Blame it on white flight, urban decay or the decline of the manufacturing industry. Whatever the reason, in the vast northeast, most cities have seen their heyday come and go.
But today, despite problems within the federal government, mayors from throughout the region say cities are once again on the rise.
“The '50s and the '60s saw everybody move out of the cities and get to the newly built suburbs … now we’re starting to see a reversal – a flight to the cities,” said Michael Bissonnette, mayor of Chicopee, Mass. “People are starting to come back.”
At a forum Tuesday with the mayors of Philadelphia, Bridgeport, Conn., Providence, R.I., Chicopee, Mass., and Somerville, Mass., Bissonnette said American cities are on the rise again - despite a divide between their office and the Oval Office.
In most of those cities, population increased at varying levels in the past 10 years – from .6 percent in Philadelphia to 3.4 percent in Bridgeport. Somerville saw a 2.2 percent decline, though, and the cities represented at the conference saw their populations peak decades ago.
With the prevalence of empty brownstones in cities set against a backdrop of comparatively well-developed suburbs, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras spoke of the need to “reclaim” the cities.
“[What] we need to do is lift the self esteem of our residents, to lift the self esteem of our city,” Taveras said. “That’s a challenge we face in all our cities, to make sure that people don’t take the cities for granted and recognize that we have wonderful places.”
In many ways, Bridgeport -- Connecticut's most populated city -- symbolizes the struggles of urban renewal in just a few blocks.
Sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the forum took place at the Bijou Theatre, a newly opened art house cinema on Fairfield Avenue. Revitalization projects like this were cited by Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch as signs that the city's fortunes are improving.
At one end of the block are brand-new apartments with upscale businesses on the first floor. And in the other direction are boarded-up storefronts and empty buildings.
“China has urbanized the population equivalent of the United States,” said Finch, who running for re-election. “They’ve taken [people] from the suburbs and the rural areas and moved them to the cities. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re organizing, we’re creating more density and doing all this great work.”
Federal vs. Local
Despite the fact that the U.S. Conference of Mayors works with Congress by lobbying for legislative changes, a divide between federal and local government was evident at the forum.
“The U.S. government and economy is made up of cities and metro areas and what we do actually drives what happens in the United States,” said Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia and vice president of the Conference of Mayors. “The federal government hasn’t figured that out … some days we just need them to get out of way and let us do our work."
Like his colleagues, Norwalk Mayor Dick Moccia stressed the importance of transportation infrastructure as a key piece in the urban renewal puzzle.
“What Washington has missed, what economists have missed, is that the cities in this country are not a special interest group and we’re not a lobbying group,” said Moccia, a Republican. “We are the country.”
Tom Cochran, CEO of the Conference of Mayors, said politics in Washington, D.C., has made things more difficult.
“We’re going through some real tough times and the mayors deserve credit for holding this country together,” he said. “It’s been a rough ride.”