Thirty years ago, my morning commute took me on foot across New York City’s West 42nd Street. It was not a good place to start the day. The street was lined with peepshows, porn theaters, and shabby shops, and its sidewalks were littered with trash and a smattering of unconscious human beings from the night before. Dante would have been speechless.
Today, critics complain that 42nd Street is too squeaky-clean, that it has been “Disneyfied.” I prefer to marvel at the rebirth of the storied entertainment mecca New Yorkers once called the Deuce. New York City’s rebirth is a particularly inspiring story, but it has been repeated to one degree or another—with a few notable exceptions—in cities across the country. Crime is down, business is up, and while Americans are not flocking back to live there, they now see downtown as an exciting (and safe) place to go. There is a sense that some of the last great urban problems, particularly improving public education, won’t prove so intractable after all. At a time when the United States is beset by self-doubt, it’s important to appreciate such triumphs.
For cities, as for people, resilience is a precious quality. In our cover stories in this issue, we have moved in for a street-level look at the sources of resilience that are reshaping American cities. In a revealing close-up, Tom Vanderbilt shows that while the 21st-century American metropolis won’t be an industrial city, it cannot be a city without industry. Witold Rybczynski, the foremost observer of the city in our time, gauges the likely effect of the forces that seem to be propelling us toward much denser cities. From the sidewalks of Washington, D.C., Sarah L. Courteau explores the dilemmas of gentrification in her own changing neighborhood. City official David Zipper describes how he and others are working to build on the success of downtown retail revivals by recruiting grocery store operators and other retailers to help spread vitality to poor inner-city neighborhoods.
These writers take us a long way from 42nd Street, and that’s the point. The urban comeback is a continuing story.