Life in the Big City

Los Angeles isn’t really a city – the old line is that it’s two hundred suburbs in search of city – but it is huge. San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles, twenty miles south of downtown, are within city limits, and so are large tracts of desert scrub well north of the San Fernando Valley. Look at the map – the red areas are the city itself, and that’s four hundred sixty-nine square miles of nominal city, where almost four million people live. And almost thirteen million people live in the larger Los Angeles Metropolitan Area – so we’re as big as New York. It’s just that downtown Los Angeles isn’t much of anything – it’s always been dead at night and on the weekends. We’re working on that – but damn, it’s been going slowly. The wheelers and dealers drive home to Beverly Hills each night, and their subordinates drive home to their ranch houses, with the pool, all over the place – and only a tiny fraction of the population works downtown anyway. The giant aerospace industry is in the South Bay – miles of this and that south of the airport. Disney and Warner Brothers and Universal and NBC are out in Burbank. The healthcare and insurance industries are out in Pasadena and such places. That makes the traffic so bad it’s legendary – six lanes of freeway, each way, at a dead stop for hours, at almost any hour of day. Maybe that makes this a real city.

It’ll do – and the beach is always a short drive away, and there’s snow in the local mountains each winter, so kids can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon, and there’s Hollywood too, and historic missions and fine museums, and the city’s Griffith Park – a hell of a lot larger and wilder than Central Park – and there’s the constant sunshine and palm trees everywhere. That makes this the oddest of cities. This is resort living, with a job, not city life, which means many of us take reverse-vacations. Forget Hawaii or the Caribbean. For years it was two weeks in Paris in December, just kicking around, alone, because that was a real city once, and still is. There were trips to Manhattan too, the center of the ultimate city. It’s good to be where things are happening. Lot of stuff happens here, but Los Angeles is too diffuse. There’s no center, just lots of centers.

That is, however, the American experience. The rural population of the United States in now just under eighteen percent – everyone else lives in cities, large and small, or in the suburbs of those cities. Norman Rockwell has been dead since 1978 and there is no small-town America anymore, or much of one. Small-town America is the stuff of old Hollywood movies, with a young Mickey Rooney in there somewhere, or something that exists in the mind of Sarah Palin:

We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans.

She said that in October, 2008, in Greensboro, North Carolina, a rather pleasant medium-sized Southern city, with its own suburbs and big malls and giant high schools too, just like everywhere else – but no one called her on it. Everyone likes the myth of an America of small towns and family farms, where the Real Americans live.

That’s nonsense. That makes over eighty percent of all Americans something else entirely – Fake Americans perhaps. We’re all city folk, or suburban folks who bop into our nearby city for a taste of real life, for some excitement, to spend a few hours where things are happening. If that won’t do, it’s off to Paris or London or Manhattan, and there’s no getting around it:

For the first time ever, the majority of the world’s population lives in a city, and this proportion continues to grow. One hundred years ago, 2 out of every 10 people lived in an urban area. By 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2030, 6 out of every 10 people will live in a city, and by 2050, this proportion will increase to 7 out of 10 people.

That spells doom for Sarah Palin and the nostalgia party – that and the growing numbers of minorities, who will soon outnumber the old white folks, and gays, and college-educated urban hipsters, and single moms doing just fine, along with career women and guys in finance and technology and engineering and all the rest, all of whom who have no idea what those folks are talking about. The disappearing America of small towns and family farms, if it still exists, is where the few remaining Republicans live. The world is quickly turning urban, and America turned predominately urban long ago. We’re all city folks now, or like those of us in Los Angeles, close enough to city folks.

That’s why the mayoral election in New York City was the most interesting of the three off-year elections this year. Terry McAuliffe beat Ken Cuccinelli to become the next governor of Virginia, by amassing enough votes in that state’s cities and their suburbs, overwhelming the widely distributed but thin rural vote for Cuccinelli – but that election pitted a rather sleazy and somewhat goofy Democratic operative, McAuliffe, against a hardline Tea Party guy, Cuccinelli, with disturbing obsessions about sex and Jesus and Obamacare. That was a race to the bottom, pretty much only about which of these two was just a bit less of a total jerk. There was only one lesson for the Republicans – don’t nominate jerks. There was a parallel lesson for the Democrats. The vote was far closer than anyone thought it would be. You guys lucked out. Don’t try that again. Don’t nominate jerks.

Chris Christie won in New Jersey, in a landslide. He’ll have another term as governor there, and be positioned quite well to run for president in 2016, but that election was all about personality. The man has failed his constituents, as least in terms of economic growth, and he stands for all that they oppose, but they love him anyway – but then there was Sandy, and his working with his own Democrats, which the nature of politics there forced upon him. He can be pragmatic, because he has to be, which is why the rest of the Republican Party, now pretty much in the hands of the Tea Party, hates the guy. The last time around, the guy made buddy-buddy with Obama when Sandy wiped out much of coastal New Jersey, forcing Romney into silence for a week and making Christie seem all bipartisan-cool, ruining everything, even if they never did have much use for wishy-washy Mitt. That meant that the election there was about things that didn’t have anything to do with actually governing, or specific policies – it was a test case, demonstrating that a hard-ass conservative can win over the majority, if he’s pragmatic when he needs to be, and if he can be a mean-spirited and quite nasty bully at just the right time, but not all the time. This was no more than a test-of-concept election. The Republican Party is still mulling over the result of that test. They’re still not sure this is the way to go. Give then time.

The only election that was actually about governing was in the ultimate city, where the progressive Democrat, Bill de Blasio, won in a landslide – and he’s Sarah Palin’s nightmare, not a Real American at all. He’s not only a city boy, through and through, but look at the pictures – he’s a rather pleasant and calm and reasonable white man, happily married to a quite attractive black woman, with a drop-dead gorgeous mixed-race teenage daughter and a poised and handsome teenage son, who proudly sports a big Afro haircut worthy of Jimi Hendrix or Angela Davis, with his father’s obvious approval. It’s no big deal, and yes, Republican heads are exploding. When de Blasio’s son appeared in his own campaign ads, talking up his father, various folks on the right called foul – this was playing the race card – in fact this was blatant racism – and just look at the scary Fro. This was pandering to the black community and would tear the city apart, and the whole city then laughed long and hard at those critics. The kid was cool, and he obviously loved his father, and the kid made some damned good points. The daughter cut some ads too, but by then the critics had given up. They probably sat at home in the evenings, starting at that Norman Rockwell print on the wall, sighing sadly, wistfully thinking of the Real America that somehow died.

It was more than that. The New York Times, which had flamboyantly endorsed de Blasio, opened their election coverage with this:

Bill de Blasio, who transformed himself from a little-known occupant of an obscure office into the fiery voice of New York’s disillusionment with a new gilded age, was elected the city’s 109th mayor on Tuesday.

His overwhelming victory, stretching from the working-class precincts of central Brooklyn to the suburban streets of northern Queens, amounted to a forceful rejection of the hard-nosed, business-minded style of governance that reigned at City Hall for the past two decades and a sharp leftward turn for the nation’s largest metropolis.

If almost all of us live in cities, or close enough, or in Los Angeles, this was a big deal. We’d been waiting for a fiery voice of disillusionment with the new gilded age, because it’s not just New York where anyone who’s not a billionaire is getting screwed. De Blasio’s campaign slogan, “a tale of two cities,” carried the day – and we’re all living in “a tale of two nations” now. Government should make sure everyone gets a chance, and maybe the rich should pay a tad more in taxes, to help out. The Wall Street crowd isn’t very happy with this, but the exit polls show de Blasio won support from voters not matter what their race, gender, age, education, religion or income, so the Wall Street crowd stands alone, with the former mayor, Michael Bloomberg. They’ll have to get over it.

This was odd. The Ninety-Nine Percent has finally had enough of the One Percent, and in New York they voted just that way. They’re taking back their city, so maybe we can take back our country. Maybe so, but this was only taking back this one city, and maybe de Blasio isn’t dumb enough to drive the rich out of New York, as if he could. Expect things to be a little fairer, in minor ways, as de Blasio will move slowly, because all political change is slow. There will be a bit less stop-and-frisk and a few more teachers, and a small midtown condo will still cost you a million and half for two bedrooms and a view of the brick wall across the street. This election was more of a slight shift in attitude than a revolution, and this is New York City, always a special case. But it was something, and maybe something important, or at least something more important than what happened in Virginia and New Jersey.

Even the folks at the Economist know this, and they’re full of warnings:

New York has been well run for 20 years. It used to be one of America’s most dangerous big cities; now it is one of the safest. Crime has fallen faster in the Big Apple than elsewhere, thanks to police reforms begun by Rudy Giuliani (the mayor from 1994 to 2001) and continued by Mike Bloomberg, his successor. Mr Bloomberg, who must retire after three terms, is not especially charismatic. His catchphrase – “In God we trust; everyone else, bring data” – is not one to set the crowds chanting. But it makes for sensible government. Under him New York has weathered the financial crisis, cleaned its streets and become a magnet for talent and tourists.

Mr de Blasio sees it differently. Borrowing the title of a novel about the French Revolution, he talks of “A Tale of Two Cities”. He laments the gap between wealthy Wall Streeters and the people who clean their offices. He vows to tax the rich to pay for more pre-school places, and to stop the police from frisking so many young black and Hispanic men. His crushing victory on November 5th suggests many New Yorkers want change.

They may have wanted change, but the implication here is that all they’ll get is more crime, and the eventual decay and then end of the city itself, and really, this de Blasio fellow should realize things were just fine just as they were and always should be:

Their city is indeed staggeringly unequal; but that is partly a consequence of its success. It attracts both high earners (who like working with other brainy folk) and penniless immigrants (who like the job opportunities and the fact that you can get around without a costly car). A financial centre with good public transport will always be unequal. Bashing the rich will not change that, and it may make things worse.

New York needs its plutocrats. The top 1% of its taxpayers fork out a whopping 43% of the income taxes; if they leave, public services will suffer. Mr de Blasio’s supporters scoff at the idea that wealthy Manhattanites will quit the dazzling metropolis for dull Connecticut. They note that his proposed tax increase is modest (from 3.9% to 4.4% on incomes above $500,000) and must be approved by lawmakers. True, but the top marginal rate (including federal, state and city taxes) is already a stiff 55% or so. And taxes are not the only issue.

Quality of life also matters, and New York cannot take its safe streets for granted. Mr Bloomberg took a robust approach to crime. Being stopped and frisked may be irksome, he argues, but it teaches young men not to carry guns, and that saves a lot of (mostly black and Hispanic) lives. By putting more emphasis on avoiding the appearance of racism than on preventing crime, Mr de Blasio could make life worse for everyone.

Kevin Drum thinks this is nonsense:

Can we please, please, please stop this? I almost don’t care anymore if you accept the hypothesis that reductions in childhood lead exposure are primarily responsible for America’s dramatic decline in violent crime over the past two decades. But can we at least get our facts straight? Lots of big cities have seen drops in their violent crime rate. At least three others—Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles—have seen declines as big as New York’s. Others, like Phoenix and San Diego, now match New York’s crime rate. They did this without Giuliani and Bloomberg. They did it without CompStat. They did it without broken windows. Hell, even New York did it for four years without these things: Its crime rate started plummeting in 1991, long before these reforms showed up.

CompStat is the New York City Police Department’s accountability process – “a multilayered dynamic approach to crime reduction, quality of life improvement, and personnel and resource management” – and lots of cities use it. It seems to be useful, maybe, but Drum is unconvinced, and after a review of a lot of multi-year tables, he adds this:

There’s a considerable controversy around all of these policing reforms, and my semi-informed belief is that they probably played a role in reducing crime. But honestly, the data simply doesn’t support the notion that they played a primary role. Neither the time frame nor the evidence from other cities fits. Rather, they rode the tailwind of something else – probably reduced childhood exposure to lead – and helped things along. Unless Bill de Blasio starts up a city program to seed the clouds with lead dust, he doesn’t really have anything to screw up.

The argument that reductions in childhood lead exposure are primarily responsible for America’s dramatic decline in violent crime over the past two decades is pretty convincing, actually. We have unleaded gasoline because it messes up catalytic converters, and lead paint was banned long ago, because it was pretty toxic – and then the documented damage lead does to the brain was being done no more, and crime fell and fell. It’s more than a coincidence. This has nothing to do with any former mayor of New York, or Bill de Blasio now. In God we trust; everyone else, bring data. Drum likes data.

As for the rest of the Economist’s argument, Richard Schragger, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, has a few counterarguments:

For those who dislike Bill de Blasio’s vision for New York City – and even for some who voted for him – his election as the city’s next mayor raises a provocative question: Is a progressive city possible?

For the last half century, the answer to that question seemed to be no.

De Blasio has been very clear about his plans to reduce the city’s inequality by raising taxes on the rich, increasing services for the poor, and ending subsidies for corporations.

But his plan flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that has dominated our thinking about cities since at least the 1970s. According to that wisdom, cities are “competing” in a global marketplace for mobile businesses and residents, and a city’s efforts to redistribute from rich to poor – to provide expanded health care, more education, or a local living wage – are doomed. Cities cannot redistribute because wealthy city residents and the businesses that employ them will pack up and leave. Therefore, the successful metropolis must pursue business-friendly, growth-oriented policies that attract professionals and corporations, even if those policies result in greater income inequality.

The general rule seems to be that no city can resist mobile capital, but that may not be so:

First, we know that cities have always provided more welfare benefits to the poor than seemed possible if the pure “no-redistribution” theory is correct. Consider that over 40 years in the middle of the 20th century. New York City built thousands of working- and middle-class homes, hundreds of schools, libraries, and parks, and thousands of miles of roadways, bridges, tunnels, and subways. This basic infrastructure raised living standards for the urban poor, which in turn helped produce a robust urban middle class by the 1950s.

Second, there is growing evidence that wealthy firms and highly skilled residents are not as mobile as was once thought. The city provides a home for a number of industries – fashion, finance, medicine, law, design, art, tourism – that cannot be easily replicated elsewhere. Industries that rely on sharing ideas, intellectual capital, or a deep bench of skilled workers need to be in a place where people feel connected. That place is the city, and for certain key industries, New York City. The same goes for the amenities that residents come to New York City to enjoy – its street life, restaurants, and so on. The suburbs or other cities often can’t compete.

No one is moving to Connecticut. Why would they? Why would they cripple their business? And drastically lowering local taxes and regulations is nonsense too:

Some of our most economically robust cities – and New York is among them – have high taxes and substantial rules and regulations when compared to the suburbs or cities in the sunbelt. The growing popularity of cities is a global phenomenon and is driven by factors well beyond local tax and welfare policies. Technological and demographic change, shifts in consumer preferences, rising transportation costs, crime reduction, and the rise of the finance, technology, health care, and higher-education sectors of the economy have all contributed to the urban boom.

If a city’s economy is otherwise healthy, then redistributive fiscal policies are unlikely to make much of a difference. And mayors probably cannot control the size of the local economy as much as they claim anyway. But mayors can fight inequality by channeling resources to those who need them most. To those who believe that society has an obligation to pursue social justice, the moral benefits are obvious. The economic benefits of having an urban, healthy, educated workforce are obvious, too.

It seems the voters across all five boroughs of New York weren’t just grumpy about the rich dudes in the four-thousand-dollar suits down in Lower Manhattan, and the short and strange billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, the seventy-one-year-old tycoon, who founded the absurdly successful news and financial data company Bloomberg PLC, who was their buddy and now is stepping down as their very own mayor. Bill de Blasio might actually be onto something, something that makes a great deal of sense, as Schragger frames it:

If New York City’s new mayor succeeds, he will advance an idea that has mostly gone out of fashion: that cities can play a significant role in creating an urban middle class by providing the kinds of resources necessary for upward mobility. Those resources are basic and obvious: security, education, transportation, health, and shelter. Expanding access to those kinds of municipal goods will create a more equal city. And it may teach us that a progressive city is still possible.

Who knows? This might even work out here in widely-scattered Los Angeles, or in pleasant Charlotte, which Sarah Palin somehow mistook for some small town in some old Andy Hardy movie or Norman Rockwell print. We’re all city folks now, however, and thus this was the one off-year election that actually mattered. Just don’t tell Chris Christie.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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