Depression in the cities

Thomas F. Eagleton

January 23, 1991|By Thomas F. Eagleton

POMPOUS New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley was prophetic when he advised, "Go west, young man" over a century ago.

The 1990 census reflects the continuing westward shifts of America's population, wealth and power, leaving behind the scarred and tattered older cities of the East and Midwest. The specter of hopelessness shrouds once-thriving urban centers like New York, Philadelphia and Detroit. They suffer from the same fundamental ills: diminishing job opportunities and tax base, white flight, burgeoning demand for already overwhelmed public services, surging crime rates, lack of public confidence and looming financial catastrophe.

Wilson Goode, the most unpopular major in Philadelphia's history, has trouble selling his city's bonds. Using the borrowing methods that put New York on the verge of bankruptcy in 1975, Philadelphia's credit rating plummets and confidence in Goode's managerial skills sinks beyond redemption.

Felix Rohatyn, the investment banker who helped to guide New York through its fiscal crisis in the '70s, says Philadelphia's problems are "startlingly similar." Goode once hoped the Japanese might guarantee Philadelphia's credit, but no Japanese bank has accepted that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The abrasive, stormy Coleman Young era in Detroit is burned out. So is his city. It once was called the Motor Capital of America, but when white residents fled by the hundreds of thousands and the auto industry slumped, Detroit went into a colossal downward spiral. There's no rescue in sight. Detroit's population hovers around a million (in 1950 it was 2 million), and the special state aid and protection that it now receives are in jeopardy. The federal government is awash in red ink and not eager to come to the rescue.

In other old urban areas -- St. Louis, for example -- there is at least some help from and some affiliation with the suburbs. Not so in the Detroit region. The suburbs aren't bedroom communities. They are self-contained enclaves. No one from the suburbs visits the city and no one considers moving there. Detroit was once the symbol of industrial change, good jobs and creative unionism. Now it symbolizes hate and burned-out buildings.

Then there is New York, about to regain its title as Murder Capital of America (most likely exceeding a record 2,000 this year). The mayor, David Dinkins, seems overwhelmed by the city's apparent ungovernability. As Dinkins himself puts it, he is "inundated." The Dinkins rule: A problem unattended is a problem that somehow might go away. The mayor gives a tidy pay raise to the school teachers and says he will hire thousands of new policemen, but he has no way to pay for it all with an anticipated deficit of around $2 billion. Meanwhile, Dinkins has announced he will lay off some 16,000 city workers in the next year and a half, including half of the city's crossing guards and more than 200 school nurses.

In America, we've never been so rich and yet so broke. We have countless millionaires and record sales of impressionist art. We also have Philadelphia, Detroit and New York. While prosperity continues to "go west," our old cities are bereft of decent schools, hospitals, housing and law enforcement.

Most of all, they are bereft of hope. There is no future. And for the young, there isn't even a past worth remembering. It's drugs, arson, robbery, rape and murder. It's systemic poverty and perpetual joblessness. It's the despair that need not speak its name.

Former Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton is a professor of public affairs at Washington University in St. Louis.

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