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

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.

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 Many of the unskilled production jobs lost have been replaced by jobs in research and development, data processing, and in the services, from law to accounting.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.

"Chicago isn't dying because it lost 400,000 people over the last decade," he says. "It's simply living at a different level. There are fewer residents to be served and transported . . ., but the critical mass is still here, and this city like most of those being talked about has a diversified industrial base."

"Losers are those who don't accept reality," adds Dr. George Sternlieb, director of the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University, who stresses that there is still time for cities doing so to change direction. "The real tragedy is not that cities are growing old or losing people but that they are taking down the dreams of those who flocked to them and are finding out that they don't have a regenerative function. Many see cities as no longer healthy places to be."

That is where urban experts see strong city leadership and federal help as a vital assist.

"We're not going to lose these cities -- no one should expect them to go out of business very soon." notes Michael Danielson, an urbanologist and chairman of the political science department at Princeton University. "Enormous amounts of activity are still going on in them which make them valuable and workable. Most won't again be significant centers of economic growth, but I do think it's desirable to try to find ways to make central cities more attractive."

Part of the problem, some urban experts say, is that in the past large cities in the North had to project an image of decay and decline in order to get federal aid. The result in some cases was to speed up the exodus of those who could afford to leave.

"The new generation in the suburbs may want to live in the city; but the city , which has never had to say its function is changing, has to want it to happen and to nurture it," says Knight, who recalls that Cleveland's former mayor actually discouraged the middle class from moving back into the city.

None of the urban experts interviewed said metropolitan government was a likely possibility or a rich enough source of financial help frost-belt cities during this difficult adjustment period. Most endorsed the concept of urban enterprise zones, offering tax breaks to induce private business to locate in distressed central city neighborhoods.

But none saw these zones as doing that much to solve the job problems of the dependent poor. Most thought federalized welfare would help considerably, but few thought it a likely possibility under a Reagan administration. And some admitted they were concerned that vital existing federal help to major cities could be cut back.

"When society grows a fearful for its future, the temptation is to dispense with equity -- to go with the winners rather than the losers," Dr. Sternlieb warns. "But prosperity is not just around the corner in most central cities. . . .How the losers are taken care of [must be decided]. The options are real jobs in which you get everyone aboard even if you have to slow down the train or to pay some to stay off the train -- giving them welfare -- so it can move."

Frost-belt urban populations City 1960 1970 n1 1980 Boston 697,197 641,071 562,118 Chicago 3,550,404 3,369,357 2,969,570 Cleveland 876,050 750,879 572,532 Detroit 1,670,144 1,514,063 1,192,222 Gary, Ind. 178,320 175,415 151,859 Newark, N.J. 405,220 381,930 329,498 N.Y.C. 7,781,984 7,895,563 7,015,608 Pittsburgh 604,332 520,089 423,962 St. Louis 750,026 622,236 448,640

n1 Preliminary figures Source: US Census Bureau

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