Hope for Cities or Just Developers?

Looking northeast at soon to work LinkNYC station

soon to work LinkNYC station

New Orleans   It seems like cities are starting to get more attention, and if that’s true, that’s a good thing, but reading a recent special feature on cities, it’s not something without contradictions and concerns. This is true especially if you try to figure out where low-and-moderate income families and minorities fit into the coming profiles of the future. In some ways they just are not in the picture at least the one offered in the main from the New York Times, and this despite a recent feature in the same paper that talked flatly of the almost irreversible “whitening” of San Francisco where high housing costs and extreme inequality is leeching out the African-American community.

Part of the premise of some of the new hope for cities from the pundits and professors is the world seen dimly through the grim view from the suburbs. There is finally a consensus that cities are “safer,” which means they are ready to come back in again. Once again the question of “safer” for whom is unavoidable, but facts are facts, so we’ll ignore the bias for a moment. The same lens from the Trumpistas has all of us drowning in crime and gore in the urban space without being accompanied by the full disclosure that many of the zealots have done little more than drive quickly through cities for years, do their business, and leave before nightfall.

Unfortunately, reading the various pieces it was hard to feel comfortable about these new twists on urban revival. First of course there are huge, glaring omissions already mentioned, but followed quickly behind is the realization that the dominant perspective is not people-oriented really, but more developer promotions.

The examples of innovations are telling. There’s LinkNYC which would replace all remaining public telephone booths in New York City with wifi enabled terminals that can do tricks like recharge smartphones faster. Not surprisingly, this is paid for by tech companies and digital ads that will be on the booths, an expropriation of a public utility, and of course forget about lower income folks who still need those pay phones. There’s an apartment & condo complex in Austin and billionaire-driven building developments in Seattle that are at best ho-hum, but here are passed off as part of “remaking the modern cities.” There’s a story of Reno hoping to be Seattle and Kansas City about to have a “the largest co-working space in the world,” which is neoliberal, developer speak for building a monument to the gig economy and the decline of fulltime, firm-based employment.

The exceptions prove the rule in this parallax view of urban development and the modern dilemmas of the city. There is a piece on the rightly well-publicized and highly touted repurposing of a bank on Chicago’s South Side by Theaster Gates, Jr. in a celebration of black culture and an indictment of racism in the 97% African-American community there. There is also a discussion with an architect of the development of public space, which cannot paper over his conclusion that there is little and less being done.

The unaddressed problem is inescapable: where are the people – all the people – and what is being done to make a better place in the city for them and not just for young, white professionals and tech workers so many of these cities desire.

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