Why Are Midwestern Cities So Small?

Back in 1930, Midwestern cities were walkin' tall, swingin' serious pipe: 4 of the 7 biggest cities in America were Midwestern cities. Recently, the Census Bureau released their city population estimates for next year. Midwestern cities' fall in population is pretty stark. Chicago holds at #3, but Detroit has fallen from #4 in 1930 to #21 today (behind El Paso). Cleveland falls from #6 to #51. St Louis drops right out of the top 50! 

Our home city is holding strong at #104 (We're Number 104! We're Number 104!).

But when measuring US cities, you notice some pretty fishy things: Minneapolis (#46) is smaller than Omaha (#43)? And way smaller than Milwaukee (#31) and Kansas City (#36)? Indeed, Minneapolis is only a little bit bigger than Wichita. 

Still, the odds that Kanye West is gonna book a show in Wichita over Minneapolis are pretty slime. Of course, Kanye's upcoming show is in St Paul, which isn't even on the list! 

Midwestern cities' apparent fall has more to do with politics and development than it does actual population. The Twin Cities is a huge metro compared to Wichita. And Detroit seems a lot bigger than El Paso.

But as minorities moved north after the 1940s, many Midwestern governments essentially trapped their largest cities -- Detroit and St Louis weren't allowed to expand and acquire suburbs. This kept the suburbs whiter and the cities they were tied to blacker. The Detroit Free Press takes a look at Detroit in particular, and points out that in 1950, El Paso was only 25 square miles in size, but has swelled to 255 square miles today. 

Detroit, on the other hand, was kept locked in by it's suburbs. Border fights go on to this day, with the Motor City Muckraker pointing out that Detroit's wealthy northern suburb, Gross Point Park, often illegal blocks the connection between it and Detroit as a way to literally keep Detroit at bay

So while El Paso has expanded to 255 miles, Phoenix to 517 square miles, and Houston a whopping 600 square miles, Detroit remains 139 square miles, the same size it was in 1950. But the Free Press notes that if Detroit expanded to 600 square miles, it would swallow all of Oakland County and reach a Top 5 City population of nearly 3 million -- that is over 1 million people more than Houston, so far more dense than Houston. 

Midwestern city growth in the last 6 decades has been marred by racially-driven growth policies. In Chicago, St Louis, and Detroit, city renaissances have butted heads with years of segregation. Expanding Detroit, or any other Midwestern city, to formally take over its suburbs, is probably not a viable option. But the Midwest can work to build metropolitan area unity -- small city-states within states. Kansas City, sprawling across a huge area and two states, is already more of an independent city than a part of Kansas or Missouri. Maybe the Midwest can set a new standard in city government. Focus less on population of one city, and more on cooperation between cities in an economic area. 

Instead of just Kansas City, you could have a United States of Kansas City. Of course, with the states of Missouri and Kansas having their claws in KC, Midwestern City States may require even more imagination than we thought!