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While interviewing mayors this weekend at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting, I asked almost all of them about a particular line in the speech Senator Obama gave to the body on Saturday.

Senator Obama said:

So, yes we need to fight poverty. Yes, we need to fight crime. Yes, we need to strengthen our cities. But we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution.

From the mayors’ perspective, the Senator had walked a fine, but sophisticated, line.  L. Douglas Wilder – one of the first African American governors of a U.S. state (Virginia) and current mayor of Richmond – told me that:  

The code words that have been used to define the problems of the cities have been simplified to say urban issues, urban crime. Crime is crime.  It expands.  People who have lived in the suburbs now have come to see that crime doesn’t stay confined; it goes to its least defended areas.

Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia (whose interview will be posted to MayorTV later this summer) said that any code words that are used to describe cities are "excuses for a lack of action."

Indeed, one of the challenges that proponents of increased investment in cities face is the association of urban issues with poor people, murder, robbery, drugs, abandoned buildings, and – God help us! – minorities.  Sure, all these things exist in cities (and, uh, in the suburbs and in small towns and in rural communities and on isolated farms), but they’ve become a bogeyman that has permitted and, indeed, encouraged a withdrawal of federal support from urban areas.  

In other words, poverty and crime, as Senator Obama stated, are not urban "issues" and should not be confronted as such.  We should invest in cities not specifically to end poverty, but to create the conditions in which poverty cannot persist.  We can and should adopt policies to eliminate poverty, but they make up only a part of the policies that we can and should adopt to help our cities thrive.

As Senator McCain continues to ignore most urban issues – and remains far from articulating anything resembling an urban agenda – one wonders if he is beset by a mindset that either views urban areas as concentrations of intractable economic and social depression or, more simply, as electoral districts that he could never win, so why try?  

In his interview, Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia, not specifically referring to Senator McCain, said, "If you limit what you can talk about because you are worried about political constituencies, I don’t think you’re much of a leader."

Originally posted to Harry DMI on Tue Jun 24, 2008 at 05:21 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  what? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    burrow owl

    But we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution.

    What the hell does that mean? Solution to what? What do Obama's speechwriters do, cut and paste inspriational phrases together until it's long enoguh for a speech?

    An optimist sees pluses even when he is at a cemetery.

    by Marcion on Tue Jun 24, 2008 at 05:53:39 PM PDT

  •  There's quite a bit (0+ / 0-)

    of research to back Senator Obama's claim up.  In fact, the speech is essentially a restatement of the position of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, whether you agree with their research or not.

    I've written several posts about viewing cities as solutions: to climate change (more mass transit, more density), to economic growth (they aggregate high-paying jobs), and to intellectual production (they aggregate young, smart people).

    •  At the same time, people like yards. (0+ / 0-)

      And I'd imagine federal investment in cities has fallen in proportion to the outflux of activity to surrounding suburbs.  

      •  But (0+ / 0-)

        part of this whole argument is that suburbs - suburban cities - would benefit a great deal from looking more like "cities proper".  Though some may rail against the wastefulness of yards, why not invest in, for instance, better mass transit that allows people to have yards but just not drive to work.  This talk of cities being the answer doesn't, I don't think, propose the elimination of the suburbs; rather, it seeks their "urbaniza"tion".

        •  Mass transit, and a lot of the pluses of (0+ / 0-)

          cities, rely on centralization.  eg, they rely on the absence of yards and on the presence of high density.

          •  The benefits of cities (0+ / 0-)

            result from density, not necessarily from centralization (i.e. concentration, not centralization).

            Connecting suburban cities to regional hubs by mass transit would - if properly executed, of course - get people off roads and decrease reliance on cars for transportation.  Suburbs will be around for a long time, but they can be reimagined.

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