I am sitting in the San Antonio airport, waiting for my flight back home, reflecting on an excellent Values and Capitalism retreat here and–the subject of this blog–my walk yesterday. My goal was to walk to a bookstore about two miles from my downtown hotel. I had mapped it out using Googlemaps and set out for what I thought would be about a 20 minute trip one way. 37 minutes later I realized I had gone too far and had missed a turn. So I headed back without finding the bookstore (it turns out the map was right but the city has not labeled the street I was to turn onto). Well, so what? The story here is about what I observed about the city as a representative of many cities around the nation. And there are important lessons.
But first a bit of philosophy. Cities have historically helped fulfill our innate, God-created desire to live in society. Most people are not rugged individuals, wishing to live alone and be completely self-sufficient. Most of us know we cannot be self-sufficient. We need other people (just think here of the analogy of the church and the nature of it as a body with many individuals working for each other). Cities are a more temporal or mundane expression of that need for others, economically and politically, as well as just for a thriving civil society in which we associate voluntarily with others. The point is that cities are inevitable. But if so, it follows that they ought to thrive. Ideally, we ought to see a vital community life throughout a city. We ought to see low crime. We ought to see economic prosperity and opportunity for all, as their respective callings permit. We ought to see people free to pursue their callings to the best of their ability. Outwardly this would look like well-kep houses and neighborhoods, thriving shopping opportunities for businesses and consumers, churches of various kinds (hopefully Gospel-centered), united families of two traditional parents, and cultural opportunities for many age groups and talents. None of this, except basic government services such as law and order, courts, and genuinely public services, is required to be done by government to make for a thriving city. In fact, examples abound of cities that have actually made things worse, sometime much worse.
By the way it is worth noting that even in the end, we see that we will live in a city–a new and perfect city. But it is still a city with humans (wow! humans!). They will be perfected humans with a perfect God and everything else perfect. But it will still be a city. That says something about our social nature and the social community of the Trinity (think of the word “commune” as a root). So maybe this talk of cities is not so irrelevant after all.
What I saw in San Antonio was far from a worst-case scenario, but it did stimulate further reflection. First, I saw much too much “useless space,” especially near downtown. For examples, I walked past nice, relatively new, office buildings, but the space on the first floors was empty except during working hours and even closed to any outward facing activity (the AT&T building was like a giant tomb). No businesses, no shops, just emptiness, and, as a result, no people on the streets in those places. No people is no “eyes on the street” (Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities). No eyes on the street makes for a greater potential for crime and this in turn causes even fewer eyes on the street as people flee the area. The only place people want to walk at night is the River walk (and then only certain parts of it) and a few other small, clustered and preserved old shops
It also looked like urban renewal had occurred downtown. This and like programs have generally led to higher rents, driving away lower-rent but viable shops, and attracted only subsidized entities, which disappeared after the subsidies stopped. That left empty spaces even in buildings that were outfitted for shops, and just plain empty spaces that had been demolished but never rebuilt. Again, San Antonio is one of the least affected cities, but it did nevertheless show the classic signs. Urban renewal was discontinued by the Federal government some years ago, but its effects can still be seen. And cities still exercise the abomination of eminent domain to take viable property for their grandiose plans that fail to materialize (the exemplar is the City of New London, CT, the subject of a well-known Supreme Court case on eminent domain).
Further on, outside of the downtown, I saw vacant lots and run-down houses. At one point I encountered the inevitable freeway that cut a huge swath through the city and isolated one neighborhood from another. It also created a big void in which I could sense I would not be safe at night, since it could easily harbor shady characters and was not even well-lit. These urban freeways were touted in the 1950s and 60s as the salvation of inner cities and downtowns. Neither emerged. In fact the freeways usually cut through low-income but frequently thriving old neighborhoods. And they made the trip to the suburban mall much easier.
A word about the streets in general is also in order. One might think that the way a city decides to arrange and use its streets is irrelevant. But studies have shown the opposite. I noticed that the city had definitely changed traffic patterns at some point to accommodate much heavier traffic, which tends in the short run to change the economic demand patterns along and near the streets. This can and has resulted in short term business construction along the heavy traffic streets, but that ends up harming the ambience of once nice neighborhoods. Eventually, the city changes patterns again, choosing another street or streets to “upgrade.” Traffic shifts away from first street and what is left is no business (empty buildings–which I saw many of) and deteriorated neighborhoods.
Now don’t misunderstand. What I have laid out is just one part of the causal mechanism that has produced some essentially destitute cities. There are also government policies that tend to drive out those who are left who can afford to leave. That has left the poor and the criminal elements as the permanent residents. But the money to pay for services has been so severely reduced that tax revenues dry up. Not only that but many who work for cities continue to demand and get larger pensions and other benefits, taxing those left even more, and driving even more people out. Crime increases, economic choices decrease, jobs go away. The downward spiral continues.
These kinds of policies, which are not inevitable, have killed many cities and are strangling many others. For tourists, things may look great but for real residents the picture is gloomy. Can anything be done? Yes, and it would take a much longer blog to articulate solutions adequately.
It is too simplistic to just say that governments ought to simply stop their bad policies. Yes they should. But the precise decisions as well as their implementation is not so easy. Add to that the political difficulties and we have a very difficult way to go.
I have been quite pessimistic and negative in this blog. But I do hope to supply some positive ideas for the future of cities. Let me finish by saying that some will say we should just let cities die. We could, yes. But we will only get other cities, as long as humans are social–that is, until Christ returns. So we really should “seek the good of the city,” in this instance, literally, because they are made up of real people who need good ideas and a saving Gospel.