Cities

There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with government these days. The tea party fumes about taxes. Politicians talk about moral hazard if they do anything for people, even when there was no way to protect oneself beforehand and the resulting situation is impossible for people to deal with. Most of that strikes me as nonsense on stilts. But I too have my pet peeves. I’ve been reluctant to talk about one, but the September issue of Scientific American has encouraged me.

The Federal Housing Administration was created in 1934 as a depression-era way to get this country back on its feet. But the FHA focused on creating the suburbs and keeping blacks out. Thinking about all the harm that did boggles the mind.

Creating white suburbs and black cities meant increasing segregation in the U.S. And it meant keeping blacks out of the emerging jobs in the suburbs, leaving them to compete in the shrinking job market in the cities. A great deal of our racial struggles since the 1930s can be traced to that one agency. And the problem of people who couldn’t get themselves off the welfare roles, largely a product of the hollowing out of cities – and making sure African-Americans had to stay while the rest of us left.

Oh by the way, since the FHA supported homes in the suburbs but not in the cities, and the government gave tax breaks for home mortgages, it means that we in the cities have been subsidizing those who live in the suburbs for decades. Yeah I know that folk in the suburbs think they have been stuck with the bill for poor people in the cities. It may be just the opposite.

Now take the environment. Cities do a lot less environmental damage. Oh I know that some people complain about city air. But actually people in cities notice that too and many cities have dealt with it. But getting away from smokestacks doesn’t mean pollution doesn’t affect you. Global warming owes a great deal to suburbanization. We have to go further to get to work. Since suburbs are low density places, we prefer to take our cars. We even get soft, driving when we could be walking. I never walk more than I do in New York City! And the pollution caused by commuters in cars is enormous. Even home heating is cheaper in cities because we benefit from the scale, sharing walls instead of losing heat out of every room in our homes.

Of course lots of people fuss about how they wouldn’t want to live in cities. But the wealthiest people in America do. They know what our parents did – that cities can be fun, exciting places to be. They’re where it’s happening. If we don’t discriminate against them.

I grew up simultaneously in the city and the country. Our address was in Brooklyn, which would be one of the country’s largest cities even if it weren’t part of New York City. But my dad was a schoolteacher and every summer we spent two full months in upstate New York. I remember summers in Hancock, on Lake Champlain and Lake Chautauqua, and visits to farms and friends with upstate homes. On the way back we’d explore, finding old forts and historic sites. New York was a dairy state back then and to me the country meant the smell of cows and patchworks of fields on hills and valleys all across the state. I love them both. But when the industrial base started to crumble, a good deal of upstate New York watched its young leave.

We need the cities. They’re important. And we ought not have a set of laws that encourage people to leave the cities.

So back to that issue of Scientific American. It talks about the economies of scale that cities make possible for creativity, business, fun, even health. Have a look.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 17, 2011.

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