Life looking up for U.S. cities

May 16, 2001|By Neal Peirce

WASHINGTON -- A new organization, CEOs for Cities, was announced with fanfare at the National Press Club this month.

Isn't the very title an oxymoron? Didn't CEOs fleeing urban woes, seeking low costs on suburban green fields, aggravate the decline of American cities from the 1950s onward?

Answer: Yes. But that was in another century. Today, CEOs for Cities declares in its founding manifest, "The Era of Urban Decline is over. America's cities are coming back."

They have evidence and new arguments on their side. The 2000 Census figures are starting to show major population turnarounds (eight of the 10 largest cities gaining people, for example). Crime has dropped precipitously. City jobs, income and fiscal health are all up.

Problems, some serious, persist: brown fields, aged infrastructure, subpar schools. Yet so much positive is occurring that the new CEOs group can argue seriously that cities are set to become the 21st century's centers of commerce and individual opportunity.

Paul Grogan, a Harvard vice president and founder-leader of CEOs for Cities, made that assertion in his 2000 book, "Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival."

With CEOs for Cities, he has allies. "We're here to testify the renaissance is real," said Charles Ratner, co-chair of CEOs and leader of Cleveland's Forest City Enterprises, a development company once focused on suburbs but now active from Pittsburgh to New York, Denver to Pasadena, Calif. "We've redirected our financial power to the city. It's where we can make money."

The CEOs organization has other corporate chieftains -- for example, heads of CVS pharmacy, Fleet Financial, Allstate Insurance and the St. Joe Co., a land developer.

But it also has university presidents. One is Columbia University's George Rupp, who describes how New York's renaissance has benefited Columbia with skyrocketing student applications and the ability to compete globally for top faculty. And New York basks in the $1.2 billion that Columbia draws from outside the city -- not to mention jobs, volunteers, clinics, interns and a research park in biotechnology.

CEOs also has mayors on board -- for starters, the elected leaders of Detroit; Houston; St. Paul, Minn.; Chicago; Jacksonville, Fla.; Richmond, Va.; New Orleans; Boston; Milwaukee; Indianapolis and Denver.

Cities, suggested St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, used to be like a doughnut -- a static hole with the "sweet stuff" out on the growing suburban fringe. But now there is also sweet growth at the epicenter, he said, gnawing symbolically on the middle of a Danish.

Breakthroughs for cities, suggested Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, depend on business-academic partnerships that deliver new technology advances. "Some critics," he added, "said technology would turn cities into ghost towns. But in Boston, we created 120,000 jobs. Our population is growing. Neighborhoods are stronger than ever before. Boston is not dying in the New Economy. It's thriving."

None of this means urban problems have been banished. Topping the list: schools. Unless mayors focus on governing schools, and school quality, said Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, "they cannot rebuild their cities."

Some affluent suburban school districts are so posh, Mr. Daley says, that they're an equivalent of private school districts, spending extravagantly on "Taj Mahal"- style new schools -- in stark contrast to time-worn inner-city schools. Chicago, he notes, has spent $3 billion on school construction -- with virtually zero state or federal assistance.

And even though his City Hall is one of the few that control the schools, Mr. Daley agonizes about low reading skills and entrenched staffs that push kids ahead with meaningless social promotions. He'd like to see federally financed vouchers of $1,000 a child a year for after-school activities -- vouchers valid only for operations run outside the school bureaucracies.

City schools, Mr. Grogan said, are in "a true period of ferment," with governance alternatives, school choice and questions of cities' manpower skills hanging in the balance. "We haven't," he confesses, "yet built a training system the private sector believes in."

It's that element of true candor that's most appealing about the CEOs for Cities effort. Its founders recognize a passel of tough problems with which they'd indeed like a federal hand now and then. Housing financing, tax incentives for the poor and would-be homeowners, leveling the field with suburbs for transportation funding, incentives for recovery of brown-fields -- all are on the list. And any way to improve their schools. Clearly, they intend to lobby for those national concessions.

But they feel confident enough about today's American cities to sell them as indispensable to success -- success for America's regions as they compete in the new global economy, and ultimately our success as a nation.

It's a bold vision -- based on opportunity, not guilt, on a high-tech, high-finance new urban economy rather than memories of past city glories. It may not change the mind-set of a suburban nation overnight. But it represents a sea change in expectations, and possibilities.

Neal Peirce is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

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