I've been thinking about cities. And contrary to the stories of urban renaissance from quick-draw columnists bolstered by the latest census data, contrary to the claim that "Cities are back!", I still am very queasy over what I see I won't proselytize the urban apocalypse, because there has been good news over the past decade, too much good news. But I also won't preach the false blossom of miracle comeback. At best the news for cities is contradictory. At worst it's just a temporary up-tick in a severely weakened heart. And after reading the newest work on the urban condition, Daniel Lazare's "America's Undeclared War: What's Killing Our Cities and How We Can Stop It" (Harcourt, 354 pages, $26), I'm more convinced than ever it's the latter.
Are cities on the way to full healing?
It's a cruel joke.
I've been thinking about the city I have lived in for the past year, Los Angeles, burgeoning at the seams like an overstuffed laundry bin, endless and eclectic and poor and rich and so multiethnic that it has the funhouse (or is it madhouse?) feel of a hundred cities in one.
I've been thinking about the city where I still own a home, Philadelphia, sweet and sad and beautiful and brutal. I've been thinking about the 10 minutes I spent at the airport in Phoenix, 10 minutes too long for anyone who has ever been to Phoenix and is willing to be remotely honest about the experience. I've been thinking about the day I spent driving around Las Vegas, where the faux adobe houses cluster like rat droppings against the desert mountains.
I've also been thinking about other cities I have been to in my life, where populations fell last decade and seem likely to spiral down even more in the years to come--Detroit, Norfolk, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Hartford and Baltimore -- yes, Baltimore.
And as I think about these cities, I wonder, much like Lazare, if the fate of them--other than the redeveloped downtown pocket with the hotel-convention center-ballpark-Hard Rock Cafe-Starbucks combo platter and the tiny neighborhoods of entitlement--will be little more than dust and nostalgia.
Based on my own research, I am familiar with the success stories that have become part and parcel of the new urban saga -- crime is down in New York, jobs are up in Chicago, boosterism is as thick as summer pollen in Denver. I am familiar with inspirational examples of leadership by idiosyncratic and maverick mayors who without a doubt form the country's best political group -- Ed Rendell during the eight years he was in Philadelphia, Dennis Archer in Detroit, Rudy Giuliani in New York regardless of his pathology for acting like a righteous schoolboy bully brat, Rich Daley in Chicago, and most recently Martin O'Malley in Baltimore.
But I see danger signs in the giddiness, and once again thanks to Lazare, the warning lights are flashing red. I know what new immigration can do for cities in terms of neighborhood revitalization -- just ask Giuliani or Daley or Richard Riordan in Los Angeles where the babble of a thousand excited tongues is not only symphonic but the purest, best essence of what America is and must always be. But in light of an economy that is becoming ever softer, I wonder what the destiny of these immigrants will truly be over the next 10 and 20 years, just as I also wonder what demands they will place on cities in terms of education and health care and decent housing.
If you go an inch deep into the data from the 2000 census, as the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution recently did, you find dramatic and consequential news for cities, even the ones that grew by leaps and bounds.
For the first time ever, nearly half of the country's 100 largest cities (48 to be exact) have more blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities than whites, according to the Brookings analysis. Seventy-one of the nation's 100 largest cities lost white residents, while the number of Hispanic residents grew by 43 percent.
Some of the cities that posted the most impressive population gains in the '90s -- Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas -- would have shrunk were it not for the influx of Hispanics. Given the massive neighborhood revitalization that has gone in these cities, this inflow has been nothing short of awesome. Neighborhoods given up for good thrive with life.
Given that the median annual household income for Hispanic households is about $14,000 less than for non-Hispanic white households, there are indications that the tax base for American cities is actually shrinking.