'Inelastic' Cities Need Help from the Suburbs


Washington.--Forty percent of America's cities are programmed to fail. Gary, Camden, East St. Louis are already clinically dead. Bridgeport, Newark, Hartford, Cleveland, Detroit are on life-support systems. New York, Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia are sinking. Though seemingly healthy, Boston, Minneapolis, Atlanta are already infected.

These cities, and a hundred more like them, will fail because they are programmed to be their own suburbs' poorhouses. The burden of black and Latino poverty is crushing these "inelastic" cities, which, for many reasons -- bad annexation laws, hostile neighbors, myopic city politics, anti-black prejudice -- have remained trapped within their city limits.

Contrast the "inelastic" cities with "elastic" cities -- Columbus, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, Raleigh, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Phoenix, San Diego and Portland. These 15 "elastic" cities have expanded their city limits over 700 percent, capturing 42 percent of their metro area's population growth in their own suburban-style subdivisions.

The New York area had its shot at being elastic in 1898, when far-sighted New York legislators abolished the nation's first and seventh largest municipalities. They created the country's first metropolitan government -- the 315-square-mile, five-borough New York City.

For 50 years, the city was highly successful as Manhattan and Brooklyn suburbanized in largely vacant Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Only after mid-century did New York's fiscal and social problems accelerate as more and more middle-class residents departed for Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey.

The racial and economic consequences of the elastic city are striking. With the same percentage of black residents metro-wide, elastic cities have more racially integrated neighborhoods, average city income levels equal to suburban levels, only slightly more than their "fair share" of poor people and municipal credit ratings four grades better than the inelastic cities.

Our national myth holds that smaller government is better government. Our national reality is that small governments act to exclude racial and economic groups. Broad-based governments can promote diversity. In short, multiple, independent suburbs are machines to keep poor blacks and Latinos trapped in inner cities away from middle-class America.

What's to be done? Only two alternates offer real hope:

* Expand inelastic cities to include their suburbs through annexation and city-county consolidation to create more metropolitan governments.

* Make suburbs accept their fair share of responsibility for poor blacks and Latinos through metro-wide affordable-housing requirements, metro-wide public housing programs and metro-wide revenue sharing.

Such strategies will not only save inner cities. They will also help save inner-city people. The most effective anti-poverty program is to help poor people just get out of ghettos and barrios. High levels of crime, unemployment, dependency, broken families and illegitimacy are substantially the result of concentrated poverty.

This is the toughest political task in America. And reorganizing urban governance isn't a task primarily for a bankrupt federal government. It has neither the constitutional tools nor the money to do the job. Metropolitan reform must focus where the responsibility and money are really found. Governors and state legislators have the constitutional responsibility. Most metropolitan areas -- city and suburbs -- have the talent and money to solve their own inner-city problems.

There will be no halt to the decline of inelastic cities until all governments in such a city's region accept a shared responsibility for the region's poor. Is forging a new, shared responsibility between city and suburb impossible? As Abraham Lincoln testified, miracles can be wrought in the American soul and spirit "when again touched, as surely they will be, by the angels of our better nature."

It is time to call forth the angels of our better nature.

David Rusk, a former New Mexico legislator and mayor of Albuquerque, is a consultant on urban policy in Washington and author of "Cities Without Suburbs." He wrote this article for Newsday.

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