The Once Great Society

Not SURPRISINGLY given my history, urban issues, particularly New York City issues, have consumed my life. At some level I realized that mine might be a somewhat specialized preoccupation--the result of my growing up in a New York political family, of my exposure to the currents--and the urban riots--of the 1960s, of the provincialism a New Yorker can have about his city's problems.

But what has struck me during my first five weeks back in Cambridge--the first time I've had to put what I have been doing for the past 10 years in perspective--is how little my personal preoccupation with cities is shared--by presidential candidates, by professors, and by public opinion. In the 1960s and early 1970s the fate of cities was a dominant, if not the dominant, issue of domestic concern. Books after book appeared on city politics, city problems, city architecture, city history. Here at Harvard two of the most popular undergraduate government courses dealt with urban issues.

Today the situation is very different. To be kind, one can say that President Reagan has not made urban needs a priority, and the Democratic candidates have hardly made this failure an issue in the campaign. With the exception of an occasional Brookings Institution report, Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, and a few accounts of the New York City fiscal crisis, no significant books on urban issues have appeared in the last 10 years. From what I can tell about Harvard, courses on Urban issues are confined to an occasional graduate seminar.

Now I suppose it could be said that all this is good for me personally, that it will force me to recognizer there is life beyond negotiating with the City Council and balancing budgets. But clearly it is not good for cities, and, I would argue, it is not good for national policy. America's longterm future, or even interesting political science.

In 1931 Walter Lippman wrote. "The true view of cities is to regard them as places where the activities of the whole nation come to a head...There is no way to separate the cities from the nation." Seven years later Lewis Mumford observed that "today we begin to see that the improvement of cities is not matter for small one sided reforms; the task of city design involves the vaster task of rebuilding our civilization." Both statements have at least equal, if not greater, meaning today.

America's central cities, which contain close to 30 percent of all households with incomes under $7000 a year, present the sharpest picture of the continuing persistence of poverty in this country. With close to 60 percent of Black families and over half of all Hispanic families, they pose the greatest challenge in terms of achieving racial equality and opportunity. More than any other part of America, cities raise fundamental questions for this country's future: Whether America's increasingly service-oriented economy can absorb low-killed workers; whether this society can deal with welfare dependency and the growth of an under class; whether there is a will and a capacity to rebuild a decaying infrastructure; whether government policies can effectively shape market forces to improve the environment.

Indeed most of the issues receiving current national attention--the state of education, the difficulty of making the transition from a smokestack economy to the world of computer chips and microprocesors, homelessness in the midst of economic recovery--come to head most starkly, most compellingly in cities. Cities in the 1980s, as in the 1930s, present many of the most basic--and most interesting issues--facing this country, issues which test our capacity to deal with social and economic change.

No doubt some of the loss of interest in cities can be explained by America's constant desire to discover new issues. This year's seems to be the search for an industrial policy. Part also relates to the declining political importance of cities. By 1970 more people lived in suburbs than in central cities, and that pattern has continued over the last decade. This shift in population, which is magnified when voter participation in considered, has made it harder for mayors to argue their case in Washington or state capitals. A set of internal political changes have reinforced this overall loss of political power, particularly the decline of the machine and the increasing polarization of city politics one the basis of race and class.

In addition, visible downtown commercial development (Renaissance Center in Detroit, Faneuil Hall and now Copley Place in Boston, Peach tree Center in Atlanta, South Street Seaport and Battery Park City in New York) have created the illusion that urban decline is abating. The degree of attention devoted to the so-called issue of gentrification--the displacement of poor residents by young professionals--has added to this impression.

But more than anything else, a sense of frustration over the failures of past programs has shifted the concern of policy-makers and policy-shapers away to other issues. Somehow urban problems, at least as they were described by the rhetoric of the 1960s, have intractable or at best only marginally susceptible to solution. Housing initiatives--from public housing to urban renewal to "model cities" to "section 8" to housing allowances--have not significantly reversed urban decline, much less brought residents back to devastated areas like the South Bronx. New concepts of urban design, many pioneered at Harvard and MIT, have produced some better buildings but have not transformed the urban environment. Poverty programs, whether those from War on Poverty days, or more recent efforts such as the supported work program, have not reversed a growing pattern of dependency. The list could go on Leave aside the obvious questions of whether the American public ever had the patience to give some of these policies a real chance or whether they were funded to the extent required or whether other Federal programs such as highway construction and tax benefits for homeowners undercut their effectiveness. The truth is that none worked the magic its advocates had predicted. In some cases (urban renewal, for example) more harm than good may have been achieved. In others management proved a real problem. In still others, well-publicized abuses particularly rip--offs of poverty and housing programs, damaged the programs credibility. In others the unintended consequences of well-intended initiatives produced new problems.

No question about it much of the frustration is justified. Urban problems, as I can attest from my 10 years in New York City's government, are persistent and can be wearing. But much of the frustration also flows from other sources, especially a naivete about human nature and politics on the part of those who discovered the "urban crisis" in the 1960s. This country should be learning from past mistakes instead of ignoring them; learning that community involvement does not necessarily mean community improvement, instead of forgetting about communities, learning that dollars directed at a problem do not necessrily solve it instead of pretending the problem does not exist.

The reality is cities will remain. They can get worse, and hopefully they can get better. Anyway, for whatever it's worth, I am with Lippman and Mumford in believing that what happens to them will both reflect and determine what happens to America. And perhaps someday soon Harvard and the country will be with them too.

Robert F. Wagner, Jr. '65, a former Crimson Editor, has served a Deputy Mayor for Policy in New York City, and is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Politics.