Need for new vision stirs city leaders
THE future of America's large older cities depends partly on how willing they are to give up the past and take up a new role. Urban experts say that most major Midwestern and Northeastern cities will never again be the centers of population, wealth, and semiskilled jobs that they were after World War II. Their economic vitality will depend - at least for a while - on much more outside help than in years past.Skip to next paragraph
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But that doesn't mean they are destined to become the hole in the metropolitan doughnut.
Many urban experts are convinced that these smokestack cities do have a future. But their shape, makeup, responsibilities, and strengths are undergoing some radical changes.
As urban sprawl continues, most such cities are becoming smaller. It is a fact no mayor likes to face. Becoming a medium-size city means having a smaller tax base and less clout in winning state and federal funds.
''Most mayors want desperately to believe that it's all a mistake and that they have the power to change what's happening,'' says Charles Leven, professor of urban affairs at Washington University, over a lunch of sole at the Faculty Club.
''Their only mistake is a slavish devotion to trying to recapture a halcyon past which is just not recoverable.''
''One has to have deep sympathy for these guys,'' says Cleveland State University urbanologist David Garrison of such mayors. He likens them to managers of large corporations whose assets are deteriorating but cannot be moved for a fresh start. He counts it a significant sign of progress that managing urban decline is now an acceptable discussion topic in public forums.
The populations of these more compact residential, financial, office, and government centers in the frost belt are increasingly lower income, less skilled , and more minority. Some neighborhoods are becoming more racially mixed in response to determined citizen efforts. But residential segregation in many industrial cities remains noticeably strong. Cleveland's East Side, St. Louis's North Side, and Chicago's South and West sides, for instance, are predominantly black.
If middle-income whites are to be encouraged to stay in the city or move back from the suburbs, a more energetic effort must be made to break the ''self-fulfilling prophecy of ghettoization,'' insists University of Chicago political scientist Gary Orfield.
''It's a problem we're capable of solving collectively, but not by talking around the edges of it.''
A few large industrial cities now have black mayors. Longtime Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, who won a voter-approved payroll-tax hike and city worker wage concessions during a financial crisis a few years back, has successfully integrated much of the city's work force and linked local development with stepped-up minority hiring.
But National Urban Coalition president Carl Holman says blacks tend to get the top job only when cities are almost past saving. More blacks, he says, should also run for state and suburban offices that still control much of what happens to cities.
Most industrial cities have been working hard to diversify their job bases. In Pittsburgh, for instance, where the steel industry has been cutting jobs for the last 20 years, the University of Pittsburgh is now the No. 1 employer.
''This is no longer a steel town,'' insists United Steelworkers of America spokesman Gary Hubbard at union headquarters. One of the hottest local disputes, he adds, is whether to turn an old Jones & Laughlin mill into a jail annex or a museum.
And Baltimore, trying to build on its strength as a hospital center, now claims an even mix of government, service-sector, and manufacturing employees. ''Employment levels have stayed the same, but the composition has changed,'' says Bernard Berkowitz of the Baltimore Economic Development Corporation.
That kind of success in stemming losses prompts Donald Haider, a professor with Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, to rate Baltimore as the most successful in economic development of any of the major industrial cities.
''My guess is that Baltimore would have lost a lot more jobs, had far less economic activity, and less sense of its future and identity if it hadn't done what it did,'' he says.