Turning the Town Around

How a handful of American communities have begun to curb industrial and economic decline.

September 2022

Reading time min

A photo collection of 4 municipalities: Lawrence, MA; Detroit, MI; Stockton, CA; and Josephine County, OR

Photos: Getty images (4), from top: Denis Tangney Jr; Steven_Kriemadis; tntemerson; Marlo Fullerton/EyeEm

Perhaps nobody knows better than Michelle Wilde Anderson how quietly an American town can disappear, at least on paper. As a professor at Stanford Law School, Anderson studies local government and poverty, often in places where the American Dream seems to have ceased, sometimes to hardly any notice at all. In her 2012 paper “Dissolving Cities,” Anderson revealed a startling trend. In the 17 years prior, at least 373 small American cities had voted themselves out of existence—more than had taken that step in the preceding 100 years. Their motivations for dissolving themselves varied, she found, but one theme ran nearly throughout: economic decline and budgetary collapse.

“That was kind of a revelation for me,” she says, “because in the American imagination we are always growing towards greater prosperity.” For many places, the reverse was true. “You’re sort of going back down the ladder.”

Yet erasing a city’s legal existence, and cutting the cost of a layer of government, isn’t the same as erasing its problems. A community with broad poverty, limited industry, and minimal assets still staggers on, regardless of its municipal status. Anderson’s latest work looks beyond formal dissolutions: She wants to know how to save a town as a living thing. That’s no simple task at a time when American prosperity and opportunity have receded from many blue-collar communities. The question has sent her around the country over the past decade to glean lessons from hundreds of people straining to pull their hometowns out of downward spirals. Her findings are chronicled in The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America, published in June.

Michelle Wilde Anderson

‘There is major democratic turbulence embedded in this level of regional and spatial inequality.’

It’s a fight she says we all have reason to be invested in. Since the 1980s, the country’s wealthiest regions have seen incomes increase far faster than elsewhere. In 31 states, one or two metro areas now account for more than half of their state’s gross domestic product, with most of the other states moving that way. The result, she says, is a geographic divergence of fortune that is exacerbating the political upheaval of our time. The solution suggested by some—that residents in struggling towns simply move—is neither realistic at scale nor helpful to national unity. If people in embattled locations sense a shrug from mainstream politicians, they’ll find others who make them feel heard, she says. “There is major democratic turbulence embedded in this level of regional and spatial inequality.” 

Downward Spirals 

Anderson’s book stems from her research into the 28 municipalities that filed for bankruptcy protection—or went into receivership—during and after the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, the biggest surge of municipal financial distress since the Great Depression. Many of the towns had spiraled into an impossible dilemma. After cutting costs, reducing payroll expenses, and selling assets, they were still broke, largely because their people were poor. And their people were poor in part because their government was too broke to help. In such places, the sense of government as an asset—the provider of police, fire, parks, transit, libraries, water, roads, public health, and more—was often replaced by one of liability. Government meant understaffed and demoralized workforces providing subpar service and implementing elaborate ways of assessing fines and fees to bring in money. “Local governments do not just reflect inequality,” she writes. “They help drive it.”

Anderson had planned to follow that research with a book that delved deeper into the problems that ensue from such municipal financial meltdowns, but she quickly reached a crossroads. “I decided that I didn’t have time, and nobody had the time, to write a book about all the problems,” she says. “And so I chose a smaller subset of cities where I thought they were doing really good work and there’s really a lot of progress and momentum.”

That is how she arrived upon the otherwise unlikely set of four “towns” in her book—more specifically, a county and three cities. She chose Josephine County, a rural community in southern Oregon that was haunted by the loss of the logging industry; Stockton, Calif., an inland port 60 miles east of Stanford, devastated by foreclosures and municipal missteps; Lawrence, Mass., an old mill town written off as the “City of the Damned” for crime, drugs, and unemployment; and Detroit, the household name brought to its knees in 2013 by the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history (a distinction previously held by Stockton).

Each, she says, is an outsider in an age when the economic flow to major urban areas has left those in less fortunate locations to fight or fail. All four have done plenty of both as they’ve confronted crises of economy, crime, leadership, and confidence. None has found a way out, she says, but each has done things that are instructive to others in similar situations.

“The point of this book is not to say, ‘Look, they’ve got this,’” she says, “but rather to say, ‘People are working their asses off on some of the most important issues in the country, and we owe them our respect and our attention, and we owe them our support.’”

How each of the four communities fell deep into hard times was, in Anderson’s telling, a mixture of misfortune and mistakes. All four were hurt by the evaporation of manufacturing. In Josephine County, the timber industry all but disappeared in the ’90s after the northern spotted owl was declared a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In each town, there were dubious leadership decisions and disastrous economic bets; in some, corruption. In Detroit, Lawrence, and Stockton, the neglect and injustice resulting from neighborhood redlining, subprime loans, or an elite disdain for portions of the population sowed seeds of trouble. Existing financial precarity became dire in the Great Recession. Stockton, for example, had been hyped as a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, which frothed real estate values into a bubble, the implosion of which turned the city into the foreclosure co-capital of the country, just behind Detroit. 

The results were bleak. In Josephine County, residents embittered by lost logging jobs and later by the end of federal subsidies to offset those losses succumbed to a “faithlessness” in all government, Anderson says. When subsidies waned, voters declined to make up for the lost revenues, even as jail beds were emptied, deputies were fired, and assistant district attorneys were dismissed. At one point, the local sheriff advised victims of domestic violence to move where their protective orders could be enforced. As law enforcement shriveled, armed civilian patrols organized to fill the void. County voters went to the polls nine times between 2004 and 2016 to decide measures that would help revive law enforcement, reopen the libraries, and improve other services. Each measure failed.

“People say, ‘Something really bad is going to have to happen before our citizenry starts supporting itself,’ ” the county sheriff said in 2016. “Well, it’s already happened! It’s come and gone, and it did not shake the tree at all.”

Faith in the Forgotten

Addressing that exasperation is at the crux of Anderson’s project: How does a city or county with scant wealth to leverage, no major industry to hitch to, and a lack of obvious civic willpower pull itself up? She goes to the people trying to shake the trees to ask.

As a “scholar of areas that seem to be in chronic decline,” a self-description from one of her papers, Anderson has often gone far from the traveled path. Rich Schragger, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law who also studies local government, says one of Anderson’s great strengths is finding areas that have been underappreciated and understudied and getting into the nuts and bolts of them in a way that other scholars have not. Often, her scholarship comes matched with a call for action. Her paper on unincorporated, mostly Black and Latino communities that have grown up as glorified labor camps in the shadow of prosperous cities, lacking proper drainage or even water and sewer services, makes clear the need for new laws to protect residents living in the “degrading absence of public investment in the physical state and safety of their neighborhoods.”

“The throughline of her career, I would say, is faith,” says Julia Mendoza, a friend and associate professor at Loyola Law School who is writing a book on Stockton’s school-to-prison pipeline. “Michelle has a deep, unwavering faith, investment, and commitment to people who some would describe as forgotten.”

Photo of woman sitting on the floor in a library reading to a little girl.THE POWER OF HOPE: In Josephine County in 2017, volunteers finally raised enough money to fix the lights in the library and to build a reading nook for children. 

As Anderson would tell it, that faith has been earned. What seems to work best in the towns in her book is people, nonprofits, and officials organizing themselves, diligently and unrelentingly, to do unglamorous work. It’s pushing their communities to take small steps away from old distractions and toward something more nurturing.

In the years before Stockton’s bankruptcy, for example, municipal leaders had been content to think they’d isolated the worst of the city’s problems in certain neighborhoods, where poverty, crime, and foreclosure hit hardest, she says. Instead of addressing needs there, they poured tens of millions of dollars into developing a destination downtown that no one came to. Certainly not many South Side residents could afford $27 cuts at the new steak house, which would close within a year. As the city’s problems, including vast unfunded pension obligations and the collapsed real estate bubble, worsened, many began to realize they had fooled themselves. “The city had walled in its poorest neighborhoods with stigma and disinvestment,” Anderson wrote, “then realized that outsiders had built similar walls around all of Stockton.”

Since its 2012 bankruptcy, however, reform-minded leaders, including former mayor and council member Michael Tubbs, ’12, MA ’12, have prioritized more holistic goals that invest in current residents rather than imagined future arrivals, Anderson says. She details how residents and police worked together to shut down a store that had long doubled as a drug-dealing market, which in turn brought back to life a neighboring park that people had been too scared to use; how Tubbs as a council member helped convene a grand jury investigation that found City Hall had not provided for South Stockton “in any sustained and meaningful way,” setting the stage for voters to approve a sales tax to fund the reopening of its shuttered library; and how the city began to address the mental health needs of its poorest residents traumatized by crime, violence, and abuse. A national study in 2016 found that Stockton tied for first place in health improvements because of a new clinic and other work in South Stockton.

Those aren’t steps that immediately return a city to riches, but Anderson says they help restore civic faith and quality of life. “You can’t just rescue people’s faith in local government at the exact same moment that your local government finally has money again,” she says. “Those projects have to be long-term investments.”

In Lawrence, a long-concerted effort to bring people together—including neighborhood group dinners at volunteers’ houses—helped strengthen the social fabric, which has led to small victories such as park and canal cleanups. It has also provided the intense community collaboration needed to fuel the city’s ambitious plans for job training in the education and health care sectors.

In Detroit, half of all residential units went through foreclosure between 2005 and 2015. In the broader county, the rate of Black home ownership plunged 11 points after the recession. Activists there have tried to stem a crisis that continues. Nonprofits have dedicated themselves to counseling residents on how to advocate for themselves with banks and local government, and they’ve raised money to buy foreclosed homes to keep their inhabitants in them. They have also pressured the city to create ways to grant relief to residents unable to pay property taxes. Other groups are pooling resources to buy property for Black farmers to help stem the slide in Black land ownership.

‘You can’t just rescue people’s faith in local government at the exact same moment that your local government finally has money again.’

The progress in Josephine County—population 88,000—might be the easiest of all to put your hands around. In 2017, county leaders finally got voters to approve local taxes that returned modest funding to law enforcement and libraries. The secret? Advocates’ relentless phone-calling to rally supporters (rather than to convert opponents), follow-ups, and transparency. Proponents of the taxes would invite their opponents to join them at events, and the value of displaying good faith outweighed the benefit of going it alone. The sheer expense of elbow grease paid off. “It’s when community groups start to fix things with duct tape and ingenuity that people want more for their communities,” the New York Times said in its review of Anderson’s book, calling it an artful mixture of ethnography, narrative history, in-depth interviews, and legal scholarship.

And hope seems to have begat hope. At one point, the nonprofit that ran the libraries on a shoestring after the county abdicated its role debated whether to repair damaged circuitry that had plunged the main branch into darkness. Some objected, saying that patrons could make do with flashlights. They worried repairs would make it seem as though the library wasn’t in need. But another side won out. “The risk that people would think the library was ‘rich’ was outweighed by the hope that a good library would help people in the community feel that they were rich,” Anderson writes. So volunteers fixed the lights, fundraised to renovate a reading nook for children, and helped make 14,000 calls to win additional funding in the election.

When the Cavalry Doesn’t Come

Anderson admits that her answers in The Fight to Save the Town are modest compared with the problems, but they are a start in a world with few better options. Decades ago, it was fashionable to argue for larger regional governments that would bring troubled towns into a conglomerate with more monied municipalities. But Anderson says she can count the number of such regional bodies on two hands. Outside saviors rarely materialize. “If the cavalry doesn’t come, when the cavalry doesn’t come, what are you going to do anyway?” she says.

The full span of Anderson’s arguments won’t win over everyone. Howard Husock, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, criticized the book for casting “blame on the American economic system, while minimizing local government missteps.” But he found Anderson’s action points compelling as demonstrations of how neighborhood groups and local government can turn around “some very tough places.” 

Anderson says she felt an urgency to write something that might reach a public audience that could show up with new resources, ideas, and political power. Fight is the result of months spent in the four locations and hundreds of interviews. To hone her writing for a lay audience, she diagrammed New Yorker articles and other long-form reporting, studying how journalists build stories, weave in quotes, and set scenes.

One day in 2017, Anderson was in the car when an NPR feature caught her attention. Composer David Lang, ’78, had written Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, a score for wounded instruments collected from Philadelphia’s public schools. The composition was strangely beautiful in its own right. However, its point wasn’t to diminish the need for new instruments but to prove it. Anderson says she nearly drove off the road listening. In writing her book, she came to love Stockton, Detroit, Lawrence, and Josephine County, but she knows how much more beautiful they’d be if they could be made whole.

Her book won’t do that, she knows. It is more proof of concept than how-to manual, she says. And maybe it’s best described as a rallying cry. When she signs copies of her book for family and friends, she often crosses out the first “The” in the title.  Fight to save the town. For Anderson, it will be worth it for all of us to do so. 

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at sscott3@stanford.edu.

Photo credits, from top: Jen Paschal/Stanford Law School; Gillian Flaccus/AP Photo

Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide on Campus

by Kali Shiloh

Stanford may be called the Farm, but to those who grew up in rural America, it doesn’t look much like home.

For the nearly 5 percent of domestic undergraduates who come from zip codes federally classified as rural, finding others with shared experiences can be challenging. “It’s not a visible identity,” says Thomas Schnaubelt, former executive director of the Haas Center for Public Service, who is now a lecturer and senior adviser on civic education at Stanford’s new Deliberative Democracy Lab. While there’s no single type of rural Stanford student, 2018-19 statistics show that they’re twice as likely to be first-generation college students as their urban counterparts, and they’re more ethnically diverse, as well.

In 2018, Schnaubelt, who hails from a farm in Wisconsin, brought together the Haas Center and the Bill Lane Center for the American West to found the Stanford Rural Engagement Network. The organization aims to foster connections among students and engage the broader Stanford community with the challenges facing rural populations. Its listserv reaches 266 people, including 27 faculty members who conduct research in California’s Central Valley.

This spring, Zac Stoor, ’22, created an official student group of the same name. The group builds on Schnaubelt’s original concept to assure both prospective and current rural students that they, too, belong on the Farm.

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at kshiloh@stanford.edu.

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