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America’s Cities Are (mostly) Better Than Ever
Today’s city, for all its ills, is “cleaner, less crowded, safer, and more livable than its turn-of-the-century counterpart,” argues this eminent urban historian. Yet two new problems are potentially fatal. …
February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
New demographic changes also brought some easing of racial tensions. The massive movement of blacks from the South to Northern cities virtually has stopped; indeed, some experts detect a slight reverse of the flow. The breaking of segregation and the availability of jobs in Southern cities made them at least as attractive as Northern ones. Moreover, urban black birth rates dropped rapidly. This reduced ghetto tensions somewhat but not ghetto conditions. In addition, the election of black mayors in many parts of the country lessened the feeling of isolation and powerlessness of urban blacks. The relative quiet of the ghetto in the seventies was somewhat deceptive but did provide some breathing space for the nation if the nation had the ingenuity and will to seize it.
But time is running out and we have not used it wisely to heal racial divisions or reduce urban-suburban tensions. Federal policy has neglected cities in favor of surrounding communities. Revenue-sharing formulas were based largely on population rather than on need; government installations usually were placed in outlying areas; special programs for the inner cities were either reduced or dismantled. Worse still, urban economies, historically the nation’s most resilient, recovered more slowly from recurring recessions than the suburbs with their newer facilities. And the outward flow of jobs and middle-class city dwellers continued unabated. The problem is more severe in the older areas of the Northeast and Midwest. Yet the “Sunbelt” cities show the same symptoms. The acids of urban decay do not recognize the Mason-Dixon line.
The persistence of the urban crisis has led many Americans to look elsewhere for solutions. But a look outward indicates that what some thought was a peculiarly American question is, in fact, an international urban crisis. Rome’s fiscal management makes New York’s look frugal; the inadequacy of London’s inner-city schools is more than a match for their American counterparts; Frankfurt’s pollution experts travel to Pittsburgh for advice; few American housing commissioners would trade jobs with their opposite numbers in Sydney. Russian urban experts see their limited growth policies overwhelmed by illegal migration; the smog in Sarajevo would frighten even an Angelino; Rumania’s ambitious satellite city plan has not inhibited the growth of Bucharest or produced any “new towns”; more than three decades after World War II, no major city in Eastern Europe has dented its housing shortage.
The record of foreign cities on race is no more instructive. British urban centers are producing their own “New Commonwealth” ghettos; not a single black sits in Parliament. Amsterdam cannot handle its old colonists of different color. Paris and Marseilles have been unable to assimilate their French Algerians. Moscow couldn’t manage even a small number of African students; in Bucharest, urban renewal is gypsy removal. In Sydney and Auckland, the aborigines, though small in number, face the usual range of discrimination. Indeed, the immigration policies of Canada and Australia are designed to avoid the issue.
The fact is that no society has learned to manage a large metropolis, nor has any society succeeded in solving the question of race. If these problems are to be solved, it will be done here in the United States. Perhaps that is the way it should be. Our national history has been almost conterminous with the rise of the modern city; racial diversity always has been a part of the American experience. We have managed in the past to take millions of people with different backgrounds, languages, and religions and incorporate them into the metropolitan mainstream.
In facing the present urban crisis, we only need draw upon our best traditions. But if we do not begin to unite the metropolis and to disperse the ghetto in the next few years, the eighties will be a decade of renewed tension and turmoil and will bear out Wendell Phillips’ grim prophecy of a hundred years ago: “The time will come when our cities will strain our institutions as slavery never did.”