The Future of American Cities, Part 1

During roughly twenty years from 1970 to 1990, American cities went into sharp decline. The migration of African-Americans from the south to northern cities resulted in white flight and the creation of inner city ghettoes. In the late '70s and early '80s there were protracted recessions that diminished tax revenues and drove some cities into virtual or actual bankruptcy. Meanwhile, urban planning in the mid-20th century privileged the automobile and big stores and stadiums and lots of parking and no residents and massive housing projects for the poor. All of this led to downtowns that were like ghost-towns after dark, and neighborhoods that were riddled with crime. The middle class fled along with many jobs, leaving the poor neighborhoods even poorer. Cities were polarized into poor non-white centers and affluent white suburbs.

However, for the last twenty years, since 1990, American cities have experienced an amazing renaissance. During this time many cities' population declines have reversed or at least slowed. People began moving back into cities in droves, and downtown/center cities began to regenerate at their cores. Why? First, during this time the U.S. experienced remarkable economic growth and what now is being called a series of economic "bubbles." This created a great deal of new wealth and new jobs. Second, crime went down in cities, probably for reasons both liberals and conservatives talked about (job creation, tougher law enforcement). Third, the cultural mood became what we now call "post-modern," that is a culture which enjoys eclecticism, a mixture of the old and new, asymmetry, messiness and unmanageability, cultural diversity, and the artistic. All of these are features of city-life rather than the suburbs, which are much more controlled and homogeneous. Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, changes in immigration law in 1965 (the Hart-Celler Act) opened the door to an influx from non-European nations. Between 1965 and 1970 U.S. immigration doubled and then from 1970 to 1990 it doubled again. Most of this wave of immigrants went into America's cities, renewing and diversifying many neighborhoods. It also completely changed the older, gridlocked, binary black-white dynamic of urban politics to a far more complex, multi-polar situation of many ethnicities and nationalities.

As a result many American cities began to surge. New professional-class neighborhoods developed along with working class and poor ones. Sometimes the gentrification was more destructive and disruptive to the social fabric, while other times it was more healthy. The main new residents in this upsurge included empty-nest Boomers returning to cities, young professionals seeking cities to live and work in, and a wave of immigrants in inner city neighborhoods and inner suburbs that produced second-generation college graduates who moved in to the center city to live and work. These groups joined the communities of homosexuals and artists who have always chosen urban communities to live in.

Our church was founded at the very beginning of this renaissance, in 1989. At that time, moving into the center city to begin a church seemed to be a fool's errand. The year we moved to New York City, a survey came out indicating that most of the residents of NYC would move away if they could. Those were bad times! Yet, within a few years of our founding, I began to get calls from churches, denominations, and leaders who had begun to notice the renaissance in nearby cities. They realized that it was time to plant churches to reach all of these new residential communities.

But twenty years later, we have reached the end of an era. The Great Recession is upon us, and even if it has officially ended—or has it?—we expect a protracted time of high unemployment and fitful, sluggish economic growth. This same kind of economic environment in the 70s and 80s was destructive for cities. The question for us now is, what lies ahead for American cities?