Monday, August 28, 2017

I'm a City Dweller

I woke up living in an apartment building for the first time in my life. (I'd previously woken up in apartment buildings, but did not live in them.) Having spent most of my life in the suburbs and my high school years having envy for my friends' access to public transit, this is an interesting moment for me. I've always admired cities, and the moment has had me reflect on my place in one.

It had me thinking about cities and what I've read and learned about them. In college I did a program called FOCUS on New Haven that introduced us to urban politics and then took a course on New Haven and American cities based off the book City: Urbanism and Its End. There's a lot more to learn from reading about New Haven than many people think. Its history has a rare degree of historical documentation given the presence of Yale. It typifies the history of many formerly great American cities, going from a geographically blessed religious haven to an industrial behemoth (in this case guns and cotton gins) with a thriving arts scene and machine politics to a city mired in racial tumult and failed urban renewal programs to, now, an increasingly gentrified city buoyed by "meds and eds." I guess I'm part of this last wave, though I wish in lieu of segregation or gentrification cities could have genuine racial equity.

The Working Families Party took the Bridgeport Board of Education by storm when I was teaching, prompting a showdown with the more corporate, charter-friendly superintendent and school administration.
I never was particularly enthralled by urban politics until I started reading more about how many global problems really come down to local arrangements. I first saw this as a teacher in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where I was witness to the intense wars raging over education with children and their families in the center of it. Money, power, politics, and systemic racism all appear in striking form. You can read the story from the hopeful first day of school to the decline and scandal at the school.

I still struggle to understand what created the problems I saw in Bridgeport. The best explanations I can see all center on the racism at the core of American cities. This American Life captures the problem of school segregation in "The Problem We All Live With" and Ta-Nehisi Coates nails residential segregation and the concentration of poverty and oppression in black neighborhoods in "The Case for Reparations". Many other policies, from education reform to urban renewal efforts, are piecemeal attempts to get around the real problems of structural racism and generational poverty.

I see cities, though, as ultimately places of hope: places where, often, problems do get worked out. Steven Pinker discusses how the coming together of different people in cities has driven many declines in violence in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Cities are the places where social change tends to happen. There's salons during the Enlightenment era, labor movements in the 19th century, the Castro district in the gay rights movement, and the births of everything from recycling to prohibitions on smoking. I want to live a life of creating change, now and in the future, and cities more than anywhere else symbolize change.

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