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Housing

'Smart Decline' Is Dumb

We don’t know the future. Rust Belt cities need to stop planning that there isn’t one.
A vacant home in the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights.
A vacant home in the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights. Reuters

It was an autumn day in Cleveland, 1965. Then-mayor Ralph Perk, a man whose hair would catch fire in a welding photo-op gone badly a few years later, had just officiated the city’s first “home burning ceremony”—a new tactic of blight remediation. Perk was convinced that a “controlled burn” strategy would reduce the costs of demolishing vacant homes and help spark a resurgence of Cleveland’s real estate market, which was then beginning to founder as manufacturing jobs fled the city. The first of four houses that burned did so in an hour, “aided by a stiff breeze and 20 gallons of kerosene,” the Cleveland Press reported.

“I’d never thought I’d stand by and watch a place burn,” the mayor marveled, “but this is a beautiful sight, isn’t it? It has such a cleansing effect.”