^ the new city : socializing in a capitalist progressive way at Row 34 in tghe Seaport District

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Today I want to discuss the centrality of cities in forging a new political economy that I call “capitalist progressivism.” Of which Boston’s entire “Seaport District” is an exemplar and a monument. But first, let’s look back at the transformation that cities have undergone in the past 35 years :

After World War II, and for at lest the next 35 years, city people hastened to leave. The population of many old line American cities topped out in 1940; some peaked even earlier, in 1910. By 1980, many such cities counted less than half of their peak numbers. Some lost even more.

Loss of old industrial jobs caused much of that decline. So did the availability of cheap, newly built houses, on land that had been farms in towns surrounding the cities, and loans enabled by the GI Bill. The arrival in many big cities of people of color led many thousands of Caucasian city dwellers to leave for the suburbs. Others simply wanted a lawn and a driveway.

But that was then. Today, the big city is where it’s at. The technology economy thrives in cities, and the new generation not only does not dislike diversity of skin color and immigrants, it prefers these. In the past 15 years, American cities have Europeanized : one dines bar-terrasse or in bistros, and one eats bistro food; one shops in boutiques, not big department stores. The streets are full of people at all hours of night — not empty of life as they were three decades ago.

The cities of America today house diversities unimaginable 35 years ago : school innovation, entrepots of start-up entrepreneurs, dance music night clubs open till dawn, ethnic restaurants of all kinds, fashion week celebrations, gender fluidity, and political activism of a specifically city bent. All of life feels and sounds different, in today’;s cities, from what our parents’ generation knew and wanted.

Gone are the ostentatious, fake-gilded “McMansions” that people sought in the 1980s and 1990s;today’s city dwellers live in condominiums one-third the size. Some live in “micro apartments” much smaller than that. The McMansion family owned two, three, even four cars, most of them SUVs. Today’s condo-dwelling city person may not own even one car. She uses Zipcar or Uber instead, or bikes to work and the night club.

With this transformation has come new politics. And new economic thinking. Risk capital is the accelerator of the city economy, the creator of all that follows.  The major institutions, holding billions of dollars of deposits and portfolios, have had no choice but to adopt the risk capital ethos : diversity in all things; self expression in one’s personal life and of things imagined; seeing the world beyond not as threat but as opportunity.

To operate a city life, one has to be an optimist; to believe in one’s future; to welcome risk because the reward is having your dreams come true. This sort of self-willed success appears everywhere : on facebook, in pages like those of my friends Anna Maven, Magdalena Ayed, Jacques Dady Jean, Malia Lazu. It’s no accident that all four are people of color. Today’s city is the place where Americans of color are best enabled to race to the top.

But not only people of color. The City Generation of white people, too, envisions new transportation, new community connection, new applications, new politics. And new equalities. It’s no coincidence that marriage equality first came to power in the new cities, or transgender civil rights. “Traditional” ways of doing things don’t intimidate people whose entire ethos is to innovate and to re-imagine.

Given all of the above, it is no surprise that cities are the places whence has arisen recent movements to raise the minimum hourly work wage. The new city is an expensive place to live. Space is scarce, thus rents rocket upward. Boutique wares have a higher price point than those in general or big box stores. Bistro food and creative cuisine can’t be bought for less than 20 dollars — usually more. Same for craft beers and wines. If the minimum hourly wage of workers doesn’t rise to manage necessary spending, the city economy gets held back.

The community impetus of today;’s cities, added to the drive for higher wages, enables a new unionism that embraces fast food workers, big box store employees, airport cleaners., home health aides, and hotel workers. And  restaurant people too : we spend so much time socializing in bistros and pubs, with bartenders and waitpeople, that it friendships develop; it is awkward to be frie with someone who is waiting on you and who, you know, is earning a lot less than you. far better, is it not, that your waitperson or bartender friend earn enough to go shopping and night clubbing with you ?

In today’s city we come to see that the social worth of work has its own value, and that that value should be accounted in the paychecks rewarding it. Perhaps a bartender, the retail girl in a Bebe store, or your sister in law’s baby care person cannot earn as much as an entrepreneur; but why should they not earn at least enough to afford the social life that nothing besides a paycheck could exclude them from ?

All of the spending that happens in social life is discretionary. It’s in the discretionary economy that most growth occurs. Discretionary spending involves choices and thus the outcome of most entrepreneurial competition. This is why cities are now adopting their own, higher minimum age ordinances, some as high as $ 15/hour. My own feeling is that $ 15/hour is not enough for the most dynamic cities. In Boston, the minimum for work should probably be $ 21/hour.

Critics say that a $ 15/hour minimum, much less $ 21/hour, would overturn many business models. I think t.hat business models based on lower wages have already been overturned by city facts on the ground. Low wage people simply cannot participate in city life today. Which limits the growth of city businesses as well as of enterprises that pay low wages.

Meanwhile, the economic, social, and political life of cities makes them the decider in today’s polarized national politics. Suburban communities may vote 60-40, as most do, for this candidate or that; but city voters now vote 80-20 or even 90-10. In the 2012 Presidential election, city voters made more than the difference in who won Ohio and Pennsylvania, Colorado and Wisconsin, Michigan and Virginia. I doubt that the election of 2016 will produce a different result. More likely, even more for the Democrats than the 2012 turnout.

I say that because city populations are growing — fast; while the numbers in outlying communities are holding steady, or declining, everywhere except in a few big-growth states such as Texas and Florida.

And if you harbor any doubt that the new, capitalist progressivism of today’s cities is the way of our future,m check out this brilliant Harold Meyerson look at the politics of California, which he aptly calls a “city state” :

Those of us who live in today’s cities know that we are all California now.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphjere



One Comment

  1. Written for BEARDED MAN:

    The man walks the streets like he’s the king of the town
    Doesn’t talk very much, he’s very profound
    Little Bearded Man, always playing a game
    But today I bet he’s probably forgot my name!


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