The Rise of the Progressive City
The Nation has launched a new project, “Cities Rising,” in order to report on these experiments. It will serve as a space to explore and share some of the most interesting ideas bubbling up around the country. Though the right controls most of the statehouses and large swaths of the federal government, the city, increasingly, belongs to progressives. We’re going to write about what they’re doing with it.
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A few decades ago, the idea of cities as models of public-policy vitality would have seemed bizarre. In the 1960s and ’70s, urban America was seen as synonymous with chaos and decay. Manufacturing jobs flowed out of the cities in the 1960s, and by the end of that decade, a combination of economic privation and police brutality had sparked devastating urban riots nationwide. Violent crime shot up—according to Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City, New York’s murder rate quadrupled from 1960 to 1975. Whites fled, and people of color who had the means soon followed them. A 1976 headline in The New York Times read: Black Middle Class Joining the Exodus to White Suburbia.
Many cities responded disastrously to their deterioration, razing poor neighborhoods and replacing them with federally funded urban renewal projects. Glaeser writes: “Those shiny new buildings were really Potemkin villages spread throughout America, built to provide politicians with the appearance of urban success…. Investing in buildings instead of people in places where prices were already low may have been the biggest mistake of urban policy over the past sixty years.”
Plenty of cities never came back from the dislocations of those years. A paper by Daniel Hartley, a research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, points out that the Rust Belt cities of Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh lost more than 40 percent of their population over the past four decades. Hartley describes what happened as “reverse gentrification,” in which poverty encroached into formerly high-income neighborhoods. In these places, sheer economic desperation rather than inequality is the problem. And that’s even harder to address, because there’s little wealth there to redistribute, although there are fascinating policy experiments under way in places like Cleveland (more on that later).
In the 1980s and ’90s, though, a number of American cities started booming again, attracting the elite knowledge workers whom celebrity urban theorist Richard Florida famously dubbed the “creative class.” (In Florida’s formulation, that category includes people in finance, law, business and technology as well as the media, academia and the arts—basically, anyone in a high-status job that requires a lot of thinking.) There are many theories about why certain cities turned around, but Florida’s notion of hipness as an economic accelerant was particularly influential. In the preface to his bestselling 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, he wrote that “rather than being driven exclusively by companies, economic growth was occurring in places that were tolerant, diverse, and open to creativity—because these were places where creative people of all types wanted to live.”
The upshot of this theory was that cities could prosper by making themselves attractive to trendsetters and yuppies. Across the country, civic leaders took Florida’s ideas to heart, striving to make their cities hipster-friendly in the hope that it would bring economic revitalization. (Many hired Florida’s consulting firm to help.) Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, in her 2004 State of the State address, hailed it as “a bottom-up movement in which nearly eighty of our communities have local commissions on cool that are uncorking the bottle of creativity…planning everything from bike paths to bookstores to attract more people and new businesses.” But Jamie Peck, a University of British Columbia geography professor and one of Florida’s harshest critics, pointed out that Michigan found money for a “Cool Cities” program even as it enacted the largest spending cuts in its history.
Not surprisingly, the bureaucratic effort to engineer “cool” has failed to bring economic relief to hard-pressed urban areas. It soon became clear that even in thriving meccas of the creative class like New York, Austin and San Francisco, the economic gains made by the young professionals Florida celebrated weren’t trickling down to others. “The benefits of highly skilled regions accrue mainly to knowledge, professional, and creative workers,” Florida wrote in a 2013 Atlantic Cities piece, acknowledging what his left-wing critics had been saying for years. “While less-skilled blue-collar and service workers also earn more in these places, more expensive housing costs eat away those gains. There is a rising tide of sorts, but it only lifts about the most advantaged third of the workforce, leaving the other 66 percent much further behind.”