Dissolving Cities

By Anderson, Michelle Wilde | The Yale Law Journal, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Dissolving Cities


Anderson, Michelle Wilde, The Yale Law Journal


ARTICLE CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

I. WHAT IS DISSOLUTION?
      A. Two Stories: Seneca Falls and Miami
      B. Dissolution in Law
      C. Distinguishing Bankruptcy

II. WHERE, WHEN? OUR MUNICIPAL GRAVEYARD
      A. The Range of Dissolution Activity
      B. Observations
      C. The New York Experiment

III. WHY, WHY NOT? THE FACES OF MUNICIPAL DISSOLUTION
      A. Decline
      B. Taxes
      C. Reform
      D. Race
      E. Community

IV. WHAT DISSOLUTION MEANS AND HOW WE MIGHT CHANGE IT
      A. Dissolution in Local Government Law
      B. Dissolution in Urban Theory
      C. Dissolution as Public Policy and Seeds of Legal Reform
      D. Directions for Future Research

V. DEAD CITIES, RECONSIDERED

CONCLUSION

APPENDICES *

INTRODUCTION

Our rural and urban past echoes with memories of cities that came and went. People left, tax revenue sank, and city halls closed their doors. The siren of industry and the winds of the Dust Bowl left only ghosts behind in hundreds of towns in the South and Midwest. When the segregated poverty in central cities fueled riots in the 1960s and 1990s, smaller cities across the country drank a quieter, more final poison. And today, sidewalks in the Northeast that once carried the morning rush of workers to industrial plants and mills have gone empty. Clanging steel has left behind the silence of rust.

If the incorporation of a legal city expresses an upward arc of development and growth, the legal disincorporation of a city marks decline. The shutting down of municipal government signals that a community can no longer sustain the cost and institutional responsibility of cityhood. Population, finances, or faith in civic institutions has simply lost too much ground. Perhaps that is why legal scholars have cared so little about municipal dissolution, a subject that has occupied fewer scholarly pages than the number of years in a century--and most of those pages were written a century ago. (1) Yet dissolutions happen, and if ever there has been a wave of them, we are in one now. More than half of the dissolutions ever recorded took place in the past fifteen years. At least 130 cities have dissolved since 2000--nearly as many as incorporated during that same period. (2) Beyond these dissolutions that happen, both past and pending, are scores of others that do not--cities that might have dissolved yesterday, or that perhaps should dissolve tomorrow.

This Article opens the graves of our departed cities and visits the deathbed towns following closely behind. It provides the first academic theorization of dissolution, locating dissolution in the literature on local government law, urban planning, and urban history. It introduces the law of dissolution across the country and the real-life phenomenon on the ground, generating a draft list of the occupants in our country's municipal cemetery. Reading across this landscape of places and memories, the Article evaluates the issues at stake in dissolution and theorizes dissolution's potential as a public policy option. It thus claims, for the first time, a place for dissolution in the cycle of institutional life and change in American local government law.

To get started, a definition: municipal dissolution, also known as disincorporation, is the termination of the political unit of an incorporated municipality, whether city, village, or incorporated town. (3) A municipality can dissolve in order to disincorporate permanently or to reorganize incorporated territory, such as by merging two cities into one. Dissolution into a county and dissolution into another city (merger) can have important similarities, such as origins in economic decline and the loss of a city population's separate legal identity and political autonomy. A project entitled "Dissolving Cities" could have been about all of these changes. This Article is not; instead, it focuses on the subset of dissolutions that indefinitely remove a layer of municipal government and return a population to unincorporated county or township jurisdiction. …

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