The death and life of American cities

The Boston Renaissance: Race, Space and Economic Change in an American Metropolis
By Barry Bluestone and Mary Huff Stevenson
Russell Sage Foundation, New York, 2000, 461 pages

Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival
By Paul S. Grogan and Tony Proscio
Westview Press, Boulder, 2000, 285 pages

OVER THE PAST half-century, America grew into a suburban nation that views its cities as hopeless and unsalvageable repositories of disinvestment, dependency, and decay. That makes any story about the promise of the American city sound like a relic from another time. And yet, we have two new books offering fresh urban success stories. Both would be more encouraging if they weren’t about exceptions to the urban rule.

One is The Boston Renaissance, by Barry Bluestone, a political economist and director of the Center on Regional and Urban Policy at Northeastern University, and Mary Huff Stevenson, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. The book explains how a city at the bottom of national rankings for its urban distress as recently as 1982 has become a model post-industrial metropolis for the nation.

How did Boston avoid becoming another “doughnut city,” a metropolitan area with a hole in the middle, where the heart of the region used to be? Bluestone and Stevenson say the answer is a unique “triple revolution”: Boston’s early and rapid economic transition from “mill-based to mind-based industries,” the spatial pattern of its growth into “Greater Boston,” and its transformation from a poster child for racial polarization into a multicultural community.

Boston underwent its first revolution, the jump to the knowledge-based economy, when most old cities were still dependent on manufacturing. Textiles and shoe factories left Boston before World War II, leaving political and business leaders little choice but to bet on the industries that remained: the universities, hospitals, and financial services firms that grew to export knowledge-based services to the world. As a result, Boston thrives in the Information Age, while cities that have yet to transform themselves share little of today’s prosperity.

The second revolution was the balanced shape of the region’s growth. Most metropolitan areas in America grew unevenly when service sector employment accelerated in the 1980s and ’90s. New jobs typically bypassed core cities, leapfrogged existing suburbs, and sprouted in the greenfields of exurbia, leaving minority populations behind in the “jobless ghetto” and decaying suburbs closest to the inner city. Boston’s experience, once again, has been more fortunate.

Suburbanized by railroads in the 19th century, Boston was pretty well contained when interstate highways enabled other cities to dissolve into the countryside. High-end housing adjacent to Boston’s downtown helped to keep executives from being tempted to locate their firms closer to châteaux nouveaux on the urban edge. Its hospitals and universities were never mobile institutions. Instead of simply running from the center, greater Boston filled itself in even as it expanded outward.

The demographic revolution is the third. Anxieties over whether whites and blacks can coexist in harmony are no longer central in a Boston whose proportion of minorities has never been higher, and neither have its property values. Boston has become a multi-colored metropolis whose telephone directory has four columns of Collins, two of Riveras, and four of Nguyens; 40 percent of the black population of Boston cannot be labeled African-American, having immigrated recently from Haiti and the British West Indies. Throughout the region, cities have turned more than biracial. In two decades, Lawrence has become half minority, mostly Latino. Lowell has attracted the second largest Cambodian population outside of Long Beach, California.

The fourth volume in a multi-city study of urban inequality funded by the Ford and Russell Sage foundations, The Boston Renaissance is largely an examination of how well urban minority populations have shared in the region’s prosperity. The verdict? Minorities here are much better off economically than their peers in other regions, yet they still face considerable obstacles to advancement.

The strength of the regional economy, the prevalence of high-paying industries downtown, and the demand of these industries for service workers have allowed “black and Hispanic men with limited schooling to participate in the labor force at rates equal to that of white men,” note the authors. But the minority men work for lower wages and fewer hours. The greatest barrier to economic success for Hispanics is a school drop-out rate that is higher than average; for black women, it is single motherhood; and for black men, lack of access to jobs outside their geographically limited social networks.

Despite the proliferation of races and ethnicities, diverse communities are only islands in a region still 90 percent white, still segregated by zip code or census tract. The authors discovered “some resistance to integration among all groups” in their extensive social survey of 1,800 households in the region. According to their findings, people of all backgrounds are generally willing to live in integrated neighborhoods, but their willingness declines when the percentage of their own race falls below various “tipping” points. People are still most comfortable among those who are similar, and the reasons they give are more cultural than racial in nature. Even the racial bias expressed by employers in a separate survey seems less about the color of a job applicant’s skin than the kinds of divisions that separated Yankees from Irish here for more than a century: education levels, cultural norms of behavior, and a coldness toward outsiders that has marked the region since the days of the Puritans.

Celebrating multiculturalism is said to make communities safe for diversity. But the attitudes revealed in this book should make anyone question the impact of multiculturalism that reinforces differences at the expense of commonality. When we teach ourselves that all are not alike, one consequence is a perpetuation of tribalism and turf.

To take a look at the strongest turf-consciousness, skip the proud ethnic enclaves and venture to the wealthy suburbs.

“Despite a state law that sets a goal of 10 percent affordable housing in each community,” write the authors, “it took the town of Dover 30 years to approve its first affordable housing initiative–six units of housing for the elderly.” Only 21 of 351 Massachusetts cities and towns are in compliance, while 20 percent of Boston’s housing stock is subsidized. By these lights, activists for more affordable housing in the city are focused on the wrong political target.

For all its emphasis on the value of balanced diversity, however, this book contains surprisingly little analysis of the economic diversity contributed by urban professionals. William Julius Wilson calls them a “social buffer” for disadvantaged populations. Other researchers have found rising social pathologies in neighborhoods where the population of professionals falls below 5 percent. The economic renaissance of Boston since 1982 is also a story of working families replaced by residents with no dependents and lots of disposable income. Yet in The Boston Renaissance, yuppies merit a single reference only.

According to Bluestone and Stevenson’s metropolitan perspective, addressing urban inequality requires cities to work with neighbors beyond their borders. But the regeneration of any city must begin from within. Urban communities have more capacity to renew themselves than most people believe. That is the message of Paul S. Grogan and Tony Proscio in Comeback Cities.

 “The American city is rebounding…not just here and there, not just cosmetically, but fundamentally,” Grogan and Proscio claim. They examine community transformations in Boston, the South Bronx, Harlem, Houston’s Fifth Ward, and various “former riot corridors.” And they make a compelling case for a public agenda to sustain nascent urban revivals, at a moment when America has no urban agenda at all.

Comeback Cities traces the impact of four forces responsible for the genuine, if localized, reduction of urban devastation and despair. Among them are the “slow harvest of decades of patient rebuilding” by community development corporations and the civic peace dividend that has accompanied falling urban crime rates. Also cited are the “rebirth of functioning private markets in former wastelands where, until recently, the only vigorous market activity had been the drug trade” and, finally, “the unshackling of inner-city life from the giant bureaucracies” that succeeded only in “concentrating poverty, insulating failure, limiting upward mobility, and stifling initiative.”

The authors write with the conviction of recovering bureaucrats, which they are. Proscio, a former writer for The Miami Herald, once worked for the city and state of New York. Grogan, recently appointed vice president of public affairs for Harvard, ran the city of Boston’s community development agency from 1982 to 1985. Both are veterans (Grogan, the former president) of the New York-based Local Initiatives Support Corp., which provides community development corporations nationwide with financial assistance and technical expertise.

More than 2,500 community development corporations (known as CDCs) now operate in places where years of redlining, rioting, and racial demagoguery are supplanted by results, reinvestment, and revitalization. In the authors’ words, today’s CDCs “build productive partnerships rather than wage ideological warfare” and “steer clear of race-baiting and us-versus-them ideology.”

The kind of community-based organizations promoted in this book are able to take initial risks that others cannot. They take on one project at a time until the momentum of the market kicks in, when “hope begins to compete with despair” and a “sense of possibility” reappears.

This piecemeal and initially invisible approach to urban revitalization permits risk-taking without the penalties of large-scale failure. As the authors note, “Small but tangible progress was just what neighborhoods accustomed to decades of decline needed: not one grand scheme or a big, dramatic masterstroke…but step-by-step, visible progress.”

Tangible progress is more than bricks and mortgages. The authors’ years in Boston and New York allowed them to experience the impact of new policing strategies, which helped reduce violent crime in Boston by 80 percent since 1990. The new practices emphasize preventive problem-solving instead of waiting for 911 calls to direct police attention. Respect for quality-of-life issues has proven to be critical in reducing not only crime but fear–“maintaining order and restoring the expectation of order.”

The reduction of urban disorder has allowed capitalism to return to places where it has been absent for decades. In addition to the work of CDCs, Grogan and Proscio credit the impact of the federal Community Reinvestment Act (which requires every bank to meet the credit needs of its entire community). They also cite the arrival of urban newcomers (many from abroad), and the discovery of business opportunities in a huge “emerging market.” By one estimate, America’s inner cities hold nearly $100 billion in retail spending power, more than the entire retail economy of Mexico.

One place where the authors break from their mantra of incremental improvement is their full-throttle assault on public bureaucracies that have held unchallenged monopolies on urban life. All of that is changing, the authors report with enthusiasm. Welfare agencies face the unforgiving mandates of reform. Failed public housing is literally being blown up by its sponsors. Going up is new housing of a design and income mix that holds out the promise of a more functional place to live.

But these two veterans of the public sector whip the slow pace of reform in public education. “Meltdown in public support for today’s inner-city schools is too profound to be swept away with small reforms and some happy talk,” they proclaim. True, but here bureaucratic resistance is greatest of all, in part because the solutions are less clear.

None of the solutions presented in Comeback Cities will succeed without local champions. Yet few politicians have the patience and persistence to shepherd incremental community improvement strategies. Journalists and policy-makers who live far from gritty areas see no sweeping “vision” in a concerted assault on blight in urban neighborhoods. They don’t realize that a city’s viability is more dependent on its livability than its skyline. It takes a true visionary to recognize the wisdom in the authors’ simple statement that “little things lead to big things.”

A critical theme in each of these books is the power of government to shape markets, through budget priorities, regulations, and tax codes. A half-century ago, the top problem in America’s cities was congestion; today, it’s emptiness–how to fill in the empty holes. Against this backdrop, it remains easier to pave a green field than redevelop brownfields. Urban school buildings and post offices that served us well for generations must go unused because they don’t meet rigid bureaucratic codes written for suburban standards. Affordable housing markets in mill cities lie dormant because they lack the public sweeteners laden on suburban locales.

Meet the Author

If only government made better use of targeted incentives to lure homeowners and employers to locations that need them, while doing away with publicly sponsored disincentives that drive them away. The result would be more comeback cities and more stories like Boston’s renaissance.

Carter Wilkie, a former advisor to Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, is co-author of Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl. He lives in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood.