At the Brookings Institution, one of America’s oldest think tanks, Alan Berube and his team of former politicos and wonkish academics are coming up with new solutions to age-old urban problems. As deputy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program, Berube studies what makes a city generate prosperity from the local economy and share its benefits with all the area’s denizens, rather than just a few. As people flock to cities’ downtown cores, opportunity is created, but so is the need to find solutions to concentrated poverty. NationSwell spoke to this die-hard urbanite about the challenges facing the next generation of city-dwellers.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
What brought me to work about poverty was really a question for fairness in American society, and so my default stance has been treating everybody the exact same way, because that’s fair. But to be an effective leader, you have to recognize that there are times when that’s called for, but also a need to respect the people that work with you and for you as individuals, understanding them as individuals and meeting them halfway.
What’s on your nightstand?
A several-issue backlog of The New Yorker, with some dog-eared pages, and the latest book by David Maraniss about Detroit called “Once in a Great City.” It’s a history of Detroit at the peak of its influence in the mid-1960s, just before the riots, the real white and black middle class flight from the city. So, Motown’s ascendance, the Big Three really ruling the domestic automobile industry, which was just growing like gangbusters given the Baby Boom, the construction of the interstate system and the growing American middle class. It’s a reminder that urban success is not guaranteed; it can be fleeting. It’s interesting to be reading this at a time when Detroit at what some people call a rebirth. It has more energy and momentum today than it has since that period, but it is in a lot of ways a shell of its former self. It will be a multi-generational effort to redeem that prominence. It frankly needs to be a different city than it once was.
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
When I got into public policy and urban policy in the 1990s, it was the advent of the Internet, and one of the prevailing theories was that, with the Internet, anybody can work anywhere and know anything, so we didn’t really need cities anymore. Not only did that not turn out to be true; actually, I think we found a lot of ways in which technology and cities are complements, rather than substitutes, right? We have Uber because people live in cities, and because they saw a problem and then had the technology to solve that problem. And people live in cities now because there are things like Uber. It makes living in cities easier, and that allows people to find one another more easily. The rise of technologies that make cities better-run places, places where people connect with other people and the things that they need, that’s really exciting.
What inspires you?
My abiding belief that cities are not only homes to the toughest challenges of our society, but that they also are the solution to those challenges. I grew up in a small town in New England, a bedroom community outside of Worcester, Mass., itself an old industrial city with a large white, working-class population: a very homogeneous environment. There were problems there, they were just kind of hidden from view. The first time I went to New York City as a kid in the early 1980s, I was struck by the clear problems. But what a wonderful place, too. There are so many different people living here, doing so many interesting things. It’s so beautiful in a lot of ways, I felt: what a neat expression of American society.
So, I think I was always driven to do what I could to make cities better places, because in doing that, you would (a) perhaps address those deep-rooted challenges that cities remain home to more [people] than other places, but (b) you would protect and grow a mode of living that, at least through a lot of the 20th-century, a lot of Americans were looking to abandon. (Partly, I think that’s just because people like to reject what their parents and grandparents did.) But it’s now in ascendance again for a lot of different reasons, and I think it has the potential to address these problems if we’re really smart and intentional about it. I want my kid to be able to grow up in a healthy city — she lives in Washington, D.C. with my wife and I — and I wish I had at my fingertips the kinds of things she does now as a city kid when I was younger. I’m motivated and I’m inspired by the big promise.
What’s your perfect day?
It generally starts with coffee and The New York Times, which I don’t get to read as often as I’d like. I’m watching my daughter play one of her sports: basketball or tennis or softball. And It would probably also involve going to a new restaurant with my wife and friends, because there is a terrific, vibrant dining scene in Washington that wasn’t here 15 years ago. Then I’d probably watch “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
What don’t most people know about you that they should?
If I could make a living as a wedding singer, I’d probably do that. It’s not in the cards right now, so I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing for now.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.
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