The Cities We Need

May 11, 2020

The Editorial Board

The New York Times

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.

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