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Society must move forward to more livable cities

By RUSHWORTH M. KIDDER / June 22, 1987



It's been 2 years since Bernhard H. Goetz shot four teen-agers in a New York subway. But when he walked out of a Manhattan courtroom last week - acquitted of all charges but that of illegal weapons possession - he left behind a thicket of unresolved problems. To some the issue is gun control. To others the case has racial overtones: The teen-agers were black, and Mr. Goetz white. Still others ponder the disparities between justice and law, or the breakdown of family, school, and church, or the prospect of increased vigilantism.

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Underlying all these, however, is an even larger issue: the purpose of the modern American city. If Goetz is typical of the denizens of our largest cities - and the response to his case suggests that he is - then one question looms large: Are America's cities livable? If city dwellers must either go armed or not go at all, then why live in a city?

In one sense, of course, this is a facetious argument: Cities offer dozens of advantages, all centering on concentrations of thought, creativity, and action. But the idea of a city is not cast in stone. It is not written anywhere that large cities must continue to exist. People made them, and people can unmake them. Why, then, should they be perpetuated?

Consider the forces that historically brought them into being. Cities offered protection - safety in numbers, defense behind walls, security from harsh environments. They offered economic advantages, allowing greater specialization in the work force through economies of scale and distribution. And they offered a place where humans, true to their essentially gregarious natures, could interact.

Consider, too, that in the Goetz case the city failed on all three counts. Goetz himself is apparently something of a loner - someone who, as his attorney said after the acquital, simply wanted to ``fade into the woodwork.'' Nor was the city a source of protection for him: After 1981, when he was first mugged on the streets, he began carrying a gun. And while the economic advantages of city life may have worked for Goetz himself in his career as an electrical engineer, they apparently failed to provide either substance or incentive to the four youths who asked him for $5 on the subway train that December day in 1984.

And consider the larger context in which America's cities exist:

The nation's standard of living is now in decline, with average weekly earnings (adjusted for inflation) substantially lower than in 1970.

The percentage of Americans living in poverty - now about 15 percent - continues to rise, and the gap between the richest and the poorest communities continues to widen.

Some 20 percent of the current work force (and up to 50 percent among minorities and the disadvantaged) is functionally illiterate - incapable of reading product labels or filling out job applications.

America is the world's leading debtor nation - surrendering what was, just over a decade ago, a trade surplus.

These points, true for the nation as a whole, are somehow exacerbated in large cities - where police can't cope with street crime, while ordinary citizens live with prison-strength grates on the windows and triple bolts on the doors. Six of the jurors in the Goetz case, in fact, had themselves been victims of crime. Perhaps the signal they sent down with their verdict is not surprising: that safety lies not in the collective fiber of human organization and law, but in the personal use of deadly force. That, after all, is the law of the frontier. And frontiers are not cities.

So the questions for the future are stark. Will our cities increasingly become mere holding-tanks for the underclass? Will our legal systems allow middle-class city dwellers the right to use deadly force against the underclass? Will a future Goetz, firing at his assailants, discover that teen-agers also have begun to carry guns? If the shoot-out starts, will it be augmented by someone firing from the next subway car, trying to defend himself against the flying bullets? And will that eruption drive yet another wave of honest job-holders out of the city, tilting the population still further toward the underclass?

The issue, here, is not whether Goetz was right or wrong or the teen-agers innocent or depraved. The issue is how to move forward. The answer is not in tinkering with gun control laws or lamenting racial bias or reforming the legal system. The answer lies in attacking the problem at the root. We've allowed ourselves to surrender something very precious: the idea of a city as a safe, companionable, and economically viable entity. Address that idea squarely - reinterpret the purpose of the city for the 21st century, and clearly understand its function and value - and the legacy of the Goetz case just might, as he wished, fade into the historical woodwork.

A Monday column