Rethinking the Value of Cities in an Era of Plague

It’s the tension between “contagions for good,” the possibilities for sharing ideas and exchanging goods in thicker markets, and “contagions for evil,” when it’s your viruses and bacteria that are being shared with others.

Here’s a roundup of some recent thinking about that tension.  We’ll start with the politics.  The “data download” from the final Meet the Press of March included, predictably, the Team Red and Team Blue.
Believe it or not, even the coronavirus has a political component. And as COVID-19 hits some places harder than others, the current spikes in densely populated urban centers on the coasts mean it is now hitting blue areas a lot harder than red ones. As of Friday, 77% of confirmed cases were in counties that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. 19% were in counties that voted for President Trump. 4% are unclear. Put it another way, 81% of Clinton counties had at least one case, while only 50% of Trump counties did. Those are wide discrepancies in firsthand experience. And that’s showing up in polling data. A survey by Dynata, a leading survey insights company, finds 65% of Democrats believe the federal government is doing too little to protect life during this pandemic, compared with only 24% of Republicans who feel the same way. Of course, Democrats are always a bit more critical of President Trump. But it will be interesting to see how these numbers shift as the virus inevitably moves inland to counties that did vote for Mr. Trump, places that are even less equipped to handle a pandemic. When we come back, how COVID-19 may already be affecting President Trump’s political fortunes.
A Gary Gindler column for American Thinker looked at the same phenomenon, but with a different interpretation.
At the beginning of the month, 93% of all cases in the United States were in Democrat-controlled states, with the remaining 7% of cases being in Republican-controlled states.  However, the last three weeks of March demonstrate that the situation has reached some sort of stabilization around 80% and 20% for Democrat-controlled and Republican-controlled states, respectively.  In other words, the 4-to-1 ratio has existed for the last three weeks, and this distribution is remarkably stable.  Before the second week of March, the data was incomplete/sporadic.
We’ll see whether the contagion moves inland, or whether the close proximity of people in the thickly settled, Democrat-voting areas is the primary driver of infections.  There’s not yet enough information.

One thing that did strike me, though, is how the blue social model in the cities might surprise the medieval prince or arch-bishop in form, if not in function.  There’s public assistance for the paupers, with lotteries and professional sports offering a way out for a fortunate few.  There’s patronage for the minor officials, whether in the form of sweetheart contracts, or in competitions for grants from the national endowments and public broadcasting, in order that the creatives embellish the secular Sistine Chapels rather than apply their talents to fomenting rebellion.  The rulers get to indulge themselves, but they’d better be careful when they venture outside the city walls.

We might be seeing a resurgence of that risk to the rulers, in the form of those border closures and resentment of vacationers bringing their plague with them, which will pose more of a threat to people living along the interstate highways going to the resorts than it will to the residents off those travel routes.  But that medieval ruler would surely not know what to make of conditions outside the cities: a population more mobile, more capable of communicating with each other, and with the intellectual and physical ammunition (thanks, Aristotle, Smith, Jefferson, and Colt) to think for themselves and question the automatic authority of people who consider themselves Intellectual Betters.  (Consider, dear reader, the etymology of “urbane” and “civilized.”)

What, though, about that tradeoff I promised?  Let’s start with Michael Barone.
It’s unnerving, and perhaps instructive, that the arrangements elites have been prescribing for dealing with what they call our most dangerous environmental threat — climate change, formerly known as global warming — are almost precisely the opposite of the arrangements deployed to deal with the more immediate threat of COVID-19, aka the novel coronavirus.

To reduce the carbon dioxide emissions thought to produce catastrophic climate change, Americans have been urged to cluster in large, densely populated cities. Large apartment buildings with small dwelling units, it is claimed, consume less energy and emit less carbon per capita than 2,500-square-foot houses spread out on suburban cul-de-sacs or newly constructed on exurban farm fields.
That part might be drawing contrast for its own sake, but he subsequently gets to the main message.  “Densely populated central cities produce more than their per capita share of economic output. The face-to-face contact they foster results in creativity in everything from finance to the arts. But historically — as most of us forgot until the last few weeks — they have also been incubators of deadly disease.” We only forgot because most of the diseases that still are a part of city life — why, dear reader, do we have the euphemism “social disease?” — are diseases we’ve learned how to avoid or manage.  New challenge.

It is precisely the thicker markets and opportunities for information contagion that leads Arian Horbovetz to argue that it’s premature to write off the big cities.
Cities are far more “public” than suburbs, making normal use of transit and large gathering spaces very dangerous at a time like this. But residents can adapt by embracing other options such a cycling instead of public transit. Having a plethora of possible modalities and ways of life makes the urban experience scaleable. In contrast, a corresponding disruption to the normal flow of suburban life makes adaptation difficult, simply because options are limited, especially with regard to mobility.

Still, the laundry list of reasons for people to not embrace city life will no doubt have another bullet point, even after this is all over. But just like those apartment dwellers singing together from their porches in Italy, city lovers know that we are better together than we are apart—even if this solidarity means keeping our distance, for a while.
Perhaps so, although in the logic of agglomeration economies and land rents there are centrifugal and centripetal forces working on the individual location decisions that lead to central places.

Streetsblog’s Kea Wilson also suggests that the cities will weather the plague better than the hinterlands.  “But experts are warning that early stats about outbreaks in dense cities don’t give Americans the whole picture — and in many ways, people who live in the suburbs are actually worse off than their urban counterparts in this challenging global moment.” There aren’t enough “early stats” to draw any meaningful inferences, but it doesn’t hurt to offer hypotheses.
But here’s what we do know: even in test-rich New York, the city’s suburban borough, Staten Island, actually has the highest rate of infection, with 14 more cases per 100,000 residents than ultra-dense Manhattan. And even though we don’t know if that pattern will hold true for other regions, we do know this: more than almost any other neighborhood type, suburbs are isolated, radically unsustainable places that are home to a public health crisis even in the best of times, because of their epidemic levels of traffic violence caused by the excessive driving suburbanites are forced to do because of bad urban planning.

And all three things are going to make it that much harder for suburban Americans — a group of people who, don’t forget, are increasingly poor — to weather this storm.

Those three things: first, suburban and exurban dependence on motorcars (you mean we can talk about trading off death by plague against death by motorcar?); second, the hospitals are farther apart and less likely to be on a transit line (in that alone, there is a whole ‘nother post just waiting to be written);  third, and those isolated houses on half-acre lots are made-to-order for anomie (you mean we can consider the public health effects of forced confinement on people who might value some alone time even from their immediate family?)

Interestingly, though, in her lament there’s the possibility of further devolution and decentralization of the Big Institutions.
It’s time to re-urbanize our suburbs — and that includes putting acute care healthcare providers back in our neighborhoods. That will have to happen in concert with decentralizing our medical system, and in particular, unf*cking our medical malpractice insurance industry that forces would-be neighborhood doctors to ally themselves with large hospitals if they want to afford to open a practice. But it may be crucial in our new reality.
My area of expertise is industrial and regional economics: let the health economists and scholars in other disciplines with subject expertise have at that!

At The American Conservative, Lewis McCrary suggests it might be time to rethink some of the traditional forms of land use.
If the pandemic leads to a significant contraction—not merely a temporary disruption, so that we all go back to business as usual—all Americans should consider how our settlements will prosper and thrive in the future, all along the spectrum from the megacity to the small town. The question is not about the old, tired question of cities vs. suburbs, or metropolitan vs. rural. Instead, whether you live in a tall glass skyscraper or shop at a big box store, you may be perpetuating an outmoded, unsustainable way of living. This is why, since the 1990s, the New Urbanist movement has provided a playbook for a way out of this old paradigm—mixed-use, walkable, humane places, whether they are located in rural villages, railroad suburbs, or dense metropolitan neighborhoods.

The New Urbanist approach won’t be a cure-all solution; it won’t keep us from getting sick again, nor will it prevent natural disasters or economic recessions that disrupt normal patterns of life. But adapting old suburbs and new urbanist-style development—including allowing moderate levels of density—will be more resilient in these uncertain times. We should celebrate the return of our cities in these past few decades, not rush back to the dying malls and decaying tracts of yesterday.
Maybe, maybe not. The same essay also notes,
Even Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin admits that for now, the pandemic is beating cities:  “In the conflict between density and social distancing, social distancing should always win…. The joys of density will return once this tragic chapter is over.”

With the virus on the move, some feel less panicked living in suburban or exurban environs, seemingly safe as we drive around our hermetic car-bubbles and await anonymous Amazon deliveries. Who needs face-to-face interaction and pedestrian encounters when people are the enemy? In these times of known unknowns, such as exactly how bad it will get, there is an easy and understandable correlation made between density and contagion. For now, some may find it easier to go back to the suburban development of sprawl where many live—for all of its unsustainable flaws, waste, and expense.
I hate to keep beating the same drum, but beat it I must: we have sprawl in response to the expense of living in cities, and private motorcars, virtual workspaces, and now, the greater risk of contagion, all have the effect of making living at a distance look more attractive; and, at the same time, that effect will lower the pressure on urban rents.

Joel Kotkin appears to get that.
As of this writing, the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic remain uncertain. But one possible consequence is an acceleration of the end of the megacity era. In its place, we may now be witnessing the outlines of a new, and necessary, dispersion of population, not only in the wide open spaces of North America and Australia, but even in the megacities of the developing world. Much of this has been driven by high housing prices and growing social disorder in our core cities, as well as the steady rise of online commerce and remote working, now the fastest growing means of “commuting” in the United States.
And, intriguingly, that outmigration began when the humble streetcar was the means of reducing transportation costs, not the despised lefty-contagion-wagon the more vocal critics of rail projects seem to think they currently are.
Cities in Europe and America had gradually cleaned up by the later parts of the 19th century. Urban reformers, “sewer socialists,” and social democratic governments across Europe improved sanitation and water delivery systems, and expanded parks. Equally critical, Western cities began a conscious “un-bunching” of the population through the introduction of streetcars, subways, passenger trains, and eventually freeways. Radicals and conservatives alike welcomed the British visionary Ebenezer Howard’s “garden city” ideal, which sought to offer the majority the option of resettling in the more hygienic hinterlands.

Over the ensuing century, developers became adept at building cities—even in the tropics—but it seems clear they have not been able to stop the revival of old hygiene problems. This is particularly true in China, which has undergone extraordinarily rapid urbanization. Behind the impressive setting of China’s high-rise cities, many urban residents, particularly some of the 200 million migrant workers, live in overcrowded neighborhoods with poor sanitation and drinking water.

That’s right, what replaced Chairman Mao’s anthill society might be even less appealing.
Once held up as a grand ideal, the megacity is increasingly losing its appeal as a way of life. Chinese science fiction writers—increasingly the last redoubt of independent thought in that increasingly totalitarian country—envision an urban future that is, for most, squalid and divided by class. There are already deep divisions between those who hold urban residence permits, hukou, and those relegated to an inferior, unprotected status. Hao Jingfang’s novella, Folding Beijing, for example, portrays a megacity sharply divided between the elite, the middle ranks, and a vast underclass living mainly by recycling the waste generated from the city.3

During my last visit to Beijing, Communist Party officials shared their concerns about how these divides could undermine social stability. They have already essentially banned new migration into cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and encourage migrants to move to the less crowded interior or even back to rural villages. Given the dictatorial nature of the regime, it’s not shocking that growth is already shifting to “second tier cities” including some in the interior. In far more chaotic India, the Modi government also supports an ongoing shift to smaller cities, and even a push for revitalization of rural villages. This reflects a growing concern among Indian researchers that the much ballyhooed “shining India,” concentrated in large urban centers, increasingly resembles the orbiting world portrayed in the science fiction movie Elysium—hermetically sealed from the vast majority of the population.

Even without government assistance, and often in the face of opposition from planners, dispersion has continued to characterize Western cities. This pattern is well-established throughout Europe, Canada, and Australia and is particularly evident in the United States where, since 2010, nearly all population growth has occurred in the urban periphery and smaller cities. As a new study from Heartland Forward demonstrates, both immigrants and millennials—the key groups behind urban growth—are increasingly moving to interior cities and even small towns. This is true even in San Francisco where nearly half of millennials described themselves as “likely” to leave the City by the Bay, a dramatic shift from a decade earlier, due in large part to insanely high housing prices and deteriorating conditions on the streets.

Indeed, as Richard Florida has noted, the bulk of the new growth of the “creative class”—the well-educated millennials critical to the urban renaissance—is “shifting away from superstar cities.” The rise in the migration of such prized workers is now two to three times faster in Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Grand Rapids, MI than in regions around New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C.
Incentives and emergence: enough to convince even Richard “provide the amenities and the creatives follow” Florida that there are limits to what Credentialed Experts can do to shape a spiky world.

(Cross-posted from Cold Spring Shops, which remains my principal site for other commentary as well as the lighter fare.)

18 thoughts on “Rethinking the Value of Cities in an Era of Plague”

  1. It’s not just the physical reef structures we call cities that are a problem. There’s also to social aspect to it all, where we’ve created these massively dysfunctional social structures that are reliant upon the physical ones that increasingly, simply do not work.

    There’s a place where scaling effects work; there’s also a place where they don’t. You look at Detroit and other former urban powerhouses of America, and it becomes clear that we’ve found that second set-point, and it’s about damn time we recognize it.

    Modern technology, specifically that of networked communications, has enabled a potential for significant change, where we will be able to gain the scaling effects of urbanization without the issues of disconnection and anomie that come along with it. Community is absolutely necessary to humans to function and be happy, but the sort of anonymous false “community” that we’ve allowed to grow up in the various zones of urban dysfunction is not the sort of thing we really need and long for.

    My take is that we need to decentralize and devolve the power centers. You create those the way we have, and the primary thing you’ve accomplished is bait for the sociopathic. We need to “power down” and decentralize things to the point where people can both remain happy, retaining control over their lives, and to where we can still come together to accomplish large things. What we’re doing right now is simply anti-human, in the sense that we cannot relate or control our own social structures, and entirely dysfunctional. The fact that you can have something like Detroit happen in a country which has not undergone a massive military/political defeat is evidence that we need to drastically restructure how we organize ourselves, right down to the micro-level.

    I think that what is needed is a social structure immediately above the level of the atomic family of mother, father, and some kids. Call it a neighborhood, a work unit, or what have you, but you need something greater than just the atomic family to provide structure and meaning to life. We go through life in a blur of disconnectedness and anomie, mostly because we lack these things that such a structure would offer. You look at the urban dysfunction zones, and you see such things growing up organically in the form of street gangs, and the reason for that is that these intermediate social structures provide something that’s lacking in our anonymous mass structures–Things that our simple family structures do not, and which the sheer scale of the current state simply can not provide.

    Devolve and de-structure, and I think that people will, in general, be a hell of a lot happier than they are under the current situation. We are not suited for the anthill, I am afraid, and likely never will be. Humans evolved to function in band-size elements, and the further we get away from those, the less effective we are. We need a granular polyvalent social structure outside the immediate atomic family, one that we can identify with, maintain a sense of belonging with, and one that is actually responsive to our needs. You get much past Dunbar’s Number, and things start to go to hell right quick.

  2. ““Densely populated central cities produce more than their per capita share of economic output. The face-to-face contact they foster results in creativity in everything from finance to the arts.”

    But yet…the flow of goods to New York City (for example) is pretty mmuch one-way. Are the manufacturing firms that send their output to NYC devoid of creativity?

    The Norfolk Southern Railway is headquartered in Atlanta…I believe the dispatch center is there as well. Is there really any meaningful way of assessing how much of the economic output contributed by NS should be allocated to Atlanta versus allocated out in the operating regions?

  3. @David Foster;

    You’ve put your finger right in the middle of the cowpie that is modern numerical analysis. In order to make sense of things, you have to assign arbitrary boundaries and numbers to things that aren’t quite that easy to analyze. It’s like the old physics saw about “First, assume a perfectly spherical X…”. While you can tease some useful meaning out of such mathematical flummery, there’s a point at which it becomes essentially meaningless and useless for making decisions with.

    You look at the net contribution of the idea of “city” to things, and you can immediately see all the supposed benefits of centralization. What you don’t see immediately are the downsides, like congestion and the resultant waste of time that comes from not being able to get from point A to point B in a timely and effective manner. Does that ever get accounted for? Not that I’ve seen. You also have all the other little frictions that build up, stemming from things like the endemic crime and everything else that the urban areas have in such vast amounts.

    Case in point–We’re contractors. You operate out here where we are, where there is no real crime rate (site theft is virtually unheard of, and usually the result of out-of-area types coming in from outside the region), and you don’t have to spend an hour at the beginning and end of each workday rolling out tools and securing them. Mobilization for a project here is generally at the beginning and end; you’re not doing it on the daily. This greatly speeds up the construction cycle, and is one reason that things can get done more quickly here than in adjacent urban regions. Where are those costs ever broken out? They aren’t, but they are there.

    You also have the factor of more intrusive and bureaucratic processes in the built-up urban zones. Here in the hinterlands, the county construction inspectors are pretty much “same week” for inspection scheduling, and sometimes literally the next day. Adjacent urban areas? LOL… Better plan to schedule a week or two in advance, and Satan take the hindmost if you “fail the guess” on whether or not you’re ready.

    The roots of a lot of these “benefits of concentration” numbers are entirely illusory, and the product of sheer fantasy. Sure, there are gains from the concentration of resources, but there are also serious and significant losses that never, ever get captured. Which is why the entire discussion is warped.

  4. I have found, as I wander my mountains, that the most wonderful places in the world, are where humans are very rare. Understanding this since I was young, I chose long ago to take my family to Vancouver Island, and we all live in quite unpopulated places. On purpose.

    Its much so much nicer where the deer wander free, and my real Tomcat does too. I make sure I’m far enough from any serious road, largely because I won’t contain my animal friends. A real Tomcat is not at all like one who had his nuts cut at an early age.

  5. “Chinese science fiction writers … envision an urban future that is, for most, squalid and divided by class.” Sort of like today’s Paris, London, or New York, then?

    It is possible that we are looking at the hardware, and forgetting that the software is much more important. The software is the way in which people interact in a community, whether large or small – how people behave towards each other, what boundaries they respect in terms of public behavior.

    I spent a month last year on a project in a Chinese city. Quite an eye-opener. High population density, with everyone living in 30-story apartment blocks, roughly a thousand people in each block. Yet also surprisingly livable — this was no Cabrini-Green. Walk across the pedestrian street to Walmart, or walk along the pedestrian precinct to the upmarket gold & jewelry stores. Everything from haircuts to barbecue close at hand, including cinemas and a choice of KTV karaoke establishments. The park was a hop, skip & a jump away. People of all ages danced in the pedestrian precinct in the evening. Easy access to modern, clean, efficient mass transport if you did not want to take a taxi.

    But what made it so livable was the people. All ethnic Chinese, of course, and all behaving with decorum (except when boarding the mass transit trains!). No selfish anti-social behavior, no trash, minimal (unarmed) police presence. The loudest noise was the school children singing in the morning. In some ways, it was like a 1950s movie. In the West in the 1950s, that public decorum was mostly enforced from within each individual, not by some iron-fisted bureaucrat. My impression was that a similar internal discipline (including the importance Chinese people attach to “face”) is at play in modern Chinese cities.

    Could we re-establish the mutually-respectful personal behavior underpinning a 1950s vibe in today’s West? That is more important than the size of cities.

  6. There is a great deal here, and the comments are already adding good analysis. I’ll have a go moving forward, but we just moved today and I am sitting in a pile of furniture and bedding. Three things:

    Both urban and rural-centric commentary seems to always include a subtext not quite acknowledged by the authors. “I really like living in the city/country and you should too. I like the excitement/realness. You must not like excitement/realness if you don’t want to live like me. It’s a superior way to live. ” Once one appreciates that this is behind much of what is written, it becomes apparent that the supposedly intellectual arguments are largely rationalisations.

    The arguments that we should adopt different ways of organising ourselves, in neighborhoods or villages, and with/without mass transit, or changing the medical or insurance industries to produce whatever excellent change needs to happen overlook what I think is the key point: even if you are right, how are we going to get there? Is a government going to make us do this, or incentivise and reincentivise, and re-re-incentivise us until we buy in? The mechanisms are going to matter a lot.

    MacNeil’s book “Plagues and People” points out that cities have always been dependent on not only food and materials from the provinces, but on a steady stream of young people seeking to make their fortune, in trade, in the military, in service of one sort or another.. It is true that the city is an engine of prosperity far more than the country, yet it is also dependient on the higher level or organisation that makes the country people to give up their goods, or iat least makes it worth their while.

  7. Some very cogent points already.

    unf*cking our medical malpractice insurance industry that forces would-be neighborhood doctors to ally themselves with large hospitals if they want to afford to open a practice. But it may be crucial in our new reality.

    Obamacare and its mandate for electronic medical records destroyed our healthcare system as it was. The large hospitals bought up doctors’ practices partly because of the cost of meeting the mandate for these EHR systems. Before I retired, well before Obamacare, I had 276 contracts with various entities, HMOs, PPOs, IPAs and other arrangements, most of which were owned by the doctors. I finally had to buy a $35,000 system to track all the rules for referrals, etc. I was in favor of EHRs but, after Obamacare imposed a penalty for not having such a system, they ended with something written by a low bidder that was obviously only focused on billing and surveillance of doctors and their practices. As a result, the hospitals came in and made the doctors “an offer they couldn’t refuse.”

    I had envisioned a system with lots of pull down menus that would make life easier. What has happened is that doctors now spend 25% of their time typing or have to hire half educated “scribes” to do the typing. It is producing “physician burnout” at a frightening pace.

    On other topics, cities were “population sinks” for a thousand years. Sanitation and antibiotics had largely moderated the bad effects but viruses are going to gtake us back to an earlier era, along with antibiotic resistance.

    The inner city (black) crime issues are another dystopian factor. I grew up in Chicago in the era of the 1940s and 50s, when the city was livable. Corruption was understood but it had to do with vices like prostitution and gambling, just as Vito Corleone said.

    I moved to California to go to college and remained for 60 years until the Democrat Party and their illegal alien allies destroyed it.

  8. Gavin, you might want to do some self-examination and question precisely who and what did in those value systems here in the West. It was mostly the wunnerful intellectual giants of the left, who decried the Babbittry of the hoi polloi and did all they could to undermine the social structures that maintained the commons we look back at so fondly. Who knew where all their “good ideas” would lead us? They certainly didn’t–Witness the current incredulity of men like John Cleese, who spent decades mocking and satirizing the culture he’s now mourning the loss of, driven out of his own country by the social norms he enabled and so enthusiastically espoused.

    The root of it boils down to the fact that so much of what the intellectuals believed and enacted based on those beliefs over the last several generations since our supposed “Golden Age” was flatly wrong. Nearly every single social “fix” they’ve gotten put into place has done more to tear things down than improve them, and it is consistent enough to make you wonder if they weren’t working to a plan to actually do the diametric opposite of what they claimed they wanted to accomplish in public.

    Either that, or they’re actually functional morons who merely ape being intelligent. No matter what, the observed effect of the things they’ve done to the social commons argues that they don’t have any place at the levers of power. Option “A” is that they’re lying bastard conspirators seeking to destroy the society that hosts them, or that it’s Option “B”, and they’re dumb as rocks. Either way, they need to be called on the BS, and put out of power.

    When you look at the antecedents to all too many of our problems, it comes down to a failure of transmitting and spreading the functional features of our culture.

    Look at Detroit–At the turn of the 19th Century, Detroit was an incredible city, fully functional, and the residents were the workers and managers who turned that region into the industrial powerhouse of these United States. By the 1960s, however, the signs were there that the entire city was no longer functioning as it did, and the reason for that was that the people who’d been there running things were dead and gone. I’ve got a family picture album we inherited from friends of ours, that recorded the whole nightmarish descent–In the 1920s, the pictures in the album showed neatly-kept neighborhoods full of mostly Eastern European-derived blue-collar workers, who took pride in their homes and yards. As the demographics changed, so did the neighborhoods, and the final set of pictures in that album show the hellscape that it became in the 1980s when our family friend went back to close out his grandmother’s home. It was a burned-out wreck by the 1990s, and a vacant lot by the 2000s.

    What, precisely, changed? What precipitated that whole destructive descent? The flowering beauty of the 1920s and even the Depression-era 1930s and post-WWII 1940s and 1950s simply vanished as if it never was, and all that really changed were the people and the culture that informed their conduct. Where there were proud blue-collar workers, by the 1970s and later it was all drug addicts and welfare recipients who casually vandalized anything that other people tried to take care of, which was what drove out the last of the now-elderly former residents as their children came in to evacuate them to safety.

    It wasn’t just demographics; most of the problem came in with a failure to uphold and maintain social standards. Those internally-migrated Southern blacks who made up the latter-day population could have been “brought up to standard” by the surrounding culture as they filtered in, but what actually happened was that everyone just looked the other way and held them to a lower standard that came to hold as their numbers grew. Was it pure racism, or something else?

    You want an answer for why things like Detroit happened, just look at the current homeless situation in Seattle. It won’t be more than a generation before the trendlines take that city down Detroit’s path, as the decent folk migrate away from the hellscape that is now downtown Seattle.

    Who wants to raise kids in a neighborhood where there’s human feces on the sidewalks, countless mentally ill homeless roaming and squatting everywhere, screaming obscenities at you, and festooning the parks with hypodermics? The tax base is going to leave, the functional population will follow, and then downtown Seattle will turn into a vast urban open-air mental hospital filled with the dregs of society, run by the mostly left-wing class of idiots who created the whole destructive cycle in the first damn place. Just like Detroit.

    The model is not sustainable, and where it will take cities like Seattle and San Francisco is down the same path that Detroit went on, decades back.

    Meanwhile, the rest of us will be working out how to maintain a functional civilization absent the social failures of the city. Either that, or we’re going to see the fall of civilization itself–Which I refuse to believe is dependent on cities to exist.

  9. Kirk: “it comes down to a failure of transmitting and spreading the functional features of our culture.”

    Kirk, we are in total agreement. It is the people who matter, not the architecture. I hope you did not take my pleasant surprise at what I saw in China as support for top-down Communist Party rule.

    We have all seen the photos of Detroit and Nagasaki, then and now, and wondered who really won the war? The important question in a democracy is — Why did we (us, you & me) allow this to happen? Why did we allow social dysfunction to run rampant? Is there any way to change course, short of a widespread meltdown in society?

  10. I’ll believe that this is going to make a lasting change in cities and population when I see it. How many times have we heard how the latest hurricane will permanently change coastal land use patterns. Exactly how many time has that actually happened?

    At best, there may be some lasting precautions put in place. The pols will simply announce that they have determined that it will never happen again and pray secretly that it doesn’t when they are in office. A few people will move most will forget about it.

    It’s actually pretty easy to think of why the incidence on LI is higher than Manhattan. That’s where all the little people live, like subway conductors and bus drivers that come into contact with thousands of people every day.

  11. suburbs are isolated, radically unsustainable places that are home to a public health crisis even in the best of times, because of their epidemic levels of traffic violence caused by the excessive driving suburbanites are forced to do because of bad urban planning.

    No one who writes like this should be allowed near any kind of authority. “Epidemic levels of traffic violence” — who is he kidding? To call that junk thought is to elevate it.

  12. New York City is sui generis. The notion that you can draw larger lessons from it in general and apply them to the country as a whole is ludicrous. And the “analysis” presented above is facile and lazy–of course you’d expect the outer boroughs and suburbs to have higher incidences of this virus–in NYC people who live “out there” aren’t driving into Manhattan–they’re on the trains that much longer, which gives them more chance to spread and catch it in the crowds.
    I expect NYC is in for hard times. The city and state are going to be absolutely crushed financially this year. They already had started to see effects of the SALT limitation. DiBlasio and his cronies are determined to destroy the functioning parts of the school system (which are predominantly full of Asian immigrant kids, compared to black/Hispanic kids). Cities have a massive amount of churn, and the hipster generation is going to leave as they have kids the same way all previous generations have. If the inflow reduces even slightly, they’re in trouble.
    Resiliency is going to have its moment now, after efficiency was the economic watchword for the past few generations. That’s going to mean more local. Cities have a place, but they aren’t, and can’t be, the be all and end all, that since one-person-one-vote they have been.

  13. It wasn’t just demographics; most of the problem came in with a failure to uphold and maintain social standards. Those internally-migrated Southern blacks who made up the latter-day population could have been “brought up to standard” by the surrounding culture as they filtered in, but what actually happened was that everyone just looked the other way and held them to a lower standard that came to hold as their numbers grew. Was it pure racism, or something else?<

    I had a bit of experience with some of those "southern blacks" as a child. A troll over at Althouse blog gave me a hard time about this but, when I was growing up in Chicago in the 40s and 50s we had a southern black nursemaid. This was pretty common in middle class families as you can see in old movies like "It's a Wonderful Life." She had been a nursemaid working for white families, first in the south, since she was 16. Her family owned property in Georgia. She enforced middle class standards on us kids althoghy she was not educated beyond basic literacy.

    The beginning of the demise of cities like Chicago and Detroit began before the LBJ "Great Society" but not long before. I left for college in 1956 and it was still a nice neighborhood. By 1962, it was declining but still livable. By 1967, my father had sold the family home and moved to an apartment after being attacked on the front porch by black teens. For several years the neighborhood had changed rapidly with "white flight." Some was the notorious real estate "black Busters" but it was also black teens vandalizing property. They would walk down the alley and break off branches of cherry trees we had had for years.

    That neighborhood is so dangerous now that Chicago blacks are leaving to move back south. I stopped one day to take a photo of my parents' home and the black owner came out to see who I was. He insisted on taking me for a tour and asked if I would send him photos of the days when we lived there. He wanted that middle class life we had had.

    The "Great Society" destroyed those cities as it created a huge black under class of "baby mommas" and gangs of fatherless boys. The white social workers and the black poverty pimps aided this destruction.

    I don't know New York aside from a few short visits.I think cities are going to be hit very hard by the results of this epidemic and the long history of misgovernance of such fools as de Blasio and Lightfoot in Chicago

  14. That is an intriguing set of comments already, nice job, everyone.

    I see three lines of conversation to expand on. Kirk started one on the social aspects of life more generally, and there’s a lot of instructive followup, and mostly staying mannerly. Perhaps I should get that post I’ve been ruminating about on the “bourgeois shift” that several comments seem to be hinting at. Think about this: the mainstream business culture of the United States was resilient to hippies (OK, not precise social science jargon, but bear with me) and traditional Chinese norms struck a couple of observers as resilient to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (I’m old, deal with it!) On the other hand, the honor cultures of the poorer quarters (see Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals) has been less so and it’s possible that intellectuals deconstructing stuff in a way that would be fine in the common room but less so put into policy without running any controlled experiments first didn’t help. I’ve only been fighting that battle for going on thirty years. It might not have been given to me to finish the task …

    Then there’s the thread David Foster started, which really repeats a conversation he and Dave Tufte of Southern Utah got into last December. (Isn’t emergence wonderful, here I was writing about a simulated bridge game and a macroeconomics workshop broke out. Go there for the long form, and scroll to the comments. If I messed up the bidding, it’s OK to call me out on that, too.) The shorter form is, yes, the National Income and Product Accounts and the Annual Survey of Manufactures attempt to measure value added on a regional basis. The cities look more productive first out of sheer numbers, individual saloons and nail salons and the lot add up, and second, as the capital consumption allowances ultimately get back to the financial sector somehow. (Sorry, I was mostly doing Divisia indices of the quality of labor, stratified by sex, age, education, experience, and industry in those days. Somebody else did the capital.)

    As far as that dispatching center, the train crews might suggest its product is negative. The road guys refer to the “train delayer.”

    Then Assistant Village Idiot raises a very useful point: any truly useless way of existence probably would have been selected against long ago. The broader culture might favor extroverts, but without introverts to serve as balance wheels … Likewise, the cities might be good places for ideas to have sex (and for younger people to find sex) but without refuges to serve as balance wheels …

    Thanks again for all your remarks, there might be more stuff to come, although I find that bashing metal in my workshop is a more productive way to pass the shutdown away. Stay safe.

  15. “…we may now be witnessing the outlines of a new, and necessary, dispersion of population,…”

    Great. More mandatory Section 8 housing in the suburbs.

  16. My previous snarky comment aside, a few observations:

    1. We stopped handing down a commonly-held culture primarily because the schools stopped doing it. “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Western Civ has got to go!” Well, the anti-American Left certainly got their way. Our schools used to be the major means for assimilating immigrants; we may not completely assimilate the first generation of immigrants, but we could catch their children in the schools and thus pass on our culture. Contrary to the Left’s mantra that “immigrants make America great,” the truth is that “assimilation made America great.”

    2. The majority no longer has a say in how far, and how fast, our culture changes. It used to be that fringe ideas and lifestyles were recognized as such, and stayed on society’s fringes. But the Left decided that if two or more people held a belief or practice, no matter how weird, then that belief would be re-packaged as “an equally viable alternative lifestyle” to be injected into the mainstream. They used the larger society’s belief in fairness and compassion against them, often resorting to judicial activism when they couldn’t get the voters to accept change at the ballot box (in fact, it’s now the default method).

    3. Thus, we no longer have a dominate culture; we have a bunch of separate sub-cultures living side by side, often in hostility. Contempt of other subcultures is in fact openly encouraged. Just look in the press for examples of the Red States versus the Clinton Archipelago, or the media’s and academia’s open hostility towards conservatives. This leads to the equation “Diversity + Proximity = War.” I honestly don’t know what the fix is.

  17. Much of what we are decrying here is essentially a “loss of functionality” in the social commons. I don’t much care what you get up to in your bedroom, or which Slot “B” you are inserting your Tab “A” into, but I do give a damn when your private proclivities and perversions (weighted term used deliberately…) leak out into the public spaces. You want acceptance and tolerance, there are concomitant obligations incurred to get them–Namely, don’t frighten the horses or wave your freak-flag out in front of the kids.

    This operates across the board, and not just in the matters of sexual mores and values–Which, like it or not, leak out into the public sphere of impact. Sure, you may be just fine having consensual sex with everything that moves, and they’re OK with it, but I’m not OK with having to pay the social costs for raising the resultant screwed-up bastard kids and dealing with the accompanying STDs that proliferate in the wake of your “enlightened sexual values”. You want to keep playing those games, you keep your community policed, the STDs within it, and you deal with the repercussions. Same-same with things like the African-American crime rates–You’re fine with the young male junkies and hoodlums doing their thing uninhibited inside your communities? Fine; keep them there, and make sure that they don’t prey on outsiders. Can’t (or, won’t…) do that? Guess what happens next?

    The social theorists who’ve held sway for the last many generations need to be supplanted by men and women who both operate empirically and pay attention to the actual effects of their policies. We’ve loosened up on criminal enforcement and prosecution, only to see an increase in criminality? Then quit f**king doing that. Crank up the enforcement and prosecute the hell out of criminals until they get the conditioning to quit being criminals, and if they can’t manage that, lock them the hell up away from society.

    Wringing hands and bleeding hearts are totally useless when it comes to doing things and solving problems. You want peaceful communities and the rule of law? Note well the way in which these things have been accomplished in the past, and recognize that the only thing that works, regrettable as it may be, is draconian enforcement. Ignore the various Scandinavian ideals, as they are dealing with an entirely different set of cultures and value systems–You try to do the “enlightened reform” with many of the criminal elements present in other regions, and all you’re going to do is ensure that there will be more innocent victims. Put a bullet into the back of their heads, and guess what? The cycle stops. Enlightened values really only work with those who are already at least partially enlightened–You try to speak of the “Golden Rule” to a young thug who has been indoctrinated since birth that might makes right, and that every member of an out-group from his own is his rightful prey, about all you’re going to do is get a few laughs out of him as you try to “reform” him. Reformation is not possible in a lot of these cases, but the fact is that the current lot of Polly-Anna types fail to follow through and honestly evaluate the effect of their efforts. If it doesn’t work, try something else–Don’t try what already didn’t work a second, third, and fourth time. Dude wants to remain a hopeless vagrant drunk? Fine; quit enabling his ass, cut off his benefits check, and let the stupid, lazy bastard freeze to death this next winter. You get these types because you keep enabling their dysfunction, whether you’re talking the criminal or the vagrant. If they pay the real consequences for their actions, they’ll either quit doing what they’re doing, or they’ll die. Either way, it’s a lot better for society as a whole if you quit trying to fence them off from consequence.

    To be quite honest, the real crisis we have is that of accountability and consequence. We shield everyone from both of these–Note well the fact that the FBI has yet to see a single prosecution or even real censure for what it has been doing with the FISA courts. It’s the same all the way down the line–Nobody pays the price, nobody is held accountable. There are no consequences–If you’re a shiftless vagrant, living on the dole and drinking your life away, nobody will tell you that you’re f**ked up and cut off your money, ‘cos that would “lack compassion”. Likewise, nobody censures assclowns like Comey, or questions why there aren’t dozens of high-up FBI agents and administrators dangling from gallows for the FISA BS. Who was held accountable for Fast and Furious? Who, among the perfumed princes of the Pentagon, has been held truly accountable for the incompetence and malfeasance of Afghanistan, where we’re essentially paying the Pakis to pay the Taliban to kill our troops?

    There’s no accountability, and no responsibility any more. Everything is consequence-free, at all levels in society. The various and sundry malefactors are arrogant in their shamelessness, displaying their crimes in public–And, perhaps, worse yet: The public does not pillory these creatures, either.

    We get the sort of government we deserve, in the end. Which is why I fear the future, because we’ve lost our f**king minds, along with the morality necessary to remain citizens at liberty in a free Republic.

  18. “Both urban and rural-centric commentary seems to always include a subtext not quite acknowledged by the authors. “I really like living in the city/country and you should too. I like the excitement/realness. You must not like excitement/realness if you don’t want to live like me. It’s a superior way to live. ” Once one appreciates that this is behind much of what is written, it becomes apparent that the supposedly intellectual arguments are largely rationalisations.”

    This is perhaps your favourite posit. Of course it wears many clothes, but its your main argument in so many cases. To sow dissent is a very common practice, but not very useful to anyone outside of your own little group.

    Of course people live where they want if they have a choice, and the reasons they have for doing this are many.

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