In Prospect

Summer 2011

From ancient Athens to contemporary New York, the city has traditionally been the cradle of social dynamism, of political liberty, and of cultural and economic creativity. But cities always need vigilant protection, through effective policies, from various forces that threaten to harm them.

In the twenty-first century, as New Yorkers know well ten years after September 11, 2001, one of those forces is Islamic terrorism. In “New York 9/11/11,” Judith Miller reports on the New York Police Department’s tireless counterterrorism efforts, which have thwarted several deadly plots against the city—still jihadists’ leading target—over the last decade, even as the nature of the terrorist threat has begun to shift from international conspiracy to homegrown, ad hoc menace. Preventing another terrorism catastrophe has been NYPD chief Ray Kelly’s Number One concern, and Miller’s riveting behind-the-scenes piece shows how he has transformed the force into America’s most effective and innovative terror-busting agency, with cutting-edge technology, effective intelligence, and smart use of personnel—all the while helping drive crime down to historical lows. (As James Q. Wilson observes in “Crime and the Great Recession,” the fact that crime fell during the post-financial-crisis economic downturn should put paid to the criminological commonplace that joblessness causes people to break the law.)

Another force threatening American cities is budgetary and economic. State budget battles have dominated headlines this year, with governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin trying to bring excessive public-employee costs under control. But as Steven Malanga’s important cover story, “The Compensation Monster Devouring Cities” explains, America’s problem with government-worker pay and benefits is disproportionately local. For years, municipal politicians have given public-sector unions cushy deals, including the right to retire at 50 or 55 with fat pensions that feature annual cost-of-living adjustments and full health care for life. Such munificence has brought many cities, where compensation can eat up 80 percent of budgets these days, to the edge of fiscal disaster. Unless substantial reform happens soon, Malanga says, many urbanites will watch their taxes skyrocket and their services collapse. Reform won’t be easy, though: as Theodore Dalrymple details in “Austerity in the U.K.,” on Britain’s struggle to bring its budget under control, it is always easier to expand the size of government than to shrink it, which causes real pain.

In “Lost Angeles,” social theorist and longtime Angeleno Joel Kotkin describes the swift, shocking decline of the nation’s second-biggest city. Not long ago an economic powerhouse, Los Angeles is today struggling to keep on its feet. The city suffers from one of the highest unemployment rates among the nation’s major metro areas, rivaling basket-case Detroit’s; its infrastructure is crumbling; and businesses and citizens are fleeing in droves. An increasingly feckless and out-of-touch business class, Kotkin argues, has done little to oppose the rise of the Latino-labor machine that is throttling L.A.’s vitality. To recover its former greatness, he says, the City of Angels needs a major shift in its political culture, and the best hope for that resides with L.A.’s vibrant ethnic entrepreneurs and beleaguered middle-class homeowners, who could forge a new coalition for change.

Another city-endangering force is not man-made but seismic: earthquakes. Claire Berlinski’s “1 Million Dead in 30 Seconds” warns that, in an increasingly urbanized world, earthquakes, which can destroy shoddy buildings instantly, pose the biggest urban policy challenge of all. Unfortunately, Berlinski argues, too many cities around the world, from Bogotá to Mexico City to Tehran, are ignoring “seismic risk mitigation”—that is, they’re not taking steps to make their swelling populations less vulnerable to disaster. Frequently, it’s not lack of money and resources that poses the biggest obstacle to change—some of the most unprepared cities are relatively prosperous, Berlinski notes—but corrupt institutions and fatalistic cultural norms.

Terrorism, an overindulged public sector, natural disasters: three very different challenges, but none fated to defeat cities, so long as policymakers take the right steps.

—Brian C. Anderson