When we began this project just after the start of the Great Recession, our working title was City by City: The New American Poverty. Struck by the intensity of the financial crisis, and inspired by Emily Witt’s ingenious description of Miami’s road to hell during the boom, we imagined a series of essays that illuminated the political and economic fallout of the financial collapse in cities across the country. In numerous books and articles, we had learned the view of the crisis from the office towers of Manhattan; we wanted a view that was a little more from below.
Many of the early essays, written in the immediate aftermath of the banking collapses, accomplished exactly this. They described the socialists of Milwaukee, the Walmart of banks in Seattle, and what it was like to work as a security guard in one of the last remaining denim plants in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Then, two years into the project, the cities themselves erupted. The various city-centric iterations of Occupy—Occupy Boston, Occupy Philadelphia, Occupy Oakland—seemed to both validate our idea and move beyond it. When Occupy was done, we felt that the project, and our curiosity about the cities of our country, could expand. We learned how different resources are managed in this country, from the Arkansas River to shale oil in North Dakota. We became interested in how gentrifying cities like Boise and Fresno are different from collapsing ones like Detroit and Cleveland. And how the process was taking place, or wasn’t, in Atlanta; Reading, Pennsylvania; and New Orleans. Police violence anticipated in Cincinnati and Baltimore reappeared in Palm Coast, Florida, went missing in Boston right when we most expected it, and exploded again, dramatically, in an impoverished suburb of St. Louis called Ferguson.
Outside the project, we were encouraged by a huge increase in the amount of intense, intelligent reporting on American poverty, both in and out of the city, which freed our curiosity still further. Questions like “How do we reconstruct the urban economy?” and “How have the superhighway and the office impacted the city, really?” took place alongside ones like “What’s it like to have Lil’ Kim’s brother as a landlord?” and “Where did Thomas Mann get his hair cut in Los Angeles?” Reality TV in Alaska. The invisible economies of San Diego. A mysterious disappearance in Duluth, Georgia. The intimate relationship between a mall and a lake in Syracuse. Mobsters in Providence, Germans in Los Angeles, marriages in Fresno, border crossings in El Paso, fires in Phoenix, running a brothel in our nation’s capital, barely getting by in Kentucky, mapping the geography of Lehigh Acres, Florida, moving apartments in Hyde Park, growing up among the Dallas superrich, looking for health insurance in Florida, writing Las Vegas—what an incredible, confusing, prolific, and terrifying country we live in.
These essays were all written between 2008 and 2014, and they are all about the same thing—the way in which cities (and towns) have changed in the last five, ten, twenty years. Their methods of telling these stories are extraordinarily varied: Some of the essays are personal, others historical, others polemical. Several of the essays have clashing or contradictory attitudes toward the changes going on in the cities they describe. But overall this book is clearly the work of a generation of writers (and some of their forebears) for whom the city is, as it was not for their parents, a definite and final home, and who want to understand the forces that are shaping it.
Eduardo Galeano closes his epic three-volume history of the Americas by saying, “Forgive me if it came out too long. Writing it was a joy for my hand, and now I feel more than ever proud of having been born in America, in this shit, in this marvel, during the century of the wind.” We don’t know what the twenty-first century will be made of, but without minimizing the difference between his stories and the ones in this book—or the difference between writing and editing!—we know how he feels.
There are cities that did not make it and also broader themes that we missed, which we hope readers of the book will think about and adumbrate in future editions of City by City. In the meantime, we offer this collection to our contemporaries and to the future so they can know how it was here, between the day of the Lehman bankruptcy and the shooting of Michael Brown.
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