For Whom Were the Cities Saved?
When I moved to New York in 2011, the city could still be seen as a success for conservative policy. As Republicans at the national level launched ill-fated wars, Republicans in New York had presided over a dramatic drop in crime, the rise of the creative class, and a booming real-estate market. Rudy Giuliani’s hard-edged, crime-fighting persona had yielded to Michael Bloomberg’s bland technocratic competence. Law-and-order appeals to outer-borough ethnics had been superseded by corporate-friendly, culturally liberal rhetoric for the college set.
Kay Hymowitz, a scholar at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, captured the mood in an essay titled “How Brooklyn Got Its Groove Back.” Hymowitz celebrated the arrival of a “new generation of gentrifiers,” made possible by tightened policing and relaxed zoning laws. At the forefront of this group were “hippie-entrepreneurs” who combined vague idealism with hard-headed business sense.
Following the lead of Steve Jobs, whose products they proudly brandished, these entrepreneurs created commercial ventures with cultural cachet—Brooklyn Brewery, Fine & Raw Chocolate, Vampire Weekend. They transformed the once unfashionable neighborhood of Williamsburg and remade global taste. Brooklyn, once known as the borough of churches, became a byword for youthful chic.
The hippie-entrepreneur did not wear blue blazers or join the Rotary Club, but he nonetheless conformed to the entrepreneurial ideal celebrated on the right. Social conservatives likewise found cause for optimism in his rise. In the hipster’s valorization of the authentic, they saw intimations of a turn toward tradition.
Conservatives were right to take credit for the rise of these young New Yorkers. If not for the policies championed by the right, the countless millennials who flooded the city—many of them women with liberal arts degrees—would never have dared to take the L train to the further reaches of Williamsburg and Bushwick.
Yet however impressive the conservative urban policy triumph seemed, it would result in an irony. The young professionals who populated newly pacified streets came to denounce as racist the very policies on which they relied.
Last June, in Carl Schurz Park, just south of Gracie Mansion, I looked on as thousands of millennials sat in meditative silence at a Black Lives Matter rally before rising to march. They were overwhelmingly women and overwhelmingly white, almost all in their twenties or thirties. It is hard to imagine that many of them would have chosen to make their lives in the New York of the 1980s. Here they were, calling on the mayor to defund the police.
In the days after that protest, the city disbanded its plainclothes units targeting violent crime. Roughly six hundred officers were reassigned. In July, the city council cut $1 billion from the police department’s budget.
On several nights in June, the city saw widespread looting. Meanwhile, on social media, young urban professionals posted links urging each other to donate to bail funds. One day, I discussed the disorder with Tony, a man who sometimes lives on the corner of 21st and Park. While we talked, a social worker Tony knows stopped by to chat. Tony decried the mayhem—and the ingratitude of a man whose liquor store he claimed to have guarded the night before. The social worker was less concerned. She said that she had reached through the broken window of a drug store in her neighborhood to grab a cheap item. Why not?
That year, New York saw a 45 percent increase in homicides.
Voters and politicians on the right have begun to reckon with the unintended consequences of Bush-era foreign policy. But they have yet to confront the unintended consequences of conservative urban policy. Cities were made safe—for liberalism. The social base for conservative policy—people who are working-class, ethnic, of limited means and narrow outlook, more enamored of neighborhood and kin, stability and order, than of freedom and opportunity—was not conserved by conservative policy.
The class that benefited most from conservative urban reforms was never likely to love the right. Though these millennials would often be called gentrifiers, they differed from the first gentrifiers in that they were generally unable to purchase and renovate derelict homes. They have instead made up a class of long-term, even permanent renters who have different economic interests from the earlier generation of home-buying gentrifiers.
These are the people who volunteered and voted for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A handful may have founded businesses, but the great majority have more conventional jobs. Though their careers are described as “creative,” they rarely live up to the billing. Young women who delayed marriage and childbearing, maximizing productivity during their years of peak fertility, soon found themselves saying, “Me Too.” Hippie entrepreneurs are outnumbered by discontented professionals ready to join an uprising of the not-quite-wealthy.
Disorder in my neighborhood is on the rise. On the way to church on one recent Sunday morning, my wife and I navigated around a shirtless man holding a half-empty bottle of Jack who almost fell backward into our stroller. Some homeless, like Tony, have lived in the neighborhood for years. But there are many new faces on the streets.
Perhaps the decline in urban order, cheered on by creative-class liberals, was inevitable. Safety breeds complacency. It robs people of the virtues bred by adversity. But I suspect that something more is at work. New York did not just enjoy plenty and peace, it suffered from shocking inequality. A middle class powered by manufacturing, trades, and good union jobs lost ground to a high–low coalition of professionals and service workers, of those who order Seamless and those who deliver it. This was the vaunted gig economy, once expected to be the greatest success of the creative class. Like the conservative urban policy of recent decades, it has delivered immediate benefits. But it is doubtful whether its achievements are sustainable.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things magazine, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.