If Republicans' portrayal of cities in this year's presidential campaign as a hellscape of violence and pestilence seems familiar, it's because once upon a time, around a half-century ago, a lot of Americans did fear and pity cities. By reputation, and to some degree in fact, they were places where the poor, the drug-addicted and the criminally inclined lived in crumbling buildings on dirty, dangerous streets. Policymakers of that era called on the country to address these "urban" problems, with urban being a polite synonym for poor and Black.
But then some people started returning to cities, despite their problems. First the hippies and artists came, drawn by cheap rents for apartments and old houses where sunlight streamed through double-hung windows onto hardwood floors. Then came young lawyers and architects. Then all sorts of people, even families with young children.
By the turn of the third millennium, cities had turned around, not just in the United States but also all over the world. They had gotten safer, cleaner, richer and more populous. Characters in countless TV shows and movies led fulfilling lives in urban environments, with "urban" now meaning cool, interesting and less car-oriented.
And many of the people who remained in the suburbs, small towns and rural areas no longer pitied cities. In fact, they often envied them. Taylor Swift, back in 2011 when she was still primarily a country music star, won two Grammys for "Mean," in which she sang, "Someday I'll be living in a big old city." City-dwelling as a mark of triumph and success: This would have been unimaginable in a country music song a decade or two previously.
I remind people of this because cities have had a tough time in the last half-year, roughly since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, initially hitting urban areas the hardest. Many city inhabitants, particularly the wealthier ones, have fled, taking refuge in second homes or in those of relatives. So cities have lost population. The sudden interest in suburban and rural real estate suggests that at least some of this population loss may not be temporary.
Meanwhile, cities across the country have been convulsed with protests following the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans at the hands of police. Some of those protests have turned violent and deadly, most recently in Portland, Ore., and in Kenosha, Wis., after the shooting of Jacob Blake in August.
Then there's the general resurgence of crime. Violent crime, particularly murder, has soared in the last six months in many cities. The Wall Street Journal reported in August that homicide rates have risen this year in 36 of the 50 biggest cities. "The murder rate is still low compared with previous decades," the newspaper's Jon Hilsenrath wrote, "and other types of serious crime have dropped in the past few months. But researchers, police and some residents fear the homicide spike, if not tamed, could threaten an urban renaissance spurred in part by more than two decades of declining crime."
Just why violent crime is rising is unclear, although it's probably related somehow to the pandemic. There are unemployed people with time on their hands, as well as fewer schools, churches and other social institutions providing structure. And some theorize that police are being less aggressive after the backlash over the deaths of some citizens at police hands, or that the need to deal with the Black Lives Matter protests has drawn them away from wider crime-control efforts.
So whereas a year ago cities might have conjured up images of jovial young people at work and play, now for many Americans the image is of buildings burning, tear gas drifting over protesters, and bodies of those killed in disputed circumstances.
It probably shouldn't be surprising that all this has become a political issue, with Republicans seeking to capitalize on cities' current problems. "The top 10 most dangerous cities in the country are run by Democrats and have been for many decades," President Trump said in his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination at the party's national convention in August. Claiming that Democratic nominee Joe Biden has "ignored" African American crime victims, Trump added, "If the radical left takes power, they will apply their disastrous policies to every town, city, and suburban America."
Aside from his dire forecasts, Trump's remarks do highlight another long-term trend: Cities have become overwhelmingly Democratic. So it's probably true that Democrats run the 10 most dangerous cities, depending on how you define "city" and "dangerous." But it's also true that Democrats, mostly, run the 10 safest cities, the 10 richest cities — cities of every type.
It's also true that the surge of violent crime isn't exclusive to cities run by Democrats. As the Journal points out, homicide is also rising in cities with Republican mayors, including Jacksonville, Miami, Omaha, San Diego and Tulsa, as well as in two cities run by independents, Las Vegas and San Antonio.
Some of these labels may not be strictly accurate. Mayoral elections in most cities are at least nominally nonpartisan. But what is true is that the geography of where people live has become more partisan. Far more Democrats than Republicans now choose to live in cities. This is true even for smaller cities set in more rural areas.
Danville, Va., for example, is a former textile and tobacco community of about 40,000 people on the border of North Carolina. You might think this small city set amid tobacco fields would lean Republican, but even there, citizens strongly voted Democratic in the last presidential election. And Danville's resurgent downtown is typically urban in the new sense of the word, with coffeehouses serving almond-milk lattes and old warehouses along the Dan River converted into loft apartments.
Or look at Houston and Salt Lake City. Both are in states that have long voted Republican, but Democrats have controlled them for decades, which has led to tensions with their Republican-led statehouses. Brigham Young, one of the founders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, laid out Salt Lake in the 19th century, and the church's main temple and international headquarters are there. But most Mormons, who tend to vote Republican, have moved to the suburbs.
The irony here, and the larger problem for the nation, is that while cities have gotten richer, safer and cleaner in recent decades, many suburbs and rural areas have gotten dirtier, poorer and more dangerous as opioid epidemics have taken root in the wake of job losses fueled by factory closings and other trends. But in this campaign season we're not hearing much about those issues as Trump and other Republicans try to pin cities' short-term problems on Democrats while conveniently omitting the long-term successes.
Trump is taking a page from Karl Rove. One of the masterminds behind President George W. Bush's election in 2000 and re-election in 2004, Rove used to advise candidates to attack political opponents on their strengths. If this year's voters can be shown only images from the last six months, then they may forget that Democrats haven't destroyed cities; they have built them up, and very well too. The reality is that we'd all be better off if Democrats could do to the suburbs and rural areas what they have done to our cities.
Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.