Is it too late for cities?
Money is poured into all kinds of programs and projects in urban areas of the United States, but the problems don't seem to get much better.

By Michael Hill
Sun Staff
Originally published December 8, 2002

DESPITE DECADES of comebacks and renaissances and redevelopment, the problems of cities seem to be always with us.

Money is poured into one social program after another, yet positive outcomes are hard to find. Whether police departments adopt community policing or zero tolerance, the crime rate fluctuates on its own, usually between high and higher. Educators bring in the latest technology or go back to the basics, but test scores continue to lag.

The bright, shiny facades of new downtown projects and big stadiums are juxtaposed with boarded-up, abandoned houses, a sign of neglect that discourages any who would try to keep up their property. And those in such neighborhoods rarely talk about bringing the place back to respectability - they talk about getting out.

Is it time to give up trying to fix the big old cities? Time to recognize that they were products of economic and technological factors that are no longer present? They served their purpose but their time has passed. Let's get on with developing human communities instead of fighting a losing battle of trying to save the obsolete ones.

Face it, places like Baltimore developed to house large numbers of workers close to jobs, first at the port, then in the factories. The port is so mechanized it doesn't need that many employees. The factories are gone. And the automobile - not a necessity when Baltimore and similar cities developed - means that workers do not have to be that close to jobs. Air travel - for people and freight - means that there is no need for the types of population concentrations that led to these large cities.

Joseph Arthur, who teaches the history of Baltimore at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, makes clear that the problems are immense. "Old central-city Baltimore now has a much more limited range of economic utility than it used to," he says. "It will have to make do within that limited range and out of that scare up enough money, enough of a tax base, to run the city. And one of its chief functions is to take all the poor people suburbanites don't want, people who have much more expensive problems - demands for social services, and crime, and all that - for which cities do not receive that much compensation."

Baltimore is hardly alone.

"Since basically World War II, American cities have undergone a major transformation in their economy, their demography and their spatial arrangements," says Michael Katz, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. "Some of these transformations add up to something new, the American city as an urban form that is really unprecedented historically. One has to come to grips with that set of changes and their interrelationships with one another to make intelligent and helpful decisions about improving conditions within cities. It's a very hard thing to do, but it's not impossible."

First, a need exists to recognize that the economic factors that put people together in urban settings are different than the ones that created the cities. It's no accident that health and education are huge employers in urban areas - these are two industries that need personal contact. Marie Howland, a professor in urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland, College Park, has studied other businesses that might have taken advantage of new communication technologies to move to more rural locales and found that they also favor urban areas. "Face-to-face contact continues to be important to business," she says.

Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, agrees.

"My own personal view is that cities are not obsolete; they are more essential now than they ever were," he says. "The need for face-to-face communication is so much greater, especially for certain kinds of businesses, certain kinds of cultural activities, for legal services, a whole range of things that have to come together to work."

Those businesses bring jobs, but they tend to be on either end of the pay scale - high for those in the businesses and low for those in service industries that grow up around them. Gone are the factory jobs - with their union-driven high paychecks - that provided employment for cities' middle-class residents in previous generations.

"It's more of a polarized system, a bipolar system, with some very good jobs and lots that are not very good," says Royce Hanson, interim director of the center for urban environmental research and education at UMBC. "That's had a pretty devastating effect on some neighborhoods."

The education effect

Furthering this bifurcation is the - at least perceived - decline in city education systems. If they can afford to, the traditional families that once formed the backbone of the urban middle class now leave the city when their children reach school age. Left behind are those too poor to flee and those rich enough to afford private schools.

Indeed, many urban experts point to education reform as the most important element in arresting urban decline, because it both retains a valued population and educates a work force for new businesses.

"The idea of bringing industry back in is hopeless," Crenson says of Baltimore. "The idea of making money off tourists did not really work. The only thing you can hope to do is to try to create a good work force that will attract businesses."

Katz says that what is missing is the commitment, and the money. "We know a lot more about what it takes to make a good school than we used to. ... It's very hard to implement and its very, very expensive."

One thing that irks many urban experts is the perception that cities are fiscal sinkholes that soak up large subsidies and give little in return. Instead, they argue, it was government subsidies - intentional and unintentional - that helped build suburbs and drain cities. They point to money that went into highways instead of rapid transit and tax breaks given for mortgages that favored new developments in suburbs instead of aging housing stock in cities.

"The enormous subsidies given to the suburbs dwarf anything that is being put back into the cities," says Howland.

War on infrastructure

"If we wanted to do something really spectacular," says Katz, "we would declare war on the aging infrastructure of our cities. We could put hundreds of thousands of people to work rebuilding sewer systems, waterlines, streets. It would provide good jobs and make a tremendous difference in the cities."

Transportation is a major sticking point, particularly in cities built for the most part in pre-automobile days.

Arthur of UMBC says there is a simple division among cities in this respect. "Cities that were able to establish subways were able to continue to move people in and out while those stuck with trolley cars failed."

Baltimore falls into the latter category, while New York, Paris, London and, more recently, San Francisco are examples of cities flourishing in no small part because of their subways.

"Europeans on the whole were more reluctant to embrace the automobile," says Thomas Zeller, an assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. "They still built thousands of kilometers of interstate-type highways ... but they continued to invest in public transportation, building a second infrastructure for cars in cities."

Europeans also made policy decisions that valued cities. "Left unregulated, run-down city housing is more likely to attract poorer people," says Jack Breihan, a history professor at Loyola College. "Vigorous government action can change that. In continental European cities, they reclaimed all the nice close-in housing and chased the poorer people off to suburban housing developments. ... We did not manage that in large part because of race."

Race is a major factor in why the plight of cities was ignored as they declined.

"Nobody wants to talk about it, but the basic problem is race," says Crenson of Hopkins, who says progress in race relations is bound to help cities.

Many think that one problem is making judgments about a city by looking at it as a single entity confined by its political borders.

For instance, Arthur notes that if Baltimore had continued expanding its boundaries after World War II the way it did before - legislation restricting annexation put a stop to that - it would probably encompass much of Baltimore County. The problems of its inner city would be seen in a different context.

Others point to the fact that cities are made up of many smaller entities. "I don't think it makes sense to take about a city in its entirety," says Vincent Marando, a professor emeritus of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Is Baltimore working or not? Is New York working or not? Generally they do work most of the time for most people. But you can't generalize for the entire city. Spatially locate Baltimore crime statistics and you will see it is concentrated in certain sections. So crime does not affect everybody in the city in the same way. You can make that argument with respect to many other problems."

Hanson of UMBC says: "Probably some parts of some cities reach a point where they are no longer viable while clearly other parts of cities restore themselves."

Though cities will continue to be transformed by economics and technology and a variety of other factors - as they have throughout history - few think they are going to go away. "People on the Earth have been living in cities for 58,000 years," says Zeller. "Most of the cultures we know of are urban cultures."

Says Katz of the University of Pennsylvania: "Cities make tremendous sense in the new global economy, but they do something else: They bring together diverse groups of people and in that human diversity is an excitement and liveliness that many people crave."

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