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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Failure to thrive

Last month my wife's family had a reunion in Detroit — a very enjoyable time in the city and the suburbs. Although it's true that the population in the city of Detroit fell by 61% after 1950, the population of the more broadly defined metro Detroit is near its all-time high. I know of other areas in the U.S. that have had population misfortunes. Coosa County, Alabama has fewer people today than in 1850! Buffalo, New York was once the nation's 8th-most populous city; its population has returned to the level of 1890, and today the city of Buffalo ranks 73rd. The phenomenon isn't limited to the South and Midwest, however. Astoria, Oregon is one of my favorite places but fewer people live there than in 1910. For Portland, Maine the high water mark came in 1920.

Here in Raleigh, of course, we're at the other end of the scale with a population that is 3.5X the figure from 1970. The largest nearby metro is Washington-Baltimore, so we go there often. Along the way I-85 and I-95 merge in Petersburg, Virginia — another city frozen in time, despite prosperity on either side. The population of Petersburg is little changed since 1920. Even if you toss in the nearby towns of Colonial Heights and Hopewell, growth of the area has fallen far short of the state as a whole. Virginia state-wide has had double-digit population growth in twelve of the most recent fourteen censuses.

The Petersburg story is interesting. It has major expressways — the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike preceded I-95 — and high-density railroad lines going both north-south and east-west. The Appomattox River is navigable from Petersburg to the sea. It has a significant military presence, Fort Lee. Few cities of its size have all those assets for economic development. Settlement began in 1646, and the area has history from both Revolutionary and Civil War times.

Collapse of the plantation economy, political and economic repression of African-Americans from Reconstruction through the 1960s, loss of most manufacturing jobs, white flight, and (as we have seen in eastern North Carolina) the downturn in tobacco have combined to put Petersburg in a very disadvantageous position. It hotel properties along I-95 are obsolete and uninviting. Unemployment is relatively high, and the lack of good jobs has compressed the middle class.

There are signs of a rebound. An arts community is organizing. Historic structures are being renovated or redeveloped. Will Petersburg reverse its failure to thrive? The verdict is out. I hope they succeed, but it looks like a 50-50 proposition to me.