America’s Cities Are (mostly) Better Than Ever

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In the seventies the inner cities quieted down. But the new tranquillity came from black resignation rather than from a larger measure of justice. The unemployment figures contained the warning: 10 per cent in older cities; 20 per cent in the ghettos; 40 per cent among minority youth. In addition, middle-class blacks ran into all kinds of obstacles when trying to escape to the suburbs. The courts were ambivalent about legal restrictions, especially zoning, which had the effect of exclusion. And social pressures in the suburbs were often not very subtle. As a result, the ghetto still festered; indeed, its boundaries expanded each week.

Yet certain factors hold out some hope for the future. For example, suburbs are finding that they are no more self-sufficient than the cities. The same forces that led to urban decay earlier are now spreading into the surrounding communities. This is particularly true of those suburbs adjacent to the city limits. Indeed, the phrase “inner suburbs” surely will join “inner city” as shorthand for the long list of urban ills in the eighties. And for much the same reasons. They are the oldest part of suburban America. In order to keep taxes down, they allowed most of their land to be developed. Now there is no room for expansion. The new suburbanites go farther out; new industrial and commercial installations also bypass the closer-in suburbs. Large numbers of older residents, their children now gone, head for retirement areas or back to the city. Newer shopping centers in outlying suburbs skim off dollars from local merchants. Worse still, crime rates grow faster in these communities than in any other part of the metropolis.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

In addition, suburban government is the weakest link in our governmental system. Until recently, residential participation in local affairs was low; most communities hired professional managers to make budgets and administer day-to-day affairs. Voting was light for local offices, and though suburbanites vote heavily Republican in national elections, suburban politics remain consciously nonpartisan. Hence, when the crisis moved in, most suburbs lacked the tradition or tools to grapple with it. By the 1970’s new suburban newspapers began to reveal the often scandalous relations between some developers and many town halls. Voters increasingly turned down bond issues, even for schools. The inner suburbs’ one trump card is that they still control the suburban lobby in most states. They played that card to get some relief for all local governments, hence they became the major beneficiaries. Yet neither this nor federal revenue-sharing programs could do more than postpone the inevitable fiscal impasse. When New York City slid toward bankruptcy, Yonkers, located in one of the nation’s richest suburban counties, was placed in receivership.

The extension of city problems into the suburbs poked large holes in the crabgrass curtain that previously had separated the two parts of the metropolis. Now their common predicament created the possibility of a new cooperation to replace the hostility that historically had divided city and suburb. The inner suburbs were reluctant to recognize their own decline, but by the seventies they recognized that they had to trade part of their independence for outside help.

For the first time, a substantial suburban population has a stake in a united metropolis. The inner ring is no longer self-sufficient. It relies increasingly on state and federal aid rather than on its indigenous tax base. Hence, its most serious problems cannot be solved without cooperation with the city as well as with neighboring suburbs. In the 1950’s the movement for metropolitan government was essentially a big-city strategy; now that concept has natural allies. To be sure, the notion of a single governmental jurisdiction is politically impossible except in a few places.

A consolidation of effort by function, however, is already imperative. In housing, education, transportation, water, pollution, and police, control depends on devising programs that employ a concentrated, cooperative regional approach. Even this requires a change in state and federal policies, which presently funnel funds into old governmental units rather than into intergovernmental ones. But the crisis of the inner suburbs has produced the necessary condition for a fundamental shift in public policy based on metropolitan realities rather than on anachronistic political jurisdictions.