The Rise And Fall Of 5 Great American Cities

What the Census reveals about systemic racism — a quick primer.

Photo by Hieu Vu Minh on Unsplash.

I’m too young in my writing career to write about writing yet. Nothing I’ve published has moved the needle much. I’ve certainly not done anything that has gone viral nor made more than a few bucks a month.

However, many times on Medium, it’s been said that a good place to start writing is that from which you already know about a certain subject. Honestly, I know a lot about a lot of different things. (Street smarts: not so much.) Geography was always the subject in which I was most interested. Everybody else? Not so much. There’s a good chance that Millenials and those in Gen Z did not even have to take a geography class to graduate.

I always get super excited when new Census numbers come out! My parents got us a World Book Encyclopedias set, and I gravitated to the US states' articles. We had the 1964 edition, so the populations of cities and towns were based on the 1960 census. That gave me the framework to know the relative sizes of cities today.

I’m a geek, I know.

Boy, things have changed! Most all of America’s largest cities in 1950 were east of the Mississippi. Today, eight of the ten largest cities lie to the west. The chart below identifies the five biggest losers in population since the 1950 census. Suburbanization began after WWII, and it continues.

Chart by Author

This isn’t just alarming. It’s shocking.

There are many commonalities as to why these cities contracted to the extent they did.

Some were stops along the Underground Railroad, which paved the way for the enslaved to try to reach some sort of freedom. Cleveland and Pittsburgh were known as safe harbors, that is, until the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was implemented, forcing many to continue their northward course to Canada.

They all played a part in the Great Migration beginning in 1916. About six million Blacks from the rural South fled to the North to escape racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws. All of these cities were known for major manufacturing — unskilled yet higher-paying jobs were plentiful. Still, there was major friction between the Blacks and European immigrants, as they competed for the same jobs and housing. Detroit absorbed the most migrants because of the burgeoning automobile industry. (For more about Detroit, see my story Detroit’s Diaspora.)

Map by

All of these cities hit their peaks in 1950. One of the biggest factors of the decline was access to transportation — the postwar era saw a sharp rise in car ownership, and the building of the interstate highway system began to speed them away to the suburbs.

White flight forever changed the complexion of America. What we have left are cities in dust.

Often referred to as the modern American suburb's creator, William J. Leavitt built two nearly identical suburbs from scratch, one on Long Island, NY, and the other close to Philadelphia. These communities forbade Black families, while financing from several sources was made available to Whites seeking homeownership.

The HOLC, or the Home Owners Loan Corporation, as part of FDR’s New Deal, allowed prospective owners to finance their homes over 20–30 years. The norm had been a five-year loan with a balloon payment at the end. However, districts of major cities had been “redlined,” meaning banks would not lend to those living in these areas, which were primarily Black. Thus, those in these less desirable areas were systemically kept out of the ability to attempt to grow any wealth. Fair housing acts were not passed until the 1960s.

We kept Blacks out of the race to the Middle Class. WE promoted racial segregation nationwide, in many ways.

We’ve only covered housing here, and briefly at that. Systemic Racism is alive and well in employment, health care, political power, education, and the criminal justice system. Today’s Blacks have inherited generations of socio-economic disadvantage.

The Cities

Detroit: The biggest loser of them all. It is known as America’s least diverse American city, with 79% of its citizens being Black. (There are no major U.S. cities even close to 79% White.) Due to redlining, Blacks have literally been fenced in.

Baltimore: As early as 1910, practices were put into place that recognized majority White or majority Black neighborhoods to prevent integration.

Cleveland: Housing discrimination and redlining against Blacks led to major racial unrest in the 1960s.

St. Louis: The second-biggest loser. Only 11% of the metropolitan area’s population resides in the city itself. Blocks and blocks of dilapidated houses and vacant lots riddle the city, leading to a record homicide rate in 2020.

Pittsburgh: While the bright spot of the five, nothing they do seems to keep people from moving out of the city. It now has fewer than it did in 1900.


This could be an entire story, but it’s worth noting that in the five cities at which we are looking, murders increased by 20–50% in four of the cities in 2020. While Chicago is not included here, it ranked first in the total number of homicides at 774 — a 57% increase from 492 murders in 2020 — much higher than in the other cities.

This is during a pandemic. The psychology of this puzzles me. So many shootings are out in the open, and in drive-by-type crimes. If so many of us were in quarantine, how did these numbers skyrocket to record highs? What doesn’t surprise me is that, nationally, there was a large decrease in armed robberies and burglaries, since so much of America was at home.

If there is one silver lining in the era of Covid-19, it had to do with the number of school shootings in 2020 because children weren’t in class — they were being schooled at home. The last school shooting occurred in Pine Bluff, AR on March 1, 2020, more than one year ago.

Systemic Racism

Our former President’s administration made it quite clear that Blacks should be kept in their place or pushed back even further.

According to the Washington Post, the recent signing of the $1.9-trillion Covid-19 bill includes a $5-billion fund to help disadvantaged farmers with various forms of assistance, in part, to help them acquire land. About a quarter of these recipients are Black.

In a CNN interview on March 10, Senator Lindsey Graham was widely criticized for stating: “If you’re a White person if you’re a White woman, no forgiveness. That’s reparations.”

This vitriol, coming from a White man of privilege from South Carolina. He is there to represent ALL of the people in South Carolina, not just Whites. He who cow-towed to Trump’s racial tendencies for the duration of his administration.

Experts told the Post that the bill could be the most significant piece of legislation for Black land ownership since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, thereby attempting to right historical inequities.


It’s a step in the right direction, but just a sliver of what we’re able to do if we truly wanted to make reparations to the descendants of indentured slaves and the Indigenous peoples whose land we stole. The Covid-19 bill will help keep millions out of impending doom and on their way to a real future because it is for ALL people, not just White people. But do you believe such blasphemy?

This is why so many of us are not wondering why not one Republican voted for the bill. There is just too much in it for Blacks.

So what is to become of these legendary cities? If racism is to blame for their demise, how do we correct it? Do we perpetuate this madness, or accept it for what it is and do something about it?

It starts with a vote.

I’m going to continue to write on this topic and address those other five previously mentioned areas that are abundant in our society. This is more than one person can handle. It requires the collective consciousness in all of us.

But next, we’ll look at five cities that have shown the most growth from 1950 to 2020. I guarantee that you’ll see some numbers that are hard to believe.

Until I get my systems set, you can reach me at

My life in the context of 20th-century history and pop culture — infused with a dose of fun (where appropriate!) More to come when I get my sea legs on here.

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