I mentioned last time that I'd noticed several gerrymandered districts, two of them in Pennsylvania. When I looked more closely, at all the districts nationwide, those two in Pennsylvania didn't seem so bad. One really awful district in Arizona connects a population center near the Nevada border, by way of a thin squiggly syringe evidently along the Colorado River, to another population center at least two hundred miles east. And a Democratic district in Florida uses the same technique to link Jacksonville all the way down south to Orlando. Then there's the district in California that basically surfs along the coast for what looks like two hundred miles, without ever extending inland more than a couple of miles or so.
I'm well aware that both parties do gerrymandering, though the Democrats have been "compelled" to do it by their evident need to keep urban areas together, where their majorities are reliable. That too bears some consideration. Why should there be so severe a divide in our country between rural and urban areas? It would be interesting to find out how many districts with a city of more than 250,000 are "red," and, conversely, how many districts without a city of more than 50,000 are "blue." I'll have to ferret out the information. Off the top of my head, I can say that Cincinnati, Columbus, Omaha, Wichita, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Fort Worth are "red" cities. I'm not sure if there are any others. If you look at the national map colored for Democrat and Republican districts, you see a lot of little points of blue in lakes of red, and immediately you can tell, there's El Paso, Minneapolis, Dallas, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Louisville, New Orleans, Sacramento, and so forth.
I'm not sure why that is. I might venture a guess or two. The city near where I grew up, Scranton, was essentially a big small town, even in its heyday in the 1930's, when its population peaked over 150,000, making it the third largest city in Pennsylvania, after Philadelphia (over 2 million) and Pittsburgh (over 600,000). These were manufacturing or trading centers. Pittsburgh was of course one of the great steel producing cities in the world, and for all I know, the single greatest. Philadelphia was one of the nation's busiest ports. Scranton was flush with money from the anthracite coal industry. In any case, the life of someone whose house was in one of the neighborhoods of Scranton, all with town-sounding names, like Green Ridge and Hyde Park, wasn't all that different from the life of someone whose house was in the neighboring borough of Dunmore, or in my slightly more rural borough of Archbald ten miles up the Lackawanna River towards Carbondale.
Why was that? Again I might venture a few guesses. From what I remember of local businesses still in operation when I was a boy, and of buildings of businesses abandoned and not yet torn down, and from what I see in antique stores — as, for instance, caps from milk bottles with the names and locations of their dairies printed on them, it seems both that there was more manufacturing in small towns than there is now, and more farming nearby the cities than there is now. The last coal breaker in my town went out of business around 1969, because that's about the time Penbrook Coal stopped sponsoring one of our Little League teams. That was but one of several breakers in operation back in the old days. There used to be a train station in my town, for both passengers and freight, though that was gone by the time I was a boy. Dairies there were plenty of, all throughout Lackawanna County, most of them small and local operations. I remember my father telling me about one of them, Lou Cure's farm outside of Carbondale, where he worked one summer as a boy, and where his father worked as a deliveryman for a while when I was little, bringing cold bottles of chocolate milk to our front porch every week. There are plenty of natural springs near Carbondale, and old Mr. Cure had a few of them on his farm. So he dug a deep well for storing his milk before trucking it away to the local towns. The water down there never froze, and was always cold. But the FDA, armed with regulations written by the executives of the larger milk companies, informed Mr. Cure that he could no longer sell his milk, even though nobody had ever complained about it, unless he bought stainless steel holding tanks, which of course he could not afford. Since he was up in years anyway, he decided it would be just as well to go out of business.
I imagine that that sort of thing was pretty common. The centralization of government is a boon to the centralization of business and the centralization of agriculture. So, over time, the towns produced fewer and fewer of their own goods, and the people living in cities were farther and farther removed from the food they consumed and the natural resources they used. The intimate connection between the city and its neighboring countryside was attenuated.
What about the people's way of life? Of course I know that certain vices are always going to be prevalent in a city. Take whorehouses, for instance. Those are what gave Scranton its nickname, "The Friendly City," and not the noticeable affability and helpfulness of its residents. One of the high class cathouses, so I've been told, was the venerable Casey Inn. That was still in operation, though only as a somewhat faded old lady of a hotel, when my senior class held our prom there in 1977. Yes, it was owned by the same Casey family, stalwart Irish Catholics all, that gave Pennsylvania the pro-life governor of happy memory, Robert Casey, and his son, currently a United States senator. But I imagine that church attendance in cities was not much different from attendance anywhere else. And certain cities were severe in their mores; hence the phrase, now incomprehensible, "Banned in Boston."
But the post-war convulsions eventually did their work. The African American economist Thomas Sowell recalls the public school he attended in Harlem when he and Colin Powell and others of note were youths in that neighborhood. It was a good school, he said. There was order. The teachers, most of them white, insisted upon discipline, and taught a systematic and "classical" curriculum. All in all, it was not a bad place for a kid. Most families were intact. You could not, as now, go more than a house or two before you found a responsible married man who, with his fellows, could police the older boys, or those all-knowing and all-seeing and all-telling creatures called grandmothers, who sat on their porches or stoops and networked the streets with conversation.
How different things are now. Outside of the south, and southern California, the cities are shells of their former selves. Look at Detroit, look at Baltimore. The city I live near, Providence, not so long ago mined coal in a large vein that is now the site of a shopping center. A professor emeritus from Brown, a native son, told me that in his youth, sheep grazed in fields near the college. And yet the population of Providence is lower now than it was then. We used to boast a large jewel-cutting district which employed many Swedes from a local neighborhood. That neighborhood was cut in half by the city-devouring monster called Interstate 95, and in any case the jewelry industry has long gone from Providence.
What's left? The overschooled and the underschooled, both of them unusually dependent upon government largesse, or upon government largeness. I'm not speaking of welfare alone here. Think of the doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers, realtors, and technocrats whose livelihoods in one way or another are based upon the family breakdown that characterizes our cities. Or perform the thought experiment in reverse. Ask, "What would happen if people in our cities married before they had children, stayed married, attended church, raised responsible and noble children, provided for all of their most basic needs and for most of those, like celebrations, that really sweeten human life? Who would be out of work?"
So we have cities that are strikingly segregated. We have the double-professional families, a doctor marrying a lawyer, if they marry at all, working for Fleet Bank or for Sloan Kettering, living in a high-toned townhouse where housing prices are stratospheric, yet still depending upon a host of government giveaways, from NPR and the NEH, to college loans for the aristoi, and hoping for more (government funded daycare asylums), and promoting a way of life that is controlledly debauched, combining lust with cool avaricious career-climbing. Then we have the poor, whose sons throng the prisons, and whose daughters are far past despair of finding a good man to marry; they no longer despair, because they no longer feel that the lack is a cause of more than mild dismay.
Our cities, in other words, are pieces of work. What do we get from them that is worth the headache they give us? "Culture"? I can get more of that, more of the real thing, from a country fair than from the city's sleaze-selling theater. What else? Manufacturing? Not much these days. Yet the cities are still the dog wagging the tail.