Jan 13, 2009

Allentown? The Lehigh Valley?

Jane Jacobs, I am half in love with you.

I'm back at school and reading another Jane Jacobs book, "Cities and the Wealth of Nations." Most of it is a little too involved for my level of understanding (my history of economics needs to get brushed off ... or established in general), but this quote struck me:

When a city at the nucleus of a city region stagnates and declines, it does so because it no longer experiences from time to time significant episodes of import-replacing. Gradually the stagnated city's economy becomes both thinner and out-of-date. It fails to compensate, with new and different export work, for losses of its older exports, and so grows poorer as a market for its own region, for other cities, and for regions lacking cities as well. Its practical problems and those of its region pile up unsolved. Idleness grows. The region of an economically declining city does not revert to its former, largely rural condition. For a long time it retains its characteristic of being a mixd and intricate economy, but the region's economic life slowly grows thinner and backward, too. The regional fabric develops holes and tatters as it were. Young people who leave settlements within the region for city jobs tend to bypass the region's own city or cities and go, instead, to distant cities if work there is open to them. For a long time, transplants of city work continue to leak out into the region, but that is no longer because they are being crowded out of the city by younger enterprisers. Rather, they flee unsolved city problems, leaving emptiness behind. Eventually the transplants cease flowing, their source having dried up.

This quote stunned me; made me halt my elliptical routine (most of my reading gets done in the gym, these days). I had to ask, What does Allentown do for itself? Is there anything that is produced and consumed here, exclusively? I couldn't think of anything, but I am no expert. Businesses and people leave left and right, without getting replaced by new businesses and people. My friend yelled at me, somewhat drunk, "No! You're not allowed to go to Philadelphia! Everyone goes to Philly! And they never come back! Stay here with me." And it's true, at least among my friends.

So, suburbanites, how long will it take for Allentown's decay to spread to the rest of the region? You've ignored it 'till now. How much will have to happen before you start to pay attention?

I haven't yet finished the book, so I will let you know if she tells me how to fix it.


gsbrace said...

The problem with applying Jacob's analysis to the LV is that for Jacob's the city that dominates the region is overwhelmingly dominant. Think Pittsburg, Erie, Scranton. Allentown, while a large part of the region, is roughly equal to (if not surpassed) bethlehem, especially if we were to measure economics by GDP within the municipal boundaries. This means that some of the issues discussed (like decay and decline) are perhaps more insulated b/c there is still a strong urban center in the region. I'm not denying the decline that has been felt in small towns and some of the deline we are starting to see in the first ring townships, but I'm not sure that Allentown is the best example (the warning, however, is fair in that it serves as a reminder that the health of a region is measured by the sum of its parts within the context of the whole, not the other way around).

Pittsburgh really is the best example. Look at all the small towns in Allegheny County and other SW PA counties that have lost the young educated to other regions that have stronger urban centers. When Pittsburgh's economy started to tank, the other towns managed for a while and so did the country side. At it's lowest point, it was dismal everywhere. Now, the city of Pittsburgh is rebounding. It will take time for the other towns and the country side to catch up.

Good topic for discussion. Keep trying to apply what you are learning to real life situations.

j black said...

It is SCARY that the writing seems to be Allentown-like. There actually is a group called NET that is supposed to be trying to prevent "brain drain" of the young and educated. (It seems that the youth in the Valley are heading to to metropolitans and other places to use their education.)
I can only hope there are enough progressive people, like ourselves, left in Allentown, PA to keep "the ship afloat until the hole is discovered and the leak is fixed."

Alfonso TOodd

Bernie O'Hare said...

Alfonso, You're referring to http://netyp.blogspot.com/. That blog has not been updated since 9/13. It must be experiencing brain drain.

Pancho said...

Great post. Since deciding to move to A-town, I often wonder what led to such a decline in center city and how can we all bring it back? There are so many different factors that seem to cause a domino effect (job loss, loss of single family homes, suburbanization, crime, education etc.) I can only hope that the domino effect works for the good as well. It seems like there is a good core group of people in center-city right now, I just hope everyone can hang on long enough to evoke change, and drag a few friends in to help!

I feel that the most important thing that would help center-city is to attract more jobs to the downtown. Getting more Lehigh Valley companies to move their headquarters, attract new businesses that would usually prefer a new business park. I think once the new jobs are created, things can slowly domino in the positive direction. More jobs > more tax dollars > more police/less crime, >more support & service industries etc. (or however you want to imagine it) I just wish we could do it all overnight, so everyone would feel comfortable.

It takes time and patience, but maybe more importantly it takes acknowledgment of the problems and communication about the solutions.

Thanks again for the topic!

Katie Bee said...

@geoff: Pittsburgh is interesting, especially in reference to the "brain drain" of young innovators in that one facet of their revitalization was to work with the local colleges, especially University of Pittsburgh. I don't know where I can get info on Allentown's local colleges' involvement in the city, but I think it's pretty limited.

Having so many universities in the Valley, we seem better insulated against that "brain drain" - at least we have a fairly constant stream of brains THROUGH the area, even if they're not sticking around.

I had quite forgotten about Bethlehem as I read the book! That is a good point, especially good for the Valley in that there's a little padding against the force of decay. Do you think it disproportionately affects the area? Like, is the western Valley more likely to undergo decay since it's geographically closer to Allentown? As I write this, I am doubtful, considering most people in that area have access to cars (it IS Parkland).

@alfonso: definitely gotta keep this ship sailing! Or at least anchored securely. No sinking, not on our watch.

@bernie: nice fact check.

@Pancho: I've got this idea that it's less domino-effect and more snowball effect with decay. Since snowballing needs a hillside, it's a big Sisyphus journey to push it back to the top - not exactly pleasant, but satisfying if you ever reach the summit! Jobs, definitely! You've inspired me for another post of a similar topic.

Glenn said...

I don't necessarily believe the article was referring to places such as Allentown, but more of places like Bethlehem and even more-so the coal towns. Look at Hazleton...it used to be a small town dominated by the working class coal miners and, not to be racist, but now has a large minority population, rising crime, and increasing poverty. I'm surprised Bethlehem isn't worse than it is.

We had a huge steel business here and it basically just up and left, leaving the area without any major export that we counted on for our local economy for so long. An even better (although not local) example of this is somewhere like Flint where the auto industry basically screwed the entire town and it went into a fast spiral towards depression, poverty, and crime.