If the Cities Expand, Maybe They Can Be Saved

GENE MARLOWE

December 16, 1992|By GENE MARLOWE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- America couldn't have done a better job of destroying its cities if someone had planned it.

For 40 years, the United States has been systematically dismantling cities as livable places, and nothing the incoming Clinton administration does is likely to turn that around soon -- if ever.

Enterprise zones? Urban job corps? Tenant ownership? More money to combat crime and drugs?

These won't make a dent against America's urban problem -- which was created by decades of government policies that encouraged suburban, not urban living.

The federal government unwittingly contributed to the cities' demise by providing mortgage guarantees and tax breaks used primarily by people moving to the suburbs and by pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the roads and highways to take them there.

To make good their escape from the city and its problems, the new suburbanites often passed laws prohibiting the area's city from expanding -- condemning it to a future as a economic and racial ghetto.

This sealed the fate of the great cities of the Northeast and Midwest. In the South and Southwest, where fewer anti-annexation laws were passed, cities have far brighter prospects.

David Rusk, an expert on cities and why so many are dying, offers the contrast between Charlotte, N.C., and Cleveland as an example.

Their metropolitan populations are roughly the same -- but their prospects could not be more different. Nobody would argue that Charlotte doesn't have problems, but they are not those of Cleveland.

Charlotte's metropolitan area has gained 600,000 people in the last 40 years; Cleveland's, 700,000. Both are roughly 20 percent black, metrowide. But there the similarities end.

Charlotte has grown, capturing nearly half of the growth of its metropolitan area. The population of Cleveland has shrunk, with most of the growth of its metropolitan area coming from people fleeing the city.

Charlotte -- with roughly the same size black population -- is far more integrated than Cleveland. Charlotte's residents are prosperous; per capita income in the city is 118 percent that of the suburbs. In Cleveland, per capital income is only 62 percent of that in the suburbs.

The difference: Charlotte was allowed to expand, to follow its suburbs and keep the middle-class -- both white and black -- within the city, paying its taxes, running its government and solving its problems.

Mr. Rusk can make dozens of such comparisons. Austin, Texas, and Hartford, Conn. -- similar metropolitan size and racial makeup. Austin's a growing, healthy city. Hartford is a basket case -- a racial and economic ghetto surrounded by affluent, walled-off suburbs. Houston and Detroit -- same story.

''The pursuit of the American dream -- the building of suburban America -- has also created the American nightmare -- decaying, poverty impacted, racially impacted central cities,'' Mr. Rusk said. ''It has created a form of urban apartheid that is unmatched in any other advanced nation.''

Mr. Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., has just finished a stint as a guest scholar at the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson Center. His examination of over 500 American cities and their problems, ''Cities Without Suburbs,'' will be published in February by the Smithsonian and Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mr. Rusk says the remedies that politicians are talking about will not work. Jack Kemp wants to ''empower'' public housing tenants. The nation's mayors are beating the drum for federal aid.

''Basically, all have the same concept -- leave people in place and build from within. It isn't going to work. My research shows that no community which has begun its downward slide in terms of growing poverty and growing minority concentration and growing gaps between the suburbs and the cities -- no community has reversed that trend.''

Trying to rebuild the ghettos won't solve anything, he said. ''When people there are successful -- as many have been -- it usually doesn't help because they get out -- as is only sensible.''

Mr. Rusk believes the solution is to copy successful cities and make a city the real city -- the whole metropolitan area. It can be done through aggressive annexation or consolidation.

The result is less racial and economic segregation, more dispersed public housing, and better lives for the disadvantaged. Studies show that when people leave inner city ghettos, their income and educational levels rise.

But bringing the metropolitan areas back into the cities at this late date won't be easy. Suburbs usually don't want any part of the cities and the feeling is often mutual. The inner-city politicians who run cities see consolidation as a white plot.

''This is the toughest, toughest, toughest political problem in the country,'' Mr. Rusk said.

Gene Marlowe wrote this commentary for Media General News Service.

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