The physical rebuilding of America's downtowns has spurred a new sense of vitality and pride in many cities. Urban coffers are fuller. Yet many who live in central cities have been left far behind. They are a steady source of concern for urban planning experts such as Bernard Frieden of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He notes that poverty, which eased somewhat in the 1960s, began to climb again nationally in the late 1970s as drug use and other public health problems grew. He calls high school dropout rates, now 40 percent in some large cities, ``a national tragedy.''

``Cities have built good political relationships between city hall and the private sector - that's what made it possible to redo downtown,'' says Frieden. ``The real challenge to the cities now is: Can they use those same good relationships - and some of the income gained - to improve services and living conditions for people who live in the city?''

He says he is encouraged that city-based businesses have been working hard to help improve local school systems - often promising a first crack at jobs to those who get through with a reasonable performance and attendance record.

He is also encouraged by what he terms a promising national network of a few thousand nonprofit, locally based housing development and improvement organizations. Though they build little because resources are scarce, Frieden says, their work is generally of high quality, and their local roots make their proposals more appealing to city residents than those of outsiders.

Still, Frieden says a strong need exists to develop the same kind of collective political will to resolve urban social problems that helped spur the physical rebirth of the nation's downtowns.

``Conditions in many central city residential neighborhoods are really terrible,'' he insists.

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