European Cities Catch the American Disease


November 30, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON. — Washington.-- In contrast to Europe's prosperous, planne and peaceful cities, it's long been assumed the last ''Made in America'' monopoly would be our inner-city rot, ghettoization, non-performing schools, soaring crime rates.

But now comes a report showing how European and Canadian cities are starting to share the stark division of ''two worlds'' all too familiar here.

A team of six European and North American journalists and urban experts, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the new PSARAS Fund, visited six cities across the two continents -- Rotterdam, Glasgow, Frankfurt, Atlanta, Chicago and Toronto.

Everywhere they found the same striking division. Each city has a mainstream population, educated, well-off, accessing and profiting handily from opportunities of the new world economy. Yet in each city, often just a block or two from the glittering skyscrapers, one finds concentrations of some of the Western world's most alienated, poverty-stricken people.

The divisions and stark poverty are not yet as acute in Canada and Europe as in the United States. European members of the team were particularly shocked to witness, in some U.S. urban neighborhoods, human and physical devastation more appropriate to a poverty-stricken Third World country than one of the earth's richest nations.

But the same despair is building among the jobless poor in Europe and Canada, with signs of the same profound deprivation and violence that afflicts America's inner cities.

It's easy and a temptation to write off the growing problems to immigration and rising counts of minorities. Only 5.7 percent of Germany's population is foreign, but 24 percent of Frankfurt's residents come from elsewhere. Just 3 percent of the Netherlands is foreign, but 17 percent of Rotterdam's population is non-Dutch.

Watching waves of Turks and North Africans, Black Africans, West Indians, Asians, Indonesians, Romanians and Albanians roll into their cities, once-homogeneous European populations get edgy. Intolerance rises and the political stage is set for weakening of the continent's much-praised social ''safety nets'' for the poor.

But immigration is not the chief culprit triggering economic and social distress in the cities, according to the task force, coordinated by Ralph Widner, veteran U.S. urban-regional development specialist and journalist.

It's true, the team said, that racial and ethnic differences may seem to create a social tinderbox ready to ignite. But the underlying cause, they charged, is the profound economic change that has seized cities across the North Atlantic community. Huge job losses, especially in manufacturing, have stranded millions of less-skilled city residents, native-born and immigrant alike.

Glasgow, for example, is plagued by deep and long-term unemployment even though its population is overwhelmingly native white Scots and there's been scarcely any foreign immigration. Downtown Glasgow glistens -- an exciting revival story -- but the city still has thousands of deeply embittered people mired in intergenerational welfare.

Across the North Atlantic nations, very few government job-training programs equip those left behind to qualify for the new, high-skill posts being created. Most of the training programs are adjuncts to welfare systems and simply aren't planned and conceived well enough to help low-skilled people make the leap into the demanding new jobs.

Behind that lie the problems of poor, even dysfunctional schools. The team was startled to hear education listed as a top priority by leaders in all the cities -- a subject few of them would have mentioned a decade or two ago. Yet school reform seemed slow everywhere, with big school bureaucracies often the biggest single obstacle.

There's lots of energy and commitment in the cities to invent ways to bridge the big socioeconomic chasms, the report team found. It cited such experiments as former President Jimmy Carter's ''Atlanta Project'' and Toronto's effort to make cultural diversity an asset by capitalizing on the unique strengths of the different ethnic minorities. Rotterdam has a sensitive effort to enable poor neighborhood people to help design and implement the services they need. Frankfurt leads on building school-to-work bridges. Strong community-based revival efforts are visible virtually everywhere.

But where's the national help? That's the rub, the team says. Politicians in national and regional elections of the last year in France, Britain, Germany and the United States all showed a tendency to put the cities' plight ''out-of-sight'' and ''out-of-mind,'' the team alleged.

But ducking the cities' deep economic and human problems is a ''grave mistake,'' the group charges. Millions of the neglected city poor will be needed for the work forces of countries with declining ''majority populations.'' Urban neglect and chaos can critically undermine the capacity of both cities and entire countries to compete in the new global economy.

Welfare reform is the single most important step national governments can take, says the team -- redesigning systems to get people into the mainstream economy, or as the Dutch say, converting welfare ''from a hammock to a springboard.''

It's another way of saying, perhaps, the protection of the great cities, the very heart of the civilization of the North Atlantic community, needs to begin with their people.

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

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