American cities bask in unprecedented prosperity

Mayors conference addresses problems created by good times

June 13, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SEATTLE - The mayor of New Orleans slammed his fist, reaching for a passionate note before more than 300 of his fellow mayors. "We have a crisis in the offing!" said Mayor Marc Morial.

The mayor of Long Beach, Calif., Beverly O'Neill, was equally concerned. "This is the No. 1 problem facing our country," she said.

But it was not drugs, crime or other persistent urban ills that was most troubling to the city leaders gathered for this year's annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Instead, to hear the mayors tell it, urban America's biggest challenge of late is prosperity. Compared with past years, the problems of the city are almost happy problems.

The mayors complained about too many high-skill jobs and not enough people to fill them; too many well-off people moving back to the city and not enough houses for all of them, driving up prices for everyone else; too much demand for parks and serenity and not enough open space to offer the new city dwellers appalled by sprawl.

And just as the cities now view themselves as solvent, buff and politically fashionable, they find they are no longer shunned by political leaders who used to consider urban concerns as dead ends.

Four years ago, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole would not even address the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Cleveland for its annual meeting.

Yesterday, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who spoke to the mayors by satellite from the family home in Maine, embraced many of their issues, though the overwhelmingly Democratic majority of mayors took issue with him afterward.

Mayors from both parties agree that the nation's big cities, neglected in the era of soccer-mom concerns, are in the catbird seat.

"What's changed is the re-urbanization of America," said Larry Bartley, a Republican, the mayor of Titusville, Fla., and a supporter of Bush. "More and more Americans are moving back to the cities because they like what's going on there."

As president of the Conference of Mayors, Wellington Webb of Denver, said, "It's our day in the sun, and it's a very bright day because the old image of the American city is gone."

He added, "Cities used to have a tin cup out begging for money from Washington." Now, he said, half the cities are worried about what those in Washington are "going to do to us."

Underscoring the good times were two new reports released at the conference, which runs through today.

One study, the annual state of the cities report issued by the Clinton administration, made a case that urban areas were "enjoying the longest and strongest economic expansion in our history," according to Andrew M. Cuomo, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who released the report.

The other study put the urban economic boom in a global perspective, ranking 47 U.S. metropolitan areas among the top 100 economies in the world. Chicago's gross product is greater than that of Switzerland; Providence, R.I., ranks above Vietnam.

The percentage of American families who own their own homes has never been higher - 67 percent, the study showed. And among urban dwellers, home ownership is also a record, at 51 percent - though still 20 points below the home ownership percentage in the suburbs.

But the mayors saw clouds in both reports, which note that not all cities are enjoying renewed vigor.

The booming urban economies, while they have transformed places that were in near-critical condition, have made living in cities harder for the poor and lower middle class.

The urban boom has driven up home prices at twice the rate of inflation, Cuomo said.

In San Francisco, a city where real estate prices have skyrocketed with the surge in high-tech jobs, the school system is planning to build rent-subsidized apartments for public school teachers.

Similarly, Cuomo said the federal government would have to step up its housing subsidies for the cities that are now pricing out low- and middle-wage job earners.

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