When Bill De Blasio won New York’s mayoral election a few weeks ago, it came as no surprise to anyone. His impassioned analogies to New York’s “Tale of Two Cities” and his call for a city that provided not just for the wealthiest one or two percent, but for all, appealed to the growing sense that New York is an increasingly unfair and unequal place.
The angst felt by New Yorkers is not contained only to that city. In Chicago, real estate companies have poured investment into the Loop and a handful of adjacent residential and mixed-use neighborhoods. Yet, whole swaths of the city’s south and southwest side have remained in a state that would rival war-zones and have earned the city a reputation as America’s murder and gang capital du jour. San Francisco’s recent transit strikes, and the ensuing scandal that followed a Silicon Valley tycoon’s less than empathetic statements on Facebook have highlighted that city’s class tensions.
Saskia Sassen pointed out in her 1991 book The Global City that globalization and modern technologies should push wealth and geopolitical power to a small number of globally connected and powerful metropolises. And in many ways, this thesis has born itself out as financial centers in New York and, to a lesser extent, Chicago and Boston as well as technology in San Francisco and “Eds and Meds” in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Boston have all “revitalized” these legacy cities that only thirty years ago would have been widely assumed to be dead. Meanwhile, smaller, less connected legacy cities have shrunk in global importance.
Left out of many people’s analysis of Sassen’s writings – an analysis that equates geopolitical power with urban success – is the simple fact that a geopolitically powerful city does not always mean a city of evenly distributed wealth or equality. The urban poor in New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia are not necessarily better off than those in Buffalo, St. Louis, or Detroit. In some ways, the low cost of living in “unsuccessful” legacy cities means that quality of life is in many cases better than in those cities widely regarded as a success.
Given our assumptions about urban success – that it should involve a thriving private sector, a critical mass of wealthy taxpayers, and a sustainable level of investment (as an aside, I know few people who would describe investment in New York as “sustainable” at this point) – it should come as no surprise that the method most commonly employed to realize these goals, economic development, would fail so spectacularly to deliver positive changes in the lives of the urban poor.
While a thriving private sector, a critical mass of wealthy taxpayers, and a sustainable level of investment certainly register among the necessary descriptions of a successful city, urban economic development too often equates better cities with attracting better people at the cost of dealing with the populations already residing within a city. While the last few decades have seen the resurgence of once decrepit metropolises through TIFs and BIDs and tax breaks aimed at capturing employers of what Richard Florida would describe as “the creative class” – engineers, lawyers, artists, and bankers – De Blasio’s win, along with political movements like Occupy Wall Street augur a shift in focus from the technocratic priorities of Giuliani or Daley to a De Blasio-style redistributive view of urban justice.
So far I have ignored a bit of nuance between Bloomberg’s market-oriented (some might say neoliberal) focus on growth in “creative class” (high skill and high pay) sectors, and his classically progressive restraints in other initiatives (smoking, trans fat) and the degree to which other mayors have followed New York’s lead in this type of leadership. While I tend to hope that a market-oriented solution to urban problems can be found, the vehicle for urban revitalization seems almost irrelevant when we consider the degree to which it has benefitted the urban wealthy at the exclusion, and occasionally cost, of the urban poor.
Obviously, inequities in quality of life have been most pronounced in New York where wealth is profligate and new construction has been tightly regulated, pushing cost of living ever upward. Yet, the De Blasio election means less for New York’s poor than it does for the country as a whole. Whether the Rahm Emanuels and Michael Nutters of America’s cities are replaced by De Blasio democrats in the next election will mean a lot for the priorities of development in our cities.
It’s easy to dismiss the De Blasio win as an event isolated to the confines of New York as the logical end to both Bloomberg’s overreaching policies and “quality of life” initiatives which arguably placed a premium on attracting and retaining the wealthy. But, we should not ignore the very real possibility that De Blasio’s win, and the disdain growing for economic development-focused politicians, may lead to a spiral of urban disinvestment wherein wealthier taxpayers leave cities, making cities ever less attractive places to live, thereby further escalating the effects repelling the middle and upper classes from urban cores. The reason we should not ignore this possibility, though it may seem inflammatory at first consideration, is simple: we are still recovering from its effects throughout the last half of the previous century.
Yet, De Blasio is probably not as leftist as right-leaning pundits have bombastically proclaimed in the wake of his election. Hopefully, De Blasio and the growing urban left can pull off a type of development that prioritizes development for all, not just for the wealthiest residents, without falling into the traps of the union-entrenched Democrat machines that oversaw the urban perdition of the last half century. The death of urban economic development may well be upon us, but hopefully if it is, something that provides for the development of the whole city will emerge.
Sam Hersh is currently a student of urban studies at Haverford College in Pennsylvania hoping to use the worlds’ cities to more effectively catalyze human opportunity when he graduates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Bill de Blasio.