Over the past three years, Deb Fallows and I have written frequently about the lakeside city of Erie, Pennsylvania, and its reaction to the loss of traditional manufacturers over the past generation.
One continuing theme has been the importance of the city’s overall openness to outsiders—refugees, other immigrants—in trying to make an economic, cultural, and civic future for itself. (Yes, including recognizing decades-old obstacles for many of its African American residents.)
One example of Erie’s embrace of diversity, whom we’ve often mentioned, is a man in his mid-30s named Ferki Ferati. He was born in Albanian Kosovo; spent part of his youth in refugee camps; and has become a central figure in Erie’s civic scene, as president of the innovative Jefferson Educational Society. He and his wife, Katya, originally from Russia, recently had a son, named Adrian.
This month, Ferati’s father, Selman, suddenly died, at age 68. An appreciation of what he stood for, and the values he thought America might advance, is available online here. A sample:
Standing up for justice and opposing oppressive governments is what many dream of doing. Selman Ferati, the 68-year old, father of six, spent most of his life doing just that. He was among the first to show his opposition to the Milosevic regime (Yugoslavia), a regime that believed that non-Serbians living in Yugoslavia were second-class citizens …
Selman stood by his beliefs even as Milosevic carried out genocidal acts against Albanians and Bosnians living in Yugoslavia. His family became his priority, and he led them out of the Kosovo to Macedonia—and eventually (most of the family) to Erie, Pennsylvania in 1999. Despite these extraordinary circumstances, Selman never showed fear—he led, and in leading, he leaves behind a legacy of integrity and action! He provided and encouraged his children to take advantage of their new found freedoms, to “dream more, learn more, do more and become more.”
Sympathies to all of those related to and inspired by Selman Ferati.
To those who didn’t know him, his life is a reminder that idealistic people from outside America’s borders have continually prompted the country to live up to its own ideals. He had asked to be buried in his native Kosovo, but his spirit lives on in his adopted home.
It has been nearly half a century since Erie, Pennsylvania, was officially recognized as an “All-American City.” But beginning with the first of our repeated visits nearly four years ago, Deb Fallows and I have come to think of Erie as an important bellwether location, a representative small city for the America of our times:
It grew with a strong, classic-American manufacturing base, but suffered as its factories, like so many others in the “Rust Belt” region, closed during the globalization era of the 1990s, and again after the financial crash a dozen years ago.
But over the past decade, like other cities along the Great Lakes swath from Buffalo to Cleveland and on to Detroit, it has worked hard to reposition itself as a “Chrome Belt” economy, with advanced-tech industries (aerospace, sustainable energy, 3D-print and plastics) rather than mass-production sites.
During its industrial-boom heyday a century ago, Erie was a major magnet for immigrants, mainly from Italy and Eastern Europe. Now it actively promotes refugees as “new citizens.” Before the current clampdown on U.S. acceptance of refugees—about 110,000 four years ago, fewer than 20,000 now—as much as 20 percent of Erie’s total population was made of recent refugee arrivals. They came from Syria, from Sudan, and from other troubled spots around the world (as Deb Fallows described here).
The proportion of Erie’s African-American population is slightly larger than the nation’s as a whole, and its past (and present) race relations track the strains and inequalities of black-white relations nationwide.
At first glance, what you notice in Erie’s downtown is what is gone: the stores that are shuttered, the factories not making things any more. What we came to notice, on second and subsequent looks, was what was emerging: the stores being reopened, the smaller, newer workshops in the back rooms of old, broken-windowed factories, the little tech companies and larger start-up companies developing downtown. I described one of those firms in 2016 here, and another in 2018 here.
Also at first glance, you see on Erie’s streets signs of America’s social distress—especially of homelessness, addiction, and grossly unequal opportunity in schooling. On longer exposure, we saw signs of efforts to reknit a civic fabric, from nonprofit organizations like the innovative Jefferson Educational Society (including its program to train cadres of future leaders); to the locally headquartered Erie Insurance company, which has invested heavily in new downtown structures; to numerous arts and civic organization we’ve described over the years.
In short, if you want to see the goods and bads of modern America, its burdens and its possibilities, go to the Bayfront, or walk along State Street or Peach or Sassafras in downtown Erie, and look around, more than once.
Now all of the United States, with much of the world, faces a public-health emergency that is becoming an economic disaster as well. And from the “representative city” perspective, the most dramatic change in Erie is that the very institutions that have led its nascent recovery are most imperiled by this moment’s economic collapse.
Small businesses. Playhouses and music venues. Startup tech companies. Civic-action and resettlement groups. These have made a crucial difference in Erie, and many other cities. Now all of them face unprecedented stress.
“The story of Erie is is a microcosm of the challenges many cities are facing across the nation,” Ben Speggen and Bruce Katz wrote in an illuminating report, issued yesterday. (Speggen, based in Erie, has worked for the Erie Reader and the Jefferson Educational Society. Katz, co-author with the late Jeremy Nowak of The New Localism, is director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University, in Philadelphia.) They add that today’s Erie:
shows how a community writ large—and a group of remarkable, passionate entrepreneurs, and city builders—have been able to restore a sense of civic pride and purpose and put a city back on track, and how that years-long effort is at risk of reversal in a matter of weeks.
Years of effort, undone in weeks. That’s the prospect that Erie, and countless towns and cities like it, are facing right now.
Of course the pressure applies in every part of the nation, and restaurants and stores from San Francisco to New York are shuttered as well. But those cities’ ascent has been vastly more powerful than Erie’s uneven recovery. Battered as even the superstar cities are at this frightening moment, no one doubts that some time they will be back strong.
As for Erie? The Katz and Speggen report goes into “tell us everything” dollars-and-cents details for two businesses that have been important parts of the downtown revival. One is a relatively new coffee shop called Ember + Forge, which has anchored an important corner of downtown. The other is a relatively established local brewpub and restaurant called Lavery Brewing, which has been so successful that it recently opened a second location.
Both had been thriving; both have seen their revenue shrink virtually to zero; both have had to lay off most of their staff and are considering what it will take even to survive at all.
The full Katz and Speggen report is available in PDF here, with articles about it on the Drexel site and at the Erie Reader. I won’t attempt to summarize it, since its details are its strength. But I encourage anyone interested in the practicalities of American economic recovery to read it— and to compare it with some of the pre-coronavirus reports I mentioned recently. I completely endorse the “what comes next?” parts of its conclusion. In it they stress the complex, fragile networks that have allowed businesses like these two to emerge, and for cities like Erie to renew themselves:
On one level, a fast recovery in the long term (when the health crisis abates) is dependent on the nature and scale of the short-term response. The longer we can keep small businesses alive and workers employed, the quicker the recovery and rebound will be ….
Almost overnight, downtowns have eerily become lifeless movie sets— literally former shells of their former selves; the buildings are intact (unlike after a flood), but there is little or no business being transacted given the imperative of social distancing and the collapse of basic consumerism. If we can keep businesses alive, then the bounce back will be rapid and pronounced. If businesses collapse, then the recovery will be slow and painful.
On another level, the recovery will depend upon the kind of bottom-up responses and collaborative action that is a hallmark of Erie and many other communities. In our view, this crisis is too complex and multi-dimensional to be left to policymakers sitting in our remote national capitol. Rather, local networks of public, business, civic, university, and other leaders need to band together—now—to prepare their communities for what comes next and be a constant feedback loop for national and state governments.
At some point, the emergency will be over. Then the longer-term recovery will begin. Reports like this are important guides to what should happen next.
The handover of power was a solemn affair. There was no mistaking the new administration for the old one.
At dawn this morning, workers loaded couches and tables into a moving truck parked outside the West Wing. Men wearing white coveralls and carrying roller brushes and paint cans walked across the north driveway. Inside the White House, pictures of the 45th president had been removed from the walls. Only the hooks remained, ready for a new set of portraits of the 46th.
A lone Donald Trump press deputy, Judd Deere, sat in his small office, writing a note on a piece of stationery to whomever would be taking over his desk in a few hours. Deere was attempting to describe what it’s like to work in the building. When I looked in at noon, after the Trump presidency had officially ended, he was gone, his desk cleared. Even the magazine racks hanging on the wall had been emptied.
Three particular failures secure Trump’s status as the worst chief executive ever to hold the office.
President Donald Trump has long exulted in superlatives. The first. The best. The most. The greatest. “No president has ever done what I’ve done,” he boasts. “No president has ever even come close,” he says. But as his four years in office draw to an end, there’s only one title to which he can lay claim: Donald Trump is the worst president America has ever had.
In December 2019, he became the third president to be impeached. Last week, Trump entered a category all his own, becoming the first president to be impeached twice. But impeachment, which depends in part on the makeup of Congress, is not the most objective standard. What does being the worst president actually mean? And is there even any value, at the bitter end of a bad presidency, in spending energy on judging a pageant of failed presidencies?
I’ve been thinking about Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history, A Distant Mirror, over the past couple of weeks. The book is a masterful work of anti-romance, a cold-eyed look at how generations of aristocrats and royalty waged one of the longest wars in recorded history, all while claiming the mantle of a benevolent God. The disabusing begins early. In the introduction, Tuchman examines the ideal of chivalry and finds, beneath the poetry and codes of honor, little more than myth and delusion.
Knights “were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed,” Tuchman writes. “In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century, the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder.”
What should have been a week-long celebration of the resilience of American democracy has turned into a dark circus. Instead of citizens lining Pennsylvania Avenue to cheer and greet a new president, all of downtown Washington, D.C., is an armed camp. Soldiers patrol the streets while workers clean excrement off the walls of the Capitol, a perfect tableau for the end of the short and ghastly age of Trump.
We are expecting far too much of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris if we think they can fix all of the damage Donald Trump did to the republic. Presidents and vice presidents are not wizards. They cannot rewind history. They cannot single-handedly make us better people.
However, I do believe that Biden can inspire the American people to regain one of the most important virtues Trump destroyed: seriousness, our understanding that ideas, actions, and words matter.
Trump’s pardons sent an unmistakable message, capping the corruption of his tenure in office.
“Drain the swamp.”
Of all Trump’s lies, that was one of the most puzzling. It’s not just that Trump himself was and is crooked, or even that he so obviously likes and admires crooks. It’s that Trump’s particular form of crookedness was exactly the kind of crookedness that people have in mind when they imagine Washington, D.C., as a “swamp.”
Trump’s first Manhattan real-estate deal—the first deal on which his employer-father allowed him to take the lead—was the redevelopment of a bankrupt historic hotel near New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The deal needed complex permissions from the city and the state. To obtain those permissions, Trump hired the famous fixer Roy Cohn. Cohn secured him a $400 million tax abatement plus other special favors, including a waiver of all urban-preservation rules. After the deal was done, the city official who bestowed the favors was hired as a partner in Cohn’s law firm. A decade later, that official went to federal prison for corruption crimes.
In Washington, D.C. today, Joe Biden took the oath of office shortly before noon, becoming the 46th president of the United States of America. In front of a small, socially distanced, and well-guarded audience on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in. The singers Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks performed; the poet Amanda Gorman gave a reading; and Biden delivered his inaugural address to the nation. Gathered below are scenes from a unique moment in American history.
The new president must not repeat Obama's mistakes.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1932, the nation was facing concentric crises: the immediate, house-on-fire disaster of rolling bank closures; the broader economic depression; and, beyond that, deeply entrenched problems that the depression had highlighted, including elderly poverty. Roosevelt’s first 100 days addressed the first two crises with historic directness. He reopened the banks and directly employed thousands of Americans through measures such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. Then, near the end of his first term, he signed the Social Security Act, which has reduced senior poverty and become one of the most popular federal programs in the United States.
President Joe Biden also faces concentric crises, which move outward toward the future as you unpeel them: the biological threat of the pandemic, the economic recession, and, beyond that, the entrenched problem of child poverty. He also has to contend with the problem casting a shadow over the whole century, the existential crisis of climate change.
Trump leaves behind a wounded nation, and it will take time to heal.
So what if he was bad at it?
The five years of the Trump era—which began with his descent down the gilded escalator in Trump Tower in 2015 and are ending with a massive military presence in the nation’s capital to protect the transfer of power to his successor—brought a sustained assault on self-government. This assault was most often futile, almost always buffoonish, and, as the conversion of the seat of the federal government into an armed fortress demonstrates, unquestionably real.
Throughout the Trump era, some have argued that Trump’s incompetence rendered his authoritarian aspirations inconsequential.
“Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like ‘plotting’ implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks,” wrote the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in October, describing the president as a “noisy weakling.” Douthat has since re-evaluated his position, but for a long time he was the most articulate proponent of the argument that Trump was not as dangerous as his opponents believed.
Millions of Americans sympathize with the Capitol insurrection. Everyone else must figure out how to live alongside them.
They could be real-estate agents or police officers, bakers or firefighters, veterans of American wars or CEOs of American companies. They might live in Boise or Dallas, College Park or College Station, Sacramento or Delray Beach. Some are wealthy. Some are not. Relatively few of them were at the United States Capitol on January 6, determined to stop Congress from certifying a legitimate election. Millions more cheered the rioters on—and still do.
As a group, it’s hard to know what to call them. They are too many to merit the term extremists. There are not enough of them to be secessionists. Some prominent historians and philosophers have been arguing for a revival of the word fascist; others think white supremacist is more appropriate, though there could also be a case for rebel. For want of a better term, I’m calling all of them seditionists—not just the people who took part in the riot, but the far larger number of Americans who are united by their belief that Donald Trump won the election, that Joe Biden lost, and that a long list of people and institutions are lying about it: Congress, the media, Mike Pence, the election officials in all 50 states, and the judges in dozens of courts.
Now, in the final hours of the Trump presidency, security forces have turned Washington, D.C., into a fortified encampment in an attempt to prevent further violence. The transformation of the U.S. Capitol into a Baghdad-style Green Zone is unlike anything Washington has seen since 9/11. Joe Biden, already physically isolated by COVID-19, will be further distanced from the American people, who have traditionally crowded onto the National Mall by the hundreds of thousands to witness a presidential swearing-in.