How to save a dying city

The following is a research paper that I wrote for my Leadership, Ethics, and Contemporary Issues course this term. This topic is something that I am very passionate for; I am moving to Flint with my bride-to-be after the wedding! This is primarily driven by a calling to ministry, but I also see Flint as a city ripe with opportunity.

I hope you enjoy the Seminar Paper, please feel free to leave comments or questions and I’ll do my best to address them. Enjoy!


How to save a dying city: an analysis of leadership styles in cities

The world we live in is constantly changing and at a much faster pace than the world of our grandparents’ generation or even our parents’ generation. This is the view of Pulitzer-prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as he describes in his book, The World is Flat, globalization has taken place in 3 different stages: the era until 1800 was dominated by countries globalizing, the era from 1800-2000 was dominated by companies globalizing, and the era since 2000 (what Friedman calls “Globalization 3.0“) is about individuals globalizing (2006, p. 10). The key factor in this change is almost certainly the advance of technology and communications which have allowed individuals to communicate with one another just as easily across the room as across the world.

While this is an interesting and exciting topic, the subject of this study is a specific consequence of this “flattening” of the world: the current state and potential future of post-industrial cities. These cities are faced with particular problems that are unique to their situation and require a different style of leadership in order to slow their decline or make them viable communities and centers of commerce. In order to save a dying city, a diversity of leadership, both in style and in number, is necessary to conquer the diversity of problems that arise in the contexts of economics, community, and politics.

For the purposes of this paper, a “dying city” is one whose economic and social climate has suffered from that city becoming post-industrial. Often the best indication of a dying city is one where there is a net loss of citizens and jobs for those citizens to work. Another important assumption that must be made is the idea that a dying city can (or should) be saved. This is based on the idea that people still living in that city would rather see it turned around and changed than slowly rot into a ghost town. Aside from the emotional perspective, there is an incredible amount of capital loss when a city is deserted or destroyed by blight; this loss would be best prevented.

The main reason that these post-industrial cities are dying, or even post-industrial in the first place, is because of a trend toward global manufacturing that started in the late 1970s. As physical location became less and less important due to advances in transportation technology and advances in manufacturing efficiencies required less raw materials, many companies began viewing their products and services in a global perspective and seeking more cost-effective places to manufacture their goods. (Meyer, 2000, p. 9) However, due to the uncompetitively high cost of labor in the United States (because of higher standards of living, labor unions, etc.) many global organizations have shifted their operations to countries such as Mexico and India.

While this “out-sourcing” of work has kept these companies financially competitive, it has also left numerous cities with significant numbers of residents out of work. This was a very common theme of many complaints in the late 1900s, but now the conversation must change from complaints how to make things better. To reach this point, it is essential to explore these aspects of leadership represented (or, in some cases, unrepresented) in dying cities, the specific issues to be addressed by leadership, and analysis of the type of leadership best suited to the issues at hand.


The most apparent way that this globalization has affected post-industrial cities is economically. When many industrial jobs left, hundreds of people were left without a source of income and even the support economies of those industries, for example hotels and restaurants, also felt the sting of decreased business. While this loss of jobs has definitely made its social impact, it is important to primarily focus on the specific economic issues that are present in these environments.

The first issue is that of an under-qualified workforce. While not all employees who work for large companies are under-qualified, the problem is that when a great number of people lose their jobs, only the best employees get hired at existing companies while the rest are left to try to find basic support jobs, go on welfare, or move in search of a job somewhere else. This is purely based on the capitalistic mentality of enterprise business; a company who wants to survive during cut-backs will typically “right-size” their least valuable employees while retaining their best talent. It would be inappropriate to say that the rest of these people are useless, only that many have the mentality of having a job given to them as opposed to making their own work.

The second issue faced in these cities is the import nature of many American cities; not only do people import food, clothing, and electronics, etc. they also import jobs. This is not usually viewed as a problem, but in the case of an industrial city it is a huge issue. The problem arises when the job provider finds a more cost-effective place to get their work done; the workers in the (now) post-industrial cities would not offer enough value in return for the wages they are asking, so the large company, who is usually publicly owned and primarily focused on maximizing profits, makes the decision to find “better” workers.

This issue is clarified by John Howkins in his book The Creative Economy wherein he helps us change our value paradigm from that of producible goods to that of ideas: “People with ideas – people who own ideas – have become more powerful than people who work machines and, in some cases, more powerful than the people who own machines.” (2001, p. ix) Indeed, this is the underlying economic problem (to both these issues) in post-industrial cities: workers whose parents and grandparents grew up working in a factory, content to use their muscles and coordination to make a living, have not trained their children to bring value to the community they live in by using their creative minds.

While Friedman contends that globalization has hurt the post-industrial city, he also makes the point that “Globalization 3.0” empowers the individual to exploit their own creativity. (2006, p. 10) This makes way for the person who is the most important leader of the economic sector in the post-industrial city: the entrepreneur.

An entrepreneur, according to Malcolm Gladwell, is an internally motivated person who sees opportunity, and takes advantage of that. (Gladwell, 2010, p. 24) The importance of the entrepreneur in the context of post-industrial cities is plain to see according to Bill Donahue, whose article “Semper Youngstown” focuses on the rust-belt city of Youngstown, Ohio, provides a case of post-industrial done right. He features the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI) as an example of how some people see emptied buildings and expansive vacant lots where an entrepreneur saw the opportunity to take advantage of inexpensive office and manufacturing space. As most entrepreneurs do not have the large amounts of capital that established businesses do, many entrepreneurs lead by using their personal influence, in other words, by example. Donahue presents us with the leadership of Jim Cossler, the “chief evangelist” of the YBI, instead of leaving Youngstown when it would have lauded as “common sense” sense to do so, Cossler’s focus is on encouraging young people to stay, just as he has:

“He wants [a successful graduate from YBI’s] triumph to rub off, and he wants to reverse a grim brain drain: For decades now, Youngstown’s brightest youths have fled town. He wants to call home what he calls “the Youngstown diaspora,” to sprout a cerebral local culture and a computer industry that can support 5,000 jobs on the YBI campus.” (Donahue, 2010, p. 1)

Here is an instance of a leader (not in the sense that he is a CEO of a multi-national company) who started down the path he felt correct and encouraged others to follow him. This is particularly important because we are considering leadership outside the context of large, industrial corporations and, instead, dealing with the kind of leadership Youngstown needs: the leadership that Immanuel Kant portrays in his work “Good Will, Duty and the Categorical Imperative”. This leadership style is characterized by a leader’s tendency to treat the people around him (his employees, his community) not just as resources or tools to help him achieve his personal goals, but rather he makes one of his personal goals that of fulfilling the goals of those around him (Ciulla, 2003, p. 106). In the case of a post-industrial city, this can be as simple as benefitting the community by contributing to the economic stability of the whole city rather than pursuing business for personal gains.


Naturally, the battle to save a dying city cannot take place merely on one front and, in this case, the second battle is that of leadership within the community. The argument made in the last section is deepened here by well-known green journalist Bill McKibben, who claims that the sustainability of our communities is more important than the huge economic growth that our country has touted for years (2007, p. 11). He uses the example of the world’s thirst for energy and its temporary satiation in fossil fuels as an example of how poor leadership in the past has sacrificed the health of communities, and even the planet earth as a whole, in the interest of economic gains by the rapid depletion of our limited supply of fossil fuels. These fossil fuels have been a wealth of high efficiency fuel, but are in limited supply which has proven the practice of stripping the earth of its natural resources to be unsustainable. Unfortunately, this issue is largely a by-product of an industrial mentality which preaches that efficiency is to be sought after above all else.

Although some may suggest that his tone reeks of the “leftist global warming” agenda, McKibben shows some excellent examples of how eating locally – getting food from local suppliers and preparers – is better for both the body and the sense of community. He recounts the story of Yale university’s experiment with local foodservice:

“Soon students were counterfeiting Berkley ID cards in an attempt to get some butter-braised root vegetables of their own – and when Yale hosted a conference about the project, two hundred campus food service personnel from around the country showed up to learn.” (McKibben, 2007, p. 85)

This is a convincing example of how a university can show leadership to better their community, but what about the ordinary communities that we live in day to day?

These living communities, be they neighborhoods, apartment complexes, or the like, are faced with unique difficulties in the post-industrial city. The most urgent issues are those of dilapidated buildings and crime. More than one post-industrial city has been labeled by the FBI as “Murder Capital USA” and the exodus of vitality from these cities has left them quite dangerous places in many cases. This danger can be caused by desperation on the part of some families without work who choose to go against the law in their struggle to provide for their families (or to feed their personal addictions).

There is clearly a lot of social responsibility on the shoulders of the leaders living in those communities, but how are those leaders to proceed? An appropriate example of the transforming power of solid community leadership is exhibited by the organization Habitat for Humanity. As a world-wide organization, Habitat for Humanity seeks “to develop communities with people in need by building and renovating houses so that there are decent houses in decent communities” (Mission Statement, 2011). In his book about Habitat for Humanity, the founder, Millard Fuller gives us a story of how members of their organization moved into a neighborhood infested with drug houses and other dangers, bought property and just started building:

“We have learned from building the Kendrick community that Habitat works best when we go into a drug-infested bad neighborhood. We are able to buy the property at a reasonable cost or have it donated. We can then build a number of homes in one location. When we build these homes, we are not only rebuilding homes for families, but we are rebuilding and stabilizing the neighborhood.” (Fuller, 2000 p. 62)

Habitat for Humanity makes a difference in the neighborhoods it works in by building up communities in the homes that it helps to build, placing the responsibility of community in the hands of it inhabitants.

Even though this model of leadership is not profitable in a monetary sense, it does enhance the quality of life for residents in that neighborhood and also nearby neighborhoods. This highlights an important feature of community leadership; it is more akin to servant leadership than the leadership of a business. The book, “Leading without Power”, which is focused on leadership in not-for-profit organizations, which living communities ultimately are, focuses on this idea of servant leadership by comparing it to the leadership structure of a healthy family. Some of the principles listed are that families must teach and illustrate a clear set of values, teach us how to manage resources, teach us how to see learning as a permanent part of life, must explore the future together, and celebrate together, among other things (De Pree, 1997, pp. 91-94). As in a family, a community must be focused on serving the entire family in order to be sustainable. This idea of servant leadership is echoed by Robert Greenleaf in his work titled “The servant as Leader.” He illustrates his point here: “But the leader needs more than inspiration. A leader ventures to say ‘I will go; come with me!’ A leader initiates, provides the ideas and the structure, and takes the risk of failure along with the change of success.” (Ciulla, 2003 p. 214). In other words, the community leader also leads by example, only this time it is leadership in service.


The final aspect of leadership within post-industrial cities is the political leadership. This is important as the political leadership is responsible for the laws that govern the city’s actions; a good political leader will make or maintain laws that promote the values of the city and allow its residents to act in their own benefit. One of the unique challenges to leading a dying city politically is the issue of supporting services within a city with a constantly shrinking population. There is always a fine line to be drawn between decreasing services and increasing the taxation of the city members. Flint, Michigan’s mayor, Dayne Walling summarizes well saying “[the budget is] a balance between historical operation and current operation,” (White, 2011) when speaking of past employees’ pensions compared to current services to be provided. When the mayor (essentially CEO) of a post-industrial city is tasked with the leadership of that city, it seems as though there can be no obviously right answer to the question of right governance.

However, the Mayor’s office is not the only body that can influence the political leadership of a city. Bill Donahue describes a political activist who is doing his part to influence the politics of Youngstown, OH:

“And there is suddenly a host of young, civic-minded idealists in Youngstown, among them Phil Kidd, a bald and muscled onetime Army lieutenant. Kidd, who is 30, made his first foray into activism in 2005, by standing on a downtown plaza each week with a sign reading Defend Youngstown. Today, he works for a new nonprofit, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative. He has rallied Youngstowners to shut down a corner liquor store where criminals gathered and to help residents of battered neighborhoods get the city to pull down vacant buildings — drug houses, usually, or vandal magnets.” (Donahue, 2010, p. 2)

Mr. Kidd gives us hope that the future of the city’s political leadership is not limited purely to person officially in charge.

This calls to mind the writings of Anthropologist F. G. Bailey who, in reference to Sudanese tribes, tells us “There are no rulers. ‘Leadership in a local community consists of an influential man deciding to do something and the people of the other hamlets following suit at their convenience.’ In larger groups leadership is even more attenuated.” (Ciulla, 2003, p. 246) Although this is not speaking specifically of the post-industrial city, we can see that it is entirely possible for passionate people to work on their own to achieve progress without the “blessing” of the designated leader (or lack thereof).

While there is great diversity in the issues presented to the post-industrial city if it will survive, there is hope in that these issues can be divided and conquered. We have seen how the issues in each sector can be addressed albeit with a different leadership style. First, no one person can be responsible for the welfare of an entire city; and second, each sector requires a diversity of people bearing a diversity leadership styles in order to resolve any of these major conflicts.

The hope for America’s growing number of dying cities is to take personal responsibility for their own triumphs and downfalls. Whether this is through urban gardening, locally-owned enterprise, or community action groups, the key reversing the decline of post-industrial cities is in the growth of “deep economies” which focus on development of the community over strict economic growth.


Ciulla, Joanne B. (2003) The Ethics of Leadership, Belmont: Wadswoth

De Pree, Max. (1997) Leading without power: Finding hope in serving community, Holland: Shepherd Foundation

Donahue, Bill. “Semper Youngstown” Inc. Magazine, 1 May 2010, Web. 6 June 2011

Friedman, Thomas L. (2005) The World is Flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Fuller, Millard. (2000) More than houses: How Habitat for Humanity is Transforming Lives and Neighborhoods, Nashville: Word Publishing

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Sure Thing” The New Yorker, 18 Jan. 2010 pp. 24-29 Print.

Howkins, John. (2001) The Creative Economy: How people make money from ideas, London: Penguin Press

McKibben, Bill. (2007) Deep Economy: The wealth of Communities and the durable future, New York: Holt paperbacks

Meyer, John R. “The Role of Industrial and Post-Industrial Cities in Economic Development” Joint Center for Housing Studies: Harvard University (2000)

“Mission Statement” Habitat for Humanity, n.d. Web. 15 June 2011.

White, Desiree. “Flint Mayor Speaks at Kettering.” The Technician 17 May 2011: Ed. 2B. Print.

2 thoughts on “How to save a dying city

  1. Tina Nies

    Great job, Dan! You summed it up well with “the key reversing the decline of post-industrial cities is in the growth of “deep economies” which focus on development of the community over strict economic growth.”

    You’re setting a great example of community development as you organize and promote events like Pecha Kucha Nights in Flint.

    Thank you!

  2. Ilya Gerner

    Thanks for sending me this link. Interesting take.

    Imagine a young man who grows up in Wayne County, gets a scholarship to Michigan State, graduates with a computer science degree, and then takes a job in Cupertino, CA. There are thorny issues of equity here (how can the state of MI capture some of the benefit they’ve conferred on this guy through 17 years of education and social services when he moves to CA right at the time he’s about to become productive) but my basic assumption is that this is a success story. I certainly wouldn’t prevent anyone from moving to Flint instead. Are there entrepreneurs who want to invest there? Awesome!

    I love cities. I wouldn’t want to live outside of one. I’m just skeptical of interventions that target specific locations rather than creating the general conditions for prosperous growth.



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