On a sunny day in August 1980, California governor Ronald Reagan, campaigning for the presidency on the Republican ticket, stopped on Charlotte Street in New York's South Bronx—the epitome of America's desolated innercity neighborhoods and the place where President Jimmy Carter had famously visited three years earlier. Reagan stepped out of his limousine and took in the scene. He declared that it looked like London after the Blitz.
The candidate stood amidst the rubble and empty shells of buildings and delivered a speech. He attacked Carter for failing to keep his promise to rebuild the South Bronx and proclaimed that he would bring it back by attracting private businesses through tax incentives.
A small crowd of people across the street would have none of it. “You ain't gonna do nothin'!” they shouted. “Go back to California!”
Undaunted, Reagan crossed over to speak to the hecklers. “If you'll just listen,” he began, “I'm trying to tell you—I know now there is no program or policies that a president can come in and wave a wand to do this.” 1
The message did not go over well, and Reagan drove off. Yet, however unwelcome the notion was, history seemed to support the idea that government was powerless to save areas such as the South Bronx.
Since the end of World War II, few great issues have perplexed Americans as much as the decline of central cities. For decades the federal government tried one program after another to stop the inner city from deteriorating. All in vain. First white upper- and middle-class households fled, then African American and Hispanic working families departed. As the inner city became the dominion of the poor and the pathological, city-government agencies withdrew like a retreating army.
The destruction of the inner city took on an inexorable quality. Buildings were deserted, vandalized, and burned. Epidemics of violence, gangs, and drug addiction swept through the streets. The wail of police and fire engine sirens provided background music to an endless stream of television and newspaper stories about sordid crimes and calamities. Most Americans dismissed the inner city as a dismal place given over to crime, gangs, and arson and to be avoided at all costs.