Why Only the Hot Cities Are Burning

A car burns as protesters rally near the White House, in Washington, D.C., May 30, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Inconvenient questions for Right and Left about the new urban unrest

Im never shy about sticking up for my much-mocked home state of New Jersey, and over the past weeks I have had reason to be especially proud: As violent unrest fueled by the police killing of George Floyd swept dozens of American cities, the Garden State saw plenty of demonstrations but almost no violence. It was especially gratifying given that Jersey was an epicenter of the urban riots of the late 1960s, with Newark and even my hometown of Plainfield joining Detroit and Watts as poster cities for racial violence and the decline it caused.

As all acute social crises do, this one has tended to invite monocausal explanations, and anyone who is being intellectually honest will see that there are many elements in the mix beyond the eternal evil of racism: decades of overpolicing and failed attempts at police reform; the rise of new technologies that incentivize sharing content likely to inflame; and a national quarantine that has left urban dwellers unemployed and cooped up.

Still, this doesn’t explain why some of America’s cities have been torn apart and others not.

So what’s Jersey’s secret sauce? One factor could be that many of its cities have long been minority-led, and already learned the hard way in 1967 that the impact of riots can last decades. But another may be that — and here I need to swallow some of my home-state pride — if you want to live in a truly happening city, you’ll end up elsewhere, likely in one of the metropoles that have just been looted and burned.

On one level, the fact that the biggest cities are coming under the most stress shouldn’t be a surprise. Skyrocketing rents and deepening, dystopian inequality are staple topics of conversation and political campaigns in such places. Yet both Left and Right seem unwilling or unable to probe below the surface of these issues.

Dig a little deeper and you can see that gaping inequality isn’t just an incidental outcome of life in the top-tier metropolis, but often the very engine of its political economy. Michael Bloomberg was right when, midway through his first term as mayor of New York, he called the city “a high-end product, maybe even a luxury product.” What he didn’t mention is that luxury products are built with lots of labor from people who by design can’t afford to buy them. To a large extent FOMO is the MO of the successful modern American city. There is no gleaming Prada flagship store in Plainfield or Paterson reminding its residents what they are missing out on.

This, again, should be obvious, but there are good reasons that it isn’t. The Right is by nature uneasy with harsh critiques of inequality, while the Left today tends to jealously guard its increasing hold on defining what constitutes prestige and luxury. Even members of the “professional Left” I know in New York tend not to be the type of people who would seem to relish living in the more middlebrow cityscape that would result from a meaningful program of economic leveling.

The hot cities are also centers of the creative industries and other professional spaces where “cultural fit” is often decisive in determining who climbs the ladder, and taking the wrong line on a controversial political issue can ruin an entire career. When the stakes involved in being canceled are so high, it pays to stay far from the always-shifting line. If your once-apolitical company starts loudly calling for police reform all of a sudden, it’s only prudent for you to start loudly calling for the abolition of the police. Possibly in their face.

The “whitening” of neighborhoods in top-tier cities is an issue that is especially difficult for both Left and Right to face head-on. On the right there remains a stubborn unwillingness to accept that there may be a terrible cost to the sort of relentless gentrification you see in places such as Brooklyn’s historically black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. But there is also a deep, and profoundly destabilizing, ambivalence about it on the left. If you are a young, educated white person moving to New York today, you are likely to end up living in an apartment in Bed–Stuy or somewhere like it that until recently was occupied by a person of color. You are also likely to know as much, and to feel guilty about it. And while it is very unlikely that this regret will lead you to move elsewhere or “give back” your new home, you are unlikely to begrudge those who violently lash out because they feel displaced or devalued by your arrival. Indeed, you might even join in, out of a sense of solidarity, of moral or physical self-preservation, of anger at your own less-than-rosy economic prospects, or some combination of the three.

On the left — especially the establishment-tormenting “dirtbag left” — there is a growing awareness that America may be suffering from a crisis of what social critics since Rome have identified as elite overproduction. But it’s hard to admit that one may have played a role in the creation of, or may even be among, a glut of “surplus bougies” destined to flock to and then flounder in the winner-take-all supercity. For their part, conservatives seem content to delight in the stereotype of a generation of broke wokesters saddled with unmarketable degrees and the delusion that the only path to a meaningful life goes through a scruffy but prestigious neighborhood in one of a handful of rich cities. Their glee would be unfortunate even if it wasn’t a mirror of the snobbery and schadenfreude they denounce liberal urban swells for luxuriating in at the expense of struggling regions of the American heartland.

These issues aren’t unique to America or American politics, of course: This past weekend, Floyd-inspired protesters attacked police in London and looters ransacked central Brussels while Newark, Plainfield, and Camden remained peaceful. And even before the present unrest, the prestige-city renaissance that began with the breaking of the mid-century crime wave was already facing serious headwinds from COVID and the remote-working boom it spawned. The spasms of rioting and looting simply make it clear that there are even deeper problems with the underlying model of the biggest cities, which in recent years has seemed to consist of trying to convince people that if they live or work somewhere else they are just settling. To get back on their feet, superstar cities need to stop fawning over one another and instead look at those of their peers that may be less hip, but also aren’t waking up ankle deep in glass and tear-gas canisters.

They might even do the unthinkable and come to New Jersey.


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