Who Can Save Shrinking Cities?

Who Can Save Shrinking Cities?

by MAXWELL HARTT

Across the United States, many communities are subjected to seemingly constant misfortunes: skyrocketing unemployment, spiraling poverty cycles, barren food deserts and crippling crime rates are only a few of the challenges shackling these cities. From hollowed out northern capitals to the Midwest and beyond, as the barriers continue to mount, citizens, businesses and opportunities leave. For the most downtrodden communities, like Detroit, this has been a recurring theme for decades. But how does any city with a history of corruption, little to no fiscal flexibility and decaying infrastructure break the cycle? Without money, jobs or a solid educational system it is daunting at best and impossible at worst.

In spite of the incredible odds stacked against such communities, I believe that if you look hard enough you will always find powerful stories of resilience. This belief is rooted in my personal experience visiting some of America’s most notorious shrinking cities—a phenomena I’ve witnessed both here and abroad. The media’s continual aggrandized depiction of decline has shaped and perpetuated society’s negative perception of shrinking cities. But without fail upon leaving every shrinking city that I have visited, from Flint, Michigan to Charleroi, Belgium, I am left with a sense of hope. And this was never truer than after visiting East St. Louis, IL and meeting Chet Cantrell.

East St. Louis

East St. Louis is located in the Metro-East region of Southern Illinois, directly across the river from St. Louis MO. In 1950, East St. Louis boasted a population of over 82,000 but as of 2010 its population had dropped to 27,000. Like many other shrinking cities in the “Rust Belt” region, the global economic restructuring of the manufacturing industry delivered a swift blow to the prosperity of the city. Decades of political corruption and “white flight”—a term coined for the mass exodus of white citizens from urban environments to the surrounding suburbs—have only exacerbated the economic and population decline of the city. More recently, with the depletion of almost all legal economic opportunity politicians have turned to accommodating and encouraging gambling, strip clubs and bars while claiming these are the only businesses that they can attract.

There is an unfortunately long history of politicians in shrinking cities exacerbating decline by refusing to the recognize the economic and demographic reality of their situation: concentrating solely on re-growing their cities while displaying a frightening disregard for the quality of life of their remaining citizens.

In a city consistently rated “the most dangerous city in America,” East St. Louis’s outward image is that of a hot-bed for violence. Crime and murder rates are roughly 15 and 17 times the national average, respectively. The city also deals with the added burden of abysmally low education rates. Only 11% of adult Americans do not have a high school diploma, yet in East St. Louis that number rises to almost 35%. Over 50% of the residents’ income is below the poverty line and almost 20% make as little as a half of that.

The Causal Circularity of Shrinking Cities

The processes contributing to East St. Louis’ economic and demographic decline returns to the question presented at the onset of this article: how does any city with a history of corruption, little to no fiscal flexibility and decaying infrastructure break the cycle? As a society we have often looked to politicians and elected decision-makers to guide us in times of peril. However, the global nature of manufacturing and consumption has diminished the ability of such local actors to control economic shifts. This is especially true in cities like East St. Louis, where the city’s public office and decision-makers have not managed to break this vicious loop. There is an unfortunately long history of politicians in shrinking cities exacerbating decline by refusing to the recognize the economic and demographic reality of their situation: concentrating solely on re-growing their cities while displaying a frightening disregard for the quality of life of their remaining citizens.

The days of a politician in a shrinking city may be fraught with unmanageable challenges, overstretched infrastructure and services, but their actions suggest that at night they dream of returning to the economic prosperity and population numbers of their cities' ‘glory’ days.

The pro-growth consensus is a prevailing ideology that equates urban growth with the common good. In American cities, population growth is tied to success. To achieve this success, politicians and decision-makers in shrinking cities are faced with the task of attracting new citizens—preferably young and educated. The days of a politician in a shrinking city may be fraught with unmanageable challenges, overstretched infrastructure and services, but their actions suggest that at night they dream of returning to the economic prosperity and population numbers of their cities' ‘glory’ days. A pro-growth mentality forms the bedrock of political platforms and, therefore, politicians blindly chase development opportunity pipedreams in order to follow-through on campaign promises and stand a chance at re-election. Meanwhile, the residents who have decided to remain in the city are ignored. Services continue to worsen while silver bullet strategies such as the building of convention centers and the offering of lucrative tax breaks diminish limited municipal funds. But if politicians cannot save the city, who can?

In East St. Louis and other shrinking cities where I have discussed the positives of the city with local residents, without exception they returned to the people—the community. One inhabitant of Gary, Indiana named Dawson emphasized that the only source of positive change in his city was coming from the grassroots movements, churches, and community groups.

I met Dawson, a large grey-haired man in his mid-fifties, at the House of Que, a barbeque take-out restaurant operated out of a trailer located on an empty lot on the corner of 25th Avenue and Broadway. The House of Que sits next to a vacant lot and on a block mostly consisting of abandoned buildings—typical of downtown Gary. After a short, friendly interaction with Dawson at the take-out window, my colleagues and I returned to our parked car to eat what was advertised as a “Que-ing experience like no other.” Midway through our meal, Dawson surprised us by knocking on our window to ask if we were enjoying our food. Our conversation quickly turned to the pressing issues in Gary, religion and Dawson’s personal trials and tribulations as a young black man in a declining city.

In East St. Louis and other shrinking cities where I have discussed the positives of the city with local residents, without exception they returned to the people—the community.

Dawson is an active member in the New Beginnings Outreach Ministries congregation, a non-denominational religious organization operated out of the only occupied building across the street from The House of Que. He credits New Beginnings with saving his life, as in his youth he had been following the path of gangs and drugs that so many young men in Gary go down. Dawson was accepted into the church community and gives thanks to his charismatic pastor for his life change. Dawson told of how church communities are a vital part of Gary and that without them many more would be suffering. He explained that the church community helps his family, and countless others, feel safer and less alone in a city that has a violent crime rate four times the national average.

According to Dawson, there are over 300 separate parishes in Gary—a city of only 80,000 residents. That is one parish for every 267 citizens. To give context to that figure, Indianapolis has 289 people per religious place: the highest ratio of people to religious places of any major city in the U.S. However, Dawson views the high number of parishes as a lost opportunity as it makes for a fragmented social landscape. Dawson spoke passionately about the possibility of uniting these parishes and demanding real change in Gary, but felt that even the strongest of communities was not enough to overcome the crashing waves of crime, isolation and social fragmentation. In order to really break the cycle, in order to really make a lasting and positive impact on their lives and their surroundings, one key element was needed: as Dawson put it, “This city needs a hero. This city needs a champion.

A Community Champion

At first East St. Louis, a city of vacant or burned homes, barred windows, and intimidating streets can seem a blemish in an urban prairie. Its description does not lend itself easily to the thought that one could find city champions or purposeful community leaders. Yet, that is where I found the Christian Activity Center (CAC), and one of the most inspirational people I have ever met, its director Chet Cantrell.

Against the bleak urban landscape of East St. Louis, the CAC stands out. Driving up the block it already stood out: the building was occupied, the glass was intact but not bullet-proofed, and none of the windows or doors sported defensive bars. Once inside I was instantly greeted with warm affection and outstretched arms. The staff and volunteers were readying themselves for a week at camp with the kids. Over the next few hours I became acquainted with the storied history of the area, the evolution of the center and Chet’s own life path. 

Chet’s vision, ambition and focus seemed boundless. Years ago, he purchased the bar across the street simply to tear it down and sell the bricks to pay for the playground that sits there now. 

Chet took on the role of director over 20 years ago and, through ups and downs, has never lost sight of his ultimate goal: to improve East St. Louis in every, and any, possible way. The CAC has over 600 children who attend the facility at least three times a week. Many of these children have witnessed or experienced violence firsthand. Yet, whereas the surrounding area has—according to a local source—a graduation rate of 11%, children attending the CAC have a rate of over 95%. And in January 2014 the CAC announced that 100% CAC seniors would be heading to college.

Chet’s vision, ambition and focus seemed boundless. Years ago, he purchased the bar across the street simply to tear it down and sell the bricks to pay for the playground that sits there now. He has similarly torn down other vacant houses, which were home to drug deals and gangs. He has initiated art therapy programs for the children, which were so successful he had parents approaching him regarding family sessions. He has installed a computer lab, recording studio and full basketball gym in the facility. Paint colors and interior design are rigorously researched to be positive and uplifting. Chet is in the process of buying land to build a soccer field and a bandstand. When he recently discovered that some significant native heritage items were identified nearby, he started a neighborhood assessment that, with any luck, would give it a heritage designation that will allow a museum and park to be built. And he is also in discussions with neighboring communities to build an interstate cycling route through East St. Louis.

It is important for the people living in these cities to recognize themselves as a possible solution and for the media and society at large to encourage and promote such proactive individuals and groups whenever possible.

Many know East St. Louis simply as America’s Most Dangerous city. Chet has seen the violence, the crime and the drugs and is very aware and realistic about where he calls home. However, amidst all the chaos, he has consistently found boundless compassion. Chet detailed to me a scene that he has witnessed too many times: at a funeral of a young single parent the orphaned children are not simply shooed to child services, instead community members take it upon themselves to volunteer to take in and raise the children. This is a relatively common practice in some parts of the developing world, but hardly the norm in the U.S. It is worth remembering that the poverty rate of East St. Louis is over 50% and raising a child is far from an inexpensive undertaking. This is one among the many examples Chet described in the course of the hours I spent with him at the CAC. He is cognizant of the very real dangers in his community, but also recognizes the tremendous strength it takes to survive in such an environment. Chet’s own strength and focus may be the cornerstone of the CAC, but he advocates that it is the compassion of the people of East St. Louis that make the CAC’s success even possible. He tells me that he “dreams of a day when East St. Louis will be known as America’s Most Compassionate City.”

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In many of America’s disenfranchised communities, morale and hope have been declining for years, while media stigmatization only continues to rise. Politicians, business and education have all failed them. Nevertheless, after decades of looking for help, it is the community members themselves that hold the answers. Do they need to work with industry and politicians? Certainly. But do they need to rely on them completely—definitely not. People are doing extraordinary things in almost impossible situations, yet the general media continues to dwell on the decay, the crime and the ruination. It is important for the people living in these cities to recognize themselves as a possible solution and for the media and society at large to encourage and promote such proactive individuals and groups whenever possible. The impact of a community champion like Chet may seem an anomaly amidst a sea of violence and decline, but in all of these communities there are many such heroes working hard with as much determination. And if we can give them a little more support and a little more light, not only will they grow, but they’ll inspire others—like Chet has already done for so many.


[1] L. O. Kirkpatrick and M. P. Smith, “The Infrastructural Limits to Growth: Rethinking the Urban Growth Machine in Times of Fiscal Crisis,” Int. J. Urban Reg. Res., vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 477–503, 2011.

[2] M. Rutherford, “Detroit Neighbourhood Stabilization: Burdens become Assets,” University of Waterloo, 2013.

[3] R. Beauregard, “Aberrant Cities: Urban Population Loss in the United States, 1820-1930,” Urban Geogr., vol. 24, no. 8, pp. 672–690, Dec. 2003.

[4] A. Mallach and L. Brachman, “Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities,” 2013.

[5] P. Mason, “Gary, Indiana: Unbroken spirit amid the ruins of the 20th Century,” BBC News, 2010. [Online]. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/paulmason/2010/10/gary_indiana_unbroken_spirit_a.html. [Accessed: 26-Jun-2013].

[6] Action Research Illinois, “Summary Demographics Statistics of East St. Louis,” 2010.

[7] City Data, “East St. Louis Poverty Rate Data: Information about Poor and Low Income Residents,” city-data, 2009.

[8] T. Jones, “East St. Louis Cops Outgunned as Cuts Let Killers Thrive,” Bloomberg, 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-01-04/east-st-louis-cops-outgunned-as-cuts-let-killers-thrive.html. [Accessed: 26-Jun-2013]. 


Maxwell Hartt can be reached at hartt@aesirlab.com.

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