Great Problems: The Destruction of Urban Life

Our project here is to develop a hard and clear understanding of current reality. In this series of posts, we will illuminate and analyze the greatest afflictions of our age, while ignoring the fake problems that occupy too much political discourse.

From 1950 to 1990 the great American cities fell into ruins. Rioters smashed windows and torched houses. Thugs roamed the streets assaulting and robbing decent folk. Homicide rates rose 1,000%. Grandiose “urban renewal” projects razed entire neighborhoods to make way for highways, housing projects, and political trophy towers. The middle class fled the dangerous streets and violent schools. Tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods evaporated. Zoning laws, urban planning fads, and home loan regulations conspired to replace lively, mixed use urban streets with repetitive, isolated boxed housing in suburban neighborhoods.

“Ruin porn” showcasing the devastated cities can be found on the web, see Detroit, Philadelphia, or Baltimore. Watch the Corner or Law & Disorder for a documentary version. The most informative book I have read on the subject is Devil’s Night. I also recommend the The Unheavenly City, Canarsie, The Slaughter of the Cities, City, and the book version of the Corner (a non-fiction account of Baltimore by the creator the Wire).

In the past few years a few city neighborhoods have recovered. Craft beer bars and coffee micro-roasters pop up in Northern Liberties in Philadelphia. Downtown Boston feels safe at virtually any hour.

But the danger and devastation mostly remain. Just in the the past few months in Philadelphia, my girlfriend’s sister was robbed at gunpoint outside her apartment, a young professional was mugged, shot and paralyzed a few blocks away, a flash mob assaulted and beat up a couple walking on her street, and a shooting occurred outside a nightclub we pass on our walk home. In Boston, I was recently walking through Dorchester and police rolled up alongside me and told me that I was in the murder capital of Boston. They told me to get on a bus because the neighborhood was too dangerous for someone who looked like me to walk through. Detroit remains in ruins. Don’t be deceived by the slick Chrysler commercials and ‘Detroit renaissance talk’.

The fastest growing areas have been strip mall suburbs such as the Phoenix and Houston metropolitan areas. A combination of lack of planning and anti-planning (zoning laws forcing a separation office space and residential) have ensnared Americans in long commutes, expensive gasoline addictions, and bland, homogeneous developments.

American urban planning failed to adapt to the invention of the internal combustion engine. Americans have been in a slow motion arms race where we all have to discard bicycles and drive tank-like cars for safety. When my neighbor buys a bigger car, I must buy a bigger car for safety, and it escalates until we all drive giant SUV’s. Now that our cars take up so much space, we must build wide roads and giant parking lots, which then force us to drive everywhere. Now that we drive everywhere we must work harder and longer to pay for mutant cars and imported oil. When we work more, we buy even more oil for the commute, driving up oil prices, forcing us to work even more. The entire car culture ends in epic fail.

Thus as Americans we end up with three bad choices a) affordable urban living where you have to watch your back at night and pray your kids don’t end up in a knife fight at school b) long commutes isolated suburban areas or c) expensive, fashionable urban neighborhoods that poor violent people cannot afford to live in.

Stay tuned for future installments, in which I will cover the other six great problems of our time.