Scattered progress in America's inner cities

Bush's visit this week to LA-riot scene highlights new chapter in urban efforts.

Baltimore's Inner Harbor is one of the most successful urban redevelopment projects in US history. On weekends – on many weekdays, too – it is packed with tourists and suburbanites in search of food, fun, and maybe a ticket to a ballgame at nearby Camden Yards. But blocks away, on the city's shattered east side, it's easier to buy heroin than a burger. Recent estimates indicate the city is losing 1,000 residents a month.

The riverfront in St. Louis, by contrast, has all the charm of a giant parking lot – the Gateway Arch a less popular attraction than the Inner Harbor. But surrounding neighborhoods boast some of the finest turn-of-the-last-century architecture in the nation. They are becoming vibrant places to live, as young professionals move downtown in search of better housing and a richer experience.

So it goes in urban America, prosperity and poverty mingle in a vast, changing landscape. Cities have been the nation's pride and its biggest social problem. Planned renewal has worked in many areas, but only to a point. Unplanned renewal has appeared in others, confounding dire predictions.

President Bush swung through South-Central Los Angeles this week to deliver the political message that he cares about inner cities. Perhaps he saw that there is not a single state of urban America, with problems susceptible to simple solutions. There are different states, often existing side-by-side.

For inner cities "things are never as good as they appear, and never as bad as we think they are," says Howard Chudacoff, professor of American urban and social history at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

"Cities are still very appealing places ... to visit and live, but they still frighten people."

Political territory

Politically speaking, big cities are foreign territory for most Republican presidents. Concentrations of minorities and poverty ensure that most cities vote Democratic on the national level.

But ignoring their problems can be perilous. George Herbert Walker Bush found that out in 1992. Candidate Bill Clinton beat him to Los Angeles following the devastating Rodney King riots, and used the occasion of the violence to call for more government aid to cities, and an increase in the minimum wage.

Then-President Bush blamed the riots in part on failed government antipoverty programs, a response that, polls indicated, only deepened many voters' feelings that he cared less about their economic problems than Clinton did.

That's one mistake Bush's son appears determined to not repeat.

On Monday, President Bush visited the heart of the South-Central neighborhood that was torn by violence a decade ago. He met with leaders from the black, Hispanic, and Korean-American communities at the economic-development office of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

"Ten years after civil unrest made history, [South-Central LA] is rebuilding herself with great hope and great promise, and that's an important lesson," said Bush.

He used the occasion to push his proposal to expand federal aid to faith-based development programs. The initiative is currently stuck in Congress.

Worry about maintaining the separation between church and state has contributed to congressional reluctance to deal with Bush's faith-based aid program. But that issue aside, the efforts these organizations become involved in can be among the most successful of urban development efforts.

That's because they're led by people who know the community, are typically small in scale, and are not overwhelmingly expensive.

"The best stuff is led by locals," says Thomas Lyons, associate professor of urban and public affairs at the University of Louisville.

A decade of improvement

Overall, the situation in urban America today is not as dire as it was in 1992, when smoke rose over LA.

Certain intractable problems, such as the economic isolation of poor cities surrounded by rich suburbs, persist. Race relations have become more complex, as Hispanic immigrants change many neighborhoods' ethnic mixes.

Still, "it is true all over the country that cities are much better off than they were in the early '90s," says Peter Dreier, an urban expert and author of numerous books on the subject.

Reason 1: the economy. The business boom of the 1990s lifted economic boats all across the country – even in the poorest of neighborhoods. Cities such as Boston and Washington, that had good downtown business bases to build on, exploded with development.

Reason 2: some government policies. Welfare reform, for instance, has contributed to incomes in many poor neighborhoods, at least so far.

Reason 3: people. Religious, union, and even environmental organizations have poured effort and their own funds into cities in recent years.

"All over the country ... they have tried to rebuild broken neighborhoods with affordable housing and job creation and social services," says Dreier.

But despite this progress many cities are still swamped by drug use, poverty, and homelessness. Progress is relative, after all.

In Philadelphia for instance, popular opinion holds that the city is finally paying attention to poor neighborhoods, says Judith Good, a professor of anthropology at Temple University.

The city is also undergoing major transformation in neighborhoods. But much of that transformation is due to a large city program to simply tear down uninhabited buildings.

"There is lots of concern that they are creating undevelopable land which is going to displace people and not necessarily provide housing," says Good.

A boom only for some

And some cities seem to have missed the '90s economic boom. Take Camden, New Jersey. The barren city of about 78,000 remains one of the poorest urban communities in the nation despite its home in the southwest corner one of the country's richest states. While neighboring communities reaped the benefits of swelling property values and an influx of commercial investment, the crippled city of Camden just worsened in the past decade.

"It's hard for me to figure out how this happened in a state as rich as New Jersey," says the Rev. J.A. Jones, pastor of First Nazarene Baptist Church in the Centerville section of the city. "For the people of Camden, I call it despair among the ruins."

And in Miami, the mood of African-Americans can be described with one word: hopelessness. So says Sandra Ahmad, vice president of PULSE (People United to Lead The Struggle For Equality), a grass-roots group in Miami.

Racial profiling is running rampant. Incidences of unarmed black men shot by police are rising. Language barriers are hindering economic prospects. And inner-city housing projects are decaying, along with race relations. Miami's black community is growing more hopeless by the day, says PULSE executive director Nathaniel Wilcox. "All they've done is put more paint on the buildings but they haven't solved the problems that create poverty," says Mr. Wilcox.

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