Yves here. History and path dependency play a big role in antipathy to urban life. Aide from port cities being where immigrants landed (i.e, creating poor and decidedly alien neighborhoods), poor sanitation has a lot to do with hostility to cities. Dickensian London was plagued with a fair number of open sewers. In the early Depression, my father, who grew up in Long Island, hated New York City because it stank of horse manure.
By Lynn Parramore, Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website
Cities. They’re the places where most Americans live, work and play, but skeptics say they aren’t the “real America.” They drive economic growth, but rarely reap the full benefits of what they generate. Cities are places of opportunity and innovation but saddled with neglectful, if not downright harmful policies. Thomas Jefferson called cities “pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man.” Donald Trump, a lifelong New Yorker, referred to Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess,” Atlanta as “in horrible shape and falling apart” and inner cities across the country as “burning and crime infested.”
Why all the hate?
In his new book from Columbia University Press, Unequal Cities: Overcoming Anti-Urban Bias to Reduce Inequality in the United States,” economist Richard McGahey explores the deep roots of America’s anti-city bias and points to persistent federal and state policies that keep our cities from reaching their full potential. McGahey’s book offers a pushback against market-oriented urban economic analysis that has exacerbated inequality so profoundly that cities like Miami and New York are now as unequal – or more so – than countries like Brazil and Zambia. He points to problems in the way we talk about cities and illuminates how their political, economic, and racial challenges get obscured.
The fate of U.S. cities matters to everyone, argues McGahey, no matter where they live or how they vote. In the following interview, he discusses his book with the Institute for New Economic Thinking, explaining why if we want a prosperous future, we need to start thinking differently about cities.
Lynn Parramore: Cities, as you point out, are incubators of innovation and economic growth engines. Yet in America, they are often viewed with hostility dating back to the country’s founding, when Jefferson likened them to sores on the body. Today, we hear that cities don’t represent the “real America.” Why the antipathy and how did it get baked into the political system?
Rick McGahey: When the U.S. was founded it was a rural country, and of course, a lot of that rural life, especially in the South, was slaveholding agriculture. Something like 6% of the population was urban at the time of the American Revolution compared to around 30% or more in Britain. We were set up that way. The founding documents were hostile to cities. It was a surprising thing to me how much state governments hurt cities as well. The hostility towards cities gets built into the electoral college. There’s this permanent disadvantage to cities structurally even as they become more important economically. That’s tied to the ideology. You mentioned Jefferson. During the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Jefferson said something like, well, it might have some benefits if it kills off some of the urban residents!
LP: How have American cities developed in ways that are distinct from say, London or Paris?
RM: You still have inequality in those cities, so there’s something about our current capitalist system that produces inequality throughout the economy, especially in cities. Some of these economic forces are shared, but I think it’s heightened in the United States by political formations which are deeply tied to structural racism in our metropolitan areas. London is one government, basically, and it’s double the size, in terms of square miles, of New York City. There are lots of small subsidiary governments within it that deliver services, but it’s one big government. New York City alone has lots of different governing aspects and the metro region has over 700 separate municipal governments. Three states involved. It’s really fragmented.
All this really makes it worse for us. The American form is to have a core city in a metropolitan area surrounded by often hostile, often mostly white suburbs, and that really distorts the returns from the economic engine that the city creates.
LP: How does this type of fragmented development impact the kinds of services and resources available to city dwellers? Visitors from Europe are often struck, for example, by the poor state of mass transit in American cities.
RM: There are always some externalities, as economists put it, that get generated by growth. What happens in American cities is that those are particularly concentrated in the core city at the center of the metropolitan area. So there’s this very unequal sharing. You mentioned mass transit. Or you can think about schools, financed mostly by local property taxes. The wealthier suburbs don’t share these resources with the city. Pollution tends to be concentrated in the city, which also has more poor residents and more non-white residents. These factors all build on themselves and help regenerate the inequality that is initially produced.
LP: How does urban inequality manifest in a wealthier city like San Francisco versus a poorer one like Detroit?
RM: If you take a conventional economist’s measures of inequality, wealthier cities will sometimes do worse with something like a Gini coefficient compared to a city like Detroit where there’s just not that much wealth or it has all gone to the suburbs or out of the region altogether. Inequality in terms of housing issues is easily visible in wealthy cities – a real exacerbation of housing prices. Affluent people will get enclaves or pockets within the core city in places like San Francisco, New York, and to some extent Los Angeles. That, I think, creates more overt conflict internally within the core city in terms of politics. Most residents can’t access those resources that have gone to the suburbs.
LP: Your book is critical of how mainstream economic analysis deals with urban inequality. What does it miss in your view?
RM: Mainstream economics treats the cities like it treats its idealized companies, as if they’re all competitive. There’s a competition going on among them, and it’s a fair one. Firms compete on prices while cities compete on taxes and regulations. This will all level itself out and converge to equilibrium. The problem is, it doesn’t. As with many things about mainstream economics, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t describe reality very well.
Mainstream urban economic analysis really misses four big things. One is the importance of industrial change. I’ve got three case studies in the book – New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles. They’ve all seen wrenching structural changes. In New York, it’s the loss of the unionized garment industry and its replacement with finance. In Detroit, it’s change in the automotive sector. In Los Angeles, it’s the loss of the aerospace sector and a wave of migrant workers who come to work in low-wage manufacturing. Mainstream economics doesn’t deal well with industrial structural change.
It also misses the federal policy effect on cities, which is well-known but not factored into their analysis very much. The third issue is the states’ hostility to cities and state control of cities in the United States. A lot of mainstream economists will talk interchangeably about metropolitan areas and cities and use data from metropolitan areas to talk about cities. So they miss this entire inequality built into the structure of the region and the suburbs. The fourth thing that they miss is structural racism. This is not a race-neutral structure that we have in cities and metropolitan areas. It’s very highly charged by race. There were deliberate policy decisions creating racial disparities, particularly after WWII.
LP: You note that successful urban economies require investment in public goods. What is an area of urban underinvestment that you think is particularly critical right now?
RM: There are so many of them! I would probably point to the education system. There are dollars in the city systems but they have so many more needs in terms of the folks they’re dealing with. They’re assimilating new immigrants and preparing their buildings and infrastructure. The inequality between urban school systems and suburban school systems is so glaring and it’s tied, again, to structural problems. The Supreme Court, in the 1970s, in a 5 to 4 decision [Milliken v. Bradley], said you couldn’t bus students out of the core city into wealthier suburban districts. Also, the central city couldn’t access the property tax wealth that paid for those better schools in the suburbs. So education is probably the one I’d focus on. Transportation is a close second.
LP: You note that COVID-19 fueled inequality while increasing economic pressures on cities, causing a wave of speculation that large American cities like New York are “dead.” In the case of NYC, the 1970s saw great economic suffering, with businesses moving to the suburbs, population losses, etc. Are things different this time or can a city like New York, beset with problems like empty office space, dependence on finance, and continuing inequality, prosper in the future?
RM: Things were much worse in the seventies. That doesn’t excuse the difficulties that they’re having now. Look at the working-from-home phenomenon. It’s a big problem for cities like New York or especially San Francisco that have depended on these full offices in downtown areas. Most of the moves people have made are within the metropolitan area. You see a lot of headlines about people moving to Florida and so on, but most of the moves are just people relocating within the metro area. Again, this configuration where the suburbs are separate governments pulls the tax revenue out of the city. This has also really hurt low-wage workers, the service workers — those who work in building services, janitorial services, food delivery, and cleaning services. They’ve been the hardest hit by this change. I think some of the offices can be repurposed for housing. They’re not valueless. So I think it’s a big challenge and it’s serious, but it’s not the structural challenge that New York faced in the seventies and eighties.
It’s not odd that people are moving out of cities. In America, people often move to suburban places when they get older and form households to raise children because the schools are better, and also we subsidize the housing, at least historically, for whites, though that’s gotten a little better. One of the things that aren’t even talked about, though, is the loss of immigration that has occurred in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. First with Trump-era policies, and then with Covid, we have this radical drop in new migrants that has hit. New York has always been a place that thrives on new immigrants from overseas, and in the 1920s from the South with the Black migration. If we would restore immigration it would help. It wouldn’t fully offset the moves that people are making out of the core city, but it would help a lot.
LP: You observe that America’s polarized electoral results reflect the economic divide between urban and rural areas. Are Americans in urban and rural areas really as polarized as they’re made out to be? I’m now a New Yorker but raised in North Carolina, and I wonder if people are really as different as the media and politicians tell us.
RM: Not on economics they’re not. A lot of rural areas do not benefit from this rural/urban divide. There are a lot of poor people in rural areas whose politics are dominated by elites. Their wages are bad. Their jobs are insecure and moving. So I think economically there’s a lot that is similar to what urban residents experience. The culture wars are used to divert or distract from those issues. North Carolina is a great example of this – the state pioneered the anti-trans bathroom bill, and buried in that bathroom bill was also a prohibition on any city in the state raising its minimum wage. Economic policies that worked negatively against cities were smuggled in at the same time this culture war issue was stirred up. It really restricts cities from taking more progressive economic steps.
LP: And the problem of low wages, as you mention, plagues rural areas, too. So it sounds like there’s plenty of common ground to be found if you can get past the hot-button culture issues.
RM: I think so. If you look at the way states’ budgets are allocated, money goes to rural areas but it’s captured by large corporations even more so than in cities. Federal agricultural subsidies don’t benefit most rural residents. States give huge amounts of money to companies to locate in cities and metropolitan areas but they don’t prop up rural areas to the same extent. I think some political actors have gotten very good at whipping up these resentments and pointing to this unevenness. And progressives have done a bad job of pointing to the common ground and finding common roots, which I think there are a lot of economically, certainly on trade policy, labor rights, and minimum wages. There’s really a lot of shared interest.
LP: Do you see any proposals that would bridge economic divides that exist both in cities and rural areas?
RM: The most favorable case I look at in the book is Los Angeles. It’s not a Nirvana – there aren’t any Nirvanas out there. But what LA was able to do, faced with economic structural change in a progressive-led movement that had a lot of union support, was to bring together three groups that usually don’t work together very well. One group was unions and private economic developers. The second was communities of color that wanted better treatment and jobs. The third was environmentalists who are often seen as opposing development.
LA, through constant negotiation, discussion, and inclusion of different groups, developed a political movement that was able to move all three of those groups forward. One example is the LA public transit in 2008. In the middle of the financial crisis and the Great Recession, LA voted to raise its sales tax to build the Metro system and it takes a 2/3 vote to pass a tax in California because of Proposition 13. In this case, everybody got something they wanted. Unions got unionized jobs on the Metro, but in return for that, they had to bring in a lot more minority union members than they were used to doing. The environmentalists got some moves to try and reduce LA’s dominant car culture. You’ve seen that coalition hold together on other issues of progressive economic development. So that’s my hopeful story.
LP: Why is the fate of U.S. cities critical to all Americans?
RM: It’s the economy. I think mainstream economics is right about innovation coming from cities. Innovation and growth come from bringing different ideas together. It’s not just firms. It’s diversity. It’s having different types of people in the same place. Interestingly, Ed Glaeser, a very conservative mainstream economist, looks to Jane Jacobs, the great urbanist, on this issue of innovation.
You see what cities can do not just in economics, but in culture. A place like New Orleans gets freed slaves with their traditions, Afro-Caribbean music, brass bands which came from German immigrants, and [composer and band conductor) John Philip Sousa. Stir all that up and you get jazz. That’s what cities do for you.
We’ll see if working from home can make it go all remote. I’m skeptical about that. I still think innovation is associated with metropolitan and city forms. That’s why it’s critical for the entire economy. The other thing is that cities, for all their inequality problems, are places where people have done better, all the way back to medieval times. Cities made you free, meaning that when a serf moved into a city, if they could hide out long enough, they could be free of their feudal obligations. We have inequality and sexism and racism in the whole society, but cities tend to be more equal and the political forces that favor equality get together with each other there.
I have always hated cities, probably because the one I grew up next to and visited was NYC. The pollution was so bad in the 1960s and 70s that you would have a splitting headache after being there only a few hours. Then getting around was a nightmare, often involving lots of walking on excessively crowded sidewalks because cabs were slow on congested streets, and expensive. The only fun part was the shopping at stores you couldn’t find anywhere else. I am sure there are lots of other cities that are much nicer, but I have also been in LA and Chicago and they were as bad as NYC. The world would be better off without all the concrete and pavement.
Ironically that pollution would have been largely caused by the cars of the suburbanites coming and going. Not as much pollution in the golden years during and immediately after WWII.
I don’t think this is remotely accurate, but a typical “golden ages of the past” fantasy.
NYC and other northern cities had tons of local industry in the 50’s and 60’s. All kinds of factory work: metal casting and forging, ceramics (heat intensive), machining, assembly. There was no EPA and no limits on smokestack and other factory emissions.
Apart from manufacturing industry, most city buildings were heated with coal (yes, still into the 60’s) or oil, both very dirty; natural gas heat is a relatively recent change. Many coal-fired steam trains remained in use in the early 50’s. They were rapidly replaced by diesel in the late 50’s and 60’s, but those diesels weren’t clean. Cars and trucks had no emissions controls whatsoever.
One of my parents grew up in NYC and Long Island through the 50’s and 60’s. Outer Long Island wasn’t that polluted, but NYC certainly was. Chicago, where other relatives are from, was similar and also polluted.
Plus, the stench from the massive chemical industries in northern NJ just across the river often wafted in. Very few people drove to Manhattan back then, everyone took the overcrowded, dirty run-down trains into and out of the city.
While driving the family through northern NJ, my father would entertain my mom and I with his knowledge of refining. Dad was a chemical engineer and could identify all of those foul smells with one sniff.
Thank you for the correction. I was thinking mostly of the famous example of the smog in Los Angeles, but you’re right, New York was different.
I think it is just practicality. Cities do have amazing cultural opportunities, and there are some good education and job opportunities there. However the downside is bigger than the upside for many of us. They are expensive places to live, and then you have the surveillance, police, lack of personal space, inability to be self sufficient (need some land for that), high costs for food, the inequality (as stated) and the way I see it, they are socially brittle if things become difficult (mainly due to the fact that they are not self sufficient and need huge inputs from the world around them to keep them operating). I suppose there are indeed people who see urban vs rural as a partisan issue, but I suspect most that reject cities do not see it that way. Living out in the sticks equates to a higher quality of life with some added redundancies and a bit of a safety net for many of us. In rural areas, we can almost always find something to burn to heat our homes, grow, or know someone that grows food, and not just the homes are cheaper, but the storage space and workshop space are cheaper. We can make our own stuff and store our own food/goods (in my family we even saw our own lumber and have plans to build a small hobby foundry to cast aluminum and steel, but we are a little out there in that respect). We do generally make less money, but we are far more self sufficient, and that makes many of us feel safer, IMO.
Are cities necessary for humanity and technological innovation? Quite possibly, but they are not necessary for me- haha.
The default in America is the six lane arterial lined with surface parking, big boxes, convenience stores and similar, combined with cul-de-sac suburbs that require driving for any excursion out of the home. America is not only anti-city, but anti-town. It is geared toward exurban development. As to choice, federal, state, and local regulations prevent anything but exurban development. That’s where most of the subsidy goes also. This is a big reason why the remaining urban neighborhoods are so expensive. They’re in demand and they aren’t making any more of them. This is outlined in detail at strongtowns.org. They call it the postwar suburban experiment and outline why it’s mostly unsustainable financially.
Have been to or lived in cities outside of the US or Canada? I have lived in Daegu, South Korea and Beijing, China. Yes, cities have problems with pollution and housing speculation has caused prices to rise. But the innovations in technology, infrastructure, and small business opportunities with thousands of potential customers walking past your door beats the limited economic opportunities in the countryside. There are reasons why millions of people move away from rural areas to the city. I recommend learning more about walkable cities by checking out the Not Just Bikes YouTube channel.
>>The American form is to have a core city in a metropolitan area surrounded by often hostile, often mostly white suburbs, and that really distorts the returns from the economic engine that the city creates.
I would add that in many (all?) US metro areas, there are smaller non-core cities that have much more poverty than the core city. I’m thinking of Camden and Philadelphia, East St Louis and St Louis, Newark and NYC, Oakland and SF before hyper-gentrification, the former mill towns of Greater Boston, and I’m probably missing a lot more. Often they have no more residents or sometimes even land area than the traditional suburban municipalities, they just have more apartment buildings and consequently poor people.
Excellent article about something every American should be aware of.
Strain on the environment is less in cities on a per capita basis, public services easier to provide in both distance and cost per capita, infrastructure in cities easier to distribute per capita….and on and on.
It is again the financial parasites and big money that has favored getting a heads up to capitalize on real estate when a project goes in – like infrastructure or business or gentrification beneficial to developers but not dwellers… Tax laws and speculation, speculators who have imposed a de-facto tax on everyone else by driving prices up with favors from the legislators whom financiers and speculators greased their way to office so to get a full grease job in return.
Even in the suburbs – if you improve your house you get taxed more for infrastructure, school, police and of usually less quality services.
Suburban living was most about speculation, advertising and tax advantage. Public transport and public infrastructure was undermined by the auto industry and therefrom a huge waste of resources with mountains of trash and, when later discovered the nature of environmental destruction it was the citizen who paid the price for hubris and greed by the monarchists, landed class, rentiers and corporatists – in the Jefferson Letters, many references are made as to this vestige of royalists and landlordism. Getting under the thumb or bond servitude of less than honest men in office with their private interests above the public interest is not good. Jefferson also cautions and prescribes for himself to be not interested in private interests above the public interest in that he would remain who he was and that is a farmer.
This article is using pretty broad strokes in its descriptions of cities and they are not all the same. My own personal opinion is that an ideal city is that with a population of 100,000 to 250,000 people as it is small enough so that you know a lot of people and large enough that you have a variety of services. By the time you get to a population of 500,00, that is really too large and you have more cons than pros in living in such a city. Come to think of it, in a very large city you will find plenty of cons and pros living there.
But the truth of the matter is that cities and country form a symbiotic relationship. Historically, learning and advancement grew up in the cities but it was the labour of the country that supported those cities. So in a way, cities are a device for the advancement of knowledge and are a form of investment. This knowledge would feed back to the country which supported those cities in their endeavours.
The symbiotic relationship you describe is the metropole and periphery, the former reliably exploiting the latter.
This. I think that allowing cities to grow too large is one of the problems with cities. I’m with Rev that around 200,000 is good. It’s small enough so that, although you may not “know” a lot of people, you do tend to see the same faces in the same places. But large enough that everyone is not all in your bidness.
Knowing that one has just that little bit less anonymity helps with better behavior too, up to a point. And it’s easier to get to and provide services for a smaller footprint.
So for me at least, it’s not cities per se.
Yesterday, there were 6 deer in the woods behind my country home. Any given week we see a falcon, fox, turkey, coyote, rabbit, the occasional bear, and many others. It is quiet, healthy, and safe. Clean well-water, fresh air. We can grow our own food. Neighbors are friendly. Unemployment is low, remote workers make good money, as do many others, but cost-of-living is low besides. Our mostly-volunteer Fire & Rescue are well-trained and fast to respond. Occasionally, we go into the city (40 minutes away) to hear a concert, vistit a museum, etc. But, we’re always so glad to return to our country home. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
Syracuse, Buffalo, Utica and Rochester are all quintessentially rustbelt dumps. This conversation does not really address the role of free trade and deindustrialization in the decline of urban centers. The high paying manufacturing jobs which formed the backbone of these cities until the 1980s are largely gone. When I came to Central New York State, the city of Syracuse was a decent place to live as a young married couple. No more.
I think unattractive housing is a huge issue. Housing transitioned from resident owners of single family or 2-4 flats to absentee landlords owning large portfolios reliant on section 8 vouchers. Code violations are unenforced. The literal rot of housing was entirely predictable. 75% of the city’s housing have been identified with exterior deterioration and neglect. Public housing was allowed to decay and then was razed. For the past decade Syracuse has been handing out massive tax breaks for “luxury student apartment” complexes down hill from SU and the SUNY Upstate Medical school. There are now thousands of such apartments. Needless to say the older multi family units formerly occupied by students decay. Did I mention the city is dirty or suffers from high crime?
Retail moved to the suburbs mainly because of parking and proximity to people with income to buy stuff. The city and county’s answer was to give tax breaks to a now half empty mega mall and $75M for an Amazon warehouse. The county is going to build an $85M Aquarium on a brownfield near the sewage plant to attract tourists. Public transit is a sad joke, even compared to auto loving nearby Canada.
There is no shortage of tax revenues here. The problem is how the money is allocated. The problem isn’t multiple levels of government, it is corruption at all levels of government that allocate resources. Hey, I’m all for having a nice city at the center of my county. But the rot is endemic and I can’t imagine it getting better.
And don’t forget Troy, formerly known as ‘Collar City,’ due to its booming shirt industry. I lived there for a few years in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Its neighboring, dead industrial city, Cohoes (textile mills, offshored) was then known as the ‘armpit of New York.’ And there is Schenectady, the home of once bustling General Electric, and Albany, in spite of, or maybe because of, being the state capitol. And Rome, once the ‘copper city.’ These are the former bustling urban agglomerations along the route of the Erie Canal.
Along the southern border of New York are faltering smaller cities, such as Jamestown, Corning (yup, that’s were all that Corning Ware was made, before it was ‘off-shored,) Binghamton (another city kept alive by academia; it’s the home of a SUNY,) Alfred (another state university location and former railroad town.) Ithaca flourishes, due to Cornell, New York’s land-grant university.
Oh, speaking of railroads, up to 1970, the Erie-Lackawana rail line ran from New York City through Jamestown to Chicago. Now the elegant and abandoned rail station is part of the National Comedy Center, a cosmic joke. But one that receives generous federal, state and local cash support.
However, the rural countryside is lush and beautiful.
This is all so nostalgic and beautiful. What I think about is a national reclamation program. The part of it dedicated to housing and urban revitalization would be dedicated to deconstruction-recycling. I imagine there is lots of room for constructive creativity in the joint effort to clean up the decay, recycle the material and use it to build sustainable communities. And good jobs. With synergies like the LA example.
I passed through all those cities on a road trip in 2021, and except for Utica, they all had a lot of life, mostly tenanted storefronts, downtown Schenectady in particular seemed to be booming, and Buffalo is one of the most beautiful cities in the US. All with much lower rents and general cost of living than neighboring New England. The one truly sad urban wasteland was Utica, its Beaux Arts palace of a train station looks as out of place as if it were on the moon.
I know that economically these places are all struggling but at first glance it looks a lot like New England. And given what the residents are saving in terms of quality of life, their own economies might not be worse. After all, there’s a reason so many people stay in “dying” cities.
Sure, you have cites which exist due to geographic features along the Erie canal that enhanced trade. The trade brought money which in turn created investment opportunities. It also brought ideas. If you follow US route 20 west from Boston you travel through the heart of slavery abolition territory. It’s probably no one’s “fault” that Rochester became a one-horse town and that horse died, but not due to “off-shoring”.
Cities are dangerous politically– where else can protesters decisively outnumber police?
Is this strictly true? Rural people often have significant resources for protesting in a big way. Take the recent protests by farmers in Denmark, and French farmers are famous for dumping truck loads of food in the streets. Plus, since the police are part of the community in a rural area and everyone knowns them, it is harder for them to just be faceless, police violence.
Public education should be funded by the general fund and not local property taxes.
The author makes many good points but his statement that suburban largely white, and Asian schools spend more per student than urban schools is not true. Vast sums are spent on domestic minority children. Allocating some of those funds to a national child support system for their mothers might do more than more school funding.
I think “enjoying” city life requires a level of gregariousness I constitutionally lack. My father brought us into the suburban world, he being the first of his lineage to get the education necessary to escape the “rural idiocy” all my forebears lived as they cattle-thieved their way across Europe to the westernmost edge of the Celtic fringe in Kerry, then across the Atlantic to the St John River Valley where the most prominent crop every year in the Podzolic soil was rocks.
I like my suburban life — it’s quiet.
From a different angle, I quite enjoy living in a walkable area of Brooklyn. Not being inclined to hours of sociability, even pre-Covid, and much less so now, I find the incidental and often friendly presence of a variety of other Terrans on the streets and in the stores quite sufficient.
And I appreciate every sight of wide sky and every manifestation of plant, animal, and bird life that comes my way (OK, with the exception of rats) all the more for their relative scarcity.
At this age, if I were to move to the country, I would find it hard and probably inadvisable to take up driving again. Given the state of public transportation in the hinterlands, that would mean becoming housebound or dependent on others for “rides.” Here I can still strike out to walk, don a mask and board a bus, or head downstairs into a subway entrance. Visions of space and fresh green vistas are attractive, but not at the price of becoming car-dependent. (Not quite capable of going back to bicycling, as some of you hardy souls have suggested.)
I cherish this little corner, now in the process of being eaten up by developer towers.
Forgot to mention another reason why I cherish my surroundings, best described in a graffito I saw in a subway station back in the 80s:
Welcome to Brooklyn, the third world.
The antipathy between rural and city populations was, and is a perennial problem that has been a historical challenge for political organizers.
The closest we got to bridging the gap was the rise of the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota and the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, this in the early 20th century.
Both parties were absorbed, you could say co-opted, by the Democratic Party, resulting in the Minnesota Farmer–Labor Party merger in 1944 and the North Dakota Democratic–Nonpartisan League Party merger in 1956.
I used to pass the Farmers and Mechanics Bank in Minneapolis almost every day when I was driving taxi years ago, there is so little to be found online about its founding, but I can’t help but think it is evidence of the effort to show the rural and city dwellers that they have common interests.
And I can’t help but think that the mergers of the Non-Partisan League and the Farmer-Labor Party with the Democratic Party represent the successful defeat of what had been an encouraging run by populist organizers and the end of the progressive era.
The populists were co-opted, the red-scare initiated, and the rural-urban divide, so useful to maintaining control over the masses was reinforced.
When I was young I only wanted to get out of my small town and live in cities. And I did live for a long time in Atlanta and a short time in NYC. They were fun and exciting when I was young but now that I’m not young I want nothing to do with cities and find the above argument somewhat incoherent, especially at a time when the FIRE economy, centered in NYC in particular, has done everything possible to render cities obsolete.
In other words all that “innovation” that he thinks is so great led to a hollowing out of the industrial base that once made cities a working class magnet. The argument of the interview is that we should nevertheless support large cities because of their lingering “progressive” politics designed to prop up the lower classes that have been impoverished by the actual policies of those “progressives.” He says cities need lots of immigrants like they once had, but when Texas or Florida send them to NY they howl about the burden because, once again, those garment jobs or office building maintenance jobs have been sent overseas or rendered obsolete by a cyber economy that no longer needs all their employees in their cubicles in a big room in order to have meetings and communicate. Yes, there’s culture that most ordinary people can’t even enjoy given the price of Broadway shows or the opera. Arguably in America the big cities have become playgrounds for the super wealthy and challenging for anyone who isn’t.
My two cents.
Agreed. There needs to be an article written as to why many big cities are now so anti-american. Affordability seems to be an afterthought.
I lived in Detroit proper for some years, long ago. I liked it. Within a block walking distance there was a butcher shop, a bakery, a vegetable shop and a lovely little cafe. I didn’t have a refrigerator, but it didn’t matter, I just walked down the street and got most everything I needed. Now I’m in a small town outside of Detroit and there isn’t much I can walk to, although the bus system is very good.
Cities have their upsides and their downsides. I’ve lived in or just outside several US cities: New York, New Orleans, Austin, Dallas, Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I also have spent months at a time in Kolkata over the years.
The TL;DR synopsis: if all cities were like New York and Boston but cheap, cities would be popular.
New York (especially Manhattan) is great. The subway is fast and covers almost the whole island. Everything is walkable. There is a lot to do: fun to be had and sufficient employment/freelance/business opportunities. Downside? It is family blogging expensive to actually live there. When I was a law student in 2002-2005, my Alphabet City apartment was $1,900.00 per month (and still cheaper than the law dorms at NYU). When I left, the new tenants informed me that the landlord was charging them $3,350.00 per month. I could always justify the rent, at least for awhile, by the amount of fun and atmosphere to be had, the lack of need for a car, near friction-free subway system, and incredible food and culture. Thinking about the COVID lockdowns though, I can see where paying $3,300.00+ a month to be stuck in a small apartment with none of the benefits to be had would kill any desire to stay. The other downside was that there were no real grocery stores when I lived there. There was Key Foods (affordable but ugh!) or Whole Foods (family blogging expensive). Trader Joes and (I think Giant) moved in after I left.
Boston is the equivalent of New York in this respect. While not as much going on, I liked the place and the people more. Rents were just as high.
Every other US city I have lived in has the same problem: not really walkable, except maybe a small central core that almost seems more designed for show than as a real place to live. Mass transit means buses. Let me state my opinion clearly on this subject: family blog buses. Mass transit that uses the same roads clogged by personal cars is the worst of all possible worlds: the bus is still stuck in traffic and because of frequent stops is even slower. Sure, DC has a metro and Dallas has light rail, but those cover a very limited potion of the respective cities. Unlike New York, where I did not have a car because I did not need a car, I found I needed a car in DC. Drive or take three different buses to the grocery store is not a real choice if you at all value your time.
Then there is the other problem. Not only do Dallas and DC lack useful mass transit, their cultural offerings in no way compare to New York or Boston. And therein lies the problem: why pay more to be packed into smaller living quarters without functional mass transit when there is nothing to do there anyway? Might as well live in a suburb at that point if only for the convenience of ample parking.
New Orleans, and to a lesser extent Austin, have a lot going on culturally. In those places you can at least justify the bad traffic with the amount of things to do and fun to be had. When I lived in New Orleans (1996-2002), it also had cheap rent (not so much anymore). Although the violent crime rate was high and periodic hurricane evacuations to get old.
These days I live in a small college town in upstate New York: Ithaca. It’s small and walkable, there is a lot going on, housing is almost reasonably priced, and I have a Wegmans for grocery shopping. I am quite happy to be here. To move back to a city, I’d need something like Boston or New York, but reasonably priced.
Part of the problem for me is ugliness. Nature is beautiful. Concrete or brick boxes aren’t. Trees help, but are often rare in cities. Part of the mind needs variety, and a single tree contains more visual complexity than most buildings.
Cities are also assault the senses. Too many people on top of each other bustling to get wherever and ignoring each other. Billboards trying to force your mind where others want it to go. One doesn’t go to a city to peacefully cogitate about something. One’s mind is closed against the cacophony that might assault it at any moment.
If there were great architecture, that would help, but that which there was is often taken down. The core of many European cities are better in that regard, but even then I’d prefer to live in Nature. I’m afraid I have yet to see much beauty in the centers of US cities I have visited. Modern cities, for me, are a display of how insane humanity has become.
And then of course, in the countryside, there is the joy of having plants to look after, wild critters that visit, and so on. You can’t do that on the 10th floor of an apartment block. You can at best raise geraniums on the balcony. Of course, being less close, one does have fewer meals with other people, which is a shame when there isn’t a pandemic.
My milieu is surrounded by nature with a little bit of concrete & asphalt, while its the other way around in the Big Smokes, no thanks.
There isn’t enough country for everyone to live there. If they did, it wouldn’t be country anymore, probably more like outer suburbs everywhere. Cities are the only ecologically sustainable way for the majority of 10 billion humans to live while possibly preserving enough nature to support life on Earth.
Cities are not a solution because those 10 billion people consume and pollute the environment whether or not they’re concentrated. Indeed their impact is more concentrated in cities: you need to concentrate and transport what they consume (food, goods) into cities, and dilute and transport out what they discard (excrement, trash) of cities. Paris today demonstrates what happens when you just stop one of these services (stinking trash). People in cities also compete for material goods (who has the nicest clothes, the most recent electronic gizmo, the fanciest BMW, etc), increasing consumption. So cities are anything but ecologically sustainable. They make the problem worse by increasing the energy required to achieve the same end (keeping someone alive).
And yes, it is a problem is the fact there are far too many of us on this planet at this stage of our development.
I grew up in NYC and now live in the mountains, in a town with a smaller population than my high school matriculated class. Anecdotally speaking, my observation has been that the city environment is oppressive physically, socially and mentally, especially the lower you descend on the income ladder. I’ve been up and down that ladder and even in the relative “rafters,” my city’s negatives outweighed its positives.
Not to mention how cities warp residents’ understanding of the larger world and environment. They disconnect humans from nature. Psychologically, this is harmful because this dissociation cuts out the natural element of the world that our brains and bodies evolved to interact and co-regulate with. In practical terms, it has led to disconnection from how our food is made and how the natural world functions, allowing humans to exploit natural resources and cause widespread animal abuse. Our climate crisis has morphed out of this lack of connection and rejection of responsibility. It’s an enormous topic, I’m leaving out quite a lot.
It was quite eye opening to move to the country and see how much my city self lacked in autonomy, awareness and skills. Hearing city folks talk about the environment these days is a bit surreal at times. It’s an intellectual exercise for them based in little to no direct experience. Back to peace of mind, however, that may be something wealthy city dwellers can afford to buy in some amount, but in the country, it is available to all.
The interviewee states:
Too bad that the Metro riders don’t support that. The Metro is so unpopular that nobody goes to ride there anymore, says Yogi Bearra. The LA Times and others have written about the low ridership due to various factors and locals don’t seem to have much faith in any plausible solutions.
Now take that dysfunction and scale up to the Bullet Train To Nowhere platinum boondoggle and another tarnished Golden State monument will for decades remind people of folly.
Here’s a recent article on the LA Metro:
It seems the homeless issue seeps into the system.
Great link. I would love to take the Metro but it is just getting worse and worse. In fact, it is worse than New York where I lived some time ago. My daughter took the Metro to school but the masturbation and constant attempts at fondling her forced me to drive. These disadvantaged men somehow still have a strong sex drive. The cops just do as little as they can so they do not have to take any risks that could cost them their jobs. At this point the system is worthless. They should just shut it down. And we want to bring the American way to Ukraine? You should see the Moscow subway.
When I first read the title of this post my immediate answer was “fear”. To travel the road between rural and urban (in either direction) is to journey out of one’s comfort zone. Most of us grew up in one or the other, understanding the one, having no idea of the other. I had a difficult time becoming comfortable in my surroundings when I moved to NYC at the tender age of 39. It took time. When we brought our kids’ friends from the city up to the camp in Vermont, their unease at the quiet was palpable.
I get the impression that the author’s priors are coloring her essay. I don’t mean to dismiss this piece whole cloth as there are many strong observations. It reads like a social justice/labor essay that has been edited a bit to fit into her personal worldview. “Hate” seems like a strong word and it looks based on quotes from politicians. Honestly, this piece is a bit divisive.
This quote from the author stood out. “I still think innovation is associated with metropolitan and city forms.” Hmmm. I guess innovation only happens in the FIRE sector. As a many generational northern New Englander, I take mild offense. Innovation = survival up here. I thought we were known for it.
Anyone interested in the topics, and more importantly, how to organize to make things better can investigate:
Strong Towns (besides the blog also great youtube channel)
Not Just Bikes
Please check out the L.A. Times article “Drug use is rampant on the Metro system,” written on March 20, 2023. A few highlights:
“Horror.” That’s how one rail operator described the scenes he sees daily.”
“Since January, 22 people have died on Metro buses and trains, mostly from suspected overdoses–more people than all of 2022.”
“Commuters have abandoned large swathes of the Metro system.”
Please don’t harsh my buzz. I was just feeling all warm and fuzzy about how unions, immigrants and environmentalist all got together to make the Metro happen. Go Cities!
Now you tell me that mostly junkies ride the Metro, and it’s done nothing to gets Angelinos out of their cars?!?
Next you’ll tell me that Ukraine isn’t winning
Growing up in rural upstate New York, I heard constant complaints that all of our tax dollars were going to NYC. Hatred might be too strong a word, but not by much. I never got the idea, though, that it was a general hatred toward cities in general.
I left the state at 18 and lived in several large cities, including Washington, San Francisco, and New York. Like other commenters, I found city life unbearable, couldn’t tolerate the noise, pollution and crowds. I returned to New York State a little over five years ago and since then have lived in a village in a rural county — mostly a positive experience (garden, YES!).
What’s interesting, though, is that my brother and his family (wife and two adult children) talk just like what I heard growing up, possibly worse. One of the kids refers to city people as “cidiots.” Among my brother’s arsenal of epithets for city folk is “over-educated assholes.” And instead of all of our tax dollars going to NYC, he has broadened the complaint to the feds stealing his tax dollars to pay for entitlement programs, most of the recipients of which live in major urban areas. He and his wife talk about it with so much anger that it’s hard not to interpret it as hate.
Sounds very much like the urban-rural divide much discussed during and especially after the 2016 elections — i.e., nothing new here.
So, I guess where you’re at in your life (age, income, work, origin) affects attraction to the City or rural setting. And where that City is located geographically (weather, proximity to nature) is what likely makes it attractive (to most?). The problem with American cities is they are unplanned. They are a product of Commerce, Finance, and modest Government control.
As cities develop they seem to go through population phases and eventually get to a size that outstrips the infrastructure (roads/utilities/open space) and transforms the ‘lifestyle’ from pleasant to hectic. Or un-affordable. Discontent, intentional disruption eventually soils the social fabric and some decide to make a clean break; others are stuck.
There appear to be too many control variables for a City to function admirably for most, over time. Enjoy yours while you can.
Excellent interview. I often wrote about this topic many years ago, and McGahey seems to cover most points. One observation – that despite the human destructiveness of CCP in China, they do understand cities properly as economic engines. Cities are the size of labor sheds, which eliminates the beggar-thy-neighbor policies that pit cities against suburbs and suburbs against each other in the US. I wrote a bit about this at http://chinareflections.com/index.php/105-comments-on-policies-and-programs/357-a-note-on-city-size. Hangzhou, for example, has a population about the same as that of the Chicago area. But municipal Hangzhou has an area that would include all the satellite towns around Chicago. One need not look askance at either city- or suburb-fanciers. One should understand disparities as principally an organizational dynamics problem (not to ignore racial and other reasons for suburban fractioning). Were suburban residents paying for part of the externalities they enjoy from city proximity (things like jobs, higher salaries, access to education and health care and airports) then cities would not be systematically starved of funds for schools, health care, transportation…. And yes, I understand, good luck with that.
Kunstler, as much as he has supported the concept, has said the GIs returning from WWII did not want to live in Ralph Kramden’s apartment.