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Stats and the City

Looking at the Future of America's Urban Life

Locked in the Poorhouse: Cities, Race, and Poverty in the United States

Author:Fred R. Harris and Lynn A. Curtis, editors
Publisher:Rowman and Littlefield

By Michael Corbin | Posted 12/13/2000

CitiStat, the O'Malley administration's urban-agenda mapmaking program, is modeled on the policing methodology that precisely plots where and when crime has been committed in the city. Baltimore now maps everything from trash-pickup failures to lead-paint-abatement efforts. City Hall is fairly abuzz with number-crunching cartographers plotting various CrimeStats, DrugStats, LeadStats, and TrashStats, among others. The thinking behind the effort is that with timely, detailed maps of urban problems, we need only roll up our shirt-sleeves, deploy our resources with hopeful energy, and get to work. Supposedly immune to ideology, party, or politics, CitiStat is a prime example of what the authors of Comeback Cities, Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio, call "the third way¹ in City Hall." With the same enthusiasm as Baltimore¹s new mayor, they offer that municipal government "may be among the first truly postideological issues of the 21st century."

Mayor Martin O'Malley is not alone in his optimism. Democratic mayors Anthony Williams in Washington, Bart Peterson in Indianapolis, and John Norquist in Milwaukee, as well as Republican Rudolph Giuliani in New York, take a similar view--that the future for urban America is clear, nonpartisan, and bullish. Their shared hopefulness isn't unwarranted after a decade-long economic expansion, yet experience and prudence tell us that the way ahead is less clear than the chorus of mayoral boosterism portends. Several new books offer other glimpses into the future of American cities.

Ralph Taylor, a social scientist at Temple University, has also been drawing various maps of Baltimore. Breaking Away From Broken Windows examines empirical evidence to see whether that evidence supports the so-called "broken windows" thesis, upon which "zero tolerance" law enforcement is based. The thesis--at work here under O'Malley's leadership, in New York under Giuliani, and in urban areas around the country--argues that cities must aggressively confront the early signs of disorder lest they multiply. One broken window invites the breaking of more. Cities must make their residents feel safe.

Taylor gathered much of his data from the late-'70s to mid-'80s, when he lived in Baltimore and worked at Johns Hopkins University. He and a group of researchers returned to Baltimore in the mid-'90s to compare data and look for historical trends covering the past quarter-century. The researchers examined more than 60 Baltimore neighborhoods. Going block by block, they counted broken windows and boarded-up rowhouses. They assessed traffic and land-use patterns. They surveyed residents and community leaders. Taylor also examined media reports of urban deterioration and tried to measure the level of citizen fear over time.

Amid academically tortured prose and numbing qualification, Taylor offers some limited cautionary tales. He also addresses the reality of Baltimore City's deterioration, pointing out which former mayor oversaw the most devastation. Taylor writes that "the [William Donald] Schaefer years (1971-1986) in Baltimore are widely considered a success story for the city: the rebirth of the Inner Harbor, exemplary public-private partnership efforts, revitalized neighborhoods, 'dollar houses.' . . . The years following Schaefer's departure, the [Kurt] Schmoke era (1987-1999), are considered much less successful. The irony is that the city experienced substantial decline in the '70s . . . [T]he bulk of Baltimore's safe neighborhoods disappeared in the '70s not the '80s." He also asserts that the strategies of "zero tolerance," "corner clearing," and fixing broken windows might look good but can't by themselves address the structural change in Baltimore's neighborhoods. He praises former city police Commissioner Thomas Frazier and Schmoke for resisting calls for such strategies.

Unfortunately, urban governments can't wait on history's judgments before settling on a course of action. That judgment isn't always negative; history has a penchant for recasting hope in the city. Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh spent 10 years living among, interviewing, and observing the residents of Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. Robert Taylor Homes was one of the country's largest public-housing projects and, like Baltimore's disappearing high-rise projects, is universally seen as an urban-policy failure best left to the wrecking ball. Now at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, Venkatesh wrote American Project to urge readers to get beyond the quantitative, statistical measure of the urban pathology of public housing and look at the "collective memory" of the people who lived there.

It's all too easy to disparage life in the projects, Venkatesh notes, but such thinking also disparages the forms of community, political organization, and ultimately the lives of those who made Robert Taylor their home. He asks, "Would residents of a suburb be expected to work largely on their own to curb gang activity, and, if they failed to do so, would most Americans then ask whether suburbs were no longer viable planned spaces of residence?"

Urban-renewal plans that posit the likes of the Taylor Homes as mere hot spots suitable only for razing miss the "fabric of project living," Venkatesh writes. More importantly, by not looking closely at how public-housing residents create their lives despite grinding poverty and inadequate public resources, we potentially doom whatever structures cities create to replace the projects. While it at times too easily minimizes the ravages of gangs and drugs, American Project is moving, thoughtful, and written with common-sense clarity. "As the individual buildings come down, one by one," Venkatesh insists, "the community should be remembered for the ways in which tenants took sustenance from both the joy and the struggle of 'project living.'"

The microcosm of corner life, of project and neighborhood life, tells one truth about cities. But there's another: Sometimes you have to wave a bat to get attention. After the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, there were earnest calls for the federal government to intervene on behalf of American cities. This was a short-lived version of the responses to the 1968 riots that engulfed many American cities. President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to examine the causes of those riots. The commission famously reported that "our nation was becoming two societies: one black, one white, separate and unequal." The essays in Locked in the Poorhouse examine the condition of cities three decades after the Kerner Commission's findings and call for a new federal "urban agenda."

Poorhouse editors Fred Harris, former Democratic U.S. senator from Oklahoma, and Lynn Curtis, president of the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation (the nonprofit continuation of Kerner), have assembled a group of distinguished social scientists who argue that the brief success in ameliorating the problems of urban America after the '68 riots has given way to neglect. The writers dissect an increasing concentration of poverty in cities, a growing gap between rich and poor, the de facto resegregation of urban neighborhoods and schools, and the explosion of a prison population that draws heavily from inner-city neighborhoods. The essays have an overly righteous tone but are sobering in their recitation of the facts. The editors detail a specific urban agenda of federal programs, including an expanded, fully funded Head Start program that would follow city kids beyond age 6 when they leave the program; many more resources and dollars to inner-city public schools; a national job-training system; and the creation of public- and private-sector jobs specifically for the inner city. They detail their plan with specific dollar amounts--a pittance, the editors say, compared to any number of subsidies to corporations or industry the government now provides.

And indeed, a New Deal for cities--cash, jobs programs, a genuine national war on poverty, drugs, and/or crime--sums up the things hoped for by American mayors. But the last two decades of minimal federal attention to cities suggest that, except for a few riotous conflagrations now and again, urban residents often overrate their importance in the national legislative imagination.

Paul Grogan heads the nation's largest private nonprofit organization devoted to community development; Tony Proscio is a former associate editor of the Miami Herald. As co-authors of Comeback Cities, they cite turnarounds in New York, Cleveland, and Washington (among other urban areas), and write with a kind of giddy optimism, detailing what they say is the unprecedented and often-unnoticed opportunity facing American cities. Federal programs targeted at cities have largely failed, they argue, but pragmatic municipal governance can and has started to turn cities around.

In their "third way," Grogan and Proscio write, cities need to expand community-development corporations and nurture inner cities as heretofore-untapped markets for labor and consumers. Cities need to aggressively pursue "broken windows" policing. Cities need "to [direct] the attention of police officers not only at crimes, but at fear--not just punishing misbehavior but maintaining order and restoring the expectation of order." Finally, the authors insist, comeback cities will need to "deregulate" public schools and public housing. "The obsolescent, bureaucracy-choked system of American public education is done for," they assert, "and with it will fall the last great barrier to livable, competitive inner-city neighborhoods."

Comeback Cities is a tonic to the more dispirited views of urban America, but it nevertheless fails to assess both the potential opposition to its policy suggestions and the problems inherent in their application. (What city, for example, can seriously afford to abandon public education?) But it offers options and, like the other three books discussed here, it deserves a place on the shelves of America's mayors, and those of the citizens who will hold them accountable.

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