Are Cities Obsolete?

Bridgeport, Conn., isn't just Anyplace. With 141,686 residents, it is the 123rd largest city in the United States and the biggest in Connecticut. It also has an eroding tax base, a growing welfare population and more than $200 million in long-term debt. All this, together with an annual operating deficit of $12 million, led Bridgeport to become the largest U.S. city since the Great Depression to declare itself bankrupt. That was in June. Last month a federal judge ruled that Bridgeport had enough money to stagger through its current fiscal year and was not entitled to the protection of federal bankruptcy laws-yet. Strangely enough, some city officials elsewhere were disappointed. "I'm a proponent of cities going bankrupt," says Richard M. Daley of Chicago. "Bridgeport will show the way. It's the only way out."

This is the mayor of Chicago talking-Chicago, City of the Big Shoulders, the City That Works. If Richie Daley says bankruptcy is the "only way out," the problems facing America's cities must be serious. They are indeed, and the fiscal crises that now confront cities like Bridgeport, New York and Philadelphia are merely the stuff of this year's headlines. The big picture--the 10- and 20-year trend--is even more ominous, and it leads some urbanologists to wonder whether big cities might not just be obsolete. "The basic problem is that big cities are no longer functional," says Daniel Mandelker, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a preeminent urban-planning specialist. "A handful of cities-New York, San Francisco, maybe Boston-are redefining their roles. But the rest are losing their place in society. We don't need them anymore."

That crushing verdict is emphatically not shared by the nation's big-city mayors or by the many millions of Americans who cherish big cities for their beauty, energy, diversity and manifold cultural delights. But Mandelker has a point, and Bridgeport illustrates it well. Bridgeport is a micro-model of the rise and fall of cities-cities that prospered because of their locations major transportation routes or because they developed profitable specialties in the American industrial economy. Bridgeport made its fortune in the metalworking trades. Scranton, Pa., was a coal-mining town. Both have fallen on lean times. Pittsburgh, similarly, was the city of steel, Akron the city of rubber and Detroit, now slowly imploding, was the world capital of the mass-produced automobile. While no one says Pittsburgh, Akron or Detroit is necessarily doomed, the rise of global economic competition and the transportation-and-communications revolution have steadily eroded the strategic advantages on which their growth and wealth were based. These structural changes are forcing core cities to search for new ways to make a living. The creation of the interstate highway system long led many manufacturing firms to locate their plants outside the urban core. As a result, most cities now sell services-banking, law, health care, higher education, tourism, and even government-instead of manufactured goods. But the transition to a service-based economy is leading to new competition between core cities and their surrounding suburbs--and it is this competition, as Mandelker and other economists suggest, that threatens the cities' long-term viability. Telecommunications--telephones, faxes and the electronically linked computer--make it possible for service-sector firms to locate anywhere, and many are moving out of downtown business districts. In New York, for example, the hot rumor is that Morgan Stanley & Co., the investment banking house that epitomizes the city's primacy in world financial markets, has decided to move to Stamford, Conn.--a devastating blow to the city.

To these large and probably irreversible trends must now be added the scarifying contents of the nightly news-stories about crime, drugs and racial conflict, the inner-city AIDS epidemic and the nationwide contagion of gun- and gang-related violence. It is arguable that these symptoms of big-city pathology have been oversold by the media, leading the public to regard the problems of the worst-off cities and worst-off neighborhoods as typical of all cities and all neighborhoods. A new NEWSWEEK-NBC News poll, for example, shows that 88 percent of the national sample see America's cities in negative terms and that 42 percent say crime and drugs are the most urgent urban problems. The survey also shows that New York is the overwhelming choice for Worst Big City in America.

big-city mayors are running scared; there is a sense of gloom and even helplessness at the dimensions of the urban dilemma. That dilemma is race and poverty, compounded by structural economic changes that seem to be making the "cycle of poverty" tougher and tougher to break. While the overall number of poor people in the United States is actually declining, there is no question that America's larger cities are home to increasingly concentrated populations of people who are known (to economists, anyway) as the "redundant poor."

What is striking about the urban-policy debate is the emerging consensus that the social problems of the cities and the underlying economic trends affecting their future are now converging in a distinctly dangerous way. The crux of it is what John Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina, calls a "skills mismatch" problem. Kasarda maintains that the cities' gradual shift away from manufacturing and goods processing has almost eliminated the blue-collar jobs traditionally occupied by the urban poor-jobs that were the first step upward for millions of unskilled immigrants. The service-sector industries that have replaced manufacturing in the cities need employees who are able to work with words and numbers-while the urban poor, as a group, are very poorly educated. As a result, Kasarda says, the changing demographics of U.S. cities "are on a collision course" with the rising skill requirements of the urban job market. To make it worse, even these information-processing jobs are beginning to move to the suburbs, where they are effectively out of reach for many city dwellers.

Kasarda's theory may be too pessimistic. But there is no disputing that the unmet needs of the nation's poor are coming home to haunt American cities, and that most urban-policy experts see a renewed attack on urban social problems as critical to the cities' vitality. If that sounds like a replay of the '60s, it is only fair to say that the nation's mayors are well aware the War on Poverty is over. Direct subsidies have not worked, or at least not well enough, and unless some new solution can be found, current welfare programs seem unable to break the culture of poverty and the abiding sense of victimization that handicaps many poor people. Equally significant, most mayors and public officials now recognize that government spending will never be enough to revive whole cities, and that government can do relatively little to manage or control the economic forces shaping the cities' future. The competition to attract hot new growth industries has become less frenzied. The wisdom now is "hold onto what you've got," and try to build on it.

None of this means there are no answers to urban problems. City governments need to focus on the basics-public safety, sanitation and education-to restore public confidence and hold their middle-class residents. To do that, they need federal help in paying for the rising costs of poverty: according to Neil Bania of Case Western Reserve University, poverty-related costs now consume at least 10 and 20 percent of the average city's budget. Since much of that money goes to provide health care for the poor and homeless, speedy action on federal health-care reform would substantially ease the cities' fiscal burden.

Mayor Ray Flynn of Boston, current president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, says drugs and crime are now the problems that worry his fellow mayors most-and while few experts have ready answers for winning the drug war, mayors like Daley are seething at what they see as Washington's lack of resolve. For starters, Flynn wants Congress to enact the Brady bill, which would help control the sale of handguns and which is currently awaiting action by a House-Senate conference committee. "Congress took the whole month of August off," Flynn says. "I wish the drug dealers had taken the month off."

A third priority is probably the most crucial: making a long-term investment in the children of the inner city. That means more generous federal subsidies for infant nutrition and school-lunch programs and full funding for Head Start. To Flynn, it also means fundamental reform of the public schools-which is probably the best way to help poor children compete in the changing U.S. job market.

Poverty, says Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution, "is a nationwide problem that can't be solved by city governments." As a result, he says, there is "a federal obligation to redistribute wealth from wealthier suburban areas to the central cities." Downs is hardly alone in that view. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is now appealing to George Bush to break the long impasse on federal urban policy, and it has endorsed a '60s-style protest march on Washington next spring. The question now is whether anyone within the Beltway is listening--and whether America will support them if they do.

32 percent of Americans live in cities--but only 13 percent consider cities the most desirable place to live. 37 percent of both urban and nonurban dwellers rate the health of this country's big cities as "very ill" or "critical." 79 percent think saving our cities should be a key priority for the federal government. 60 percent of large-city dwellers would be willing to pay more local taxes to solve specific problems. Urban dwellers blame economic conditions in general and the municipal bureaucracy about equally for the problems in their city. 47 percent of city residents think private companies could do a better job providing services such as garbage collection and public transportation than the local government.