Columns

American Cities Take Double-Barreled Hit; How Will They Look in the Future?

Police form a line on Fifth Avenue outside Trump Tower on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Demonstrators took to the streets of New York to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

The June issue of Commentary, likely assembled in early-to-mid-May, contained an article written by John Podhoretz and illustrated by Daniel Rose headlined “The Empty City.” Podhoretz selected ten eerie photos of a depopulated Manhattan shot by Rose, whom Podhoretz describes as “a businessman and amateur photographer whose stunning images you are seeing here and on our cover, used the time to document this unnerving reality:”

And it turns out it is never not unnerving to be in these deserted urban Bryce Canyons, these areas marked by the absence of bustle and the whistling of the wind uninterrupted by a mass of human bodies, no matter how many walks you take through them. Another pop-culture reference, this one from Bill Murray trapped in his perpetual Groundhog Day, delivering the existential weather report from his endless purgatory: “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.”

Or until Monday, June the 1st, when a different type of Groundhog Day may have begun for New Yorkers: “The Empty City” repopulated itself – with a massive amount of rioters and looters, all-but-endorsed by a leftist mayor who not only refused to call in the National Guard, but whose own daughter was arrested during a Manhattan protest the previous Saturday. Notice that the photos collated for Podhoretz’s article show few buildings boarded up, demonstrating that business owners still believed that the police would protect them. As Reason’s Nick Gillespie wrote on Tuesday at Spectator USA, “Until a few nights ago, at least Manhattan was safe. You might not see anyone else on the street, but you didn’t feel worried, either. Stores were closed, but their windows weren’t covered in plywood:”

That’s all changed in just the past couple of days. In the early evening on this past Sunday, my girlfriend and I joined a loud but peaceful protest against police brutality that started in Times Square and eventually marched downtown along 7th Avenue. We peeled off after a couple of blocks and walked down Broadway through Herald Square, where workmen were busy cutting and fitting plywood over the windows and doors of Macy’s, which struck as odd. What did they know?

By the time darkness fell, the march had dissipated but widespread breaking of windows and looting of stores had begun, especially in the SoHo section of the city, where dozens of arrests were made and dozens of store windows were smashed. I walked through the neighborhood at 7 a.m. the next morning and was stunned to see two white guys who looked to be in their thirties running out of the Adidas flagship store on the normally busy Houston Street. Their arms were filled with what little merchandise still remained in the store. They piled into their car, idling outside on the street, and sped away.

A look inside the store revealed it had been picked clean. Walking down Broadway toward Broome Street, that same scene played out again. A Smart Car used by the NYPD traffic patrol was torched in the street as well.

At the New York Post, Nicole Gelinas writes that looting on the scale seen Monday night is “destroying New York’s future,” and all the boarding up on Tuesday made the city feel like “a woodworking shop — but instead of building something productive, property owners are bracing for destruction:”

A smashed and boarded-up Macy’s is also a sign to potential global tourists: Yeah, maybe as you make long-term plans to venture back onto an airplane this winter or next year, New York isn’t your best bet.

So we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of jobs, permanently at risk. And those $7.3 billion the city expects to take in sales tax for the upcoming fiscal year? That’s a lot of money that can’t fund after-school programs and public-housing repairs.

How to stop the looting? Here’s another disturbing development: As it goes on, more and more supposed urban advocates are saying it won’t stop till we’ve fixed racism.

We’ve gone quickly to arguing that looters aren’t nihilist anarchists but policy-change advocates. This is factually wrong — and racist. Crowds are groups of (mostly) young men across races, and they seem to be getting bigger. This isn’t 20 rabble-rousers; it’s hundreds of people each at simultaneous sites.

And what if the mayhem-makers don’t stop at businesses? As stores board up, looters will seek softer targets. How can the city’s museums think about opening, when they need to concentrate on securing their valuables from vandals rather than social-distancing logistics?

Back to the Future, One Way or Another

As with Podhoretz’s article, published during the inflection point between lockdown and smash-up, a Spectator USA article headlined “Back to the Future” by Michael Lind, dated May 24th, speculated that “the post-pandemic world could resemble the 1950s”:

The 2020s could witness a wave of suburbanization like the one that followed World War Two. While many of the urban rich move out of crowded downtowns, the working classes may be driven even further into the metropolitan periphery. If the pandemic is followed by lingering mass unemployment and a decade of lost growth, working-class people and retirees will be even more inclined to compensate by moving to cheaper land to reduce their biggest fixed cost — the rent or mortgage.

A flight from the big cities, should it take place, could see a reversal of the urban gentrification that occurred in the recent pre-pandemic years. After World War Two, many American cities were depopulated and de-industrialized. Municipal bankruptcies, riots and crime waves exacerbated the dereliction. A few elite neighborhoods in Paris, London and New York will always be fashionable, but others could undergo the kind of dystopian urban decay that was familiar as recently as the 1980s, inspiring movies like Taxi Driver (1976) and Escape from New York (1981).

That New York was able to turn it around at all in the 1990s was a testament to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his willingness to employ “Broken Windows”-inspired anti-crime policies, as discussed in a 2019 City Journal article by Steven Malanga that also warned, “Progressive policies threaten a new era of urban dysfunction:”

After two decades of mayoral rule by a moderate Republican, Rudy Giuliani, and a centrist Democrat, Michael Bloomberg, New Yorkers in 2013, for example, elected Bill de Blasio, a leftist Democrat. Other successful cities, such as Seattle and Portland, which had escaped the worst disorders of the 1960s and now bustle with technology workers, similarly moved leftward, mirroring the elite progressivism of their workforces.

The influence of the new progressives is most evident in recent debates over policing. The shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, officer Darren Wilson in August 2014 (later found by a grand jury to have been justified) ignited a national wave of recriminations about police use of force against black men. The narrative, picked up by progressive politicians and elite media outlets and amplified by the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, claimed that proactive policing was a mortal threat to minorities—despite ample evidence that police use of force had plummeted over the years, including against minority suspects. Since 1991, the peak year of crime in New York City, to take the most striking example, the number of yearly shootings by the New York Police Department has declined by two-thirds—a testament to the force’s professionalism and to the impact that major crime declines have had on the need for cops to use their weapons.

During the past decade, the left liked to toss around the phrase “food deserts” to describe inner-city urban areas that lacked swanky Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. The lack of such amenities was a direct result of businesses fleeing after the riots of the 1960s, which utterly transformed cities such as Detroit. Expect that phrase to get into even wider circulation in the coming years, as this passage from Joel Kotkin in a Quillette article from Tuesday titled “Pandemics and Pandemonium” highlights:

In the American inner-cities, meanwhile, COVID-19 was already devastating small local firms before the current riots. Local community developers and business owners in places like south and east Los Angeles have been devastated by prolonged lockdowns. The prospects are particularly gruesome for the small restaurants so prevalent in immigrant-rich inner cities. If the shut-downs last much longer, as many as three-quarters of independent restaurants simply won’t make it. Many of the losers from the lockdown and riots will be minorities who, according to the California Restaurant Association, own 60 percent of the state’s dining establishments.

* * * * * * * *

Many small restaurants and businesses lack the expertise and technical resources needed to shift to pick-up and delivery as well-capitalized firms like Taco Bell, Panda Express, or Chick-fil-A have been able to do. Similarly, small landlords in places like Leimert Park, notes attorney Diane Robertson, have no recourse to stay in business when their tenants cannot pay the rent. Massive mortgage defaults may force these small proprietors to sell out to bottom-feeding speculators, whose funds are expanding as they prepare to turn a big profit from a future resurgence in gentrification. “The business owners are scared,” says Mirabel Garcia, who works on micro-loans for the east LA-based Inclusive Action for the City. “They are worried they will not be able to hold on against Wall Street and the big investors.”

The devastation of these local firms can have awful consequences. In a report for the Democratic Leadership Council’s Progressive Policy Institute that I wrote with David Friedman on the causes of the LA riots, we found that, besides the police-related protests, many of the community’s stalwarts—secretaries, machinists, managers—had just lost their jobs in the post-Cold War defense retrenchment. The 1992 disturbances may have been sparked, like the current events, by police abuse, but the underlying causes included the massive decline in high-paying stable jobs as a result of the end of the Cold War. Many middle-class African Americans worked in southern California’s aerospace factories, and when they lost their jobs, essential community linchpins were lost.

At the American Spectator (which must loathe the fact that the London Spectator has started a U.S.-oriented spinoff publication), John C. Wohlstetter wrote that in the 1960s, the immediate police response to riots inadvertently determined whether or not a city would have a viable long-term future. “There is a validated playbook for dealing with riots”:

It is a tale of two riots in the awful summer of widespread racial unrest in 1967. Eugene Methvin’s 1991 National Review “riot primer” laid out the playbook:

In a nutshell: Riots begin when some set of social forces temporarily overwhelms or paralyzes the police, who stand by, their highly visible inaction signaling to the small percentage of teenaged embryonic psychopaths and hardened young adults that a moral holiday is under way. This criminal minority spearheads the car-burning, window-smashing, and blood-letting, mobbing such hate targets as blacks, or white merchants, or lone cops. Then the drawing effect brings out the large crowds of older men, and women and children, to share the Roman carnival of looting. Then the major killing begins: slow runners caught in burning buildings and-as civic forces mobilize-in police and National Guard gunfire.…

The time to halt a riot is right at the start, by pinching off the criminal spearhead with precise and overwhelming force. The cops will usually be caught flat-footed (no pun intended) by the initial outbreak. But they need to spring into a pre-arranged mobilization that should always be as ready in every major city as the fire-department or hospital disaster-response program.

Methvin compared two July 1967 riots. In Toledo, rioters began smashing things, throwing rocks at police cruisers. The authorities resounded instantly and decisively, arresting the thugs, with order restored within 36 hours. No one died. Not so in Detroit, where the authorities decided to allow rioters to let off steam. Five days of violence followed, with more than 40 fatalities and more than 1,000 injured. Property damage was estimated at over $40 million, in 2020 dollars, roughly $300 million. It was the worst rioting in America since the 1863 New York City draft riots, not to be exceeded in scale until the 1992 Rodney King riots.

And there is a lasting loss for failing to do so.

Detroit: The Retail Model of the Future?

In 1965, Jerome Cavanagh, Detroit’s then-mayor, seen by some as an up and coming young Democrat in the JFK mold, starred in a 20-minute film that was created to attract the 1968 Olympics. The documentary featured, as Tom Wolfe would say, row after Mies van der Rohe of gleaming modernist buildings; the height of midcentury modernism; it was titled “Detroit: A City on the Move”:

Sadly, that move was into the abyss, as delivered by the 1967 riots. In 1990, New York Times and New York Daily News columnist Ze’ev Chafets wrote Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit, his look at that post-apocalyptic city. In it, he described a small business that may represent an extreme example of the future of urban retailing based on the events seen in early June:

Aboud and his two brothers own and operate a small grocery store, the Tailwind Party Store, on the lower east side, in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. Aboud was born in Detroit, in 1956; his parents, Iraqi Christians known as Chaldeans, came to the city from a village not too far from Baghdad… Since 1960, roughly one hundred Arab and Chaldean merchants have been murdered in their stores. Six of them were related to John Aboud.

* * * * * * *

Aboud’s tolerance has not impaired his vigilance, however, and the Tailwind’s security system could be fairly characterized as forbidding. The front door has a permanent squeak, to let the brothers know when someone comes in. They work behind a thick shield of bullet-resistant glass (Aboud told me that when they come out from behind it, they wear bulletproof vests) and on the shelf behind the counter there was a small arsenal: a .44 Magnum, a 9-millimeter pistol, and a couple of AR 15 semiautomatic assault rifles— tools of the shopkeeper’s trade in Detroit.

* * * * * * *

Friday nights are especially busy at the Tailwind, and John Aboud and Mike waited on a steady stream of customers buying bread and lunch meat, beer, soft drinks and other weekend staples. During the week, when things are quieter, they go downstairs into the basement and take target practice in a makeshift pistol range. Their current target was the face of Mike Ditka on a Lite Beer poster. They had nothing against the Chicago Bears coach; the targets change with the posters. “When my brother was eighteen he got his first Magnum,” said John, in a tone that some people use referring to their first bicycle. “Know what he did? He shot out the furnace.” Aboud laughed, a soft, melodic sound.

The basement serves a less sporting purpose, too; it is where the brothers take shoplifters. “We handcuff them to this,” he said, pointing to a metal post.

Smile: You’re on Candid Camera — Everywhere

The past week and a half of riots may well deliver technological changes too, as predicted by prolific libertarian Tweeter “Neontaster:”

On Monday, Rod Dreher of The American Conservative wrote a post titled “The iPad Thieves,” which began with video of a Muslim-immigrant-owned computer store in Minneapolis being looted (stolen products that may or may not work, thanks to Apple’s anti-theft technology) before concluding with a look at the riots and looting in Manhattan. Dreher concluded, “When I moved to New York City in 1998, it was so, so common to hear people say that Rudy Giuliani, who had been elected in 1994, had made such a difference in the life of the city. ‘You can’t imagine what it was like before,’ they would say. That was a long time ago. Now, it’s back to the 1980s.”

Thanks to both the impact of the COVID lockdown and the riots that immediately followed, numerous 21st-century American cities could join the ranks of Detroit, mated with the omnipresent surveillance technology of the Stasi. In 2009, at the dawn of the Obama administration, the Washington Post declared (via Newsweek, which was then under its ownership), “We Are All Socialists Now.” Post-2020, both in external appearance and behind the scenes, a fair chunk of American urban life could come to resemble East Germany, rather than Sweden.