The Elements of a U.S. Urban Policy

NEAL R. PEIRCE

May 11, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

LOS ANGELES. — Los Angeles -- the wake of the most destructive urban riots of the 20th century, President Bush and his crew have been offering us old bromides.

They blame the ''liberal'' social programs of the '60s. They talk about getting more welfare recipients to work, selling off public housing, giving tax breaks to investors, and they've set up a federal-state task force to prosecute the rioters.

There's an ounce of sense in a couple of their ideas. But look at the military occupation force that was needed to control this city, look at the incinerated stores, the shattered communities, and the administration's prescriptions seem wildly insufficient.

By his long indifference to cities and exploitation of racial symbols, Mr. Bush has forfeited credible leadership on urban affairs. But since this is an election year, let's ask what a national executive who cared might do.

A president adequate to the challenge would underscore, repeatedly and with deep conviction, our unity as a people, lines of class, race and income notwithstanding.

He'd stress the danger to us all if any sector of America suffers and declines. He'd remind people in comfortable suburbs and rural areas that social disintegration eventually affects everyone, the pocketbook, or by crime suffered, or both.

Then he'd get down to business and see what the federal government can reasonably do to undergird its great cities and their people.

Let's face it: The smoldering evidence of Los Angeles constitutes a prima facie case that Presidents Reagan and Bush made a calamitous error when they disregarded and even exploited racial division, when they slashed aid to cities, when they tilted federal tax policy to aid the rich and skewer the poor. We're left with a nation of cities that are time bombs awaiting another Rodney King trial spark.

The last time the cities went up in flames, Lyndon Johnson answered with Model Cities and the Great Society. Some of it failed; much of it didn't. Today few people would tolerate such a top-down approach.

But Jerry Brown is thinking straight when he proposes a federally financed 120-day program to rebuild ravaged Los Angeles communities, making local residents the work force. The symbolic value of that national caring could be immense. The $600 million in disaster relief and repair that Bush proposes ought to be used to fund that kind of effort.

Most Americans agree the Great Society's Head Start works well. Today's problem is that four hours a day for one year of a child's life is scarcely enough to counteract every obstacle from drugs to parental abuse to neighborhood violence.

Even at a cost of billions, we should move to universalize Head Start's Parent and Child Centers. They work as closely with mothers as children; they help kids from birth to kindergarten.

If every inner-city neighborhood had such centers, hundreds of thousands of kids could have a more supportive childhood and better start toward school.

Then, with most parents working, we need all-day schools with ** afternoon sports and cultural programs to build positive social attitudes and replace the perils of latchkey-kid existence. Then we need strong youth-service programs and expanded college availability.

Strong community-based organization must be the backbone of any new national urban program. Bush & Co. conveniently forget that many leaders of community-development groups, one of our few bright hopes for the '90s, got their start in the days of the 1960s federally funded community-action programs.

Today the country has more than 2,000 community-development corporations that build and rehabilitate housing and give a voice to underprivileged people. They could be the focus for bringing jobs and investment into their communities. These bodies need to grow into full-scale social-service agencies, rooted in community, getting aid from outside but dealing neighbor to neighbor. Without an infusion of federal aid, their progress in that direction is likely to be agonizingly slow.

Today, in contrast to the '60s, we have big, highly skilled national groups ready to guide expanded community-development corporations -- among them the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and the Enterprise Foundation. They could act as a funnel and quality check for national funding.

Finally, crime, drugs and gangs have to be faced squarely. They create virtual hells for most residents of poor neighborhoods. Now we know what not to do: rely on the top-down, command control, rapid-response model that Daryl Gates perfected for the L.A. Police Department.

Willie Williams, L.A.'s new chief just recruited from Philadelphia, is a leading exponent of community policing. The idea of making cops allies rather than occupying forces, reliable and friendly presences in neighborhoods, is just now and fortuitously coming of age.

A new president needn't expend federal billions for policing. But he could contribute importantly by calling on every community to adopt neighborhood-responsive law enforcement.

Along the way, a president should urge state and local governments to stop long-term incarceration of large numbers of minority and urban youth for minor offenses -- while assuring that truly dangerous criminals are punished and restrained.

It will be a daunting, expensive job to create urban policies that assure cities and older suburbs a measure of social peace and new economic opportunities -- and all of us a safer future.

But the brutal Los Angeles uprising has now shown us the bitter fruits of social Darwinism. That policy is immoral, and incredibly dangerous. At whatever cost, we have to change course.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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