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The old block


Philadelphia THE BLOCK on which my father grew up half a century ago is a truncated little street that leads nowhere. If it were a foot or two narrower, the map makers might have called it an alley.

The houses are identical, two-story attached brick buildings with bay windows on the top floor, an over-obvious attempt at grandeur.

In this quiet backwater in the southwestern part of the city, the children of Irish-Catholic families played in the late afternoons after they had changed from their parochial school uniforms. A police officer walked by twice a day, talking to the people he knew so well.

My father remembers that in one 15-minute span when he was 8 years old, he was hit by four people to whom he was not related: the cop; the neighbor whose window he drew upon with spit; the priest who saw him messing with a statue, and the nun who saw the priest whack him and wanted to second the emotion. So he grew.

Today the kids on the block are black. The house where the seven Quindlen children were raised, the boys packed two to a bed, has long been empty.

The small setback porch is still covered with debris from the fire that gutted the building several years ago. There is plywood nailed over the glassless windows and the doorless doorway.

This was a prosperous neighborhood, a way station to something better. Today it is a poor one, a dead end. Charred interiors are common. So are crime, drugs and a sense of going nowhere.

Since L.A. burst into flames we have cast a net of blame in our search for who abandoned America's cities.

The answer is simple. We did. Over my lifetime prosperity in America has been measured in moving vans, back yards and the self-congratulatory sentence "I can't remember the last time I went to the city." America became a circle of suburbs surrounding an increasingly grim urban core.

In the beginning there was a synergy between the two; we took the train to the city to work and shop, then fled as the sun went down. But by the 1970s we no longer needed to shop there because of the malls.

And by the 1980s we no longer had to work there because of the now-you-see-it rise of industrial parks and office complexes.

Pseudo-cities grew up, built of chrome, glass and homogeneity. Half of America now lives in the burbs.

We abandoned America's cities.

Ronald Reagan and George Bush did, too, and so did many Democrats, truth be told. And they're going to have to ante up now. But it's not enough anymore to let those boys take all the responsibility. They don't carry it well enough.

I understand how Eugene Lang felt when he gave a speech at his old grade school and, overwhelmed by the emptiness of words, offered all the students in the class a chance to go to college.

I've heard the argument that Mr. Lang's largess takes government off the hook. But I bet it's not compelling for kids who might have gone down the drain if one man hadn't remembered where he came from, before he moved along to someplace greener, richer, better. Or for the kids who have because no benefactor visited their classroom.

Over the years I've heard about sister-city programs between places here and places abroad, places like Minsk or Vienna. Pen pals. Cultural exchange. Volunteer philanthropy. And all the while, 20 minutes away from the suburbs have been cultures and lives and problems about which we are shamefully ignorant. I like the sister-city concept. Short Hills and Newark. South-Central L.A. and Simi Valley. Both sides benefit.

The pols will lose interest in the cities soon enough again, because so many city residents are poor and powerless and not white. It would be nice to think of Congress as the home of idealists, but thinking like that makes you feel awfully foolish. America's cities will prosper when America's prosperous citizens demand it. When they remember their roots.

I've walked many times down blocks like the one on which my father grew up. I've been a poverty tourist with a notebook, but I never felt ashamed of it until now.

On that little street were the ghosts of the people who brought me to being, and the flesh-and-blood kids who will be my children's companions in the 21st century. You could tell by their eyes that they couldn't figure out why I was there.

They were accustomed to being ignored, even by the people who had once populated their rooms. And as long as that continues, our cities will burst and burn, burst and burn, over and over again.

Anna Quindlen writes a column for the New York Times.

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