Urban tragedies as phoenixes: Cities are rising from blight

The Argument

Intelligent private initiatives and public policies are bringing wastelands back to stable livability

Books

October 06, 2002|By Jill Jonnes | By Jill Jonnes,Special to the Sun

For decades, America watched its cities empty out. Some became eerily reminiscent of wartime ruins, with street after street of vacant, bombed-out apartment buildings, terrifying testimony to a rampant, incurable urban cancer. The ultimate, world-famous example of American urban abandonment was Charlotte Street in New York City's South Bronx. The chaos -- of dysfunctional inner-city poverty-fragile families, drugs, gangs and horrific crime -- spun out of control in the 1970s. For a decade, the arson fires burned, decimating 20 square miles of Bronx neighborhoods.

Most Americans believe that these infamous urban disaster zones, their spectacular collapse so vividly documented (it made for great, heart-wrenching TV), remain moribund wastelands, shunned by every sensible citizen.

What a delightful and astonishing surprise to discover that almost the entire South Bronx has been rebuilt and that tens of thousands of hard-working New Yorkers have chosen to buy new townhouses (built on those much-photographed rubble-strewn lots) and raise their families there! And what encouraging news from the urban front to learn that the monumental and amazing redevelopment seen in the South Bronx has been quietly under way elsewhere on a smaller scale. It turns out that despite decades of doom and gloom, we now know how to revive cities.

In Paul S. Grogan and Tony Proscio's Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival (Westview Press, 285 pages, $16), the authors hail the unheralded rebounding of the American inner city that has proved many an expert wrong.

They do not speak of miracles, but of big improvement, cautioning: "Even the fastest-recovering inner cities are still hardscrabble places occupied largely by poor families and struggling businesses. The point is not that poverty has been abolished, or will be, nor is it that cities can or should return to the full glory of their wealthier pasts. The point is that they are becoming places where people want to live, shop, run businesses and go to school."

They quote one Chicago community organizer as saying of his reviving neighborhood: "It's not pretty. It's still not clean. We've got problems. But economically, it works, and people like it here."

Twenty-two years of Republicanism (sometimes quite right-wing) at the national level have relentlessly pushed the mantra that government is bad. But these reviving cities show not only that government properly applied can do great good, but also that government is crucial to revival.

In this story, the role of government has been both indirect -- helping generate huge amounts of new capital through changed laws -- and direct, by dramatically bringing down violent crime. Savvy longtime grass-roots groups have recast themselves as nonprofit community development corporations (CDCs) that work closely with local government. They serve as the bedrock of neighborhood revival, rehabbing thousands of apartment houses and building new homes, luring in new businesses, setting up child-care centers, charter schools and other needed services.

Alexander von Hoffman describes how several of these CDCs operate -- their trials, tribulations and triumphs -- in Fuel Lines for the Urban Revival Engine: Neighborhoods, Community Development Corporations, and Financial Intermediaries (Fannie Mae Foundation, 98 pages). He explains the critical role of several large national nonprofits like the Ford Foundation-backed Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and James Rouse's Enterprise Foundation.

These two groups work with almost 3,000 CDCs nationwide, helping them make financial deals and providing technical advice of all kinds. LISC, Enterprise and a few others, says Hoffman, "monitor CDCs and their projects, giving philanthropies, corporations, and banks confidence to invest." Most of these CDCs are able to obtain the all-critical capital thanks to government intervention and regulation. How?

Two major federal laws dramatically changed the rules of the capital and credit game in places like the South Bronx. The 1977 Community Reinvestment Act forced banks to stop redlining, causing their bank investments in poor neighborhoods to soar from $3 billion in 1977 to $43 billion in 1997. The 1986 Low Income Housing Tax Credit offered tax write-offs to corporations and individuals who invest in creating housing for the poor.

A Chicago-based clearinghouse, the National Equity Fund, makes it easy for corporations to buy $1 million blocks of tax shelter. A total of $3 billion in these tax credits has flowed into new inner-city projects. So, at long last, serious and desperately needed big money is reviving communities. The results are becoming highly visible.

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