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America's urban 'rust belt' cinches up for the future

By Lucia MouatStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 1984


WHAT'S ahead for the proud cities that were once the backbone of industrial America? In recent years these large older cities of the Midwest and Northeast have been pushed and pulled by strong economic and population forces that have left parts of them looking like bombed-out war zones. Anyone driving through Chicago's West Side, New York's South Bronx, or down Detroit's once riot-torn Rosa Parks Boulevard sees ample evidence.

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In part, it's a reflection of the big-city exodus to the suburbs and Sunbelt that's been going on for years. Those with more job skills and the means to leave have been the movers. Increasingly, the jobs have moved with them. Over the last two decades, for instance, Chicago lost almost 100,000 jobs, while its surrounding suburbs gained six times as many.

The central cities of what is now often called the ''rust belt'' - as the United States shifts from a strong manufacturing emphasis to a more service-based economy - are increasingly poorer, blacker, and smaller.

Of the seven cities visited by this reporter in the course of this series - Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis - all but Indianapolis hit their population peaks in 1950. St. Louis, for instance, once the nation's fourth-largest city and now 25th, has lost close to half its residents over the last three and a half decades. In Detroit, now 63 percent black, 30 percent of all city dwellers live below the poverty line - a 7 percent hike just since 1980, according to the latest Census Bureau data.

Since Southern blacks began flocking to Northern cities during World War II, when manufacturing jobs were plentiful, the nation's black population has become increasingly urbanized. Seventy-five percent of all blacks now live in cities. Currently close to half of all black households are headed by women. A high percentage of working-age black men are unemployed.

''Over the last two decades, distressed cities have even become more distressed,'' says Robert C. Embry Jr., a former assistant secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Carter and now a private developer in Baltimore. ''The poor population has increased, and the situation of the poor has grown worse.''

Mr. Embry says he is particularly concerned about the departure from cities of large numbers of middle-class blacks, who are often churchgoers and put a high premium on education, hard work, upholding the law, and having children only after marriage.

Their presence in cities and strong endorsement of that value system, he argues, have long served as important models for other city dwellers farther down on the poverty scale.

Roosevelt University urbanologist Pierre deVise estimates that as many as one-fourth of those living in major cities really shouldn't live there and often don't want to. ''They're people who are dependent and unable to work. But the institutions to help them - from public housing to welfare - are there, and it is hard to leave.''

For many of these older industrial cities, crime, poor schools, and decaying infrastructure are increasingly serious problems. Yet federal cutbacks and a shrinking local tax base make it harder than ever to finance improvements.

Some economists and demographers argue that the forces of urban decline now at work in these cities are self-reinforcing and virtually irreversible. They note that the exodus of jobs and middle-class residents continues - though at a somewhat lesser rate - despite all-out local efforts to encourage businesses to start or expand within city limits and to lure suburbanites to buy city homes.

''Right at the moment the immigration back in is only a trickle,'' observes George D. Wendel, director of the Center for Urban Programs at St. Louis University. ''The developer tends to see that as the forerunner of a flood. The social scientist is inclined to say, 'Show me the flood when it gets here.' ''

In recent years two major studies on urban decline - one by the Brookings Institution and one directed by Richard Nathan, head of Princeton University's Urban Research Center - concluded that positive efforts to rebuild the nation's older cities have not kept pace with the decay and that the situation is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon.

Still, there are many urban dwellers in these United States who are fiercely pro-city - relishing the camaraderie and adventure as well as the many cultural and recreational assets - who are unwilling to accept such a verdict. They say the adverse trends are not set in concrete and that a Renaissance of sorts is under way.

With enough support and imagination, they say, it can make a significant difference.