Model Cities Agency Hit from All Sides
THE Model Cities program, a community controlled confrontation-oriented demonstration agency which originated early in the Johnson administration's War on Poverty, may have died a remarkable death in Cambridge last week.
Racked by power plays from all sides the agency is hopelessly caught in the midst of forces it cannot deal with. The local residents on the Model Cities board, who exercise at least nominal control over Cities Demonstration Agency (CDA) activities in Cambridge, are angrily, and for the first time, effectively pressing for more power in the decision-making process. The staff, conceived as the working arm to implement board proposals, is divided, confused, and idle. The City Manager in City Hall, wielding his ever-ready veto power, is anxiously awaiting the imminent collapse of the program. And perhaps most significantly, the Nixon administration signaled last week its intent to phase the program out of existence within a year, in favor of non-resident-controlled block grants of revenue sharing.
Meeting in a stormy executive session on January 28, the Cambridge Model Cities board elected to continue its heading plunge into a direct confrontation with Cambridge City Hall and Washington by demanding the resignations of the staff's executive director and deputy director.
Cambridge Model Cities' internal political woes first became public in November when 75 staff and board members marched to a sit-in at City Hall to confront City Manager John Corcoran for his inaction on important CDA matters. The issues-two negotiated contracts and a pay raise-were never satisfactorily resolved, but the incident clarified the roles of various parties in a drama that has significance far beyond the 16,000 residents of the Cambridge model neighborhood.
The notion behind the Model Cities program was the somewhat idealistic hope that residents of a depressed area, if given the funds, could devise programs to upgrade their neighborhoods, all with a bare minimum of outside assistance. In Cambridge, more than in most areas, the compact size of the selected neighborhood, in addition to a carefully-phrased original charter, provided an unusual amount of true resident autonomy and direction of the program. But even here the agency was really run by the professional staff of outsiders and pseudo-residents, who, although sincere, creative, and effective, are not products of the area they champion. Model Cities in its two years Model Cities agency and alternative sources-variety of programs, promoted a tangible upgrading of the area, and all things considered, has done an admirable job.
The first real difficulty arises from the provisional status of the agency itself. Model Cities is designed to initiate services to the people, provide the initial funding and direction, and then spin the programs off on lives of their own, funded either privately or by City Hall. As originally conceived the Model Cities bureau would have federal funds through the Department of Housing and Urban Development for five years. After that, there would be no more of active work in Cambridge has authored a notably the city government-would find it desirable to pick up the tab.
The problem in Cambridge is that conservatives in City Hall, in the City Council, and in various other centers of power, see it as a burden rather than an advantage to tack the bill for additional services onto the already strained city budget. To avoid the onus of deleting established and popular services when federal CDA money dries up in 1974, these fiscal conservatives have chosen to clamp down now, by effectively shutting off old programs and enlarging the veto power to prevent new ones.
To the already-muddled scene was added the Nixon announcement last week that the emphasis in future aid programs would not be on functional programs such as Model Cities. Instead, the "new federalism" will call forth a system of revenue sharing, with block grants given to states with no strings attached and with no provisions on how the money is to be used. This program relies upon the federal government's outstanding effectiveness in raising money through income taxes and distribution according to state population. It thereby tends to redistribute wealth somewhat, aiding poor states, and hurting rich states like Massachusetts.
Cutbacks have already been made in the national HUD Model Cities staff, and the $1.5 million allocated for Cambridge this year may soon disappear. The local staff is trying to improvise ways of keeping current programs alive, forgetting for the moment about trying to create new ones. City Hall is awaiting its chance to take the program and its money away from the local residents. Nixon is effecting his domestic plans. And in the middle of it all, Cambridge Model Cities, as originally conceived, is swept away. A nice idea that perhaps couldn't have worked anyway, but it deserved to be treated better.