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The Demons and Dreams in Our Cities : INTERWOVEN DESTINIES: Cities and the Nation, Edited and with an introduction by Henry G. Cisneros (W. W. Norton with the American Assembly: $25; 367 pp.)

January 09, 1994|Harold Meyerson | Harold Myerson is executive editor of the "L.A. Weekly" and a member of the editorial board of "Dissent."

"We are becoming two nations," the Kerner Commission proclaimed in 1968, "one black and one white, separate and unequal." A quarter-century later, that stands as one of government's better predictions. We're not just black and white, of course; we're also Latino and Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the "L.A. Weekly" and a member of the editorial board of "Dissent."

Asian. Our separateness and inequality, however, have outrun the Commission's worst fears.

Over the last 25 years, industry, decent-paying blue collar jobs and white people have all abandoned the American city. The major cities of both Frost Belt and Sun Belt are now majority minority: New York is 51% nonwhite; Houston, 60%; Chicago, 62%; Los Angeles, 64%; Detroit, 80%. Those whites who remain within the city limits increasingly shun public institutions: The student population of the largest school districts, Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer notes in this volume, is three-fourths nonwhite. And many whites are trying to include themselves out of those limits altogether. The Staten Island voters who made Republican Rudolph Giuliani mayor of New York last November were at the same time voting to secede. The San Fernando Valley voters who made Republican Richard Riordan mayor of L.A. last June were also seeking to break up the school district.

Up to a point, the new secessionists are fleeing demons of their own devising. (Polling taken immediately before the conclusion of the Koon-Powell retrial, for instance, showed that the greater one's distance from South-Central, the greater one's certitude of an impending riot.) Past that point, though, the demons--crime, drugs, homelessness, poverty--are plenty real, and many are growing worse.

In particular, the American economy now clusters its poor in the cities. The single poorest Congressional district in the nation, for instance, is no longer to be found in the Mississippi Delta but right here in Los Angeles. Beginning in downtown and running down the Long Beach Freeway, Lucille Roybal-Allard's newly created district is home to a multitude of immigrant workers and families crammed into modest homes and even modester garages. As North Carolina business professor John Kasarda points out in this volume, only Detroit created more extremely poor census tracts during the '80s than Los Angeles.

And yet, America's de facto apartheid is no more successful than South Africa's de jure variety. Try though we may, we cannot successfully quarantine the homeless, or keep riots confined to the poorer areas of the city, or even keep a madman from opening fire as his train crosses the Nassau County line. The very title of this collection of essays on the crisis of the American city insists that the one thing a nation cannot flee is itself, that the U.S. cannot return to anything like its postwar glory days without a concerted effort to rebuild its cities.

Yet, while the remedies advanced in "Interwoven Destinies" go well beyond enterprise zones--the minimalist strategy of the Reagan '80s--they shun such notions as a Marshall Plan for cities. As such, they stand as a testament to the chastening of American liberalism.

For "Interwoven Destinies" is certainly the product of official liberalism, or at least its Realpolitik wing. A collection of papers by academics and activists commissioned for a conference of the American Assembly, it is edited by former San Antonio mayor and current Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros--one of the more creative members of the Clinton cabinet--with the able assistance of one of the nation's foremost urban planners, Cisneros brain-truster Marc Weiss.

And one thing of which the Clintonites are painfully aware is that aid to the cities has all the popularity of expanding the existing welfare program. To a sizable number of voters, urban assistance and welfare assistance both mean a transfer of taxpayer funds to them . To combat this reluctance, the authors take pains to point out that in most metropolitan areas, suburban and urban incomes tend to rise and fall in tandem. And their programmatic solutions, on the whole, tend to be as universal as they are city-specific. Much is made here of the need for industrial policy, training and apprenticeship programs, national health insurance.

Even the discussions of purely urban programs focus as much on public-private partnerships and citizen participation as they do on the role of government. Such policies as linkage--in which commercial developers are required to build such social necessities as affordable housing, say, as a condition for being allowed to erect an office tower--are extolled. (Though when an economy's as flat as L.A.'s has been, there's no growth to which the social necessities can be linked.)

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