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The Death and Life and Second Death of Great American Cities

Homeless encampment, Portland waterfront. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

If American cities died after World War II only to see their rebirth with New Urbanism in the 1990s, the covid pandemic has dealt a second death to cities that we are only beginning to see.

The United States started as a rural nation.  Rapid urbanization occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as immigration, the Great Migration of former slaves from the South,  and America’s second industrialization around steel, cars, and other forms of manufacturing-built metropolises from New York to San Francisco.

But post WWII the urbanization of America cooled.  Outdated dirty factories, overcrowded, cheap land, and the emergence of cars as well as federal money to build highways fueled returning veterans and their Baby Boomer families to the suburbs in search of the American Dream of a home with a white picket  fence.  Government red-lining of mortgages also helped.   Then the Supreme Court’s effort to desegregate the schools facilitated White flight, especially when it ruled that cross-district plans to integrate them were unconstitutional.  Finally, the mallification of America hollowed out downtown shopping districts as suburban commuters searched for drivable shopping with no parking fees or hassle.  By 1990 the US was demographically majority suburban but clearly by the 1970s it was culturally so.  Suburban sprawl was deemed good.

Responding to the suburban challenge, or perhaps encouraging it, was Robert Moses in NYC.  As head of the Port Authority he oversaw the demolition of slums, replacing them with open spaced

development and highways such as the Cross Bronx Expressway that made it easier to leave the city for Long Island.  This was not simply a story of NYC but of every city in America.

Enter Jane Jacobs.  Her 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities challenged the orthodoxy that said cities can only regenerate if they emulate the one-dimensionality and open space of suburbs.  For Jacobs, the key to cities was that they were generators of diversity–mixed uses, density, people, and architecture.

Yet her book was a pariah, ignored by cities bent on sum clearance, urban renewal (or removal), and the destruction of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color by breaking them up with interstate highways, convention centers, and gentrified townhouses and condos.  All this left metropolitan areas racially and economically segregated with pockets of concentrated poverty dotting the urban landscape.

Now enter New Urbanism.  Suburbs were bad, cities good. Cars were now bad, mass transit good.  Density was good, single-family zoning bad.  The solution to what ails suburban sprawl once  is to return to the cities.  And beginning in the 1990s that happened.  Retiring Baby Boomers and eventually Millennials and Gen Zers flocked to the cities and it looked as if the new urban renaissance was upon us.  Cities without manufacturing but possessing arts, culture, sports, and tourism–the amenities of life for the new leisure class as dubbed by Richard Florida.

New Urbanism did lead to many cities repopulating–yet again pushing poor people and communities of color around–this time in many cases to inner ring suburbs.  New Urbanism may have helped cities but it did little to address segregation and help the poor.  It merely moved people and problems around.

The story might have ended here but for the pandemic.  Use of mass transportation was discouraged, remote working encouraged, and many fled the cities for the suburbs in terms of safety.  Cities suffered again, with places such as NYC losing billions of dollars in tourist money and payroll.

As it has become trite to say, the pandemic changed everything and merely accelerated changes already occurring.  Remote working was on the rise before the pandemic and the Millennials  who once hated cars and suburbs fled there as new parents.  But as one flips through the pages of planning magazines and commentary what becomes clear is that the pandemic may have dealt a second death to cities.  People are not coming back, workers are resisting being in the office again, and commutes are something that can be voided. The implications of all this economically, environmentally, and perhaps politically are yet to be seen.