The Struggle for Our Cities: Putting the Urban Crisis on the National Agenda

Prepared for the 1996 Planners Network Conference, “Renewing Hope, Restoring Vision: Progressive Planning in Our Communities.

by Peter Dreier

For years, urban scholars and activists warned that our cities were ticking time bombs, waiting to explode. When the Los Angeles riots erupted in April 1992 (the worst civil disorder in American history) many hoped that it would catalyze a major national commitment to revitalize the cities — an urban Marshall Plan.

The timing seemed perfect. The Los Angeles riots coincided with the end of the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union collapsed, there was much public discussion about the prospects for a “peace dividend” to reorder national priorities and address long unmet domestic needs. Moreover, the riots occurred in the midst of a national election for President and Congress. For a few weeks following the riots, America’s urban crisis became a hot topic. But soon the plight of America’s cities returned to political obscurity.

Urban Policy on the Margins

Today, more than four years after the L.A. riots, our urban crisis remains marginal to the political debate in this country. No other major industrial nation has allowed its cities to face the type of fiscal and social troubles confronting America’s cities. Other industrial nations do not permit the level of sheer destitution and decay found in America’s cities. Compare, for example, cities in Canada — which has a similar economy and distribution of wealth — with our own. We see the consequences every day, from the deadly levels of crime and violence, to the Third World levels of infant mortality, to the growing army of homeless people sleeping on park benches and vacant buildings.

Poverty and racism are the most fundamental problems facing our cities. Most of America’s 38 million poor people live in our cities and they are increasingly concentrated in ghettos and barrios. Their poverty stems from both unemployment and low-wage work. But their concentration results from racial discrimination. Sixty-two percent of non-Hispanic blacks live in blocks that are 60% or more black. Forty percent of the Hispanic population live in blocks that are 60% or more Hispanic. At least two out of every three white Americans live in essentially all-white neighborhoods. The black and Hispanic poor are much more likely than the white poor to live in poverty neighborhoods.

To avert fiscal collapse, many cities have closed schools, hospitals, health centers, police stations, and fire stations. They have laid off essential employees and reduced basic services, such as maintaining parks, repairing roads, and enforcing housing and health codes. As local governments “downsize” their operations, the poor and working class residents of America’s cities are pitted against each other for these shrinking resources. This leads to heightened social and racial tensions. It also makes it more and more difficult for local officials to govern effectively. Most big-city majors are reluctant downsizers, but others — such as the new Republican mayors in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, New York City, and Jersey City — have adopted the mantra of privatization and “business-like” urban government.

In seeking explanations for these symptoms, progressive scholars and activists tend to focus on large-scale economic forces. The globalization of the economy. The deindustrialization of our economy. The widening gap between rich and poor. The persistence of racism, especially among lenders, landlords and realtors.

We also look at the impact of public policy, usually federal policy, on the conditions in our cities. We’re all familiar with that litany. In the postwar era, federal government policies both pushed people out of cities and pulled them into suburbs. These included highway-building policies that opened up the hinterlands to speculation and development; housing and tax policies that offered government-insured mortgages and tax breaks to whites in suburbia (but not in cities); and bulldozer urban renewal policies that destroyed working class neighborhoods, scattering their residents to blue-collar suburbs, to make way for downtown business development. Since the late l970s, the federal government has been shredding the shredding of the social safety net. Most federal programs that serve cities — whether “people” programs or “place” programs — suffered dramatic cuts. Revenue sharing. Housing subsidies. AFDC benefit levels.

Progressive activists recognize the importance of policy, but we have an ambivalent attitude about politics, particularly electoral politics, so we often focus our energies on community or labor organizing and hope that this work translates into pushing government to be more progressive. Or we invest some hope in “liberal” politicians and soon find ourselves disappointed by the limited reforms that materialize.

Many progressive activists hoped that Bill Clinton’s victory in November 1992 would usher in a new era of hope for the nation’s cities. His victory was viewed as a mandate for a more activist government. But Clinton was elected without a majority mandate. He received only 43% of the overall vote. Equally important, his own Democratic Party, while capturing a majority of the seats in Congress, was deeply divided, with many members closely linked to big business interests who oppose progressive taxation, Keynesian pump-priming, and social spending. Early in the Clinton administration, Congress thwarted the president’s efforts to enact a modest public investment plan, universal health insurance, and even a child immunization program. The Republican takeover of Congress in November 1994 exacerbated the political isolation of cities, symbolized by Clinton’s proposal a month later to dramatically cut the HUD budget.

It is easy to bemoan this reality. It is, indeed, a scar on our national conscience. But if progressives want to address America’s urban crisis, we must be clear-eyed about the basic causes of our cities’ plight as well as about the political obstacles and opportunities involved in putting urban American closer to the top of the nation’s agenda.

Equally important, we have to ask ourselves some very hard questions about two things: political strategy and urban policy. What lessons have we learned in the past, say, 20 years that we can apply to these issues? What should we — planners, organizers, activists, scholars, teachers — be doing differently?

In this brief paper I simply want to raise some key questions and pose some dilemmas for progressive urbanists to consider.

Rethinking Suburbia

We have to face an important reality: America is now a suburban country. This has very important political consequences.

Today, more than three-quarters of all Americans live in metropolitan areas. Two-thirds of them — in other words, about half the nation’s population — live in suburbs. Moreover, in every region of the country — even where city populations are increasing — the fastest-growing parts of the metropolitan areas are the surrounding suburbs. Moreover, in every region of the country — even where city populations are increasing — the fastest-growing parts of the metropolitan areas are the surrounding suburbs. During the l980s, for example, Los Angeles grew by 17.4%, while its suburbs grew by 29.5%. Baltimore lost 6.4% of its population while its suburbs grew by 16.5%.

As a result, America’s cities now face a shrinking tax base and fiscal traumas. In the postwar era, the disparity of median incomes of cities and suburbs have widened. In 1960, the per capita income of cities was 5% greater than their surrounding suburbs; by 1989, it had fallen to 84% of suburban income. In some metropolitan areas, the economic disparities between city and suburbs are much wider. Newark’s per capita income was only 43.1% of its suburbs; Paterson, N.J., 46.6%; Cleveland, 53.4%; Hartford, 53.6%; Detroit, 53.6%; Milwaukee, 62.9%; Gary, 63.4%; Baltimore, 64.3%; Philadelphia, 65.4%; Dayton, 66%; Chicago, 66.3%; Miami, 67.2%; and New York, 67.6%.

A few years ago, Robert Reich (prior to becoming Secretary of Labor) wrote an article in the New York Times describing what he termed the “secession of the successful.” He described how our nation’s cities have become increasingly populated by the poor, while the affluent wall themselves off in gated communities or affluent suburbs. That’s how many people view the relationship between cities and suburbs.

But that image is misleading. It masks the significant diversity found within “suburbia.” Many localities that the Census and media term “suburbs” are themselves small or medium-size cities. A growing number of middle class Americans find themselves trapped in older inner-ring suburbs that look more and more like troubled cities. They face many of the same problems — crime and violence, infant mortality, crumbling infrastructure, inadequate housing, and chronic fiscal crises. Many cities and their inner-ring suburbs have much in common. For example, 8.7% of the suburban population (compared with 19% in the central cities) live below the poverty line. Overall, 30.5% of the nation’s poor live in suburbs. An increasing number of Blacks, Latinos and Asians live in suburbia, although African Americans tend to live in racially segregated areas.

In other words, we need to rethink our old notions of “city” and “suburb.” The stereotype of the affluent lily-white bedroom suburb no longer fits, if it ever did. While most suburbanites now commute to work in other suburbs, not central cities, they still “use” the city in many ways — work, culture, entertainment, sporting events, health care, universities, etc.

This matter poses a number of both political and policy questions. Given these demographic realities, any success at forging a federal urban policy will necessitate appealing to some segment of the suburban electorate and their representatives in Congress. A New York Times/CBS nationwide poll conducted the week after the Los Angeles riots found that 60% of Americans thought the nation was spending “too little” on cities — up from 46% in 1988. But this sentiment cannot prevail unless many suburbanites believe that they, too, have a stake in revitalizing our cities beyond short-term “riot insurance.”

How can we persuade suburbanites that they have a stake in the future of our cities? How can we build political and policy coalitions between cities and the inner-ring suburbs? More specifically, how can we persuade a suburban Congressperson to vote for an urban policy agenda?

There are some efforts to build these coalitions at the local level, but they are quite fragile. Two recent books, David Rusk’s Cities Without Suburbs and Neil Pearce’sCitistates, make the case for regional approaches to addressing economic development, environmental, transportation, and other problems. But the recent history of metropolitan-wide solutions is not promising. Affluent suburbanites, as well as working class suburbanites, generally resist such attempts. They prefer to go it alone than to share decision-making and tax bases with central cities. Also, during the past several decades, as African-Americans and Latinos gain power in City Halls, they too resist diluting their newly-found power over public patronage with suburbanites. Myron Orfield, a Minnesota state legislator, is making a formidable effort to build a progressive metropolitan coalition. He sponsored legislation to create a tax-base sharing plan to reduce property tax disparities among municipalities in the region so that inner-ring suburbs and the two major cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) had a stake in regional cooperation plans. His legislation also created an elected metropolitan council with the authority to establish “fair share” housing goals for each municipality.

But we can’t realistically expect to address our urban crisis at the local or regional level. Ultimately, we need to focus on national, federal solutions. That’s where the money and the power is. But we have to confront the reality that our national politics — meaning the politics of the White House as well as Congress — is dominated by suburban voters. So we face the same questions. How do we persuade suburban Congressmembers to vote for laws, spending, and regulations that help cities — or at least the people who live in cities? Think about our current urban policies and allocation formulas. In fact, most federal “urban” policies provide little incentive for working class suburbanites. Federal formulas for place-oriented approaches, and even many people-oriented approaches, generally bypass suburbs, including many poor and working class people within suburban jurisdictions. The debate between “targeted” and “universal” federal programs is not simply a debate over race, but also about space. To many Americans, CDBG or public housing are viewed as programs aimed at helping the inner-city poor. National health insurance or increasing the minimum wage have a broader appeal, even though they disproportionately help people living in cities.

The questions have serious political consequences. The 1992 election campaign was the first Presidential election in history in which an absolute majority of voters came from suburbs. {1} Even more important, the number of Congressmembers who represent cities is declining, while the number who represent suburbs is increasing. After the 1992 redistricting, the House had 98 urban districts, 170 suburban districts, and 88 rural districts; the rest were had a mix of urban-suburban or rural-suburban populations.

Members of Congress who represent “suburban” areas may be personally sympathetic to the plight of the central cities. But that doesn’t mean they will vote to spend their constituents’ tax dollars to alleviate urban problems. {2} Thus, marshalling a Congressional majority for an urban agenda has become increasingly difficult.

Civil rights groups have adopted a strategy based on Congressional redistricting. The main thrust of these efforts has been to reshape Congressional districts that will give African-American, Asian, and Latino voters a stronger voice — and will increase the odds of electing persons of color to legislative bodies. Given the concentration of minority groups in cities, this typically means that more urban districts will be represented by minorities.

But consider this dilemma: After the 1994 elections, the number of Blacks and Latinos in Congress reached an all-time high. But the new Congress is more hostile than ever to the concerns of African-Americans and Latinos. The Black and Latino members of Congress are more isolated than before. The reason is simple: The Congress has a majority of conservative Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich. Their agenda is diametrically opposed to the progressive agenda of the Black and Hispanic caucuses. In fact, one of Gingrich’s first acts as Speaker was to eliminate funds for these causes.

How did this happen? It happened by concentrating Black and Latino voters in districts where they represent the majority of the population. This meant that the other districts in these states — including adjacent districts — were overwhelmingly white and, in many cases, overwhelmingly affluent. The “majority minority” districts became “safe” districts to elect minority candidates. But that meant that minority districts became liberal Democratic islands in a sea of white conservative Republicans. In other words, in order to create a few safe seats for liberal African-Americans and Latinos, the trade-off was a larger number of safe seats for conservative white Congresspersons. As a result, the number of moderate and liberal white Congresspersons — who were frequently allies of the Black and Hispanic caucuses — has declined. And the overall configuration of Congress became more conservative and more Republican.

The changes in Georgia’s Congressional delegation is a good example of this dilemma. After a lawsuit by the NAACP, Georgia was required to redraw its Congressional districts so that blacks had a fair chance of electing blacks to Congress. George already had one “majority black” district. Then, prior to the 1992 elections, Georgia redrew its Congressional map. Conservative Republicans and liberal African-Americans forged an agreement. Two more “majority black” districts were created.

Prior to this redistricting, the Democrats held 9 of Georgia’s 10 Congressional seats. Eight of the nine Democrats were white. The black was John Lewis of Atlanta, a former civil rights activist. Several of those white Democrats were moderates, who could sometimes be persuaded to vote for bills supported by liberals and the Black Congressional Caucus — in part, because their districts included 20 or 25% black voters. In the 1994 elections, after this redistricting, the Democrats held only three of the state’s 10 Congressional seats. All three of the Democrats are black liberals. All 7 of the Republicans are conservative whites. Is Georgia’s black population, its poor population, its urban population better off with this arrangement? Is it worth electing one John Lewis if you get two Newt Gingrichs?

Two recent Supreme Court decisions may make this a moot question. In Reno vs. Shaw (1993) and Miller vs. Johnson (1995), the Supreme Court nullified some of this “racial redistricting.” But the issue will not simply disappear. Progressives had to develop a strategy for dealing with redistricting and the racial, class, and geographic issues that it raises.

Demystifying Capital Mobility

Businesses can move, but communities don’t. Because our cities rely primarily on localrevenues, all progressive urban activists face a serious dilemma: if local (or state) public officials move too aggressively to tax or regulate the private sector, business can threaten to pull up stakes and take their jobs and tax base with them. They can also mobilize a sustained political assault (often with the aid of the local media) against the incumbent for being unfair to business. Few politicians want to be stuck with the reputation that because they lost the “confidence” of the business community, they drove away jobs and undermined the tax base. As a result, most public officials accommodate themselves to business’ priorities.

Of course, these are not new questions. At the turn of the century, manufacturers in Massachusetts and other industrial states warned that American business would suffer if state legislators enacted laws against the exploitation of child labor. In many ways, the history of progressive reform is a constant struggle between reformers seeking government regulations on business and business warning that such regulations will hurt the “business climate” and even destroy business.

In an increasingly global economy, business is more and more mobile. The recent wave of corporate mergers and consolidations highlights this trend. As firms become more internationalized, their ability to set the groundrules of the game increases as well. As local or regional businesses are picked off by multinational corporations, communities became pawns in an international business confidence game. Plants are opened or closed, expanded or contracted, according to priorities established in far-away corporate headquarters.

America’s federal system allows businesses to play “Russian roulette” with local communities. Because our federal system allows states and localities to set many of these conditions, footloose businesses can look for the best “business climate” — low wages, low taxes, lax environmental regulations and a “union free” atmosphere. In this situation, many state and local government officials feel that in order to attract or maintain jobs, they have to participate in “bidding wars” to attract capital. This puts each participant in a weaker bargaining position and undermines the economic and fiscal health of all communities.

During the 1970s and 1980s, some cities sought to revitalize their downtowns with new office buildings, medical and educational complexes, hotels, urban shopping malls, convention centers, and sports complexes. For example, in 1970 only fifteen cities could have handled a trade show for 20,000; by the late 1980s, some 150 cities could do so.

To cope with disinvestment and fiscal crises, many city development officials became “entrepreneurs,” competing with other cities for corporate investment. Some cities sought to lure businesses with tax breaks and other subsidies (such as the $100 million tax abatements granted Trump Tower in New York and Los Angeles’ recent $75 million tax break for Steven Speilberg’s new DreamWorks film studio).

This bidding war has gone too far. These incentives and subsidies as unnecessary give-aways. In many, perhaps most, cases, this private investment, they argue, would have taken place anyway. Corporations are often bluffing when they threaten to move or demand tax breaks or regulatory relief to invest, but city officials rarely call their bluffs.

Local or state-level organizing efforts are always met with the same response. If you raise the economic stakes, businesses will not invest. Campaigns to raise the minimum wage or pass local “living wage” ordinances, to enact local housing “linkage” policies, to increase taxes on business, to strengthen clean air laws, to pass “plant closing” laws, to demand better wages, to enact rent control or to make utility rates more progressive all confront this dilemma.

This issue, too, poses some serious political and policy dilemmas. And it raises some strategic questions for activists at both the local and national levels.

At the local level, it boils down to this: When is business bluffing? Obviously some firms and industries are more mobile than others. Local officials, unions, or community groups cannot always know when the threat of disinvestment is real. This puts them at a disadvantage if they want to “call the bluff” of businesses.

A major difference between conservative, liberal and progressive city governments is their willingness to constantly test how far government can go before business acts on its threats to leave, cut back, expand elsewhere, or organize political opposition. If progressive elected officials are to challenge business prerogatives, they need to have a strong political constituency that will support them despite the potential threats of businesses. They also have to know when and how to compromise. Progressive city officials and activists, in other words, must have a clear sense of when the threats of business are real and when they are not. Just how much room exists, however, is rarely tested. Most elected officials and political movements are unwilling to see just how far they can push.

It is naive to believe that such business warnings are always empty threats. Tax increases, wage increases, and various government regulations can damage business profits and lead to decisions to downsize, relocate, or even go out of business. But the factors that contribute to business strength and weakness are not the same in all places, at all times, or for all industries or firms. In order to be in a stronger bargaining position, progressives need to know when business is bluffing and when its threats are real. How can they know this? Are there any “rules of thumb” that can guide action or is each situation unique? Do business leaders follow any formulas or are such decisions primarily arbitrary, subjective, and random?

Unless we can answer this question, progressives — unions, environmentalists, community activists, elected officials — will also be bargaining from a position of weakness, with at least one hand tied behind their backs. One question for progressives is how to recognize firms or industries that are more or less “sticky.” Which firms or industries are more or less tied to specific cities, states, or regions? Is it even possible that businesses that have a stronger stake in localities may be our unwitting allies? These are serious questions that urban scholars, planners and activists need to address.

At the national level, we can raise the same questions. Federal laws actually promote bidding wars and competition between cities, regions, and states. The Taft-Hartley Act, for example, allows states to enact anti-union “right to work” laws. Cities establish their own property tax rates and can cut special deals for particular investment projects.

From the perspective of national politics and federal policy, the question: Should we change some of the groundrules that allow companies unfettered capital mobility? Should our tax laws, environmental laws, labor laws, and other laws be reformed to make it more difficult for companies to play Russian roulette with our cities? The answer is to enact a common national standard and a more level playing field.

Converting the Military Industrial Complex

We will never solve our domestic problems, including our urban crisis, as long as we continue to spend such a large part of our federal budget on national defense. But today, several years after the end of the Cold War and all the talk about a “peace dividend,” our country has not significantly reduced its reliance on military spending. This has two serious consequences. First, there isn’t enough money in our federal budget for domestic economic and social programs, such as housing, education, infrastructure, etc. Second, our private economy is still dominated by military research and production, which means we divert much of our scientific and technical expertise and invest too little in civilian industries. Rather than employing research and development funds to help modernize the nation’s basic manufacturing industries, for example the steel and automobile industries, or developing new civilian industries to make the U.S. more competitive internationally, for example, high speed rail, the Pentagon’s priorities helped undermine key industrial sectors and the cities where they were located.

The Pentagon has long “redlined” America’s cities. During the Cold War era, the Pentagon played a critical role in the flight of business, jobs, and people from cities. As Ann Markusen and her colleagues have shown (in The Rise of the Gunbelt andDismantling the Cold War Economy), the Pentagon’s decisions to locate military facilities and to grant defense contracts greatly influenced the growth and decline of geographic areas. It has served as America’s de facto “industrial policy,” a form of government planning that has shaped dramatically the location of businesses and jobs. Members of Congress have used the “Pentagon pork barrel” to bring jobs to firms and workers in their districts. The multiplier effects of Pentagon spending has dramatically changed the population and employment map of the entire country.

In 1990 alone, for example, eighteen out of the twenty-five largest cities suffered a total loss of $24 billion in their balance of payments with the Pentagon. And a new study by two Harvard economists found that most big cities send more to Washington each year in federal taxes than they get back in social programs, defense spending, or public works projects. New York City contributed $9 billion more to the federal government than it got in return. Even in those metropolitan areas that have won the Pentagon sweepstakes, however, the bulk of Pentagon dollars are located in suburbs, not central cities.

For four decades America has put its domestic needs on hold, allowed its cities to deteriorate, and mortgaged its children’s future while feeding the Pentagon and the arms race. We no longer even pretend that our military spending is related primarily to concerns about national security. The Pentagon is now primarily a profits and jobs machine. Recent debates about closing military facilities or cutting weapons systems don’t focus on national security concerns, but around the short-term adverse effects these cuts have on communities, workers, and firms that rely on military spending.

But proponents of economic conversion face a cruel dilemma: Even those who favor cutting defense spending do not want cuts that will hurt workers, firms, and communities in their own communities. Many local officials, Chambers of Commerce, and private sector trade unions resist cuts in military bases or military contracts in their areas. Most members of Congress recognize the need to reduce the defense budget, but each one of them says “not in my backyard.” Even Rep. Ron Dellums, long a critic of militarism and Pentagon waste, worked hard to protect key military bases and contracts in his district when a Congressional task force recommended they be closed.

The workers, communities, and even the firms which have long depended on military spending should not be the victims of the end of the Cold War. It is unreasonable to expect communities and companies to deal with their economic pain alone, but that is basically what is taking place. Although many in Congress have proposed comprehensive conversion bills, they have gone nowhere.

Current Pentagon spending levels can be cut by one-third to one-half over the next five years without endangering national security. But to make this politically realistic, we need to link large-scale military budget cuts to large expenditures to a program of conversion. That means retooling plants. It means retraining workers for new jobs and providing them with income assistance during the transition. It means assisting small business to help subcontractors and supplier firms. It means shifting research and development priorities to civilian uses. The plan should also help local communities adjust to military base closures and major reductions at defense contracting firms.

An effective conversion plan by necessity involves elements of national planning and industrial strategy, but it must also incorporate local communities and businesses planning efforts. We need a federal agency to coordinate conversion planning — although it should located outside the Pentagon.

Telling Our Success Stories

Progressives have to seriously address Americans’ skeptical or hostile views about government and about our capacity to solve urban problems. For the past several decades, corporate American and conservative ideologues have successfully sponsored an ideological assault on government activism. Corporate-sponsored and right-wing think tanks — like the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundations and others — have waged a sophisticated campaign to identify “big government” with waste, inefficiency, and threats to personal freedom and families. In doing so, they have diverted attention away from the waste, inefficiency, and threats to communities and families of big business.

The past few months, we’ve seen a small counter-trend — an attack on corporate “irresponsibility,” corporate downsizing, and government-funded “corporate welfare.” Publications like Newsweekand the New York Times have featured major stories on the human consequences of corporate greed and have highlighted the widening gap between CEO pay and corporate profits, on the one hand, and employees’ wages, on the other hand. Recent news stories about garment industry sweatshops in U.S. cities and the exploitation of child labor in the Third World have helped put a human face on corporate greed. Labor Secretary Reich helped plant the seeds of this focus on corporate greed during the past year, and, ironically, Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign helped trigger the media’s interest. But what was missing in almost all of this attention to corporate misconduct? Solutions. Policies. A political movement to push for limits on capital mobility, exploitation of labor, and the widening income gap.

Conservatives have an easy solution to the problems of “big government.” Cut programs. Balance the budget. Lay-off public employees. What is the progressive movement’s solution to the economic and social problems created by “big business?”

When conservatives attack “big government,” there aren’t talking about the Pentagon. When they talk about the federal budget deficit, they don’t focus on the key role that the Reagan military build-up played in putting America in the red. When Bob Dole complains about the “last bastion of socialism,” he’s talking about public housing, not defense contractors who depend on the Pentagon to survive. When they talk about welfare reform, they aren’t talking about corporate welfare for Boeing, Lockheed, and Raytheon.

To most Americans, “big government” is defined as programs and bureaucracies that deal with the poor, with cities, and with racial discrimination. In fact, many Americans believe that we have tried to save its cities, but that the cities resist being saved. Many Americans believe that even if there were ample money, we would not know what to do with it, or at least could not guarantee that it would be spent wisely or efficiently to solve the nation’s urban problems. They believe that almost 30 years after the urban riots of the l960s, and the War on Poverty, the condition of America’s cities is in many ways worse than ever. Why waste our tax dollars throwing more money at cities?

We need to point out that cities are the location of many of our nation’s problems, but they are not the cause of them. Global economic forces, corporate business decisions, and federal government policies have combined to subvert the economic and social health of our cities. For example, the “working poor” is the fastest-growing sector of the nation’s poverty population. A recent Census Bureau study found that almost one-fifth of all full-time workers now earn poverty-level wages. an increase from 12.1% a decade earlier.

We also cannot ignore the fact that some cities are worse off than others. The devastation of Youngstown, Detroit, Flint, Newark, Camden, Hartford, Bridgeport, and Gary is perhaps the most visible symbol of the decline of American manufacturing in the global economy. But even those cities that did successfully revitalize their downtown economies in recent years have not stemmed the growing tide of poverty only blocks away from the glittering glass and steel. “Trickle down” doesn’t work at either the local or national levels. We need national policies that recognize the relative strengths and weaknesses of different metro areas.

In truth, federal aid to cities — whether to revitalize downtowns, attract private business and jobs to inner cities, stabilize and improve poor and working class neighborhoods, or provide fiscal assistance to local governments — has served, in effect, to “clean up” the problems created by federally-assisted disinvestment. During the past half century, federal subsidies to help America’s cities were a drop in the bucket compared to those that promoted suburbanization. It was hardly a fair fight. Federal urban programs were overwhelmed by federal subsidies that undermined the economic, social and political health of the nation’s cities. But that’s now how most of the public sees it.

To the critics and skeptics, programs such as public housing, Model Cities, Urban Development Action Grants (UDAGs), and welfare represent well-intentioned government gone awry. Giving cities more money means handing tax dollars to politically-connected developers (symbolized by the recent HUD scandal), big-city mayors who dole out patronage jobs to loyal constituents or incompetent bureaucrats, poor people who engage in destructive anti-social behavior, or well-meaning do-gooders who run social programs that seem neither to lift the poor out of poverty nor to teach them middle-class values.

Urban scholars, urban activists, and big-city mayors have spent much of the past several decades focusing on the negative part of the nation’s urban reality. “Our cities are burning, please help us put out the fire.” Certainly no one expects us to become Pollyannas and ignore the harsh realities of the urban crisis. But this drumbeat of negativism has its political consequences. Would you invest your hard-earned dollars in a company that’s been failing for 30 years?

The news media’s coverage of our cities reinforces these negative views. The images from the nightly news, on the covers of newsweeklies, on the front pages of our daily newspapers are an unrelenting story of social pathology and government failure: mounting crime, gangs, drug wars, racial conflict, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, school dropouts. It comes as no surprise that even people who live in communities with little crime or drug problem think that they are the middle of a crime wave. As a result, many Americans have concluded that problems such as poverty and crime may be intractable.

In other words, a major obstacle to putting the urban crisis on our national agenda is the American people’s skepticism about “government” programs. What do we have to say to address this skepticism?

We rarely focus on the strengths of our cities. “Strengths” don’t necessarily mean a city’s new sports complex or its new urban festival market — the things that Chambers of Commerce and mayors like to show off. They include the roles of cities in our economic and civic life. Cities play at least three critical functions in our regional and national economies. First, they are the location of most metropolitan area jobs, including the best-paying jobs, and the nucleus of key industries — what economists call the advantages of “agglomeration.” Second, these city-based firms and industries spin off jobs that are located in the suburbs, but depend on the central city for their sustenance. Third, cities remain the hub of the metropolitan region’s civic life, where the major cultural, educational, medical, governmental, and other institutions are located.

The news media pays little attention to the many urban success stories, such as the work of the growing sector of non-profit community development corporations in rebuilding inner city neighborhoods or the work of low-income community groups protesting bank “redlining” and promoting community reinvestment. There is little news coverage of what Robert Putnam calls the “social capital” or what John Kretzmann and John McKnight call the “community assets” of our urban neighborhoods — the community institutions, organizations, and informal networks that help sustain people and improve daily life.

Most urban advocates have almost given up trying to persuade the media and others there’s more to our inner cities than crime and hopelessness. But we can’t settle for this. We have to do a better job at promoting the success stories of urban policy and urban organizing. We have to be more adept at media strategy.

Developing a Progressive Political Strategy

For the past several decades, progressive activists have made significant headway in urban politics. They have generally used three, often overlapping, strategies: community organizing, labor organizing, and electoral politics.

Their community organizing has included forming tenant unions, building community development corporations, working on redlining, challenging police abuses, fighting against environmental and health problems, and mobilizing against plant closings and lay-offs. National networks like ACORN, the IAF, Citizen Action, and others have helped improve the capacity of these local groups to develop leaders, mobilize campaigns, and win local victories.

Urban activists also sunk their roots in the labor movement, focusing their organizing efforts among workers in low-wage industries, such as hospitals, hotels, janitors, and others. This work has primarily been among women, immigrants, and people of color. Unions that have made the most headway in recent years have drawn on the tactics and themes of civil rights crusades and grassroots organizing campaigns that emphasize dignity and justice, and that forge alliances with community and church groups. In a number of cities, unions have formed ties with community activist groups like ACORN and the Industrial Areas Foundation. Recently, unions and community groups in several cities have waged “living wage” campaigns to require private firms with municipal contracts or subsidies (such as tax breaks) to pay their employees decent wages and benefits.

A growing number of these community activists have built electoral coalitions — forging ties between community, union, environmental, women’s rights, civil rights, and other organizations — to win a stronger voice in local government decision-making. A good example is the Legislative Action and Electoral Project (LEAP) in Connecticut, a broad coalition that has helped elect several key progressive activists to local and state offices.

For the past 20 years, progressive grassroots movements have gained a stronger foothold in running local governments. (During the Progressive Era, this effort was often called “sewer socialism”). In a few cases, progressive coalitions have actually taken power in City Hall. Their leaders and allies were catapulted to elective office, including mayor and city council. Most of these progressive regimes took root in smaller cities, mostly based in university settings, such as Cambridge (Mass.), Madison (Wisc.), and Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica (California), and Burlington, Vt., where current Congressman Bernie Sanders served as Mayor and helped forge a progressive coalition that is still in power, but there have also been successful progressive electoral coalitions in Cleveland, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, St. Paul, and Pittsburgh. There, progressive activists achieve electoral success and seek to utilize local government to promote an agenda of economic and social reform. {3}

In the mid-1970s, hoping that a combination of community organizing and electoral work could create a growing progressive presence that would somehow jell into a national movement, some of these activists created several networks, including the Conference on Alternative State and Local Policy (CASLP) and the Planners Network. Both networks sponsored regular meetings at which urban activists shared organizing experiences and policy ideas and helped build on successes. After a few years CASLP folded its tent, while the Planners Network continues primarily as a newsletter linking urban activists. Under the leadership of Miles Rappoport, a community organizer who is now the Connecticut Secretary of State, urban activists in New England have built an organizational network through NECARC.

But the lessons of the past two decades of local activism are ambiguous. When progressive community and union activists forge partnerships with progressives in local government, they can clearly make a difference. They can put pressure on banks to stop redlining and force landlords to fix up slum buildings and stop rent gouging. They can provide support to union organizing campaigns and restore confidence in government by doing an efficient job of “civic housekeeping” — picking up snow and garbage, recycling waste, fixing potholes. They can improve the wages and working conditions of public employees as well as employees of firms with municipal contracts. They can shift spending priorities to discourage gentrification and promote rebuilding of poor neighborhoods by community-based groups. They can add more women and minorities in public employment and push private employers to do likewise. They can restrict police abuses and even get local police departments to work more closely with neighborhood groups.

In doing these things, progressive activists can gain a foothold in government and create models of successful public policies. But, ultimately, cities cannot, on their own, solve the urban crisis. Even the most radical mayors and city councilors simply lack the economic resources, tax base, or legal authority to address the myriad problems they confront.

These community organizations, local union struggles, progressive mayors and city councilors, have won many local victories. But the hard truth is that despite the existence of thousands of grassroots community organizations, despite the many progressive union locals, and despite the hard work of many progressive candidates, the whole of “progressive urban activism” is smaller than the sum of its parts. It hasn’t yet “added up” to a progressive national political movement. In large part this is because all these local efforts are fragmented, isolated from each other, unable to build on each other. With some exceptions, local community groups and even national networks that are essentially engaged in the same thing basically ignore each other’s work rather than finding ways to work together strategically.

Policy wonks like to debate urban policy prescriptions. Should we focus on macro-programs like public works, universal health insurance, and the minimum wage, or should we focus on policies specifically targeted to the poor or to cities? Should we try to rebuild the ghettos or help ghetto residents move to suburbs? Should we tear down high-rise public housing projects and give the poor vouchers? Should we force suburbs to “open up” to the poor by ending snob zoning requirements? Should we decentralize urban schools by giving parents, teachers and principals more authority? Should we give businesses tax breaks to entice them to invest in inner cities or should we provide the poor with “reverse commuting” transportation plans to help them get to suburban jobs? Should we change the official definition of poverty to keep pace with inflation, which would increase federal funds to cities? Should federal urban funds go to city governments, community organizations, or poor people?

The truth is, these debates are irrelevant so long as we lack the political will to address the urban crisis. The reason that cities have long been off the policy agenda is not because urban policy experts have lacked good ideas for programs and policies. It is because cities — where most poor, working class and minority people live — lack political power. Their interests are overwhelmed by those of special interests and business groups who oppose Keynesian and redistributive policies.

Reforms that would put cities back on the political agenda have little to do with urban policy per se. They are fundamentally political. I have already discussed some important “research and action” tasks for progressive urban activists: Focusing on Congressional redistricting, demystifying capital mobility, forging a progressive military conversion plan, and developing a media strategy to promote urban success stories. The bottom line is that we need to create a Congressional majority to address the problems of cities. We need to increase the political strength of city-dwellers while giving a significant part of the suburban population a stake in solving the problems of cities. We need issues and campaigns that can help unite the diverse progressive activist struggles around the country. I call these “mobilizing reforms” — changes that will help level the political playing field and help to develop an electoral and governing majority to help America’s cities. These include:

Campaign Finance Reform: Political demographics and Congressional redistricting alone don’t explain the reluctance of our national leaders to push an urban agenda. Even those members of Congress who represent cities have weaker ties to organized voters. The skyrocketing costs of elections have profoundly shaped the way elected officials behave.

During the l930s and l940s, the urban vote was the backbone of the New Deal coalition. Through the l960s, even Democrats from suburban districts joined their urban colleagues in voting for many urban programs. The demise of urban political influence is clearly linked to the emergence of big money in politics.

Starting in the l970s, national corporate campaign contributors, and national political action committees, began to dominate campaign fundraising. Their financial backing increasingly influenced the priorities and votes of our elected officials in Washington. While big business has no single policy agenda, powerful sectors within the business community influence tax, spending, and regulatory policies that undermine healthy cities. We need to remove the legalized bribery system that currently makes it impossible to deal constructively with urban problems.

Expanding the Urban Electorate: Cities generally have much lower voter participation than suburban counterparts. Urban interest groups were a key force in the successful campaign to pass the federal “motor voter” law, designed to remove obstacles to voter registration and to expand the electorate. State governments were required to start implementing it in January 1995, a mandate upheld by the Supreme Court over the resistance of some Republican governors. Since poor and minority (i.e. urban) citizens have low levels of voter registration and turn-out, motor voter advocates assumed that increasing registration will expand political participation among these groups, thus helping tilt the political balance toward the poor and minorities and, thus, cities.

So far, more than 11 million people have been registered as a result of “motor voter.” But the real test of the motor voter law, especially for urban concerns, is whether these new voters vote — and whom they vote for. That will depend on whether the mayors, community and labor organizations, and the Democratic Party seeks to mobilize potential voters around issues.

Labor Law Reform: When she fought for public housing in the 1930’s, Catharine Bauer recognized that public housing was as much a jobs program as a social program. The backbone of the Public Housing Act of 1937 was the American labor movement, which at the time included about 35% of American workers. Since then, and especially during the last 15 years, working people have been disenfranchised by the federal government’s cold war against labor unions. The United States has some of the most regressive labor laws among advanced democracies. Only 11% of the private sector workforce (and 16% of all workers) are union members. Cities and inner-ring suburbs have increasingly become the location of low-wage service-sector employment, the vast majority of which is not unionized. A key goal of urban policy should be to increase the incomes of the growing sector of the “working poor” concentrated in central cities and inner suburbs. Labor law reform will help level the playing field between America’s working people and business and help improve the political influence, and standard of living, of working people.


It’s been almost 30 years since the Kerner Commission, formed by President Johnson to recommend ways to address the nation’s urban crisis, warned of America splitting into “two societies, one black one white — separate and unequal.” Our cities are worse now than they were then, but not because government policy has failed, but because it has been half-hearted and/or misguided by corporate priorities. We are a suburban nation, but we cannot prosper if our cities are decaying.

We have to recognize that poor people and working class people in our cities and suburbs are in the same boat. If one end of the boat springs a leak and starts filling up with water, pretty soon the other end will, too, and, sooner or later, the whole vessel and its passengers will drown.

Around the world — in South Africa, Germany, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East — walls that have long separated people are coming down. The invisible walls that separate cities and suburbs in the United States also need to come down. Our nation’s future depends on how well, and how soon, it tears down these walls and replaces them with bridges of cooperation and solidarity. Our task as progressive planners, activists, organizers, scholars, and teachers is to help build a political movement — and strong political organizations — that can turn our vision of humane communities into reality.

{1} Indeed, during the past three decades, cities have become increasingly isolated in national politics. According to a study by political scientists Todd Swanstrom, the late l940s represented the peak year of city electoral dominance. In the l948 Presidential election, New York City had 50% of the total votes cast in New York state. Chicago had 46.5% of Illinois’ turnout. Baltimore had 42.3% of Maryland’s vote and Detroit had 31.8% of Michigan’s. Los Angeles and San Francisco combined for 51.3% of the California vote, while Philadelphia and Pittsburgh had 30.7% of Pennsylvania’s electorate. Adding other cities to the electoral mix strengthened the urban vote even more. By 1992, New York City represented only 30.9% of the votes cast for President. The share of statewide voters in Chicago (22.3%), Baltimore (13%), Detroit (7.9%), Los Angeles and San Francisco (12.9%), and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (16.1%) also showed dramatic declines.

{2} Compare, for example, Connecticut’s 4th Congressional district (composed primarily of wealthy Fairfield County suburbs but also includes troubled Bridgeport) with Georgia’s 6th Congressional district (which was gerrymandered to include affluent suburbs from five counties but to exclude Atlanta). The former was represented by liberal Republican Stewart McKinney and now moderate Republican Chris Shays. The latter is represented by Newt Gingrich.

{3} In Cleveland, however, Mayor Dennis Kucinich, elected in 1977, was defeated after only a single two-year term. In San Francisco, Mayor George Moscone, who was elected 1975, was murdered three years later, along with his ally, Supervisor Harvey Milk. Upon Moscone’s death, Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein, a moderate on issues of economic reform and development, became mayor and was elected in 1979 and re-elected in 1983. Her successor, state legislator Art Agnos, was elected in 1987 on a progressive housing platform and with the support of housing activists, but he lasted only one four-year term, defeated in part by voter frustration about the city’s persistent homeless problem. In Chicago, Congressman Harold Washington was catapulted to the mayor’s office in 1983 by an energized neighborhood-based coalition rooted in the Black community. Like Kucinich, Moscone, and Agnos, Washington did battle with the city council, the business community, and moderate voters, which limited his ability to govern and carry out his progressive agenda. Still, the Washington regime tilted City Hall policies toward progressive neighborhood-oriented reforms and helped him win re-election in 1987. Unfortunately, Washington died of a heart attack a few months later. The political coalition that brought him to power soon fragmented. A progressive regime in Boston, led by Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, endured in office for nine years. First elected in l983, Flynn was re-elected to successive four-year terms in l987 and l991.

In New York City, Ruth Messinger, now Manhattan borough President, is gearing up to run for Mayor against Republican Rudy Gulliani, while Mark Green serves as the city’s consumer affairs commissioner and may also run for Mayor. In Los Angeles, two progressive activists, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Jackie Goldberg, serve on the City Council. In a few other cities — Milwaukee, Portland (Oregon), and elsewhere — progressives are making some headway, but are still a distinct minority in the local political structures.

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and director of the Public Policy Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles.