The Coronavirus and The Cities We Need 1Jeenah Moon/The New York Times

The Coronavirus and The Cities We Need 2William Eckenberg/The New York Times

America’s cities were once engines of
growth and opportunity.

America’s cities were
once engines of growth and opportunity.

In this crisis, how can we save them?
In this crisis, how can
we save them?

The Cities We Need

Crises can be clarifying.

The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.

In the first half of the 20th century, the students at Boston’s best public high school, Boston Latin, included a brash kid named Leonard Bernstein, who would one day compose West Side Story; another boy named Thomas L. Phillips, who would build the Massachusetts manufacturer Raytheon into a bulwark of American defense; and Paul Zoll, who would pioneer the use of electricity to treat cardiac arrest while working as a doctor at a Boston hospital.

Most any American city of that period could produce a similar honor roll of kids raised on its streets and educated in its public classrooms who went on to leave a mark on the world. Back then, cities supplied the keys for unlocking human potential: an infrastructure of public schools and colleges, public libraries and parks, public transit systems and clean, safe drinking water. The very density and diversity of urban life fostered the accumulation of knowledge, the exchange of ideas, the creation of new products.

American cities were the hammering engines of the nation’s economic progress, the showcases of its wealth and culture, the objects of global fascination, admiration and aspiration. They were also deformed by racism, bled by the profiteering of elites and fouled by pollution and disease. But in their best moments, they offered the chance to slip the bonds of prejudices, second-guessing and limited horizons. They offered opportunity.

Then, cities worked. Now, they don’t.

Well before the coronavirus pandemic posed its own threats to the life of American cities, they were struggling. Over the last half century, their infrastructure of opportunity has badly decayed. Their public schools no longer prepare students to succeed. Their subways are reliably unreliable. Their water runs with lead.

Our urban areas are laced by invisible but increasingly impermeable boundaries separating enclaves of wealth and privilege from the gaptoothed blocks of aging buildings and vacant lots where jobs are scarce and where life is hard and, all too often, short. Cities continue to create vast amounts of wealth, but the distribution of those gains resembles the New York skyline: A handful of super-tall buildings, and everyone else in the shade.

The pandemic has prompted some affluent Americans to wonder whether cities are broken for them, too. It has suspended the charms of urban life while accentuating the risks, reviving an hoary American tradition of regarding cities with fear and loathing — as cesspools of disease, an image that all too easily aligns with prejudices about poverty and race and crime. Even New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has described New York City’s density as responsible for its suffering.

Some have left for second homes, and the crisis has prompted a flurry of fantasies about abandoning cities altogether, rooted in the idea that we’d all be better off at least a little farther apart — social distancing as the salvation of society.

This is dangerously misguided.

Our cities are broken because affluent Americans have been segregating themselves from the poor, and our best hope for building a fairer, stronger nation is to break down those barriers.

The view of New York from Brooklyn, circa 1930. Getty Images

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Steel workers in Pennsylvania, circa 1950.Getty Images

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Pedestrians in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.George Tames/The New York Times

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The nature of a nation is that we are bound together in a community of shared obligation, purpose and opportunity.

The urban areas where 80 percent of Americans live are the places that best enable us to care for each other, to interact with each other, to build together.

Cities remain economic engines and cultural hubs and density remains the best way to limit the impact of humans on the environment.

But to realize the potential of cities, we need to change the harsh reality that the neighborhoods into which Americans are born delimit their prospects in life: their chances of graduating from high school, of earning a decent living, of surviving into old age. In Chicago, the difference in average life expectancy for people born at the same time in different neighborhoods is as much as 30 years. Please pause to consider that number. Babies do not choose where they are born. In Streeterville, a neighborhood of white, affluent, college-educated families living comfortably in townhomes and high-rise condominiums along the shore of Lake Michigan, a baby born in 2015 could expect to live to 90. Eight miles south, in Englewood, a poor, black neighborhood of low-rise apartments in the shadow of Interstate 94, a baby born in 2015 could not expect to reach 60.

We need to rewrite the rules that have made it virtually impossible to build affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods, immiserating lower-income families forced ever further from jobs and services. Lower-income workers in the San Francisco Bay Area often live outside of the Bay Area: Last year, more than 120,000 workers in the region had daily commutes of at least three hours. In Montgomery County, Md., an affluent suburb of Washington, fully 44 percent of the county’s own employees live in other counties, often because they can’t afford homes in the communities they serve.

And we need to ensure every American can obtain a high-quality education regardless of the value of their family home. The economic gaps between individuals are compounded because funding for public institutions is tightly linked to the wealth of local communities. In underfunded urban school systems, even the most successful students struggle to rise. The Boston Globe last year tracked down 93 of the 113 students named valedictorians at Boston public high schools, including Boston Latin, between 2005 and 2007. Nearly a quarter of those students had said they hoped to become doctors, like Paul Zoll, but more than a decade later, not one had graduated from medical school. Among a group of valedictorians from the Boston suburbs, 12 percent were doctors.

The isolation of the poor has broad consequences. The economist Paul Romer won the Nobel Prize last year in part for his work demonstrating the economic importance of cities, the way that dense gatherings of people facilitate the sharing of information and the process of creation.

In effect, segregation reduces the size of a city. It limits the number of people, the number of interactions, the number of ideas. A study published in 2018 found that children from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution were 10 times as likely to file for a patent when they grew up as were children from families in the bottom half of the income distribution. The difference is not innate ability: Rather, the poor kids are excluded from opportunity. They do not know inventors, they are not encouraged to become inventors, they do not interact with others trying to solve the problems of the day. In a separate study, the same researchers sought to estimate the impact of moving children to a better environment. They found that Seattle children whose lower-income families used federal housing vouchers to move to more affluent neighborhoods would earn an extra $210,000 in the course of their lives.

Poverty and crime were part of life in Camden, N.J., circa 2015.Mark Makela for The New York Times

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A baby being tested for lead in Flint, Mich.Jake May/The Flint , via Associated Press

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A child at school on the South Side of Chicago.Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times, via Associated Press

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Playing basketball near an oil refinery in Port Arthur, Tex.David Goldman/Associated Press

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Segregation is not merely a tragedy for the children denied the opportunity to thrive.

It is also an incalculable loss for society, which cheats itself of their potential contributions.

And as inequality deepens, the problem becomes harder to fix: The scale of the necessary changes is larger;

those living in wealthy enclaves feel less need for communal infrastructure; and separation makes it easier to ignore problems — indeed, not to see them at all.

In the United States, blacks and Hispanics primarily suffer the consequences.

Most poor whites live in mixed-income neighborhoods. In the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, about a third of low-income whites — 3.4 million people — lived in high-poverty urban neighborhoods in 2014, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. By contrast, 72 percent of low-income blacks, or 5.2 million people, lived in high-poverty urban neighborhoods, as well as 68 percent of low-income Hispanics, or 6.7 million people.

The pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities of urban life. Lower-income Americans, generally unable to work from home, are dying at higher rates. And the very idea of abandoning cities is a luxury reserved for those who have the resources to pick up and move. The poor are bound to the places where they are born.

The beauty and peril of cities is that we all are bound together.

The affluent, the economist Joseph Stiglitz has written, have “the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles. But there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: An understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live.”

In March 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled from Detroit to one of its affluent suburbs, Grosse Pointe, with a police officer sitting on his lap to shield him from violence. That night, he told a crowd gathered at the local high school that there were “Two Americas” — one in which white children grew up in “the sunlight of opportunity,” and another where black children were raised in circumstances so bleak that “the best in these minds can never come out.” Every American city was divided, he said. “Every city ends up being two cities rather than one.”

As African-Americans migrated from the rural south to industrial cities in the early 20th century, white communities, and their political leaders, aggressively funneled the new arrivals away from white neighborhoods. Some cities created zoning codes that specified where blacks could not live. Even in the Jim Crow era, that was considered a little much; the Supreme Court banned the practice in 1917. But policymakers quickly learned that it was easy enough to achieve the same goals without being quite so explicit. Chicago, for example, adopted a zoning code in 1923 that made no mention of race — but largely restricted high-density residential and industrial development to black neighborhoods.

From the 1930s into the 1960s, the Federal Housing Administration, created to encourage homeownership by subsidizing mortgage lending, refused to support loans in black neighborhoods, which were delineated with red lines on the agency’s maps. In Detroit, a developer convinced the government to back loans in a new, white subdivision in 1941 by building a half-mile wall, six feet tall, along its boundary with an adjacent black neighborhood. An agency manual also recommended highways as useful barriers to maintain racial segregation.

Between 1934 and 1962, whites got 98 percent of the government-backed loans.

Congress outlawed such explicit racism in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but the checkerboard created during the building boom of the postwar years endures. The wealth gap between blacks and whites allowed suburban communities to limit integration through zoning laws restricting the construction of denser, more affordable housing. The nation’s old industrial centers — not just places like Peoria, Ill. and Syracuse, N.Y., but also New York City and Boston — remain some of the most racially segregated cities in America.

In recent decades, racial segregation has modestly declined in many cities as richer black and Hispanic families have moved to more affluent neighborhoods.

But economic segregation has increased sharply. As knowledge workers like lawyers, bankers and software engineers flock to cities like Raleigh, N.C.; Austin, Texas; and Seattle, the concentration of well-educated workers and well-paid jobs has left much of the country behind.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the poor residents of the boomtowns have also been left behind.

In 1970, 65 percent of the residents of large metropolitan areas lived in neighborhoods with median incomes close to the median for the entire area, according to an analysis by the sociologists Kendra Bischoff and Sean F. Reardon. Most neighborhoods, in other words, approximated the economic diversity of the broader community. But by 2009, only 42 percent lived in such neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the share residing in either very affluent or very poor neighborhoods more than doubled from 15 percent to 33 percent.

This trend has reshaped central cities, filling downtowns with new buildings invariably described as “luxury” condominiums and apartments. In Chicago, for example, a recent analysis found the share of census tracts with concentrations of either wealth or poverty increased from 28 percent in 1980 to 47 percent in 2010.

But most wealthy families continue to reside in the suburbs that provide the bulk of housing in every metropolitan area except New York. These suburbs, created to maintain economic exclusivity, have become increasingly exclusive. Residents live in what are effectively private clubs and send their children to what are effectively private schools. Cars have obviated the need for servants to live close by, or to be tolerated as participants in the same polity. The people who serve the affluent must find housing elsewhere.

Life in America resembles an airline passenger cabin: separate entrances, separate seating areas, separate bathrooms. The Village of Indian Hill, a wealthy suburb of Cincinnati, touts its rural atmosphere, its “firm administration of zoning ordinances” and its “proximity to the cultural life of a large city.” It is, in short, a parasite, taking what it values from Cincinnati while contributing as little to it as possible. In this, it is hardly unique. Hundreds of similar suburbs encrust cities across the United States.

Even in cities where the rich and poor continue to live under the same local government, economic segregation saps political support for common, egalitarian infrastructure. Rich New Yorkers donate generously to beautify Central Park while resisting the taxation necessary to maintain parks in neighborhoods they never visit. In Washington, D.C., parents in wealthier neighborhoods contribute lavishly to parent-teacher organizations that provide extra money to public schools in their neighborhoods, but they do not vote for a similar level of funding for all city schools. Two schools in northwest Washington each raised more than half a million dollars in 2017, while several schools in southeast Washington don’t even have parent-teacher organizations. Last year, for the third time since 1970, the residents of Gwinnett County, Ga., which sits on the edge of Atlanta, refused to fund an expansion of the regional transit system into their suburban county.

The consequences of segregation are particularly stark in public education.

Most urban areas are divided into dozens of school districts, each funded primarily by taxes on local real estate. Affluent families pay for access to high quality public schools by buying homes in those districts. Cook County, Ill., for example, is divided into more than 100 school districts, ranging from the giant Chicago public school system to the Sunset Ridge School District, which operates only two schools. Sunset Ridge spends three times as much per student as Chicago, according to the Education Law Center.

Even in the South, where school districts historically have operated at the county level, fragmentation is increasing. In 2018, for example, the North Carolina legislature voted to let four suburbs of Charlotte create charter schools, funded by local property taxes, that could grant priority admission to local students. In October, the overwhelmingly white and affluent residents of the southeastern corner of East Baton Rouge Parish voted to create a new city, St. George, as the first step toward seceding from the parish school system. The parish is 47 percent black; the proposed city, which requires state approval, would be 12 percent black.

The logic of school secession is straightforward. Said the mayor of Gardendale, Ala., which waged an extended campaign to extricate its schools from the district that serves Birmingham and its less white, less affluent suburbs, “It’s keeping our tax dollars here with our kids, rather than sharing them with kids all over Jefferson County.”

The success of affluent Americans in asserting the privilege to sequester themselves, to retain the benefits of their wealth within the boundaries of their communities, to ignore the welfare of those on the other side of invisible lines, is shortsighted. This nation is ailing because so many of its citizens have no chance to chart their own destinies. A return to health requires a renewed commitment to provide every American with the freedom that comes from stability and opportunity — the freedom to make something of one’s life.

There can be no equality of opportunity in the United States so long as poor children are segregated in poor neighborhoods. And there is only one viable solution: building affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods.

The federal government can help. In 2015, it provided $139.8 billion in payments, tax credits and other forms of housing subsidies — and 60 percent of that money went to households earning at least $100,000, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Imagine what could be accomplished if the government used that money instead to build housing that poorer families could afford to rent.

The government also should require communities that want federal funding for roads and other infrastructure to allow the development of denser, more affordable housing.

But federal interventions can only go so far. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Brown v. Board of Education is not its condemnation of racial segregation, but the bitter lesson that much of America has successfully resisted the legal imperative to end segregation. Progress ultimately requires the consent of the governed: Economic segregation is getting worse because Americans with wealth and power don’t want to help Americans without wealth and power.

The necessary corrective is for states to take back some power from local bastions of privilege. Oregon set a valuable precedent last year by banning single-family zoning in all cities of more than 10,000 people. Similar measures have been proposed in other states, including California and Minnesota. Beyond increasing the supply of affordable homes, such measures have the additional benefit of opening opportunities for the construction industry, helping to stimulate activity and preserve jobs during a recession that will surely hit hard.

Federal and state officials also can crack the walls of those bastions by more vigorously enforcing existing laws against racial segregation. Last year, Newsday reported that real estate agents on Long Island routinely steered black customers to black neighborhoods. The paper conducted a careful investigation, sending matched pairs of customers, white and black, to the same agents. That is a well-established procedure for rooting out discrimination in real estate, so perhaps the most startling takeaway from the paper’s investigation was the revelation that the state of New York does not conduct such testing on a regular basis.

The construction of better cities, more fair and more equal, is the work of generations. Triumphs of egalitarian infrastructure, from the baths of Rome to the subway system of New York, require policymakers to keep their eyes on the horizon. Neighborhoods are made slowly and remade slowly: It can take years to build an apartment building. When Minneapolis eliminated single-family zoning throughout the city last year, officials estimated that it would take decades to see a substantial shift in the composition of the city’s neighborhoods.

In the meantime, governments can make a meaningful difference by breaking the connection between private wealth and the quality of public services.

The most viable escape route from poverty is a good education, beginning at an early age. In 1965, the federal government launched an early education program for lower-income children called Head Start. Darren Walker, who rose from poverty in Louisiana to head the Ford Foundation, has credited his escape to “the young woman with the clipboard who knocked on our door one day,” to sign him up as a student in the program’s first cohort. A growing body of research backs him up. Yet federal investment remains paltry. Head Start is available only to 11 percent of eligible kids below the age of 3, and 36 percent of those ages 3 to 5.

The United States is virtually alone among developed nations in devoting more public resources to educating affluent children than poor children. Breaking the link between property taxation and school funding is an important first step. But equity requires a reversal of the current situation. It simply costs more to provide an equal education to lower-income students. The Netherlands, for example, funds schools at a standard level per student, plus a 25 percent bonus for each student whose parents did not graduate from college.

A vocal group of critics has long questioned whether more public spending would improve education. Such arguments are exercises in obfuscation. What those critics really believe is on display in their own communities, which generally provide lavish funding for well-tended schools stocked with the latest technology and staffed by experienced teachers.

Cities also need to try harder to equalize opportunity within school districts. Most cities assign students to neighborhood schools, making little effort to reduce racial or economic segregation. A 2019 analysis by the economist Tomas E. Monarrez found that attendance boundaries within the average school district reduced segregation by less than 1 percent compared to a simple policy of assigning every student to the closest school.

The racial and economic integration of public education increases the test scores of minorities and lower-income students, and improves their fortunes in later life. Perhaps as important, it inculcates empathy and a sense of community in students from every walk of life.

Shared experience is the foundation of a successful polity, and it is not a stretch to think that simply educating children in integrated schools would begin to close the divides that have paralyzed our politics and made it impossible to address the problems that are crippling the country.

America’s cities are being profoundly tested by a pandemic that has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people and forced the suspension of urban life. Even in cities so far spared the worst of the health crisis, the collapse of tax revenue is forcing elected officials to consider draconian cuts in public services. In such moments, it is hard to dream about what might be.

Yet crises can be clarifying, enforcing a focus on what is necessary and what is important.

Inequality is an inescapable fact of urban life. The Greek philosopher Plato, prefiguring Dr. King by a few thousand years, wrote in The Republic that “any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich.” But the crisis is a reminder that segregation is an illusion. The halves depend on one another. The rich need labor; the poor need capital. And the city needs both. Reducing segregation requires affluent Americans to share, but not necessarily to sacrifice. Building more diverse neighborhoods, and disconnecting public institutions from private wealth, will ultimately enrich the lives of all Americans — and make the cities in which they live and work a model again for the world.

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