The Unapologetic City

“Bomb it.” “Bulldoze it.” “A Hurricane.”

For the past several years, Metroland’s Readers’ Poll has included a question about the best thing that could happen to each of the region’s cities. Invariably, a dozen or so people suggest doing away with various cities or city neighborhoods entirely, often in some violent fashion.

These flip comments are ignorant and dismissive of the people who actually live and work in Schenectady, Troy, Arbor Hill, etc., as Albany Councilwoman Barbara Smith noted in her recent letter [April 12]. But they also reveal a serious falsehood that undergirds most of America’s interactions with its struggling post-industrial cities: We think we could do just fine without them.

There are different flavors of this. There are the city-haters, who believe that it’s directly the fault of the people who live in them, or perhaps just their tacky and outmoded urbanness, that cities are losing jobs and people and have higher taxes and crime. They are generally racist, and usually scared to actually get out of their cars on a city street.

More interesting to me, though, is the attitudes of the people who are supposedly the most pro-city: the progressive urban planners, the people who’ve actually chosen to live in cities, the policy wonks who talk about how to revive cities. They can give you detailed, and accurate, accounts of how the cities have been “left behind” due to a combination of deindustrialization, racist housing regulations, environmental contamination, highway construction, and sprawl-inducing development policies. I have done so myself in this space. In this scenario, cities are described as places to be pitied and to be helped back on their feet because it’s the right thing to do, or possibly because otherwise their troubles will spread outward. At most, they can’t compete because the suburbs have all these unfair advantages.

This isn’t exactly wrong. But it’s partial, and it’s patronizing. It’s like the common attitudes about undocumented workers: They are either something to be reviled or to be pitied, but rarely talked about as an economic engine that allows the rest of us to buy cheap produce.

So let me say this baldly: Suburbs, even today, would be up a fiscal creek without a paddle without their center cities.

Consider: Cities contain a whole host of essential functions that are tax-exempt. They contain the lion’s share of a given region’s hospitals; universities; county government functions and courthouses; social services, from homeless shelters to crime-victim counseling and beyond; and cultural institutions, from theaters and museums to historic landmarks and parks. The entire region relies on these things being available, whether they make use of them directly or not.

This is true even for the most beaten-down cities. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb that bordered Newark, which is perhaps most famous for competing with Detroit for the title of Most Ravaged by the ‘60s Race Riots. In my town, anything bad that happened was blamed on people coming from Newark. We were a satellite of New York City and certainly didn’t feel we owed Newark anything. And yet, my school classes traveled to the Newark Museum regularly. Many of my classmates went on to study at Rutgers Law School or the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I researched high-school papers at Rutgers. We served on jury duty at the Essex County Courthouse, caught Amtrak at Newark Penn Station, and traveled into Beth Israel Hospital for specialized medical needs.

The same is true in the Capital Region. No matter how much you want to make fun of Schenectady, the residents of Scotia and Niskayuna—not to mention the rest of us—rely on having Ellis Hospital and Proctor’s and the Stockade and Union College and SCCC there.

Now, don’t get me wrong: It makes sense to have things like this concentrated in a central location, and they are good for the cities in many ways. My point is that while the benefits are shared, the costs are not. It is only the cities that have to deal with such a large percentage of their property being tax-exempt. (Some of these institutions do make “payments in lieu of taxes,” but that doesn’t fully erase the disparity.) If the ’burbs had a similar ratio of tax-exempt properties, they would find themselves facing a raise-taxes-or-lower-the-school- budget decision right quick.

But that’s not all. The cities also provide most of the affordable housing for the whole region—housing affordable to the people working low-paying retail jobs in our malls, caring for our elders in nursing homes, watching our children in day care. People without whom our economy would fall apart. They also offer housing that’s near public transit and therefore accessible to people who can’t afford a car and the many people who can’t drive for other reasons.

All this, of course, means that the cities have a higher concentration of people who need services and subsidies, be they disabled, poor, or elderly. And yet somehow, this always comes across as evidence of a city’s inherent weakness, and not something that’s relieving the rest of the region from having to pull its weight.

With this in mind, I was grimly amused to see that what was once called “revenue sharing” in New York, where the state redistributes some property taxes to make up for this disparity in tax bases, was renamed “Aid and Incentives to Municipalities” in 2005. Calling it “aid” makes it a voluntary, charitable thing, instead of a matter of fairness, and therefore perhaps easier to justify the fact that it has so frequently been slashed. Gov. Spitzer is increasing it; I’d love it if it he gave its old name back too.

Our financially struggling cities are underwriting the fiscal health of their suburbs. Step one in making stronger regions (which statistics show require strong cities) would be a thank you.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on May 3, 2007.)

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