If you want to see squalor -- and it might be an eye-opening experience for you -- just lock your car doors and drive a few blocks south or west from downtown Chicago. You encounter a shocking contrast. From the prosperous urban scene of soaring skyscrapers, smart shops, tony restaurants, and Gold Coast apartments, you abruptly find yourself amid a disturbing world of abandoned buildings, crowded tenements, broken-glass litter, weed-infested vacant lots, and pervasive graffiti. Manifestations of grinding poverty, including maybe a few drunks sleeping it off in vacant doorways, are all around. You're struck by the same thing in Houston. Head north on Main St. a few blocks from the dramatic center city, and it's quickly apparent that the revival of the city's downtown (where there's even some nightlife now in the new Theater District) hasn't extended to inner-city neighborhoods. The ramshackle hovels of the area around, say, Quitman St., are a Texas-sized difference from the plush mansions of the River Oaks area not all that far away. But at least Chicago and Houston have impressive downtowns. Detroit can't even boast of that. Not only do its inner neighborhoods epitomize urban decay, but also the central core -- despite emerging redevelopment including three new casinos and two sports stadiums -- remains in many respects an eyesore. The bustling restaurants, hotels, and shops that once made Detroit's Washington Blvd. and Grand Circus Park area a hub of downtown activity now are mostly boarded up. The former Hudson's department store, a longtime landmark, has been razed. "Downtown" Detroit basically has shifted into a narrow strip along the Detroit River, dominated by the fortress-like Renaissance Center. General Motors Corp. is moving its headquarters there, but some observers fear that leaves the company's former location in the uptown New Center area at risk. (Just as the earlier move by Chrysler Corp. -- now DaimlerChrysler AG -- of its headquarters to the suburbs left close-in Highland Park at risk.) What is going on here? Chicago, Houston, and Detroit rank No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 in IW's listing of all 315 U.S. metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) as manufacturing locations. If they're indeed world class, why are they so beset with problems? The answer is just that: IW's listing ranks overall communities, usually a number of jurisdictions that collectively make up an MSA. It's not a ranking of the manufacturing excellence or, indeed, of the quality of life in the central cities from which the MSAs most often derive their names. "It is unfortunate that people continue to call metro areas by the name of their central cities," remarks Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban & Metropolitan Policy program at Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "That masks the serious challenges that these core communities face." In many metropolitan areas, Katz explains, industry has pulled out of central cities and older inner-ring suburbs. Accompanying this movement to the suburbs has been an exodus of millions of residents -- particularly, he notes, of "middle-class families that provide the economic and social backbone of sustainable communities." Left behind are high concentrations of the poor -- particularly minority poor. "The correlation with unemployment, crime, teenage pregnancy, poor schools, and family [disintegration]," Katz says, "has gone up like a rocket." The problem is particularly acute in old-line Northeast and Midwest industrial regions. Boston (No. 6 on IW's list), St. Louis (No. 10), Philadelphia (No. 11), and Cleveland (No. 17) are prime examples of what Edward W. Hill, senior research scholar at Cleveland State University's Urban Center, calls "the sick cities, healthy regions" syndrome. So is No. 8 Kokomo, Ind., which like countless other smaller communities has watched downtown commercial activity flee to outlying shopping malls. But, as is evident in Houston, even Sunbelt metro areas aren't immune. No. 7 Atlanta also is struggling with declining inner-city neighborhoods, Katz observes. And, he says, No. 9 Phoenix and No. 12 Albuquerque both have "pockets of poverty" consisting heavily of Latino populations. Nor are foreign metro areas necessarily immune, even though ailing central cities are for the most part a peculiarly U.S. phenomenon. Consider Germany's heavily urbanized Ruhr Valley, for example. The departure of the chemical and steel industries, along with the decline of coal as a major economic resource, has resulted in a steady decline in production in what once was Germany's No. 1 manufacturing area, believes Christoph Loch, a professor of management at INSEAD, the European Institute of Business Administration, Fontainebleau, France. In Britain, cities in the industrial midlands also have been hit by an erosion of their industrial bases. London, too, is losing industry and jobs -- to such outlying cities as Cambridge, Swindon, Oxford, and Bristol. Uniquely, the opposite is occurring in France, which, like much of Western Europe, is combating stubbornly high unemployment. In metropolitan Paris, home to one-third of French industry, the suburbs are hurting -- not the central city. Anxious companies are moving to other parts of France from the suburban ring, called "Ile de France," partly to escape rising violence among jobless African-immigrant youth who live in the area's inexpensive housing projects. Another flash point is Toulouse, in southwest France. Moreover, several metro areas in Japan are experiencing central-city woes. The one-time steelmaking center of Kitakyushu, for one, is reeling from the restructuring of Nippon Steel Corp. As a result, reports Philip Shapira, associate professor of public policy at Georgia Institute of Technology who formerly taught at Japan's Hokkaido University, "you see rundown buildings and abandoned steel facilities for which the city is trying to find new uses." Experiencing similar transition difficulties, he indicates, is Toyama, a former textile hub. But neither Japanese city, Shapira admits, "looks as bad as Detroit." Unemployment statistics don't appear high, he explains, because many workers have taken early retirement and women are leaving the workforce. Also easing the problem are Japan's strong support system and the fact that layoffs have been occurring over a period of years. Elsewhere in Asia, where many economies are still developing, metro areas traditionally have had to cope with widespread poverty. The problem is intensified by the massive influx of poor people from rural areas seeking jobs, a circumstance that also plagues many Latin American cities. In New Delhi, for example, one is struck by the huge numbers of "tent people" who have taken up residence in public parks. And in Bangkok, increased numbers of unemployed -- victimized by Thailand's continuing recession -- roam the streets. (But at least that has thinned the city's notorious traffic jams; fewer people can afford to drive.) Unfortunately, there's no statistical documentation of central-city distress overseas. In the U.S., however, extensive data starkly portray the problems. Take Chicago, the No. 1 U.S. metro area for manufacturing in IW's ranking. A compilation by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) shows that the number of manufacturing jobs in the entire Chicago metro area -- which includes nine counties -- rose from 651,147 in the fourth quarter of 1994 to 769,598 in the third quarter of 1998. But in the city of Chicago itself, manufacturing employment dropped during the period -- from 265,150 to 214,384. The decline of manufacturing employment in the city of Chicago isn't just a recent trend. "It actually started in the 1920s," observes Wim Wiewel, dean of the College of Urban Planning & Public Affairs at UIC. "It has intensified since the late 1940s and early '50s, when manufacturing employment peaked. Then the steel industry started moving out, and other companies have followed." Spurred by the flight of manufacturing to Chicago's outlying suburbs, the population of the city itself plunged by more than 300,000 between 1980 and 1997, indicates an analysis of U.S. Census data by the Brookings Institution. The rest of Cook County, in which the city is located, suffered a population loss of some 175,000. During the same span, however, surrounding counties gained a hefty 700,000. Other statistics attest to the inner-city problems left in the wake of the exodus. A Harvard University study, for example, reveals that the number of Chicago neighborhoods in which the poverty population exceeds 40% increased from 48 (population 156,270) to 184 (population 396,200) between the censuses of 1970 and 1990. Experts predict that the 2000 census will show a continuation of the trend. Moreover, Chicago accounted for 55.3% of Illinois' welfare caseload in 1997, even though it possessed only 23% of the state's population. The same pattern exists in Houston. Unlike Chicago, the population of the city itself has grown -- by some 140,000 between 1980 and 1997, although part of it has been by annexation. But the increase is sharply higher in its suburbs -- an astounding 1.2 million. The number of the city's high-poverty neighborhoods rose from 12 to 51 between 1970 and 1990, while the poverty population climbed from 43,242 to 162,487. In No. 3 Detroit, population of the city itself dropped more than 200,000 between 1980 and 1997; Wayne County, in which Detroit is located, suffered a nearly equal outflow. Surrounding counties, however, grew by more than 400,000. High-poverty neighborhoods in the city increased from 24 to 149, the poverty population from 55,913 to 418,947 -- one-third the city's total population -- during the 1970-90 span. In 1996, with only 10.4% of Michigan's population, Detroit accounted for 33.4% of the state's welfare cases. These statistics mirror those of many other large metro areas. In a troubling number of them, says Brookings' Katz, "we're talking about two separate regions. One is the wealth-creating jurisdictions -- suburbs that have low taxes, a high level of services, and job growth. The other is the core cities, which have high taxes, low services, low fiscal capacity, hyper poverty, and hyper racial poverty." Still, Katz points out, the picture isn't entirely bleak. "Central cities in the U.S. are coming back from where they were," he says. "But they're still losing ground relative to the suburbs." Although he's encouraged by efforts of some cities to reverse their decline -- he cites Chicago's "Bridges to Work" program as one -- he indicates they're "not widespread." And too often, he laments, federal policies serve only to spur decentralization. Transportation expenditures, for example, are disproportionately directed for construction of new beltways and bypasses, thus encouraging suburban development; tax subsidies for home ownership flow primarily to new suburban jurisdictions; and environmental and other regulations "make the redevelopment of urban land prohibitively expensive." Cautiously optimistic, however, is Kevin Mills, Washington, D.C.-based director of the Pollution Prevention Alliance of the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental group. "I sense that people are getting tired of long commutes," he says. "There's a gradual move back into the city, although the numbers won't show up for a while." Will cities ever come back? Maybe, believes William Barnes, director of the Center for Research & Program Development at the National League of Cities, Washington, D.C. "American cities have suffered through 30 years of precipitous difficulty," he says. "The 2000 census may show a bottoming out, or at least a slowing in the rate of decline." One reason for optimism, Barnes believes, is the growing awareness among city and suburban leaders that they must work together. "We're in a major transition -- from jurisdiction-based planning to regional planning," he says. Yet urban problems can't be solved overnight. If you venture south or west of downtown Chicago 10 years from now, you still might see the same squalor you'd see today. The hovels around Quitman St. in Houston may still be there. And the revival of Detroit's downtown may still be a work in progress. But in 25 years? Who knows?