David Brooks: American cities and suburbs are better than they have ever been

David Brooks argues that despite pessimism and a lack of leadership, American communities are in good shape:

I’ve been living in and visiting New York for almost a half-century now. One thought occurs as I walk around these days: The city has never been better.

There has never been a time when there were so many interesting places to visit, shop and eat, when the rivers and the parks were so beautiful, when there were so many vibrant neighborhoods across all boroughs, with immigrants and hipsters and new businesses and experimental schools. I suppose New York isn’t as artistically or intellectually rich as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, but daily life is immeasurably better.

And when I think about the 15 or 20 largest American cities, the same thought applies. Compared with all past periods, American cities and suburbs are sweeter and more interesting places. Of course there are the problems of inequality and poverty that we all know about, but there hasn’t been a time in American history when so many global cultures percolated in the mainstream, when there was so much tolerance for diverse ethnicities, lifestyles and the complex directions of the heart, when there was so little tolerance for disorder, domestic violence and prejudice.

Widening the lens, we’re living in an era with the greatest reduction in global poverty ever — across Asia and Africa. We’re seeing a decline in civil wars and warfare generally.

The scope of the problems we face are way below historic averages. We face nothing like the slavery fights of the 1860s, the brutality of child labor and industrialization of the 1880s, or a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I, the Great Depression, World War II or the Cold War. Even next to the 1970s — which witnessed Watergate, stagflation, social decay and rising crime — we are living in a golden age.

Brooks isn’t the only person to make such a general suggestion about our world. For example, Stephen Pinker notes the reduction in violence and war in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Gregg Easterbrook wrote The Progress Paradox. Yet, Brooks is one of the few public figures who have applied these ideas to American cities and suburbs. The public perceptions about cities are usually pretty bad even as the nicer parts of these communities are perhaps nicer than they have ever been. Critics argue suburbs may look nice but are lacking in genuine community as well as diversity.

Perhaps this is one of those situations where Brooks may just be right but perceptions matter as well. As W. I. Thomas famously said, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” The number of murders in big cities may be down over 50%, shopping districts are booming, numerous gleaming condo buildings are going up, and still the average person might be worried.

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