A mass gathering to save beleaguered cities...

Sydney H. Schanberg

May 13, 1992|By Sydney H. Schanberg

THIS coming Saturday, there's going to be a big rally in Washington to try to galvanize the country into caring about what has happened to our cities.

What has happened, of course, is that the cities have been abandoned, not only by government and politicians, but by lots of average citizens looking for a calmer, less abrasive life in places that have grass and backyards, out beyond the city limits. Some people forsake the city without actually going away, by cocooning themselves in secure city enclaves and pretending that the neighborhoods of blight and grinding poverty and racial isolation, being out of sight, are out of mind as well.

The trouble is, this turning away from the cities has been going on for a long time, and so a lot of people who want to care have grown wearied and overwhelmed by the images of despair -- and by a discouraged feeling that not much can be done because so many of the political forces in the country, certainly the most powerful ones in Washington, are lined up against doing anything.

It is this political equation, and the disheartenment it has spawned, that Saturday's "Save Our Cities -- Save Our Children" march on Washington seeks to change. Will this mass gathering really make a difference in this nation so inured to mega-events?

It would be foolish to predict in advance that this particular mega-event could be a turning point -- I tend to resist giving myself over to such sweeping romantic notions in order to avoid major letdowns afterward -- but before any of us succumbs to skepticism, let's look at the context of the rally. Most important, it comes on the heels of the urban disaster in Los Angeles that followed the unbelievable acquittal of four Los Angeles police zTC officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. What this means is that the nation's eyes are still fixed on this urban trauma. Yes, we Americans have one of the world's shortest attention spans, but this story has grabbed us longer than most -- probably because we know it represents a national failure on poverty, race, tolerance, fairness. If we feel responsible, maybe it's because we are.

So, to borrow from the lingo of sports, there's some momentum (( here. And where there's momentum, there's at least a chance that the rally could create something hopeful and positive and maybe concrete to build upon. As dreamy and sappy as that may sound, I would point out that in the real world, in history, movements of social change do start somewhere.

Special attention must be paid to the chairman of the Citizens Committee, Osborn Elliott, for he is the father of the march, which he has turned into a personal crusade. Elliott, former editor of Newsweek, conceived the idea a couple of years ago and then began hopping to cities all over the country breathing optimism and searching for converts. When the Conference of Mayors came aboard last August, the idea achieved critical mass.

More than 120 individual mayors have signed on, as well as a multitude of community groups, labor unions, civil rights organizations.

If I were to make one suggestion, as an uninvited kibbitzer, to the leaders of Saturday's march, I would say broaden the theme to reach beyond urban areas. In order to build a national movement to revive urban America, you will have to win support in the suburbs and in rural America, too. To be successful, you have to be able to show nonurban Americans how the government policy of abandoning cities has dragged them down, too, has dragged the whole country down. Interdependency is a reality, not an abstraction.

The National Mannequin who is our president in Washington keeps denying that he and his predecessor have shortchanged the cities. That's like denying sunrise and sunset. In New York City alone, since the beginning of Reagan-Bush, there has been a net loss of roughly $34 billion in federal funds -- cuts that range across the board from education to job-training to mass transit. Housing aid by itself was slashed by nearly $25 billion -- in case you wondered how the homeless were created.

The cruelty of it is obvious. When you abandon cities, you abandon people. Under Ronald Reagan and George Bush, it had the distinct smell of punishment, as if they were getting back at the city people, not least the minority residents, who didn't vote for them.

But this is not purely a partisan failure. One should not assume that all Republicans are as unconnected to cities or working people or poor people as have been our last two presidents.

The point is, the rally in Washington on Saturday is about the whole country, not one side against another. It's also about how much all of us need, for our own sakes, to connect with each other.

Sydney H. Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.

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