Even before 2020, America’s great cities faced a tide that threatened to overwhelm them. In 2020, the tsunami rose suddenly, inundating the cities in ways that will prove both troubling and transformative, but which could mark the return toward a more humane, and sustainable, urbanity. The two shocks—the Covid-19 pandemic in the spring, followed by a summer punctuated by massive social unrest—have undermined persistent fantasies of an inevitable “back to the city” migration.
Before the pandemic, cities were already experiencing a huge class divide, slackening population growth, rising crime, and dysfunctional schools. Their white-collar-dominated economies were clearly vulnerable to technological changes, and they were presided over by a political class increasingly out of touch with reality and often hostile to middle-class concerns. Now, the urban white-collar employment and tourism economies have been devastated, while other sectors such as manufacturing, port development, and logistics had already departed.
The weeks, even months, of civil disorders occurring after the death of George Floyd may prove even more consequential. Cities were already facing rising crime before the Floyd incident. Last year, New York’s bodegas experienced a 222 percent increase in burglaries, while brick-and-mortar chains like Walgreens were shutting down locations in San Francisco due to “rampant burglaries.”
More middle-class families appear happy to have relocated to the suburbs, or to places even farther away, where houses are less expensive. One in five Americans, according to Pew, knows someone who has moved due to Covid. . . .
Today, many “people of color” are equally or even more likely to flee dysfunctional cities. Back in the 1960s, some middle-class minorities may have felt compelled to stay in their city communities because of discrimination; now they are far less likely to stay. The stereotypes of the 1950s and 1960s no longer hold. In the fifty largest U.S. metropolitan areas, 44 percent of residents live in racially and ethnically diverse suburbs, ranging from 20 percent to 60 percent nonwhite.8
In fact, minorities—particularly black and immigrant business owners as well as small property owners—are the most exposed to street crime. Large corporations and nonprofits might pledge billions to fight “systemic racism,” but past experience shows that rioting and crime will over time reduce investment in poor inner-city areas.
The Los Angeles civil unrest of thirty years ago, which occurred during a severe recession arising in part from the post–Cold War decline of the aerospace industry—a truly horrendous event I witnessed and covered—hardly improved conditions despite repeated pledges from corporate, nonprofit, and political leaders. Instead, South Central Los Angeles, the site of two of the worst riots in American history, has suffered from widening underperformance relative to the surrounding area in terms of homeownership, income, and educational attainment.
Our big blue cities are a disgrace, as are those who run them.