“Republicans to Cities: Drop Dead.” It was a brilliant headline that opened last Sunday’s New York Times op-ed section. It reminded readers of the New York Daily News’s famous interpretation of President Ford’s refusal to help their town during the 1975 fiscal crisis. The accompanying article by Kevin Baker points out that the Republican party seems to have abandoned urban cores to the Democrats, preferring to stake out rural, semirural, suburban, and exurban territories. As those have been the areas of substantial growth, that might not be a bad idea. But as Baker points out toward the end of the article, the suburbs are changing, and they might not be safe Republican hunting grounds for much longer.
What I think Baker misses is that there is an underlying logic to the grounding of a political split in physical territory. (Fair warning: I, in general, support Democratic candidates.) Cities can only exist through the continual presence of a great deal of infrastructure that is visible. Mass transportation, cops on the beat, utilities, and everything that lets people live in such close quarters is necessary and in your face. Equally visible are both the rich and the poor, and thus the contrast between them. It is clear why government is necessary, and that we live in a society of contrasts in which we all have to get along—and perhaps even help each other.
In the suburbs, much is invisible. The only large-scale infrastructure you tend to see are the highways that get you to where you live. Mass transit is not very present in most cases, and many developments pay for their own utilities. Cops cruise around in cars, and even their work is often outsourced these days. The poor are not readily visible unless you go closer to town or to older suburbs, and the rich hide in their McMansions. In a more fundamental sense, the choices we have made to continue to subsidize private home ownership and not much else, remains invisible. The suburbs would not have existed to the extent that they do without the massive amounts of money we put into everything from electrification to highways, but the bulk of that investment is now merely a fact on the ground.
Equally unseen are the natural resources that it takes to heat and cool the homes in isolation; the gas it takes to move between office, store, school, club, and home. Waste disappears somewhere else. Watersheds, forests, fields, and the open spaces of which we still sing in America the Beautiful also disappear.
To a certain extent, the suburbs exist through smoke-and-mirror tricks. They pretend to be real places, throwing up smoke screens of domesticity, historical styles, and connection, while mirroring each other in sameness and hiding divisions, fissures, and reality. They are a dream of living with nature, with all of the modern conveniences and none of the pesky neighbors.
In cities, a lot of these issues are in your face, in the form of everything from smog to shadows from large buildings, and from contrasts between old and new to competing visions of what will make the city better or merely bigger. A good city works a bit like Oz, using its own magic to make us forget these facts, but rarely can we do so for long. We live in real cities, not in Woody Allen’s version of them. The reality is that we live in a democracy, and a messy one at that, in which we have to be mindful of others and our resources. Out in the Jeffersonian grid, it is every man and woman for him- and herself—and there, the republic dissolves into isolation. I believe that the Republicans have chosen that territory, both in a physical and in a social sense, while (most) Democrats choose to both face the reality of our urban core and to rely on the energy of its diversity.