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The nation's cities are undergoing unprecedented change, but governments can manage the transformation by focusing their efforts and harnessing the public sector, New York City deputy mayor Rudy Washington said at an Institute of Politics conference Saturday.
Washington gave the keynote address at an all-day conference that featured a panel discussion, a case study of public housing and workshops on issues from urban redevelopment to education reform. Nearly 100 people, including politicians, business professionals and college student from all over the country, attended.
"Government can reform itself by just having focus," Washington said. "It's like everything else in life: make up your mind to do it and...accomplish."
But Washington's speech was very personal and steered the conference towards several specific discussions of New York. Washington recalled how he moved from a business career to a position as commissioner of New York's Department of Business Services in 1994.
Washington said that, because he is both black and a Republican, he was "surrounded by people who wanted [him] to fail."
So he fired his entire staff. And he worked closely with the private sector to remove thousands of New York street vendors who had clogged city sidewalks and hurt local businesses.
"It was that naivete--coming into office as reformers--that allowed us to get things done," Washington said.
After Washington's speech, conference participants debated the relative merits of subsidized housing versus housing allowances. And the audience chose between three workshops: "Private Enterprise and Urban Renovation," "Education Reform in the Inner City" and "Community Issues and Grassroots Relief."
Washington joined Professor of Education Gary Orfield and Joy Taylor, financial vice president of American Express, for a panel called "Approaches to Urban Poverty."
But the panelists struggled to answer basic questions. When the moderator, instructor in psychiatry Michael W. Kahn, asked the panel if the American dream is alive in U.S. cities, none of the panelists could give a direct answer.
Marc P. Diaz '99 asked the panelists what safety nets exist for those urban residents who will not reap the benefits of current reforms. But none could answer.
Orfield said neither national party has addressed this question.
The education professor also said Diaz's question led him to ask whether the structure of municipal government is really viable. He said that perhaps a county model is more appropriate given the role of cities in America today.
Taylor said even when opportunities and capital are available in urban areas, these resources don't reach lower-income city residents.
For example, the recent success of the New York Stock Exchange will no necessarily benefit the rest of the city Taylor said.
"Nothing will trickle down unless the guy who has it spends it to the guy who needs it," he said.
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