Acton Institute Powerblog

Urban revival in the Midwest: What does it mean for freedom?

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We’ve long heard about the incessant flow of America’s best and brainiest to the country’s largest urban centers. As such cities continue to rise in population and prominence—from Los Angeles and San Francisco to New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C.—fears continue to loom about the power of “coastal elites” and the future of America’s “middle.”

Those concerns have merit, of course. For although we see plenty of benefits from a density of smarts, skills, and capital, we also see plenty of risks, from the centralization of power to the diminishment of national diversity—economic, political, cultural, institutional, and otherwise.

Given a recent shift, however, those concerns may over-stated. According to Joel Kotkin, the migration to America’s biggest cities appears to be slowing, with many Americans shifting their movement to a series of mid-sized metros across the Midwest. Indeed, the fastest-growing cities in the Midwest are not what you’d expect, including places such as Kansas City, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Columbus, Grand Rapids, and Des Moines.

“America’s high-priced ‘superstar’ cities are not about to be supplanted soon by Midwestern comeback towns,” Kotkin writes. “But the demographic evidence provides ample proof of shifting momentum since 2010. New York City’s population growth, impressive earlier in this decade, now ranks among the lowest in the nation. Brooklyn, the reinvented hipster capital, last year suffered its first population decline since 2006.”

Not only are those Midwestern cities growing, Kotkin explains, but the populations are most likely coming directly from those bigger hubs:

The burgeoning populations in places like Des Moines, which grew by 1.76 percent last year, is being driven by domestic out-migration from the superstar cities. In 2017, nearly three times as many domestic migrants escaped New York as in 2011. Chicago, Los Angeles, and even San Francisco and San Jose also have experienced sharp rises in domestic out-migration. The biggest percentage declines were found in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and, remarkably, San Jose, which was worst among the 53 metropolitan areas with a population of more than 1 million. Even the “boomtown” San Francisco metropolitan area, which had been attracting domestic migrants from 2010 through 2015, last year experienced a considerably higher rate of out-migration than even Rust Belt hard cases like Detroit, Buffalo, or Cleveland.

The coasts’ loss ended up, to some extent, as Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Des Moines, and Columbus’ gains, reflecting a growing flight from what are increasingly gated cities, affordable only to the affluent, the subsidized (students), and those older residents who bought when the buying was good.

As for the reasons behind such a shift, Kotkin offers a range of possibilities, from high housing costs (“sometimes three times higher adjusted for income compared to the rising Midwest cities”) to a stagnant (or shrinking) pool of opportunities and prospects.

Further, the Midwest also includes a range of “comeback cities,” from Detroit to St. Louis to Cleveland. Although they don’t currently top the list for population growth, they hold plenty of promise for future growth and opportunity. “Increasingly, for many millennials, the Midwest comeback cities, albeit perhaps less glamorous, seem places where aspirations can meet reality,” Kotkin writes.

The aspirational bit is important, demonstrating certain degrees of wisdom, independence, self-awareness and initiative among a generation that is often ridiculed for its short-sightedness. But beyond the promise these cities hold for individual workers and familis, we shouldn’t forget the value their growth portends for the nation and culture as a whole.

Kotkin references Alexis de Tocqueville, who, in his travels to America in the 19th century, observed that much of America’s strength came from the depth, diversity, and, more notably, the dispersion or distribution of its townships and urban centers. “The intelligence as well as the power of the country are dispersed,” he wrote in Democracy in America. “Instead of radiating from a point, they cross each other in every direction; the Americans have established no central control over the expression of opinion, any more than over the conduct of business.”

For Tocqueville, America’s power, freedom, and virtues came first from its diversity of townships and cities, geographically, culturally, and otherwise. As he wrote in Democracy in America:

In America…it may be said that the township was organized before the county, the county before the State, the State before the Union…The independence of the township was the nucleus round which the local interests, passions, rights, and duties collected and clung. It gave scope to the activity of a real political life most thoroughly democratic and republican…

Local assemblies of citizens constitute the strength of free nations. Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it. A nation may establish a system of free government, but without the spirit of municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty. The transient passions and the interests of an hour, or the chance of circumstances, may have created the external forms of independence; but the despotic tendency which has been repelled will, sooner or later, inevitably reappear on the surface.

The list of fast-growing Midwestern metros is far from a series of quaint 19th-century townships; nevertheless, their growth bodes well for the country at large.

We may or may not be witnessing a profound revival of urban “dispersion” in our own present day. But wherever and whenever it occurs, we not only see new promise for old cities and and a rising generation—lower costs, better quality of life, more opportunities, and so on. We see the enduring promise of a free nation comprised of free people.

Image: skeeze, CC0 Creative Commons

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.