New priority for old cities

The United States is a land of dazzling geographical contrasts. Equally important, it is a nation of divergent cities, each with its own special flavor and uniqueness: the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the graceful antebellum splendor of Charleston, S.C., the self-evident sense of history of a Boston or Atlanta.

Americans have always had a curious relationship with their cities - stemming perhaps from their largely agricultural heritage. The city, in the American experience, has always been a place of opportunity, wealth, and culture. But for many Americans, it has also been a place to be entered warily because of its ''ideas,'' its influences - in part linked to its immigrant communities - as well as because of its crime. Yet, no matter how one measures city life in the 1980s, one central factor seems clear: America's cities continue to represent the very core or trellis around which is built the larger American society. Most major corporations locate in or near cities. Professional offices are found there. So too are many of the nation's finest retail shops and its major cultural attractions. For all these reasons, it is important that cities be given the financial and political support that is essential for their long-range well-being.

The concern about the long-range well-being of cities is particularly relevant in light of the current political campaign. Neither candidate has given the problems of the cities the attention that is warranted, as noted yesterday by the US Conference of Mayors. The conference is calling for greater attention to the needs of cities. Mr. Mondale, though addressing many of the problems of urban areas, in fact represents special interest constituencies that cut across governmental boundaries, such as labor unions and teacher groups. Mr. Reagan, for his part, represents a political constituency that to a large extent runs outside the cities altogether - to the suburbs and to smaller towns and rural areas.

As noted in a recent Monitor series, ''Saving Our Cities,'' many positive steps are being taken by local governments, business groups, and private citizens. But clearly much more needs to be done to ensure that the urban blight and declining job base and tax base that now characterize many of America's cities are not allowed to continue. What must be kept in focus is that federal aid to state and local governments has been cut some $42 billion in the last three years alone.

What is to be done? At the least, these steps:

* Targeted assistance: Congress should provide special financial assistance to cities that have particularly difficult urban problems. Not all communities have such problems. But those that do, such as Newark, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, etc, should receive special help.

* Enterprise zones: The Reagan administration has supported the creation of zones in large cities that would qualify for federal tax breaks for businesses willing to locate in such settings. The Democratic-led House has blocked the proposal. The idea, which originated in Britain under a Socialist government, warrants consideration. Many states have already set up such zones.

* Tax-exempt municipal bonds: Congress, and the next president, must be very careful about precipitously curbing the tax-exempt status of municipal revenue bonds, as pushed by the Treasury Department. Treasury is correctly concerned about the lost tax revenue resulting from the issuance of municipal bonds. But states and local governments have raised about three-fourths of their capital funds by issuing such bonds. As San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros recently told a representative of the Alliance for State and Local Government Finance, ''cities will not be able to confront their infrastructure requirements without the tax-exempt aspect of municipal bonds.'' Without such bonds, he argues, US cities would be in a difficult financial position.

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