Will Obama Change our Cities?

In a brief word — yes. But Obama’s plan for cities needs to be even more robust. Next American City Columnist Josh Leon looks at what this election means for cities.

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I started hammering out this post at midnight last night, right after the cable networks called the election for Obama. I could hear people cheering from their apartments along my street in Philadelphia’s Center City. On television, tears flowed in Chicago’s Grant Park, where Obama gave his victory speech. So allow me to get caught in the moment and say Obama’s election is the most remarkable in history.

Take Chicago, the site of Obama’s victory speech, which in the 1960s was as segregated as any city in the South. The city’s housing policy left blacks sequestered in the city’s worst slums, with scant access to jobs or services. As historian Rick Perlstein put it, “You could draw a map of the boundary within which the city’s seven hundred thousand Negroes were allowed to live by marking an X wherever a white mob attacked a Negro.” Martin Luther King braved death threats from Chicago whites for trying to integrate housing there. Now one of Chicago’s black citizens is president-elect.

Then again, other things change slowly. A few weeks ago I went to an Obama rally in North Philadelphia—a mostly black neighborhood that was walloped by deindustrialization—to see what he had to say about turning around America’s most blighted urban corners. Even before sunrise, the line to get in extended for blocks down Broad Street. The people I talked to were sick of the industrial job loss and failing schools that still haunt the area. Standing in one of the city’s poorest districts, they got to hear Obama address “you, the middle class.”

Obama knows that you don’t win elections by emphasizing urban poverty. But you also don’t foster real “change” without speaking directly to those on the wrong side of this country’s horrendous economic divide. More than 40 percent of nation’s poor live in cities. There were 700,000 more poor people in cities in 2007 than there were in 2006, according the Census Bureau. Major cities as varied as Detroit, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Houston saw poverty creep upward this decade. The Council of Mayors reports that 15 of 23 cities surveyed expect homelessness to increase this year. And we still don’t know how bad things will be when the recession finally hits bottom.

This is a country that is 80 percent urbanized. I have a hard time believing that our system of great urban metropolises could flourish if we throw our core cities overboard. But urban neglect is the word in Washington. Hardly any program that helps cities manage their myriad of problems has escaped the Bush administration’s crosshair, including programs as basic as public housing (even for the disabled) and subsidized heating. Even the levees that were supposed to protect New Orleans before Katrina were left rickety by Bush budget cutters. Public transportation? Forget it. The administration tries to derail Amtrak every year. Worried about toxic contamination near your community? This White House isn’t. They cut funding for dozens of superfund cleanup sites.

Barack Obama is much more likely to turn around cities than McCain was (abolish Amtrak, anyone?), but his tepidness toward urban issues worries me. He’s had more to say about his Kansas “background” than his actual background in cosmopolitan Chicago and Hawaii. His badly needed plan to turn around cities doesn’t go far enough. Rebuilding infrastructure isn’t just good policy, it’s a necessity. That effort may well create the millions of jobs promised, but those jobs might not target the non college graduates in deeply impoverished neighborhoods who need them the most. His highly touted program to expand support services to poor students is limited to just 20 urban “promise neighborhoods.” Neither these initiatives nor his calls to expand Bush’s dysfunctional faith based anti-poverty program will begin to reverse the chronic problems cities are facing.

Last night an ecstatic Chris Matthews recounted the North Philadelphia rally, averring that Obama didn’t need to get into the minutiae of program specifics to connect with his blue collar audience. All he needed to do was “unify” them, whatever that means. But if “change” is going to be more than a platitude, Obama’s policy ambition will have to match his careerism. Lyndon Johnson was the last president to forge a truly determined nation-wide effort to transform cities. He once called for “a society of success without squalor, beauty without barrenness, works of genius without the wretchedness of poverty.” None of that happened, but it did result in a dramatic plunge in poverty and a credible desegregation effort.

Why not put both issues back on the agenda?

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Tags: philadelphiainfrastructurechicagohouston

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