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. (4) This kind of dissolution is significantly distinct from mergers or other reorganizations, because it requires vertical restructuring and a shift in authority to counties and their subdivisions.
Throughout this Article, dissolution therefore refers only to the termination of an incorporated municipality where its territory reverts to dependence on county or township government. In the early twentieth century, these dissolutions were often by operation of law for local government inactivity--merely a state acknowledgment that a town had gone bust. But in the post-World War II era, dissolution is more often a voluntary, active choice by a living community: residents or city councils choose to eliminate their city government. Instead of municipal government and county government (or a county and a county subdivision (5), the area reverts to unincorporated county rule alone (6). Politicians and public employees lose their jobs; an entity's revenues, assets, contracts, and debts must be reorganized; public services must be pared down or passed off; and a body of local laws, including land-use plans, is nullified. A city's territory may retain population--it may even retain markers of placehood and identity like a name used orally or recognized by the Post Office--but its separate local government is gone. The city's records are taken to county storage; its people may or may not preserve a community history.
To interrogate and rethink the law of dissolution, the central mission of this Article and its larger arc of research, we need some understanding of our history of dissolving cities: Which cities have dissolved, in which states? When have cities dissolved, and do these dates suggest a relationship between dissolution and state or national events, such as recessions or internal migrations? Why do cities dissolve? In a society that keeps records on the deaths of real persons and corporate entities, one might expect that it would be easy to find a single, comprehensive federal list or dozens of separate state lists of dearly departed cities. That is not the case. (7) While historians and sociologists have widely researched urbanization, population migration, rural crisis, urban abandonment, and related topics, they seem to have overlooked (or at least failed to record) the location and timing of territories' transformation from legal municipality to just a place. Even the cottage industry of historical, hobbyist, and travel literature on ghost towns does not help in any systematic way: such lists rely on indicators of human settlement and abandonment like the opening and closing of a federal post office rather than the rise and fall of administrative independence. (8) And ghost town records cannot tell us anything about the higher number of cities in the modern era that dissolved without physical abandonment. While dissolution of a legal city may be a relative of depopulation in general, it warrants separate study as a distinctive phenomenon, because it represents a set of governance choices and implications that play out at the communal and institutional level. (9)
The legal, historical, and academic records of actual municipal dissolutions are thus incomplete along the dimensions of both geography and time. By unearthing and consolidating a single layer of hundreds of information fragments from across the country and across time, this Article generates a first draft Graveyard of American Cities, which includes a municipal name, state, and year of dissolution. To provide a foundation for social science research that asks not only why dissolutions occur, but why they do not occur, the Article also assembles a list of cities where dissolution was legally proposed but rejected, as well as a list of cities currently in the throes of dissolution proceedings.
Part I defines and frames dissolution. Two examples, one from the Village of Seneca Falls in Western New York and the other from Miami, Florida, provide an orientation to the phenomenon in two notable places. In Miami, Florida, the crush of multimillion-dollar debts and deficits, explosive foreclosure rates, and spiraling unemployment led the city to hold an election (ultimately unsuccessful) on dissolution into Dade County. Dissolution also shows up in communities like Seneca Falls, where a present quaintness belles its place in the history of America's great industrial upstarts. These smaller cities remind us that industrialism, and its freefall, were not limited to big cities like Detroit and Buffalo. To establish our legal bearings, this Part also introduces and classifies states' dissolution laws, and it distinguishes dissolution from municipal bankruptcy, a distinct response to fiscal distress.
Part II, along with Appendices A-E, gives a broader picture of dissolution across geography and time by presenting my national investigation of past and current dissolution activity. Dissolution activity (including approved, rejected, pending, and inchoate dissolutions) shows up in thirty-nine states, and more cities approved or considered dissolution between 2000 and 2010 than did in the thirty years prior, between 1970 and 2000. Among these states, New York is of particular interest, and Part II offers a picture of its dissolution activity. There, dissolution bas become a public-policy objective aimed at curbing local government fragmentation and reducing taxes, especially in economically depressed regions.
Based on these lists, as well as an assembled archive of several hundred media and historical sources regarding dissolving cities, Part III synthesizes core issues at stake in dissolution law. It uses the histories of particular cities to consider why people propose, and ultimately approve or reject, dissolution in struggling cities. Rather than an empirical question of political causation, the "why" explored here is broader, more theoretical, and more historical. Part III investigates the problems that triggered drives for dissolution and the public claims that proponents made...