The Second Death of Great American Cities (and How the Commons Can Help Bring Them Back)


January 29, 2007


Browse in Commons

America’s cities are dying, but not the way they were a generation or two ago. Some still contend with poverty and decay. But many now have the opposite problem — an excess of money, rather than a lack of it. Too much can be almost as bad as too little.  It can suffocate a city even as, by conventional (ie money-based) measures the place is doing well.

The pathology starts with real estate prices and rents.  A city needs low-rent precincts, much the way nature needs wetlands and breeding grounds. These are where creativity flourishes and the future is born.  Poetry slams took root on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, not on Park Avenue; Apple Computer was born in a garage.  It was a suburban garage, yes; but that’s a different version of the same thing. Countless enterprises were born in the lofts of Tribeca and Soho when the rents there still were low.

This phenomenon is easier to observe than it is precisely to explain.  Probably it has something to do with hunger and ambition; probably too with the immediacy of daily life. Money buffers people from the bumps and jolts. It numbs them to the problems that most people experience, and makes them comfortable and defensive regarding what they already have.

Money also binds with invisible chains. When the political Right launched its restoration movement in Washington, it was in fine offices and gobs of money.  The addresses – and the rents —  told you pretty much what you needed to know. Though they called themselves “revolutionaries” they actually were defending the prerogatives of money, which is to say the claims of yesterday upon tomorrow.

By contrast, Ralph Nader and his ilk, who challenged those claims, started in rabbit warren offices with cheap rents. (Ralph himself still occupies one.)  They had a freedom that those who claim to speak for freedom often lack.

The low-rent districts are going fast; and along with them their fertility and grit.  As the claims of money upon space increase, the generative capacity of the space diminishes, except in the tautological terms of money itself. Over the past couple of weeks I have been in four major US cities: San Francisco, New York, Boston, and now Washington DC.  I have been struck by a creeping and dispirited sameness, a sense that life is managed and facilitated more than it is actually lived.

You walk along Eighth Avenue in New York from Penn Station down towards the Chelsea neighborhood, and as you approach 23rd Street  the first things you encounter are a chain pharmacy and the Gap. A couple blocks to the east are a huge Barnes and Noble and other big box stores. The flower district is disappearing, as are the Greek coffee shops that were neighborhood fixtures for generations,

The other cities are much the same.  The topography and street names are different; but somehow the places are the same. Starbucks has become as pervasive as the state kiosks in the former Soviet Union.  In D.C. there are three of them around Dupont Circle , which used to be a hub of eccentric groups and causes. (The Dupont Circle Building, once a haven for under-funded causes, now has an elegant lobby and rents to match.)

In downtown San Francisco there are so many Starbucks a visitor from abroad easily could think that the company owns the city, or that the mayor owns the company.  Boston has enough Dunkin Donuts and Au Bon Pains to put up a fight. (Both started there.)  These are chains themselves but at least different ones, which shows how desperate the situation has become.

The problem here is not just aesthetic.  It goes to the generative capacity of the city – which is to say, to its very nature.  As I walked along Boston’s Boylston Street, which not long ago was an stretch of independent shops, I asked myself, “How many of the people here could come to work in the morning with a great new idea for a product or display and actually do it?”

The answer is not many.  These are formula businesses controlled from afar, often in ridiculous detail. Dave Eggers, the author, tells the story of how he launched McSweeney’s magazine from his apartment in Brooklyn.  He took a copy of the first issue to the mega-bookstore down the street – Barnes and Noble I think — and asked if they would like to carry it. The head of periodicals there loved it, and knew it would have appeal in that neighborhood.  But he couldn’t carry it without permission from corporate headquarters.

They waited for weeks. Finally word came back: Nyet. The local manager wanted McSweeney’s; but someone at a desk in an office building someplace had determined that this magazine would not be sold.  (And right-wingers say that the government is bureaucratic and unresponsive.)  When enterprise becomes centralized and prefab like this, it induces a passivity and resignation – a colonial mentality.  People accept the role of “consumer” because they can’t be anything else.

Starbucks and other chains do not prevail on quality alone.  They have the financial might to corner the best locations and flood the zone. Developers and building owners – many of whom are based far away themselves – would rather deal with a deep-pocketed tenant than with a small local venture. (Much as Barnes and Noble doesn’t want to deal with a bunch of little magazine publishers.)  So the invasive corporate species breeds like crazy, and crowds out the indigenous business varieties that were there before.

Civic and community life suffers. On 8th Avenue in Chelsea, near 23rd, there used to be a coffee shop called the Regal.  The owner, a Greek lady, would sit on a counter stool by the cash register in the morning and chat with the regulars. She was especially warm to the people from a residential facility in the neighborhood, lost souls who had nowhere to go.  The waitresses would keep their coffee cups filled and talk to them like friends.  Later in the day I would see some of those same people in the McDonalds a few blocks up the avenue, alone and forlorn, and a manager trying to shoo them out.

Now the Regal is gone.  In its place is a tony establishment with a vaguely European name. I doubt that it plays the same social role.  In Washington, at the corner of K Street and Vermont, there was a Scholl’s cafeteria where lawyers sat next to drifters and ladies of uncertain age, and all enjoyed great wholesome food at Depression era prices.  (There was another one on Connecticut Ave near K Street.)  Now Scholl’s is a Citibank Office, to which there is not much I can add.  It wasn’t lack of customers that drove it under.  It was the rents.

The increasing political distance between Washington and the nation is not just a function of political money.  It is a function also of money period. People who live in these sanitized cocoons of upward consumption tend to drift out of touch with the challenges of ordinary Americans.  The mechanistic abstractions of market economics – which is to say, the pseudoscience of money – has increasing appeal in DC in part because people there are so insulated from the life experiences that might yank them back into reality.

When rents are so high, moreover, people have to do work that pays at a commensurate level.  This means they identify with the interests that feed off the pseudoscience, and become part of the process that made the rents so high in the first place.

What is true of the commercial districts is true also of the residential ones.  It seems a law of urban life that money causes life to retreat behind walls. When I lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan a few decades ago it was teeming with street life.  On summer evenings the front stoops were full.  Men played dominoes on milk crates.  Some played guitars late into the night.  By contrast, when I had occasion to walk around the Upper East Side I would wonder “Where are the people?”

I was safe on my street moreover because I knew the people who hung out there, especially the kids. Jane Jacobs, the great student of urban life, observed that the first line of defense against crime is not community policing or “Broken Windows” policing or policing of any kind.  It is watchful eyes on the street; and as life retreats from the streets the fewer watchful eyes there are. The displacement of small shops by big box stores has a similar effect.  At night those long desolate stretches can be almost eerie.

The local culture of cities is like natural ecology in another way: it is easier to destroy than to restore.  Most cities have few defenses against the forces that are killing them softly. I once spent a couple of years trying to devise a way to stop the housing speculation that was driving inner-city DC residents out of their homes.  It was like trying to stop the tides. Real estate lust in the US is a primal force, with a sense of entitlement that is equally intractable.

Still, what the followers of Henry George say is true.  Land values are created socially, and that includes the location value of urban buildings. The value of a parcel on Boylston Street or Dupont Circle has little to do with the efforts of a particular owner there, and much to do with the investments of the society as a whole, public as well as private. When property owners ride increasing location values by raising rents, they are expropriating for themselves value that was created by society in the first place. (Improvements to buildings are a different story.)

With due exemption for small owners, a portion of this commonly created gain could be recaptured to replenish the urban commons. The revenue could be used, say, to help individual shop owners and middle income residents stay in their neighborhoods. Rent control is in disfavor these days. But in many cases it has worked wonderfully to maintain the social cohesion of a community. The abuse comes when well-off people get cheap rents they don’t need, and that should be stopped.  A commons reclamation fund could help compensate landlords for the others; and finance the creation of low and middle income coops in which prices increase only with inflation.

Such a fund could be used also to expand and revive the stock of common spaces.  Even in the most gentrified and corporatized cities, these are havens of diversity and freedom.  (I mean diversity not in the lawyer’s sense — so much of this and so much of that – but rather the spontaneous diversity that arises when cities create space for it.)  Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village still teems with life that is excluded increasingly from the expensive apartments nearby.

Musicians, jugglers, et al perform in the open space in the center. Chess players hunch intently over tables in the southwest corner. Others just sit on the many shaded benches and read or take in the scene. For people in the neighborhood, the dog run and toddler play area are islands of community in the rush of urban life.   There are spaces elsewhere that have some of the same magic: Dupont Circle in Washington, the plaza outside Holyoke Center in Cambridge, on and on.

These all provide something for which Americans are hungry; the spontaneous social interaction that life today increasingly excludes.  As I have described here before, neighbors in some cities are starting to create common spaces out of back alleys and unused lots in their own neighborhoods.  As the iron march of corporate commerce, real estate and rent drive the life out of the commercial economy, the social economy – and the common spaces that foster it – becomes all the more important.