Hopes of big U.S cities are riding on Cisneros

December 22, 1992|By Lars-Erik Nelson

WASHINGTON -- On a blazing hot day in the spring of 1984, Henry Cisneros, then the 36-year-old mayor of San Antonio, took Democratic presidential aspirant Walter Mondale on a tour through a working-class Mexican-American neighborhood in West San Antonio.

With the Texas presidential caucuses coming up, Mr. Mondale needed the votes. But the neighborhood tour was not something anyone was looking forward to.

Lo and behold, a working-class Hispanic neighborhood in San Antonio turned out to mean pleasant, mesquite-shaded streets lined with pretty bungalows, many with comfortable porches and flower gardens.

No, it was not luxury. But it was an eye-opener: Being poor did not mean living amid filth and broken glass. Many people owned their modest homes, and their pride of ownership literally sparkled.

"It's a nice neighborhood," Mr. Mondale told Margarita Contreras, who had returned home after 20 years in Detroit. Then he reflected for a moment on the old liberal Democratic tradition that produced him.

"You're lucky that it's still here for you to come back to," he said. "In the old urban-renewal days, we'd take a neighborhood like this and knock it flat."

Mr. Mondale was describing Democratic politics as America had grown to know it. All urban problems could be cured by bulldozers, cement and the AFL-CIO building trades unions. By 1984, Mr. Mondale knew better.

Now Mr. Cisneros, who has just been nominated to be Bill Clinton's secretary of housing and urban development, stands squarely in front of one of Mr. Clinton's biggest challenges. Facing Mr. Cisneros, with hands outstretched and an eager smile on their faces, are virtually all the big city mayors of America, all Democrats and all thinking, hallelujah, salvation has come.

As he named Mr. Cisneros, Mr. Clinton said of him, "He knew that the answer to his city's problems was not in government spending alone, but also in aggressive economic-development efforts that brought businesses and communities together."

Yes, sure, say the mayors. Now let's see that check for the community development block grant. "There are still Democrats who think we can solve our basic economic problems by giving $20 or $30 billion to the cement industry," said a Democratic senator sourly.

"The mayors' expectations are going to be so high," says a former HUD official. "They see Cisneros as one of their own."

In San Antonio, Mr. Cisneros was partly a cement-oriented mayor. In 1989, he shepherded through a tax increase to build the $160 million Alamodome, a 65,000-seat stadium. He promoted a $200 million downtown shopping center, built with public and private funds, adjacent to the River Walk tourist area of small shops, restaurants and bars that winds through town. San Antonio now draws 10 million tourists a year.

"Cisneros knows that any solution to the inner cities is going to involve the private sector," said Howard Leibowitz, an aide to Boston's Mayor Ray Flynn. "He knows you have to leverage your money, spend a little in public funds to lure more massive private investment. Because unless the private sector comes in afterwards, you can spend all the public money in the world and not a lot is going to happen."

Mr. Mondale thinks Mr. Cisneros will do just fine as a new-style Democrat.

"One of the hopeful things about Cisneros and the entire Clinton administration is that they are determined to look at problems freshly," Mr. Mondale said over the phone. "There are going to be ideas ricocheting all over Washington. And anybody who looks at our cities has got to know that the traditional answers do not work anymore.

"Just look at what happened in Los Angeles," Mr. Mondale continued. "Something is really wrong, and we have to find a second way to fix it. The first way didn't work -- and there's no money to keep doing it. If there's one hallmark to this new administration, it's that this is not a tradition-bound leadership."

Mr. Cisneros will succeed Jack Kemp, who sought to promote home-ownership in poor neighborhoods as a way of establishing prosperity through pride. Though Mr. Kemp is leaving, his ideas survive. The pleasant neighborhood Mr. Cisneros showed off in West San Antonio is what Mr. Kemp dreamed of.

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