City of hope

October 07, 1991

For most of our history, city governments have had at least two functions. The first was to provide services -- fire, police, public schools. Those services, in turn, required people to perform them. So local government also became a major source of jobs. Indeed, public sector jobs employed thousands of men and women for whom the private sector provided few opportunities.

That process is vividly depicted in a new, soon-to-be-released film by director John Sayles, "City of Hope," which chronicles the slow demise of a fictional rust belt metropolis. The plot revolves around the competition for power and patronage between established immigrant groups and newer arrivals to the city, and clearly delineates the process by which access to public office and municipal jobs helped lift great numbers of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants into the middle class.

But declining revenues, economic hard times and the massive withdrawal of federal aid from the cities during the 1980s have combined to limit local government's role as employer of last resort. One has only to look to Baltimore and Washington, D.C., where hundreds of city workers are facing layoffs as result of municipal downsizing, to realize that an era is ending -- and with it the economic elevator that might have hoisted thousands of black and Hispanic migrants to the city out of poverty. Indeed, one conscious aim of the vast expansion of city government that occurred under former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was the creation of an indigenous black middle class.

Now Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon and -- to a lesser extent -- Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke are finding they must preside over a reversal of that process -- an irony that certainly did not escape the maker of "City of Hope." In one scene black protesters confront the city's powers that be with the complaint that "trickle down" economics hasn't helped them the way it has other groups. As one character puts it, "just as we got to put our cup under the spigot, the tap ran dry."

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