So-called "zombie" properties — buildings and even entire neighborhoods that from an economic perspective are both unviable and unrevivable — are analogous to the walking dead that populate the movies of George A. Romero, contend the authors of the new study, "Dawn of the Dead City: An Exploratory Analysis of Vacant Addresses in Buffalo, NY 2008-2010" published in the Journal of Urban Affairs. Mark Silverman, Li Yin, and Kelly L. Patterson of the University at Buffalo have taken on the task of charting the rise of zombie neighborhoods in the shrinking cities of America’s Rustbelt.
Movie zombies, they argue, are good metaphors for the socioeconomic processes that have devastated so many cities, "which no longer produce goods and services in a sustainable manner. Their schools fail to replenish human capital, their labor forces are depleted as the population grays, they have weakened civic institutions, and they are devoid of cultural meaning.”
The authors root their study in Buffalo, a city that has experienced long-run economic trauma brought on by the decline of manufacturing industries. Nearly 80 percent of Buffalo’s manufacturing jobs have disappeared since 1970. The city's population is less than half of what it was in 1950; the broader metro region population has declined by 16 percent.
The core of the city was hit particularly hard, both by depopulation and abandonment of commercial, industrial, and residential structures. I saw this for myself when I lived there. While there were pockets of revival running from the University of Buffalo along Main Street into downtown, the surrounding neighborhoods were beset by trauma and blight, as they are in many older cities.
In a 2008 report [PDF], the U.S. Conference of Mayors identified more than 10,000 abandoned properties in Buffalo, putting it in the top five cities in the country on that score. And in 2010, the U.S. Postal Service counted more than 15,000 vacant addresses in the city, more than one in ten of the total.
Previous studies have linked epidemic vacancies to increased property crimes, drug trafficking, arson, the illegal drug trade, and other social ills; a study in Philadelphia found an association between vacancies and large numbers of city-owned properties.
The Buffalo study — using data from HUD Aggregate USPS Administrative Data on Address Vacancies, the American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates for 2005-2009, housing choice voucher records of local public housing agencies and municipal property records — provides objective, fine-grained analysis of the patterns of neighborhood zombification and the factors that exacerbate it.
Map courtesy of study, “Dawn of the Dead City: An Exploratory Analysis of Vacant Addresses in Buffalo, NY 2008-2010
The map above (from the study) charts vacancy rates across the city. The study found that: "the percent of abandoned residential properties increases in census tracts with highly concentrated black populations, elevated poverty rates, long-term vacancies, and higher percentages of business addresses.” Such neighborhoods are different in kind than "transitional or regenerating areas." They are instead truly zombies, a product of "shrinking cities where demographic and economic decline make abandonment an enduring fixture of the urban milieu." Many of these buildings, they conclude, need to be removed, lest the necrosis affect the still-viable parts of the cityscape.
In Buffalo and similarly hard-hit cities, efforts are being made to consolidate neighborhoods while clearing away abandoned and vacant properties. The literature supporting this approach, known as "shrinking cities," argues that targeted demolitions of abandoned structures is an important prerequisite for a stable housing market. The urbanist Roberta Brandes Gratz takes strong exception to this rationale, seeing it as just a newer version of the discredited nostrums that wreaked such havoc in places like the South Bronx in the 1960s. “Can anyone point to one city, just one, where any of these 'renewal' schemes have worked to regenerate, rather than further erode, a city?” she asked in a 2010 piece for The Huffington Post. "Just one. No theory please; just real on the ground success."
In The New York Times last year, I argued that rather than consigning whole neighborhoods to bulldozers, "we’d be much better off enabling their residents to take control of and build on community assets, engaging them in community-based organizations that can spearhead revitalization and build real quality of place." Shrinking cities can easily provide cover for "private developers looking to assemble massive parcels of centrally located and well-connected urban land on the cheap."
Older neighborhoods — especially those industrial, mixed-use districts — often have the building stock that is key to regeneration, the "old buildings" that new ideas "require," as Jane Jacobs put it. In fact many of today’s great urban neighborhoods were those that were once given up for dead, but whose residents successfully blocked top down renewal schemes.
The key to Buffalo’s revival lies as much in the assets that it has already, its universities, its cultural institutions, its buildings, and its citizens, as in what’s yet to be built. This study helps us parse and think more clearly about that process.