In 1970, the Harvard University political scientist Edward C. Banfield published The Unheavenly City. The book sold widely, aroused controversy, and became prominent in political and policy debate, even being featured in Life. University students disrupted Banfield’s classes and protested his speeches. Before “political correctness,” Banfield was already a victim of it.

In 1974, Banfield brought out a revised and expanded version of his book, The Unheavenly City Revisited, where he calmly addressed his critics. The truth of his arguments about the economic, cultural, and political processes of American cities, he argued, could be “either confirmed or denied” only some “twenty or thirty years hence.” His book was thus meant to be one for the ages—not the kind that professors usually write, highlighting one discreet concern or a particular solution for it. In the preface to a 1990 reissue of the book, Banfield noted that “the serious problems of the cities remain essentially as they were twenty years ago.” Therefore, he wrote, “I am obliged to conclude, albeit ungraciously, that my conclusions were accurate.” He also predicted that “the next twenty years will not find ‘solutions’ that are both feasible and acceptable.” That would bring us to 2010.

Taking the long view, as Banfield advised, it would now seem an opportune moment to reassess his work. Reading The Unheavenly City and City Politics (his other book on urban issues, written with his student James Q. Wilson) reveals many lessons either forgotten or never learned. Most remain controversial. Banfield rightly predicted that many would see his work as the product of an “ill-tempered and mean-spirited fellow.”

The foundation of Banfield’s urbanism is an interconnected argument: most of what we view as urban “problems” are not really problems at all, and the genuinely serious issues are not amenable to “policy solutions” that are technically feasible and morally legitimate in a democratic society. This premise is hard for many to accept, since it undercuts the faith that government can make society more rational and more moral.

Many problems thought to be of crisis proportions, Banfield argues, are defined imprecisely or erroneously. Rather, these are conditions of city living that “we either cannot eliminate or do not want to incur the disadvantages of eliminating.” Congestion is one. As Banfield put it, “if [a city] were not congested, it would not be worth coming to.” Ultimately, congestion is a condition that merely affects the “comfort, convenience, amenity, and business advantage” of a city, not the essential health of individuals or society.

Other problems are simply the result of how some people want things that others think they should not want. Take urban sprawl. Some want the satisfaction of living in a low-density area on the fringe of a city. Others think that this desire is harmful because it comes at the cost of greater traffic congestion and air pollution from commuting to the city center for work.

Viewed in this light, most urban problems are “nowhere near as big as they seem,” Banfield maintained. They are instead more like a “bad cold,” a minor health condition that requires attention, lest it worsen. Public policy can mitigate the inconvenient aspects of such “conditions.” Officials can reduce congestion, for instance, by introducing congestion pricing or providing more (and better) public transportation.

When officials don’t do these things, it’s because doing so would require the sacrifice of other ends that individuals or groups also desire. For instance, New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects are vastly more expensive per mile of track than in comparable cities. The infamous Second Avenue Subway project cost almost eight times as much as recent subway extensions in Berlin and Paris. Overstaffing and high union wages are largely to blame, but few New York officials propose to cut construction jobs and wages or renegotiate burdensome work rules. Banfield concluded that “the ‘price’ of solving, or alleviating, some much talked-about city problems . . . may be largely political.”

Or think of housing. It’s costly because so many people want to live in cities. Building new housing in New York City and San Francisco is especially expensive. A 2005 study found that the price tag for building a 15-story, multiunit apartment building in New York was the highest of any city in America (San Francisco was second). These out-of-whack costs are due largely to myriad regulations, laws, and historic-preservation designations that few city leaders propose to abolish. Consequently, middle-income people struggle to find housing they can afford, while construction unions and trial lawyers—two powerful lobbies—continue to flourish.

Children playing outside the Ida B. Wells Homes, Chicago, 1973 (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

The truly serious ills of cities—crime, poverty, joblessness, racial discrimination, and rioting—touch on the essential health of individuals and society. These are more akin to cancer than to a cold, as they can lead to real calamities. But because we do not (and probably cannot) know their root causes, these problems can at best be coped with, not fully solved. Crime and rioting can be held in check, as New York’s experience in the 1990s and early 2000s showed, but never fully eliminated. In fact, many attempts to address these problems through “rational management,” Banfield argued, “are almost certain to make matters worse.” And yet, even these serious issues were improving on their own, through the operations of society and the market.

For example, Banfield argued (in 1970!), racial discrimination was not the primary factor holding back black Americans. Rather, blacks suffered, not unlike the Irish or Italians, from being “the most recent unskilled and hence relatively low-income, migrant to reach the city from a backward rural area.” Compounding this problem, southern blacks arrived in northern cities in large numbers just as low-skilled manufacturing jobs began to decline.

Three further issues cloud the matter. One is that we overemphasize “purely racial” aspects of the condition of urban blacks, while downplaying nonracial (or contingently racial) factors, such as age, income, class, occupation, and origin. Second, we often fail to distinguish between “historical” causes of present inequalities and “presently operating” causes. Historically, of course, racial prejudice was a powerful force in inhibiting black progress, and it helps explain many present-day inequalities. But that does not mean that racial prejudice today is of the same magnitude or operates in the same way. Finally, we too often mistake race problems for class problems. About one-fifth of the black population is among the country’s most economically disadvantaged. Many social woes, such as crime, are more concentrated among this disadvantaged group. What often appears as racial prejudice, Banfield claimed, is really confused class prejudice.

Banfield was thus guardedly optimistic about the prospects of urban blacks, suggesting that they could “be expected to close much of the gap between their levels of welfare and those of whites much faster than most people would probably imagine.” While many blacks continue to struggle in urban labor markets, the progress made since the time Banfield wrote is striking. The U.S. currently has the largest number of middle-class blacks in the world. In business and public employment, strong federal laws and agencies enforce bans on discrimination and many blacks have reached high positions. In housing, many have moved out of inner cities to the suburbs, and overall housing segregation is declining. In politics, blacks have won significant representation in city halls, Congress, the Supreme Court, the cabinet, and even the presidency itself.

Banfield foresaw, though, that formal legal equality and a decline in white prejudice would not eliminate the difficulties of black Americans. Indeed, some have worsened. The employment prospects of urban black youth have diminished. Out-of-wedlock births have risen among blacks, from 25 percent of all births in 1965 to nearly 70 percent today. In schools, blacks have not closed the achievement gap with whites, and progress appears to have stalled, especially for black boys. A huge number of blacks are incarcerated; almost a third of young black non-college men are currently serving time. Finally, predominantly black neighborhoods have persisted, where the poor, the poorly educated, the unemployed, and the unemployable are increasingly concentrated.

As Nathan Glazer remarked in 2009, “That we seem nowhere near overcoming these problems, a half-century after we thought the stain of black subordination in American life had been wiped clean, is sobering indeed.” Banfield would not have been surprised. In his view, public policy is largely unable to address the deepest issues afflicting urban black communities—what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called a “tangle of pathologies.” We remain bogged down in trying to understand the contrast between structural and cultural explanations and how they interact. Behavior may respond to structural realities (for example, lack of employment), or it may result from deep-seated habits in family and in child-rearing practices that have failed to change in a context of new opportunities.

Broad Street, New York, 1955 (Photo by Lawrence Thornton/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Banfield’s argument that government policy often made a bad situation worse also faced objections. Consider the claim that historical housing discrimination against blacks explains the present-day wealth gap between blacks and whites. Real-estate assets are the primary way Americans build wealth—a key means of upward mobility. On this view, redlining and other discriminatory practices excluded blacks from key markets, making it hard for them to get ahead. Yet, this explanation ignores a key fact: the mass arrival of blacks in northern cities in the 1940s and 1950s coincided with the expansion of public housing. Blacks continue to be overrepresented in public housing today, occupying 44 percent of HUD-subsidized rental housing. Public housing has thus discouraged blacks from acquiring real estate, however modest.

Another reason that government could do little to address the deepest social troubles was the class structure of American cities. The class composition of the city, Banfield observed, is among the “constraints which the policymaker must take into account and which limit what he may accomplish.” Banfield propounds a “heuristic hypothesis,” whereby he divides the population of American cities into four classes—upper, middle, working, and lower. Each class has its own culture that “exhibits a characteristic patterning [of behavior] that extends to all aspects of life: manners, consumption, child-rearing, sex, politics, or whatever.” “Class cultures” are distinguished mainly by “the individual’s orientation toward the future,” or, more specifically, by the “ability to discipline oneself to sacrifice present for future satisfaction.” The degree of future versus present orientation describes individuals’ level of self-control. In addition, individuals in each class vary in the scope of their empathic impulses. The “upper-class individual,” Banfield explains, “feels a strong attachment to . . . formal organization, the neighborhood, the nation, the world . . . toward which he . . . wants to stand in a relation of fellowship.” The result is an ethos of public-spiritedness.

At the other end of the spectrum stand urban America’s “lower classes,” whose culture is more present-oriented and more self-regarding than those of the other classes. Lower-class persons often seek immediate gratification, Banfield claims. They live “moment to moment,” lack impulse control, and are prone to “improvidence and irresponsibility.” Further, the lower-class person’s circle of empathy is highly circumscribed. “The lower-class individual,” Banfield suggests, tends to feel “no attachment to community, neighbors, or friends. . . . He is a nonparticipant: he belongs to no voluntary organizations.”

American cities have generally been engines of upward mobility, with Americans ascending the class ladder over time. The poor, of course, are not synonymous with the lower class, in Banfield’s sense. For the truly lower class, which Banfield calls “pathological,” it is not clear that many have ever moved up. While such persons exist in rural areas, a significant number reside in America’s cities. It is from this relatively small group (no one really knows its precise size) that so many of our cities’ serious challenges emanate.

Neighborhood effects supposedly can shape behavior. Others argue that, if you transform the surrounding culture, behavior will change. The recent work of Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathanial Hendren, and Lawrence Katz suggests that using federal programs to relocate poor minorities to wealthier areas could boost the upward mobility of disadvantaged kids. Others, including Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckmen, have recently begun to question how much the policymaker can really do to change culture—and suggest that perhaps he can only do so modestly through interventions in early childhood. 

Many expansive “fair housing” policies seek to ensure that poor minorities, who have historically clustered in low-income urban neighborhoods, can avail themselves of the better schools and safety of high-income suburban locales. Support for “deconcentrating poverty”—that is, reducing the percentage of poor people within specific areas by relocating them elsewhere—has gained momentum from a recent Supreme Court decision and new social-science research. The question Banfield raises is whether these interventions will truly reach the “lower class” rather than simply assist those with middle-class values who happen to be economically poor.

Urban reforms foster expectations that consistently outpace social gains. Things may be improving, but the standards for evaluating contemporary conditions are always rising faster. Frustration and impatience are thus perennial. In this respect, cities will always suffer from “problems” and “crises” that can never be fully “solved.” Banfield shows us how to face them with equanimity. Revisiting his work offers a way to put race relations, education, housing, crime, and other urban policy debates into a broader perspective.

Top Photo: Edward Banfield (1916–1999) (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)


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