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Cities can’t win. When they do well, people resent them as citadels of inequality; when they do badly, they are cesspools of hopelessness. In the seventies and eighties, the seemingly permanent urban crisis became the verdict that American civilization had passed on itself. Forty years later, cities mostly thrive, crime has been in vertiginous decline, the young cluster together in old neighborhoods, drinking more espresso per capita in Seattle than in Naples, while in San Francisco the demand for inner-city housing is so keen that one-bedroom apartments become scenes of civic conflict—and so big cities turn into hateful centers of self-absorbed privilege. We oscillate between “Taxi Driver” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” without arriving at a stable picture of something in between.
Has it ever been acceptable to regard a big city as admirable through and through? Maybe in books about Paris and London from around 1910 to the Second World War, and in books about New York in the years just after the Second World War, before the Dodgers moved and the big fractures began.
For the rest, whether it’s Victorian London or post-sixties New York, pop novels and scholarly urbanism are most often voiced in a tone of complaint or querulous warning. (The outlier is the architectural historian Reyner Banham’s 1971 “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” still the best book ever written about an American city, its happiness fuelled by an Englishman’s perversity: Everyone says L.A. sucks? I’ll show you it shines.) Nothing urban would be more likely to evoke disgust than a study promoting a benign picture of Bloomberg’s New York—even though, in reality, that city was relatively peaceful (and self-healing from the worst war wound in its history) and prosperous (if more and more unevenly so), with the parks restored or expanding and the subways so safe that they became crowded at two or three in the morning. Those of us who dreamed of the High Line as an improbable public benefit, and then saw it come true, had to accept that it would next become a subject of ridicule, as a cynical developer’s amenity, a green-tinted scam. […]