City Lit: Placing the Blame

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Fred Siegel doesn’t like the direction of late twentieth century urban America, though he’s hopeful about its recent advances under the direction of a new generation of activist big-city mayors. He is not alone. Residents from every corner of our cities have been dissatisfied with the strength of their local economies, the safety of their streets, the quality of their public schools and the cohesiveness of their neighborhoods. Many were only too happy to “hire” new leaders like Richard Riordan and Rudolph Giuliani and give the incumbents and their ideas a rest.

But while I can agree these new mayors have begun to successfully address important issues long ignored or ineffectually handled by their more liberal predecessors, Siegel–a Cooper Union professor and New Democrat theorist–stretches his argument thin to develop his central thesis: Beware the urban liberals who have destroyed our cities. While many of Siegel’s conclusions about how better to manage cities are on target, his historical argument is highly selective, ultimately making The Future Once Happened Here an enormously frustrating book.

According to Siegel, New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., squandered their rich inheritance on liberal follies and policy wagers over the last 30 years. Guilt-ridden liberals decided to exempt African-Americans from the immigrant model of acculturation, replacing the settlement houses and New Deal work ethic with a no-strings-attached welfare system. Radical black activists and white leftists constructed a “riot ideology,” where non-blacks and non-liberals were held hostage morally and fiscally by the threat of riots and crime.

Siegel claims this riot ideology was responsible for the “explosion” of the welfare state, rampant crime, unaccountable social service agencies, a bulky public workforce, overdependence on federal funds, and the practice of accusing reformers with racism. These ills caused, and then defined, the decay of America’s three capitals.

There’s a lot to deal with here, but I will address just a few items. First, Siegel’s discussion of race reduces the breadth and depth of black experience in American cities to a simple discourse on the history of black nationalism. Where his history of New York racial politics is more expansive, it closely tracks columnist Jim Sleeper’s study of the city’s race relations in his 1990 book, The Closest of Strangers. Sleeper, however, is more attuned to the give-and-take between the city’s racial groups. He notes tribalism in New York goes back at least to Tammany, but today “because there’s no dominant tribe, tolerance is what makes things go.”

Siegel, on the other hand, seems to envision a city where we just won’t talk about race any more. We do, indeed, need public policy which presumes and requires personal responsibility transcending race, as Siegel insists. But that is not usually the most important issue when assessing the community impact of a particular policy.

Second, a more thorough comparison of the three cities would have been instructive. Siegel relies primarily on New York to develop his argument and therefore misses some key points. For example, he praises Los Angeles for focusing on bridges, highways and general infrastructure while deriding New York for spending its federal money on welfare. Yet he fails to mention that in the power-sharing arrangements between Los Angeles, Los Angeles County and California, the city of Los Angeles has little control over anything other than infrastructure. L.A. County controls the welfare system, while New York City bears one of the highest shares of administrative and fiscal responsibility for welfare in the country.

Third, Siegel’s history has some serious omissions. While there were indeed some “gigantic policy wagers” made by liberals in the 1960s, the seeds of neighborhood conflict and deterioration were planted long before the welfare rights movement and the Ocean-Hill Brownsville conflict over race and schooling. Sixties liberals inherited a long legacy of neighborhood redevelopment, suburban subsidies and metropolitan highway construction that isolated city neighborhoods and restricted their development. The resulting economic decentralization drained jobs from the city, further weakening New York City’s fiscal stability. Robert Moses was not exactly the archetypal urban liberal that Siegel finds culpable–but despite some of his achievements, Moses is clearly responsible for many of the biggest challenges to community development in New York.

Finally, Siegel correctly points out Giuliani’s tragically inadequate attention to New York City’s failing school system. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, by comparison, has staked his political future on a virtual takeover of the Chicago Public Schools. This requires the mayor to articulate a vision of the role and purpose of public schools and their relation to the city’s economy and civic life. And in a city like New York, this would require extraordinary civic leadership as much as good policy.

If you seek the provocative–if loosely formulated–musings of an informed iconoclast, you have the right book. But from a historian, I expected more. If you want to piece together the political history of urban policy in New York or struggle with the relationship between race and policy, start elsewhere.

Kirk Vandersall is coordinator of research and planning for the Paramount Unified School District in L.A. County and is former executive director of the NYC Coalition Against Hunger.