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The Left’s Surging Urban Activism

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The Left’s Surging Urban Activism

10 Blocks podcast September 11, 2019
Cities

City Journal contributing editor Christopher Rufo joins Brian Anderson to discuss an increasingly influential progressive faction in many cities—one that seeks to rebuild the urban environment to achieve a wide range of environmentalist and social-justice goals.

According to Rufo, these “New Left urbanists” rally around controversial (and often dubious) ideas like banning cars and constructing new public housing projects. While all urban residents want to improve their city’s quality-of-life, radical left-wing policies aren’t the way to get there.

Check out Howard Husock’s new book, Who Killed Civil Society? (available now).

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Hi, everyone. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Before we get started with today’s episode, I want to tell our listeners about a new book, it’s just out by my colleague here at the Manhattan Institute, Howard Husock. It’s called Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms.

It’s an important book about the decline of key institutions of civil society—institutions like the YMCA, the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Rotary Clubs—and why government-run programs designed to replace these private efforts have, in Husock’s view, generally failed.

The role of civic organizations in America and American life has been a major focus here at the Manhattan Institute and at City Journal for years. In fact, on October 16th, we’re hosting the annual Civil Society Awards in New York City, where we’ll honor four outstanding non-profit groups for their efforts in helping to solve the country’s most pressing challenges. If you’re interested in that, you can visit the Manhattan Institute website to learn more.

But again, the book by Howard Husock is called Who Killed Civil Society? It’s on sale today and I hope you’ll check it out–we’ll link to it in the show description and you can find it on Amazon or wherever books are sold. That’s it for the announcement, thanks for listening and enjoy the show.

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today from his home in Seattle is Christopher Rufo. Chris is a documentary filmmaker based and a City Journal contributing editor. He’s been writing a lot for us over the last year and we’re happy to have him back on the podcast. He had a couple of short pieces in the Summer issue, one of which was just adapted by The Wall Street Journal with the title “New Left Urbanists Want to Remake Your City.” We’ll talk about piece, which is about the new politics of cities, homelessness, and more with Chris Rufo after the break. 

Brian Anderson: Hello again, everyone. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal.

Joining me on the show today is Chris Rufo. Chris is a documentary film maker based in Seattle and a City Journal contributing editor. You can follow him on Twitter @realchrisrufo. Chris, thanks so much for being on the show again. So, Let's start with the recent piece you've written for us and that was adapted in the Wall Street Journal, on the new Left urbanists. Who are they?

Chris Rufo: The new Left urbanists are this new faction of progressive political power in America's biggest cities. It's something that I've been observing over the last year and really trying to figure out how it's taking shape, but basically these are folks who are using old-school, bread-and-butter city political issues like infrastructure, transportation, housing, bike lanes– but they're taking it and they're radicalizing it. They have a vision of really taking over the urban space and transforming it according to their desires and perceived needs, and it's not really about infrastructure. That's the thing I learned after observing these folks: reading their reports, looking at some of the rhetoric. It's actually this hyper-progressive activism. They see social justice, racial justice, economic justice– all of these huge things they think they can achieve by modifying and essentially taking over the public infrastructure of American cities.

Brian Anderson: Well, one area of activism you discuss– and it would fall under, to some degree, infrastructure– is transportation policy. We've supported at City Journal some form of congestion pricing in Manhattan to ease what is a very serious traffic clog, especially in Midtown, and recognize, as most people do, the need to have a robust, funded public transportation system. Where do the new Left urbanists, in your view, go beyond these kind of positions in this area?

Chris Rufo: That's a great question. When you look at the history of the New York subway system, I think that what you saw maybe a hundred years ago at the turn of the century was really a modernist vision. People were trying to figure out how can we use the subway system to get people where they need to go in a way that's efficient, in a way that is effective, and in a way that really can showcase the best in public transportation? It almost an engineering mindset. But what you see now is that the subway for these new Left urbanists has transformed from a practical, functional infrastructure to something that is more cosmic in scale. If you look at some of the reports that they're writing about the subway, they look at it not as a tool of transportation, but a tool of racial, economic, immigrant, and income justice. And it's been adapted into this social justice framework and set out to not only solve the problem of how do you get New Yorkers to where they need to go, but really how can you fundamentally reshape society and address these perceived systemic wrongs and evils. And I think that's where two people who are looking at this issue can depart. While some, including City Journal have supported some form of congestion pricing as an efficient way to raise revenues to modernize the subway, there's another case that I think goes much too far and it's really trying to eliminate the personal automobile and prioritize the subway system. But there's really a wrinkle in a lot of these policies, and I've seen it both in the subway system and transportation in New York, and then the bicycle lane infrastructure here in Seattle that activists who are predominantly highly educated, affluent, and white making this argument based on something like racial justice or economic justice. But if you look at the public polling data, the people who they're oftentimes claiming to represent don't share those same opinions. So if you look at New York, people in outer boroughs don't support congestion pricing by the largest margins, and in Seattle it's the same thing. You look at the people who are utilizing the bike lane infrastructure: 77% of these folks are white men, and their most common professions are things like physician, graphic designer, and computer programmer. While at the same time they're couching it in the terms of transportation equity, transportation justice, only 1% of African American and Latino residents of Seattle use their bicycles as a form of transportation. So, there's really fascinating contradictions in this. And I think that we're seeing this play out, not only in New York and Seattle municipal politics, but it really has come to a head in something like the Green New Deal that's being debated nationwide. 

Brian Anderson: One other area you discuss in this piece is housing policy. There's widespread recognition that successful cities have dysfunctional housing markets these days, which creates a cutoff opportunity for newcomers. There's not enough variety and availability of apartments and housing options. What's wrong with the new Left urbanist approach, in your view, on housing? How does it differ from just recognizing that we need more? 

Chris Rufo: I think that housing is obviously the $1 million question in all of the biggest cities in the United States. Here in Seattle, where I live, in San Francisco and L.A., in New York and D.C., people are feeling the pressure that, as there has been this back-to-the-city movement, one thing that's happened is that new construction hasn't kept up with demand and housing prices are going through the roof. And I think anyone that looks at that is sympathetic to the question and the idea that we need to somehow reduce the cost of housing. But what the new Left urbanists are proposing– in one of the plans from the People's Policy Project– is not to facilitate new construction, to reduce regulations, to reduce the cost of construction, but to actually have the local governments, funded by state and federal dollars, take over housing construction. They propose the construction of 1 million new, what they're calling "municipal homes," what we might have used to call public housing projects. And it's gotten so aggressive that activists in cities like San Francisco have actually said that they oppose all new private housing construction and that the city government should be the home builder and landlord of first, middle, and last resort. And I think the problem is that this ignores the entire century-long history of public housing in the United States, which has created some of the worst places to live in the country. And they have this, what I see as a fictional belief that somehow these new municipal homes, after they've rebranded them, are going to look like the public housing projects in Vienna and Helsinki and Oslo rather than the public housing progress projects in Chicago, Newark, and Oakland. And I think the real problem is that there isn't the political will to have these massive new construction projects. I think that the pragmatic approach, which is a kind of market- urbanist-orientation that could immediately reduce the cost of housing while creating high quality places to live, the new Left urbanists are basically saying 'we don't want anything to do with that. We only want this vision where there's just absolute government control of Housing in America's cities.' And I think that, whether they win or lose, that's not going to solve the problem and at worst, could lead to disaster. 

Brian Anderson: What do you think of their political chances in urban environments? This is primarily, I would say, an activist class rather than a governing class. Are they having influence on public-policy debates? How are their views reflected in a place like Seattle these days

Chris Rufo: In Seattle, they're really seizing the high ground. And I've noticed something that's fascinating. The activist positions, when pollsters are asking voters 'do you support this?' are overwhelmingly unpopular. In the recent polling data, for example, 65% of Seattle voters opposed all new bike lane construction, while at the same time some of the bicycle activists have cultivated the most powerful people at the city council and in the mayor's office. The Transportation Choices Coalition is an organization here in Seattle that, despite its name of transportation choices, actually wants to reduce choices and have one transportation system that's ideologically driven, is placing people in the highest levels of the mayor's administration. So, despite having what you would think of as broadly unpopular positions, despite being a very small minority– bicycle commuting has never been more than 3% in the city of Seattle, no matter how many new bike lanes we construct– they're an example of what the economist Nassim Taleb calls the tyranny of the small minority. They've been able to crowd out all of the loosely organized opposition. They've been able to impose their will on public policy, despite being largely unpopular. We're seeing this interesting phenomenon, where I'm wondering how long it will be able to continue before there is large-scale neighborhood-based opposition that puts the brakes on some of the more extreme programs that we're seeing.

Brian Anderson: You're also starting to see some pushback from residents of otherwise very progressive cities when it comes to tolerating widespread homeless encampments and street disorder. That's something you've also been writing about for us. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Chris Rufo: Yeah. If you take predominantly cities on the West Coast and also cities like Denver, we've seen an absolutely astonishing shift in public opinion regarding homeless encampments. The best example is that earlier this year, activists in Denver were trying to pass an initiative that would essentially legalize homeless encampments in all public spaces: in parks, on sidewalks, in front of City Hall, and this is something that has been considered in California, been considered in Washington State. It kind of tracks with what we call "survival crime legislation," which basically posits that people who are homeless have no other option but to camp on the streets and commit low-level property crimes, and we should basically decriminalize that entire class of offenses. But in Denver, something happened that was very interesting. The local business community rallied in opposition to this public camping ordinance. Although activists raised $100,000 in support of this initiative to legalize camping, businesses came together and raised an astonishing $2.4 million to crush this initiative. And at the end of the day, when people in Denver went to vote, although they're a very progressive city in terms of state and national politics, they rejected this so-called "right to camp" ban by 81% to 19%. So you had a huge margin of people saying, 'wait a minute. We want to provide compassionate care for people who are homeless, but we don't want to adopt permissive policies that are just going to make the problem of street disorder worse.' And you're seeing this play out in cities that are longtime strongholds of the Left. In San Diego, they re instituting a car camping ban. The mayor has basically said that they've gone too far in permissiveness, and they have to balance compassion for the homeless with compassion for residents who have been affected by some of the rising disorder and crime associated with homelessness. Even in San Francisco, when the new mayor London Breed was elected, I took notice of a remarkable photo op that she did in the first days of her new administration. She had photographers follow her along as she carried a gigantic broom through the streets of San Francisco trying to signal that it's time to clean up the streets, and despite being the most progressive city in the country, they've really increased the tempo of disrupting and cleaning up encampments in response to this overwhelming public pressure where you have committed die-hard liberals and progressives that are starting to recoil and say, 'maybe we got this wrong. Maybe decriminalization is not the best path for the community.

Brian Anderson: It's very interesting. It's sort of a limit point to Progressivism, perhaps– even in these otherwise very liberal cities. You've recently written about a small city nearby Seattle and its relative success with dealing with the problem of homelessness. Could you talk a little bit about that? 

Chris Rufo: Yeah. One of the things that I've found, having spent about 18 months researching homelessness, addiction, and mental illness is that you come to the point where you can feel like the problem is so endemic, it's so huge that there's no hope left. So what I've been trying to do is spend some time focusing on success stories, looking at other models from cities that have had some impact in addressing the crisis. One of the stories I found was a little city that borders Seattle just to the south called Burien, Washington. It's a working-class city of about 50,000 people. It's 50% white, 50% nonwhite. It has a predominantly left-leaning mayor and city council. But they've tried something in the last six months that I think is remarkable, and if they're able to continue with this success, could provide a model for other small and medium-sized cities. What happened is that the city manager of Burien, under a lot of pressure from the business community that had been complaining about street homelessness, about the impact that it's had on their businesses, devised a really simple plan that I think falls under a philosophy that I'd call compassionate enforcement. He basically said 'what we're going to do is try a four-month pilot program. We're going to first secure enough emergency shelter space both in Burien and through regional partnerships in order to comply with the Martin v. Boise Supreme Court decision that says to cities that if they want to clean up homeless encampments, they have to first have enough shelter space for people to go to.' So they did that. Then they spent about a month conducting outreach to all of the people on the streets of Burien. The police chief down there, Ted Boe, told me there were roughly 50 to a 100 people that were chronically unsheltered homeless in the city. So they spent a lot of time– about a month– building relationships, learning about people, figuring out what their needs are, and trying to persuade them to enter services. And then they said, 'in a month from now, we're going to give 72-hour notice and we're going to enforce a strict no-camping ban in our public parks. You'll have 72 hours to vacate, and if you don't vacate and you continue to refuse, we're going to arrest you.' And that's all it took. It was a low-cost, simple program that utilized existing resources to change the incentive structure and start enforcing the law. And the effect that it had was remarkable. The police chief told me that when they started doing outreach, the vast majority of the people voluntarily moved on, six people accepted shelter, and then when it came time for the 72-hour notice, there were only 27 people that were continuing to camp in the public parks. After the notice, 26 of them voluntarily moved on and one of them was arrested after repeatedly refusing to leave. And if you look at the numbers, it reveals some really important conclusions. One is that the vast majority of people– more than 90 people chose to voluntarily move on after rejecting services. So these are the biggest part of this population, what you might call service-resistant individuals, who no matter what are not going to accept services. But if you enforce the law, they'll voluntarily move on and cease to create this public disorder in parks. You had six people that the city was able to encourage to accept services, so that's six more people who didn't accept services previously that now have a chance to heal, to get back on their feet, and to start on their pathway to a better life. And then you had one person who absolutely refused. And I think that cities should take away a lesson from this, that no matter what you do on the service side, if you don't have also a policy of compassionate enforcement, you're going to have a very large population of service-resistant individuals that only respond when you offer both compassionate programs and compassionate and enforcement. And if you leave out that enforcement piece, you're never going to be able to solve the homelessness crisis that is plaguing so many cities.

Brian Anderson: Another short piece you did for us recently was on your trip to Italy, a small rural village, where you reported in a more philosophical vein on some lessons you saw about dealing with mental illness and addiction that might also be something we could learn from.

Chris Rufo: Yeah. One of the talking points of the American Left is that countries in Europe arebetter, and they're more civilized, and they're more humane because they have a very generous public safety net. But I've been living in Italy off and on my entire life. My father is an immigrant from Italy. I'm a citizen of Italy as well as the United States. We come from a village of about 2,000 people that is rural; it's remote; it's very poor, even by Italian standards. But what I've observed over the last 20 years is that community life, relationships, and people's mental and emotional well-being might be higher in a place like my village, San Donato, not because there's a generous safety net, but because the cultural institutions, the family, the extended family, the community, the municipal connections that shape the society are very strong. And they provide not public safety net that a lot of people like to talk about, but a private, civic, familial and community safety net that I think is even more important. And what I saw this summer, and I've seen for a long time, but after studying addiction and mental illness in the United States for about a year and then observing it in my town is that, in this town– it has a really high rate of people who are addicted to alcohol, predominantly, and then some who are addicted to heroin and other drugs, and also a high rate of people who are mentally ill– but what I saw really touched me, really impacted me. I saw that, despite alcohol addiction, despite even opioid addiction, despite sometimes serious mental illness, the people who were suffering from this were active participants in the community. If they were able to work, people provided small jobs for them, or the city government provided street-sweeping jobs for them. If they were unable to work, the families and communities really rallied around them. The social institutions really provided a buffer that cared for people in a human way, not a bureaucratic way. And I think the result is that, even the people who, in the United States, in a city like Seattle or New York or San Francisco might end up on the streets, might end up deranged or violent or having traumatic breakdowns in the streets– and this is something I see every day as I ride the bus downtown in Seattle– in Italy, it's much softer and the people are really kind of held in the arms of the community. Obviously if you have mental illness, these people are also being medicated by psychiatrist, but I think that those social things make a huge difference. And that's the reason why you would never see someone on the streets in our village; you would never see someone really lashing out with dangerous behavior. This cultural cohesion limits the expression of pathological behavior in a way that I think we need to start addressing in the United States. We need to figure out how we can not only provide bureaucratic support, institutional support, but provide those cultural boundary lines that can be extremely powerful in reducing some of the worst effects of addiction, and mental illness, and homelessness that we see in so many cities.

Brian Anderson: It's very interesting, Chris. Time for one more question: this is just a future-oriented one. Why don't you tell readers what your next big essay is going to be about?

Chris Rufo: For my next big essay, I'm going to be traveling down to Los Angeles next month to do an expose on the addiction crisis. One thing I've learned is that there are at least 100,000 homeless opioid addicts throughout the West Coast, and we're really starting to get a better sense of the relationship between addiction, mental illness, homelessness, and crime. And I think that Los Angeles, from my time there, from my study of what's happening, provides the perfect backdrop to go into the heart of the addiction crisis. The working thesis for this piece is that my fear is that we're creating what I think of as a new class of untouchables. Despite the rhetoric of compassion that comes from city leaders like the mayor of L.A., the actual results of our social policies are that we're creating a new class of disenfranchised people who we seem to be content with just letting them languish in the streets. And although we've revived people temporarily with Naloxone, inhalants, so people don't die from overdoses, that's where our compassion stops. Nobody has presented a good plan to try to get people off the streets, try to get people recovering from addictions, and really try to reintegrate this forgotten class of people back into society. And I want to see both the extent of this– have we really given up on tens of thousands of people in Los Angeles County? And is there any way that we can reorient our policies to address the heart of this crisis: to look at addiction with clear eyes and open hearts, and then start to make a change that might actually prevent these folks from being condemned to living and dying on the streets? I'm excited to go down there, excited to talk to people who are working in this space, and hope that I can uncover not only some analysis into the problem, but also some hope for the future and some sort of spark of optimism that we might be able to solve it.

Brian Anderson: Well, we're looking forward to that essay very much, as are our readers. I want to thank you, Chris, for spending some time with us on today's show.

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