Thoughts on saving our cities
''Who will save the American city?''Skip to next paragraph
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That was the title - provocative, if misleading - of a three-day conference held recently in Rhode Island by Brown University and the Providence Journal.
Not surprisingly, none of the formidable list of speakers put up a hand to answer, ''I will.'' It was, in fact, a stimulatingly wrong way to ask a most pressing question. It implied that some posse of shining personalities will ride in to save urban America. They won't. It also begged the question of whether the cities are in bad shape. They are. But it might have been fairer not to tilt the argument from the outset.
Nevertheless, the conference worked, raising issues that Bostonians and city dwellers everywhere must think through. Fortunately, the answers - as far as they went - were more exact than the question.
And they went pretty far. If you rearrange them to correspond to the major unasked questions, they look like this:
* What's wrong with our cities?
Samuel R. Pierce Jr., secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, took the opening shot. ''The problems confronting our cities today are of tragic proportion,'' he told an audience packed into Brown's Sayles Hall, adding that ''we are going through a disappointing and painful stage of urban history.'' Thomas R. Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, provided some broad detail.''In city after city,'' he said, ''business is disrupted because subways and buses are chronically breaking down. There aren't enough teachers; there aren't enough policemen to keep city life safe.''
Then the big-city mayors got specific. Detroit Mayor Coleman Young noted that 20 percent of his city's population is unemployed. Among blacks, the number is 35 percent. Among black youths, it's a chilling 70 percent. ''We haven't seen numbers like these since the 1930s,'' he said, adding that a soup-kitchen manager told him that today's clients are no longer derelicts and street people, but whole families.
Indianapolis Mayor William H. Hudnut III put the problems in financial perspective. Of his city's 475 bridges, he noted that 120 needed rebuilding. Of 1,500 miles of sewer, much was outdated. But where was the money? The Indiana budget is staring at a projected $400 million deficit by next June. Moreover, he complained, Congress was trying to balance the federal budget on the backs of the cities.
* What has caused the problems?
The consensus answer was: ''Neglect.'' Mayor Hudnut pointed the finger at Washington, where, he said, ''there's a lack of awareness of what goes on in the cities of America.'' Mr. Donahue said he thought he knew why. ''So many of our national leaders,'' he said, ''have so little taste for city life and so little experience in city living.''
For James W. Rouse, the urban-center architect who masterminded Boston's Faneuil Hall marketplace and Baltimore's Harborplace, the problem lies in neglected populations. ''We've come to regard the people in the center of our cities as a burden rather than a resource,'' he said. These are the poor, who, in the words of Anthony Downs, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, have ''concentrated within large cities because they are systematically excluded from suburban and other newer areas.'' To Mr. Downs, what has been neglected is poverty - which, he said, is ''probably the single biggest cause of urban problems.''
What has been lost, Mr. Donahue said, is ''our sense of community, the feeling of being a 'we' as well as 'I' and of having a personal stake in the civic enterprise.'' Washington Post columnist William Raspberry put it in different terms. Given what he called ''our national de-emphasis of the ideal'' and a ''shift toward a bottom-line mentality,'' we are in danger of ''scrapping some of our most worthwhile values and ideals on the junk-heap of cost-effectiveness.''
* What are the solutions?
Answers here were far more varied. Secretary Pierce, firmly within the rising-tide-floats-all-boats school, predictably called for measures to revamp the national economy. Just as predictably, Mr. Downs dismissed the ''trickle down'' theory and called for specific programs aimed at joblessness. On the same tack, Mayor Young called for ''a soft public-works program'' modeled on President Roosevelt's New Deal.