After a decade of hyped-up rhetoric about an urban "renaissance," the word from city halls across the country these days is decidedly downbeat.
In the 1980s, a proliferation of downtown office towers, festival marketplaces, convention centers and hotels was hailed as evidence that older, decaying Frostbelt cities had made a miraculous comeback from the crisis of the 1960s. "Messiah mayors" such as Baltimore's William Donald Schaefer and Cleveland's George Voinovich were credited with engineering remarkable turnarounds in their cities.
Today, however, only an ostrich could ignore the renewed sense of crisis enveloping urban America. Increasing levels of inner city poverty, rising rates of crime and inadequate housing, cuts in social services and collapsing school systems -- these are now the images of urban America. A recent article in Newsweek even posed the question: "Are cities obsolete?"
In no city has the shift from a renaissance to crisis mentality been more abrupt than in Baltimore. Only five years ago, respected urban affairs writer Neil R. Peirce dubbed Baltimore the "Cinderella city" of the 1980s, "the town other cities seek to copy to revive their own decaying downtowns."
Today, despite the glitter and bustle of the Inner Harbor, Baltimore is so poor that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke proposes saving money by closing the public schools for a week and shutting down branches of the public library -- all this by a mayor who proclaimed Baltimore "the city that reads." The same Neil Peirce and associates, in their 1991 report "Baltimore and Beyond," now conclude that Baltimore "is becoming poorer and poorer, losing more middle-class residents every year. Without some real help, Baltimore is in danger of becoming America's next Detroit or Newark."
What happened? Why, after a decade of renaissance rhetoric, do cities like Baltimore find themselves facing full-blown urban crisis? And what are the prospects for older, Frostbelt cities in the 1990s?
The evidence now seems overwhelming that nothing resembling genuine renaissance occurred in urban America in the 1980s. There was, of course, a spectacular boom in downtown corporate offices and an impressive array of public-private redevelopment projects in cities across the Frostbelt. But boosterish mayors over-sold these developments as indicators of a city-wide economic rejuvenation. As historian Jon Teaford has written, this was an era in which "messiah mayors were dedicated to perpetuating the public relations hype and putting on happy faces."
Stripped of the hype, though, the "renaissance" activities of the 1980s can be best understood as the urban manifestation of the Reagan-era "casino society."
Urban redevelopment, '80s-style, was a frenzy of real-estate speculation and deal-making built on tax gimmicks, public subsidies and easy credit that obscured the economic devastation that continued throughout most of the city. Reagan-era policies, particularly the liberalization of depreciation allowances on buildings, turned downtown offices, hotels, restaurants and shopping malls into first-rate tax shelters.
The willingness of "entrepreneurial" city governments to foot much of the redevelopment bill -- in the form of direct subsidies, tax abatements, tax-exempt financing, infrastructure, land write-downs and the like -- enticed more and more speculation. However, like American economic policy generally in the 1980s, this kind of urban redevelopment epitomized short-term deal-making instead of productive, long-term investments.
This short-term thinking is seen most clearly in the neglected social and human infrastructure of "renaissance" cities in the 1970s and 1980s. Even observers such as MIT's Bernard J. Frieden and Lynne B. Sagalyn, thoroughly sympathetic to the "Downtown, Inc." approach of renaissance cities, acknowledge that in order to generate budget savings to subsidize developers' profits, mayors sacrificed "public employees and the residents who needed them to protect their neighborhoods, teach their kids, and care for their health."
Baltimore provides an apt illustration of this trend: between 1971 and 1985, when then-Mayor Schaefer was providing millions in incentives to developers, municipal spending on public education, in inflation-adjusted terms, was slashed by more than 25 percent.
Nothing could more tragically illustrate the perverse short-term logic of the '80s-style urban "renaissance." The true long-term economic future of the city, an educated and productive labor force, was seriously compromised to help provide resources for tourist attractions, convention facilities and specialty retailing.
Ironically, the costs of this strategy are painfully obvious to local business leaders today, as many regard Baltimore's disastrously flawed public schools as the city's most serious impediment to economic development.