Did Neighborhood Life-Cycle Theory Cause
Robert E. Lang
Fannie Mae Foundation
Early 20th-century American sociologist William I. Thomas argued
that “if men define the situation as real, [it is] real in its conse-
quences” (1928, 31). The concept is simple. Our world is organized as
a series of defined situations where many of our actions depend on
the nature of the definition. Some contend that the same holds true
for neighborhoods. That is, if we define neighborhoods as declining,
then, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, they will decline (Jacobs 1961). This
issue of Housing Policy Debate presents a Forum on what has become
a rather controversial topic: the role that theories of neighborhood
change played in causing neighborhood decline.
Modern theories of neighborhood change date back to the Chicago
School of Sociology in the 1920s. Urban sociologists such as Robert
Park (1916), Ernest Burgess (1925), and Lewis Wirth (1938) all com-
mented on the nature of neighborhood change, often drawing analo-
gies to natural systems. From these writings emerged an ecological
theory of urban development, which described neighborhood change
as a life cycle ending with inevitable decline. The life-cycle theory of
neighborhood change influenced thinking on communities for much of
the 20th century. As the following articles demonstrate, the debate
over the significance of this theory continues. We hope this Forum
generates discussion on the forces that led to neighborhood decline
and the strategies we should pursue to revive distressed communities.
John T. Metzger, author of the main Forum article, argues that
theories of neighborhood change developed by Anthony Downs and
others facilitated the decline of many inner-city, low-income, African-
American neighborhoods. Metzger claims that these theories (or the
general thinking derived from them) caused financial institutions to
avoid those neighborhoods defined as “declining” because they consti-
tuted risky investments. Lack of capital, according to Metzger, led to
a self-fulfilling spiral of decline in credit-starved places. Metzger’s
most controversial assertion is that many of the people who devel-
oped and acted on neighborhood life-cycle theories consciously under-
stood that the abandonment of many urban areas would ensue.
Metzger contends that lenders and policy makers generally had a
stake in seeing such places fail: Lenders would profit and policy mak-
Housing Policy Debate
Volume 11, Issue 1 1
© Fannie Mae Foundation 2000. All Rights Reserved. 1
ers would gain political clout from “improving” cities. He argues that
had an alternative paradigm of neighborhood theory that emphasizes
collective action on the part of community residents been followed,
many urban neighborhoods would have avoided decline and abandon-
Anthony Downs, in a comment on Metzger’s article, takes exception
to the idea that theories of neighborhood change, in and of themselves,
greatly affected communities. Rather, as Downs argues, the demo-
graphic, social, and economic forces that existed in the postwar years
caused the decline. According to Downs, the “replacement of working-
class and middle-income households by households with much lower
incomes, on the average, was the single biggest cause of neighborhood
decline.” Downs contends that Metzger ignored this fact as an alterna-
tive explanation for why many neighborhoods deteriorated. He also
finds it highly implausible that his theories, and those of other urban
experts, had such a strong impact on the public policy, building, and
finance communities. He argues that even if his model of neighbor-
hood change had never been developed, the same actions would have
occurred, because people were responding to real conditions.
Kenneth Temkin’s comment on the article echoes many of Downs’s
critiques. Temkin finds fault with Metzger’s assertion that life-cycle
theory destroyed neighborhoods. To Temkin, “it seems more likely
that the racial stereotypes used by lenders, politicians, and govern-
ment redevelopment officials had more influence on urban policy
than Downs’s theory.” He also takes issue with Metzger’s claim that
triage theory (an outgrowth of life-cycle theory) always makes bad
urban policy. While Temkin agrees that the “legacy of the neighbor-
hood triage approach is very disturbing,” a modified form of triage
where policies are aligned with residents’ preferences can be used to
better target scarce housing and redevelopment resources. In addi-
tion, Temkin finds that “Metzger contradicts himself as to whether
the neighborhood life-cycle theory actually affected policy.” At one
point, Metzger argues that the ideas in the theory were used to devel-
op policies, while in other parts of the article, he says that they were
used to legitimate policies that would have been implemented any-
way. Despite these critiques, Temkin does agree with one major
facet of Metzger’s argument: Neighborhood life-cycle theory “did not
emphasize the possibility of residents’ acting and taking steps to
improve local conditions.”
In a third comment, George C. Galster argues that Metzger’s histori-
cal and political analysis of neighborhood life-cycle theory is flawed
for several reasons. Failing to provide clear definitions, Metzger
lumps together clearly distinguishable concepts such as life-cycle the-
ory, public choice theory, triage planning, and filtering. Metzger also
assumes life-cycle theory to be a monolith dominated by Downs’s
2 Robert E. Lang
thinking, with others playing supporting roles. Galster notes that
despite what he says, Metzger never provides an alternative theory
to life-cycle theory. Instead, he implicitly suggests that “community
development” suddenly sprang forth as if by magic. Galster finds that
a lurking conspiracy theory pervades the article: It seems that every-
one in the urban policy establishment was an insider privy to an
effort to force the abandonment of low-income neighborhoods against
Metzger provides readers with an interesting historiography of post-
war urban policy. His detailed narrative personalizes a story that
usually leaves out the individuals who play central roles. For exam-
ple, Metzger documents the important role that specific community
activists played in resisting and redirecting the mainstream approach
to neighborhood change.
The article’s storytelling style is both its strength and its weakness.
While Metzger constructs a compelling history of ideas, his narrative
reads a bit like a Hollywood script. Downs plays the bad guy, while
those who resist life-cycle theory are the good guys. This story has
few shades of gray. Metzger ascribes motivation to his characters sole-
ly on the basis of their relationship to neighborhood life-cycle theory.
The problem is that motivation is hard to prove. Metzger assumes
that people who share family or institutional ties automatically think
alike. He has developed his own version of the popular game “Six
Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” where it is claimed that any film actor liv-
ing or dead can be connected to Kevin Bacon through a chain of
movies. In Metzger’s version, anybody in the urban policy world can
be connected to Anthony Downs, whose ability to shape urban policy
is due in large part to his central position in a vast network of power-
ful people. In reality, however, connections do not always translate
into influence, motivation, or action.
Metzger also considers how ideas such as neighborhood life-cycle the-
ory influence society. He sees their influence as organized, specific,
and even conspiratorial. Others find the relationship between ideas
and social change more complex. Sociologists developed the concept
of the zeitgeist (German for “the spirit of the times”) to help account
for why some ideas seem to capture a particular moment and drive
events. (For example, see Weber .) Mostly what they find
is those ideas that confirm and reinforce conventional wisdom gain
influence. While revolutionary ideas do come along and sweep away
existing orthodoxy, much social change can be attributed to an ongo-
ing refinement of conventional thought.
Consider the zeitgeist in which Downs developed his ideas—civil
rights–era America. The real estate and public policy establishments
Editor’s Introduction 3
held many preconceived notions about how neighborhoods worked
that were informed by contemporary thinking on race and community
change. Downs proposed several solutions to the nation’s urban prob-
lems. Some met resistance, while others were accepted at once. It is
interesting to consider where Downs had his biggest impact. As he
notes in his comment, his call to open up America’s suburbs to
minorities was never very popular or influential. But his thoughts on
neighborhood change were very persuasive and were immediately
incorporated into public policy. It seems likely that Downs connected
better with conventional thought on neighborhood change than on
diversifying the suburbs. The power of his ideas to persuade may
have been driven more by a general receptiveness to his thinking
than by the specific content of what he argued, or even how well con-
nected he was.
The mid–20th-century idea that certain neighborhoods were fated
for inevitable decline was hardly limited to a few urban experts.
Even the great liberal author John Steinbeck, whose works include
The Grapes of Wrath, commented on the process:
When a city begins to grow and spread outward from the edges,
the center which was once its glory is in a sense abandoned to
time. Then the buildings grow dark and a kind of decay sets in;
poorer people move in as the rents start to fall, and small fringe
businesses take the place of once flowering establishments.
Given that the concept of the neighborhood life cycle had filtered into
the popular culture, it is easy to see why policy makers, lenders, and
planners were so open to Downs’s interpretation of why certain
Metzger’s analysis follows the tradition of sociologist C. Wright Mills,
who developed the “power elite” concept (Mills 1956).
Metzger links influential individuals in government, industry, and
academic institutions to a set of coordinated actions that advance the
interests of an elite. Metzger and Mills also share a method of uncov-
ering elite relations by examining “interlocking” relationships (Mills
1956). The resulting analysis is often quite compelling. The network
of people who influence an area of the economy or public policy can be
quite small because important people tend to have institutional affili-
ations that overlap or in some way connect.
4 Robert E. Lang
Although Mills developed power elite theory to explain the rise of the military in
Cold War America, his ideas on the importance of understanding the connectedness
of elites and their thinking have been extended to all power in society. See
Power elite theory, like other elite theories including Marxist sociolo-
gy, tends to divide the world sharply between the powerful and the
powerless (Wallace and Wolf 1995). But unlike most Marxist theory,
power elite theory does not divide society solely on the basis of prop-
erty relations (Kornhauser 1966). More precisely, power elite theory is
part of the American populist tradition, which includes such works as
Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (Coser 1977). Populism
is a Midwestern political and intellectual movement that sought to
redress concentrations of wealth and power in late 19th-century
America (Trachtenberg 1982). Populists focused much of their effort
on documenting and exposing concentrations of power as a way of
emancipating the powerless (Hofstadter 1976).
On the surface, power elite theory is an intriguing concept. Those of
us who work in Washington often marvel at what a small world we
inhabit. It seems as if everyone knows everyone else. Using the power
elite method, Metzger can link Anthony Downs to just about every-
body in Washington’s urban policy community, not to mention
Chicago’s real estate industry, including the corrupt Teamsters union
that bankrolled Las Vegas casinos. But, and this is a general problem
with power elite theory, connections among the powerful are not syn-
onymous with a commonality of interests. Elites are seldom monolith-
ic or single-minded in their purpose. They are both less efficient and
more conflicted than Mills or Metzger assumes. Thus, while Metzger
can show that Downs is plugged into powerful institutions the way
few others are, he cannot demonstrate convincingly how Downs exer-
cised influence beyond giving a coherent, analytic voice to thought
that was already driving postwar urban policy.
Metzger continues the important social commentary of the populist
tradition. He raises the same concerns that have occupied populists
since the turn of the 20th century: that concentrated power is inher-
ently antidemocratic. Like all theoretical work that focuses on power
relations, the article is often controversial. Whether one agrees with
his analysis or not, his account of how Downs and others have come
to shape U.S. urban policy will likely stimulate more debate on the
forces that drive neighborhood change.
Robert E. Lang is Managing Editor of Housing Policy Debate and Director, Urban
and Metropolitan Research at the Fannie Mae Foundation. He thanks Carol Bell,
Karen Danielsen, Kristopher Rengert, Patrick Simmons, and Rebecca Sohmer for
their comments on this manuscript.
Editor’s Introduction 5
Burgess, Ernest. 1925. The Growth of the City. In The City, ed. Robert Park, 47–62.
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Coser, Lewis A. 1977. Masters of Sociological Thought. New York: Harcourt College.
Hofstadter, Richard. 1976. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. New York:
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Kornhauser, William. 1966. “Power Elite” or “Veto Group”? In Class, Status, and
Power, ed. Reinhard Bendix and Seymour Martin Lipset. New York: Free Press.
Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
Park, Robert, ed. 1916. The City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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6 Robert E. Lang