"Party's Over" -- NYC subway, October 2008

"PARTYS OVER" graffiti, NYC subway, October 2008

The editor asked me to write more about NYC and less about national politics. So this is it.

We’ve all heard about the vices of city living: gangs, drugs, AIDS, high taxes, poor schools, crowded apartments, and no place to park. What are the virtues of urban living?

No cars. Though the price of gas seems to be falling, don’t think we’re going to get a return to cheap fuel like in the 80s and 90s. Peak oil is close to or on us, and in the next ten years cars will either have to get much more efficient, or they’ll be abandoned. Either way driving will be more expensive. The financial crisis is also hitting car makers close to home. Cars are a large capital investment, but the subways and rail lines are paid for. Moreover, the government can and will nationalize public transportation if necessary — just like they did the banks — because its a community good. Don’t expect them to nationalize your car, or, what amounts to the same thing, subsidize your investment in it. It’s just too costly for everyone to have that much unaccountable personal freedom on the public dime.

Improving schools. For almost 40 years cities have had to cope with declining schools due primarily to white flight. In the late 90s and throughout this decade whites from the suburbs moved back to the city, and the resulting gentrification has provided a push to rethink city schools. New York City instituted its teaching fellows program, and exciting experiements in charter schools prove that the city is a laboratory for innovation and growth. The next wave of democratic, high-quality education reform will start in the cities and move to the ‘burbs. This is a reversal of what was the norm for the late 20th century. 

Lower taxes — taken holistically. A central argument against cities in the late 20th century claimed that living in the city meant paying higher taxes for a lower quality of life. There is no denying this was true. The pastoral American fantasy that dominated late 20th century politics, enabled by cheap gas and the explosion of the suburbs, enabled policy makers to tax the wealthy and wealth producing cities to subsidize this rural fantasy. It was more important to keep up our Jeffersonian self-image than to implement wise policies. Part and parcel of this policy failure was the assumption that debt is no problem, and this policy from Reagan to Bush II has finally collapsed. When ballance is restored and the country/’burban folks who were living beyond their means can no longer afford their pastoral fantasy (because the government can no longer afford to subsidize it) they will be forced to move to the cities.  The tax base will shift back to its natural position: cities able to invest their taxes for themselves and not for rich ranchers in Wyoming.

More efficient living. Cities are more efficient living arrangements than suburbs. Jim Kunstler argues in the NY Times Freakonomics blog that cities are as inefficient as suburbs. He says that skyscrapers are as dependent on cheap energy as strip malls. I do not share this view. In his apocalytic scenario we all move to villages and small towns that are closer to sustainable, solar agriculture. While I agree that solar agriculture must replace petro-agriculture, if such a scenario comes to pass we will have to “scale back” growth (of cities and suburbs) to the point of negative growth. In human terms that means resources wars, desperate fighting over a greatly reduced playing field, and Mad Max style social disintegration. Famine, war, and most definitely no more blackberrys. It doesn’t have to be this way. Skyscrapers can be made more efficient than a village because they can scale the use of resources in a way that no pre-industrial village can. In fact, if we want to maintain our current population level people will be forced to live closer and more communally or they’ll starve. And you can’t get much closer to other people than in Manhattan.

This is the crux of urban virtues — living closer without killing each other. It’s what the Belgian/English thinker Chantal Mouffe calls “agonistic democracy”. In a city you learn how to take care of yourself and defend yourself — vigorously — without destroying the social fabric. Villages and towns, even nations, are able to indulge xenophobia and inefficient living because they are never confronted by an Other competing for resources. When competition finally comes, these people are unprepared. (Witness the implosion of the Republican party whose vigor has been vitiated by 20 years of success.) They are destroyed by conflict due to lack of practice. Because cities are in a constant flux of antagonism and alliance building, they are better prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.

As a post-script, the recent flame war on this blog is a perfect example of agonistic democracy. The city, and NYC in particular, is home to many strong and perhaps unpleasant personalities, political views, and egotisms. But in the process of fighting it out, down and dirty in the mud, the strengths and weaknesses of both sides become apparent, creating the possiblitity of synthesis and new, unpredicted alliances.