March 24, 2021

When my grandparents migrated to New York from Russia over a century ago, they found a city that was hardly paradise, but one that provided a pathway towards a better life. Life was tough, crowded and always a paycheck from poverty. My relatives were poor, but so was everyone; eventually, they all bought houses or apartments, and entered the middle class. As for crime in their native Brownsville, the home of Murder, Incorporated and other villainous enterprises, it rarely impacted “civilians”; my mother would tell me how a young girl could still walk across Prospect Park without fear of assault.

Today’s urban promise is, however, vastly different — not only in New York, but San Francisco and Los Angeles, London and Paris. No longer cities of aspiration, they are increasingly defined by an almost feudal hierarchy: the rich live well, protected by private security and served by local coffee shops and trendy clubs.

Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in

Meanwhile, the working class struggles to pay rent, possesses no demonstrable path to a better life and, as a result, often migrates elsewhere. Crime rates are spiking and homelessness, once an exception, is increasingly widespread. Those very streets once said to be “paved with gold” are now are filled with discarded needles, excrement and graffiti.

Indeed, what we are now witnessing is the decline of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s description of the city as “a luxury product”. Today, that sense of “luxury” has all but vanished, with modern urban economies promoting class divisions rather than upward mobility. Amid all the hoopla about urban revival, the truth is that entrenched urban poverty in the US — places where 30% or more of the population live below the poverty line — actually grew in the first decade of the new millennium, from 1,100 to 3,100 neighbourhoods.

Even the New York Times admits that, in the past decade, cities have gone from “engines of growth and opportunity” to places where class relations are increasing fixed, with only the upper end of the income spectrum doing well. Gotham’s one percent earns a third of the entire city’s personal income. That’s almost twice the proportion for the rest of the country. But such class disparity is becoming the norm; in the tech haven of San Francisco, which has the worst levels of inequality in California, the top 5% of households earn an average of $808,105 annually, compared with $16,184 for the lowest 20%.

Predictably, those at the bottom of this new feudal structure suffer the most; today, the old saying that “the city air makes one free” all too often means freedom to be poor, to experience endemic homelessness, collapsing public infrastructure and rising crime.

And that was before Covid hit. Already many poor urban residents subsisted on transfer payments or worked in service industries. They were paid, usually poorly, to clean now-empty offices or work in restaurants and hotels. The lockdowns, whether justified or overwrought, have since pummelled these low-income workers; roughly 40% of Americans earning under $40,000 a year lost their jobs last March.

Unlike workers who occupy “the commanding heights” of finance, tech, marketing, and media , these people did not have the option of working from their kitchen tables or moving to suburban locations or smaller cities. Nor could they count on education systems to work their magic; most schools in American inner-city districts, in contrast to many suburbs and smaller cities, remained closed.

All of which meant America’s urban districts were ripe for civil unrest when George Floyd died last May, and these festering conditions exploded into the worst national rioting in decades. Parts of many cities went up in flames, the damage of which was obscured by mainstream media’s mantra of “mostly peaceful protests”. The constant rioting and demonstrations in Portland, once seen as a paragon of new urbanist-led revival, has all but destroyed its downtown, which is now largely bereft of pedestrians.

Remarkably, despite the dramatic rise in homicides, the city seems likely to continue its programme of de-funding the police. In many cities — Los Angeles, Minneapolis, San Francisco, St. Louis, New York — “progressive” district attorneys have worked assiduously to restrain law enforcement. In California, where it is no longer considered a felony to steal anything worth less than $1,000, there has been a surge in property crime, including a huge rise in car thefts. San Francisco, for example, has seen the drug store Walgreens close ten outlets since 2019, citing elevated levels of theft and weak law enforcement. Meanwhile New York’s bodegas, small markets in ethnic neighbourhoods, experienced a 222% increase in burglaries last year.

The repercussions of this extend well beyond the criminal and judicial spheres. As cities slowly fall to pieces, they are increasingly becoming no-go zones for investors and business, except for those who see opportunity investing in suddenly distressed properties; barely ten per cent of US companies are interested in investing in large urban areas. A friend who runs a biomedical company had his warehouse burned down in the post-Floyd Minneapolis riots. When I asked him whether he would rebuild, he said yes — but in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida, or Atlanta.

Yet a number of progressives insist that the current urban exodus of wealthy residents is not a cause for concern, as it allows a more fair society to be “reborn”. Such a naïve approach forgets that there is one problem with expelling the rich: in New York, for example, the “one per cent” pay 43% of the city’s income taxes. The same is also true in California, where the top 1% of the population pays half of all income taxes. Even London now depends almost entirely on the wealthy to keep its economy afloat.

But today’s activist Left does not seem to be concerned with economics — or, for that matter, much of the real world. In New York, activists have helped put an end to proposals for new jobs from Amazon, as well as a recent “Industry City” proposal in Brooklyn. In Seattle, the doggedly radical city council is working overtime to also push out Amazon — the company that has driven much of the region’s economic growth — to the surrounding suburbs and other regions.

But expelling tech oligarchs will not stabilise cities, improve the schools or lure business development. It certainly will not correct the fiscal crises faced by many cities, nor generate upwardly mobile jobs. Cities do not thrive by having more cutting-edge coffee shops, trendy restaurants and edgy boutiques; they need safe streets, decent schools and jobs for middle and working-class families.

Wishful thinking will not spark an urban revival. Yes, the decline of first-tier conurbations might enliven smaller cities. But overall, society as a whole will still lose. Dense urban places have always been critical in the development of culture and social behaviours. They remain crossroads of trade for goods as well as ideas, in ways that more dispersed places, even in the internet age, are not always suitable. Our cities are far from perfect. But a post-urban future could be even worse.