Megan is skeptical that cities can outlast the crisis. Crime will get worse, she fears, tax revenues will shrink, and middle class families will once again head for the ‘burbs. Ta-Nehisi (and many of his commenters) say economics favors big cities, especially Gotham. Case in point: how expensive it (still) is to live in Manhattan. I side with Ta-Nehisi, especially on the question of New York City, for reasons I outlined here.
As an American living in Toronto, I’ve come to learn this is peculiarly American condition and conversation. Toronto is loaded with families: middle-class, working class, upper-class, immigrant, and Canadian-born; gay and straight; married and so on. Crime, violent crime at least, is relatively low; the public schools stellar by American standards. I live downtown in a largely residential neighborhood loaded with middle-class families, of roughly the same demographic that would live in, say, Bethesda or somewhere like it. Toronto provides a workable model of an “urban family land” – which stands in sharp relief to the barbell demography of American cities which divide into the young (singles and “strollerville” couples) on the one hand and empty-nesters on the other.
This missing middle is less a problem for America’s biggest and best cities. Places like New York and San Francisco have shown they can function without a large contingent of families. But it poses a looming problem for American competitiveness. It means America’s leading metro centers remain, by definition, considerably more stretched out. In an era where density and talent clustering are key drivers of innovation and economic prosperity, this may ultimately prove a significant competitive disadvantage for the nation as a whole, even as its biggest cities continue to fare relatively well.