Two urban-renewal experts assess what has and has not worked to resuscitate America’s decaying inner cities.
Big government’s wars on poverty have failed to rescue our physically rotting, industrially abandoned, poverty- and crime-ridden cities, argue Grogan (vice president for government, community, and public affairs at Harvard) and Proscio (a government official on urban affairs in New York State). Yet the authors are upbeat about some trends that are quietly and slowly turning cities around. In Newark, New Jersey, for example, hard-working immigrants have opened businesses and refurbished property. This kind of renewal results from civic groups’ efforts to renovate buildings, recruit businesses, build charter schools, and organize child-care centers. Such grassroots-based strategies, Grogan and Proscio believe, are preferable to and more effective than millions of dollars in racially polarizing federal programs. Then, once the local not-for-profits complete their work, retailers discover that it is profitable to return to the urban sites they abandoned decades ago. The authors indict federal lending programs, which in their view “explicitly and aggressively blacklisted inner cities” by extending credit primarily to suburban homeowners and forcing poorer urban entrepreneurs to take high-interest private loans. They also accuse well-intended big government bureaucracies of mismanaging welfare, public housing, and the public schools, citing as an example judges who responded to attempts to evict criminals from housing projects by arguing that the perpetrators had nowhere else to live. The one area in which Grogan and Proscio think government has contributed to the urban renaissance is in successful police department campaigns to lower crime rates and thereby alleviate a pervasive atmosphere of fear. They particularly admire William Bratton, police commissioner first in Boston and then in New York City, who sweated the small stuff, reducing the criminal atmosphere by cracking down on quality-of-life offenses.
A brave glimpse beyond urban blight. (photos)