Urban boosters are rightly proud of the progress American cities have made since their nadir in the 1970s; Harvard economist Ed Glaeser has gone so far as to proclaim “the triumph of the city.” Yet recent events — notably Detroit’s bankruptcy and the victory of left-wing populist Bill de Blasio in the Democratic primary of the New York mayoral election — suggest that the urban future may prove far more problematic than commonly acknowledged.
People care deeply about where they live. If you ever doubt that, remember this: they staged massive protests over a park in Istanbul. Gezi Park near Taksim Square is one of that ancient city’s most beloved spots.
OK, I get it. Between George W. Bush and Barack Obama we have made complete fools of ourselves on the international stage, outmaneuvered by petty lunatics and crafty kleptocrats like Russia’sVladimir Putin. Some even claim we are witnessing “an erosion of world influence” equal to such failed states as the Soviet Union and the French Third Republic.
Suburbia has been a favorite whipping boy of urbane intellectuals, who have foretold its decline for decades. Leigh Gallagher's "The End of the Suburbs" is the latest addition to this tired but tireless genre. The book lacks the sparkling prose and original insights one could find in the works of, say, Jane Jacobs or Lewis Mumford. Indeed, Ms. Gallagher's book is little more than a distillation of the conventional wisdom that prevails at Sunday brunch in Manhattan.
The author restages many of the old anti-suburban claims, and her introduction's section headings easily give away the gist of the argument: "Millennials hate the burbs"; "Our households are shrinking"; "We are eco-obsessed"; "The suburbs are poorly designed to begin with"; and so on.
In this bizarrely politicized environment, even the preservation of the most basic institution of society – the family – is morphing into a divisive partisan issue. Increasingly, the two parties are divided not only along lines of economic and social philosophy, but over the primacy of traditional familialism.
The world’s biggest and most dynamic economy derives its strength and resilience from its geographic diversity. Economically, at least, America is not a single country. It is a collection of seven nations and three quasi-independent city-states, each with its own tastes, proclivities, resources and problems. These nations compete with one another – the Great Lakes loses factories to the Southeast, and talent flees the brutal winters and high taxes of the city-state New York for gentler climes – but, more important, they develop synergies, albeit unintentionally.
If the prospects for the United States remain relatively bright – despite two failed administrations – how about Southern California? Once a region that epitomized our country's promise, the area still maintains enormous competitive advantages, if it ever gathers the wits to take advantage of them.
Over four decades, the Great Lakes states have been the sad sack of American geography. This perception has been reinforced by Detroit’s bankruptcy filing and the descent of Chicago, the region’s poster child for gentrification, toward insolvency.
To paraphrase the great polemicist Thomas Paine, these are times that try the souls of optimists. The country is shuffling through a very weak recovery, and public opinion remains distinctly negative, with nearly half of Americans saying China has already leapfrogged us and nearly 60 percent convinced the country is headed in the wrong direction. Belief in the political leadership of both parties stands at record lows, not surprisingly, since we are experiencing what may be remembered as the worst period of presidential leadership, under both parties, since the pre-Civil War days of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Southern California was ground zero for the "American Dream" of owning a house. From tony Newport Beach and Bel-Air to the more middle-class suburbs of the San Fernando Valley and Garden Grove to working-class Lakewood, our region created a vast geography of opportunity for prospective homeowners.
There are two deep-blue regions that are critical to the Obama administration: the Northeast and the coastal region between San Jose and Seattle that truly deserves the moniker of the Left Coast. They dominate the Democratic donor list, and provide the administration with most of its appointees and much of its ideological moorings.
For a generation, most Americans, whatever their politics, have largely admired Silicon Valley as an exemplar of enlightened free-market capitalism. Yet, increasingly, the one-time folk heroes are beginning to appear more like a digital version of President George W. Bush's “axis of evil.” In terms of threats to freedom and privacy, we now may have more to fear from techies in Palo Alto than the infinitely less-competent retro-Reds in North Korea.
Among university professors, government planners and mainstream pundits there is little doubt that the best city is the densest one. This notion is also supported by a wide number of politically connected developers, who see in the cramming of Americans into ever smaller spaces an opportunity for vast, often taxpayer-subsidized, profiteering.
What is a city for? Ever since cities first emerged thousands of years ago, they have been places where families could congregate and flourish. The family hearth formed the core of the ancient Greek and Roman city, observed the nineteenth-century French historian Fustel de Coulanges. Family was likewise the foundation of the great ancient cities of China and the Middle East. As for modern European cities, the historian Philippe Ariès argued that the contemporary “concept of the family” itself originated in the urbanizing northern Europe shown in Rembrandt’s paintings of bourgeois life. Another historian, Simon Schama, described the seventeenth-century Dutch city as “the Republic of Children.” European immigrants carried the institution of the family-oriented city across the Atlantic to America. In the American city until the 1950s, urbanist Sam Bass Warner observed, the “basic custom” was “commitment to familialism.”
Perhaps nothing more illustrates the evolving inner class conflict within the progressive political movement than the recent embrace of California as a role model for the rest of the country. The Golden State, maintains John Judis of the New Republic, should provide the game plan for the Obama administration as it seeks a path back to relevance.