Saturday, March 03, 2012

Comeback Cities

In their recent book, Grogan and Proscio offer the “Comeback Cities” model to engage the multifaceted variables of poverty in renewed economic development in urban areas of the United States. Using primarily data from the 1990s, the authors’ argue that cities in the U.S. are revitalizing in ways only dreamed of in the past. They encourage a third-way of policymaking, allowing space for the public, private and nonprofit sectors to work together. Grogan and Proscio suggest cities are changing the status quo because of four fundamental factors: engagement in grassroots participation, the promotion private investment, the slashing of bureaucratic red tape, and the decrease of intercity crime. This new model engages political and social problems to tackle the hard economic disparities in a given locality. This essay will briefly describe the “comeback cities” approach, and then apply lessons learned in redeveloping Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Camden.

First, Grogan and Proscio describe how the new insurgences of grassroots community-based efforts are promoting a positive environment for cities. Community Development Corporation (CDC) are the legal entity for social groups to engage in rebuilding their communities They integrate private initiative and finance with loads of social capital to revitalize desperately blighted areas. Their first efforts were to acquire and rehabilitate affordable housing. The CDC model then extended into community finance corporations, development assistance corporations and enterprises economic development, to name a few. The general idea builds on a community’s efforts to rebuild, one home at a time, and then to further reinvest and promote the newly constructed areas with strong community support. This causes the gentrification of neighborhoods.

This new approach adopted by private citizens has several obstacles. First demonstrated in Detroit’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, many intercity residents harbor long-term resentments. In his book, Surgrue highlights the profound nature of structural racism predominated in housing and employment in the city, which might be a challenge for many to overcome. Although the 1960s racial tension pushed the establishment of the Great Society programs, they also subsequently, evolved into political battles in the 1970s-80s as demonstrated in Camden After the Fall. The potential for future conflict still exists. Secondly, the authors should be wary of perceived participation. As Venkatesh demonstrates in American Project: The Raise and Fall of the Modern Ghetto, that people’s racism and social capital can be used for unproductive means. Although intercity people might get involved, they do it for selfish reasons. When the money dries up or they are not benefiting, they may not be as willing to participate with a predominately “white” initiative. Furthermore, the jury is still out in recession times whether continued credit will be given to the nonprofit organizations, working to rebuild blighted areas. Capital might go to other areas instead like contracts for services. The question arises if the nonprofit sector work to “investing in people and skills to promote their own development” is sustainable without outside capital.

Next, Grogan and Proscio insist the revolution of private markets into blighted community is key to its development. They highlight Michael Porter’s landmark articles and work to revitalize urban areas by finding new markets for corporate investments (Porter, 2005). Niche products are key to the success. The authors suggest you can realize neighborhoods with supermarket chains and small businesses. The also mention the push factor from the influx of immigrants and a positive growth spurt in the US economy. The majority Latin migration of the 1990s contributed to the new urban populations with the build up of the construction industry. Thus providing a natural connection between the first factor on rebuilding the housing listed above and the intercity business development.

From Detroit’s cautionary tale, policymakers need to be careful with this new labor pool once the housing construction market is on the decline. Not all the new local markets will be ready for business. Their may be too many workers without jobs, creating high unemployment rates, restlessness and lawlessness in the newly developed areas. As in the 1950s with the deindustrialization in Detroit, the next possibility for CDCs to do is to provide training centers, job placement opportunities and even daycare for working parents. Hopefully the resurgence of anti-immigrant (or racism) will be mitigated by support programs, and thus avoiding any potential for racial conflict, as seen in Detroit in the 1950s.

Third, Grogan and Proscio describe the eradication of crime helps, not only the reinvestment of the intercity, but also its future revitalization efforts. They highlight the broken window effect of neighborhoods, which suggests the neglect of one criminal activity could spiral into more unforeseen events. The example provided is the broken window of a car in a transition neighborhood. Grogan and Proscio believe in “the growing revolution in police practices…” and the revitalization in and of itself are the “both a cause and effect of the failing crime rates,” (Grogan & Proscio, 2000, pg. 5). The more community policing, or people watching the streets, help prevent crime before it happens by changing the very nature in which crime occurs. In addition, with more eyes on the street, like Jane Jacobs argument, provides higher risk to get caught and less of a change at committing a crime.

Bissinger’s book A prayer for the City describes the criminal behavior in Philadelphia. By telling the story of Philadelphia’s assistant district attorney Michael McGovern in the prosecution of urban violence, like the case of Robbie Burns’ murder, he depicts the complexity of street life and crime in urban areas. The profuse nature of criminal activity and how its interwoven into people’s personal lives are not elaborated enough in Grogan and Proscio’s book. The case, like many others that McGovern litigated in his years of public service and others described in the book, captures race and poverty of street kids. Furthermore the profound nature and public outcry that emerges from these episodes engages the whole community.

This is also demonstrated in Venkatesh’s American Project with the death of little girl that stopped the gang warfare between the sharks and the black kings. In Chicago’s projects, there wasn’t a lack of eyes watching the streets, but rather the imbalance of power held by the gangs, who were predominantly young males. The Grogan and Proscio’s book does not highlight the demolishing of the public housing and dispersion of gang violence as another way to eliminate crime. The future challenge is whether the dispersion of gangs will also disperse crime to unforeseen areas or eliminate it completely. Grogan and Proscio’s assumption is that crime will be eliminated, but their theory isn’t tested in times of economic decline.

Fourth, and finally, Grogan and Proscio describe how contracting out government services and devolving power and authority to cities, schools and development councils will reconstruct social trust and create more effective social policies. This effort requires balanced budgets and positive income flows into public projects. It also requires people’s engagement into their children’s education and willingness to volunteer into the community to create a better environment for all.

Bissinger’s book A Prayer for the City suggests that engaging in financial matters with citizens isn’t so simple. Bissinger’s description of the city’s manager David Cohen, a former corporate lawyer, in his task to mend the fiscal stress of the large budget deficit, showed the diligent work of personal dedication and fortitude for Grogan and Proscio’s “simple task”. Cohen’s personal dedication and commitment to Randell’s administration not only assisted to create a stable budget, but also later developed into a budget surplus was substantial. Furthermore, he had to battle the unions to lower their benefits in citywide contracts. Cohen relied heavily on Linda Morrison’s libertarian ideas. She wrote a series of memos that assisted to cut unnecessary expenditures and start contracting out government services to private entities. The simple reliance of one or two dedicated bureaucrat is one thing, but another is the defeat of political cronyism and positive transparent budgeting process.

Grogan and Proscio’s new “comeback cities” model is highly optimistic and leaves little spaces for economic downshifts and other problems that U.S. cities face. It provides for a constructive spin in good times, but doesn’t challenge the status quo for times of trouble.

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