“At the top of the hole sit a privileged few,” go Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics to “No Place Like London.” “Making mock of the vermin in the lower zoo.” Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway four decades ago; set in London, it’s also unmistakably about New York, then undergoing some of its most difficult times. Forty years on, and here we are: At the top of the world sits a president who from a high perch makes mock of the “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” he imagines America’s cities to be. Though Trump was referring specifically to Baltimore, he could have been talking about a dozen other places burdened by violence and poverty. Trump’s dismissive disgust for a majority-black city has, by design or natural impulse, inflamed the partisan divide over race (see Controversy). But Trump’s attack is not only about race. It’s about the fear of cities and everything they represent.
The reality of America’s cities is more complicated than Trump would have it. Some are mired in mismanagement and despair. On the other hand, others, especially New York, San Francisco, and Washington, have seen an explosion of wealth unrivaled in human history. Expensive restaurants multiply there, as families with children become scarce and neighborhood businesses shut down. So U.S. cities embody everything that Trump’s base fears: There is the black underclass, and far up in the sky are the lords of tech and finance insulated from everyone below. For those who wish to marshal the forces of resentment and discord, there’s a lot to work with here. Yet in the long run betting against the city is a losing game. U.S. cities have seen darker periods of much higher crime and disastrous disrepair. It’s sad that the president of the United States offers the cities nothing but insults; nonetheless, the cities are where most of the population is centered, and they will ultimately thrive. The question is, Can the rest of the country live on a diet of fear and envy?