- In some respects, of course, the last ten or so years have been a good time for American cities. Most urban areas, particularly New York, became safer and cleaner than they were in the '80s. And, certainly, we are no longer living in the dark days of the '70s--an era symbolized by the 1981 cult classic Escape from New York. These trends have made urban life more attractive to some and thereby stimulated residential construction as well as slowed--and in some cases reversed--the flight from cities of jobs.
But these developments notwithstanding, the renaissance of American cities has been greatly overstated--and this unwarranted optimism is doing a disservice to cities themselves. Urban politics has become self-satisfied and triumphalist, content to see cities promote the appearance of thriving while failing to serve the very people--families, immigrants, often minorities--who most need cities to be decent, livable places. The myths that have grown up surrounding the urban renaissance are now often treated as fact. As an urban historian who lives in a major city, I believe that recognizing these myths for what they are is a critical first step towards the redemption of urban America.
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Much of the current progressive agenda--with its anti-growth economic bias--does little to boost the competitive status of urban centers. Cities must return to a progressive focus on fixing their real problems--that is, the problems of the majority of the people who live there--not serving the interests of artists, hipsters, and their wealthy patrons. Right now school reform is often hostage to the power of teachers' unions. City budgets, which could be applied to improving economic infrastructure, are frequently bloated by, among other things, excessive public sector employment and overgenerous pensions. In the contest for the remaining public funds, the knitted interests of downtown property holders, arts foundations, sports promoters, and nightclub owners often overwhelm those of more conventional small businesses and family-oriented neighborhoods that could serve as havens for the middle class.
Ultimately, a new urban progressivism must challenge this power axis. It would force local governments to focus on the most important historical work of cities: the transformation of newcomers to America into successful, middle-class citizens. This has undergirded the emergence of all great modern cities, from fifteenth-century Venice to seventeenth-century Amsterdam to twentieth-century New York. The American metropolis can be more than a way station for the wealthy young and part-time destination for the nomadic rich. It can be a place where average people live, thrive, and build communities across lines of race and class. Now that would be a cool city.
Is There Really an Urban Renaissance in America?
Joel Kotkin has an interesting piece in The New Republic that takes aim at some of the prevalent myths surrounding America's so-called "urban renaissance":