Desperately Seeking Cities

Most city dwellers, it turns out, live lives of quiet desperation for Amazon. What was happening to Philadelphia disclosed the emptiness not just of this city, but of what people all over the country had learned to think cities were good for.

Amazon has bankrupted the ideology it claimed to appeal to: the ideology of “urbanism.”

Still from philadelphiadelivers.com.

A half-century after the urban crisis, it appeared that the American city was becoming a source of national hope. In the 2016 presidential election, there were few indicators of how one would vote more salient than whether one lived in a city or far outside one. This result has given rise to the idea that cities would increasingly form the nucleus of the soi-disant “resistance” to right-wing nationalism and Donald Trump. Since last November, marches have repeatedly converged on urban cores; against the threats of the Attorney General, mayors touted their cities’ “sanctuary” status; and environmental standards retired federally have been upheld municipally. If the US had any chance to build a progressive, cosmopolitan future, the path lay through the cities.

Then came the contest to locate Amazon’s second headquarters. It turned out that the unifying power of hating Trump was nothing compared to the overwhelming national ardor for Amazon. Over the last two months, cities of every size and in every part of the country fell over themselves in a lurid, nauseating pageant of suitors. To whom would Amazon give the rose? The solidarity supposedly endemic to urban life was revealed to be the narcissism of minor differences, an inveterate competitive streak, a zeal to scrap every public plan in a fever of tax breaks. Faced with a corporation with monopoly power as great as the old railroads, cities genuflected. Millenarian apocalyptic rhetoric over Trump gave way to salvific paeans to Amazon. The company took on the form of a 21st-century Christ, offering its living water to the thirsty urban samaritans. Only San Antonio—appropriately, the city that once housed stolid, reliable, tedious pleasures like Tim Duncan—distinguished itself, refusing to enter a bid. “Sure, we have a competitive toolkit of incentives,” the city’s mayor wrote, at once inhabiting and parodying the language of the corporate brochure, “but blindly giving away the farm isn’t our style.”

I live in Philadelphia, where every day, the prospect of Amazon HQ2 competed with the corruption of our most powerful local congressman for the top story. The city unveiled a website dedicated to its bid—more attractive and user-friendly than any other municipal page—that gloried in Philadelphia being the “biggest small city in America.” “A lot of people don’t know this,” Randy LoBasso, the head of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia says in a video dedicated to “Livability,” “but Philadelphia is the most ‘biked’ per capita big city in the United States”—a sentence so thick with the jargon of urbanism that it is virtually indecipherable. In an emblematic piece, Jon Geeting, a former journalist who is currently the engagement director for Philadelphia 3.0—a “dark money” political group trying to put more business-friendly candidates into office—wrote that the city “could potentially have a real shot at this,” because of its “strength of legacy assets (elite universities, extensive regional rail system, tons of park land, walkable street grid and narrow streets for biking) that we’ve inherited from previous generations.” In comment sections, in conversation, in social media, Philadelphians turned overnight from citizens into urban branding experts. Years of reading Curbed and thinking about “smart cities” had had their effect. Person after person blandly laid out the humble virtues of Philadelphia as a case for Amazon’s noblesse oblige.

Most city dwellers, it turns out, live lives of quiet desperation for Amazon. What was happening to Philadelphia disclosed the emptiness not just of this city, but of what people all over the country had learned to think cities were good for. The value of the Amazon contest is that it has laid bare a fundamental contradiction of contemporary urban life. Amazon appealed to cities—cannily, it must be said—to narrate themselves: what makes them unique, such that Amazon should locate there? The result was that all cities ended up putting forward the same, boring virtues and “legacy assets”: some parks, some universities, some available land, some tax breaks, some restaurants. Each city, it turned out, was indistinguishable from every other city: “thirty-six hours . . . in the same beer garden, museum, music venue, and ‘High Line’-type urban park.” By the same token, all cities were forced to realize their basic inadequacy: that ultimately, all their tireless work to cultivate their urbanity amounted to nothing if they did not have Amazon.

Amazon has bankrupted the ideology it claimed to appeal to: the ideology of “urbanism.” Since the early 20th century at least, critics, reformers, and architects from Daniel Burnham to Ebenezer Howard to Lewis Mumford have tried to solve the “problem” of the city. The solutions that came into being—threading the city with highways and clearing “slums”—lacked their idealism, damaging the city and city planning with it. The upheavals of urban renewal and the cataclysms of the urban crisis gave birth to the idea that cities were on the verge of extinction; the best way to save them was simultaneously to trumpet their inherent virtues and adopt itsy-bitsy policies to improve their basic livability. Against the pummeling, wrecking-ball visions of Robert Moses, Ed Bacon, and Justin Herman, a superficial reading of Jane Jacobs held that the network of urban eyes and the ballet of street life made cities what they were. (Her idea that cities ought to accommodate a diversity of industries and classes did not enter the discussion.) Under the reign of urbanism, cities, effects of a mercantile and then capitalist economy, became fetish objects: one had to love cities, constantly praise them, and find new ways of adoring them.

Urbanism was the ideology of the minority of professionals and other white-collar workers who stayed with the city as countless others left. As the case study in Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn demonstrates, the post-crisis urbanists conceived of the city as a tiny, dense village—an urban pastoral. They did so because they were beneficiaries of the vision that they combated. Le Corbusier and New York’s Regional Plan Association alike imagined that future cities would consist largely of white-collar workers (“services”), and that aggressive zoning would help banish industry to the city’s periphery. Industry did move out, but to a more distant periphery: the lightly regulated and undertaxed zones in the American south. By much the same process, corporate headquarters returned to American cities via generous tax breaks and abatements on construction. Some of the same professionals who thronged Manhattan’s dreary midtown offices during the day retreated in the evening to their urbanist enclaves in Brooklyn Heights and elsewhere, which they had learned to celebrate. Urbanism thus had blindness built into it: It held that professional classes were helping to “revitalize” cities, when it was actually the companies that brought them there.

Since the 2000s, a strand of academic work has brought new respectability to moist-eyed urbanists gawking at the ballet of street life. Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City (2011) may be the apex of the urbanist ideology, in which restaurants were figured as consistent predictors of population growth. (Glaeser’s book includes a panegyric to British colonialism for having improved British cuisine: “India was the brightest jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown, and since her time, enterprising Indians have been coming to London.”) Others have seriously argued, in a similar level of unthinking high comedy, that average January temperatures determine the likelihood of a city’s success or failure. It is with the same spirited thoughtlessness that cities have press-ganged high-profile architects into tossing up museums with virtually anything (or nothing) in them in search of the “Bilbao” effect, and have draped decaying transportation infrastructure with plants and benches in search of the “High Line” effect. On occasion, these attempts have had the effect of raising local property prices and displacing the longtime residents of individual neighborhoods. But they have had no transformative effects for the vast majority of residents.

The most serious academic riposte to the urbanist ideology has been Michael Storper’s Keys to the City (2013), which demonstrates comprehensively what one might always have guessed, and what the Amazon contest has proven: the location of businesses, rather than the walkability, density, and diversity of a city, determines its economic health. A statistically insignificant portion of the country will up and move to Dallas because they are fiending for breakfast tacos that they can sort of walk to, near a private-public partnership-funded park that caps a freeway where they can sort of enjoy them. Most people, however, move to a place in search of jobs, not “urbanism.” “Even though London, New York, and Paris have central-city neighborhoods that are consumption playgrounds for the rich of the world,” Storper writes, “they are above all major productive hubs in the global economy. The vast majority of their people come to these cities in order to work. The world urban system—from its richest to poorest cities—is not a set of playgrounds or amenity parks but instead a vast system of interlinked workshops.” That this even needs to be argued suggests the level of delusion that persists about what metropolitan regions actually do, and why people live in them. It is a delusion that has taken hold not only on the lecture circuit and PowerPoint presentations and websites that lend their names to “ideas festivals,” but among ordinary city-dwellers.

Urbanism has helped to obscure how implicated cities are in the broader changes of our time. The city we have today is, like everything, characterized by a spectacular level of inequality. To look at a standard city map is to miss an invisible overlay of policies and business incentives that pit one part of the city against the other, much as Amazon pitted all cities against one another. Private-public partnerships make some parks better than others; tax abatements create high-end residential and commercial construction in the urban core, while the poor in the urban periphery enjoy the indignity of under-regulated “enterprise zones” or having to compete for federal “promise zones”; property values spike in the vicinity of a “good” school and dive in the neighborhood of a “bad” one; closely related are the policies that entice cavalcades of police to one area and not to others, ensuring that the carceral state weighs in some neighborhoods like an unshakable stone. The determining center remains, as it has for generations, and as it will in the age of Amazon, the wide floor plates in the heavily air-conditioned offices of the country’s major corporations, which pay proportionally less in taxes to the city and state where they reside than your average middle-class family. As a substitute for more concerted city planning, urbanism has had little success in encouraging the diversity it claims to seek. As a cover for the true nature of the neoliberal city, it has been a triumph.

It is beyond question that, in whatever city it chose to grace, Amazon would bring neither the jobs that that city needed, nor the public works that it needed. In his latest variation on the urbanist delusion, written for the Financial Times, the much-pilloried Richard Florida plaintively appealed to Amazon not to “accept any tax or financial incentives,” but rather to pledge to “invest alongside cities to create better jobs, build more affordable housing, and develop better schools, transit, and other badly needed public goods, along with paying its fair share of taxes.” The depths of Florida’s naiveté cannot be overstated. Not only is Amazon categorically unlikely to pledge what he wants (or, even if it did, make even the slightest effort to deliver on such a pledge), but Florida openly expresses his desire to cede all urban political power and every human demand to the whims of the company. In this respect, too, the Amazon HQ2 contest has been clarifying.

Urbanism can’t be countered with anti-urbanism. But the deeper urban revolution may be taking place at a subterranean level, where left-wing organizations birthed out of last year’s campaigns, alongside those long in existence, are moving to take power from the city machines, old and new. Though it will not be registered in the videos and website of the bids, it is happening in Philadelphia, as well as dozens of the cities attempting to sell their souls to Amazon. Among the calls most prominent—a takeover of the local party structure, an end to mass incarceration, a guarantee of healthcare, reinvestment in schools—there is still the unfinished work of planning. Left untouched, cities will rely on Amazon to do it for them.

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