Easy Chair — From the November 2016 issue

Coming Apart

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I moved to San Francisco shortly before Ronald Reagan took office and the national economic revolution, or counterrevolution, began. By 1980, many of the industrial cities were dying. The blue-collar jobs had faded away, and the foundries, factories, and breweries left behind were ruins — unless they were being rehabilitated as artists’ spaces, like the old sweatshop district of SoHo in New York City, or torn down and carted away as post-industrial refuse. Jobs were beginning to go overseas, in a trickle that would, by the 1990s, become a flood. There was a powerful sense of being at the end of something, a sense of decline, decay, decadence, and the shadow of nuclear war hung over us. In other ways, though, it was still the evening of a golden age. Tuition was minimal at California’s public universities, housing and other living costs were far more manageable on low wages, and the safety net of social services had not yet been dismantled. Just getting by had a kind of glory to it.

White flight was then discussed as a bad thing, as though it were whiteness and not investment and policy that had made cities thrive, as though it were whiteness and not access to education and jobs and financial services that made citizens thrive. The suburbs to which white people were fleeing were subsidized with roadbuilding and tax breaks for homeowners. Cities, with their diminishing tax bases, were meanwhile hit with cutbacks that made things fall apart. Detroit, for example, had been a city of nearly 2 million at midcentury. Then 1.4 million white people left, driven by the declining auto industry, weakened unions, racism, and the allure of suburbia. The city now has about 700,000 people, most of them black, though young white people unable to find footing in more affluent urban areas are now arriving, seeing it as a place of opportunity. A predictable boom in real-estate speculation has begun, and Detroit is changing again. Yet these financially flailing cities have been places of tremendous cultural production and political vitality; in their regained affluence, they tend to be culturally senescent.

New York’s population declined for the first time in its history during the 1970s: 1.75 million white people left, and they were only partly replaced by non-white arrivals. Then, slowly, incrementally, the trajectory reversed. White people wanted cities back. Manhattan’s white population, proportionally in decline since 1940, began to rise in 2000, and other cities followed similar patterns. This is an epochal change. Before the current millennium, urban centers had become leftovers, as well as containment systems for non-white people, kept out of the suburbs by covenants and redlining and hostility. Now affluence and whiteness are retaking the city, slowly but surely turning it back into an exclusionary zone.

The men who ran for the presidency in 2016 didn’t seem to be tuned in to this reversal. In the spring, Bernie Sanders talked about “what it’s like to be living in a ghetto” — a term that evoked the way cities used to be when he left them for Vermont, decades ago, as part of what we might call countercultural white flight. It was even more peculiar to hear Donald Trump refer to an epidemic of inner-city crime and add that “for too many years, our inner cities have been left behind,” as though what used to be called the inner city hadn’t started its march toward gentrification way back when the G.O.P. nominee was still a local real-estate operator and figure of fun.

Crime, in fact, has been declining since the end of the 1970s, but cracking down on crime was long a conservative mantra, and perhaps that’s what Trump was thinking of. In any case, crime and punishment also have their geographic dimensions. A few years ago, the prison scholar Lydia Pelot-Hobbs pointed out to me that the penal facilities dotting the landscape of rural Louisiana can be considered exurbs of New Orleans, since so many of their inmates are from the city. The same is true of California: you can view the construction of twenty-two prisons in remote locations around the state since 1984 as a peculiar and barbaric scheme to export urban residents as the raw material for rural employment.

A fact: when the prison system was much smaller, so was the billionaire-making system. Back in 1980, when California had around 24,000 prisoners, there were thirteen billionaires in the United States. There are now 540 billionaires in the United States and 124,000 Californians in prison. The link between the two numbers is anything but arbitrary. Wealth exists in direct relation to poverty, and poverty and incarceration feed off each other. Overcrowded homes, prisons, decaying suburbs, the streets, and early graves are some of the places to which the poor are being pushed. You can see correlations in all this data, loops and vicious circles and traps and dead ends, a geography like one of those board games where some rise and gain, while others fall and fail and hit the wall.

Black Lives Matter has been applying a similarly panoramic lens to police killings, not only decrying the losses but calling out the way all the pieces are arranged on the board. When Eric Garner was choked to death by a Staten Island policeman, he had been reduced to selling loose cigarettes to support his family and had already been arrested many times for minor illegalities. When Walter Scott was pulled over by a North Charleston policeman for a missing taillight and subsequently shot in the back five times, he was indeed running, because he was behind on child support and feared being jailed. We know those stories now, but it’s the conjunction that we need to see, the way these stars together make up a constellation of — well, maybe of a policeman strangling a father of six.

Then there are the constellations of economic policy and policing and public health. Oakland, where many of the displaced San Franciscans have gone, lost a quarter of its African-American residents between 2000 and 2010. They have been uprooted — but those who stayed behind have also suffered. At the end of August, Muntu Davis, the director of Alameda County’s public-health department, announced that the housing crisis had become a health crisis, causing an increase in hospitalization for hypertension, mental disturbances, asthma, and other stress-related conditions. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, around the same time, four Black Lives Matter activists chained themselves to the doors of City Hall before dawn to protest housing policies. “Meanwhile, the people of color are disappearing,” said one of the organizers. “Meanwhile, Cambridge is getting less and less affordable for average people. Meanwhile, families are disappearing. We’re here because we’re saying we want to keep Cambridge, Cambridge.”

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