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.”

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.”

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.

Yet even as San Francisco exemplifies the social stratification of the postindustrial economy, it is also, more quietly, pioneering a new social safety net. Since 1996, the city has enacted some of the country’s most comprehensive laws on wages, benefits, paid sick leave and healthcare access. Michael Reich, the director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, and Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, write that these measures, taken together, “represent a new social compact among businesses, workers, and government.”

Along with Miranda Dietz, Reich and Jacobs are the editors of the new book When Mandates Work: Raising Labor Standards at the Local Level, a careful, scholarly look at San Francisco’s largely unheralded policy experiment, which picked up steam a decade ago. In 2003, a ballot initiative made San Francisco the country’s first major city to enact its own minimum wage law, initially set at $8.50 an hour. (Tied to the Bay Area Consumer Price Index, it climbed to $10.55 by 2013.) Two years later, San Francisco instituted a Working Families Credit to supplement the Earned Income Tax Credit. The year after that, it became the first US city to require employers to provide paid sick leave. And it passed the groundbreaking San Francisco Health Care Security Ordinance, which mandated minimum health spending requirements for businesses with twenty or more workers and created Healthy San Francisco, which provides comprehensive healthcare to uninsured city residents. “Although this public option is not formally considered insurance,” Reich and Jacobs note in their book, “it is tantamount to a generous public insurance policy, with the significant caveat that it is restricted to a network of providers located only within San Francisco.”

Although such policies will not be enough to reverse the dynamics that threaten to transform San Francisco into a playground for privileged high-tech workers, they have proved amazingly successful at improving the lives of people struggling to get by in a terribly unequal environment. As Reich and Jacobs write: “Remarkably, and despite many warnings about dire negative effects, these new policies raised living standards significantly for tens of thousands of people, and without creating any negative effects on employment. While modest by most European and Canadian standards, San Francisco’s policies represent a bold experiment in American labor market policies that provides important lessons for the rest of the United States.”

Elements of that experiment will likely soon be replicated in other cities. The push for local minimum wage laws, says Alan Berube, deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, has “serious legs” in the wake of last year’s progressive mayoral victories. “You can trace it back to the Occupy movement and [Mitt Romney’s] ‘47 percent’ and what was a broader kind of national growing awareness of inequality and its effects,” he says.

Berube especially credits the Service Employees International Union, which led last year’s successful campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in SeaTac, the city around the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport, which has grown increasingly poor as airport wages declined. “It got attention because it was audacious, and I think that that’s proven helpful to the cause of folks who are looking to do this in other places,” he says. In March, for example, Chicago voters overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding referendum calling for a $15 minimum wage for companies that do business in the city and gross more than $50 million a year.

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Just as reactionary ideas tend to spread from one state legislature to another—witness the recent tide of state-level anti-abortion laws—good ideas spread among the cities. “Mayors are incredibly competitive and constantly bragging on their own cities,” says Cieslewicz, who founded the Mayors Innovation Project (originally called the New Cities Project) in 2005 as an alternative to the more mainstream US Conference of Mayors. “One result of that is the sharing of best practices. Mayors always want to tell you what it is they accomplished—and when they get challenged and hear that someone did it better, they want to steal that idea.”

One idea that Cieslewicz wants to steal comes out of Cleveland, where a group of worker-owned green cooperatives in low-income neighborhoods have been serving the city’s hospitals and college campuses since 2008. “Universities and hospitals in Cleveland are literally spending billions of dollars a year on all kinds of services: food for the cafeteria, laundry—hospitals go through an incredible amount of laundry,” Cieslewicz says. “What they did was set up three cooperatives, one dealing with laundry—it’s the greenest laundry service in Ohio—another producing local food, and a third one dealing with solar energy. Because every dollar that’s not being spent on fossil fuel—not being exported—can be kept in the community.”

The cooperatives, which receive both government and foundation support and bring in about $6 million a year, hire people from the surrounding neighborhoods and give them an ownership share, which is paid for through a payroll deduction and allows the workers to build up thousands of dollars in equity. All of this creates “a symbiotic relationship between these powerful big institutions and the neighborhoods that surrounded them,” Cieslewicz says. He’s now promoting a similar idea through his consulting business: “Of all the ideas I’ve gotten from the Mayors Innovation Project, that’s the one I love the most.”

For now, Cieslewicz believes that local initiatives—some modest and discreet, others sweeping and ambitious—represent the only way to make progress against poverty and inequality. “I’m a liberal Democrat,” he says. “I believe in the War on Poverty, and I wish the federal government would concentrate its resources on these issues. The truth is, it’s just not going to happen anytime soon. But it can happen at the local level.”