Not long ago, the conventional wisdom held that America’s great cities were run by ungovernable bureaucracies and were destined for continued economic, social, and cultural decline. Depopulation, disinvestment, and city neglect were inevitable. With riots ravaging parts of Detroit, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, crime and drug use skyrocketing, job losses, and New York City nearly defaulting on its debt in the mid-1970s, there was ample evidence to support that prediction.
But these days, formerly abandoned downtown areas are bustling. Crime is down. Public spaces and facilities are being restored. Fewer people are on welfare, and more people are working. Businesses and retail outlets are returning to neighborhoods they once fled. Most importantly, quality of life is on the rise.
To help the public better understand this staggering turnaround—and to provide a guide for keeping it going—Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio have produced a thoughtful and timely book, Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Renewal. Admittedly, the authors concede, not enough time has passed to grasp the full extent of the “comeback.” But in the interests of praising the progress to date, Grogan and Proscio marshal considerable anecdotal evidence in support of their belief that inner cities are “fundamentally changing” for the better.
The authors argue that most 20th century urban policy was preoccupied with the “unreasonable” goal of eliminating poverty. The failures and unintended consequences of these efforts created considerable public indifference to the plight of inner cities. This in turn led to the belief that the only cost-effective way to address poverty is to do nothing.
In response to the failures of the “anti-poverty” approach, many “city advocates” now argue that the best way to help cities lies in changing municipal boundaries to capture the wealthier tax base of the suburbs. This approach gives up on attracting the middle and upper class back into existing city neighborhoods and replaces economic development with “elastic boundaries” and “smart growth” plans.
Grogan and Proscio argue that both approaches ignore the important efforts to make cities more livable, more attractive to business and investors, and a greater part of the broader community. In surveying urban centers (with particular emphasis on the South Bronx “renaissance”), the authors credit the tangible progress being made to the “slow harvest” of decades of patient rebuilding, a return on recent public and private investments that have “applied the lessons of past failure to productive effect,” and the sustained (as of the book’s publication date, anyway) national economic expansion.
To buttress their argument, the authors identify four critical trends they believe are fueling the positive developments. Most important is an active spirit of social entrepreneurship and innovation devoid of the political agitation that dominated community activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Considerable attention is directed to fighting crime, improving education, and creating affordable housing. Faith is often an important component.
The authors also cite a growing awareness on the part of businesses of the potential size of inner-city markets, greater availability of credit, and a steady influx of immigrants. Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School estimates that inner-city households possess $85 to 100 billion in annual retail spending power—a sum larger than Mexico’s entire retail economy. Per capita, the sums are modest, but the spending power is densely collected, making the inner city an attractive market for retailers.
Think-tankers take note: Grogan and Proscio credit public policy changes with positive shifts in two areas—falling crime rates resulting from community policing and new policing strategies and new approaches that have created attractive housing in mixed-income communities, promoted greater accountability and experimentation in public schools, and reformed welfare. Taken together, these developments have weakened government bureaucracies and in-fused municipalities with new flexibility.
The authors give considerable credit to Community Development Corporations, which they believe have been immensely important over the past two decades in promoting neighborhood stability. Today there are more than 2,500 CDCs. In New York City alone, the authors argue, CDCs have helped to revitalize housing and business in more than a dozen neighborhoods from the South Bronx to Harlem. Similar trends can be found in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Houston, San Diego, Cleveland, and San Francisco.
In marked contrast to the ambitious efforts of the Great Society and the war on poverty, the progress documented in this book has occurred without a central authority or master plan. It has been the work of countless individuals laboring independently and collectively from within to save their communities.
The story of inner-city America is not an entirely positive one, of course. Great problems persist, including income inequality, concentrated poverty and pathology, racial isolation and tension, and poor education systems. Forty years of decline cannot be undone in short order.
Yet the positive developments cited by Grogan and Proscio have generated a healthy process of social learning, and are forging a new consensus among academics and the political class on the sorts of policies and practices that are necessary for a recovery. Comeback Cities does its part to chronicle these developments and publicize them to the broader public, and for this reason alone it is an important book.
Damon Vangelis is pursuing an M.B.A. at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he edits the bi-weekly newspaper The Reporter.