Modern-day boom towns in the American West

While we might consider boom towns to be part of American history, the discovery of oil and gas in the American West is leading to rapid population increases with some negative effects:

Stepped-up oil and gas development in northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana is punctuating the landscape with drilling rigs, trucks and hastily erected barracks, known as “man camps,” to house thousands of mostly male workers crowding into small communities where residents once greeted each other by name and left their homes and cars unlocked…

In Sidney, Montana, about 45 miles (72 km) southwest of Williston, officials have been scrambling to keep pace with oil and gas activity that is expected to double the population – from 5,000 to 10,000 – in five years and add an estimated 774 new students to the public school system…

Utah State University sociologist Richard Krannich said years-long studies of boomtowns in the West show a sharp rise in negative consequences such as crime and the fear of crime in the earliest phases of a boom.

“But we also saw the recovery once the initial phase ended and the workforce stabilized, the pressure on local services eased and infrastructure caught up with demand,” he said.

I’m not sure how you prepare for this. I can’t imagine local politicians could say no to needed jobs and future revenues and yet the quick changes in a community are difficult to handle until revenue streams are established.

What I think is particularly interesting here is that communities across the country are subject to outside social forces that can quickly change their trajectories. I assume most of these Western towns were small and hadn’t changed much in recent years but as soon as valuable resources are discovered, things can change very rapidly. Each community can make different choices about how to respond. Of course, these rapid changes can’t or won’t last forever and the town will return to some equilibrium and once the resources wind down or are depleted, a downward cycle can begin again. Boom towns and ghost towns are notable because most communities don’t experience this kind of rapid change – we expect some kind of gentle growth or at least a stable plateau. Just the idea of population loss can be troublesome because it suggests a community is on the road to dying or it is going to lose funding for services and tough cuts will have to be made to budgets.

I wonder if there are any consultants or academics to help communities adjust to these boom periods in order to take advantage of them (mainly, find tax dollars) as soon as possible. Additionally, I imagine there are some interesting interactions between long-time residents and newcomers and both sides try to adjust.

Is the American Sun Belt boom over?

One of the biggest changes in the American population in the last sixty years has been the migration to the Sun Belt. But new data suggests that this boom may have come to an end:

Between 2007 and 2010, Florida lost more people to internal migration than it gained, for the first time since the 1940s. Nevada, too, which had been growing for decades, had a net migration loss of 30,000 in 2009. And Arizona had a net gain of just 5000, way down from 90,000 five years before.

Meanwhile, New York and California both saw their net losses shrink in 2009 by more than half since 2005.

The analysis, based on Census Bureau and IRS data, was conducted by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

What explains the shift? The Sun Belt states, of course, were hit hard by the housing bust that helped trigger the recession and its aftermath. The early aughts housing boom was responsible for much of the growth in places like Clark County, Nev., and Maricopa County, Ariz. in the first place.

But just as important, migration as a whole, which has been on the wane for three decades, has really tailed off since the downturn began.

The economic crisis has limited mobility across the United States, particularly for the less wealthy who are then more tied to existing jobs and homes.

It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues or (1) the Sun Belt will grow again in the future or, in a longer shot, (2) older cities in the Midwest and Northeast (“Rust Belt”) regain some of the population that shifted south and west. In other words, once people have some more freedom to move, what will they choose to do and what social forces will push or pull them in certain directions?

Mean population center of US shifts west and south; Midwest may no longer be the heartland

Geographically, the Midwest is a broad US region between the two coasts and north of the South (as it was constituted in the Civil War). But symbolically, the Midwest is often referred to the as the “heartland” or as where “mainstream” America is, an idea illustrated by a journalist’s claim that a Nixon policy would “play in Peoria” in 1969.

A little-referenced geographic measure, the mean center of population in the United States, is moving west and south again, suggesting that the Midwest will no longer be the American center within several decades:

When the Census Bureau announces a new mean center of population next month, geographers believe it will be placed in or around Texas County, Mo., southwest of the present location in Phelps County, Mo. That would put it on a path to leave the region by midcentury.

“The geography is clearly shifting, with the West beginning to emerge as America’s new heartland,” said Robert Lang, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who regularly crunches data to determine the nation’s center. “It’s a pace-setting region that is dominant in population growth but also as a swing point in American politics.”

The last time the U.S. center fell outside the Midwest was 1850, in the eastern territory now known as West Virginia. Its later move to the Midwest bolstered the region as the nation’s cultural heartland in the 20th century, central to U.S. farming and Rust Belt manufacturing sites.

In my mind, the best use of this measure is to track its changing path over time: it has consistently moved West though hasn’t moved that far South. In terms of showing where the “center” is, it is less clear. I would see this type of measure as similar to National Geographic’s recent “most typical face“: it tells us something but is best useful for tracking changes over time.

As for whether this moving mean center of population really means that the Midwest will not be considered the mainstream, this remains to be seen. Could the West really be the new heartland in the eyes of the American people? This would involve a shift in symbols, particularly about what it means to be the “heartland.” Is it where most of the people are, where the swing states are, where there is the most history, where there is the most agriculture, where people are most traditional, or where the people are the most “normal”?

 

The most and least Christian American cities

The Barna group has put together a report that includes the American cities with the most and least residents who identify as Christians. Here are the lists of the most and least Christian cities:

The cities (measured in the Barna research as media markets) with the highest proportion of residents who describe themselves as Christian are typically in the South, including: Shreveport (98%), Birmingham (96%), Charlotte (96%), Nashville (95%), Greenville, SC / Asheville, NC (94%), New Orleans (94%), Indianapolis (93%), Lexington (93%), Roanoke-Lynchburg (93%), Little Rock (92%), and Memphis (92%).

The lowest share of self-identified Christians inhabited the following markets: San Francisco (68%), Portland, Oregon (71%), Portland, Maine (72%), Seattle (73%), Sacramento (73%), New York (73%), San Diego (75%), Los Angeles (75%), Boston (76%), Phoenix (78%), Miami (78%), Las Vegas (78%), and Denver (78%). Even in these cities, however, roughly three out of every four residents align with Christianity.

It appears the report goes on to talk to talk about a few implications: this shows that even in the least Christian cities, around three-quarters of the people identify as Christians and the figures confirm some stereotypes about regions (the Christian South vs. the secular Northeast and West).

However, I had a different sort of question: is life in the more Christian cities qualitatively different than the life in the less Christian cities? Are the Christian cities marked by different actions or programs? Are people in the Christian cities more welcoming and are they more willing and active in helping those who need help? Would a visitor be able to know which cities were the more Christian based on interactions with its people versus other measures like the number of churches or religious advertising? Does the Christian faith of the individual residents translate into a different kind of community or local government?

And if the answers to these questions is “no, it really isn’t that different,” then why not?

Lower levels of segregation in many cities according to the American Community Survey

Residential segregation, primarily between whites and blacks, is a critical issue when considering the historical development and current state of American development patterns and way of life. But new findings from the most recent American Community Survey (the Census Bureau’s yearly survey) suggest that segregation levels have decreased in many cities:

Atlanta is one of several predominantly Southern and Western cities that showed a noticeable integration trend over the last five years as both middle-class blacks and whites moved into each other’s neighborhoods, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey of 10 million Americans, released Tuesday…

Seventy-five percent of the largest 100 US metro areas showed neighborhood segregation rates slipping to levels not seen for more than a century…

Ethnic integration failed to show the same kind of gains…

It isn’t that the North, which has lagged behind the South and West in integration rates, has dramatically different attitudes on race. Rather, new housing and job opportunities in the South and West have helped to spur integration there.

This is interesting, and potentially uplifting, news. A number of sociologists have called attention to this issue in recent decades, perhaps most notably in American Apartheid published in the early 1990s. Recent maps show that many cities have a highly visible divide between different population groups. With these recent findings, the question may now be: how much more integration might we see in American cities? Is this a short-term trend or is this indicative of a slow, steady rise of integration in American cities?

What I would like to see is a more specific breakdown of what cities improved on integration and which did not. The article suggests that cities in the South and West had increasing rates of integration while segregation decreased less in the North. This is a reminder that in American cities, segregation has been more prominent in northern cities, what scholars (according to the article) call “the ghetto belt.” Are there lessons from the cities that improved in integration that can be exported to other cities?

Additionally, how have segregation/integration rates changed in suburbs or perhaps in whole metropolitan regions?