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Harry Moroz

Kicking the Habit: Bringing Cities Back into Style

The election of Providence Mayor David Cicilline in 2002 was a changing of the guard in Renaissance City politics. Indeed, while Cicilline was settling into – and removing his predecessor’s wet bar from – the mayor’s office, the former mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci was being removed to federal prison to serve a five-year sentence for racketeering.

After years of patronage politics in Providence, Cicilline was generally warmly welcomed as mayor and moved quickly to establish an ethics code in the city, to increase accountability and efficiency in city services, and to attract new business and investment to Providence. The institution of community policing and a new police chief has helped reduce crime, which was down 30% between 2002 and 2007. Gross Metropolitan Product in the Providence-New Bedford-Fall River metro area jumped 8% in 2007 after growing 2.7% in 2006 and 5.3% in 2005.

However, Mayor Cicilline still faces serious challenges. Unemployment in the Providence metro area has skyrocketed from 4.9% in June of 2007 to 7.3% in June of 2008, which Forbes cites as the largest increase in the country (Rhode Island’s unemployment rate is yet higher at 7.5%). Providence ranked low (83rd) on the list of metro area foreclosure rates in 2007, but still saw an increase of 354% over 2006 and had risen to 63rd by June of this year. Poverty remains a problem, with rates close to double the national average.

Yet, Mayor Cicilline has maintained the faith of his constituents, earning reelection in 2006, and is committed to the notion that cities are the nation’s “great hope”. He considers the federal government integral to urban prosperity. As he told MayorTV in an interview:

We really need to change the mindset of the federal government that for the last seven-and-a-half years has viewed cities as the problem…Cities represent the great hope for this country and we have to have a president who recognizes that there’s a necessity to have a partnership between the federal government and local government…

In MayorTV’s interview, Mayor Cicilline outlined his tactics (yes, more than one) for confronting the foreclosure crisis. They include a vacant property penalty that imposes a fine on blighted, unoccupied properties and a request for a federal loan to purchase, rehabilitate, and resell foreclosed homes.

Revealing his wonkish side, the Mayor talked about teaming up with the Brookings Institution on an anti-poverty task force. But in the interview he lamented:

[Poverty is] another example where mayors are having to take a leadership role because the federal government has failed us.

A similar task force – Transit 2020 – investigated regional transportation options, advocating transit for Rhode Island. The nation’s lack of high-speed rail, according to Mayor Cicilline, is “a national disgrace”.

While Mayor Cicilline would like a streetcar system for Providence, he understands the enormous investment required:

The challenge we face – that most cities face – is [that transit] systems are expensive to build. And we have not had a federal government that has been a real partner in this in seven years and almost eight now.

Cicilline shares the concern that many mayors interviewed by MayorTV have expressed: many of the issues that are important to cities – sewage systems, water pipes, streetcars – simply aren’t “interesting” enough for the mainstream media to talk about.

Indeed, referring to former Mayor Cianci’s return to Providence (after jail) last summer, an article quipped:

who wants to talk about business investment and community policing when there’s a tale this good: A mayor who ran Providence from 1975 to 1984 – until his conviction for assaulting his wife’s alleged lover – stepped down, became a radio personality, won reelection in 1990, and then ran the city until 2002, when he was pursued by the FBI and sent to prison on federal racketeering charges?

Indeed, this is no small question: until the presidential candidates and politicians at the national level start talking about cities – start emphasizing the potential of cities – the Ciancis of politics will return with their engrossing, yet anachronistic and ultimately harmful, politics.

You can find this interview and interviews with mayors from around the country at MayorTV.

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Posted at 8:22 PM, Aug 13, 2008 in Cities | Election 2008 | Employment | Housing | Infrastructure | MayorTV | Mortgage Crisis | Urban Affairs
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