The Wealthy Are Leaving Cities. Good Riddance

This article appears in VICE Magazine’s Unthinkable Ideas issue, which explores revolutionary ideas that could alter our world completely.

“New Yorkers Are Fleeing to the Suburbs,” an August New York Times headline blared. 

The sub-headline explained that, due to the pandemic, demand for homes outside the city was increasing “as prosperous city residents seek more space.” This trend, the Times reported, “raises unsettling questions about how fast the city will be able to recover from the pandemic.” 

But the article—and the countless other similar articles written around the country this summer—underlined another type of unsettling question, one that largely remains unexplored or, at least, taken as a fact of life that cannot be changed. As Maria Doulis of the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission in New York City perfectly summarized it in the piece: “What is worrisome is that the high-income earners, particularly those with more than $1 million, provide a substantial amount of resources to the New York City budget.”

It is worrisome indeed because time and again, those very same high-earners have proven to be the first to flee the American city when times get tough, sending city budgets spiraling into an all-too-predictable downward spiral. 

To hear some recent urban emigrants tell it, the city was just swell before COVID-19 hit. But that obviously wasn’t the case. There were a lot of things wrong with American cities even before the pandemic. Chiefly, the cities with the most jobs were also unaffordable even for people making good wages. Amidst an affordable housing crisis, homelessness boomed. And other long-standing issues like poor public transportation, racial and economic inequality, and the viability of small businesses either remained or got worse.

The coronavirus has turned a slow-simmer problem into a boil of chaos, spawning an existential crisis for American cities that will, depending on whom you ask, either make them better or worse. It will either make them more affordable as populations decline and the rich turn their summer homes into permanent residences, or less affordable, as taxes go up to cover the budget gaps the rich no longer fill. It will either make cities hovels of despair due to the rise of remote work, or usher in a healthier 15-minute city where people work, live, and shop close by. That is to say, lots of people have lots of predictions on what COVID-19 means for cities. 

The main source of anxiety is that the wealthiest people and most prominent employers will leave cities, decimating their tax bases and plunging them into financial chaos. To some people, it is blindingly obvious this will happen now that remote work is normalized. To others who do not view suburbia as an inevitable life stage sandwiched between youthful exuberance and empty-nesting (or those who recognize there’s always a fresh wave of youthful exuberance right behind the last), the city still has lasting appeal. In either case, there’s a broad consensus that cities need those wealthy people and big companies to remain financially viable.

Although much about 2020 feels novel, this is not a new problem. From the white-flight era of the 1950s through the 1970s to the City Beautiful movement and the creation of suburbia in the late 19th Century, there has long been tension between the economic prosperity of American cities, the well-being of the people who live there, and the wealthy’s role in sustaining both. 

Similarly, this is not the first time people thought there was something terribly wrong with cities and the way major businesses and industries interacted with them. And it’s not the first time people thought they knew how to fix it, only to be proven very wrong. 

One of the strongest historical analogs to contemporary America, including the problems with cities and what their futures hold, is, unfortunately, the Gilded Age, when massive technological advances and a petty, corrupt, bickering, and free market-obsessed government tag-teamed to make the country little more than a wealthy man’s free-for-all at the expense of nearly everybody and everything else. Both eras feature gaping chasms in wealth inequality and the only two sustained decreases in life expectancy since the Civil War that don’t involve a world war. From the vantage point of, say, the Panic of 1873, it would have been a tough call to predict the future of American cities. A lot of people tried. Some even put their predictions into practice. And they were almost always wrong.

George Pullman was one of them.

As bad as this year has been to live in an American city, the tail end of the 19th Century was far worse.

“The decline of virtually every measure of physical well-being was at the heart of a largely urban Gilded Age environmental crisis that people recognized but could neither name nor fully understand,” wrote historian Richard White in The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, where much of the information about the Gilded Age in this article comes from. “Although economists have insisted that real wages were rising during most of the Gilded Age, a people who celebrated their progress were, in fact, going backwards—growing shorter and dying earlier—until the 1890s.”

Given the living conditions at the time, it is no mystery as to how this happened. Rampant, contagious diseases were not a once-in-a-century pandemic, but a daily fact of life. Most people attributed ailments to miasma, a vague notion of rotting air that could be detected by foul smells, not to germs and viruses that were only just being discovered. There were a lot of foul smells to detect. Cities lacked even the most rudimentary standards of cleanliness. Factories uncontrolled by law or common sense belched thick smoke into the air next to homes, churches, and businesses. One visitor described Pittsburgh with its many steel mills as “Hell with the lid off.” Feces and refuse, when actually deposited into a sewage system, were not properly channeled and ended up seeping back into the groundwater and rivers. Horses, the backbone of the urban transportation scene, shat and died in the streets. Their carcasses were not infrequently left to rot in the gutters. New York City’s first sanitation department were armies of pigs that ate the municipal garbage. In 1850, the city started the process of removing the pigs, which made the trash problem biblical in scale. 

The foul smells were made all the more unbearable because of the horrific overcrowding in the tenements, shanty towns, and slum districts that housed immigrants and low-skilled labor, later made infamous by Jacob Riis. The conditions of the poor were juxtaposed by the unprecedented wealth accumulated by industrialists and businessmen often in those very same cities. From Five Points to Fifth Avenue, American cities in the Gilded Age had problems.

Despite the horrific living conditions at the time for the vast majority of its inhabitants, by many economic measures, 19th Century cities were mega-boom towns. During the 30 years from 1860 to 1890, New York’s population soared from 813,669 to 1.5 million. Brooklyn—then a separate city—and Boston saw their populations almost triple during the same span. Chicago’s increased tenfold. With those people came more commerce, business incorporations, construction, transportation, and land values. Today, we would call that a rising tax base amid increased economic activity. 

By any measure, the U.S. economy exploded in the second half of the 19th Century and through World War I. Prioritizing economic growth and the wealth of the privileged ahead of public health is not a bug of 2020, but an American tradition. As with everything else, the uniqueness of 2020 lies not in our priorities being different from what they have been in the past, but in the fact that we’re not attempting to conceal them.

Pullman thought his town would fix what ailed cities at the time. Instead, it exacerbated them.

Pullman thought he could fix all this. The owner of the luxury train car company, Pullman built his fortune on the assumption that people would pay extra for a more pleasant traveling experience. He was right about that, both because his cars were by all accounts very nice and also because the traveling experience on bumpy, rickety, uncomfortable slats in old wooden cars was almost inconceivably miserable by modern standards. Pullman thought he could apply the “Pullman System” to the way we designed and governed cities. 

The industrialists of the Gilded Age had a distinctly Silicon Valley bro vibe, in that they typically believed that because they had invented a train car with beds or a different kind of blast furnace or a new corporate structure, they had cracked the fundamental code of human society and had a license to remake the world to fit their vision. In 1880, Pullman surreptitiously bought up land about 10 miles south of Chicago, far enough away at the time to be separated from the dirty, rotten city by extensive prairie land. There he built a new factory and a town surrounding it that would employ its workers. 

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Pullman believed even poor people could have nice things, and having those nice things would, in turn, make those people better. Passengers didn’t vandalize his ornate train cars because regal surroundings brought the best out of people, he believed, and so too a regal city could bring the best out of ordinary laborers. Pullman planned and designed the entire town to look and feel classy while exhibiting “beauty and order.” Naturally, he named this town after himself. 

But Pullman believed he ought to control a lot more about the town than its looks. Saloons were banned, with only one establishment—the upscale hotel—offering alcoholic drinks. Brothels, an ever-present fixture of urban life at the time, were non-existent. The company retained control over every piece of property, including people’s homes, which could only be rented. Lease terms allowed the company to inspect any home at any time for any reason, including a prohibition on decorating the home without company approval.

The town, which received an inordinate amount of press due to the fame of its benefactor, became a frequent destination for daytrippers and tourists, especially during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. But those visitors rarely, if ever, bothered to speak to the people living there. They marveled at the clean streets, functioning infrastructure, beautiful architecture, and open parks and deemed it a success. But as historian Stanley Buder’s book on the town illustrates, the best evidence suggests the people who actually lived there didn’t much like it.

Rather than harmonize a symbiotic relationship between employer and worker as Pullman hoped, the town exacerbated the many existing tensions brought about by the late 19th Century’s unfettered capitalism. Not only did Pullman fail to create the capitalist utopia he aimed for, but the town named after him served as the epicenter of one of the most significant worker strikes in American history.

In 1894, on the heels of the recession that began a year earlier, Pullman workers voted to strike, triggering a nationwide boycott by railroad workers who in solidarity refused to move trains pulling Pullman cars which, at that time, were most of them. In their statement enumerating their grievances, Pullman workers explained they were striking not only because their wages were being slashed by up to 70 percent, but also because their rent, which was set by the Pullman company, remained unchanged despite rents falling elsewhere. The math simply didn’t add up to survival.

“Pullman, both the man and the town, is an ulcer on the body politic,” the workers wrote. “He owns the houses, the schoolhouses, and churches of God in the town he gave his once humble name. The revenue he derives from these”—Pullman insisted everything and everyone pay fees, including patrons of the library and even houses of worship, because, in his mind, nobody respected things they got for free—”the wages he pays out with one hand—the Pullman Palace Car Company, he takes back with the other—the Pullman Land Association.” Both of which, of course, was owned by the same holding company, controlled by Pullman.

Living in the town, the workers saw not a paternalistic, capitalist utopia, but feudalism. Although Pullman as a town would continue to be lauded for its design and planning accomplishments for years to come, after 1894, it would be widely regarded as a failure.  

Pullman called his town, where he would be the landlord and employer, a “simple business proposition” out of which he expected a 6 percent return. He got closer to 4.5 percent. When the returns weren’t what he expected, he used his lord-like influence to demand cheaper water rates and lower property taxes from Hyde Park Township, which included dozens of other distinct towns. Of course, he got them.

Pullman thought his town would fix what ailed cities at the time. Instead, it exacerbated them. We’re seeing a similar dynamic in American cities today. The purest example of this relationship came in the form of a September letter from “170 leaders of big businesses” in New York City, as the New York Times described them, to Mayor de Blasio warning him of “widespread anxiety over public safety, cleanliness and other quality of life issues that are contributing to deteriorating conditions in commercial districts and neighborhoods across the five boroughs.” It reads like a throwback to white-flight rhetoric. Depending on one’s vantage point, the letter can just as easily be read as a genuine call for improvement or thinly disguised blackmail. The Times columnist Mara Gay landed closer to the latter, lambasting it as bearing “the whiff of people who rode out New York’s darkest days from the safety of their vacation homes, and returned to find that the traumatized city they left behind was not as tidy and orderly as they would prefer.”

Unfortunately, this is also nothing new. The upper and middle classes reacted to the unpleasantness of the 19th Century city not by putting a portion of their fortunes back into the city that helped amass it, but by creating new towns in the suburbs (only to see their new neighborhoods inevitably engulfed by the city they fled). When Chicago burned down in 1871, the city’s largest business owners fought higher taxes—which would pay for fire-resistant construction materials and municipal water supplies to help fight fires before they got out of control—tooth and nail. When meatpackers such as Armour & Company turned the Chicago River into one of the most toxic bodies of water the world has ever known, it insisted the city pay for it to be cleaned up through a general tax, not corporate taxes or—gasp!—the company itself. 

And then there was George Pullman. When announcing their strike, the workers called Pullman out for never coming to the town he pretended to love, to see the workers he called his “children.”

In her column, Gay recounted a few instances in the city’s past where business leaders backed up their rhetoric with actual financial and material support. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the historical rule. For our business leaders today, as with Pullman, it is but a simple business proposition.

Pullman wasn’t wrong about everything. His views that even poor people could have nice things were admirably progressive for the time, if largely self-serving. In many ways, he was at the forefront of urban planning, which at that time hardly existed as a field beyond drawing up street designs. He understood that cities could be better if some foresight went into how its infrastructure connected to its layout so parks, public amenities, and leisure activities were equally as accessible as employment. These ideas existed before him but were rarely implemented on a municipal level.

Pullman, the town, still exists; it is now a neighborhood incorporated into Chicago. The miles of prairie have been ripped apart and paved over. Many of Pullman’s original buildings still stand, and it is a national historical landmark. It is, by George Pullman’s non-economic standards, a successful neighborhood. But it is not a factory town. It has a thriving arts scene, of which it is unlikely George would have approved (he insisted company representatives approve every show performed at Pullman’s theater to make sure they were family-friendly). A few years ago, a contentious development project was opposed in part because it would have brought in only renters, not homeowners, who, in the words of the South Side Weekly, “might not be fully committed to the neighborhood,” a complete 180 from the renters-only days of the Pullman era.

A century and a half ago, a resident told one of the few reporters who bothered to do any reporting that the town was like a gigantic hotel because few stayed for more than two years. In the South Side Weekly article, resident Georgia Vroman said the people of Pullman know each other so well they cannot leave the house without talking to at least three neighbors. “There’s no such thing,” she said, “as a five-minute walk.”

Cities are often talked about as if they are individual organisms. A city can be dead or dying. It can be revitalized and be bursting with life and energy. Public transportation systems are its circulatory system, the roads its bones, the downtown business district the beating heart through which the blood cells flow, giving it life. We describe them this way because it fits with how we’ve been conditioned to think about cities.

The lesson of Pullman is that successful cities are not organisms. They are ecosystems, beholden to no one vision. If structured well, they can survive even when abandoned by those who were thought to be the providers. The more we continue to structure our cities on the reliance of the wealthy, the less sustainable our cities will be. 

The next stage of the American city is impossible to predict. But the future of the American city is bright as long as it continues to evolve, where the foul smell comes not from our factories or rivers or the air we breathe, but from the mouth of the person wasting their breath to demand favors from the city they wrote off as dead.

Follow Aaron Gordon on Twitter.

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