When I quote Paul Krugman, which I often do, it’s almost always for an observation about economics. After all, Krugman won his Nobel Prize for economics, and his columns in the New York Times and the subjects he addresses in his newsletter routinely focus on economic issues.
In a recent column, however, Krugman “sang my song”– explaining why many Americans have deserted rural and suburban residencies in order to live in densely populated urban neighborhoods.
He also addressed the impact of America’s rural/urban split on the country’s political culture wars.
I have an apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. It’s a very densely populated area — according to census data the area within a one-mile radius of my place has around 100 residents per acre, or more than 60,000 per square mile. This dense (and, to be honest, affluent) population supports a huge variety of businesses: restaurants, groceries, hardware stores, specialty shops of all kinds. Most of what you might want to do or buy is within easy walking distance.
In effect, then, I live in what some Europeans — most famously Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris — call “a 15-minute city.” It’s a catchy if slightly misleading name for a concept that urbanists have long advocated: walkable cities that take advantage of the possibilities of density.
Modern politics being what it is, alas, it’s also a concept that has been caught up in the culture wars and become the subject of wild conspiracy theories. And as usual the people who yell loudest about “freedom” are actually the ones who want to practice coercion, preventing other Americans from living in ways they disapprove of.
I often come across articles glorifying rural life, and promoting movement “back to the earth.” Like Krugman, however, my husband and I are urban people. We lived many years in historic, near-downtown neighborhoods, and when we got too old to comfortably navigate our last (three-story) house, we moved to an apartment in the very center of our city’s downtown.
Krugman’s column described what has been so liberating about that move: urban life is easy. As he points out, “Running errands is a snap; because you walk most places, you don’t worry about traffic jams or parking spaces.”
And those perceptions of crime and grime? They are simply wrong.
Krugman’s New York is one of the safest places in America, and as the Indianapolis Business Journal recently confirmed, Indianapolis’ downtown is the safest area in our city. (It’s pretty clean, too!)
There’s an unwritten rule in American politics that it’s OK for politicians to disparage big cities and their residents in a way that would be considered unforgivable if anyone did the same for rural areas…. There seems to be a widespread sense that only people living a car-centered lifestyle, or a pickup truck-centered lifestyle, are real Americans….
Now, I don’t know how many Americans would choose the walkable-city lifestyle if it were widely available, but surely many more than are living it now. Unfortunately, urban planning — for cities are always planned, one way or another — is yet another casualty of the politics of grievance and paranoia.
That last observation really hits home.
In conversations with people who are clearly flummoxed by our choice to live downtown, we often hear concerns centered on the very elements of urban life that we celebrate. In Indiana, the “buckle of the Bible Belt”), the center of a city is where you find the most diverse population mix–and for far too many Hoosiers and other Americans, diversity equals danger.
It must be dangerous downtown, because there are so many people who don’t look like me…
There’s a reason apartments and condominiums are being built at a rapid pace in the city core. It’s an attractive, vibrant, quintessentially urban place to live. Even with constant residential construction, occupancy levels are 93- 95%.
When weather permits, my husband and I like to sit in the outdoor/sidewalk section of the restaurant next door to our building, and watch the young, multi-ethnic crowds walk and bike (and scooter) by. We look up Massachusetts Avenue at the multitude of restaurants, bars and shops we regularly patronize.
In an era where media is filled with reports of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and homophobia, our little patch of urban life remains welcoming and enthusiastically “woke.” And I’m gratified to report that the young people who dominate residency in our apartment building are unfailingly polite and helpful to us “old folks.”
We aren’t the only Americans drawn to what urban life has to offer: According to the Department of Agriculture, in 2020, only 14 percent of the U.S. population still lived in the rural counties that continue to dominate American politics and dictate public policy.
I hope I live long enough to see fair representation for the remaining 86% of us.