The Ruination of Great American Cities

The Ruination of Great American Cities
Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson speaks after being projected winner as mayor in Chicago, Ill., on April 4, 2023. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
Jeffrey A. Tucker

There was something deeply demoralizing about the recent Mayoral election in Chicago, once among America’s greatest cities. The good news is that the catastrophic reign of a deeply corrupt and crazed mayor, who piled egregiously racist policies on top of one of the worst COVID responses in the country, came to an end. The bad news is that a guy who is arguably worse took her place.

As Allysia Finley put it in the Wall Street Journal, “Brandon Johnson’s victory in last week’s Chicago mayoral race is a reminder that no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse.”

The city itself is facing bankruptcy but that economic reality is changing nothing about city policies. Crime is out of control. Poverty and despair are on the rise. And the residents who can leave are fleeing. Businesses are closing up shop and 175,000 people have left the city in the last two years, leaving the place at the mercy of people who only vote for more handouts and union controls.

The people who leave feel a sense of guilt, but the decision is entirely rational. One person’s vote makes no difference and no one has the obligation to stick around and become a sacrificial victim of pillaging politicians and dangerous criminals.

It’s all deeply tragic. The first time I went to Chicago many years ago, I was just thrilled to discover a city which seemed to combine the best of New York City but without the chaos, confusion, and muck. But sadly, those days have come to an end.

At some point in the last three years, many people just decided the situation was hopeless and left for greener pastures. Sadly, this put the city into a deep spiral of political disaster to the point that hopes for change and renewal seem to have been permanently dashed. Maybe it will come back to life at some point but maybe not in any of our lifetimes.

Incredibly, however, this same spiral of exodus plus the entrenchment of crime and corruption seems to be affecting other great cities too. People living in New York City today are grateful for an end to the utter madness and desolation of the lockdown years and the city is certainly revived today as compared to what it was in 2020 and 2021. However, by any standard, the experience of the city is massively deprecated compared with what it was only a few years ago.

For my part, I avoid the city as much as possible, simply because I cannot bear the Gotham-like feel of the place, with the inescapable stench of trash, sewage, and weed, plus the ever-present threat of crime. To be sure, there are some beautiful neighborhoods but getting there requires that you interact with the rest of the city through its main transportation portals.

And the bureaucracy of the state in general is absolutely overwhelming. If you own a business with an employee in New York State, you know this. Navigating the endless bureaucracies just to get a basic payroll in place is maddening beyond belief. One agency doesn’t talk to another and has no idea what they are doing. Compliance alone is too complicated even for online payroll platforms like Gusto. I know of companies that refuse even to hire anyone who lives there just to avoid this mess.

There are two other cities on the deathwatch list: San Francisco and Seattle. You know of the deep tragedy of San Francisco if you have visited lately. The place is an appalling mess and deeply dangerous too. Murder has nearly become normalized as something that just happens. Robert Lee, founder of CashApp and one of the most brilliant young entrepreneurs in the country, was brutally stabbed in broad daylight last week. The appalling event came to be shrugged off by major media as something that just happens, when reported at all.

I wasn’t entirely aware of the turn Seattle had taken until I visited last month, and found the same thing, with residents fleeing as fast as they could if they had the resources to do so. This trend leaves the cities in the hands of hoodlums public and private and dooms the place to go a long time without reform.

This is a reversal of the past when big cities would go through cycles of bust and boom once city fathers saw the errors of their ways. That is no longer a dynamic that seems plausible now. In other words, this time could be permanent.

The city as an institution is one of the great achievements in the history of modern civilization. They first began to emerge in the late Middle Ages with the end of feudal estates and the rise of the money-based exchange economy that allowed people to move and travel without grave danger. The city drew people out of their tribal hovels and created new centers of prosperity and the exchange of ideas. It was here and in spots all over the world that germinated the creative ideas that led to revolutions in art, literature, science, medicine, and industry.

Cities also created the basis for growing amounts of tolerance, peace, and human rights, as diverse people from all lands and languages came together to their mutual advantage. The experience led to a greater appreciation for the universality of the human experience and incentivized the entrenchment of a new ethos of togetherness. Arguably, it was the city that ended the religious wars, for example, and eventually slavery too.

The American cities were newer than those in the Old World but especially prosperous in ways that no one could even imagine. American freedoms in the second half of the 19th century led to the miracles of San Francisco, Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, and Hartford. But once the technology of steel and its commercial viability arrived by the turn of the 20th century, New York City overtook them all and eventually gave us wonders of the world like the Empire State Building. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Louis, Miami, and others rose up to greatness too.

The 21st century fall of so many American cities poses dangers not just to the city but also to the host state, simply because of the direct election of senators. The original Constitution assured that cities could not dominate state politics because the Senate representation was not subject to direct election. The 17th Amendment of 1913 changed that. Now the fate of the city has a profound effect on the whole state and then the whole nation. It was not supposed to be this way but the disastrous decision to change the Constitution assured that it would be so.
There is another factor to consider. People like Anthony Fauci and the plutocrats at the World Economic Forum somehow turned against cities in the last decade, deciding that they really did nothing but promote material excess, disease, and waste. They were suddenly put on the chopping block in the name of “radical changes that may take decades to achieve: rebuilding the infrastructures of human existence, from cities to homes to workplaces.”

In other words, this destruction could all be deliberate. The powers-that-be have decided that we don’t need them anymore with remote work made possible by digital technology. Who needs physical spaces and crowds when we can all spread out as far away from each other as possible? Such people are more easily controlled by our digital masters. This might account for why there is so little talk much less panic about the destruction of these one-time treasures of American life.

Again, under the scenario, lockdown was not an aberration or an egregious but temporary policy error born of panic but rather a test of a new template of social organization.

This really does seem like a turning point. Only a few weeks ago I took the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building and observed the marvel of the city, knowing full well that what looked beautiful from that height was much more grim on the ground. It did feel in some way that I was looking at the past and not the future.

If someone has a realistic idea for how this trajectory can be turned around, I would love to hear it. For now, the situation does seem dire and with no way out.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder and president of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press, as well as 10 books in five languages, most recently “Liberty or Lockdown.” He is also the editor of “The Best of Ludwig von Mises.” He writes a daily column on economics for The Epoch Times and speaks widely on the topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.
Related Topics