Unlock-Your-Car-Door Cities

Urban blight is on the run, but problems remain

America's inner cities have had bad press for so long they seemed stuck with a reputation of permanent blight. But that impression is at odds with a new reality.

The nation's long economic expansion has turned the lights back on in many city neighborhoods. From Boston to Los Angeles, streets are cleaner, retail businesses are opening, and light industry has moved in (see story on page 1).

A real test of this trend is in places such as Detroit, which saw its industries crumble and a flight of residents to the suburbs. Unemployment in that city is now 5 percent, a big drop from 16 percent just four years ago.

With more jobs come falling crime rates, normal community life, and people taking more pride in their dwellings. Fear leaves the streets as broken windows are fixed. This is true in New York's Harlem, in Washington's U Street neighborhood, and in New Orleans's Irish Channel, to name a few urban sections on the upswing.

Some credit for this revival goes to welfare reform that has turned more city dwellers into wage earners.

Of course, all urban problems aren't washed away by economic booms alone. Without better inner-city schools that tackle diverse student backgrounds and substandard buildings cities may falter again.

And as rents and home prices rise with an influx of young people and empty-nesters, cities must find ways to offer affordable housing for low-income residents. San Francisco, for example, is planning to provide rent-subsidized apartments for public- school teachers.

Urban poverty is still endemic among those welfare recipients who, for various reasons, can't work. And the battle against crime and drug-dealing is far from over.

Still, times have changed when pressing urban problems include how to provide more park space and other amenities for a growing middle class.

It hasn't been easy for the problems of the cities to find a place on the national political agenda. And it may even be harder now that cities are doing better. But both presidential candidates have a repertoire of tax credits and grant proposals to aid housing, education, and economic development. Such actions might especially be needed if the economy dips.

Its cities are integral to America's economic, social, and cultural well-being. Leaders, local and national, should join forces to see that the current urban revival lasts.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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