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The Rise of the Progressive City | The Nation

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The Rise of the Progressive City

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Bill de Blasio, Kasim Reed, David Axlerod

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio center, speaks during a panel discussion about the issues facing the nation's big cities while Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed right, and former Obama advisor and moderator of the discussion David Axlerod look on in Chicago, Thursday, March, 6, 2014 (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

This is the backdrop for the transition from Michael Bloomberg to Bill de Blasio in New York. In many ways, Bloomberg—who once called the city “a high-end product, maybe even a luxury product”— exemplified the Florida ethos, filling New York with new parks, hundreds of miles of bike lanes and loftlike condos. “[T]he truth of the matter is: being cool counts,” Bloomberg wrote in a 2012 Financial Times column. “When people can find inspiration in a community that also offers great parks, safe streets and extensive mass transit, they vote with their feet.”

Needless to say, there’s nothing wrong with bike lanes and parks. But while Bloomberg turned New York into a paradise for well-heeled young professionals, huge parts of the city were left behind. Over his three terms in office, inequality rose dramatically, the percentage of New Yorkers in poverty inched up, and homelessness reached a record high. De Blasio’s rise, in many ways, is a backlash against the failures of an urban policy focused almost exclusively on the “creative class.”

“We’ve done the parks—not all of it, but we’ve done enough,” says Saskia Sassen, the Columbia University sociologist known for her writing about cities and globalization. At this point, she adds, money should be used “to address the question of the bottom 20 percent in this city, which is absolutely a disaster. We need to upgrade the housing in a lot of areas that are very poor and very degraded. That’s jobs—that’s an opportunity to train. We have a lot of skilled workers who are unemployed; we employ them and we also teach apprentices. The money is there. We stop with the beautifying of the city, and we now dedicate ourselves to the bottom 20 percent.”

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There are limits, of course, to what city governments can do independently. “The background issue for all mayors is that they are compelled to deal with the consequences of a system over which they have no power,” says the political theorist Benjamin Barber, author of If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. Mayors have little say in the structures of global capitalism. De Blasio is proposing a city ID that would help undocumented New Yorkers when it comes to leases, bank accounts and other services, but he can’t regulate immigration or give out visas. New York City can’t even raise income taxes on its own. All this means that rather than addressing root causes, cities have to focus on “amelioration, palliation,” says Barber.

That said, city governments have certain advantages. For one thing, the far right has little power in cities. Texas may be the state that gave us Ted Cruz, but its biggest city, Houston, is run by Annise Parker, a Democrat and a lesbian who won her third term last year. Similarly, Salt Lake City, the capital of blood-red Utah, has a Democratic mayor, Ralph Becker; last year, when a judge struck down the state’s gay marriage ban, Becker officiated at rushed weddings before a stay could be issued. In 2013, the radical human rights lawyer Chokwe Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, with more than 85 percent of the vote. (Tragically, he died of a heart attack after only eight months in office.) San Diego is the only one of the nation’s ten biggest cities to be led by a Republican, Kevin Faulconer, who won a special election after the Democratic mayor resigned amid a torrent of sexual harassment claims.

City government is thus largely free of the sort of conservative ideological grandstanding that has left Washington deadlocked. Of course, Democratic domination doesn’t necessarily mean progressivism—decades of machine politics have shown that. But it does mean that cities are liberated from culture-war skirmishing and market fundamentalism, giving them the chance to focus on what works. “Local governments tend to attract people who are solution-oriented rather than ideologues,” says Dave Cieslewicz, the former mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, and the co-founder of the Mayors Innovation Project, a network of progressive city leaders. “I don’t know many Tea Party mayors. As a rule, cities tend to hang together pretty well in terms of being politically homogenous and therefore governable.”

This has left our cities ideally placed to experiment with policies that mitigate, if not reverse, the ravages of poverty and widespread inequality. Consider San Francisco, where two contradictory stories about inequality are playing out at once. On the one hand, San Francisco is the second-most-unequal city in the United States, according to the Brookings Institution (Atlanta ranks first). In the London Review of Books, Rebecca Solnit describes a crisis “precipitated by a huge influx of well-paid tech workers driving up housing costs and causing evictions, gentrification and cultural change.” Google buses have become the symbol of the city’s rapid transformation, and protesters have made international news blocking them as they try to ferry the company’s well-paid workers from their homes in San Francisco to their jobs in Silicon Valley.

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