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 “What’s at stake is nothing less than self-governance.”

 That’s what David Simon, creator of the television show The Wire, said in a speech last month when he described the state of American cities:

We’re an urban species now . . . the pastoral is now a part of human history. We’re either going to figure out how to live together in these increasingly crowded, increasingly multicultural population centers, or we’re not.

 And, Simon expressed concern about whether Americans are fully rising to that challenge:

There’s been a great walking away from those first words in what was our earliest contract of politics, which was government of, by, and for the people.

Simon’s Wire—a show I’ve watched three times, and some critics has said is the best television show ever—presents a powerful vision of cities as interlocking neighborhoods and institutions. It offers an explanation of what makes cities succeed (or fail) by examining how its various communities work together (or not).

Simon’s is not the only contemporary work out there of American cities, of course. For example, Richard Florida’s influential work on the “creative class” holds out a very different vision from Simon’s: while Simon’s vision emphasizes collectivities of neighborhoods and institutions, Florida’s emphasizes the importance of individual entrepreneurs and artists whose individual efforts sum to make for the flourishing or floundering of cities.

Nothing better shows Florida’s emphasis on creative individuals than his “Bohemian Index,” which ranks cities by their bohemian quotient—the more bohemians, the better. (For those of you who are Wire fans and want a measure of how different Simon’s and Florida’s visions are, ask yourself: What would The Wire’s Proposition Joe have said about the worth of the bohemians?)

Simon and Florida, and other theorists of cities besides, have thus taken up these questions: What is a city? And what makes a good city? We might think that these are particularly interesting and challenging questions in America, which began—at least in the view of Jefferson and many other Founders—as a country of farmers and so as a country defined by its rural, rather than urban, character.

I was thinking about the work of Simon and Florida when I read the New York Times’ account of philanthropists’ and foundations’ recent commitment of $366 million to aid Detroit. The commitment of this sum came about after a lot of backroom wheeling and dealing:

“I said if you do $100 million, we should give $20 million,” Mr. Ibargüen [president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation] remembered telling Mr. Walker [president of the Ford Foundation. “He said, ‘I think we have a beginning of a deal.’ ”

This description makes it sound like a sort of sport to put forward these big sums and assemble together a team of philanthropists willing to spend big bucks on Detroit.

But nowhere in the article did one get a sense that these big dealers had a vision of what makes for a good city that was guiding their commitment of these great sums. Maybe there is such a vision, and it wasn’t reported (the closest to anything of the sort was a quote from Ford Foundation president Walker, who said, “We can’t give up on our cities”—a vacuous statement into which almost anything could be read).

As Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million investment in Newark schools amply demonstrated, it’s possible to spend a lot of money in one city without turning things around.

It can be said that the philanthropists’ commitment to Detroit secured some of the grounds for Detroit to get out of bankruptcy and thus provided some relief for the retirees and residents.

But has it helped lay the way for a revitalization of Detroit? For that, we need to have a vision of what the good city is. There’s a lot of thinking out there about what could make for a good city. But it’s not clear that such a vision drove this deal.




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