FROM the earliest days of Colonial America down to the 20th century, with its space age technology, Americans have been ambivalent about the role of their cities. To many Americans, cities have been perceived as shadowy places of crime, poverty, trouble. To other Americans, cities are rich centers of commerce and culture, housing immigrants from diverse lands. In fact, of course, cities have been more often than not mixtures of difficult social challenges as well as centers of imagination and economic activity. What seems no longer in dispute, however, is that as individual Americans have become more and more conscious of the needs of their cities -- and sought to improve their surroundings, whether individually or through civic associations -- their cities have flourished, often in unexpected ways.
Who would have thought only a few decades ago, for example, that many city planners today would be studying a once-drab Pittsburgh as an example of a model urban setting? Or that a formerly sleepy little Southern community such as Alexandria, Va., could be looked upon as a case study of how small towns, with significant civic support, can improve their neighborhoods? That giant New York City could have made a financial turnaround from the near-bankruptcy days of the 1970s? Or that cities as geographically distant from large national population bases as Minneapolis or Seattle, both in the upper tiers of the United States, could be looked upon as jeweled urban centers in their own unique ways?
Noting this is not to suggest that such cities as New York, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Seattle, or Alexandria do not continue to face difficult urban challenges. They do. But it is to suggest that, contrary to the gloomy assessments often heard about America's cities, enormous progress is still being made.
It is in this regard that the expressions of discontent heard at this week's meeting of the US Conference of Mayors, under way at Anchorage, Alaska, need to be understood. Many city officials are concerned about the adverse impact on their communities of current and planned federal budget cutbacks. And many mayors are also apprehensive about the effects on cities of the administration's tax-reform proposal. Mayors contend, for example, that the elimination of the deduction for state and local taxes might lead taxpayers to demand sharp cutbacks at the local level to hold down taxes. A reduction in local tax receipts might have an adverse effect on the poor, who would be expected to lose some services.
The mayors' concerns ought not be taken lightly by lawmakers, as congressional committees study the tax-reform plan. Congress must do all that it can to ensure that no actions at the federal level -- such as the proposed elimination of the deduction for state and local taxes -- would be done in such a way as to injure the nation's cities.
That said, it must also be recognized that the public climate has shifted regarding federal outlays to cities. Federal support has already been sharply reduced in recent years. The public does not seem willing to support the type of large-scale public projects, such as the model-cities program, that marked the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson's Great Society resulted in billions of dollars of federal outlays for urban areas.
That changed public mood is one reason that New Orleans Mayor Ernest Morial and others are looking more and more toward local and regional efforts to shore up their communities -- a ``new localism'' as described by Mr. Morial.
Such efforts properly include stepped up ties with the local business and cultural sectors. Cities need to more actively recruit firms and investment funds from abroad. Cities could consider replacing city-owned utilities and monopolies in such services as road work and garbage collection with outside contractors, to help hold down costs. Construction of new commercial developments in a city could also be linked to development of housing for low income families.
Finally, civic associations are especially important, and warrant the support of individuals and families. Cities flourish best where there is a strong commitment on the part of local residents.
America's cities are national assets.
By working together, public officials, individuals, families, businesses, and civic associations can surely find the resources that are appropriate to upgrade the nation's cities.