it.” “Bulldoze it.” “A Hurricane.”
For the past several years, Metroland’s Readers’ Poll
has included a question about the best thing that could happen
to each of the region’s cities. Invariably, a dozen or so
people suggest doing away with various cities or city neighborhoods
entirely, often in some violent fashion.
These flip comments are ignorant and dismissive of the people
who actually live and work in Schenectady, Troy, Arbor Hill,
etc., as Albany Councilwoman Barbara Smith noted in her recent
letter [April 12]. But they also reveal a serious falsehood
that undergirds most of America’s interactions with its struggling
post-industrial cities: We think we could do just fine without
There are different flavors of this. There are the city-haters,
who believe that it’s directly the fault of the people who
live in them, or perhaps just their tacky and outmoded urbanness,
that cities are losing jobs and people and have higher taxes
and crime. They are generally racist, and usually scared to
actually get out of their cars on a city street.
More interesting to me, though, is the attitudes of the people
who are supposedly the most pro-city: the progressive urban
planners, the people who’ve actually chosen to live in cities,
the policy wonks who talk about how to revive cities. They
can give you detailed, and accurate, accounts of how the cities
have been “left behind” due to a combination of deindustrialization,
racist housing regulations, environmental contamination, highway
construction, and sprawl-inducing development policies. I
have done so myself in this space. In this scenario, cities
are described as places to be pitied and to be helped back
on their feet because it’s the right thing to do, or possibly
because otherwise their troubles will spread outward. At most,
they can’t compete because the suburbs have all these unfair
This isn’t exactly wrong. But it’s partial, and it’s patronizing.
It’s like the common attitudes about undocumented workers:
They are either something to be reviled or to be pitied, but
rarely talked about as an economic engine that allows the
rest of us to buy cheap produce.
So let me say this baldly: Suburbs, even today, would be up
a fiscal creek without a paddle without their center cities.
Consider: Cities contain a whole host of essential functions
that are tax-exempt. They contain the lion’s share of a given
region’s hospitals; universities; county government functions
and courthouses; social services, from homeless shelters to
crime-victim counseling and beyond; and cultural institutions,
from theaters and museums to historic landmarks and parks.
The entire region relies on these things being available,
whether they make use of them directly or not.
This is true even for the most beaten-down cities. I grew
up in a New Jersey suburb that bordered Newark, which is perhaps
most famous for competing with Detroit for the title of Most
Ravaged by the ‘60s Race Riots. In my town, anything bad that
happened was blamed on people coming from Newark. We were
a satellite of New York City and certainly didn’t feel we
owed Newark anything. And yet, my school classes traveled
to the Newark Museum regularly. Many of my classmates went
on to study at Rutgers Law School or the New Jersey Institute
of Technology. I researched high-school papers at Rutgers.
We served on jury duty at the Essex County Courthouse, caught
Amtrak at Newark Penn Station, and traveled into Beth Israel
Hospital for specialized medical needs.
The same is true in the Capital Region. No matter how much
you want to make fun of Schenectady, the residents of Scotia
and Niskayuna—not to mention the rest of us—rely on having
Ellis Hospital and Proctor’s and the Stockade and Union College
and SCCC there.
Now, don’t get me wrong: It makes sense to have things like
this concentrated in a central location, and they are good
for the cities in many ways. My point is that while the benefits
are shared, the costs are not. It is only the cities that
have to deal with such a large percentage of their property
being tax-exempt. (Some of these institutions do make “payments
in lieu of taxes,” but that doesn’t fully erase the disparity.)
If the ’burbs had a similar ratio of tax-exempt properties,
they would find themselves facing a raise-taxes-or-lower-the-school-
budget decision right quick.
But that’s not all. The cities also provide most of the affordable
housing for the whole region—housing affordable to the people
working low-paying retail jobs in our malls, caring for our
elders in nursing homes, watching our children in day care.
People without whom our economy would fall apart. They also
offer housing that’s near public transit and therefore accessible
to people who can’t afford a car and the many people who can’t
drive for other reasons.
All this, of course, means that the cities have a higher concentration
of people who need services and subsidies, be they disabled,
poor, or elderly. And yet somehow, this always comes across
as evidence of a city’s inherent weakness, and not something
that’s relieving the rest of the region from having to pull
With this in mind, I was grimly amused to see that what was
once called “revenue sharing” in New York, where the state
redistributes some property taxes to make up for this disparity
in tax bases, was renamed “Aid and Incentives to Municipalities”
in 2005. Calling it “aid” makes it a voluntary, charitable
thing, instead of a matter of fairness, and therefore perhaps
easier to justify the fact that it has so frequently been
slashed. Gov. Spitzer is increasing it; I’d love it if it
he gave its old name back too.
Our financially struggling cities are underwriting the fiscal
health of their suburbs. Step one in making stronger regions
(which statistics show require strong cities) would be a thank
Check out Miriam’s new blog, The Big Questions: The Path to
Albany’s First Comprehensive Plan, at: http://metroland.typepad.com/the_big_questions/