The where we were

December 27, 2013 | Demographics, Economics, Housing, Maps, Migration, Seth Kadish, Speculation

By:David A. Smith


Any interstellar telescope looks not just into space but back into the past – and so it is with housing.  Homes are an exoskeletal manifestation of our vision of ourselves and our families – and the where we were, as presented, with a great visual and no analysis whatsoever, in the Daily Mail (October 27, 2013; blue font):



Eight decades of American history, compressed into county-level visuals


Visual statistics: In the pale yellow counties, more homes were built pre-1930s than in any other period, and the darker counties have mostly modern structures


Even before we delve into the housing particulars, two trends are instantly visible:


1. People have moved warm, wet, and west.  America’s great immigration occurred through Northern port cities – Boston, Philadelphia, and especially New York – and emigrated into the interior especially along the natural highways offered by rivers and railroads.  A hundred years ago, they created a pre-suburban America, a country connected by horse-drawn vehicles, streetcars, and railroads, and its geography flowed slowly westward from those was centered on the Northeast.  The cities that mattered were those with baseball teams, and the roster peppers the Northeast:


National League: Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis.



Brooklyn Dodgers, World War II


American League: Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Washington.


Boston, Detroit, New York: the 1937 All-Stars, including Boston’s Joe Cronin and Jimmie Foxx


Indeed, the history of major league baseball’s moves tells the story of postwar American south-westuward expansion:


1953: Braves from Boston to Milwaukee.

1954: Browns from St. Louis to Baltimore (become the Orioles)

1955: Athletics from Philadelphia to Kansas City.

1957: Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.

1957: Giants from New York to San Francisco.




1961: Senators from Washington to Minneapolis (become the Twins).

1966: Braves from Milwaukee to Atlanta

1968: Athletics from Kansas City to Oakland.

1972: Senators (new replacement) from Washington to Texas (become the Rangers)/




2. The Upper Midwest has stopped gaining population.  During the twentieth century, new houses were built only in places where new families were moving into an area.  In recent decades America has seen north-to-south migration (New York to Florida), east-to-west (California, here I come), and the cold land-locked places have seen their population stagnate.

When the population is flat, housing supply does not expand, and the marginal value of an existing older house drops perilously close to zero.


Mapmaker Kadish is himself an exemplar of the very trends the map reveals.  As he himself wrote:

Before moving to Portland, OR, where we bought a house built in 2006, my wife and I lived in Providence, RI, in a condo built in the 1930s.


Mr. Kadish moved east to west, cold to – well, not quite so cold, anyhow – from the 1930s to the 2000s.


Seth Kadish ~ Planetary Geologist

Looking west, moving west: Kadish


Both construction eras have their pluses and minuses, but I really don’t miss fixing all the things that used to break in the 1930s condo.


As the Mail described it, repackaging Mr. Kadish’s blog entry:


Three counties have predominantly homes built from 2005 to 2013: Cameron Parish, Louisiana, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana and Hancock County, Mississippi.  Cameron Parish was decimated by Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Plaquemines Parish was one of three Louisiana towns [Sic: not a town, a county – Ed.[ most heavily hit by Hurricane Katrina, which explains its plurality of new homes.


Plaquemines has always been so vulnerable.  As Randy Newman wrote, in his mournful song Louisiana: 1927:



River have busted through clear down to Plaquemines

The river rose all day
The river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood
Some people got away all right
The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline


Catastrophes destabilize places; they can be sudden, like Hurricane Katrina, or they can be slowly relentless, as the forces of economic migration, profiled in a complementary story a few weeks later in the Daily Mail (November 2, 2013):



Today: This map, graphing the increase and decrease in migration to different areas, encompasses the 2000 decade. Orange represents a loss of five people or more per hundred, while purple measures 20 net migrants per 100 individuals. As you can see the Midwest and the Great Plains have experienced the greatest loss


As the subsequent maps demonstrate, the most striking part of this 2000s’ map is the slowdown of population rain from the upper plains states.  I think that’s mainly due to the conflicting influx of immigrants.

A new database that was built to map the inter-migration of Americans has shown how the Midwest, above all over areas, has lost the greatest amount of people since the 1950s.

When America was agricultural and manufacturing, the Upper Midwest had huge comparative advantages, including the marvelous natural transportation system of the Great Lakes.  After World War II, America began five decades of technology-driven urbanization:



Back in the 1950s, migration growth was centered around California, New York and Florida. It also shows the intensity of the Midwest area that would become known as the Rust Belt, which was booming with industry at the time


With an average of 10 million Americans moving to a different county each year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Michigan Technological University and the University of New Hampshire have used Census statistics over the decades to track net changes in population from each county across the country.

Orange represents a move of at least five people per hundred of population, while purple shows a net increase of 20 people per 100 individuals


As the above map shows, the Midwest’s growth was entirely city-driven: Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, suburban Detroit (but not Wayne County itself), all grew.  Even Cleveland grew.


However the most significant consistency is the exodus of people from the Midwest and the Great Plains, largely due to the hollowing out of the Rust Belt cities, the rise of the Sun Belt and brain drain.

To call it a brain drain is a misnomer, but one cannot the British Mail to get American historyi right.


Meanwhile, California, Nevada, and Arizona grew rapidly, as did south Florida – all places, incidentally, where mobile home parks sprouted. 

These trends largely continued in the 1960s:



1960s: The Midwest begins to lose people to the South, specifically Texas and its northern states


Denver rises, as does all of Texas: Dallas, Houston, Austin.  Indeed, over the ensuing decades the shape and pace of growth are much the same:



1970s: America booms. Almost all areas outside of the Great Plains and the Midwest experience major increases in migration

However as the 1970s map shows, there was a mass exodus from major Midwestern cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, as people moved to set up in the less-established surrounding counties and cities.

The Seventies, for Daily Mail editors and others too young to remember them, held the Arab Oil Embargo


The stupid initial reaction (not the behemoth vehicles)



And the only slightly less stupid response



1980’s: Following the boom of the 1970’s, the decade after was steeped in recession, with most the country suffering a loss. Nevada became the fastest growing US state, reaching a population of 1.2 million by 1990


Wayne County (Detroit) lost 26.6% of its white population in the 1970s. [Don’t know why they highlight race as a distinction; seems irrelevant. – Ed.] Cook County (Chicago) lost 15.5%, and Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) 20.1%, according to The Atlantic Cities

Not surprisingly, forty years after the people started draining out, Detroit is already in a severe bankruptcy, Cleveland is paying people to demolish houses with negative value, and Chicago is on its way to bankruptcy of its own.


When the people leave, the economy cannot sustain itself, and often the first thing to collapse is the home resale market. 

Despite a spike in the 1990s, mostly around Chicago, that decline has been steady since, with many younger people relocating to places like San Diego, Austin and Atlanta.


Comparison of the decades shows that the trends are entirely consistent: in good times the Midwest holds its population, in bad times the drain accelerates, but in all cases the same parts of America keep gaining share.



1990’s: Following the recession of the 1980’s, America is revitalized, with even the Midwest enjoying a spike in migration

In the 1980’s, Nevada emerged as the fastest growing US state. Despite strong competition from Atlantic City, which had introduced almost-identical gaming laws in the late seventies, Nevada continued to increase.


Nevada has a better climate, lower taxes, and permanently growing California and Arizona.   New Jersey’s fighting against the tide.


Seth Kadish says that according to his map, the typical county would have mostly houses built in the 1970s, then an even distribution of pre-1940, 1980s, and 1990s houses, then an even distribution of 1950s, 1960s, and post-2000 houses, and the smallest number of houses from the 1940s.



The metaphorical tide, that is