Urban Warfare

And why suburbanites should care.

In the 1970s and ’80s the devastation of the South Bronx was spectacular. A Hollywood filmmaker even set a movie there, Wolfen, about man-eating wolflike creatures. Presumably, the ambience of the moonscapelike rubble made anything plausible. Back then, I sometimes took friends on tours of the Hunts Point neighborhood where I grew up; you couldn’t book trips like that downtown.One friend I took was then working at the Economic Development unit of the NYC Department of City Planning. What particularly struck her was that despite the obvious evidence of the area’s depopulation in block after block of abandoned and razed buildings, the Southern Boulevard commercial center remained intact — there was not a single abandoned storefront. Our trip, incidentally, made her the first person from her office, other than the director, to even visit the neighborhood. A separate Bronx Planning Office that was presumably more familiar with Hunts Points existed, so the situation wasn’t quite as bad as it might sound. But what this said about the isolation in which a poor neighborhood could exist within New York City’s borders was startling. More relevantly, it was the Economic Development office that was then handling an application for a citywide federal commercial redevelopment grant.

Since then, a lot more attention has been paid to the neighborhood, and many more grants applied for. All of this has helped. One particularly striking symbol of the devastation is gone: the decals of pretty, curtained windows, with plants on their sills, that were pasted over the boarded-up windows of derelict tenements along Bruckner Boulevard to make them look reassuringly “normal” to suburban commuters, at least until such time as they could be torn down. And that time took a while to come — the demolition list was that long. But since then, 57,000 units of new and rehabilitated housing have replaced some of the devastation.

In short, the South Bronx is no longer the stuff of Hollywood horror movies. But after all the attention it has received, it remains a very poor, down-at-the-heels kind of place. Americans don’t dream of moving there, and most Europeans would find it like nothing they know back home. And in books about America’s urban failure — books like Place Matters and America’s Undeclared War — the South Bronx still stands as the prime example.

Place Matters uses the South Bronx’s Sixteenth Congressional District as one of three congressional district case studies in making the argument that urban and suburban problems are intrinsically intertwined. Authors Peter Dreier, John Mollenkopf, and Todd Swanstrom believe that “problems presently facing America’s cities are primarily political in nature” and therefore require that “a new political majority … be built around identifying and building on concerns that unite those who live in central cities with residents of the suburbs.” That is, urbanites and suburbanites need to get on the same page.

For one thing, cities clearly can no longer wield a majority on their own. From 1948 to 2000, New York City’s share of New York State’s total presidential vote fell from 50 to 31.6 percent, Chicago’s share of Illinois’ dropped from 46.5 to 20.2 percent, Baltimore’s share of Maryland’s plunged from 42.3 to 9.6 percent, and Detroit’s share of Michigan’s plummeted from 31.8 to 6.5 percent. And the urban vote declined most dramatically in California, where Los Angeles and San Francisco combined for 51.3 percent of the state’s vote when Truman beat Dewey, but only 10.6 percent in the election of the second Bush.

Certainly, the interest of the suburb is still related to that of the city in an objective, economic way. The authors point out that “In 1989, 46 percent of all earnings in San Francisco suburbs came from residents who worked in the central city.” But are they connected subjectively? Will suburbanites look at the problems of the city as their own when, after all, so many of them moved to the suburbs in order to escape those very problems. The three professors think so, or at least hope so.

First off, not every suburb is affluent; many have entered their own era of decline, which often actually can be worse than urban decline. “Declining suburbs are usually quite depressing places,” state the authors of Place Matters. “They lack the public spaces, universities, cultural institutions, nightlife, and downtowns that make central cities exciting places, even when they house many poor people.” Or as Daniel Lazare cites in his blunter manner in America’s Undeclared War: “Long Island, in effect, is ‘a city of more than 2.5 million without a single comprehensive public library, no major seaport or international airport, no important concert hall or art museum, no public zoo or aquarium, no major league baseball stadium, and no major legitimate theater.'”

And even those suburbs still on the rise will eventually find their limits. As the planning director of Will County (part of the Illinois 13th Congressional District profiled in the book) puts it, “The more people that come in looking for the rural atmosphere, the less rural atmosphere there will be.” Meanwhile, “the greatest shortage in [the affluent 13th district suburb of] Naperville is not money but time.” Why? Well, in large part because of all of the time suburbanites spend driving. The farther the suburban sprawl extends to escape the problems of the city, the longer the businessman dad must drive to the job and back in that city, and the more hours the soccer mom must spend shuttling the kids around to their activities in the public-transportation-poor suburbs. Lazare reports that “[p]lanners calculate that each home in a typical new development generates an average of 7.5 car trips a day.”

Indeed, driving is the specific bête noire of Lazare’s book. You might say that he considers the “war on America’s cities” a matter of vehicular homicide. What we have been witnessing is “not urban decay but a form of urban manslaughter.” He notes that “Early traffic writers calculated that a typical auto took up ten to twenty times as much road space as a trolley. Yet it was all too common to see a hundred straphangers held up by a single motorist waiting to make a left turn.” In short, “[u]rban blight was not the result of neglect but was an essential by-product of Fordist production and consumption.”

One of Place Matters‘ most persuasive arguments is the degree to which the urban/surburban divide is exacerbated and formalized by political jurisdictions: “The 315 metropolitan areas in the United States in 1992 had an average of 104 general purpose governments (not counting school districts and special authorities),” a phenomenon without parallel in European nations, where — not coincidentally, the authors believe — the geographical segregation of rich and poor is nowhere near so great as in the US. Since the federal government is not bound by such jurisdictions, the authors argue that it “should restructure all its domestic programs on a metropolitan basis,” something the states seem unlikely to do on their own since, for now anyway, the Portland, Oregon Metro Council “is the only democratically elected, multifunction regional body in the United States.”

Place Matters also makes a point that state legislatures should consider during Congressional redistricting: Democrats are outpolling Republicans by almost a two-to-one margin in central city congressional districts. This results both in the “waste” of a million urban Democratic congressional votes and the general atrophying of urban politics, since so many races are seen as shoo-ins that the votes are taken for granted. Democratic legislatures willing to risk a little might gain a lot.

Which of these books should you read? Well, if you want a good Manhattanite rant, try Lazare. (He just hates Thomas Jefferson, by the way.) And if you’re looking for a handbook for the next Democratic administration in Washington, read Dreier et al.

Oh yes, on the Monday following our tour of the Bronx, my friend went back into her office and asked to see that commercial revitalization application. She found that, as she had expected, the proposal writers had incorrectly assumed that the number of Hunts Point’s commercial establishments had declined in proportion to its population. She then increased the grant request based upon what she had just observed. Somewhere down the line, this brought the South Bronx a couple of million more dollars. So our little car trip turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done for the old neighborhood.

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