Scholar sees reasons for hope on future of U.S. cities


October 05, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL

Peter Salins came to Baltimore last week to posit a simple but significant question: "Have U.S. cities turned the corner?"

The answer he gave -- at a seminar sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies -- was a qualified yes.

"I believe there is a seismic shift taking place in urban America, and for the most part it is a beneficial one," said Salins, an urban scholar and vice chancellor of academic affairs of the State University of New York.

Salins acknowledged that "not all trends are positive and even the positive trends are not benefiting every city" but said that in the coming years "the future of our cities are sure to brighten."

Salins' assessment of trends in Baltimore is even more shaded.

After noting the city's continued sharp population loss through 2000 and the city's relatively poor record in reducing unemployment and attracting immigrants, Salins said: "It looks much better in person than it does statistically. ... I don't know if the statistics lie or if they're lagging indicators."

Salins is hardly an urban Pollyanna. He's a senior scholar at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative, free-market think tank. A decade and a half ago, he painted a bleak vision of the future of cities in his essay, "Cities, Suburbs and the Urban Crisis," declaring that central cities disproportionately populated by the poor were likely to continue to be beset by soaring crime, homelessness and other problems that would continue to drive away businesses and residents.

Some of his views can stir dispute. Asked in a question-and-answer session that followed his talk whether cities should temper the need for attracting new residents with the obligation to provide quality housing for those already living there, Salins declared: "Gentrification is fine, and we should let it operate."

"We've been spending decades lamenting the fact that affluent people fled the cities, now that we're going to lament that they're coming back to me is very perverse," he added.

Salins conceded that one key aspect of urban life is little changed -- the role of a central city as a "metropolitan poorhouse." Of the 17 major cities he examined -- a group that included the 10 most populous metropolises in 1960 and 2000 -- he said there was not one where the poverty rate did not substantially exceed that of the metro area; in seven, including Baltimore, the poverty rate was more than twice that of the surrounding area.

And of the 17, New York was the only Eastern city to have gained population compared with 40 years ago, he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Baltimore stood out for having lost population at a greater rate between 1980 and 2000 than between 1960 and 2000.

(The actual figures, by my calculations, are a 17.2 percent drop from 1980 to 2000 versus a 16.2 percent drop from 1960 to 1980. It should also be noted that since the 2000 census, Baltimore's rate of population loss has slowed considerably, to about 2 percent.)

Still, Salins said he saw a "number of favorable trends" for cities.

Among the broadest is welfare reform, which he said has reduced the burden on cities, and better management.

"The new mantra for leaders of American cities is self-reliance and entrepreneurship -- good and muscular management coupled with resourcefulness and creativity," he said.

He also mentioned several other tendencies that he said bode well for many large cities but that unfortunately have varied widely among American cities.

Since 1995, he said, violent crime has increased only in Cleveland and San Antonio and has declined by 56 percent in New York, 48 percent in Washington and 39 percent in Baltimore.

"The importance of the crime reduction trend to the present and future revival of our cities cannot be exaggerated," he said.

Salins said immigrants have helped repopulate many American cities and revitalize dying neighborhoods. Foreign-born residents make up 40 percent of the population in Los Angeles, 36 percent in New York and 22 percent in Chicago, he said, with more than a third of the immigrants arriving in the past decade. But Baltimore has been far less of a destination: Only 5 percent of the city's population in 2003 was foreign-born.

The return of empty-nesters, who shunned cities for suburbs with spacious homes and good schools but now want a more stimulating environment, and their grown children is "not only accelerating, it is fundamentally positive," Salins said.

That trend can be seen in the increase since 1980 in the percentage of residents with college degrees: from 28 percent to 44 percent in Washington; from 17 percent to 30 percent in New York and from 11 percent to 24 percent in Baltimore.

At the same time, many cities have seen signs of revival of their economic base, Salins said. That can be seen in the decline in unemployment over the past two decades of 25 percent in Chicago, 14 percent in St. Louis and 6 percent in Baltimore.

"I am not yet ready to declare an end to the urban crisis," he said. "But I do see, to use that old cliche, light at the end of the tunnel."

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