The two host cities for the Republican and Democratic national conventions are both former urban dynamos that fell on hard times. In 1950, Philadelphia, which is hosting the Democratic convention this week, was the country’s third-largest city, with more than 2 million people. Cleveland, which hosted the Republicans last week, was the seventh-largest, with a population of more than 900,000. But over the next 50 years, hundreds of thousands of people left both cities, as crime rose and their economies sputtered.
More recently, however, the two cities’ fates have diverged.
Now, Philadelphia is the fifth-largest city in the country, and its population, while down 24 percent in 2015 from 1950, has been rebounding in recent years. But Cleveland keeps declining — its population is down 58 percent from 1950, and it is just the 51st most populous city in the country. Losing residents makes it harder for a city to collect the taxes needed to pay for fixed costs and can rob it of the efficiency and vibrancy of a dense urban core. It’s also just a bad sign of a city’s overall health that more people want to move away than move in. And it brings bad publicity, though the positive spin in Cleveland is that the decrease is at least slowing.1
This tale of two cities is a familiar tale in the many U.S. cities that shrank in the latter half of the 20th century. Some northern cities started to decline after 1950 as manufacturing plants moved or closed and as many middle-class residents moved to suburbs, encouraged by the subsidized construction of highways, or moved south in what some demographers call the snow-belt-to-sun-belt migration. Some cities, such as Philadelphia and others …