Life in the cities

August 09, 1996|By Nathan Glazer

PRESIDENT CARTER came to the South Bronx in 1977, posed among the ruins and said that now that he was president something would be done. In 1980, Candidate Reagan came to the South Bronx, posed among the ruins and said if he were president something would be done. Can anyone imagine Candidates Clinton or Dole doing something similar this year?

The "urban crisis," which played so large a role in domestic politics in the late 1960s and 1970s, will not, we can be confident, be an issue this election. Not that it won't be discussed in some other context. But the term "urban crisis" was more than shorthand for the poverty and crime, poor housing and poor schools, that plagued cities then, and remain today. It implied an approach to those problems -- symbolized by the visits of politicians to scenes of urban disaster. This was something the federal government could and should do something about.

To speak of a national urban crisis meant that devastated inner cities were not simply matters for New York, or Chicago, or Detroit, but a national problem like the Depression of the 1930s, out of which came, for example, federal public housing. And the federal government, which had devised a national program of urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, was expected to respond.

Reagan's choice

But by the late 1970s the federal government already faced substantial deficits, and what it could, or should, do was no longer clear. President Reagan settled the issue: Washington would do as little as possible. His critique of wasteful and mindless federal spending was not entirely wrong. Nonetheless, the case for deep federal involvement in the problems of cities, as a matter of logic or even justice, was persuasive then, and it is persuasive now.

For 50 years, urban experts have argued that the federal government bears some responsibility for urban blight because of two major federal programs: it made it easier for people to buy homes through programs of mortgage assistance and rationalization, which began in the Depression and expanded in the postwar years; and it built a major system of federal freeways, which made it easier for aspiring homeowners to move to the suburbs, where land was cheaper.

Cities had once dominated their hinterlands, annexing additional land as they developed, but in most of the United States this was no longer possible.

The wealthier suburbs did not want to be annexed, and state law protected them. Cities were left to cope with their problems without the resources of an entire interlinked metropolitan region, because the suburbs did not want to be subjected to higher city taxation, even though many who lived in the suburbs worked in the city and drew their income from it.

There's more. The federal government also imposed expensive mandates on cities. And one effect of the federal programs encouraging home ownership and mobility was to contribute to the separation of black and white, and to reduce the resources available in cities for the assistance of the urban poor, increasingly black, or in some places, immigrant. Poverty, race, immigration -- these are, after all, national problems.

Metropolitan government was once seen as a possible solution. By drawing the wealthier suburbs into a common political framework, the central cities would become less dependent on federal aid. But the suburbs, of course, were not interested. The United States is not Great Britain, where Parliament can shape city boundaries and responsibilities as it will. The federal government can't, and the states won't, unless one can prove that rigid state and town boundaries infringe on the constitutional rights of minorities.

(In New Jersey, plaintiffs have made just such a case in the Mt. Laurel litigation. New Jersey now requires suburban towns to enact zoning regulations that permit denser, cheaper housing.)

So the cities are saddled with problems that are, for the most part, beyond their capacity to deal with, and for which they are, local mismanagement notwithstanding, mostly not responsible. Yet today's political realities are such that major outside assistance, whether from regional, state or federal government, will not come.

The riots of the late 1960s spurred a good deal of federal assistance, but the condition of the federal budget in the 1990s, with its huge fixed and rising costs for Social Security, Medicare and debt management, is such that even riots will not matter now.

While the mayors complain bitterly, and justly, a strange thing has happened: as federal aid has dried up, as hope for new programs has waned, it has turned out that many cities can attack problems and even undertake major improvements with their own resources, public and private.

One reason presidential candidates won't go to the South Bronx is that the photo opportunities are not as good as they were before. There has been so much new building and rehabilitation of trashed apartment housing that the background of urban devastation is no longer impressive.

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