Success in the All-America Cities


June 07, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

TAMPA, FLORIDA — Tampa, Florida.--The small Tennessee city of Pulaski (population 7,916) was declared an All-America City in award ceremonies here May 22. The town was recognized chiefly for a surge of brotherhood activities, such as whites and blacks demonstrating together against Ku Klux Klanners who had been returning to the spot where the Klan was born in 1865.

Oakland, California, ravaged by earthquake and by fire, a city heavily impacted by immigration, factory job losses, crime and poverty, was another All-America City winner for its broad array of comeback efforts, led by spirited biracial coalitions.

For close to 20 years, Cleveland, Ohio, has been industriously launching one recovery effort after another to shake off the impact of massive industrial loss, middle-class population flight and the ugly racial standoffs of the '60s. Now Cleveland has its fifth All-America City award, this time for neighborhood housing renewal efforts and especially for Mayor Michael White's high-stakes struggle to turn around one of America's worst public school systems.

Seven other cities -- among them Fort Worth and Laredo, Texas, and Delray Beach, Florida -- emerged to win the All-America City designation, America's premier civic recognition program, from a field of 30 finalists and a record total of 150 applicant cities.

In a nation of alienation politics and supposedly turned-off citizens, the enthusiasm of the communities competing for the All-America City designation is amazing to behold.

It would be possible to say the awards, invented and run since 1949 by the National Civic League and sponsored since 1989 by the Allstate Foundation, are simply building on the culture set in the program's early years by its founding jury foreman, the late George Gallup Sr. Gallup, a great humanitarian as well as the founder of modern polling, believed deeply in citizens' capacity to remake their own communities. He could detect in a twinkling fTC the difference between a shallow booster and a committed civic reformer.

But the National Civic League, now based in Denver, has added important value to the All-America Cities competition by requiring that cities not only produce renewal stories but report on how well they've achieved the 10 measures of the League's National Civic Index. Among the measures are citizen participation, community leadership, government performance, volunteerism and capacity for cooperation and consensus building.

Some cities are now candidly holding off on their applications, until they can work at bolstering their civic performance across the board, based on the index measures.

Another new element is giving the awards immediately after the jury deliberations. The tension reaches a crescendo at the final awards banquet -- this year attended by over 800 people, including big delegations from the 30 finalist cities. Cries of nervous anticipation, then exultation among the winners, could be heard as the jury foreman, former Hawaii Gov. William Quinn, first described the achievements of a city and then concluded by revealing its name.

Citizen leaders, mayors, others from the cities came to the podium to receive their winners' plaques, their voices often choked with tears, sometimes pronouncing this the proudest moment of their lives.

Before the final winners are known, however, they learn about and start discussing each others' stories as presentations are made before the jury. Understandably, as community activists themselves, they're open to the message of success elsewhere. Yet uniformly, they say they never would have dreamed, from watching television news or reading newspapers, of the amazing variety of renewal efforts under way at the grass roots of one American city after another.

Most also say that even their hometown newspapers, typically hung up on local political battles that reporters usually favor, had failed to grasp the import of their efforts -- that it takes the outside recognition to drive the point home, at home.

That's not always true. The Cleveland press, for example, could hardly ignore Mayor White's effort -- unusual for a big-city mayor -- to risk his political capital to clean up and reform a school system that had gone through 10 superintendents in 12 years and stayed bogged down in petty politics and busing disputes, neglecting the cataclysmic failure of its kids (a 38 percent drop-out rate, for example). Mr. White's four-person leadership slate won the school-board elections of 1991, and the school summits he began have drawn the involvement of thousands of Cleveland parents, business and civic leaders.

But quieter, more purely citizen-based efforts often fail to make headlines, or at a minimum get overwhelmed by stories about crime, corruption and scandal.

A chief value of the All-America City process is to throw a rare spotlight on those efforts -- extraordinary police cooperation with Cleveland's multi-racial communities, for example. Or Pulaski's clean-up and revival of a downtown in which the last restaurant had burned and everyone had almost given up hope. Or Oakland residents' ''Safe Streets Now!'' program that identifies drug houses and then seeks legal action against landlords who won't evict drug traffickers.

Singly, the All-America Cities' achievements look like lonely exceptions in times of alarming urban decay. Collectively, they suggest gratifying, amazingly broad resilience in grass-roots America.

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

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