Urban Renewal

By Wooster, Martin Morse | Reason, November 1994 | Go to article overview

Urban Renewal


Wooster, Martin Morse, Reason


Strategies to save our cities

WE ALL KNOW WHAT CITies used to be for. In our parents' and grandparents' time, they went downtown to shop at a department store, to take in a movie, to visit the latest exhibits at the local museum, to go to a concert, or to go see a game at the stadium. Most people, even when they lived in the suburbs, commuted downtown to work.

Most of those rationales for cities have faded. A rising number of people have their jobs, as well as their homes, in the suburbs. There's no need to go to the picture palace downtown when there's a multiplex at the mall. Though many of the old museums are still downtown--besieged by decay, degradation, and political correctness--they face a rising number of competitors in the suburbs. And a sports complex these days is as likely to be in Auburn Hills or Landover as in Detroit or Washington.

Today, far too many cities--particularly older Northeastern metropolises--are home only to the wealthy few able to afford their rehabilitated townhouses and to the downtrodden poor who can't afford to go anywhere else. A recent article by Robert S. Guskind predicts dire consequences from that trend. In the year 2016, Guskind foresees, America's cities will be divided into a few wealthy enclaves being slowly swamped by the rising underclass.

In the 21st century, Guskind writes, a million soldiers will patrol the ghettoes, and a million urban convicts will rot in a huge prison in the Arizona desert. He envisions a Washington where the wealthy live in terror: K Street lobbyists have to pass through checkpoints and barricades; rich Georgetown residents enter their townhouses through secret tunnels; and The Washington Post has fled its urban stronghold for a secure harbor in the suburb of Loudoun County, Virginia.

Guskind's article did not appear in a thunderous organ of the nationalist right, but in the June 18 National Journal, the influential Capitol Hill weekly. No doubt his tale gave nightmares to the pinstripers who can afford the Journal's hefty subscription fee.

A more telling (and more plausible) sign of urban decline appeared in the July 23 Economist, which reports that Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has called for banning public telephones in his city, calling them "outdoor offices for drug-dealers and criminals."

SO OUR CITIES ARE LOSING THE OLD-FASHioned luster of the bustling, exhilarating metropolis. They are increasingly bleak places where you can't find night-life or even a telephone. In a search for solutions to the many fiscal and managerial problems plaguing America's older cities, many mayors are privatizing. Surprising items are for sale: In New York City, Nick Gilbert reports in the June 21 Financial World, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is considering selling two or three of the city's waste treatment plants, which could net New York $800 million. Giuliani also might sell the entire New York City water supply system, which could add $9 billion to city coffers. (Like many cities, New York once had a private water supply; the "Manhattan" part of what is now Chase Manhattan Bank was originally a private water company.)

Most mayors, however, are proposing more timid reforms. The conventional wisdom among mayors these days is "public-private partnerships," in which business and government unite for the common good. "A bipartisan consensus is being built in the heart of America," the July 11 Business Week editorialized. "Mayors and governors of both parties are quickly moving toward a centrist economic and political program that calls for entrepreneurial-minded governments to actively help companies grow."

Seasoned magazine readers know that whenever Business Week discovers a vital center around which reasonable Republicans and Democrats can coalesce, it's time to grab your wallet and check your change. Instead of reflexively praising public-private partnerships, it's better to ask if such "partnerships" cause the state to grow or shrink. …

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