New Mayors Battle Old Perceptions
Despite lower crime rates, new businesses balk at going to cities with corrupt practices.
The Chicago River gave this city its name. Railroads made it prominent. Engineers built its broad avenues, skyscrapers, and elevated trains. Lake Michigan supplied its abundant wind.Skip to next paragraph
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Judas apparently handled the politics.
"I, too wish to defend my city from people who keep saying it is crooked," author Nelson Algren once wrote. "In what other city can you be so sure a judge will keep his word for $500?"
It has taken years to enact meaningful political reforms here, and it could take years to fully erase the notion that Chicago's unofficial symbol is a cash-stuffed envelope. An average of one alderman a year has gone to prison in the past two decades.
Yet these are crucial times for American cities, and such perceptions matter. Despite an urban development boom, and the rise of a new generation of progressive mayors, many business leaders still view cities like Chicago as risky investments.
From 1990 to 1993, only 3 out of every 100 new metro-area businesses were located in cities. The rest went to the suburbs, reports the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Lurking beneath this trend is the notion that cities are more difficult and expensive places to do business. It's a perception fueled by high taxes, shoddy services, and the often Byzantine - or outright corrupt - nature of city licensing, contracting, and zoning procedures.
"There's a global emphasis on efficiency that was not there 20 years ago, says Neal Peirce, an urban consultant. "These days, city governments are not fulfilling the public trust if they're saddled with a fat and inert bureaucracy."
By most standards, cities have made significant progress lately. Urban crime has dropped sharply in recent years and declines in federal spending have forced civic leaders to streamline services and trim bloated payrolls.
Moreover, a fresh crop of mayors, many of whom won reelection this month by wide margins, have formed partnerships with business leaders and community activists that have eliminated much of the rancor that once kept commerce away.
"I find that mayors are more practical," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said in a recent interview. "They do not have the patronage they had in the past ... and the funnel from Washington is just not there. We are more bottom line."
WHILE some mayors are beginning to manage cities in the style of corporate executives, the indicators of urban financial health have been slow to respond.
Federal figures show that between 1990 and 1993, 87 percent of new entry level jobs in large metropolitan areas were created in suburbs.
And despite widespread praise for reforms enacted by Cleveland Mayor Michael White, for example, that city's share of the region's property-tax base continues to fall faster than its population. Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer has secured major investment commitments from that city's business community, but its share of the metropolitan tax base has dropped nearly 2 percent in the last five years.