Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

Editors' Note: Issue 3

Elizabeth Glazer and Greg Berman

March 28, 2023

What makes a city tick?

What makes a city tick?

What makes a great city tick? What gives it character, spirit and strength? What binds its people together and beckons dreamers and doers from around the world? 

These questions typically live in the background of city life, roaring forward in the distilling moments when catastrophe strikes. In the silences that engulfed New York in the days after 9/11 and during the first months of COVID-19, the backbeat was insistent: “Can the city come back?”

This question continues to hover over New Yorkers as we watch with anxiety whether subway ridership is up or down, whether storefronts continue to be vacant and whether Midtown’s rental doldrums will persist.

The answer is bound up in an understanding of what makes a city thrive in the first place. Not just what makes the gears turn — of course, the garbage must be picked up, the subways and buses must run and businesses must ply their trade. All of that is an irreducible minimum. But a city that only runs well is a Stepford city. More is necessary. 

Issue 3 of Vital City, “The Power of Place,” begins to answer the question of what makes a city great. It is a question that has preoccupied us since we started — and will continue to animate us in the days to come as we search for practical solutions to the problems that challenge New York and other cities.

With the wisdom of some of the great thinkers and doers in urban America, Issue 3 looks at the inchoate and the measurable. We begin by taking a shot at defining the measures of a vital city through an unscientific survey of city lovers. This is the start of a more concerted effort to develop positive indicators of thriving life. We then look at the long arm of history. We seek to highlight how our institutions and the physical infrastructure of the city can bind us to one another and spark cooperation, creativity and opportunity. But we also trace how race, poverty and disadvantage have divided our city through the generations — and how these forces continue to perpetuate inequalities here and now. Of course, much is missing, but this is a start.

Racism makes its mark not just in the physical arrangement of the city but in the mental maps hardwired into the minds of many city residents.

Robert Sampson, the Harvard sociologist and scientist of the soul of cities, shows us how the people in a neighborhood can tie a tight knot of informal social control. For Sampson, “the beating heart of New York City is not just cops on the street … . It’s the people.” Sampson highlights the kinds of connections that keep us safe and enrich our lives. They are strengthened through the daily interactions that take place in barbershops and bodegas that function as “third places;” in the public libraries that have reinvented themselves to meet the changing needs of local residents; and in the playgrounds, where pickup basketball games comprise a world of their own. 

History haunts all of these urban settings. Sometimes this history is a source of strength that forges links between the generations. And sometimes it is divisive. For example, redlining still shapes the physical city and the well-being of our neighborhoods. While redlining isn’t the only factor in how neighborhoods have developed, it is powerfully evident in how two neighborhoods — Brownsville and Bay Ridge — have fared over time. This story stands in for many neighborhoods, showing how “sticky” the characteristics of a place can be. 

Racism makes its mark not just in the physical arrangement of the city but in the mental maps hardwired into the minds of many city residents. As famed sociologist Elijah Anderson tells Jelani Cobb, “almost every Black person has felt the sting of disrespect on the basis of being Black, so they understand how important it is to be aware of their environment, and especially those places dominated by white people. … The ghetto is not simply a physical space; it has become … a negative symbol that hovers over unfamiliar Black people as they navigate white spaces.”

In addition to race, one of the enduring divides in New York is the gap between the well-off and the less fortunate. As Bruce Western shows, poverty is about more than money: It is a magnet around which many other issues of material well-being cluster, including violence, school achievement and much more. 

The physical architecture of a city — how buildings work, streets are laid out, public places are devised — plays an outsize role in either fostering or deterring human connection.

But pessimism and optimism live cheek by jowl in New York. The unceasing flow of people in and out of neighborhoods over time is part of what guarantees a city’s vibrancy, as John Mollenkopf demonstrates in his anatomy of a single Brooklyn street corner. Mollenkopf shows how the intricate lattice of people and places gives New York City its particular warp and weft, making it one of the few big industrial northern cities to rise from the ashes of the 1970s and 1980s.

If human connection is the lifeblood of successful cities, the physical architecture of a city — how buildings work, streets are laid out, public places are devised — plays an outsize role in either encouraging or deterring that connection. The renowned architect Jeanne Gang lives that credo in “making architecture.” She sees buildings as an organic whole with neighborhoods, fostering connection and interaction, with residents taking the lead.

The physical city speaks powerfully about democracy — who can participate and in what ways. Eve Kessler looks at how street design can promote walkability and attract local residents out into the public square.  Frank Greene shows how carefully we must weigh the default fortification of public places because the picture of, say, a barricaded City Hall says more than a thousand words. Deborah Marton, echoing Tracey Meares from Issue 2, asks what message it sends to poor and disadvantaged communities about how their government views their place and power in the civic world when their parks, schools and housing are dilapidated, standing in contrast to the precincts of the wealthy. 

Is it possible to create the human connections that make neighborhoods safe, or is this a byproduct of other forces?

To overcome these inequities requires a hard look at the nuts and bolts of government mechanics. But, as important as it is, government alone cannot ensure neighborhood safety and vitality. Gerard Torrats-Espinosa and Michael Jacobson point to the importance of an often underrated component of neighborhood life, documenting how the presence of nonprofit organizations has helped reduce crime in many New York City communities.

What does this palimpsest of history, people and outlooks tell us about what we can do to make a city thrive going forward? Is it possible to manufacture the human connections that make neighborhoods safe, or is this a byproduct of other forces? How do we acknowledge and repair the disadvantages that hold so many city residents back? How can cities embrace diversity and heterogeneity along with some common standards that work for all?

These are the questions that occupy us at Vital City. In wrestling with them, we have been fortunate to be able to call upon the counsel of a talented group of advisors for Issue 3: Vishaan Chakrabarti, Jelani Cobb, Nicole Gelinas, John MacDonald, Martha Stark and Carl Weisbrod.

We have also been fortunate to welcome Josh Greenman as managing editor. Josh comes to us from the New York Daily News, where he served for nearly 17 years as opinion editor, and the last six as editorial page editor as well. In addition, Ruth Moyer has come on board as our director of research and data. Ruth, who received her Ph.D. in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, has previously served as the project director of an evaluation of Philadelphia’s Group Violence Intervention program and as a public defender. Please join us in welcoming Josh and Ruth to our team.