New York and the Decline of Great American Cities

There was a very brief discussion regarding NYC crime, specifically mugging, after reading the Ginsberg poem. It was understood that it is a very common occurrence in NYC.

This is interesting to hear since NYC is considered to be one of the safest cities in the United States today. This is probably more of a statement on other cities in the US than on NY but it’s a miracle in its own right that NY recovered from the crime peak it had experienced in the 80s. Indeed, NYC is far more special in this regard than most people understand.

On the same day of class I watched the Daily Show and the Colbert Report and Charlie LeDuff, author of Detroit: An American Autopsy, was speaking on the state of great American cities and their continuing struggles. Many cities in the US did not see an economic recovery from their bottoms and instead  today are in a state of decay with high poverty and crime.  NYC saw a dropping population in the 80s but this is a reality for many cities every year even to this day.

In the case of Detroit, we have a city that once had a population of more than 1.8 million residents at its peak that now has only 700,000. The trend does not appear to be reversing.


This has left great swaths of the city in a state of shocking urban decay.




This (once pretty) government building has not been used for over three decades.



This is something you’d expect from a third world country or a post-apocalyptic wasteland, yet it exists today in the “greatest country in the world” and the once “motor capital.”

Even after the auto-bailout with GM now making record profits, the city is not seeing much of a recovery. Today, more than half the population lives under the poverty line with great urban centers now destroyed. Other cities are following disturbingly similar trends, yet none of them ever had the peek population that Detroit did or as big of a fall. Like Detroit however, many of these cities have seen a continuous population decline since the 50s. St. Louis for instance dropped from ~800, 000 to to today’s ~300,000. Cleveland, OH went from ~900,000 to today’s less than 400,000. Baltimore and Cincinnati are others that  see dropping population even at a time when America’s population is only growing. Even post-Katrina New Orleans cannot compete with some of these population drops, which is just amazing.

NYC was not hit very hard by America’s manufacturing job loss, but it did suffer a similar decline in the 80s. What caused it? What saved it? And if NY one day is not the cultural and financial center it is today will it suffer a similar fate?


About Ronald Litvak

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3 Responses to New York and the Decline of Great American Cities

  1. David Gindi says:

    Read your post after just watching The O’Reilly Factor cover the same exact book and story tonight. Of course as the show always does, he added a political side to it pointing out the city has been run by Democrats for 50 years. I’m not saying it’s a good point or not. But anyway, even you said NYC is one of the country’s safest cities and I attribute a lot of that to stop and frisk. Cities like Detroit and Chicago should adopt it. Great post man.

  2. ericakaufman says:

    Hi Ronald, David–There are some really interesting documentaries about NYC, with a particular focus on what changed in the city that resulted in a drop in crime. The one I find the most interesting is “Rudyland” (–which focuses specifically on Giuliani and what he specifically did to change the city. I also find Malcolm Gladwell to be really interesting on this topic. I think it is in his book, The Tipping Point, where he writes about “the broken windows theory”–how one small change (like ridding subways of graffiti) can result in huge change.

  3. Ronald, I definitely thought your post was pretty interesting and pretty cool that it had struck you to even write a blog post about it. I, like Professor Kaufman, thought of Malcolm Gladwells Tipping Point as well as a short article I once read in the New Yorker about how crime affects communities and society as whole. How crime can also dictate a certain “quality of life” within a given region. Overall, quite an interesting and definitely on-going discussion you have brought up. Good Job!

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