|March 9, 2011 | Philosophy
Rome was the West’s largest city, but after the fall of the Empire, “Its population declined from more than a million [some estimates say much more, maybe a few million] in 210 AD to a mere 35,000 during the Early Middle Ages, reducing the sprawling city to groups of inhabited buildings interspersed among large areas of ruins and vegetation.” As recently as 1848, the population was as little as 150,000, before rising back to its current level of 2.7 million.
Córdoba is estimated to have had around half a million or a million inhabitants at its height in the 11th century, before dropping to 20,000 in the 18th century. According to Wikipedia, the population didn’t start rising from that level till the 20th century ( even today it’s only a few hundred thousand ).
I remember reading an account of an English person visiting Jerusalem around the turn of the 20th century and finding the city nearly deserted. An American estimate from the late 19th century put the population at around 15,000, down from the low hundreds of thousands at its ancient peak.
Is there a city in the world like this now? Not a shabby boomtown with missing shingles and broken windows, deserted as quickly as it was built, but a city that was built to last, out of stone and bricks or concrete and steel, whose population has dwindled by orders. A city that existed for hundreds of years with a huge population, even millions, that has only a few tens of thousands of inhabitants.
People point to Detroit as a city in the middle of collapse, but Detroit’s peak population was around double its current level, and it had boomed to that level in a few decades. A huge shift, but not a multiple-orders-of-magnitude collapse, and without the infrastructure to support ten ghost citizens for everyone real one left behind. It is difficult to believe and perhaps tasteless to mention, but about two-thirds of Hiroshima’s citizens survived its nuclear attack.
If New York experienced a drop like Rome’s, there would only be about 145,000 people left in the city, shuffling over the viney bridges ( it currently takes 69,000 people to run the MTA, so train and bus service would be considerably reduced ). Williamsburg & Greenpoint ( Brooklyn CB1 ) had a population of 168,000 in the 2000 Census, and that’s gotta be way higher now. Or, think of it this way: Co-op City is about 55,000 people, Stuytown & Peter Cooper is 25,000.
Unlike the common ghost town, these cities were home to generations of people after their decay for whom their condition was normal. And they had monuments, temples, libraries, all the stuff seats of empires build. We still have economic town-emptying, along with environmental disaster ( Centralia, Chernobyl ), and war, but I can’t think of an example today of a place today where life is similar to how it must have been in these cities, but, I mean, it’s gotta happen again, right? – Jeb