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US frost belt: what it will take to reheat its economy

By Lucia MouatStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 1981


The older industrial cities of the frost belt -- from Chicago to Boston -- must pause for a radical reexamination of their nature and purpose if they want to remain cities that work.

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Much of their population and wealth has flowed to the suburbs or to the South and West during the last decade or two, often leaving them with the poorest of the poor living in their cores.

Despite these conditions, economic rebirth for at least some of these cities is a distinct possibility, according to a number of urban affairs experts interviewed by the Monitor. But, they say, it will require facing up to the major internal changes taking place within these cities. And it will take strong city leadership to encourage more businesses to locate there and to encourage suburbanites with jobs in the city to move into it.

Most urbanologists interviewed argue that continued federal help will be vital as these cities make the adjustments required to survive, although the aid may not necessarily taken the form it has in the past.

Few cities, the experts say, will take a hard look inward unless forced to do so. For many, the necessary prod has come from preliminary 1980 census figures, which show population losses of more than 19 percent for St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. It also has come from a recent recommendation of a presidential commission that the US government consider encouraging regional population shifts currently under way.

Residents and officials of frost-belt cities, urbanologists say, must now admit that they will never again be the factory towns they once were, offering unskilled production jobs to newly arrived immigrants.

"Most industries have reassessed their function [and moved ahead], but the cities still think of themselves primarily as factory towns with smokestacks," says Dr. Richard V. Knight, professor of urban affairs at Cleveland State University.

He terms the problem a "leftover milltown mentality." But, he says, few people are left on the production line. "Work has been shifting out of the plant and onto the drawing board or into the computer center."

Most large Northern cities such as Cleveland, once an auto and chemical industry production center, still serve as headquarters for plants and factories long gone, says Dr. Knight. Accordingly, they have become knowledge and information centers. Many of the unskilled production jobs lost have been replaced by jobs in research and development, data processing, and in the services, from law to accounting.

"Such gains in industries' knowledge and information base have always been overshadowed by the loss in the cities of unskilled, low paying jobs," says Knight."I think industry has to be redefinied by looking at what it is and how many it employs overall on a contract basis. By that yardstick some cities will find themselves pleasantly reassured that industries [in their midst] are doing very well."

Other urban experts point to a strong future for many frost-belt cities as office, financial, management, health, communication, and service industry centers. These observers stress tht losing population does not necessarily make these cities net losers.

"I think there's been too much gloom and doom attached to recent developments ," comments Dr. Louis Masotti, director of the Center for Urban Affairs at Northwestern University, who suggests that the flow of people the Sunbelt may at last be stablizing.