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Harry Moroz

The New Narrative: Cities Aren’t Cesspools

That Barack Obama won the “city vote” – 83% of Philadelphia County, 76% of Chicago’s Cook County, 68.5% of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County – is no surprise. The victory was no small affair, either: The Telegraph notes that Obama bested Kerry’s 2004 performance in big cities by 11% and in small cities by 10%. But will this support translate into a federal policy that recognizes the primacy of the nation’s cities?

Recent history is certainly not on the side of city dwellers.

After Reagan’s neglect of urban areas, the 1992 L.A. riots forced Bush I and Congress to negotiate an unlikely election-year urban agenda. The Houston Chronicle described the momentous undertaking with lyrical flourish:

For one fleeting moment, it was as if a window had flown wide open after being frozen shut for years. Political leaders dusted off the hoary notion of an urban agenda. The nightly news bristled with tales from the inner city. Many Americans hoped that, somehow, the stubborn dilemmas of crime and poverty that so dehumanize urban life would be tackled with a renewed public will.

The rhetoric – indeed, the events – that mobilized action on urban issues after the riots portrayed cities as concentrations of misery, poverty, and crime. This was a revival of the “urban crisis” language employed during the Johnson and Carter administrations. But Bush I and Congress eventually gave up on their urban brethren. The Chronicle sighed:

Yet except for a flurry of local efforts, nothing much has happened at all…“It takes more than one riot to get people's attention…” said Edwin Dorn, a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Conservatives, from Reagan through our now defeated Republican presidential candidate, have taken advantage of this “urban crisis” language to portray urban residents as (un-American) moochers of federal welfare. A 1992 post-riot Heritage Foundation article typifies the criticism that has hamstrung federal urban policymaking:

Today’s welfare system, and the irresponsibility it demands as the price for government aid, is perhaps the leading cause of the destructive social and economic environment in America’s inner cities- the environment that made the Los Angeles riots a possibility.

Conservatives thus seized on the urban crisis language used to motivate support for federal urban policy and used it against its proponents. To flourish, cities need only be “liberated” from the “paternalistic and oppressive welfare state”. Indeed, this notion of the oppressive welfare state won over Bill Clinton.

But in his campaign, Obama cultivated, in a few speeches and a sprawling urban policy document, what Newark Mayor Cory Booker calls a “new narrative” for federal urban policymaking. The gist is that cities aren’t cesspools; in fact – surprise! – cities are crucial social, economic, and cultural engines.

This new narrative suggests that a “window” to address urban policymaking has been opened, “even” in the absence of calamitous rioting. There is no need for the “welfare state lobby” to come to the rescue of New York, L.A., and Chicago; the conservative myth of the infested city, encouraged by liberal urban crisis rhetoric, is dead. Cities, and all those urbanites who voted for Obama, are at ground zero of the nation’s economic recovery and prosperity.

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Posted at 12:59 PM, Nov 06, 2008 in Cities | Community Development | Economy | Election 2008 | Progressive Agenda | Urban Affairs
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