Urban America In A Different Light


You can still buy a $2 taco in San Francisco’s Mission District. But every year there are fewer of the ancient, fluorescent-lit taquerías that once defined dining in a Latino immigrant neighborhood, and exponentially more places for young, wealthy, tech-industry workers to buy a $15 fair trade organic chocolate bar, a $20 brunch entrée, or a $2 million condo.

In Center City Philadelphia, old-timers recently lamented the passing of yet another corner diner. “Goodbye, grilled cheese. Hello, $18 ramen,” my journalist friends joked bitterly, during the same month when luxury high rises were proposed to replace the city’s gritty, historic jewelry district.

And in Los Angeles, travelers who confined their visits to Beverly Hills and the West Side are discovering Jewish culture in parts of town where they wouldn’t have parked their car 20 years ago. Stylish lofts and ambitious restaurants are transforming L.A.’s long-neglected downtown, once known mostly for its homeless Skid Row.

All of these American places qualify, in the technical sense, as inner cities. But they are clearly not what the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump means when he used the term in recent debates — painting a nightmarish picture of violent, decaying ghettos that are unrecognizable to anyone who has set foot in America’s major metropolises lately.

For the record, this is not about whether I think Donald Trump should be president. It’s about a view of cities that is outdated, offensive, and has real consequences for the people who live in them, not to mention the tourism they rely on.

A half-century after middle-class families abandoned urban neighborhoods, the renaissance of American downtowns has been underway for a good two decades now, signaling a shift in the way we choose to live, work, socialize, eat and travel.

Yet I vividly remember the days after 9/11, when Republican lawmakers visited Manhattan and struggled to comprehend that the attacks destroyed not only corporate offices, but also the homes of American families. Our urban grid of high-rises and sidewalks didn’t look to them like a place where families live — at least not the affluent, white families they could relate to.

But of course all kinds of families do live here. And the failure to understand that so-called inner cities are real, vital American communities contributes to the ongoing and tragic neglect of urban infrastructure. Our big-city airports and subways are embarrassingly decrepit compared to their counterparts in far less wealthy nations; our commuter trains crash with alarming frequency, the result of underinvestment in public transit.

The dismissal of urban America goes well beyond lack of support for infrastructure. It extends to dismissal of the kinds of people who live in cities, which are historically more ethnically, racially and religiously diverse than the surrounding regions.

It’s worth noting that Jews, many of whom have felt targeted during this campaign by Trump supporters, are disproportionately likely to live in the metropolitan areas he disdains. Jews have been associated with city life for centuries, from the original Old World ghettos to the tenements of the Lower East Side.

The term “inner city” is often understood to mean black neighborhoods, of course. But in the case of Trump, it represents a galling condescension toward the city dwellers who don’t merit respect in his winner-take-all worldview — a worldview with exclusionary, throwback definitions of America and Americans.

Long after gentrification had taken hold, Hollywood perpetuated that throwback version of American cities to great profit. Brooklyn was already a hipster byword a dozen years ago when my new friend Guido, a Dutchman in Barcelona, still conjured up images of gangs and ghettos at the mention of my hometown. “You really live in Brooklyn?” he asked in evident disbelief. “Aren’t you afraid of getting shot?”

That bullet-flying scenario is one Trump described recently, though New York has been America’s safest large city for more than a decade. To his credit, Guido had an open mind, and when he visited me in Park Slope, he ate humble pie along with his cheesecake, safely bar-hopping on Smith Street and frolicking on bullet-free Brighton Beach.

None of this is to deny that poverty, crime and violence remain problems for many urban neighborhoods. But as I pointed out on Twitter recently, many of the “inner” cities I visit these days — Manhattan, San Francisco, Hollywood, New Orleans — are zones for bidding wars more frequently than drug wars. We can argue about the pros and cons of gentrification, but it’s undeniable that safe neighborhoods with lively streets, attractive parks and myriad dining options are a positive development.

Anyone who still fears “inner” cities surely needs to travel more.