Teeming with people, cities nourish creativity and commerce. But their tightly packed populations have also incubated germs—some of them lethal. In our exceptional cover story, “Germs and the City”, Peter Huber takes the reader from the birth of smallpox in the first towns of the Indus River Valley to the cholera epidemics of the Victorian era to today’s first-world metropolises and their antibiotic-popping urbanites, who think of epidemics as something out of the history books (if they think of them at all). As Huber shows, it took an extraordinary cultural, political, and scientific effort to rid the city of infectious disease, a feat that we largely accomplished by the 1950s. But our very success has left us complacent and careless. We’ve neglected the germ-hating cultural habits that once provided the first line of defense against infection, and we have made it prohibitively expensive and difficult for drug companies to develop new vaccines and antibiotics, so that most no longer even try. But one way or another—cooked up by evolution or conjured in a terrorist’s lab—microbial monsters will return. Unless we get, and stay, horrified, argues Huber, we won’t be ready for them.
To flourish, cities must ward off not just killer germs but also human predators. The first duty of any urban government is to ensure that citizens aren’t too scared to step outside, as two gripping stories in this issue underscore. No one’s done better reporting on post-Katrina New Orleans than Nicole Gelinas, a Tulane grad and former resident of the city. Her latest on-the-ground account, “Baghdad on the Bayou,” shows how out-of-control crime—driven by a returning criminal underclass—threatens the Big Easy’s recovery from the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. A murder rate that in New York would mean more than 7,000 homicides a year, together with other violent crime, endemic property theft, and general disorder, has created a climate of fear that risks driving away many of New Orleans’s law-abiding residents and keeping other good citizens, eager to rebuild, from coming back. Gelinas blames weak political leadership, a revolving-door criminal-justice system, and an elite culture that still thinks that fighting crime requires solving all of society’s problems first. But she sees signs of hope among some New Orleanians, whose new, we’re-not-going-to-take-it-any-more attitude may save their flood-ruined city.
No one could be further from New Orleans–style political fecklessness than Newark’s new mayor, Cory Booker. A rising star in American politics, Booker knows what’s necessary to restore that ailing city to health, reports Steven Malanga in “Cory Booker’s Battle for Newark”—above all, a heavy dose of the “Broken Windows” policing that Rudy Giuliani famously brought to New York during the nineties. Booker confronts truly tough odds: entrenched political corruption, an urban population with severe social problems, and a higher crime rate than pre-Giuliani New York’s. By all rights, Jersey’s largest city, with its ideal location (just 15 minutes from Gotham) and low costs, should be prospering. Instead, its future may depend on Booker’s success.
Cities also need freedom in order to thrive—something that China’s people want but don’t yet have, because of the Communist Party’s continuing oppression, notes Guy Sorman in “The Empire of Lies,”. Sorman—one of Europe’s leading defenders of free markets—spent much of 2005 and 2006 in China, meeting with Party officials, dissidents, and average citizens, while visiting the vast cities as well as the impoverished, alienated countryside, where few non-Chinese go. His riveting travelogue reveals a China far weaker politically, and far more precarious economically, than many in the West recognize.
With this issue of City Journal, Myron Magnet becomes editor-at-large, after 12 remarkable years at the helm—years that saw a tiny quarterly blossom into one of the nation’s most influential intellectual magazines. A few lines here couldn’t begin to capture the gratitude that all of us at
City Journal feel toward Myron, whose editorial judgment, literary excellence, and—the word is fitting—urbanity will inform every aspect of the magazine as it goes forward.
—Brian C. Anderson