What can save towns and cities left outside the economic boom?

Even as economic opportunities abound in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, troubled towns and cities far removed from thriving metros struggle with persistent poverty, violence and social disintegration.

Can these small towns and fading big cities make a comeback?

Stanford Law professor Michelle Wilde Anderson argues downtrodden cities like Stockton in the San Joaquin Valley and others can find hope through community action in her new book, “The Fight to Save the Town.”

Anderson examines grassroots efforts in four cities with vastly different political profiles — from a deep-red rural town in Oregon to deep-blue Detroit. She conducted more than 250 interviews to paint a portrait of the struggles people face outside opportunity-rich metros like San Jose and Los Angeles.

The solutions for persistent challenges of diminishing tax bases, poverty and violence are not simple, Anderson says. The trend in recent decades — big public spending for re-development, municipal stadiums and tax breaks for companies to relocate — have historically been disastrous investments, she said.

“We have to invest in our people and neighborhoods,” she said. “We can’t afford to have places with these concentrated levels of hardship.”

But she sees hope in the strong, talented people who stay and work to make their declining communities better. And she feels younger generations may be ready to rediscover careers in smaller cities and settle into a life of purpose.

“America has all these extraordinary cities,” she said. “They actually can be really mission-driven, purposeful, meaningful places to live.”

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why did you choose these four communities? You have Stockton, Josephine County in Oregon, Detroit, and Lawrence, Mass.

A: There’s an academic answer and a more personal answer. The academic answer is that I thought it was really important for the book to acknowledge how different places of citywide poverty are. They’re not all one racial group. They’re not all one level of urbanization. They’re not all blue politically or red politically.

The more personal answer is that these four places have such extraordinary and open-hearted people working there. As a researcher, they let me in in ways that allowed me to travel alongside the good work that was happening there.

I fell in love with the history of these communities. Each of them has this extraordinary urban history or back story. They allowed me to travel down these different corridors of the American experience.

Q: Tell me what you learned from Stockton. This is a community that has been through a municipal bankruptcy, challenges with violence, drug use and persistent poverty.

A: The basic problem in Stockton — and its the sort of the central problem in all of the places I was writing about — was the problem of disinvestment. I don’t like that word. It sounds like jargon. I think it really understates the kind of human hardships we’re talking about.

(But) that is the underlying problem. It is the incredible legacy of disinvestment in people in south Stockton in particular, but all across the low-income communities of Stockton. That shows up in education for kids and adults — education in particular that will allow people to get livable wage jobs in our current service economy.

But also just disinvestment in the basic things their neighborhoods need to be safe and comfortable. Whether it’s storm water drains or street trees for shade, or public buildings and libraries.

Where I really felt like Stockton was turning the tide — to really reinvest in people and change this chronic problem of disinvestment — was (trauma and post-incarceration counseling and) caregiving for families. To really support people to stay together, in spite of the incredible pressures of racial segregation and poverty.

Q: With California being in the constant state of a housing crisis, what lessons can the Bay Area and Los Angeles take from the housing efforts in Detroit? They’re different problems, but you’re focused on the community efforts that can make a difference.

A: Definitely.

Sometimes we get sloppy in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and we just call everything gentrification. That’s actually not good enough. You’ve got to really think about what the drivers are.

In Detroit, because you had so much surplus land…people didn’t reach for the shortcut word of gentrification to understand what was going on in the early days of the foreclosure crisis. Instead they had to really do their homework and figure out what is causing these waves of foreclosures.

One other thing that I’ll say about the housing piece in Detroit: It really teaches how the housing crisis can be caused by inequality, not just poverty. Sometimes we think about housing crisis as being rooted in the fact that people don’t have enough income to support basic housing. But Detroit really teaches that inequality itself causes its own set of problems. Land within Detroit is too expensive from the vantage point of low-income residents in the city, but it is dirt cheap from the point of view of outsiders.

So you can have this simultaneous problem in which land is dangerously overpriced for the needs of the population, and also just seductively cheap from the point of view of outsiders.

I think in California, some of our cities have that dynamic too. There’s so much inequality, it allows wealthier investors to aggregate these giant real estate portfolios, and pull together so much of this precious resource of housing.

We also have devastating levels of poverty in this state. A lot of these problems, we can’t think of as just poverty.


Profession: Stanford Law School professor. Author, “The Fight to Save the Town”

Education: BA (History), Yale University, 1997, MSc (Regional and Urban Planning), London School of Economics and Political Science, 2000, JD, Berkeley Law, 2004

Family: Husband and daughter

Age: 47

Hometown: Grew up in San Diego County and now lives in San Francisco


1. One of her first jobs out of college was as a grant writer for a nonprofit in New Haven, Conn. The job introduced her to the efforts of community leaders addressing poverty.

2. One of the books that most inspired her work is “Living for Change” by Grace Lee Boggs, a community leader in Detroit.

3. Anderson has studied poverty across the U.S., including in Flint, Mich., Jackson, Miss., and Camden, N.J.

4. She has also taught at UC Berkeley, Harvard and Columbia law schools. One of her favorite courses to teach is environmental justice.

5. Her pet, Cayo, is reputed to be the cutest dog ever.

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