Cracking the Code of Cities’ Rise and Fall

Yahoo Finance

Detroit’s bankruptcy filing has kicked up a storm of numbers that animates the city’s predicament: $18 billion owed to some 100,000 creditors; 40% of streetlights broken; two-thirds of the city’s ambulance fleet out of service.

Yet a mere three digits go a long way toward capturing the Motor City’s long, steep decline: 313. This has been the city’s main telephone area code since such codes were first assigned 66 years ago. And when Detroit was given 313, it marked it as essentially the fourth-most-important metropolis in the United States.

The system bestowed the lowest numbers — including a “1” rather than a zero in the middle — to the most populous cities with the greatest volume of incoming calls to businesses and individuals. Such numbers — such as 212 for New York and 213 for Los Angeles — were the quickest to dial using the rotary phones of the time.

As the thriving low-sum area code cities New York, L.A. and Dallas (214) show, simply having such a privileged phone zone doesn’t automatically suggest a locale in decline. But it’s a decent starting place to determine which cities once deemed among the national elite are long past their peak in economic vitality and cultural influence.

For Detroit and other former industrial centers, such a privileged, low-sum area code is but one insignia of a city in decline, along with an eroding population and diminished commercial presence. Such cities are also over-represented in pro sports and media esteem, as measured by number of major-sports teams per capita, and whether their names appear alone in newspaper datelines based on Associated Press guidelines. Sports franchises and media conventions mostly reflect a city’s stature near the middle of the last century, rather than current reality.

Here is a selection of five cities that appear “overvalued” by such measures, along with five ascendant cities that deserve more institutional recognition and popular prestige. The "undervalued" cities were mostly provincial backwaterswhen area codes were assigned and sports teams established, but now are greatermagnets for people and commercial activity than most establishment indicatorsrecognize, even after decades of brisk growth.

Overvalued Cities:

Detroit

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Paul Sancya/AP Photo


Area code: 313
Population change since 1950:  -60%
Residents per major sports team: 175,000
AP dateline city?: Yes
Comment: The Tigers look good this year, but Detroit’s relevance peaked when U.S. carmakers enjoyed near-100% market share and Great Lakes commerce routes were crucial.

Pittsburgh

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Keith Srakocic/AP Photo


Area code: 412
Population change since 1950: -54%
Residents per major sports team: 102,000
AP dateline city?: Yes
Comment: Local planners have done a nice job helping the city emerge as strong and livable from Big Steel’s decline, but it’s now a mid-sized burgh pretending to Big league status.

Cleveland

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Tony Dejak/AP Photo


Area code: 216
Population change since 1950:  -57%
Residents per major sports team: 130,000
AP dateline city?: Yes
Comment: Another proud but under-populated lakefront industrial center, couldn’t shrug off the abandonment of LeBron James to Miami.

Cincinnati

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Al Behrman/AP Photo


Area code: 513
Population change since 1950: -41%
Residents per major sports team: 148,000
AP dateline city?: Yes
Comment: An attractive riverfront town with spiffy sports stadiums but, aside from Procter & Gamble, only a marginal corporate center.

Milwaukee

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Carrie Antlfinger/AP Photo


Area code: 414
Population change since 1950: -19%
Residents per major sports team: 199,000
AP dateline city?:
Yes
Comment: A good drinking and eating town. But would it even still have the Brewers if their former owner weren’t commissioner of Major League Baseball?

Undervalued/Ascendant Cities:

San Antonio

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Eric Gay/AP Photo


Area code: 210
Population change since 1950: +238%
Residents per major sports team: 1,380,000
AP dateline city?: Yes
Comment: An underrated Sun Belt magnet for business and migrants, now ranks as the sixth-largest city in America.

San Jose

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Jeff Chiu/AP Photo


Area code: 408
Population change since 1950: +930%
Residents per major sports team: 982,000
AP dateline city?: No
Comment: The unsung Bay Area commercial hotbed, overdue to get the Oakland Athletics, as the team fights for permission to move there.

Memphis

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Scott Olson/Getty Images


Area code: 901
Population change since 1950: +65%
Residents per major sports team: 655,000
AP dateline city?: No
Comment: No longer just home to Graceland and the blues, a thriving New South Mississippi River metropolis.

Charlotte

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Chuck Burton/AP Photo


Area code: 704
Population change since 1950: +478%
Residents per major sports team: 388,000
AP dateline city?: No
Comment: Its rise parallels the burgeoning Southern technology/consumer sectors – not to mention the explosion of the Nascar economy.

Las Vegas

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Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images


Area code: 702
Population change since 1950: +2,200%
Residents per major sports team: No pro teams
AP dateline city?: Yes
Comment: The erstwhile “GI stopover” on the way to L.A. and bachelor-party standby is now an extreme microcosm of boom/bust America.


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