In the national media, you seldom hear about small cities such as Schenectady, Albany and Troy.
But a new report suggests that these overlooked cities are rich with potential and vital cogs in the country’s economic health.
“There’s a blind spot,” said Albany resident and Metroland columnist Miriam Axel-Lute, who co-authored the report “To Be Strong Again: Renewing the Promise in Smaller Industrial Cities.” “There are 7.4 million people living in small cities, and many more in the regions around them. These regions rise and fall with the health of these cities.”
“Often when we talk about revitalizing cities we focus on big cities when half the urban population lives in the Albany, Schenectady and Troys of the world,” said Eric Dahl, managing broker at Community Realty, a real estate brokerage that works with first-time homebuyers in the Capital Region. “The report does a great job of lifting up innovative but practical ideas. The housing crisis and petroleum prices add a subtext to the report.”
Axel-Lute believes that these smaller cities are poised for a comeback, the result of high gas prices and housing prices that are falling most swiftly in the exurbs — far-flung regions located beyond the suburbs. “There are great opportunities in places like Schenectady, Albany and Troy,” Axel-Lute said. These cities have assets, such as strong housing stock and historic architecture, rich histories, good hospitals and universities.
spotlight on small
“To Be Strong Again” focuses on cities that are old — had populations of more than 5,000 by 1880; small — with current populations of 15,000 to 150,000; and poor — with median household incomes of less than $35,000. In the United States, 151 cities, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, fit this criteria. The report was produced by PolicyLink, a California-based research institute that focuses on how to ensure that development occurs in ways that are affordable for residents of varied incomes and ethnic backgrounds.
The report highlights innovative programs in a number of small cities, and suggests that cities consider adopting similar strategies as part of a larger revitalization effort.
In the Capital Region, for instance, there’s been a push to tie job training to regional industry needs and trends. “In New York’s Tech Valley innovative high school and community college programs are working to prepare residents for jobs in the emerging nanotech sector,” the report says. NanoHigh in Albany, which is run by the city school district and the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, is the first public high school program in America to offer nanoscience classes as regular science offerings.
“To Be Strong Again” also points to the success of Capital Region programs, such as Community Realty, that encourage homeownership and local landlordship, and suggests that programs like this can play a role in restoring neighborhoods by promoting mixed-income housing options. It notes that Community Realty’s agents are salaried, which removes the incentive to push clients into homes they cannot afford.
an end to commuting
Dahl said he believes current economic trends will spark a return to “more traditional housing patterns” where people live near their jobs. “People just can’t afford to commute,” he said. For first-time homebuyers, housing in what Dahl calls “the core cities” of Schenectady, Albany and Troy is affordable — often in the $150,000 range — while housing in wealthier communities such as Saratoga Springs remains out of reach. Eighty percent of Community Realty’s clients purchase houses in the core cities, he said. “I think that trend is accelerating,” he said.
Smaller cities are sometimes portrayed as blighted industrial backwaters, but the report presents a more positive vision.
“Smaller industrial cities are inextricably woven into the fabric of our nation,” the report states in its executive summary. “They are an integral part of the history, culture and economic success of America. Brand name companies — GE in Schenectady, New York, for example — got their start in these cities. Key industries — steel in Youngstown, Ohio; automobiles in Flint, Michigan — were born in these communities. Rich in living-wage jobs, cultural assets and social networks, smaller industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest offered families the opportunity to pursue the American dream.”
Today, the report says, these cities “struggle to find their way in the face of an ever-changing global economy and the inequitable effects of sprawling growth patterns. Residents of these cities are some of the most isolated in our nation, living in neighborhoods that lack good jobs, strong schools and quality housing.”
But there’s hope. “Ignoring smaller industrial cities is a missed opportunity for America,” the report says. “These cities contain rich connection to our past, institutions and services that their regions rely upon in the present, and untapped human capital, neighborhoods, infrastructure and natural assets that can be the foundation for a sustainable way of life in the twenty-first century.”
Earlier this decade, Axel-Lute, who described herself as a small city booster, moved to Albany from New York City.
“I’m glad New York City exists, but I don’t want every place to be like it,” Axel-Lute said.
Dahl agreed. “We’re not all going to find work in New York City, and none of us can afford to buy a house there,” he said.
Staff at PolicyLink decided to focus on small cities because they have different needs from larger cities, and often get lost in the shuffle. Radhika Fox, who co-authored the report with Axel-Lute, said she was looking at ways to expand economic opportunities in large cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia, when she began getting requests for assistance from smaller cities such as Youngstown, Ohio, and Kalamazoo, Mich. “I realized that some of the most exciting urban revitalization was happening in smaller cities, but it was not part of the national conversation,” she said.
Fox said she hopes “To Be Strong Again” will encourage investment in smaller cities at the state level. “We think it’s a wiser choice to invest in existing places, rather than continue a pattern of outward development,” she said. “I think we’re starting to see re-urbanization.”
Smaller cities are similar to large cities, but with key differences, according to the report. They more likely to be affected when a large employer closes or opens a business, because that business will have a larger effect on the local economy. The government in small cities is more accessible than in bigger cities. In small cities, there is no “far away,” and it’s harder for residents to feel as though problems such as poverty and decay are located in a distant section of the city.
Smaller cities, the report says, were 40 percent more likely than larger cities to have experienced large population losses — over 10 percent — between 1990 and 2000. They were also 163 percent more likely than larger cities to have experienced employment growth or fairly slow employment loss, but they were also 60 percent more likely to have experienced steep employment loss. Small cities had also experienced higher rates of sprawl. And while their poverty rates were generally lower, small cities had some of the fastest growth in poverty rates during the 1990s. In Schenectady, for instance, poverty grew 40 percent during that time.