The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A. and the Fate of America’s Big Cities
by Fred Siegel
Free Press. 260 pp. $24.00

Once written off as obsolete, if not dead, America’s big cities seem to be staging a comeback. Their economies are growing, their crime rates are falling, and their residents feel a renewed sense of optimism. Most tellingly perhaps, mayors like New York’s Rudolph Giuliani, Indianapolis’s Stephen Goldsmith, Chicago’s Richard Daley, Philadelphia’s Edward Rendell, and Milwaukee’s John Norquist now top the list of the nation’s most creative political leaders.

Yet, warns Fred Siegel, a longtime city-watcher, these signs may be deceptive. In The Future Once Happened Here, Siegel, a professor of history at the Cooper Union in New York City, offers a badly needed perspective on the condition of three of the nation’s most important cities—New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D. C. Outward appearances notwithstanding, Siegel contends, the three are far from being the vibrant hubs they used to be, and many troubles still lie ahead for them.

Today’s urban conditions, in Siegel’s telling, can be traced to fundamental changes that occurred during the 1960’s. Before that decade, the political cultures of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington were rooted in the aspirations of the working class, especially those of its members who were recent immigrants. Good schools, safe streets, parks and other places for recreation, and decent neighborhoods were what these urban dwellers wanted most, and by and large the political machines that ran the cities made sure they got them.

The 1960’s, however, brought a new focus to urban government: helping the poor, and especially the black poor who had begun arriving in great numbers during the previous decade, at the expense of the working and middle classes. With the aid of considerable encouragement and money from Washington, coalitions of upper-income reformers and radical civil-rights activists managed to displace the old political machines and began implementing a variety of ill-considered schemes ostensibly aimed at alleviating the problem of poverty. These ranged from well-meaning but costly programs in education, job training, and social services to more controversial and confrontational efforts like promoting community control of schools or deliberately expanding the size of the welfare rolls. In addition, instead of keeping city hall squarely behind the working class, the new urban leadership frequently ignored or disparaged its views and interests as so many obstacles on the bright road ahead.

What came from all this is by now well-known. Everyone suffered: the poor, the working class, and the cities. For the poor, the myriad programs and policies aimed at helping them not only failed for the most part to do so but created behavioral incentives that actually impeded their upward mobility. The working and middle classes, no longer at home in their own cities, accelerated their migration to the suburbs, taking with them large numbers of jobs and industries. The nation’s major cities rapidly became the nation’s major embarrassments: increasingly uninhabitable, ungovernable, and unsupportable with or without massive infusions of state and federal aid.

How big a role in this decline was played by the politics of race? In Siegel’s estimation, a significant one. As the civil-rights movement of the 1960’s traveled from the rural South to the urban North, its own focus, which had been firmly fixed on eliminating barriers to equal opportunity, shifted instead toward the assertion of black political power. By holding out the threat of riots, like the ones that occurred in Los Angeles, Detroit, and other cities during the 1960’s, black leaders added an element of sheer physical menace to their demands. Siegel goes so far as to suggest that the crime epidemic of the 1970’s and 1980’s can be seen as an implicit extension of this posture. Whether or not he is right, it is surely the case that the calculated use of violence and disorder as political tools made law-abiding residents of every background even more fearful of living in the urban core.

But just as the cities’ decline can be linked to the repudiation of the values and interests of the middle class, so, Siegel argues, the reassertion of those same values and interests underlies the current urban revival. In New York City, this re-assertion has taken the form, most conspicuously, of a concerted police effort to stamp out disorderly conduct and uphold once-traditional norms of behavior. Strong law enforcement has been a positive factor in Los Angeles, too (though also a source of problems), and so has the entrepreneurial spirit displayed by the city’s upwardly striving Hispanic and Asian immigrants. In Washington, D.C., the picture is more ambiguous; change there has had to come from without, first through a congressionally-mandated “control board” that sought to force the bloated government of the nation’s capital to live within its means, and more recently through federal legislation that has all but terminated the District’s calamitous experiment in home rule.



Yet while the three cities now seem headed in the right direction, Siegel doubts they will succeed in recapturing their past glories. Their economies, he writes, remain too heavily burdened by high-cost, low-gain jobs in the social services and related fields. The politics of race and class, though less significant now than in the past, continue to tug at the social and political fabric. And with a tough new federal welfare law now in place, the cities face the difficult challenge of finding work for their least job-ready residents. In the face of these hazards, Siegel worries that urban leaders are likely to avoid more hard choices and accept a “slow decline.”

Further adding to a sober outlook are factors Siegel does not dwell on. Thanks to changes in both federal and state policy (the increased use of block grants in the one case, new limits on local property taxes in the other) governors, legislators, and judges have been given more control over our cities, while mayors have been left accountable even as their hands have been tied.1 This combination of circumstances has resulted in some of the worst disasters to befall urban life, such as the state-imposed requirement that New York City provide accommodations for anyone deemed “homeless.” Unless city governments can regain some of the autonomy they have lost, their efforts at self-improvement will be stymied.

Another complicating factor is the backlash against immigration, driven in part by labor unions concerned about jobs and wages but affecting more and more areas of public policy. As Siegel demonstrates in his account of Los Angeles, the ongoing urban recovery depends pivotally on our continued ability to welcome and absorb large numbers of new residents intent upon working hard and getting ahead. A significant downturn in immigration (or, just as bad, the spread of an entitlement mindset among the new arrivals) could rob city life of much of its vitality, economic and otherwise.

And that leads to a larger point. Conventional wisdom now suggests that the turnaround we have seen in our distressed urban areas owes mostly to the nation’s sustained economic prosperity. But as The Future Once Happened Here valuably shows, the economic climate of America’s big cities ultimately depends on their moral climate. Only cities where diligence and striving are welcomed—and sloth, irresponsibility, and violence discouraged—will enter futures worth having.


1 Indianapolis’s Stephen Goldsmith, perhaps the most innovative of the new mayors, made an unsuccessful bid to capture his state’s governorship precisely in the belief that he could more effectively deal with problems like welfare and education reform from the state house than from city hall. Goldsmith offers his own analysis of our urban dilemmas in his newly published Twenty-First Century City (Regnery, 250 pp., $24.95).


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