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Repopulating Urban America

The city of New Haven appears to be enjoying something of a renaissance lately as better political leadership combines with the strengths offered by Yale, good connections to major cities (New York, Boston), and the general prosperity of the state of Connecticut. But downtown is still very much a depressed area despite proximity to the university. The result is actually quite aesthetically cool, since the old buildings are very handsome and the mix of uses is interesting. But obviously the city could rise further.

One thing I saw down there was some Customs and Border Patrol cars near the federal building:

It’s interesting to note in this regard that New Haven, like many traditional American cities, is currently way below its peak population. The 1930 census recorded 162,665 people living in the city. In 2009, that was down to 123,330 people. That’s a decline of 24 percent. Under the circumstances, it would almost certainly be a good thing for the city if ten or twenty or thirty thousand people living in poor and/or poorly governed countries wanted to move here and get jobs. Even if the wages they earned were below the currently prevailing wage level (as they almost certainly would be), the increase in the general level of activity in the city would open up many opportunities for the existing population. Older, underpopulated cities like New Haven typically have substantial levels of underutilized capital — buildings and infrastructure — and remobilizing those resources would be widely beneficial.

Of course the same would be true if people currently living in suburban parts of Connecticut were to choose to move to New Haven. But though some have done that, obviously most people haven’t and that’s fine. Suburban Connecticut is very nice and New Haven has a lot of problems. But there are lots of places in the world — Kolkata, Chiapas, Lhasa, Kinshasha, Tiranë, etc. — that are worse than New Haven. If there were a viable legal path for people from those places to find work and housing in American cities as guest workers or permanent residents, I’m sure plenty of them would choose to do and plenty of entrepreneurs would think up things for them to do.

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Meanwhile, Douglas Rae’s book about New Haven’s history, City: Urbanism and Its End is one of the best explications of general urban issues that I’ve ever read.

Update:

Incidentally, I note that New Haven’s mayor seems to have correctly realized that being welcoming to unauthorized migrants is in the city’s interests.