Scattered Progress in America's Inner Cities ; Bush's Visit This Week to LA-Riot Scene Highlights New Chapter in Urban Efforts

Article excerpt

Baltimore's Inner Harbor is one of the most successful urban redevelopment projects in US history. On weekends - on many weekdays, too - it is packed with tourists and suburbanites in search of food, fun, and maybe a ticket to a ballgame at nearby Camden Yards. But blocks away, on the city's shattered east side, it's easier to buy heroin than a burger. Recent estimates indicate the city is losing 1,000 residents a month.

The riverfront in St. Louis, by contrast, has all the charm of a giant parking lot - the Gateway Arch a less popular attraction than the Inner Harbor. But surrounding neighborhoods boast some of the finest turn-of-the-last-century architecture in the nation. They are becoming vibrant places to live, as young professionals move downtown in search of better housing and a richer experience.

So it goes in urban America, prosperity and poverty mingle in a vast, changing landscape. Cities have been the nation's pride and its biggest social problem. Planned renewal has worked in many areas, but only to a point. Unplanned renewal has appeared in others, confounding dire predictions.

President Bush swung through South-Central Los Angeles this week to deliver the political message that he cares about inner cities. Perhaps he saw that there is not a single state of urban America, with problems susceptible to simple solutions. There are different states, often existing side-by-side.

For inner cities "things are never as good as they appear, and never as bad as we think they are," says Howard Chudacoff, professor of American urban and social history at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

"Cities are still very appealing places ... to visit and live, but they still frighten people."

Political territory

Politically speaking, big cities are foreign territory for most Republican presidents. Concentrations of minorities and poverty ensure that most cities vote Democratic on the national level.

But ignoring their problems can be perilous. George Herbert Walker Bush found that out in 1992. Candidate Bill Clinton beat him to Los Angeles following the devastating Rodney King riots, and used the occasion of the violence to call for more government aid to cities, and an increase in the minimum wage.

Then-President Bush blamed the riots in part on failed government antipoverty programs, a response that, polls indicated, only deepened many voters' feelings that he cared less about their economic problems than Clinton did.

That's one mistake Bush's son appears determined to not repeat.

On Monday, President Bush visited the heart of the South-Central neighborhood that was torn by violence a decade ago. He met with leaders from the black, Hispanic, and Korean-American communities at the economic-development office of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

"Ten years after civil unrest made history, [South-Central LA] is rebuilding herself with great hope and great promise, and that's an important lesson," said Bush.

He used the occasion to push his proposal to expand federal aid to faith-based development programs. The initiative is currently stuck in Congress.

Worry about maintaining the separation between church and state has contributed to congressional reluctance to deal with Bush's faith-based aid program. But that issue aside, the efforts these organizations become involved in can be among the most successful of urban development efforts.

That's because they're led by people who know the community, are typically small in scale, and are not overwhelmingly expensive.

"The best stuff is led by locals," says Thomas Lyons, associate professor of urban and public affairs at the University of Louisville. …

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