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A Centennial Toast to the Civic Reformers

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia -- In 1894, with corruption polluting public life in one great American city after another, the cream of America's civic leadership -- Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Law Olmsted, Marshall Field, Louis Brandeis and others -- met here to mobilize a counterattack.

This weekend the organization they founded -- the National Civic League, first known as the National Municipal League -- reassembles in Philadelphia for a grand 100th birthday party.

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Typical of civic reformers, this group of activists doesn't seem satisfied with celebrating a distinguished past. Currently led by former Cabinet member and Common Cause founder John Gardner, they're intent on sparking an Alliance for National Renewal -- a challenge to the people and organizations of an increasingly diverse and divided America to coalesce to produce a more cohesive, collaborating society.

If corruption in the cities was the wall to be scaled in the 1890s, the league sees corrosive public cynicism -- Americans turned off by and turning away from public life -- as the barrier to be overcome in the 1990s.

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In the 1890s, many Americans were offended by the excesses of the Gilded Age and unfettered capitalism and convinced by muckrakers such as Lincoln Steffens that government wasn't working.

The league's call then was to clean up what reformer Charles Merriam called "a saturnalia of political corruption." The league encouraged revolts against the big-city machines, pushed for such political reforms as the secret ballot and primary elections, invented the council-city manager form of government, and constructed model city and county charters and state constitutions later emulated coast to coast.

The early league activists, with other Progressive-era reformers, were sometimes maligned as the "good-government crowd" and elitist. They placed a lot more faith in "scientific" and "business-like" government than we might these days. But they fought decade-by-decade to expand the role of ordinary citizens in the governance of their own communities. In 1949 the league founded, and today still runs, the All-America Cities awards program with its premium on citizen-based initiatives.

In the '60s, the league's research paved the way for "one man, one vote" reform of malapportioned legislatures. And as early as the organization far-sightedly proclaimed the need to balance local "home rule" with coordinated governance for America's expanding metropolitan regions.

Almost moribund 15 years ago, as such "hot button" issues as gun control and abortion diverted activists' attention, the league has also moved to "reinvent" itself. In the past decade, it hired a dynamic young president (John Parr), moved from New York to up-and-coming Denver, and began to recruit prominent national figures such as Henry Cisneros and John Gardner as chairmen.

It's also shifted its focus from government organization to the dynamics of what makes communities work -- their "civic infrastructure." It now presses to bring all community stakeholders to the table in critical local and regional decision-making. Community-based organizations -- Anglo, African-American, Hispanic and Asian -- are playing a major role in the revitalized National Civic League.

But now comes the critical question -- are Americans prepared to commit anew to the public spirit of civic involvement and mutual assistance that Alexis de Tocqueville said was the essence of our character? Are we ready for another Progressive era?

The dirty and divisive elections of '94 can't provide a clue -- indeed they embody the problem, not the solution. But alienation from politics and disgust with corruption also preceded the civic renewal of the 1890s and could again today, argues Harvard's Robert Putnam.

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He bemoans "plummeting civic engagement" in elections, voluntary associations, religious, women's and fraternal groups in the last 20 to 30 years. But he sees the stirrings of a civic revival, too, including a rise in idealism, especially among young people.

Civic League president John Parr argues that renewal -- a robust effort of Americans to cap defeatism, reorganize their communities, collaborate across race and class and professional lines -- is bubbling up in communities across the continent.

"Bring together almost any cross-section of people to talk about the future of their city or town or region, and you find they do care," he says. He sees the proof of national renewal in promising grass-roots innovations in every area from community policing to affordable housing to work-force preparation.

"Most politicos and their handlers don't 'get it' -- nor, for the most part, the media," says Mr. Parr. But he claims that "change-agents, doers, spark plugs, America's civic activists" have in fact begun a national transformation, and only need an army of new recruits to match what the league's founders sparked a century ago.

The coordinating arm is the Alliance for National Renewal, which the league announced last spring. Some 100 partner organizations have joined, from the International Downtown Association to Habitat for Humanity to the National Association of Neighborhoods. The renewal gets an "official" press conference kickoff next Monday.

The odds on success are just as long as they were in the 1890s. But these reformers' concern and resolve seem just as intense.

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Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.


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