chicago downtown and chicago river at night.


Cities, from New York and Chicago to New Orleans and San Francisco, are a vital piece of our country. First, we talk to author Joshua Jelly-Schapiro about the role these cities have come to play in our culture and out lives. Then, we talk to author and former professor William Goldsmith about the problems facing our cities and his ideas on how we can fix them.

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  • Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, co-author of Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas
  • William Goldsmith, retired professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University and author of the book, Saving Our Cities: A Progressive Plan to Transform Urban America

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The State of American Cities

Gary Price: American cities: they shape our world. They’re where so many of our movies and books are set. They’re where our children dream of living, and where we go to cheer on our favorite sports franchises. These cities, from New York and Chicago to New Orleans and San Francisco, have also been the focal point of the war on drugs, and crime waves, where the media sets roots, and where most of our population lives.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro: One of the things about cities, and especially great cities like New York or Chicago absolutely, is the sense, especially if you live near it, or even if you live far from it, that you have a sense of it as this place that’s a place where you can go to find yourself or to lose yourself, a place essentially that contains all of the things that one might be interested in doing or experimenting with or seeing or experiencing. So cities really are these incredible containers for vitality, for culture, for the mixing of people from all over the place. I think that’s one of the great magic things and important things about cities.

Price:  That’s Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, a visiting scholar for the Institute of Public Knowledge at New York University, and co-author of the book Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. In the book, he and his co-author Rebecca Solnit have made 26 maps and essays covering various aspects of New York City. It’s the third in a series of such books. The two previous have covered San Francisco and New Orleans.

Jelly-Schapiro: We have a map in this book for example, the first map in the book, it’s called “City of Dreams,” seems city. And it really gets at that sense of sort of imagining the city from far away that New York like other cities, but especially New York, through books and films and songs and records, we can really imagine the city and get a sense of it before you even get here. So that map for example we’ve put many of the songs about the city, but not just the city in general, about particular places in the city whether Central Park or Harlem or Fourth Street, or you know, “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” by the Beastie Boys, have sort of praised the city or evoked it for people. And that’s really one of the magical things about a city, is that it can be this kind of mythic place, and also, though, as we know, an all too real place, where when you get there it can be gritty and there’s different kinds of experiences, but I think that that sort of tension and contrast between the mythic place, the romantic place, and the real place is something that we were very interested to get at.

Price:  Jelly-Schapiro says one thing that’s become very clear to him about America’s cities through making these books is the vital role they play in our lives.

Jelly-Schapiro: These three cities, we like to say that we did them as a trilogy because they are sort of the three coasts of America, right: the west coast, the south, the east, thinking about, okay, these three great port cities, which are great immigrant cities, which have always been these sort of great gateways to America; there’s also New Orleans, San Francisco, New York have always been refuge cities, they’ve been places where culture comes from, where a lot of the things we think of as sort of uniquiely American, whether jazz music from New Orleans or rock ‘n’ roll and hippie culture from San Francisco, or New York, of course, showtunes and books and any number of things. They’re these remarkable places which have really generated American culture, but they’re also places, in an interesting way, which are sometimes thought of as not quite American or as sort of slightly separate or slightly strange.

Price:  And part of what makes our cities seem a bit “outside” of the American norm are all of the bad things that can happen there. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, they’re all known for their entertainment and art scenes, but also for their crime rates and poverty.

Jelly-Schapiro: We like to think of the city as this kind of amazing circulatory system, you know, it sort of draws people in but then it can often sort of cast them out.

Price:  And when there’s decay and inequalty, there are people with solutions. Which brings us to William Goldsmith, a retired professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University, and author of the book Saving Our Cities: A Progressive Plan to Transform Urban America.

William Goldsmith: In general they’re in a lot of trouble. We hear about the great successes in some center cities- Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Washington, D.C. They even make this claim for center-city Philadelphia that everything’s revived and the street life is great and it’s exciting and there are lots of restaurants. But those are fairly small blips in an otherwise pretty bleak landscape, where budgets are way too narrow, schools are in deep trouble, as I argue food and nutrition are problematic for lots of people and there’s this continuing horrific drug war, which doesn’t attack drugs but attacks poor city neighborhoods of color.

Price: Goldsmith says the factors that led us to a place where our cities are in such trouble are too many to fully account for, but there are two, he says, that jump out to him as perhaps the most damaging. First, Goldsmith says, our system of funding schools leaves poorer cities in a tough spot.

Goldsmith: The school budgets, after all, are determined largely by the income of the neighbors, and the median incomes or the average incomes of the neighbors are much lower in the central cities, and now in poor suburbs, than they are in the surrounding relatively-well-off suburbs: not just the really fancy ones, which we’ve got outside every city in the country, but the sort of ordinary middle class, claiming-that-they’re-suffering-suburbs all over the country. They have much higher revenues per schoolchild from their household property taxes than do people in big cities.

Price:  And higher income tax funding isn’t the only advantage wealthy suburbs have over poorer inner cities.

Goldsmith: Even inside single school districts is the parents collect money, PTAs, other groups collect money, they fund the band teacher, they fund the trips to Europe, they fund some of the AP classes. These budgets are really quite large, subsidizing schools in good neighborhoods and not subsidizing schools in poorer neighborhoods.

Price:  So really, Goldsmith says, these poor neighborhoods don’t just need equal funding from the government, but actually elevated funding

Goldsmith: For the most part, big cities are charged with an extra task, which is teaching to kids for whom English is not a first language, teaching to kids who may not get help with their homework from their parents because their parents aren’t good at math or English or science, much as they want to help, or even kids who don’t have enough nutrition at home and depend on school meals may not get it fast enough. These kinds of kids cost more to educate so cities don’t just need school budgets, they need bigger school budgets and the sort of local method we have of financing schools just doesn’t provide enough money.

Price:  And Goldsmith says the rest of the world, especially Europe, does provide a blueprint for fairer funding for the whole country, but America is scared to embrace it because of the dreaded S word: Socialism.

Goldsmith: Unlike France, Germany, England, anywhere else in Europe and western Europe and modern industrial democracies that fund their schools with a much, much larger component, sometimes 100 percent from the national budget, so it spreads it evenly, and the results are much, much better. Social democracy in western Europe has really worked to do the things that people intend social democracy to do, which is to democratically spread the benefits to the entire population.

Price: Jelly-Schapiro mentioned fixing the school systems as the priority he sees in maintaining our vital cities too.

Jelly-Schapiro: Those of us who care about American democracy, at least, speaking for myself, I think that the right to good public education and the public education system in a city can be such a sort of extraordinary way that community is built, that democracy is built, that an informed citizenry is built, really focusing on our public schools, and making them what they can be, for me seems to be a real priority. There’s a lot of talk about sending people to private schools and charter schools and so on, but people who grew up in the New York public schools, for example, they’re not to be written off, they’re proud and remarkable institutions and fighting to save them is important.

Price:  The second major factor Goldsmith says is damaging our cities is the war on drugs, which has been focused heavily on urban communities.

Goldsmith: The easiset one of all, I think, is we have to simply stop the drug war. It has terrible, terrible effects on cities. It’s filling our prisons, it’s cutting out the ability of neighborhoods to support themselves, and it’s costing us way too much money. It’s insane in every possible way, more and more people agree.

Price:  Not only is the war on drugs expensive and taxing on city jails and prisons, but Goldsmith says it’s also been enforced as a racist system of oppression.

Goldsmith: The penalty for crack cocaine ,which was a black drug, was many, many times higher than the penalty for white cocaine sniffing, which stock brokers could do in public and on TV and talk about, and nobody worried about it, but they had big drug raids in cities.

Price:  And to Goldsmith, the reason we should go to great lengths to save our cities from deterioration is pretty simple: a lot of people live in them.

Goldsmith: Something like 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in metropolitan areas with more than 200,000 or even a quarter-million people. I think other people are going to push on that and they’re going to say, “Hey, we have choices here that we can make. We don’t need pay attention to people who say we have to cut the federal budget for cities. We can do better than that. We don’t have to listen to people who organize things so that city schools fail for millions of children while suburban schools don’t fail. We don’t have to have large food deserts with nothing but fast food and no fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, things like that. We don’t have to have a drug war. We can solve these problems in other ways.” And I think cities will improve and I think in improving they’ll pull the whole country back.

Price:  For more of Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s thoughts and unique maps of San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York, all three of his atlas books are avaliable now. William Goldsmith’s book, Saving Our Cities, is also now available on Cornell University’s bookstore website. For links on how to buy these books, and more information on all our guests, visit I’m Gary Price.