''Who will save the American city?''
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 Of 1,500 miles of sewer, much was outdated.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.
For Mr. Rouse, the problems were already being solved. There is, he said, ''a surging new spirit in the old cities very different from anything that has existed in the last 50 years.'' For Harvard Prof. James Q. Wilson, the answer to urban crime lies in private initiatives. Police protection has become too bureaucratic, he said; citizens themselves must take ''spontaneous and informal human control over public spaces'' that have been abandoned to predators. And, he insisted, we need further study. ''If we made computers the way we do research on crime,'' he quipped, ''we'd still be working with the abacus.''
Mayor Hudnut took the same approach. Espousing the popular concept of public-private partnerships (which he called ''the new civics of our time''), he warned of a tendency to give them ''all of the responsibility and none of the authority.''
At bottom, however, lay a consensus - sometimes implied, occasionally articulated - that what needed changing was not so much the policy of government as the attitude of the heart. Many big-city problems, said Mr. Downs, are ''rooted in individual behavior problems that are hard for public policies to influence.''
How to get at them? For Mr. Rouse, the answer lies in dwelling less on problems than on solutions. To ''contemplate the rational, working city,'' he said, would allow us to ''leap right over the problems that bog us down.'' But it was Rev. Ralph Abernathy who said it most simply. ''We need something on the inside,'' he told an audience that later gave him a standing ovation, ''love and concern, crossing the racial barriers.''
Good - as far as it went. But far underneath lies a question rarely articulated and hardly brushed by the nine speakers. It is this: Shouldm our cities be saved?
That is no merely rhetorical query. Those who care about cities must be aware that there are strong, if often unconscious, arguments in the negative. They run something like this:
Up through the 19th century, cities were necessary. Commerce required face-to-face contact; industry demanded shoulder-to-shoulder cooperation. There needed to be forums for such activities, places where large numbers of people could congregate in relative security to add value to raw materials and sell the fruits of their labor.
But the city was not only for business, it was also home. Transportation did not yet allow workers to live far from the madding crowd and still work within it. Even those characters in Thomas Hardy's novels who walked for hours to get home from work were traveling distances that British Rail now traverses in a matter of minutes.
And because the city was both home and workplace, it naturally became the seat of culture, art, entertainment, and learning. It was the repository of the best that was known and thought of the old - and the laboratory out of which the new could arise.
Enter the automobile. Enter the highway; the commuter belt; the suburb, which for the first time in history provided the possibility of combining big-city working and rural living. Enter the telephone, with its potential for bolstering communication while reducing face-to-face contact. Enter television, spreading entertainment (and capable of spreading culture and the arts) far beyond a single stadium or proscenium.
And enter, at last, the home computer, spawning a new cottage industry of self-employed professionals (writers, consultants, and financiers among them) who live and work as deep in the wilderness as they like.
What good, these days, are cities?
The answer, unequivocally, is: ''Very good indeed.'' But they will not appear to be so by those who live separated from the realities of human contact. That separation is a dangerous side effect of automobiles, telephones, televisions, and computers. They are wonderful things, in their ways. But each of them conspires to force its users into a secondhand world - moving alone down the highway, communicating over wires and taking culture in isolation.
Yet one has only to listen to a live concert, sit at a ball game, wander through a gallery - even hear conference speakers live rather than see them on videotape - to feel the intangible impact of firsthandedness. For we are, as Mr. Donahue said, ''a 'we' as well as 'I.' '' We are part of an us-ness, working best when we work together.
The danger to our cities? It lies not in crime or taxation, nor even in public policy or private neglect. It lies in our acceptance of this secondhand view of life. Correct that - recognize the irreplaceable value of firsthand experience in a warm and peopled world - and we will have gone a long way toward saving our cities.