Shrinking American Cities

This post will be of little interest to Americans, but might surprise a few foreigners.  Suppose you live in a European country, or Canada, Australia, Japan, Mexico or Brazil.  Or anywhere but America.  Find a list of your 20 biggest cities in 1950, and then another list of the 20 biggest cities today.  I’d bet there’s lots of overlap on the two lists.

In 1950 the 4 biggest cities in America were New York, Chicago, LA and Philadelphia.  Today, these are still 4 of the 5 biggest cities in America.  No surprise.  But the rest of the top ten list is nowhere to be seen–they’ve all dropped out of the top ten.  Actually, I wasn’t all that surprised by that fact.  But what did surprise me a bit is that all but Detroit dropped out of the top 20!  (Detroit fell from #5 to #18, as its population declined from 1,850,000 to 717,000.)  And the second ten didn’t do much better, eight of the next ten also dropped out of the top twenty.  Only Houston (which jumped from #14 to #4), and San Francisco (which fell from #11 to #13) remained.  So there was a pretty complete wipeout of American cities just below the top tier.

It’s actually not as surprising as it seems, as two factors were at work.  First, the cities in the 5-20 range in 1950 mostly did do rather poorly.  Many weren’t quite big enough to re-invent themselves as post-manufacturing centers, which explain why they lost more people than the top 4 cities.  In addition, many were in the north, and lost populations to sunbelt cities.  But the population within city limits exaggerates this trend, as many newer cities were able to annex large suburban areas, while older northern cities were hemmed in by suburbs.  Thus some old cities that did become white collar success stories (Boston, Washington, etc) actually have fewer people than cities like El Paso, which annexed suburban areas.  Obviously, however, their metro areas are much bigger.

This will not happen again!  For complex reason, in 2070 the top 20 cities will look similar to today.

In addition to Detroit, here are some other cities where residents can enjoy more open space, uncrowded streets, nice museums and symphonies, and beautiful old homes at rock bottom prices:

St. Louis:  857,000 to 319,000,  Cleveland:  915,000 to 397,000, Buffalo: 580,000 to 261,000

I was born in 1955, so to me those three will always be big cities.  But they have fewer people than Mesa.

These cities are not in the top 20:

Baltimore, Boston, Seattle, Washington DC, Nashville, Denver, Milwaukee, Portland, Las Vegas, Kansas City, Atlanta, Miami, Cleveland, Oakland, Minneapolis

And these aren’t even in the top 50:

New Orleans, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Buffalo

Prediction:  Austin will be the fastest growing big city in America over the next 50 years.

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About Scott Sumner 492 Articles

Affiliation: Bentley University

Scott Sumner has taught economics at Bentley University for the past 27 years.

He earned a BA in economics at Wisconsin and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Professor Sumner's current research topics include monetary policy targets and the Great Depression. His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.

Professor Sumner has published articles in the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, and the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Visit: TheMoneyIllusion

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