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Old Posted Nov 29, 2022, 7:18 PM
jd3189 jd3189 is online now
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Were the peak population levels of 1960s US cities due to overpopulation?

I'm relatively familiar with many of the issues that led to the decline of many American cities through the late 20th century up to now in certain areas. But it is interesting to see that many prewar American cities were at their all-time peak back in the 50s and 60s, right after WW II.

One theory concerning this that I have come across was the fact that many veterans who came back after the war came back and started to have families immediately. Once the postwar suburbs started to get built en masse, people started to leave for more space.

Of course, this may not be the main reason, but it is interesting how so many cities, like Chicago, Detroit, Philly, Milwaukee, DC, Boston, SF, etc were far denser and populous at that point and many of them have yet to reach those peaks again. Had we focused a bit more of getting many of our cities to hold on to their peaks within the city proper while also building denser suburbs that grew with their main city, the US would be a different place, for sure better for urbanists than it is now.
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  #2  
Old Posted Nov 29, 2022, 7:26 PM
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it wasn't necessarily "overpopulation", but yes, larger average housholed sizes were a big reason why so many legacy cities reached their population peaks back then.

in chicago's case, the city proper actually has more total households today in 2020 than it did back in 1950, but the average household now only contains 2.36 people vs. 3.19 people back in 1950 (mainly due to people having fewer (or no) children, divorce, and less multi-generational living), so the city's overall population is now still way lower than it was in 1950 despite having more actual households than it did back then.



anecdotal story time:

my dad was born in 1946 to a world II GI who immediately started making a family when he got home from the war. they lived in an outter bungalow belt neighborhood in chicago built out in the 40s specifically for returning vets, so all the houses on my dad's block were families like his. growing up, he said that just about every single house on his block had anywhere from 3 - 6 children living in it.

baby. BOOM!



that just doesn't happen anymore.
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Last edited by Steely Dan; Nov 29, 2022 at 7:44 PM.
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Old Posted Nov 29, 2022, 8:08 PM
galleyfox galleyfox is offline
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Originally Posted by jd3189 View Post

Of course, this may not be the main reason, but it is interesting how so many cities, like Chicago, Detroit, Philly, Milwaukee, DC, Boston, SF, etc were far denser and populous at that point and many of them have yet to reach those peaks again. Had we focused a bit more of getting many of our cities to hold on to their peaks within the city proper while also building denser suburbs that grew with their main city, the US would be a different place, for sure better for urbanists than it is now.
From what I’ve read, the Great Depression was the definitive urban crisis for older cities. It destroyed property values for about a decade to the point where parking lots were more valuable than housing, and obliterated a good portion of the independent non-military urban manufacturing base.

WWII finally overcame the economic crisis, but it led of course to a shortage of labor and materials so that city real estate couldn’t actually recover.

The post-war populations were still growing, but I think a substantial amount of that growth was not healthy because properties were being mostly being subdivided into kitchenettes (often without bathrooms) and conditions were rapidly deteriorating. For example, Chicago had a 50% increase of units w/o bathrooms in the 40s due to shoddy subdivisions which would be absolutely intolerable today.







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The “kitchenette” initially described a newly constructed small apartment in Chicago, first appearing around 1916 in Uptown, at a time when apartment construction in the city was increasing dramatically. It featured “ Pullman kitchens” and “Murphy in-a-door beds” to conserve space, and connoted efficiency and modernity.

By the 1920s, and especially during the Great Depression, World War II, and early postwar era, the term came to be associated with conversions by white and African American landlords and their agents of existing housing into smaller units, usually, although not exclusively, in the Black Belt and other areas occupied by African Americans. Single-family houses and houses meant for two and three families were converted to more intensive use. Brick buildings with medium and large apartments rented on a monthly basis were divided into one-room units, using beaver-board partitions. The resulting units were often rented out by the week as furnished rooms, although the amount of furniture offered was marginal. Entire families occupied single rooms, sharing with other residents an inadequate number of bathrooms and kitchens, exceeding the plumbing capacity, and leading to a serious deterioration in sanitary conditions. During the 1940s, more than 80,000 conversions of this type had occurred in Chicago, leading to a 52 percent increase in units lacking private bath facilities.
Kitchenettes of varying quality were rented by all races, including white World War II veterans and young families on the Near North Side and elsewhere. But their rapid increase and clustering in the Black Belt made them more prominent in housing of African Americans. A federal study in the 1930s found that conditions in kitchenettes occupied by blacks in one South Side area were much worse than those occupied by whites. They had less space, sunlight, and amenities.
http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohisto...pages/692.html


From a 1954 Life Magazine article about Chicago showing that this was hardly an urban golden age.

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Old Posted Nov 29, 2022, 8:10 PM
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Overpopulation? Absolutely not. Most of the land in our cities today remains horribly underpopulated, even in cities that are at their peak today.

White Flight and family size aside, another major major difference between then and now is that it used to be the most common way to rent an apartment was to rent a spare room in someone's house. This was called "being a boarder" or "taking on a boarder." That practice is more or less gone today, partly because of social norms but also partly because of zoning, that, for example, has made it illegal for a house to have two kitchens.

Back in the 50s, city neighborhoods full of single-family homes actually had families plus boarders. Today they only have families. In most cities these neighborhoods take up the majority of city land, which means in most US cities, most of the land that used to be available for apartment living is no longer available.
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Old Posted Nov 29, 2022, 8:32 PM
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wow, you guys are lucky. Don't moan too much -UK average house size is 729 sq ft

In London even smaller and average $885K even with the plummeting £

Daily life in England:



Last edited by muppet; Nov 30, 2022 at 10:58 PM.
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  #6  
Old Posted Nov 29, 2022, 10:12 PM
iheartthed iheartthed is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jd3189 View Post
I'm relatively familiar with many of the issues that led to the decline of many American cities through the late 20th century up to now in certain areas. But it is interesting to see that many prewar American cities were at their all-time peak back in the 50s and 60s, right after WW II.

One theory concerning this that I have come across was the fact that many veterans who came back after the war came back and started to have families immediately. Once the postwar suburbs started to get built en masse, people started to leave for more space.

Of course, this may not be the main reason, but it is interesting how so many cities, like Chicago, Detroit, Philly, Milwaukee, DC, Boston, SF, etc were far denser and populous at that point and many of them have yet to reach those peaks again. Had we focused a bit more of getting many of our cities to hold on to their peaks within the city proper while also building denser suburbs that grew with their main city, the US would be a different place, for sure better for urbanists than it is now.
A lot of things happened around that time that destabilized cities. My opinion on why so many cities experienced population declines in the 1950s:
  1. There was a pretty bad recession in the early 1950s after WW2.
  2. Shift to home ownership, HUD and VA Loans. The U.S. strongly encouraged home ownership as a wealth building tool, particularly to returning vets from WW2, but terms for the loans strongly favored houses in the suburbs over urban housing. The most famous was redlining, but borrowers also couldn't get gov't backed loans to buy multi-tenant units even if they wanted.
  3. Cities chasing new trends (aka urban renewal). Cities abruptly scrapped high capacity streetcar systems in favor of low capacity bus systems. Cities arbitrarily deemed certain neighborhoods (mostly minority) as "slums" and made top-down planning decisions that were mostly disasters. Cities chased interstate highway dollars, likely related to the recession mentioned above, and had the plans updated to allow interstate highways built through the middle of cities, which was not the original plan for them.
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Old Posted Nov 29, 2022, 10:16 PM
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Disinvestment from 1929 to 1945 was also a strong motivator...cities looked bad and in disrepair. Extend this for additional decades and it got really bad.

And factories and pollution...the unmitigated, in your face every day kind of both.
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Old Posted Nov 29, 2022, 11:03 PM
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A huge proportion of the population in cities in 1950 was kids. Cities that peaked in population in 1950 thus weren't overpopulated so much as they just had lots of kids sharing bedrooms. Families with kids had been moving to the suburbs for quite some time by then, but they notably moved en masse to the suburbs beginning in the 1950s.
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Old Posted Nov 29, 2022, 11:06 PM
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AC was a pretty big deal too…. Now people could comfortably live in new regions. Along with the other factors mentioned…
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Old Posted Nov 29, 2022, 11:29 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jd3189 View Post
Of course, this may not be the main reason, but it is interesting how so many cities, like Chicago, Detroit, Philly, Milwaukee, DC, Boston, SF, etc were far denser and populous at that point and many of them have yet to reach those peaks again.
SF was not denser and more populous in the 1960s.

SF population:
1900 - 342,782
1910 - 416,912
1920 - 506,676
1930 - 634,394
1940 - 634,536
1950 - 775,357
1960 - 740,316
1970 - 715,674
1980 - 678,974
1990 - 723,959
2000 - 776,733
2010 - 805,235
2020 - 873,965

edit: SF's population first boomed after the gold rush. There was constant growth after that, some stagnation during the great depression, and then another WWII/post-war boom (shipyard workers/2nd great migration, increased Asian and Latin American immigration, etc). Then there was a 1960s-1980s population decline caused mostly by the combo of de-industrialization (shipyards closed down, for example) and the suburban boom, and white flight in reaction to the new post-WWII black neighborhoods (which were by that time declining too, due to poor conditions from stuff like the war on drugs/neglect by the government/corrupt public housing management/racist redevelopment schemes, not to mention rising housing prices due to gentrification and SF's constant lack of housing), and to the quickly rising number of Latin American and Asian immigrants. Immigration from Latin America and Asia has continued to fuel SF's population growth since then, as the white and black populations decline.

Last edited by tech12; Nov 30, 2022 at 3:23 AM.
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Old Posted Nov 30, 2022, 1:25 AM
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Immigration was a huge factor. U.S. cities really had the seeds planted for decline in the 1920's, with the severe immigration restrictions. It took a generation to really see the effects, however. Cities were always gateways, with net outmigration, but now there was minimal immigration.
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Old Posted Nov 30, 2022, 2:16 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Cirrus View Post
Overpopulation? Absolutely not. Most of the land in our cities today remains horribly underpopulated, even in cities that are at their peak today.

White Flight and family size aside, another major major difference between then and now is that it used to be the most common way to rent an apartment was to rent a spare room in someone's house. This was called "being a boarder" or "taking on a boarder." That practice is more or less gone today, partly because of social norms but also partly because of zoning, that, for example, has made it illegal for a house to have two kitchens.
Having/being a boarder was actually fairly common in the early half of the 20th Century; in fact, many people took on boarders during the Great Depression to help make ends meet; some boarders even helped with the family chores. When you go through census records of the 1920s through the 1940s, you'll often see boarders living in a household.
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Old Posted Nov 30, 2022, 12:56 PM
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The US has the most perfect example that overcrowding was not the reason for cities population decline: New York.

Despite their very high density, even for European and Latin American standards, they reached their all-time population high in 2000, again in 2010 and once again in 2020.
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Old Posted Nov 30, 2022, 1:29 PM
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The US has the most perfect example that overcrowding was not the reason for cities population decline: New York.

Despite their very high density, even for European and Latin American standards, they reached their all-time population high in 2000, again in 2010 and once again in 2020.
By American standards, modern NYC does have an overcrowding problem that most other cities don’t. It was close to being twice as crowded as the national average back in the early 2010s. The situation certainly has not improved since then.

Manhattan is closer to the U.S. national average for occupancy, and it is still notably below it’s historical peak, despite being prosperous with effectively zero vacancy.

The 2020 census showed exactly this process play out.

Chicago added proportionally more households and about the same new units as NYC, and lower household sizes erased most of the gain.






Manhattan Census








https://www.icphusa.org/wp-content/u...ercrowding.pdf
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Old Posted Nov 30, 2022, 1:37 PM
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Yes, Manhattan is below the peak, but their density is so high that's only natural. It's like Paris or specially Kowloon. For the island, yes, overcrowding was an issue on its "decline".

Other US cities, however, could comfortably house way more people without been specially dense. Of course, housing must be provided so indeed there will be pockets of overcrowding even in not so dense places.
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Old Posted Nov 30, 2022, 2:05 PM
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Originally Posted by Yuri View Post
The US has the most perfect example that overcrowding was not the reason for cities population decline: New York.

Despite their very high density, even for European and Latin American standards, they reached their all-time population high in 2000, again in 2010 and once again in 2020.
Yes, but NYC is weird demographically for U.S. norms. Huge population of immigrants, giant Orthodox Jewish population, and heavy population of renters, including boarders.

Boarding never went away in NYC. It's extremely common to rent out rooms. It's a big reason that NYC is actually quite cheap and easy for newcomers. You can rent a furnished room in NYC for less than renting an unfurnished apartment in Oklahoma. Just bring toothbrush and some clothes.

In normal America, people tend to be homeowners, in SFH, and boarding is pretty unusual.
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Old Posted Nov 30, 2022, 2:13 PM
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By American standards, modern NYC does have an overcrowding problem that most other cities don’t. It was close to being twice as crowded as the national average back in the early 2010s. The situation certainly has not improved since then.
True, but the important part is "by American standards", which are really weird for global first world standards.

NYC has an "overcrowding problem" in immigrant neighborhoods and Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, as displayed on the maps. The worst overcrowding is in the most immigrant- and Orthodox- heavy neighborhoods. This is the cultural norm. If you went to Borough Park, Brooklyn, and tried to explain to the Orthodox that their giant families were a problem, or if you went to Fresh Meadows, Queens, and tried to explain to South Asians that their grandparents and cousins living with them were a problem, you'd get some weird looks.

The "solution" to the overcrowding is gentrification, like in Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn which have normal household sizes. Absent that, there will be overcrowding.
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Old Posted Nov 30, 2022, 2:42 PM
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[*]Shift to home ownership, HUD and VA Loans. The U.S. strongly encouraged home ownership as a wealth building tool, particularly to returning vets from WW2, but terms for the loans strongly favored houses in the suburbs over urban housing.
I believe that you meant FHA rather than HUD.

To this day, FHA-backed mortgages require a much more detailed inspection than conventional mortgages. For example, I've heard that simple stuff like a loose railing can cause a FHA inspection to fail.

Obviously, a brand-new structure is much more likely to pass a FHA inspection now or in the 1930s when the FHA was established.

A lot of sellers refuse to accept offers from buyers going FHA because they fear that the closing period will take months.

NPR and other reliably left-leaning news outlets call this "discrimination", but it just plain makes sense if you take a step back. The FHA doesn't want broke people buying homes that need extensive repairs. Sellers want to sell a house ASAP, not go through a tedious three month back-and-forth with FHA inspectors demanding repairs to a house they're still living in.


Quote:
The most famous was redlining, but borrowers also couldn't get gov't backed loans to buy multi-tenant units even if they wanted.
You can buy a multifamily up to four units with an FHA loan (I don't know about a VA loan).

The government didn't create redlining, the many local and regional banks did. Historically, banks were chartered by and catered to specific ethnic groups and religions. There were German banks, Jewish banks, Catholic banks, etc. Obviously, a bank didn't want to be holding mortgages in a neighborhood that suddenly lost its value. People start walking away from their homes since they can't cover the difference between what they owe and what the house will sell for. When that happens too many times, the bank goes bust.

Again, is this "discrimination"? No, it's just good business.

When you realize that local banks were at risk during demographic changes, it's easier to understand why blue bloods welcomed interstate highway construction through the heart of town, slum clearance, etc. It got bad mortgages off their books.
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Old Posted Nov 30, 2022, 2:47 PM
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True, but the important part is "by American standards", which are really weird for global first world standards.

NYC has an "overcrowding problem" in immigrant neighborhoods and Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, as displayed on the maps. The worst overcrowding is in the most immigrant- and Orthodox- heavy neighborhoods. This is the cultural norm. If you went to Borough Park, Brooklyn, and tried to explain to the Orthodox that their giant families were a problem, or if you went to Fresh Meadows, Queens, and tried to explain to South Asians that their grandparents and cousins living with them were a problem, you'd get some weird looks.

The "solution" to the overcrowding is gentrification, like in Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn which have normal household sizes. Absent that, there will be overcrowding.
I guess that’s sort of my point that NYC is a bad example to compare other cities to.

Importing millions of Orthodox Jews or South Asians to improve household sizes isn’t exactly a realistic option for 99% of American cities. They have to cater to standard American preferences, and that means lots of new construction with individual rooms per person.

NYC construction rates are certainly not getting any other cities back to peak historic population. But even quadrupling the construction rate (literally becoming the fastest building city in America) doesn’t move the needle much if household sizes aren’t moving in the same direction.

Chicago: Households +9% Units +6% Population +1.9%

NYC: Households +8% Units +8% Population +7.7%
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Old Posted Nov 30, 2022, 2:56 PM
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^ average household size in Chicago is now down to 2.36 as of 2020.

Conceivably, how much lower can it really go? There has to be a basement somewhere, right?
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