At Last, Fresh Hope for Neighborhoods

NEAL R. PEIRCE

December 28, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Topped off by President-elect Clinton's selection of Henry Cisneros as the next secretary of Housing and Urban Development, this may be the most hopeful holiday season for America's troubled inner cities in close to a generation.

Since his election, Mr. Clinton has telegraphed clear messages that forgotten and forsaken urban America will be less so in the next four years.

On his first visit to Washington after Election Day, Mr. Clinton was walking along impoverished Georgia Avenue, promising a community-development bank for every poor neighborhood that needs one.

Then, when he set up his economic summit in Little Rock, the president-elect invited no fewer than four leaders of community-based development organizations -- Brenda Shockley of Community Build in Los Angeles, Larry Farmer of Mississippi Action for Community Education, Hipolito Roldan of Chicago's Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, and Daphne Sloan of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation in Cincinnati.

Also on the Little Rock program were two of the neighborhoods' staunchest allies -- Mary Broughton of Chicago's South Shore and Vincent Lane, chair of the Chicago Housing Authority and himself a veteran of community-development work.

It's not unknown (but painfully rare since 1980) for a president to meet with representatives of poor neighborhoods. But I can think of no precedent for a chief executive consulting them on mainstream national economic policy.

Henry Cisneros' appointment has import far beyond the fact that he is Mr. Clinton's first Hispanic appointee.

Ronald Reagan selected a HUD secretary (Sam Pierce) whom he could barely recognize. George Bush appointed a party rival (Jack Kemp) who was disdained by White House regulars.

But Mr. Clinton picked not only a prominent former San Antonio mayor and president of the National League of Cities, but a confidant he named as one of the first members of his transition team.

Much like Governor Clinton, Mr. Cisneros rose from humble roots (the west side of inner-city San Antonio) and left home to get a top-flight education. He attacks public policy with energy and intellectualism. My first column about him in November 1982 began:

''Imagine a mayor who on his own time, evenings and weekends, undertakes a comprehensive study of all the emerging branches of high technology -- from fiber optics to laser technology, from robotics to biomedical engineering. And then analyzes how any or all might translate into jobs in his home city, develops an action plan for attracting those jobs, and presents his findings in a 242-page report for his fellow citizens.''

His goal for San Antonio, Mr. Cisneros told me then, wasn't ''just a boom-town experience for its own sake.'' There had to be an ''equity or justice agenda,'' he said, with jobs for poor Latinos and others, not just footloose Yankee engineers.

Mayor Cisneros ''delivered'' for barrio San Antonio with dramatic improvement in city services -- even though, as he went on to cultivate big-business support and champion big downtown building projects, he occasionally clashed with his early supporters, the prickly COPS neighborhood organizing group.

Sidetracked from active politics in the late '80s by highly publicized marital difficulties, Mr. Cisneros took on the chairmanship of the National Civic League, focusing a century-old, Brahmin-founded reform group on the nation's mounting social divisions.

The United States' deepest challenge, as he sees it, is the deep and widening gulf between an older, whiter, more educated and technologically proficient America on one hand, and a younger, poorer, less highly educated, more heavily black and brown nation on the other.

Mr. Cisneros clearly has the intellect and skills to put his mind around HUD's multitudinous housing programs, to develop varieties of new financing arrangements and to pick up on President-elect Clinton's challenge to do more for urban America with very limited new resources.

But even as he presses the cities to be more creative and do more with less, Mr. Cisneros will unquestionably be their most powerful and articulate Washington advocate in many a year. As he said on the day of his appointment, ''It breaks my heart to hear talk of writing off neighborhoods or whole cities.''

But Mayor Cisneros' appointment raises another possibility: that this Texan might become the Clinton administration's point man on multiculturalism.

Noting the floodtide of rising immigrant and minority populations in California and across the nation, Mr. Cisneros in Los Angeles last month delivered an impassioned plea for developing a new civic discourse, creating a new social contract for an intensely multicultural 21st-century America.

In an ''age of diversity,'' he argued in an address to the National Civic League, the test of government won't just be ''if it's efficient, but if it's inclusive.'' Washington's role will be less about sending money and writing regulations, more about empowering local communities.

At the local level, he said, the issues of race, ethnicity and diversity ''will clash, with full intensity.'' In a society threatened by violence and isolation, Mr. Cisneros argued, ''we'll have to build communities differently,'' using the tools open to government -- from schools to cable television -- ''to bring people together, set up forums and conversations, celebrate our humanity, our capacity for affection.''

If Henry Cisneros could give grassroots America a hand in doing that, the hopeful glow of Christmas 1992 might indeed radiate forward through the decade.

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

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