He's a very popular figure, this mayor is, elected and re-elected by a wide margin. A tireless promoter of his city, he is everywhere at once, shaking hands and effusing bits of optimism like a Pez dispenser. By all accounts hizzoner is a capable leader and his term of office has seen marked improvements in fiscal management, a decrease in crime and more overall cleanliness.
Yet at best he can provide only life support, for his beloved town is surely dying. The city's education system is a forgery and the search for a new superintendent is paralyzed by political bickering over what color skin he or she should have. The tax base continues to erode as what's left of the middle-class continues adjourning to the suburbs and their old residences are taken over by members of the underclass who, in turn, cause more working people to flee. Public housing is a cesspool, chock-full of drug dealers and lowlifes. Downtown is livening up again, but livable neighborhoods continue to dissolve.
Though it very well could be, this is not a description of Mike Peters and the place is not Hartford. The mayor is Ed Rendell and the city is Philadelphia. It is all captivatingly chronicled in a new book by Buzz Bissinger entitled "A Prayer for the City." The story nicely lays out how this once-great American city fell into disrepair and the limit of government's ability to set things right once again.
The suburbanization of America over the last fifty years or so is well-documented. Our cities are much poorer by night than by day because every evening commuters hop into their Buicks and Toyotas and take their wallets and tax dollars with them. The ease of their ride home has been made possible by the largesse of the federal and state governments who have spent billions on highways.
Perhaps less-known is the role of a federal mortgage agency called the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC). This was created in 1933 by the Roosevelt administration to refinance mortgages which were going into default because of the Depression. Decision-makers for HOLC created maps of all urban areas which showed neighborhoods where they should and should not make loans. Places which were deemed high-risk were shown on the maps bordered by red (hence the term "redlining").
The red areas were annotated with comments like: "Lower part of section is threatened with Italian expansion, Influx of Jewish has discounted values" and "Colored forcing way in some parts." Suburban areas were shown to be populated by "High-grade Americans, professionals and executives."
So aided by government policy, huge numbers of (white) Americans were encouraged to buy homes in the suburbs and follow the 1930's advice of Henry Ford: "The city is doomed," he said, "We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city."
Now in the 90's big-city mayors run around like the little Dutch boy, trying to stop up all the holes in the dikes out of which are running their resources, and most importantly, their middle-class. And they don't have enough fingers to plug all the leaks.
But they can succeed in other ways. Rendell is credited by many Philadelphians as having brought about a spiritual change in the city's residents by giving them hope things can get better. Like Mike Peters in Hartford, Rendell created a yin of optimism which could at least coexist with the yang of negativity which has clouded urban life for a generation. Much of the good feeling stems from the rejuvenation of downtown, though Bissinger warns of: "an evolution into a two-tiered place with a narrow crust of wealthy residents feeding off the downtown renaissance and an enormous swath of blacks and working-class whites struggling vainly to survive."
A telling moment of Rendell's story is when, in spite of his successes as mayor, he shows he knows the precariousness of his political perch: "If they [the voters] had a choice between Jesus, Moses and Muhammad, fifty percent would say ‘Can't we get someone else?'"
What you come away with from " A Prayer for the City" is that Ed Rendell walks the walk as well as talks the talk. A lot of politicians and other know-it-all types (including newspaper columnists) blabber on about how "we" have to do something about this or that societal ill when what they really mean is "they." Leaders from the President (who sent his kid to private school) on down are always talking about a war on drugs, or violence or poverty – and then declare themselves 4-F.
The only thing that can really save urban areas is for middle and upper-class people to put their money where their mouths are and return to the cities. Government policy can facilitate this -- how about no income tax for folks who move into areas where the average income is below the poverty line? Good corporate citizens can get together to target one neighborhood and offer incentives to a few hundred employees to live in it. That won't fix a whole city, but it would raise the level of stable families in one neighborhood and one school district. And that's how a city is saved – street by street, block by block.
It's time the federal government, whose policies played a large part in the decline of the cities, agrees on an urban agenda to resurrect them. Until that happens, about all Philadelphia, Hartford and the rest will have to subsist on is the strength and determination of their mayors.
Pray for them.
June 8, 1998