In 1900, Buffalo was the eighth-largest city in America. It was located on one of the busiest sections of the Erie Canal, the terminus of the canal on the Great Lakes. Thanks to its location, Buffalo had huge grain milling operations and one of the largest steel mills in the country. Buffalo prospered during WWII, as did many northern industrial cities. After the war, the manufacturing plants returned to the production of cars and industrial goods. The population rose to more than 500,000 in the mid-1950s. It is half that today. Buffalo was wounded irreparably by the de-industrialization of America.
Flint was once a major industrial city and the birthplace of GM, then went into receivership -- the equivalent of municipal bankruptcy -- in 2002. The city had almost 200,000 residents in 1960 and has fewer than 100,000 today. The downfall of Flint can be described in a sentence. In 1960, GM employed 80,000 people in Flint, and it employs fewer than 8,000 today. Flint was the headquarters of GM's Buick division for years, but these operations were moved to Detroit in 1998.
The city was once the "insurance capital of the world." In 1950, the city's population peaked at more than 177,000 and has dropped to 124,000 recently. Hartford was, beyond being an insurance center, also home to a number of manufacturing and publishing businesses. Hartford lost some of its insurance firms as they moved to new locations, primarily because of consolidation in this sector. Five large financial firms have downsized their workforces. These include MetLife, Cigna, Lincoln Financial, Mass Mutual and, perhaps most depressing of all, The Hartford.
Cleveland became a major port and land transportation hub, due to its central location on Lake Erie. A number of the largest rubber companies in the world and other manufactures for the car and steel industry were also located near or in the city. Cleveland had 914,000 residents in 1950. The figure is below 480,000 today. A number of the large manufacturing operations have left the region or downsized based on the transfer of the steel, rubber and car industries elsewhere, particularly to Japan.
5. New Orleans
The location of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi made it one of the most important ports in America for more than 200 years. Oddly enough, New Orleans remains a massive port, but a number of the jobs which were once performed by laborers are now automated. A great deal of the commercial traffic that once moved by river is now transported more efficiently by truck, rail and air. The city had also been a financial capital of the South because of the cotton and river trade. Faster growing southern cities like Atlanta became more important financial centers as their populations grew. One of the industries that began to offset the faltering trade and financial sectors was tourism, which rose throughout the second half of the last century. But the city suffered from its location, part of it below sea level, and several hurricanes that hit the city, particularly Hurricane Betsy in 1965. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina dealt the city a nearly fatal blow. In the year after that, the population dropped to just above 250,000, down from 627,000 in 1960. The BP oil crisis has already begun to damage what might have been a nascent recovery, post-Katrina.
The Motor City was the fifth-largest city in America with a population of almost 1.9 million in 1950. The number of residents increased sharply from the 1920s when Henry Ford created the assembly line and set a wage of $5 a day. Workers streamed in from the deep South and other parts of the Midwest. The huge car companies became defense contractors during WWII. The auto industry grew abundantly after the war as the American middle class was created by an expanding economy built on the U.S.'s ability to take its vast natural resources and turn them into finished products. During the 1960s, American car companies had nearly 90% of the domestic market, and GM had 50% to itself. Detroit's demise began with the rise of Japanese imports in the 1970s. The Arab oil embargo increased the appetite of U.S. consumers for high-mileage cars. The Big Three (Big Four before American Motors was bought by Chrysler) built products that were acceptable to consumers until they saw higher quality Japanese cars, which began to flood the markets in great numbers in the 1980s. Detroit's car manufacturing base was nearly destroyed, symbolized by the Chapter 11 filings of GM and Chrysler.
Albany is still the capital of New York State. It was once one of the largest "inland ports" in the world sitting near the place where the Hudson River meets the Erie Canal. This helped it become a major center for finished lumber and iron works. Perhaps because of the influence of the politicians who worked in the city, several universities and colleges were built there. The city's manufacturing industry helped the population to rise to 134,000 in 1950. It is now under 95,000. The higher education institutions in the region have begun to help Albany become a regional center for information technology and the biotechnology industries, but these are not large enough to offset declines in the city's fortunes, which began in the 1960s.
8. Atlantic City
Now known mostly for its gambling business, Atlantic City was dying before legislation allowed gaming companies to operate there. The city was created as a tourist location in the 1880s and a number of massive hotels were built there. Atlantic City's hospitality industry also made it a favorite for trade shows and conventions. The Democratic National Convention was held there in 1964. The city's appeal to tourists was damaged primarily by two things: the first was the availability of inexpensive air travel to southern resorts areas like Florida. Vacationers could fly from New York to Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach in less time than it took to drive to Atlantic City. The second, the rise of Las Vegas as the gaming capital of the world, made it the preferred destination for many conventions. Atlantic City got into the gambling industry in 1978 -- too late.
This Pennsylvania city had two advantages in the middle of the last century. It was well located for railroads that moved freight from the Midwest through Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the Eastern seaboard. Its proximity to iron ore made it a major manufacturing center and refiner, much like Bethlehem to its east and Pittsburgh to its west. Like many other Northeastern manufacturing cities, Allentown watched its major product, in this case steel, being produced in greater and greater volumes and at lower prices in Japan.
This Texas city was one of the largest ports in the U.S. a hundred years ago. It was also the location of one of the greatest natural disasters in American history. In 1900, a hurricane killed between 6,000 and 8,000 people. In the decades after the hurricane, Galveston became a major tourist center due to its location on the Gulf and proximity to several larger Texas cities. Galveston was also a major military recruitment center during WWII. The cause of Galveston's demise is unique. There was a large gambling industry there, some of it illegal, which was controlled by criminals. In the late 1950s, Texas state authorities successfully attacked local organized crime. The regulated tourist trade could not replace the illegal business. Galveston's port and hospitality industries had begun to improve, but were trampled by the effects of Hurricane Ike in 2008. The event destroyed a large part of the city's tax base, and set back the tourism industry once again.
Most of these cities are not well-known to me and I don't have feelings about them beyond the fact that I recognize that they have been great cities in the past and that they are important to the areas where they are located. But I definitely have some strong feelings about New Orleans and Galveston.
New Orleans, a wonderful city where my husband and I spent our honeymoon many years ago, has been repeatedly battered by both nature and humankind in recent years, but it has such a strong history and culture and there are so many people who love it that I can't see it dying anytime soon. I fully expect that no matter what the future throws its way that it will rise, and even thrive, again.
Galveston is my near neighbor where I have spent many happy hours enjoying ocean breezes and watching birds. It is a fun and welcoming place to visit, but it has been brutalized by many of the same events that have visited New Orleans. Hurricane Ike was a tremendous blow to this whole area a couple of years ago, even though it sort of went under the radar as far as the rest of the country was concerned. Galveston has come back slowly and certainly isn't all the way there yet, but dying? Maybe not. I hope not.
All of these cities, I am sure, have people who care about them and root for their survival and success. It would be a shame to see any one of them become a ghost town in our lifetime.