Cities still losing whites, wealth

Despite pockets of revival, most of the nation's largest cities are still seeing an exodus of whites.

It sounds like a headline time-warped from the 1970s: "White flight! Cities emptying out."

Nevertheless, new census figures confirm that whites continue to abandon many of America's cities. In the past decade, eight of the nation's 10 largest cities - and most of its top 100 - saw their white, non-Hispanic populations fall. And as they leave with businesses and jobs in tow, city governments struggle with dwindling tax coffers and services stretched ever more tautly across a declining base.

The outlook isn't all bad. Many cities, notably in the Sun Belt region, experienced population gains. Others, such as New York, overcame a decline in the number of whites with a rapid influx of diverse immigrants.

But here in St. Louis, almost a quarter of the city's non-Hispanic whites left during the 1990s. In Baltimore, it was nearly 3 in 10. So many whites left Detroit - 49 percent - that the city's population slipped under the 1 million mark for the first time in decades. The nation's seventh-largest city in 1990, Detroit now ranks No. 10.

"White flight has not stopped," says Kurt Metzger, an urban studies expert at Wayne State University in Detroit. But, he adds, "it's not just racial, ethnic segregation. There's this very large socioeconomic segregation."

While the Census income figures haven't yet come out to prove it, Mr. Metzger and other experts strongly suspect the flight phenomenon actually has more to do with income and class than race. In Detroit, for example, Metzger says the city lost not only a large share of upper- and middle-income whites but also upper- and middle-income blacks.

"They're fed up with the schools, they're fed up with the lack of service, and fed up with the higher tax rates," he says. This loss of wealth has taken its toll on the city, leading to fewer shops and amenities downtown. In all its 139 square miles, for example, Detroit no longer boasts a single movie theater.

Birmingham, Ala., faces a similar fate. It lost a larger share of its population during the 1990s than all but six other major US cities, while suburban Shelby County next door grew 44 percent - tops in the state. That's mostly because the county's white population rose a dramatic 42.5 percent. But it's also due to a 37.8 percent growth in its smaller black population.

"There's been a tendency to think about this as a white phenomenon," says Don Bogie, a demographic expert at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala. But "it looks to me like we're having just as many blacks as whites" depart cities.

Old-line industrial cities

For the most part, the big population losers of the 1990s were not much changed from the 1980s. Old-line, industrial cities in the Midwest, whose names have become almost synonymous with decline - Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Toledo - saw their overall populations dip anywhere between 5.8 percent to 10.8 percent over the decade.

Even a location in the Sunbelt, while helpful, didn't guarantee population growth. Norfolk, Va., lost a bigger share of population than all but three other cities during the 1990s. Birmingham stood at No. 7 on the list of declining cities; Jackson, Miss., at No. 10.

St. Louis holds the dubious distinction of losing the greatest share of people among America's top 100 cities: 12.2 percent. That's virtually equal to the 12.4 percent who disappeared during the 1980s. The biggest chunk of people to leave: non-Hispanic whites, making blacks the majority of the city's population for the first time.

While the city has attracted some immigrants - notably a slew of Bosnians, Serbs, and Russians - their numbers have proved too small to stem 50 years of decline.

"No young families want to move in here if they have other choices," says Robert Cropf, a public administration expert at St. Louis University. "Within a few minutes' car ride, you have suburbs that offer better schools and safer neighborhoods."

St. Louis retains its bright spots, such as the Midtown neighborhood along the city's central corridor. It boasts hospital, university, and business expansions, a new private high school, and upcoming work on the city's mass-transit system. To the southeast, the city is putting in new mixed-income housing, and to the west, luxury condos.

But in the middle, in census tract 1211, the local population fell precipitously from 3,458 to 1,392 during the 1990s - a whopping 60 percent loss. Buildings lie vacant.

The lure of a house

Even if the area's multifamily housing stock remains in good condition, it may not be the type to attract people, says Mike Flood, a neighborhood stabilization officer for the city. "The two-income couple today prefers the single-family detached house."

The population decline is forcing officials to consider streamlining city government, says Professor Cropf. "I think there's a lot of opportunities for the current political leadership. [But] if St. Louis is going to come back, it's going to come back on its own resources."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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