Help Cities, or Help People Get Out?


January 05, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Should we help distressed inner-city neighborhoods? Or just encourage poor people to escape them?

Franklin D. Raines, vice chairman of Fannie Mae and a lead economic adviser on the Clinton transition team, warns that the ''people or places'' question, which bothered and sometimes confounded advocates for the urban poor through the '60s and '70s, is about to resurface.

There are signs that he is right. Virtually all President-elect Clinton's urban-initiative ideas, starting with community-development banks and proceeding to enterprise zones and targeted infrastructure projects, seem oriented to people in the neighborhoods where they live.

But is that the way to go? Millions of Americans believe ghettos and barrios are reprehensible and irredeemable. Nicholas Lemann, author of ''The Promised Land,'' argues that ''what's already happening, and what's working, is people getting out of the ghettos for a better life.''

The ''people over places'' camp has a prime example to offer -- Chicago's 16-year-old Chicago Gautreaux program, ordered by a court, under which 4,700 families have been able to move out of public housing and into middle-class neighborhoods and suburbs. Single mothers often get the first regular jobs of their lives; their children tend to catch up quickly in school. Everyone agrees the program -- even if it's helped only a tiny portion of Chicago's public-housing families -- is a grand success.

Urbanologist Mark Hughes, noting that the suburbs have been the prime ''engines of economic growth'' in recent years, now argues that one of our top goals should be transporting inner-city workers out to new jobs in the suburbs.

The Washington-based Urban Institute recently sponsored a Hughes-led conference on the ''reverse commute'' phenomenon and published a companion report featuring case studies of successful recent experiments in the Philadelphia, Chicago and Milwaukee areas.

Fannie Mae's Mr. Raines suggests that the difference between ''people'' and ''place'' approaches is woven deep into Americans' debates about their cities:

''Should you give vouchers usable throughout the metropolitan area or build new housing developments in the inner city? Should public housing projects be closed and the residents dispersed, or should they be improved and the working class invited back in? Should parents be given free choice in picking the school for their children, or should neighborhood schools become centers for community cohesion?''

The simplest, and perhaps best, answer to the quandary is that we need both -- people-oriented and place-oriented strategies. Robert F. Kennedy said as much in a 1967 Senate speech, praising any ''escape hatch'' poor people could find out of the ghetto, but underscoring what society owes to ''those who would build their own community, take pride in their own neighborhoods if they could.''

If we depend simply on dispersal, asks the University of Pennsylvania's Ira Harkavy, ''what will happen to the poor single mothers, the undisciplined teen-agers, the crack babies left behind?''

The question is well taken. Working in or even moving to the suburbs is a fine solution for some residents of ravaged inner-city neighborhoods. But the base of any strategy, Mr. Raines correctly suggests, must be ''functional people in functional neighborhoods.''

That seems to make eminent sense. How, for example, can a ''reverse-commute'' program to suburban work sites be organized without a strong inner-city neighborhood organization to recruit the would-be workers and make sure they're work-ready?

Mr. Raines even entertains the idea of some kind of grand swap -- residents of inner cities and public housing projects being offered vouchers to help them to move to better neighborhoods, while working-class families might be offered vouchers and investment tax credits if they buy homes in the inner city.

Chicago public-housing chief Vincent Lane has an experiment mixing public-housing tenants with low-to-middle-income renters in an attractive apartment lake-front location, and it seems to be working very well.

Such ideas are revolutionary stuff: They suggest we might, in time, become one society, something far less divisive than today's fast-separating income and social camps.

No neighborhood wants to be a victimized slum. Acutely aware of the grim toll of drugs and crime and dysfunctional families, the nation's most savvy community-development corporations are increasingly tough about screening destructive families out of the inner-city housing they own and run.

Nor does it make sense to view all urban neighborhoods as dangerous slums. Many, notes George Knight of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp., are chock full of new immigrants who need a community in which to take root as part and parcel of getting their start in America.

Richard Nathan of the State University of New York at Albany cites ''zones of emergence'' in neighborhoods of New York's ZTC Brooklyn and Queens, and in Cleveland, Dallas, New Orleans, Denver and elsewhere, in which blacks, Hispanics, new or old ethnic groups have bought into the traditional American dream, owning more and more of their own homes, anxious to protect their territory, willing to organize crime patrols and fight hard to keep out drugs.

All this provides a strong hint for a new era of sensitive, smart urban policy. ''Up and out'' mobility strategies for the poor and near-poor are vital. But without more cohesive and supportive urban neighborhoods, the specter of spiraling poverty and crime will never recede.

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

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