The Rise of the Progressive City
As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
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The Bush years were grim for progressives, but they did offer one small consolation: the hope that if only a smart and decent person could ascend to the White House, our politics could be repaired. Now, after years of destructive austerity and hopeless stalemate, that faith is dead. People on the left will debate where to lay the blame, but few will disagree that our federal institutions seem utterly unequal to the challenges of a country still reeling from economic crisis.
Indeed, our national politics are so deformed that it’s hard even to imagine the steps necessary to fix things. Last year, The Boston Globe ran an award-winning series, “Broken City,” about the entropy in Washington. The final piece noted that potential remedies for the country’s problems are met with “almost complete indifference in Washington, the world’s capital of gridlock, even when alternative, perhaps better, ways are already at work, some in plain sight.”
At the city level, though, things are very different. Among those who study urban governance and those who practice it, there’s an extraordinary sense of political excitement. An outpouring of books like If Mayors Ruled the World, Triumph of the City and The Metropolitan Revolution hymns urban dynamism. Not all the new urban optimists are on the left, but that’s where most of the energy is. With the federal government frozen, cities are seizing the initiative and becoming laboratories for progressive policy innovation. Amid widespread despair about national politics, cities have become new sources of hope.
“It’s a movement that reflects the paralyzed nature of the political system in Washington right now and the polarization of the political process,” says Neal Peirce, editor of Citiscope, an online magazine about cities that launched earlier this year. “On the local level, you can have these arguments without getting as much into partisan politics. At the same time, we’re having much more discussion about income inequality.” The result is a raft of local legislation intended to address problems that national politicians have let fester. “It’s quite a shift,” says Peirce. “It’s grown dramatically in the last year or so.”
There’s little chance, for example, that Congress will give us a living-wage law anytime soon, but the city of SeaTac in Washington State just raised its minimum wage to an unprecedented $15 an hour, and Los Angeles is considering a proposal to mandate a $15.37 minimum for workers at big hotels. San Francisco has adopted near-universal health coverage, including a program for the uninsured that functions like the “public option” left out of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The federal government has done disgracefully little about the collapse of the housing market, but Richmond, California, is pushing a bold, controversial plan to take over underwater mortgages through the use of eminent domain. Obama’s proposal for universal pre-K, first made in last year’s State of the Union address, may not go anywhere, but New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to bring it to the country’s largest city, and both San Antonio and Denver have approved sales tax increases to pay for their own expanded preschool programs.
With a group of new, progressive mayors in office this year, the era of big-city liberalism has just begun. In addition to de Blasio, there’s Boston’s Marty Walsh, Minneapolis’s Betsy Hodges and Seattle’s Ed Murray, who wants to bring the $15 minimum wage to his city. Cities have the opportunity, Murray said in his State of the City address in February, to lead on “disparity in pay and in housing, in urban policing, on the environment and providing universal pre-K.” Quoting Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he called for “bold, persistent experimentation…. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”