Remember when big cities were doomed? Donald Trump clearly does.
In the early 1980s, just as Trump was coming of age as a developer, there was a hit action film called “Escape from New York.” Kurt Russell, playing a hardened ex-soldier, had to spirit the president of the United States out of Manhattan. Millennial readers take note: The heroes weren’t heading to Brooklyn in search of cheaper rents, skinnier jeans, or better craft cocktails. In Hollywood’s nightmare vision, the authorities had given up and turned Manhattan, the island that forms New York’s inner core, into a maximum-security prison.
The current GOP presidential nominee talks about urban America in similarly apocalyptic terms. “Inner-city crime is reaching record levels,” he’s insisted, even though rates of violence in most cities have plunged over a generation. “You walk down the street, you get shot,” he said in Monday’s debate.
It’s not just Trump. The stereotype of “inner cities” as hopeless pits of chaos and despair still resonates with lots of anxious exurbanites who seldom venture downtown. It’s code language that pulls public policy in the wrong direction. It also draws attention away from the role that cities could play in making the entire economy stronger.
Today, Manhattan is quite a safe place. In Boston and many other major US cities, once-gritty blocks abound with day spas and indoor cycling studios and day-care boutiques for Labradoodles. Amid the influx of wealth, communities like these still contend with ancient infrastructure, sky-high housing costs, and growing pressures on low-income residents.
A 21st-century urban policy needs to respond to these problems — which are big. They’re just not the kind you’d ask Kurt Russell to fix.
“The economy is fundamentally revaluing what cities naturally, organically have,” Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution tells me. In an open, networked economy, there’s a premium on places with a density of workers, the bones of a transportation system, and assets like hospitals and other research centers. If only more people could benefit. By one estimate, the entire nation’s GDP would be 9.5 percent larger if just the New York area and the Bay Area loosened their land-use rules so that more Americans could move there. (Imagine “Escape to San Francisco,” a sci-fi thriller in which Rust Belt desperadoes flee toward the nation’s high-tech capital, only to be repulsed by mind-boggling rents.)
At the nadir of urban disinvestment, poorer residents at least could afford to live close to the urban core, where getting around is easy. Today, they’re pushed to the fringes, as prices soar highest in the areas closest to public transportation. But instead of expanding to meet current needs, transit networks are creaking after years of deferred maintenance — as any MBTA rider knows.
I’d argue that, just as the Obama administration used the Race to the Top competition to encourage states to enact certain education reforms, a future president could offer big infrastructure grants to cities, or entire metropolitan areas, that ease their zoning restrictions to allow more housing construction.
To their credit, Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton have both spoken broadly about spending more on infrastructure. But in Congress, major urban transportation improvements are easily dismissed as niche projects for coastal liberals, no matter how much those projects contribute to economic productivity or expand options for the poor. Right now, federal aid for transportation projects comes from the gas tax, which hasn’t gone up since 1993. Katz thinks Washington should help cities find unconventional new ways of financing infrastructure.
Off the campaign trail, lots of people are proposing new ways for Washington to help cities. Jennifer Bradley of the Aspen Institute says the federal government should provide them with top-notch data science, because local officials need better information to govern well but can’t afford it on their own. Mark Muro of Brookings wants to see more challenge grants to encourage a diverse pool of entrepreneurs. And as commercial landlords wait for banks and chain stores to sign on as retail tenants, Malia Lazu, of the Boston-based nonprofit Epicenter Community, argues for time-limited rent subsidies for local businesses that could fill storefronts now.
When metro areas are the main engines of economic growth, investments in the urban environment yield long-term growth and social equity. But even in the country’s healthiest cities, public agencies are only beginning to throw off their urban-wasteland-era assumptions. The former Boston Redevelopment Authority, which tried to jump-start a declining city by razing entire neighborhoods, just rebranded itself Tuesday for a growth-oriented era.
Not every city is thriving. But just as we shouldn’t ignore the very real troubles of Baltimore or Detroit, it’s wrong to view “inner cities” in general as hellholes — just as an urban resurgence is adding to the national bounty.