Special Report

These Cities Have Unlikely Success Stories

Michael B. Sauter

For decades, large and mid-sized cities across the United States have struggled with declining populations and vanishing jobs. This has occurred as major employers have moved overseas or have wholly ceased operations as the need for heavy industry in the United States ebbs.

Many of the more well-known of these cities can be found in the Northeast and Midwest, and are often collectively referred to as “Rust Belt” cities. Scholars often call these cities by another name: legacy cities. Many of these places are well-known to Americans as symbols of national post-industrial decline: St. Louis, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Buffalo, and others.

These places were once major industrial centers, hubs of innovation, and home to thriving populations. Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, those cities began to lose jobs, urban decay set in, and residents moved to the suburbs or out of the region entirely. In these cities, populations declined by at least 20% from their peak to today, in some cases by over half.

Click here to see the cities that have unlikely success stories.

These cities face a range of challenges that make any true economic recovery particularly difficult. And it is a steep hill to climb. These cities have to overcome issues such as long-term population loss, infrastructure decay, crime, poverty, and other socioeconomic problems to achieve recovery, let alone prosperity.

The subprime mortgage crisis affected most major American cities in some way. In many, rapid housing development and growth came to a screeching halt as the housing bubble burst. Cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas underwent sudden rapid spikes in unemployment as the booming construction industry vanished effectively overnight.

Other cities, including the legacy cities, also struggled, although there was no meaningful growth to stall. Rather, the national recession served to put greater pressure on already weak economies, putting even more people out of work and exacerbating the issues these legacy cities had struggled with for decades.

When the recovery and economic boom came, Phoenix and Las Vegas returned to relative prosperity, with skyrocketing job growth and declining unemployment. For other legacy cities, the recovery only did so much. Legacy metropolitan areas like Toledo, Ohio; Flint, Michigan; and Erie, Pennsylvania continued to have stagnant job markets and declining labor forces. In Youngstown, Ohio, for example, employment — the number of people who hold a job — declined by 3.1% between 2010 and 2017, even as national employment increased by 10.3% over that period.

As the recent economic boom continues, nearly every legacy metropolitan area exhibits some or all of these issues: unemployment rates remain above the national figure; the number of employed people is either stagnant or declining, and same goes for the labor force; poverty and crime remain very high. Yet, with all these serious obstacles and additional complications caused by the recession, there remain a handful of American legacy cities for which a real glimmer of hope exists. 24/7 Wall St. identified three legacy metropolitan areas where employment has increased and unemployment has declined substantially since 2010. While these cities still have room for improvement, there are a number of signs that these places may truly be defying odds and escaping their status as relics of the past.


To identify the cities with unlikely success stories, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data for a select group of metropolitan areas. For these metropolitan areas, we considered employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Local Area Unemployment Statistics program as well as data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 America Community Survey . These three cities met the following criteria: 2010-2017 employment growth exceeded the national employment growth figure of 10.3%; labor force growth between 2010 and 2017; population growth between 2000 and 2017. Cities were excluded if the 2010 annual unemployment rate fell below the national rate of 9.6% or if the 2017 rate exceeded the national rate of 4.4%. All figures listed are for the metropolitan area, and not merely the city proper.

Only legacy cities were considered in this analysis. Our list of legacy cities is based on a list of 65 places classified in a 2015 report “Mapping America’s Legacy Cities” published by the J. Max Bond Center at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York. “Initially calculated from 2000 U.S. Census figures … cities now fit the population-based definition of a Legacy City as cities that still have more than 50,000 residents, yet have lost greater than 20 percent of their population since peak populations between 1940 and 1970.“ for our analysis, we only considered metropolitan areas for which the identified legacy city is the primary city.