Richard Sandler

Editors’ Note

Elizabeth Glazer and Greg Berman

June 26, 2024

Apocalypse now, or a new life for American cities?

Apocalypse now, or a new life for American cities?

Big cities have difficulties in abundance, because they have people in abundance. But vital cities have marvelous, innate abilities for understanding what is required to combat their difficulties.

Jane Jacobs, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities"

Bad news sells. 

This was true in the 19th century when William Randolph Hearst first started using the expression “If it bleeds, it leads.” And it is still true in today’s attention economy, where sparking anger and outrage are crucial to winning the battle for engagement on social media platforms. Are we doomed to live in an Age of Umbrage?

Grim takes on the state of New York City are a dime a dozen these days. But it is not just that random guy in your Twitter feed who thinks that things are going to hell in a handbasket. Even some of our most prominent politicians are providing the unintentionally hilarious spectacle of sabotaging their own boosterism.

For example, Gov. Kathy Hochul recently called the rollout of legalized marijuana in New York a “disaster.” Mind you, this was her own rollout, overseen by her own office with her hand-picked appointees. The New York Post editorial board seconded that emotion: Highlighting “the acrid reek of pot everywhere,” the board opined that, in New York City, the rule of law is “on its back foot.”

New York City Mayor Eric Adams is also no stranger to catastrophism. At a time when the City was making major strides in driving down shootings and murders, with crime at a fraction of when he had patrolled the streets in the 1990s, he claimed he had “never witnessed crime at this level.”

Everyone seems to be hyperventilating. Congestion pricing, e-bike and moped traffic, shoplifting, the influx of migrants — these are just a few of the issues that in recent months have prompted pundits to worry that New York is heading inexorably in the wrong direction.

And then there’s the mother of all crisis narratives: the urban doom loop.

Originally promulgated by Columbia University economics professor Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh (featured in this issue, writing with Arpit Gupta about the current state of New York’s real estate market), the “doom loop” is a warning about the potential future of New York in the aftermath of the pandemic. The idea is simple enough: As remote work becomes a permanent reality, the demand for office space decreases. As companies shrink or abandon their expensive leases, the City’s tax revenues suffer, leading to cuts in services, spikes in crime and local residents fleeing for the hills. Before you know it, New York looks like Detroit after the collapse of the auto industry.

In fairness, New York is far from the only city to generate reams of bad press and dark tidings in recent years — as Ted Alcorn documents in “The Public Square,” San Francisco, Chicago, Portland and Baltimore are just a few of the American cities where the wolves are at the door, eagerly waiting for the post-apocalyptic hellscape to commence.

Why has Van Nieuwerburgh’s dark prophecy resonated so powerfully? Is the free-floating pessimism that seems to mark our times warranted? Or are the reports of the death of cities greatly exaggerated?

In this issue of Vital City, leading urbanists, journalists and thinkers from a number of disciplines start to answer these questions. 

Reflected in these pages are a host of thorny problems, from bad political leadership to the enduring effects of racism to the challenges of creating a truly affordable city. Andrew Rein and Ana Champeny of the Citizens Budget Commission offer some bracing fiscal news: The City faces budget gaps that may reach $14 billion in a few years. With the help of Kirsten Burr, we provide a handful of important statistical indicators which help to explain why many New Yorkers think their quality of life is going in the wrong direction.

But for all these issues, what comes through in almost every essay is how complexity — what Jane Jacobs called “organized complexity” — marks great urban centers. Indeed, complexity and vibrancy is what makes cities live and thrive. Here our contributors tip the balance from gloom to optimism about the future of cities.

Even when she isn’t explicitly mentioned, Jacobs’ insights echo throughout this issue. As she pointed out: “The variables [of urban life] are many, but they are not helter-skelter; they are interrelated into an organic whole.” Elizabeth Glazer and John Roman show how true this is by highlighting how cities can deploy civic resources to reduce crime. In a similar vein, Grace Rauh, Alicia Glen and Majora Carter put forward concrete proposals for how to make New York City more vibrant and livable. These range from the small-bore (more block parties please!) to ambitious efforts to increase minority business and property ownership.

As it confronts the doom loop and other dire forecasts, New York has a number of things going for it. Put simply, the city has good bones. Nicole Gelinas explains the remarkable role that the city’s 24/7 transit system plays ferrying millions of people to work and other destinations every day, even after the work-from-home revolution. Shanta Thake describes the power of the city’s cultural organizations as a resource for everyone who lives in New York. And Bradley Tusk highlights how the city’s ineffable (well-founded) self-esteem is an endlessly renewable resource.

Richard Florida believes that the current urban crisis is a “crisis of success.” In recent decades, New York and other leading cities have been enormously successful in attracting new residents. But the flip side of this success has been increasing housing unaffordability and economic inequality.

New York has faced hard times before. In living memory, this includes 9/11, the crack cocaine epidemic, the Great Recession and the fiscal crisis of the 1970s in addition to the pandemic. Ed Glaeser details why New York has proven so resilient, time and time again. According to Glaeser, urban reinvention is driven by human capital. Or to put in another way: It’s the people who live here that make New York City such a special place.

What makes this city, and all successful cities, tick is that they are not “statistical cities.” Data are important, but the measure of urban life cannot be found in numbers, tables and graphs. Rather, the life of cities is in their people, and in the full range of complexity — problems, talents, enthusiasms and more — that people bring with them.

This insight was at the core of Jane Jacobs’ 1961 masterwork, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” The challenges of urban life will always be significant. But cities like New York contain the seeds of their own regeneration. The continual stream of people coming to New York to realize a better life for themselves is the city’s most valuable resource. As long as the dreamers and the strivers keep coming, the city will always be able to conjure solutions to the problems that come its way, now and in the future.