Urban Bright

No one knows how expensive it will be to rebuild lower Manhattan in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster. But when Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki suggested recently that the city’s needs may exceed $54 billion, few could blink at the gargantuan sum. We have seen enough video images of the bent, twisted, and smoldering infrastructure to know that its reconstruction will be stunningly expensive.

The cost of repairing the human landscape is beyond calculation. This, too, we can intuit from the devastation of families and communities and of New York’s reeling economy. But it took a note from a former student, who only months before had left his work at the Mercantile Exchange, to drive this point home. I had written to make certain he was okay, not knowing he had left his previous employer. Life in the once-vibrant streetscape, he emailed back, was now surreal and grim. Fearful that the dynamic place he had come to love would never recover, he wondered if there was any reassurance to be found in the history of disaster. “How do cities rebound after big tragedies?” he wanted to know.

It was easy enough to provide some of the comfort he sought. Chicago and San Francisco had risen from their ashes and had become more livable and compelling environments. In their turbulent pasts lay an answer to New York’s complicated future.

Yet that history is partial. Not all elements of those earlier disaster zones were quickly or easily reconstructed. While Chicago’s ceremonial space was brilliantly reconceived out of the charred remains of the old town, and San Francisco’s commercial district was resurrected after the earthquake of 1906, much of their urban housing stock (especially for the poor) languished, along with neighborhood economies. This was a consequence of government spending priorities that favored large-scale projects and major enterprise. And although these parallels are not exact–for all its devastation, New York did not suffer the same kind of city-wide damage that Chicago and San Francisco experienced at the beginning of the twentieth century–they remain instructive. Should the clean-up tab really run to $54 billion (or more), there will be precious little left for investment in the critical, small-scale rehab most needed by the city’s disadvantaged populations.

There is nothing new about the crying need for these funds, or the social costs incurred if they are not forthcoming. Like most contemporary cities, New York has been struggling for the past two decades to underwrite urban renewal without forcing its minorities and elderly into worse conditions. This spring, for example, The New York Times ran a superb series on the racial and ethnic tensions, as well as the political fallout, connected to the revitalization of and influx of new white residents into Harlem. Those articles just as well could have been penned about Chicago’s South Side, Los Angeles’ South Park, or the eastern extent of Washington’s Capitol Hill. A violent reaction to some of the same changes exploded this April in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine district. Urban revival can come with clearly defined costs.

Yet it is ultimately far more expensive to ignore battered neighborhoods, whatever the source of their destruction. So Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio argue in their much-heralded book, Comeback Cities. They are convinced that it is possible to restore economic vitality and community coherence without escalating social resentments and retaliatory violence. And they assert that the classic, impoverished urban core, left to rot as a consequence of decades of middle-class flight to the metropolitan fringe, can be (and is being) rebuilt, slowly but profoundly. The evolution has not come via what they call the “the urban sentimentalists’ dream,” a fantasy land of “primly restored historic dwellings above savory shops decked out in Parisian awnings.” Rather, these “hardscrabble places” have undergone a far more crucial transformation, becoming environments where “people want to live, shop, run businesses, and go to school.”

The sources of the resurgence–whether in Chicago, the South Bronx, or San Antonio’s East Side–are many and interrelated. Most striking have been the mushrooming number of neighborhood-based, nonprofit organizations that make up what Grogan and Proscio dub the “grassroots revitalization movement in America.” Energizing residents, renovating individual homes, apartments, and commercial nodes, and stimulating the development of civic institutions, educational programs, and block watches, they have engendered a new sense of the possible.

New markets and job opportunities–however nascent–have further fueled the prospects of additional repairs to long-neglected neighborhoods. Credit has been easier to come by, too, thanks in part to the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). Passed during the Carter administration, and under assault ever since from the likes of Senator Phil Gramm, it obliges banks to direct loans to people and areas of cities formerly red-lined. A mark of its success? Between 1994 and 1998, lenders pledged to invest more than $355 billion to in inner cities. When one loan officer told Grogan and Proscio that the CRA had nothing to do with such decisions, the authors knew better; the act pressured “bankers back into neighborhoods where they previously preferred not to stray.”

With money and work on the rise, crime has declined. The correlation is not exact, and neither is the relationship between the adoption of new community policing tactics and a dramatic drop in street crime; indeed, Cincinnati’s recent riots are attributed to increasing police brutality in the revived Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. But it is also clear that there is a connection between civic disarray, lawlessness, and physical dilapidation. To take back the streets, innumerable community organizations have concluded, requires building new homes on vacant lots, renovating boarded-up dwellings, launching businesses. Filling up the sidewalks with pedestrians, and reestablishing a neighborhood’s bustle–crucial markers of communities in recovery–are also effective deterrents to crime.

The demolition of massive high-rise public housing blocks has had multiple consequences, too. Once the hub around which federal urban renewal revolved, these warehouses for the poor reinforced racial segregation and economic inequalities. Tearing them down, as has happened to Chicago’s notorious Robert Taylor Homes, and replacing them with low-level, multi-family units built amid new, mixed-use commercial districts will lower the once-inhumane density levels and may reduce crime, enhance the possibilities of work being generated in areas long without sustainable wage labor, and encourage greater social integration. These prospects are more hinted at than fully realized, and their final realization will depend on the capacity of grassroots activists, city politicians, and federal policy makers to maintain their commitment to the idea of a revitalized urban core.

Therein lies the rub. For all the anecdotes about valiant neighborhoods rallying to their own defense, it is clear that these local initiatives would have foundered without massive amounts of public and private investment. New York Mayor Ed Koch committed upwards of $5 billion to construct or rehab 100,000 housing units in New York City. Approximately 20 percent of those funds went to the South Bronx, and when combined with an additional $365 million of private funds, the result was more than 10,000 new houses or apartments in less than a decade. The lesson then-President Clinton drew from this astonishing transformation of the former bombed-out borough–”If you can do it, everyone can do it”–was but half right. The South Bronx experience could only be replicated if other communities are able to generate the requisite political will and tap vast pools of available capital.

Duplicating these results will be difficult after September 11. But that is not simply a result of strained financial resources and the administration’s tight focus on international terrorism. Their achievement would have been made more difficult in any event because Dubya has demonstrated minimal interest in matters urban, as opposed to expanding the federal budget (with the exception of military spending), and is eager to dismantle the regulatory environment that has sustained the Community Revitalization Act. When New York’s aging and battered urban landscapes stage their comeback, it will be despite the president not because of him.

Contributing Writer writer Char Miller teaches urban history at Trinity University, is a member of San Antonio’s Open Space Advisory Board, and is editor of the recently published On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio (University of Pittsburgh Press).

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Published at 12:00 am CST