We all live on less than 3% of the land - most of us in urban places, and yet for most of the last three decades pundits have chronicled the apparent demise of our major center cities, as ever larger numbers of people sought the good life in the "burbs."
Political corruption, decaying infrastructure, inadequate schools, racial unrest, soaring crime rates, abandoned factories, homelessness, and the gradual loss of major retailers. All fed the growth in the suburbs. Each new megamall with its variety of department and specialty stores, restaurants and theaters, cast another shadow on the viability of downtown as a place to live and buy things.
In the 60's and 70's downtown Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, San Diego began to resemble a scene from On The Beach - a condition most felt could not be reversed. While it was never easy to drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic to and from work - how to raise and educate kids and feel safe and secure? As is the case of the public markets, however, it is often necessary to wring out all of the negativity, to bottom out, before the momentum changes.
Such is the miracle of modern urban America, which in the last decade has seen an unprecedented renaissance. By the tens of thousands young people returned, fed up with lifeless bedroom communities, too far from work and major cultural and social activities and institutions, returned to the center cities demanding better housing, and for their taxes, better schools and safer neighborhoods. These more affluent two-income families created an explosive growth market for new restaurants and stores. The city was again hip, the place for fun, action, sport, and sophistication - the major tourist attraction for most Americans and for a rapidly growing number of foreign visitors taking advantage of inexpensive air travel.
The renewed vitality of our parks, museums, casinos and beaches created the need for a record number of new inner city luxury hotels to accommodate the higher taste level of both residents and guests. New York, Chicago, San Francisco - from the least to the most desirable places to live, and again a very good place to raise families.
The most startling change my wife and I noticed since leaving the Old Town area of Chicago in 1981, and returning in 2000 is the profusion of carriages, strollers, and car seats - an army of toddlers, in the local eateries, along the lakefront, and in the aisles of every supermarket. No longer a place for older people unable to escape, but a home for a new and growing generation of Chicagoans.
Chicago is one of our most ethnically diverse cities, with a large Eastern European, Asian, African American, Greek, Italian, Indian, and Latino population. It is first and foremost a place where people live - a city of neighborhoods, with an overriding mid-Western character - a down to earth openness combined with a genuine feeling of belonging. While the Mayors Daley have devoted billions to beautification, transportation and incentives for the business community, the soul of the city is its children.
The Lincoln Park Zoo, built along the lakefront, on most days looks like a UNICEF convention and the park which stretches miles provides space for multiple games of soccer and softball, and literally hundreds of family picnics all within spitting distance of the high-rise homes of its most affluent residents. Gradually the segregated projects are coming down - giving way to lower rise multi-use communities with less crime and far better prospects for the babies born there.
It will never be easy to be a city kid, but today it is a lot more fun. The continuing health of our core urban centers requires that we find ways for city moms to feel they are giving their children the best possible start. While it's not certain that our cities will have the resolve to continue chipping away at poverty, drug abuse, and the healthcare and education needs of all its citizens, there is more optimism today from the traffic cop to the bus driver, and from the Alderman to the local businessman. There are just too many little people around begging for a smile or a snuggle, not to feel good about their future and the future of their homes.