How do we avoid another Trump?
We bring the racists in. Literally.
America has a structural problem. And by that, I mean we have a problem with our physical structures. We have not built enough urban housing, and the effects have been catastrophic.
When we say there are “two Americas”, this is more than a metaphor. These places exist physically, in every state. It is not red states versus blue states. The divide is between urban and rural.
We have chronically under-built housing in and around our booming cities for decades. The effects of this spill out into almost every problem America faces. Culturally, racially, and economically, we have become more physically segregated.
The future is cities. They offer more economic opportunities. They are more environmentally sound. They force us to become more comfortable with difference. Urban migration is a dominant force of our era. And we have been fighting it tooth and nail.
We must create enough housing to make this urban future available for everyone. Either we stop living in isolation with like-minded neighbors or this country will break.
My pet theory is that Donald Trump won because we left too many people out in rural America, bereft of economic opportunities, social support and political power. If they had been able to move to cities decades ago, many would have. The vote was decided by fewer the 75,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. If those people lived in cities, they would not have voted for Donald Trump.
I’m not saying that Trump supporters secretly want to move to cities. I’m saying cities are our engines of economic growth, and people generally move for economic opportunity. And when they come to the city, the city changes them. People in cities simply don’t vote for racists.
Whatever your theory of Hillary’s loss, the only long term solution is to bring young, white, rural people into our cities. If we don’t, we will watch another generation of white Americans pushed down the ladder of social mobility and become varying degrees of ignorant, isolated, bitter, and bigoted.
How do we bring them in? It’s time to urbanize our transit rich (and plain old rich) neighborhoods and suburbs. It’s time to build a lot more housing.
Since the 90’s, we have seen vibrancy returning to our major cities. Crime has been falling, and more people than ever seek the growing opportunities of urban life. Most visibly, white people have been drawn to the fast-paced, culturally diverse booming cities. These cities offer greater social mobility and economic opportunity, and almost everyone wants in.
If there had been room, this would be the end of the segregation story. As white flight reversed, the young whites (and Asians) with varying education levels and incomes could have filtered into pre-existing communities, integrating rather than displacing.
In growing cities, the spending power and entrepreneurial energy that these newcomers brought would have been welcome. They would have eaten at ethnically diverse local mom-and-pop restaurants. New trendy bars would have opened next to old neighborhood favorites. Many of their kids would have gone to local public schools. Everyone would have benefited from racially and culturally diverse classrooms. Their parents’ tax dollars would have improved city services of all kinds.
Our city lives — the lives of transplanted twenty-and-thirty-somethings AND those of prior existing neighborhood communities — would have become intertwined. Our cities could have become a rich patchwork, rather than a zero-sum battlefield of exclusion. There was a dream of a better life for ourselves and our neighbors. Integration was possible. We could have grown together.
But that is not what happened. And that this did not happen is the great tragedy of our time.
Sure, we built a little in the cities. A few gaudy condo towers, a few hacker dorms. But it wasn’t nearly enough. We constrained most growth to a restricted downtown area. And landlords harvested the spike in rents like 49ers panning for gold.
We didn’t build in our neighborhoods and transit-connected suburbs. Instead of densifying existing neighborhoods, we built more and more sprawling suburban subdivisions out farther and father from our urban centers. In places ranging from the Richmond District to Palo Alto, we had laws that kept infill development from taking place. And we only strengthened them. The politicians, elected by those communities, “protected” those communities from newcomers.
In a massive ring around our booming downtowns, we tamped down on housing growth with restrictive zoning policies and endless permitting processes. Homeowners legislated a fixed image of “neighborhood character” and increased their own property values. We’ve focused so much on turning neighborhoods into museums of preservation that we emptied cities of all but those who can afford the price of admission.
The results have been catastrophic. For decades, we watched gentrification create displacement. We watched newcomers push out existing families. We watched a growing population fight over pieces of a pie that refused to grow. There were pie preservationists, but few bakers. The slices became smaller, and the price of pie skyrocketed.
Incomes rose and dipped, but the rent always went up. It was an endless march, higher and higher. The demand for urban life continued to grow, but the supply of urban homes and apartments refused to grow.
More and more young people woke to idea that the suburbs and a car-centric lifestyle were depressing and isolating. The populations that had always sought refuge in cities (the LGBT community, new immigrants, eccentrics, and minorities of all kinds) were now joined by people who fundamentally wanted diverse neighbors. These newcomers wanted city life. They wanted art and culture, variety and quirkiness. They moved into neighborhoods full of people who were different from those they had grown up around.
To their horror, they discovered that their mere presence caused someone else to be pushed out. The word of the day was Gentrification. They were Yuppie Scum and they were not welcome.
Existing populations were under siege. Any improvement to their neighborhood was offset by the dramatic increase in the cost of housing. In a very rational way, they learned to fear “good” things coming to their neighborhoods. They knew that these improvements would not be for them. Without room to grow, it was only a matter of time before their landlord would hike the rent and force them out.
And the pie refused to grow.
Those who carry the banners of “preserving neighborhood character” are not so different from those that wear the caps of “Make America Great Again.” They scorn change, with misplaced nostalgia and destructive consequences. The mostly white homeowners continue to “protect” their neighborhoods. The ring of single family homes around our booming downtowns has become a noose.
They did not want things to change. They bought homes in a community that looked a certain way. It was an unwritten promise that this was how it would always be. So they worked to make it a legally written promise. Zoning laws promised things would not change, and local government would enforce the status quo.
These suburban and semi-urban people mostly identified as liberal. They wanted all the benefits of being close to the city, but none of the costs. They formed local governments pliable to their local interests: keeping transit out, paying for schools only their children could attend, and keeping density so low that none of the riff-raff could move in. Fundamentally, they didn’t like the “dirty” downtown. And they worked hard to keep density low.
So the pie refused to grow.
A strange compromise was forged between the city and the suburbs. They would allow offices out in the sprawl, where most of the elite workforce now refused to live. “Reverse-commuting” became a thing. Where before the ideal lifestyle was a home in the suburbs and a job in the city, now we had flipped that on its head. The buses would take them into the sprawl, and home to their city apartment at night, where they argued with their roommates over whose turn it was to do dishes.
Without new housing in existing neighborhoods, segregation got worse. That filtered into our schools, where children often had all-white or all-minority classrooms. Without firsthand knowledge of other cultures, our ability to understand and speak with one another got worse.
In many rural areas of the country, the future seemed empty. Nostalgia crept in. Everything seemed to be getting worse, and so it was time to go back. “They” must be to blame. Bitterness calcified into rage. Ignorance became hatred.
In cities, poor and minority communities are under the greatest pressure. Our top performing cities have become insanely expensive, so the prosperity available there is increasingly out of reach or sucked away in rent. An eviction from an urban apartment becomes a horrific, cataclysmic event because there is nowhere to go.
In our booming cities, there is no equivalent place, just down the block, close enough that they can still get to work. That is why so many activists say Eviction = Death. Too often, this is literally the case.
Meanwhile, their neighbors, the mostly white and Asian transplants, are at a loss. They love their new city; they love their new and diverse neighborhoods. They can’t imagine going back to the sprawl and relying on cars again. Most don’t think about it, or decide it’s not their fault. They push back on the personal accusations; they’re just living their lives. After all, they’re paying high rents, too.
And the pie still refuses to grow.
The suburban and semi-urban homeowners live in a ring around our most desirable downtowns. With their political power and local control, they have a stranglehold on our economy and our future.
They argue that low density zoning maintains “neighborhood character.” They argue that everything is changing too fast. They argue that they are “protecting” working class families. They argue that they are standing up against profit-hungry developers who want to destroy their communities. They argue that their neighborhood is unique and special and it should stay that way. They argue the their local needs should come first.
And they are deaf to the cries of all the people beating at their gates.
But the future is cities. And cities aren’t about buildings. Cities are about the cultures and people they support. The only solution is to create enough housing so that this future is available for everyone.
When I say we must bring the racists in, I am not speaking metaphorically. We must literally bring them in. People living in rural bubbles almost never meet or spend time around people who are different from them. That ignorance often calcifies and becomes a right wing, fascist, xenophobic, hatred.
What happens to a person when they join a city? Day after day, in large and small ways, they see people who are different from them. Experience creates tolerance. Cities get into peoples’ souls.
It isn’t easy. Integration is full of challenging, sometimes horrible, interactions. But we grow as a society from these experiences. It doesn’t happen all at once. Racism and xenophobia are deeply ingrained in our society. But the only way out is through.
Urban integration is a moral imperative, now more than ever.
We must make enough room for all the refugees from Trump’s America. We must be Sanctuary Cities for every kind of immigrant. We need enough housing for the LGBT teenagers and every other population feeling vulnerable out there right now. And more. We must allow everyone to join the growing economies of our cities. We must fundamentally open the gates.
This growth cannot be restricted to our booming downtowns. It is time to urbanize our neighborhoods and transit connected suburbs. No more excuses. No more delays. No more hyper-local interest groups thwarting the general good.
There are plenty of low-skilled jobs in our cities. Low-skilled young people of all stripes can still come and get jobs in the vibrant restaurants and boutiques of our booming cities. Together they find a new ideology of social justice. They create new culture and art. Maybe they’ll become a manager or start a theater group. Eventually they start a small business of their own. Something cool and real that everyone will love, and all the staff will have tattoos.
People migrate to where there is economic opportunity. Everything else is secondary. They will come because our top cities are calling to them, as they are calling to everyone. There is a life and a future here. All we need to do is make more rooms.