Monday, October 24, 2011

Collapse of the small city

This post was orphaned from its sibling posts by a block of book reviews.  We have spoken about problems in rural United States, Canada, and Mexico.  The primary component of this decline within the United Sates and Canada are loss of jobs.
Small cities do not show up on the same demographic trend line.  Primarily because many of them have become satellite cities for large urban aggregates.  The southern United States with its sprawling auto driven architecture are particularly prone to this phenomena.  Charlotte NC has its Huntersville and Matthews, Raleigh-Durham NC has its Cary, Atlanta…too many to list.  Frequently these bedroom communities are located a few exits up an interstate from the metro-hub and the 65 mph interstate becomes a parking lot during the long extended rush hours.
But not every city benefits from this trend.  Some are either too geographically distant or have some sort of demographic disadvantage that makes them problematic as a sleep over place.  Outlying manufacturing areas can be difficult to clean up.
Small cities in this situation will often combine the concentrated urban blight of the inner city with the understaffed police departments of rural areas.  It is often not a pretty mix.
Welcome to Newburgh, New York.
Newburgh, New York on the Hudson River
Newburgh has 28,000 people living within the city limits, most of which (58%) are non-Caucasians.   Cities in New York tend to have fairly tight legal boundaries, so it its likely that this ratio would be more balanced if the urbanized area was taken as a whole.  The politics are not your classic big city Democratic machine politics so you can’t blame its plight on local tax and spend policies.  
New York State under the Cuomo (the elder) was complacent about its business climate and its incredibly poorly thought out unemployment tax system did a lot to drive out business.  New York was hammered by the early 1990s recession and never recovered.  However, it would probably be fair to say that inexpensive air conditioning systems small enough to fit in a single family home combined with automotive advances probably had the most to do with the drift from Upstate New York to the New South.   My main point here is simply to show that Newburgh appears to be a fairly typical place, not some sort of patriarchal outlier.  If it is the murder capital of New York State, twenty-miles up the road,  previously quiet Poughkeepsie is number two.
Patrick Radden Keefe, New York Magazine, 25 September 2011 (hat tip: The Browser)
Beautifully situated on a picturesque bend in the Hudson about a 90 minutes’ drive north of New York City, Newburgh does not look, from a distance, like a community mired in High Noon levels of lawlessness.… Despite its small size and bucolic setting, Newburgh occupies one of the most dangerous four-mile stretches in the northeastern United States. “There are reports of shootouts in the town streets, strings of robberies, and gang assaults with machetes,” an alarmed Chuck Schumer said in a Senate hearing last year, describing the situation in Newburgh as “shocking.” With a higher rate of violent crime per capita than the South Bronx or Brownsville, little Newburgh, population 29,000, is the murder capital of New York State.
A threat assessment released in 2009 by the National Gang Intelligence Center found that gangs are “migrating” from urban areas to suburban and even rural communities. Statistics indicate that crime is dropping more quickly in our big cities than it is in their environs. One theory, which you’ll hear on the streets of Newburgh, is that New York City cleaned up crime by sweeping it into the surrounding area.
[M]ost analysts concede that one of New York City’s most significant assets was its gargantuan police force. William Bratton couldn’t have cracked down on “quality of life” crimes or developed CompStat without abundant funds and personnel. Even now, New York City employs 35,000 police officers.
Newburgh’s Police Department, by contrast, had just over 100 officers prior to the recession; today it’s down to fewer than 80. The city is nearly broke: Earlier this month, local officials proposed laying off another fifteen cops.
[T]he graffiti-scarred residential streets running off it are narrow and one-way, which creates a claustrophobic intimacy between the gangbangers and the local constabulary. “They know every car when it makes the block,” says one Newburgh police officer. “They know which cop is going to jump out of his car, which cop is going to keep driving. It’s like prisoners watching prison guards. They know the cops by name.”
I would argue that New York City did not sweep the crime to Newburgh, but swept in what employment was available to itself leaving a remnant community up the river.  The fact that the local gangsters and police know each other so well indicates that it is a local phenomenon.

Note that the Hudson Rivers is the same River that Mr. Kunstler has his mythical little post apocalyptic kingdom set on.  His setting is somewhat above Albany and is a part of the State that did not have much industry at the time of the great migration out of the South.   So when he uses various Lovecraftian-like language ("the lumbering dark hairy beasts of Sodom America") to describe his motley locals, he is picking most likely picking  on the descendants of Anglo-Saxon and Eastern European.  But an area which is facing the same lack of work and depopulation problems.
One advantage that Newburgh has over the more defused rural locations is that its problems are likely to attract wider attention.  Most of the article quoted above is actually about an FBI agent, originally from the area, who has been assigned to helping clean up the mess and is having some success.   The advantage of being located just up the Hudson River from a media capital gets you both attention and help.   So maybe it is a little early to write off Newburgh as “collapsed”.

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