CITIES should be the cultural and commercial magnets of society, places that draw people for positive reasons. Instead, many Americans are repulsed by their cities - by the congestion, the panhandlers, and most of all, the crime. More than a dozen US cities - from Boston to New Orleans to Oakland - have broken homicide records this year. Illegal guns are readily available. Gang fights in Los Angeles that once might have resulted in bruises now leave young men paralyzed, or dead.
The violence isn't limited to minority communities, but it's worst in the poorest, heavily black or Hispanic, parts of cities. The Centers for Disease Control recently published a report on homicides among young black men. For 15- to 19-year-olds, the rate has increased 99 percent since 1984. The CDC lamented a lack of any ``programmatic approach to prevent homicide.''
Yet some individuals and institutions in cities are making an effort - sometimes a nearly super-human effort - to reverse the slide toward violence. You can't read about the work of school principal Madeline Cartwright in north Philadelphia, profiled in a recent New York Times Magazine, without getting a feel for the kind of commitment needed to help blighted urban neighborhoods. In Chicago, Housing Authority head Vincent Lane is determined to push ahead a controversial plan to refurbish dilapidated public housing complexes to attract families of various incomes - and avoid the degrading isolation of the poor. Baltimore is experimenting with all-male classrooms for black youths who have little opportunity to form positive relationships with men of their own race.
These steps may prove faltering, but it's important to give ideas a try - to see what might work.
What won't work are impersonal, bureaucratic approaches. Motivation, values, a sense of worth - these are the core concerns, and they require the undivided attention of people who want to help. Churches have an essential part to play. As Boston Globe columnist Robert A. Jordan wrote recently, ``... the problem is not merely the attraction of quick drug money that makes it worthwhile to risk a killing, or being killed. Rather, it is more of what's missing within the hearts and souls of these young men.''
The attention needs to come from within the community, and it needs to come from the highest levels of society. The cities are an asset that America can't afford to squander for lack of attention, or compassion.