Cities Which Choose Death

Pocohontos, Tennessee, can still be found on the map, but there's not much to it. A few houses occupied by old people, a run-down old grocery store, a collection of empty and dilapidated old buildings beside the railroad tracks and one church served by a rotating corps of young men from Freed-Hardeman College in Henderson, Tennessee, is just about all that's left. But it wasn't always that way. In the early 1900s there was a sawmill producing railroad ties from wood harvested in nearby forests, a railroad switching yard, a rail repair shop, several cotton gins, warehouses, a hotel, a bank, and several general stores. A number of men in the community worked for the railroad and crews changed there four times a day. By the standards of the time it was a thriving community.

My late father-in-law was one of the town's major figures. He owned the largest general store and the bank. He built the only church that is still in use. His sister and his wife taught school in the community. Not far from the center of town was a fully subscribed private boarding school established by the man who later founded Freed-Hardeman College. My dear father-in-law was, as he used to tell me without a single note of sadness, a very rich man.

When cotton prices began to decline in the years following World War I he was left with the uncollectible accounts of virtually all the small cotton farmers in the area. He continued to extend credit and accepted bales of cotton in payment, storing the cotton in his warehouse in hopes that the price would soon rise enough to cover his own mounting debts to his suppliers. It didn't work out. He sold all he had, paid every penny of his debts and moved away. With him went the bank and the general store. With declining cotton prices and advancing soil erosion, the farmers allowed their land to return to forest. Advances in rail technology made the switching yard redundant and the loss of the rail crews finished the job. By 1936 the town became what it is today, a ghost of its former self.

Small towns can die. Even large towns, large enough to be called cities, can die. But they don't die suddenly. Death comes slowly and quietly like a thief in the night. But once death and decay have become entrenched, there may be little that can be done about it. Pocohontos died because technology and other market forces made it useless. It was, in a sense, in the "middle of nowhere" even when it was thriving. Today, by any measure, it's in the middle of nowhere and no one cares. Indeed there is no reason why anyone should care that it's gone and there is really nothing that anyone can or should do about its disappearance.

But Camden, New Jersey, East St. Louis, Illinois, and Benton Harbor, Michigan, are not, by any standard of evaluation, in the "middle of nowhere." Camden sits across the Delaware Bay. East St. Louis fronts the Mississippi River directly across from St. Louis, Missouri. Benton Harbor, Michigan, is on the northern bank of the St. Joseph River where it enters Lake Michigan not far north of Chicago. All three of these once-thriving cities are virtually dead. But, unlike Pocohontos and thousands of other small towns just like it which once graced our landscape, there is the general conviction that these cities are not supposed to die. Therefore there is hue and cry about doing something to resuscitate them before it's too late.

It may be too late already. Unlike the thousands of small towns which have died as their young people left to follow the call of market opportunities elsewhere, these cities have come to their point of death in a different environment. Theirs is the environment which Daniel Bell called "the sense of rising entitlement." The siren song long listened to in these places says "stay where you are, you don't have to leave because the government will come to the rescue." So compelling has this song been that many who are trapped in these places of decay are the first to object to the radical therapy required to save what little is left to save.

William Wolf, Benton Harbor's recently elected mayor, is white, the first non-black mayor in this 72% black and Hispanic city since 1974. Moreover he came to the city from Benton Harbor's across-the-river sister city, St. Joseph, which is clean, prosperous, politically conservative, and 98% white. He now faces strong political opposition. Why? Because he wants to use private developers to completely reconstruct the harbor areas along the St. Joseph River. Virtually everyone agrees that development along the river can make the difference in attracting outside investment. But this highly-politicized city has a vocal element opposed to development, that is, drawn from private sources rather than from federal government funding. The mayor's critics worry that "private developers will take advantage of the city."

What Benton Harbor, East St. Louis, and Camden have in common is not that they are all predominantly black, 98% in East St. Louis, but that they are all highly politicized. In his book, Ethnic America, economist Thomas Sowell observed that those ethnic groups which relied on politics to begin their move up the economic ladder (the Irish in the early years of this century) fared less well than those groups which relied on market opportunities and avoided politics (the Italians, Jews, and Asians). America's blacks Sowell noted, have become the most highly politicized element in our country. where they have a sufficient majority to gain control of city government, they look for political solutions to their problems and resist private sector "intrusion" into their affairs. They tend to promote city government monopolies, regulations and subsidies over free markets and a favorable private sector climate--in short, municipal socialism. That is exactly what is happening in Benton Harbor today.

These cities are essentially dead. Their accelerating move toward final decay will not be a product of race, but a product of their antagonism toward the private sector. Given their locations there is no reason why they cannot be vibrant communities. But they have apparently chosen a development path which is doomed to fail. Perhaps in another two decades they will still be on the map alongside Pocohontos. But, I suspect, Pocohontos will be the more pleasant place to live.


Charles D. Van Eaton is a widely published economist who is formerly the chairman of the Economics Department at Hillsdale College and now retired and living in Tennessee. Permission is hereby granted to print or broadcast this article, in whole or in part, with appropriate credit given to the author and to The Mackinac Center.