Sanctuary City is taking on a whole new meaning right now.
All you have to do is look at the election-map mosaics showing lonely patches of blue against a sprawling red background to understand that the most extreme divide in America today is between its dense metropolitan centers and the less populated exurban and rural ones that surround them. Race and ideology are just a function of where we live.
We’ve been told for years that this was supposed to be the urban century, and yet it was the countryside that reasserted itself Tuesday by making Donald Trump president. The reversal of America’s usual geographic dynamics now puts the big cities that dissed him in a difficult position. With Trump’s penchant for holding a grudge, how will they fare? Can the gains that places like Philadelphia made during the Obama years — growing their populations, adding new housing stock, creating high-tech jobs — be sustained?
Given the anger and anti-immigrant feelings that Trump brought out in his campaign, cities could be in for a rough time. Trump repeatedly promoted stereotypes of “inner cities,” calling them “hell” and insisting they were “a disaster education-wise, job-wise, safety-wise.”
That phrase “inner city” always came off as jarringly outdated, something out of the Great Society efforts and upheavals of the '60s. Of course, there are places in Philadelphia that suffer from entrenched poverty and the urban ills that Trump describes. But the same failings could just as easily be found in great swaths of Pennsylvania or Ohio. Poverty in America is no more defined by geography than it is by skin color, and yet it was cities (and racial minorities) that Trump demonized.
That has caused Bruce Katz, who runs the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, to tweet that “we are in global battle between nationalism (nativist, dogmatic, nostalgic) and Urbanism (diverse, pragmatic, affirmative, futurist).
Of all people, Trump should understand the situation is far more nuanced. The New York-born real estate developer has profited his entire career from building in those supposedly hellish inner cities, where he constructed high-rises largely patronized by the one percent. Surely he knows that one of the biggest economic stories of the last few decade has been the revival of America’s major downtowns.
That didn’t happen by accident. As the world has become more globalized, cities with strong transit and educational connections were in a good position to take advantage of the changes. They managed to prosper even as the disconnected, car-dependent parts of the country were being hollowed out.
Trump, of course, rode to victory by promising to restore the steel plants and coal mines that once provided jobs in those isolated rust belt towns. But it’s a fantasy to think the United States will be able to create substantial numbers of new blue-collar jobs by resurrecting such outmoded 20th-century industries. That is not, as Trump claims, because of immigrants stealing American jobs, or China’s undercutting the U.S. on price. It’s because automation long ago eliminated the need for scads of workers to feed the blast furnaces of steel mills.
There’s no doubt many Trump voters rallied around him because of the deep unease they feel about technology and the disruption it has already done to their livelihoods. It's painful to have your world turned upside-down. Blaming the urban elites for the upheaval (or those in not-so-urban locations, like Silicon Valley) has long been a convenient populist political trope.
Instead of this nostalgic obsession with reviving industrial jobs, Trump would do better to worry about the next assault on America’s unskilled workers: self-driving cars and long-haul trucks. They’re likely to become a reality before his four years are over. What kind of jobs will replace them?
The ones in cities, for starters.
If you look at the Philadelphia region, the best new jobs are being created around its research universities and hospitals. One of Philadelphia’s big strategic advantages is 30th Street Station, with its links to the airport and the Northeast corridor. That explains why Drexel University and Brandywine Realty Trust have partnered to create a 14-acre innovation district next to the station, and why so many millennials have flocked here for jobs.
One Trump campaign promise could help cities. He says he plans to invest heavily in infrastructure. If he really cares about creating jobs, he won’t repeat the mistake of Obama’s rushed stimulus and spend the money on highways in remote states. Certainly, there are plenty of broken-down bridges around the county that need attention, but the money will be far more transformative if it funds the kind of transit that makes it possible for people to access jobs. Nothing would help revive struggling smaller cities like Allentown and Pottstown than direct transit connections to Philadelphia and New York.
Even if some of his infrastructure money does trickle down to cities, most urban governments expect to be left to their own devices in the next few years. We’re going to be seeing more self-funding initiatives, like Mayor Kenney’s soda tax, which was crafted to pay for pre-K instruction. One of the more heartening results of Tuesday’s election was Los Angeles’ passage of a half-cent sales tax to fund a major transit expansion.
The people in the cities and inner-ring suburbs might not be Trump’s natural allies. But unless he learns to tend to their needs, the whole country will suffer.