputs. But they articulate completely differently: Firms use information technology to orchestrate decentralised production, rather than simply depending upon industrial technology that raises the productivity of labour. (Not surprisingly, much of this improved information technology resulted from Cold War defense spending.) Subcontracting and sweatshops have proliferated as they work for several firms that require highly flexible production. The days of intensive re-investment, large inventories, and large fixed capital costs are over. Firms have also turned increasingly towards other forms of profit-earning, such as the management of fictitious capital and corporate mergers so that a large and homogenous domestic mass-market is no longer necessary.
The rise of flexible accumulation has had both an economic and cultural effect upon cities. For one, it has rendered obsolete centralised manufacturing establishments, even those located in exurban areas. Now, major firms simply manage global manufacturing lines, rationally dividing production between different nations and areas in search of the lowest possible cost. Well-paid semi-skilled factory jobs are decreasingly common, but that does not threaten to cut firms' profits because a of the lesser importance of a large mass-consuming market.
Unlike in the 1960's when people at least responded positively to the idea of government altruism and an enactment of social justice, the American public today has come to accept the rhetorical morality of Reaganomics: self-interest and individualism. This cultural change, while inherent to the general rise of post-modernism, is linked to the socio-economic implications of flexible accumulation. Given the fall in well-paid mass-employment, most Americans have experienced a constant income contraction since 1973. This process was fundamental to the economic stagnation of the late 1970's that aided Reagan's rise to power, and now prevents politicians from proposing new spending and social programs, especially with a soon-to-be bankrupt social security apparatus and a massive debt to service. This legacy of the Reagan years still haunts America, and its treatment by the press reveals the truly unnerving superficiality of the entire political-media discourse. This growth of this ludicrous debt was, after all, made possible by the press's consistent failure to challenging Reagan's 1980's budgets. (e.g. Hertsberger 105) And now, as the press continues to seek simplistic and appealing headlines, the debt can be elevated to such a symbolic level that Representative Newt Gingrich could challenge and embarrass President Clinton over a relatively minor issue concerning deficit-reduction. Given the division between cities and the rest of America and widespread economic stagnation, it is only natural that Americans would similarly respond to such symbolic policies concerning cities. No longer enjoying a continuous improvement in their quality of life as they did in the 1950's and 1960's, the bulk of non-urban Americans chose to perceive inner-city people as the classic underclass, absorbing public funds indefinitely while simultaneously participating in gang violence and other conduct that embodies even farther their detestability and undeserving status. (e.g. Davis 33-7) Hence, social conditions including spatial division and economic stagnation, it is easy to think this way, making urban renewal into a non-issue.
The co-existence and historical interaction between the issues I have discussed has therefore grown into a structured process. Long-term patterns of economic and social development have produced a divided society--split along economic and social lines. The American state has been crucial in this general process of societal division, conditioning the social consequences of economic differentiation. Augmenting the general economic and social marginalisation of older urban areas that was inherent to post-war national development is a national economy now stagnant for most Americans. And, given the capitalist media's superficial representation of political issues, it is almost structurally-determined that the Federal government shall continue to neglect cities and their peoples.
[1]see Harvey 1989, he calls it creative desctruction
[2]Harvey 1989: ch 8
[3]see Jackson 183-4 on trucks and 248-51 for a brief history of the political and economic forces favouring Interstate construction.
[4](Harvey 1989: 136)
[5]$26b worth of new factories had been built, $20b of which were easily converted to civilian production. $147b worth of Savings Bonds were held. Bryson 1994: 299-300
[6]One can only assume that this direct transfer payment, which went almost exclusively to the Sunbelt, was previously even GREATER when the Sunbelt was first developing with defence contractors. Rice and Bernary 12-3
[7]Rice and Bernard 14-7
[8]Rice and Bernary 198
[9]see Harvey 1975: 134-5
[10]see Miller 1987: 190-6; or Miller 1995
[11]see Christian 1975: 223
[12]Measured by Statistical Metropolitian Social Area and thus including even Northeastern suburbs Rice and Bernard 1-4
[13]Farley 94-5, see also Christian 220
[14]Schnore 42-3
[15]Schnore 1972: 104-6
[16]Harvey 1975
[17]Harvey 1973: 129-33
[18]Jackson 203-9
[19]Jackson 250
[20]During the 1950's alone, total mortgage debts nearly trebled from $54.9b to $161.6b. By 1973, it would grow to a staggering $470.7b--more an an eightfold expansion in just twenty-three years. During the same period, per capita debt, as a percentage of personal disposable income rose from 26.7 percent to 53.5 percent. Harvey 1973: 135-7
[21]Jacobs 30-1
[22]Jacobs 151
[23]Harvey 1975: 144-6
[24]Hambleton 142-7
[25]Jackson 248-9
[26]Johnston 165
[27]see Harvey 1975: 133
[28]Jacobs 115, ch 8
[29]Davis 11-3
[30]Jacobs 116-23
[31]quoted in Hertsberger 38
[32]Hertsberger 5-9
[33]Harvey 1989: 329-30
[34]Davis 18
[35]Dallek ch 1

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