As I vacuum the dark green carpet while listening to an interview with author and Democracy Now! Co-host Juan Gonzalez, I’m struck by a particular statistic: 70% of the world’s population will reside in cities in the next two years. The implications of this, says Gonzalez, are gigantic for progressivism, as these cities will become the main venues of social change and civil disobedience as ideas and movements gain steam. Resting the vacuum in its upright position, thoughts of the current evolution of American cities come with feelings of hope and dismay at the current state of the country’s major urban centers and what the could develop into when they reach their full potential.
Cities have played a central role in the shaping of American culture and history since before the country’s birth. Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore served as meeting hubs in the colonial United States where the figureheads of the American Counter-Revolution could spread ideas and draw on support from large clusters of disgruntled colonists. New York City and Los Angeles emerged as culture centers in the 19th century and helped craft a unique American identity at a time when the nation struggled to distinguish its culture from that of Europe. Later in that same century, the rise of mass production and heavy industry stimulated population clustering as Americans sought to participate in the explosive development of American economic dominance in the world. The places were packed, smelled like puke and piss, and you probably stepped over a few rotting horses on the way to work for your 21-hour shift. Improved sanitation guidelines and refinement of industries into well-oiled production powerhouses branded urban centers like Detroit as gold standards of wealth accumulation in the 1950s and birthed the standards of the mythic American Dream we become conditioned to achieve.
Sixty years later, Detroit became the first major American city to declare bankruptcy in 2013. Its infrastructure and crime statistics sank to levels comparable to lower-income nations and affluent whites who could afford to fled the city in droves to leave the crumbling core to the impoverished black and Arab communities. We were left wondering how the wealthiest city in America fall so far and if this was the future of the American city. As author and journalist Charlie LeDuff warns, we can go ahead and laugh at Detroit until we realize it’s also Philadelphia, St. Louis, Seattle, and so many more that could suffer the same brutal evisceration in the darkness of the corporate police state’s shadow.
Such a fate on a broad spectrum is possible, but certain strides in municipal government grant me some hope.
Income inequality and wealth disparity became primary political and social dilemmas in the U.S. after the Occupy movement broke open the floodgates on discussions about class in 2011. These economic trends afflict the nation as a whole, but the major urban centers serve as microcosms of these regressions and offer a glimpse into the potential consequences of maniac sprawl. My own neck of the woods has become a spotlight for these trends. Seattle’s median housing costs hit a record high of $777,000 in March of this year with the city’s Eastside wing reaching a median of $950,000. The central city sees a growing homelessness population that now borders on becoming a full-blown crisis, and the unaffordable rents combined with stagnant wages shove hundreds of people to the suburban towns to spend an increasing portion of their lives travelling in a heavy metal box on I-5. None of the police officers in the Seattle police department live in the city they swear to protect. The same is true of firefighters and many civil servants. The same trend can be found in San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Washington D.C. and many more.
Does a prosperous city like Seattle or Silicon Valley become the Detroit of tomorrow as the purchasing power of the middle and working classes is swallowed by debt service and unaffordable living costs? Such an outcome seems to be the ticket if the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen like the American waistline.
But city councils across the nation are recognizing the dangers associated with uninhibited sprawl and growing wealth disparity. Seattle’s city council approved a controversial “head tax” last week that taxes the city’s large businesses based on employee head count. While the motion has yet to be signed by Mayor Jenny Durkan, it’s a bold pivot into wealth redistribution territory for the council. Socialist Alternative councilmember Kshama Sawant has been advocating for rent control for years, and her efforts to raise the minimum wage contributed to the successful passage of the increase to $15/hour in Seattle.
Promising developments appeared in Baltimore city hall last month as proposals to reverse the city’s government-sponsored economic segregation appeared. One proposed measure seeks to create an equity assessment committee to investigate the city’s agencies and capital projects and root out discriminatory practices. Other proposals address the lack of accessible public housing in the city itself and hopes to reroute capital investment into affordable housing programs. Similar calls for increased spending in the public housing sector echo in other major cities across the U.S.
Cities served as the birthplace for the ideas of the original Counter-Revolution of 1776, and it seems they are once again playing David against the Goliath of the federal government’s authoritarianism. The passage of legislation at the municipal level to redistribute wealth and create new opportunities for working and middle-class families to live a secure existence has steamrolled into larger movements nationwide. Sawant’s Fight for 15, Mayor Rob Davis of Davis, California’s original Sanctuary City, and the prospective public housing developments in Baltimore now enjoy national momentum as they push forward with more punches every day.
The American city of old may be at the end of its industrial career, but a return to its roots as a hub of change and civil disobedience is on the horizon. In fact, it may already be here.