Having always been a fan of the Dying Earth subgenre of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, I am surprised at how emphatically I am not a fan of the Dying City subgenre of non-fiction. By now we have all seen enough pictures of Rust Belt urban decay, prairies springing up through concrete, and abandoned buildings to choke a camel. Having not been to the city in nearly seven years, I nonetheless feel confident that I could identify most of Detroit's derelict landmarks (Look, it's the train station! Look, it's that old Packard factory!) simply through sheer repetition and their omnipresence as stock photos (and lazy narrative devices) in that Feature Story on the death of a city that we have all read so many times. Maybe as a native Midwesterner this tale of urban decay hits too close to home for me to enjoy it as though I am an impersonal observer or a hipster faux-anthropologist. Or maybe it is a peephole into a world of intertwined social, political, cultural, and economic problems so overwhelming and depressing that even I can't handle thinking about them for too long.
Cities like Cleveland and Detroit appear to have entered the terminal stage of their decline, a self-reinforcing cycle of population loss, crime, blight, and white flight that sends cities into a torpor from which they do not recover. Detroit is resorting to turning off the streetlights in an attempt to auto-amputate the most thinly populated parts of the city – a not-so-subtle way of doing what eminent domain and rampant decay cannot, namely to force the few remaining residents out of neighborhoods that are 75% vacant or more. Detroit gets the most attention but certainly it is not alone. This is a problem everywhere, particularly in the large, older cities of the Midwest and Northeast but also in the logging and mining towns of the West, the depopulated rural South, and points in between. Yet we find it most compelling to watch the big, once-magnificent cities crumble.
What is happening to the Detroits and Clevelands reveals two particularly jarring realities about America and Americans. First, our cities are not built to last. Look at how quickly these things go to rot. During the height of the housing boom, we saw entire developments in places like Florida and Arizona – remember, we're talking about new housing here – rendered uninhabitable almost immediately upon being neglected. Suburban housing is designed by speculators to look pretty but at its core is slapped together in great haste and is built to last just long enough for the developer to cash his checks. The landmarks of a city like Detroit, not to mention its housing, retail, infrastructure, and so on, are remarkably frail as well. A big urban train station might look mighty and imposing, but it takes just a few short years to turn them into eyesores of dubious structural integrity.
The rapid disintegration of neglected cities leads into the second reality: Americans treat cities as disposable, much as we treat so many things in our lives. Can you imagine the British letting London rot? Can you picture the French saying "Ah, fuck it, let's move to the suburbs" and abandoning Paris? Would the Russians walk away from Moscow? Of course they wouldn't. In other countries, the government, people, and private sector work together to try to save major cities, even past the point at which it makes sense to do so. Here, we just defer to the unerring logic of the Free Market and build another subdivision. Oh, people are leaving your city? Well then it must suck. If it didn't suck people would stay there. In this way we treat cities like businesses – Come to think of it, what don't we treat like a business? – and the ones that fail, well, I guess they couldn't hack it. Adios.
Why do other countries fight to save their cities while we abandon them for illogical, thrown-together suburbs that we will also end up abandoning? There are a few theories we can consider. Perhaps the Eurasian sense of history simply runs deeper – the oldest American cities are about two centuries old, and in many cases much younger. Around the world the history of major cities is more likely to be measured in thousands of years. Perhaps Americans have done too much rhapsodizing about the yeoman farmer and the rural landscape to develop a true attachment to our urban centers. Perhaps we honestly believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that sprawling suburbs laced with strip malls and highways that scar the landscape like acne genuinely are a better mode of living.
Those theories are plausible. But I think it boils down, as it so often does, to our hatred of all things dark and poor.
When cities begin to lose some of their luster – or, say, when the government invests trillions dollars into a highway system that quickly whisks people from bedroom suburbs to urban employment and back, not to mention trillions more invested in land development and home mortgage lending – the first to flee are those most able to do so. As people with the means to move to newer, more expensive, and less "troubled" communities, the city ends up disproportionately populated by people who can't move…either due to poverty or due to those shiny new suburban communities' habit of keeping out the dark-skinned by any means necessary. As the problems of the cities intensify, the will of people beyond their borders to intervene disappears. "They" are just animals anyway. Look at how They ruined that once beautiful city.
Maybe if our cities had more history or a more prominent place in our cultural fabric we would fight for them rather than treating them like a soiled disposable diaper. Or maybe we don't care about them for the usual reasons that we use to identify who the government and our society should and should not fight to protect. When we redefine the city as places for the Negroes, the unwashed poor, the immigrants with their barbarian tongues, "union thugs", and meddling liberals, it does not take a very thorough understanding of American politics and society to recognize why we are letting them rot, and in some cases fighting to accelerate the process, rather than fighting to save them.