WHEN EDWARD HOPPER SOUGHT TO CAPTURE the alienation and loneliness of modern life, the American realist painted empty cities--urban landscapes stripped of the teeming masses that crowd metropolitan boulevards, beaches, and ballparks. Georges Seurat, Childe Hassam, and George Bellows painted avenues, parks, and stadiums jammed with strolling and cheering city dwellers, but on a Hopper canvas empty row houses and shuttered storefronts stare back at us, blank-eyed and desolate. Sidewalks have no pedestrians, and restaurants, hotels, and theaters have just a smattering of patrons. The city is a ghost town.
A growing number of America's older and larger cities are beginning to resemble a Hopper landscape, missing particularly the families and children that had once filled the schools and churches and played in the parks and playgrounds.
On TV and at the movies cities have long been losing their share of families and kids. In the 1950s TV sitcoms like I Love Lucy entertained us with the adventures of urban couples and families, but in the '90s hits like Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, and Sex and the City, our city dwellers were 20- to 40-something singles with more careers and canines than children, and the cities they inhabit have far more cafes and coffee bars than kindergartens or school cafeterias. When wives and families do show up as major characters in recent shows like Desperate Housewives, the setting is nearly always suburban. Home is where the three-car garage is.
Major dramas set in our big cities also make little room for children. Because Americans want their presidents to practice family values, Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) has a wife and children that sometimes appear on The West Wing, but his young and restless staffers are all single members of an urban elite with little time for children or spouses. And on crime drama franchises like Law & Order and CSI the prosecutors and investigators fighting big city crime have no families to speak of.
At the movies, too, cities seem to be largely devoid of children and families. Films set in major American cities (but photographed in a look-alike Canadian metropolis) are either romantic comedies (Must Love Dogs), crime dramas (Four Brothers), or tales of superheroes (Barman Begins) saving New York's comic book clones--Gotham and Metropolis--from civilization-destroying archfiends. Occasionally a lost child (Home Alone 2: Lost in New York) or a family raising a mouse (Stuart Little) shows up in a city movie, but generally children get left on the cutting-room floor.
CITIES WEREN'T ALWAYS UNFRIENDLY TO FAMILIES. WHEN the industrial revolution hit in the 19th century, tens of millions of Europeans and Americans fled the farms and villages where their families and ancestors had eked out a living and poured into sprawling, smoke-billowing cities crammed with factories and tenements. Manufacturing jobs and the rich political, cultural, and economic life of the city offered the children of sharecroppers and immigrants undreamed of opportunities, and in the working-class neighborhoods where they struggled for a better life, schools, churches, libraries, hospitals, and parks flourished. And as the children of these factory workers got the education, jobs, homes, and health care their parents had dreamed of, cities became cleaner and safer places to raise families, replete with museums, symphonies, theaters, and occasionally a winning ball club.
The last half century has seen a steady decline in many of America's cities as manufacturing jobs moved from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt and beyond, and urban blight spread through working-class neighborhoods. For decades the populations of cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Baltimore dropped as people moved elsewhere in search of better jobs and schools and safer streets and neighborhoods. …