What's Needed to Rebuild America's Cities


THE future of urban America will take one of three paths: abandonment, encirclement, or conversion.

Abandonment means recognizing that with the investment of billions of dollars in the national highway system - which led to suburbia, corporate parks, and the malling of America - and with communications technology advancing so fast that the economic advantages of urban proximity are being replaced by the computer screen, in those circumstances the city has outlived its usefulness. Like the small town whose industry leaves, the city will wither and disappear. Massive investment in urban America would be throwing money away, so the argument goes, and to try to prevent the decline will be futile.

Encirclement means that people in cities will live in enclaves. The class lines will be manned by ever-increasing security forces, and communal life will disappear. It will be a kind of "Clockwork Orange" society in which the rich will pay for their security; the middle class will continue to flee as they confront violence; and the poor - the poor will be preyed upon at will or will join the army of violent predators. What will be lost for everyone will be freedom, civility, and the chance to build a com mon future.

Conversion means winning over all segments of urban life to a new politics of change, empowerment, and common effort. Conversion is as different from the politics of dependency as it is from the politics of greed. Its optimism relates to the belief that every person can realize his or her potential in an atmosphere of nurturing liberty. Its morality is grounded in the conviction that each of us has an obligation to another human being simply because that person is another human being.

There will not be "a charismatic leader" here but many "leaders of awareness" who champion integrity and humility over self-promotion and command performances. Conversion requires listening to the disaffected as well as the powerful. The core of conversion begins with a recognition that all of us advance together or each of us is diminished; that American diversity is not our weakness but our strength; that we will never be able to lead the world by example until we've come to terms with each other and o vercome the blight of racial division on our history.

The first concrete step is to bring an end to violence, intervene early in a child's life, reduce child abuse, establish some rules, remain unintimidated, and involve the community in its own salvation. As a young man in dreadlocks said at one of my recent town meetings, "What we need is for people to care enough about themselves, so that they won't hurt anybody else." That is the essence of community policing - getting a community to respect itself enough to cooperate and support the police so that toge ther security is assured. And our schools can no longer allow the 5 to 10 percent of kids who don't want to learn to destroy the possibility of learning for the 90 to 95 percent who do want to learn. In addition, we need gun control, draconian punishment for drug kingpins, mandatory sentences for crimes committed with guns, and reinvestment of some defense-budget savings into city police departments, schools, and hospitals.

The second step is to bolster families in urban America. That effort begins with the recognition that the most important year in a child's life is the first. "Fifteen-month houses" must be established for women seven months pregnant who want to live the first year of their life as a mother in a residential setting. Young fathers would be encouraged to participate, too. Fifteen-month houses would reduce parental neglect and violence by teaching teenage mothers how to parent. Fifteen-month houses, by offer ing a program of cognitive stimulation, would prepare a child for a lifetime of learning. These 15-month houses need to be combined with full funding for Head Start and the Women Infants and Children program, more generous tax treatment of children, one-year parental leave, tough child-support enforcement, and welfare reform that encourages marriage, work, and assumption of responsibility, instead of more children you can't afford.

But there is also a hard truth here. No institution can replace the nurturing of a loving family. The most important example in a child's life is the parent, not celebrities, however virtuous or talented they might be. You might want to play golf like Nancy Lopez or play basketball like Michael Jordan or skate like Kristi Yamaguchi or display the wit of Bill Cosby, but you should want to be like your father or your mother. And in a world where there are few involved fathers, mom has a big burden. There a re no shortcuts here, only life led daily.

The third step is to create jobs for those who can work - jobs that will last in an economy that is growing. It is only through individual empowerment that we can guarantee long-term economic growth. Without growth, scapegoats will be sought and racial tensions will heighten. Without growth, hopes will languish. So how do we get growth? Enterprise zones, full funding of Job Corps, more investment in low-income housing: yes. Helping to finance small businesses and providing technical assistance in managem ent: yes. Investment in urban infrastructure such as ports, roads, and mass transit that will become a source of jobs and training for urban residents at the same time it builds part of the foundation for private investment: yes. Allowing pension funds to make some investments in real estate and assessing a very low capital-gains tax on the sale of assets that have generated 500 urban jobs for 10 years to attract more investment: yes.

Again, what is needed here is not so much charismatic leadership but day-to-day leadership, truthful leadership, dedicated to real and lasting change. Leadership that has power within the community by virtue of the community's knowing the life of the spokesperson. That is leadership that can get things done. In the end, for change to come, decisions have to be made, work has to get done, and some group of individuals has to accept collective responsibility for making change happen.

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