Ghost towns of the Midwest, sand dunes edition

While Americans might associate ghost towns with the West, communities elsewhere across the United States have also disappeared. Here is the case of one such community on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan:

Silver Lake, Michigan

A small town once stood on the riverbank, where the river bends before ending its journey at the lake. For several decades in the mid-1800s, the village of Singapore was a humming lumber and shipbuilding hub. Residents and sawmill workers processed the plentiful white pine trees of western Michigan, then loaded them onto schooners for Chicago and Milwaukee.

The founders of Singapore had big dreams. They envisioned their town, then located north of present-day Saugatuck on the southwestern Michigan shore, as the next important Midwestern city, rivaling the growing metropolises in Illinois and Wisconsin…

After the lumber trade waned and a series of fires roared through the area, leading to the destruction of many of Singapore’s houses, the town was abandoned. By 1875, according to Eric Gollannek, executive director of the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society, the lumber boom was over, the mills were dismantled and moved to St. Ignace, Michigan, jobs dried up and the village slowly disappeared.

Eventually, what was left of Singapore was buried beneath the sand.

The sand dunes of Lake Michigan are an underrated natural feature. Since I have seen them on top of a house or two at Silver Lake (see the image above), it is not surprising that they cover the remains of a town.

I would guess that the early decades of Midwest settlement is a ripe time for finding ghost towns or abandoned communities. Many early settlers had dreams that their town would prosper in the future. But, time, outside social forces, and internal decisions helped seal the fate of some places while others thrived.

The possible forces at work are numerous. Perhaps it was the changing of transportation technology; the coming of the railroad, the slowdown or rise in traffic along a road, shifting harbors and waterways. Perhaps it was the consolidation of residents or trading activity in one community as opposed to another. Perhaps it was the presence of a particular industry or the the decline of an industry. Ecological conditions can change as well, ranging from droughts to major storms to fires to human activity that changes the landscape in significant ways.

Today, it is hard to imagine that established communities of a particular size could disappear. Yet, history suggests this has happened before. It may not take sand dunes or cutting down many trees (something that happened all around Lake Michigan) but the communities of today are not guaranteed to be the communities of the future.

Smart Midwesterners flock to Chicago?

An excerpt from a new book about the Rust Belt looks at why Chicago attracts so many educated Midwesterners:

The North Side of Chicago is such a refuge for young economic migrants from my home state that its nickname is “Michago.” In 2000, a quarter of Michigan State University graduates left the state. By 2010, half were leaving, and the city with the most recent graduates was not East Lansing or Detroit but Chicago. Michigan’s universities once educated auto executives, engineers, and governors. Now their main purpose is giving Michigan’s brightest young people the credentials they need to get the hell out of the state.

In the 2000s, Michigan dropped from 30th to 35th in percentage of college graduates. Chicago is the drain into which the brains of the Middle West disappear. Moving there is not even an aspiration for ambitious Michiganders. It’s the accepted endpoint of one’s educational progression: grade school, middle school, high school, college, Chicago. Once, in a Lansing bookstore, I heard a clerk say with a sigh, “We’re all going to end up in Chicago.” An Iowa governor once traveled to Chicago just to beg his state’s young people to come home…

As Chicago transformed itself from a city of factories to a global financial nexus, its class structure was transformed in exactly the way globalization’s enemies had predicted. “Many Chicagoans live better than ever, in safe housing in vibrant neighborhoods, surrounded by art and restaurants, with good public transport whisking them to exciting jobs in a dazzling city center that teems with visitors and workers from around the world,” wrote Richard C. Longworth in Caught in the Middle, his 2008 book on the modern Midwest. “And many Chicagoans live worse than ever.

I look forward to reading the more complete argument. This excerpt suggests the changes that have made certain Chicago locations so attractive, places like the Loop, Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Bucktown, etc., come at a cost as other areas of Chicago have seen little improvement.

This also seems related to the ideas of Richard Florida and the creative class. Florida tends to rank all US cities on his creative scale indexes. Could there be regional creative class cities? Chicago isn’t at the top of Florida’s rankings but it might attract a sizable number of the Midwest creative class. A city doesn’t necessarily have to attract the creative class from throughout the United States to experience some of their influence.

It would be helpful to see data on this. Who exactly is moving to Chicago? For example, looking at a place like Michigan, where do college graduates and other young adults go if they leave the state? Or, looking at the Chicago area itself, do they tend to stay in the metropolitan area at similar rates to other major cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Philadelphia, and others (and there could be very different patterns going on in each of these major cities)?

Michigan to appoint emergency manager for Detroit

The city of Detroit will soon lose self-governance as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder says an emergency manager will take control:

“I believe it’s important to declare the city of Detroit in financial emergency,” Snyder announced at a midday press conference on Friday, in front of the banner, “Detroit Can’t Wait.” The EM will assume the suspended powers of the mayor and city council, and will take unilateral control of municipal finances, union contracts, pension systems, and more.

The consolidation of power will likely lead to cuts and asset sales that the mayor and city council had sought to avoid, which could include the privatization of most of the city’s water supply or the sale of Belle Isle Park. The EM also has the power to declare the city bankrupt, though that option seems unlikely.

The process has racial and political overtones. Detroit is over 80 percent black and its city government is controlled by Democrats; the Michigan statehouse is largely white and firmly in Republican control. If an EM is appointed in nearby Inkster (pop. 25,000, currently under a “consent agreement” with the state), as Chris Savage has pointed out, more than half of Michigan’s 1.4 million African Americans will be governed by unelected officials.

Snyder’s decision follows last week’s devastating report from a state review team that Detroit is unable to address its long-term financial problems. The Motor City, the investigation found, has $14.9 billion in long-term debt and pension obligations, and its general fund has not shown a surplus since 2004. The review team unanimously recommended state intervention…

Five other cities in Michigan are also under state control. Detroit will be the largest city in the country to lose the ability to govern itself.

It will be interesting to see what goals the emergency manager has. To fix the budget and turn a surplus? To contract the city to a viable size? To try to attract growth? To stem the population loss? To privatize unprofitable utilities? Related to the goals, I’m also curious to know how the state will determine whether the emergency manager is “successful.” What happens if the emergency manager doesn’t work out?

In the long run, the ability to self-govern seems to be a bedrock principle in American life. I wonder how much Governor Snyder really wants to do this versus feeling like it has to be done to turn Detroit around. The political fall-out from such a move may not be pretty and states don’t want to be in long-term positions like these.

Photographing Detroit for something more than “ruin porn”

Pete Brook over at Wired profiles Brian Widdis and Romain Blanquart, two photographers whose project “Can’t Forget the Motor City” argues that “Photos of Detroit Need to Move Beyond Ruin Porn“:

As a symbol of the U.S. economy in general, even before the crash of 2008, Motor City has been the subject of much “ruin porn” – photography that fetishizes urban decay.

“The portrayal Detroiters are used to seeing – crumbling buildings with no people to be seen – is frustrating because they know their city is more than that,” says Detroit photographer Brian Widdis. “Nobody here denies that those things are real, but seeing the city portrayed one-dimensionally – time and again – it’s like hearing the same awful song being played over and over on the radio. Detroiters want to hear a different song once in a while.”…

Ruin porn worships the 33,000 empty houses and 91,000 vacant lots of Detroit and overlooks the 700,000+ residents. It doesn’t come close to describing the city.

“I still do not understand her. The complexity of Detroit makes many give up, move out or move on, if they can. But for others, we want to further that relationship with her,” says [Romain] Blanquart….“Detroit is not a tragedy. We attempt to show its humanity[.]”

Widdis and Blanquart’s photographs are indeed beautiful and, generally, full of people.  While I’m not convinced that there’s anything inherently “pornographic” about photographing urban ruins (and underscoring the now-absent humanity those ruins imply), I agree that there is something wrong with hitting this same point to the exclusion everything else, especially insofar as this singled focus implies that there is nothing else to show or say.  However small Detroit’s population may be compared to its heydays, the city is still home to hundreds of thousands of people whose lives–and stories–are still ongoing.  I applaud these photographers’ efforts to document Detroit’s continuing stories through their artistry and not simply focusing on architectural echoes from the past.

A consequence of white flight: costs for aging infrastructure born more by minorities

The phenomenon of white flight in the United States refers to whites leaving urban neighborhoods in the decades after World War II and going to the suburbs to avoid growing minority populations. Several researchers recently uncovered a latent consequence of white flight:

Racial minorities pay systemically more for basic water and sewer services than white people, according to a study by Michigan State University researchers.

This “structural inequality” is not necessarily a product of racism, argues sociologist Stephen Gasteyer, but rather the result of whites fleeing urban areas and leaving minority residents to bear the costs of maintaining aging water and sewer infrastructure…

The researchers analyzed Census data on self-reported water and sewer costs in Michigan. The study found that urban residents actually pay more than rural residents, which refutes conventional wisdom, Gasteyer said…

Detroit is the “poster child” for this problem, Gasteyer said. The city has lost more than 60 percent of its population since 1950, and the water and sewer infrastructure is as much as a century old in some areas. Billions of gallons of water are lost through leaks in the aging lines every year, and the entire system has been under federal oversight since 1977 for wastewater violations.

Very interesting: another infrastructure problem to be solved and it happens to fall disproportionally on minority populations. It would be interesting to see this analysis extended beyond Michigan – is this primarily a Rust Belt phenomenon where the big cities have some infrastructure that dates to around 1900 or does this also apply to newer Sunbelt cities?

Overall, it might be helpful for those who argue the United States needs to seriously put a lot money into infrastructure to demonstrate how much this matters to everyone and how much the aging (leaks, potholes, etc.) costs everyone each year. It is pretty hard to live without water and sewers but it wasn’t too long ago that these were not regular amenities. Indeed, 1890 was roughly a turning point when both big cities and smaller suburbs could put together their own infrastructure systems to serve residents. (This also lines up with the period when suburbs started resisting annexation to big cities as they could handle these amenities themselves.) Add roads, electricity, and natural gas to this and you have a system that is vital to modern life but is relatively behind the scenes. If you could add a fairness/social justice dimension to it (the most aging infrastructure is in places that can least afford it), this could be a very public issue.