All the hoopla of the Newsweek article listing Grand Rapids as a “dying city” certainly stirred up a discussion. And most of it off track.
A great deal of the defense turned on the vitality of the downtown shows. From Rob Bliss to Art Prize, how could this not be an alive, happening place? However, if staging a great party were a sign of health, New Orleans would be in the pink of things. But of course, it’s not.
Rather the commotion touches one of the key questions before any metro region: do all parts share in the prosperity, in the distribution of various social goods? Looking past the events and the Rob Bliss adventures, another story may be unfolding, in effect are we looking at a Potemkin village that hides a creeping collapse?
That skeptical question is important. After all, the City is different from the County, the neighborhoods different from downtown. A metro area may thrive while individual municipalities or neighborhoods suffer. , e.g. one need only travel west down the 28th Street corridor in to see something that indeed looks like collapse, from the vacant stores, the empty lots to the plans for urban redevelopment to look at all the vacant stores and sense the collapse. Yet even here, Wyoming itself has not yet suffered a collapse, even if its northern neighborhoods do appear on the decline.
However to understand if Grand Rapids is in decline we need to confront both the metrics and the rhetoric.
Fear of a black (planet)
The language of decline does not simply refer to a set of metrics, but participates in a narrative urban dysfunction. To speak of decline we do not mean declining fortunes or opportunities — from a middle class perspective, we can always escape — rather, the object is that of the increase in a certain kind of community: the urban poor, the urban minority poor. In Eugene Robinson’s words, these are the Abandoned, this (growing) urban underclass. The narrative carries with it an inevitable racial cast; while Sioux City may decline, Buffalo dies. In the narrative of the urban poor, the dying city is to be blamed (e.g. too many social services, too much social dysfunction), or ignored, and certainly separated from, even if that means crossing a municipal boundary or moving to the townships.
The dying city narrative at its best is one of condescension that barely masks a despair underneath.
Should Grand Rapids be considered in this narrative or not? The condition of the city will not be found by press release, but by data.
If the rhetoric of dying clouds our vision, its core question remains: how healthy is the city, really? Several metrics suggest themselves. With all the metrics, it is not enough to look at the nominal numbers, but also how they have changed over the past ten years from the previous Census.
- Race / Poverty. As this is the core of the Dying narrative, this is an obvious starting point: what are the dimensions of poverty in our city? of race? GRPS school lunch numbers suggest that the core city, the one of the school age children, is indeed one of struggling poverty. More children are poor in GRPS than even in Detroit. The neighborhoods certainly seem to be struggling more than the city core.
- Population. Much has been made of the shrinking of child age households. A better number to look for in the Census would be that of the young adult population. Certainly the segment is more visible in the city, is it larger? We will know in a few weeks. A city that finds a home for an increasing young adult population is not a dying city. Quite the opposite, actually.
- Economics. The immediate data sets are those of changes in employment, in particular how the city compares with other comparable cities in the state and region. Related to this would be the role of entrepreneurial activity, measured both in business taxation (though Renaissance zones interfere here), as well in the issuance of DBAs outside the 49501 (downtown) zip code. Not just employment, how do the number of DBAs compare? Are the numbers dropping or remaining sound? What of business taxes — again another data point.
- Housing. Several useful numbers suggest themselves. The easiest number from Census figures will be that of change in home ownership. Here, growing rentals and growing poverty would not be a good sign. Given the housing collapse however, a more useful number would be ratios of foreclosure to owner occupied, commercial vacancy and the housing price index for non-distressed properties. All these would give solid information about the actual economic health of the community.
What should be clear here, is how this sort of data is significantly benefits from State policies. What keeps the city able to meet the needs of its residents and be a place where families can take root (the definition of a living as opposed to a dying city, I suppose) are a collection of policies, of deliberate actions by non-profits as well as by schools and government units. For instance, the challenge before GRPS is all too clear, but even here, the reality is that school age population is unusually distributed between private, charter, and schools of choice. The ability of the city to be viable and not simply a holding pen for the underclass rests in the quality of schools.
It takes work to keep your head above water.
And politically, here is where the current budget proposals are especially troubling. The tools the city has used to keep itself out of the “dying” category, are also the same tools being taken back or restricted under the Governor’s proposal.