THREE THEORIES ON URBAN DECLINE

live just a few minutes away from Camden, one of the nation's most dangerous urban disaster zones. The more I learn about it, the less I'm convinced it'll pull through. A major portion of the city's police force was recently laid off while three former mayors either have served or are currently serving prison sentences for corruption. With the exception of the waterfront, large sections of the city resemble the aftermath of nuclear fallout; bricks from crumbling structures falling into the streets and graffiti-laden plywood hanging from broken out windows. 

Camden wasn't always like this. The city once teemed with industrial prosperity in the early twentieth century, back when it was home to RCA Victor / General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Campbell's Soup Company, and the New York Shipbuilding Corporation (which was once the largest shipyard in the world). 

So what the hell happened?

Cities like Camden, Detroit, nd Baltimore that were once the backbone of the nation's industrial-based economy have transformed into havens for drug violence, murder, rape, and robbery. These cities fell victim to the post-World War II economic shift, and manufacturing jobs simply disappeared, leaving thousands without work. These issues don't seme to be getting better -- they're getting much worse. And worse yet is the fact that very little is being done to address these problems.

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So how are the wheels of dramatic urban decline first put into motion? Thomas J. Sugrue, author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, outlines three theories.

The "underclass" debate has moved in three - sometimes overlapping - directions. The first, and most influential, focuses on the behavior and values of the poor, and the role of federal social programs in fostering a culture of joblessness and dependency in inner cities. A variant, going back to the work of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and E. Franklin Frazier, emphasizes the role of family structure and unwed pregnancy in perpetuating inequality. A second offers structural explanations for inequality and urban poverty. Proponents of structural explanations tend to divide among those who point to the effects of economic restructuring (following William Julius Wilson) and those who emphasize the continuing significance of racial discrimination (following Gary Orfield and Douglas Massey). A third explanation focuses on politics, emphasizing the marginalization of cities in American social policy, particularly in the aftermath of the urban unrest and racial conflict of the 1960s. The "excesses" of Black Power and the rise of affirmative action fueled white suburbanization and justified a newfound white backlash against the urban poor. Implicit in this analysis is a contrast between the booming postwar years and troubled post-1960s years, urban heyday versus urban crisis.

So we're essentially looking at some pretty diverse issues:

  1. The government's social assistance programs (unemployment benefits, welfare) do not effectively foster value judgment of the citizens who depend on the services.
  2. Economic restructuring (the shift from manufacturing to service-based economy) has created a forgotten workforce that lacks a defined set of skills, and in turn leaves very few prospects for employment.
  3. Two generations removed, effects of racial tension in the 1960s are still felt today, leading to continued segregation between races who live in cities versus suburbs.

Flawed government assistance programs, a flatlining economy, poor education, and racial tension. Check back in over the next few weeks as I look at each of these issues individually. For now, what do you think are some small steps that can be taken?

Recommended reading:
     • What's the Matter with Camden? [NBCNews]
     • Camden, City of Ruins [DailyMail]