The Corner


The 2020 Democratic Primary and Evaluating America’s Cities

South Bend, Ind. (Wikimedia)

America has a lot of great cities. There aren’t too many cities I’ve visited that I don’t like, once sports-team driven animosities are put aside.

But the saying “nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there” arose for a reason.

Today’s Morning Jolt discussing Pete Buttigieg includes a quick look at some of the measures where South Bend, Ind. isn’t thriving, or at least still has an uphill climb. Like a lot of midwestern cities, South Bend is still grappling with poverty, evictions, opioid addiction, and violent crime. The argument for nominating and electing Buttigieg as president will rely heavily on the idea that as mayor, he helped enact an urban renaissance.

If you read enough magazines — particularly airline in-flight magazines — you’ve probably read a lot of articles in the “This once-struggling city has made an amazing comeback, and it is ready for its close-up!” genre. Sometimes it’s pegged to the city hosting some big convention or sporting event or the biggest-ever crowd for last year’s Rutabega Festival.

It’s always nice to read about someplace where the residents are happy and things are going well. But most of these “once-troubled city having a renaissance” stories seem to hit the same notes. The old factory was converted to lofts! A tech start-up moved into the old mill! This hot chef has a new bistro and the bakery next door has a wide variety of gluten-free options! There’s almost always a picture of young couples walking through the downtown square, a close-up photo of some enticing dish from the hot local restaurant, a colorful street mural, some band performing at a club or local public concert, and a kitschy knickknack shop.

All of that is nice, but these articles tend to focus on what’s immediately visible (and touted by the local Chamber of Commerce) rather than less visually exciting measurements of the quality of life: school test scores, property tax rates, quality of city services, cost of living, crime rates . . .  the aspects of a community that residents deal with on a day-to-day basis and don’t involve a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Call me crazy, but I think the above criteria have a bigger impact on people’s decisions about where to live than the old Richard Florida-esque criteria for a thriving city — art galleries! Luxury condos! Hip restaurants! Hooray for the creative class! Florida has backtracked somewhat from his 2002 conclusions, when he argued that the formula for urban renewal was young, creative workers who were the new engines of economic growth. His approach tended to create downtowns that were terrific to visit and perhaps quite appealing to DINKs — double incomes, no kids — but that left other problems of urban life unaddressed. (It’s fascinating to see how Florida is now being criticized as “the ultimate champion of gentrification” and “the patron saint of avocado toast.”)

In other words, with enough developers, restauranteurs and hipster bartenders, you can create a downtown that’s a nice place to visit. Upgrading a city so that it’s a place you would want to live (and raise a family) is a tougher challenge.

The 2020 Democratic field includes Buttigieg, former Newark mayor Cory Booker, former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro and former Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, and all of them will spend some time on the trail touting their records in their cities. And perhaps their records should be reviewed with a certain amount of sympathy; turning around a troubled city is really difficult. But the candidates should also be ready for a thorough examination, and recognition that sometimes what’s touted as an urban renaissance is partially driven by a rising tide from an improving state or national economy, and sometimes that thriving downtown that gets the tech executives to come visit, gawk and contemplate relocation is obscuring the not-quite-solved problems in the other neighborhoods.


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