Tales of the City

Fred Siegel’s The Future Once Happened Here.

The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America’s Big Cities
By Fred Siegel
The Free Press; 224 pages; $24

Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Democratic Party’s Progressive Policy Institute, has written a scathing attack on urban liberalism. Siegel blames liberal ideology for most forms of urban decline–for welfare dependency, spiraling crime rates, inefficient services, and failing public schools. It is not New Deal liberalism that is at fault, either. No, he says, “[t]he problems plaguing cities are the product of policy choices produced in the 1960s.”

Siegel supports his argument with case studies of three cities: New York; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles. He chose those cities, he says, because they “shaped not just the urban but also the national agenda. Politics and policy in these cities represent liberalism and big cities to the rest of America.” The critical moments in the history of those cities, he says, are the Los Angeles riots of 1965 and 1992; New York Mayor John Lindsay’s attempt to forge a New Deal liberalism by expanding welfare and creating multicultural schools; New York’s fiscal crisis; and the collapse of municipal service in Washington under Marion Barry. The cities “lived in the shadow of the riot ideology,” he writes, and it is in the name of “the riot ideology” and of righting the wrongs of racism that liberals went on to justify the violence of the 1960s and its criminal aftermath. The power to disrupt became a way of “extracting money from the federal government,” he says.

Siegel clearly wrote this book out of a frustration, which I share, with a general failure to face up to the shortcomings of the policies of the 1960s. Yet Siegel, a professor at Cooper Union and the author of several respected books, is too good a historian not to know that he has produced an incomplete, one-dimensional account of the decline of America’s cities. There are three serious problems with his argument–first, an analysis that gives urban liberalism an unconvincing degree of importance in accounting for this decline; second, a methodology that picks out three cities that are not really representative; and third, an oddly unbalanced account of urban history that places ideologically motivated mayors, liberal intellectuals, and radical black activists center stage.

Was the so-called liberal ideology really responsible for the deterioration of America’s cities? Siegel barely considers other explanations. As historian Kenneth T. Jackson argues in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, central cities began to degenerate, and suburbs to boom, as early as the 1920s, when many people started buying cars. The Federal Highway Act of 1916 and the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 produced the roads that enabled this middle-class flight. A series of well-intended federal mortgage and loan programs developed during the New Deal led to policies of “redlining”: the wholesale branding of certain–often, black–neighborhoods as greater credit risks. The Federal Housing Administration and the GI bill of 1944 ensured long-term mortgages for home construction and sale, which made it cheaper for the white middle class to buy new homes in the suburbs than to rent (or even modernize) older homes. Meanwhile, many areas in the aging central cities were declared ineligible for loan guarantees. Add to these disastrous policies a segregated public-housing program that concentrated affordable housing for the poor in central cities, and you see why, by 1950, the suburbs were growing 10 times faster than the central cities; and why, in 1960, not a single one of the 82,000 residents of Levittown was black.

At the same time, the manufacturing base of the inner cities eroded. Between 1958 and 1987, most of the older central cities lost half of their manufacturing jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, by 1970, suburbs were the principal sources of employment in the 15 largest metro areas.

Clearly, these long-term trends and federal policies left cities besieged and impoverished. But Siegel doesn’t just undervalue these trends; he also gets his chronology–and therefore his causality–wrong. The wrenching loss of manufacturing jobs (the source of low-skill jobs at decent wages) and the flight of the white middle class to the suburbs began before the riots. While the so-called riot ideology might have exacerbated these trends, it certainly could not have been held responsible for them. The decline in urban economies occurred in almost every American city, even in those without the legacy of 1960s riots–like the Sun Belt cities of Houston, Phoenix, and San Diego, whose economies actually grew in the 1960s and 1970s before falling off in the ‘80s.

Siegel also fails to grasp certain key political facts of urban life. Simply put, mayors can’t afford to be raving ideologues. They are practically the lowest living things in America’s political food chain. Both state and federal governments can mandate programmatic spending without providing the funds. States limit the city’s legal authority to raise revenue through taxes and debt, while the federal system forces cities to compete with one another for tax revenue. Siegel fails to address the basic problem of a federal system that makes local governments dependent on their local tax base to fund basic services, infrastructure, and education. Wealthier jurisdictions will always do better than cities with high concentrations of poverty.

Siegel’s choice of cities to study also presents a methodological problem. In social scientific terms, Siegel selects cases that don’t offer the opportunity to “test the null hypothesis.” He stacks the deck. This is really a book about New York; Los Angeles and the District of Columbia are invoked only insofar as they can support his claims about riot ideology. But if Siegel’s theory is correct, then cities where “riot ideology” did not inform local policies should have had different outcomes in terms of fiscal policy, the quality of the public schools, and the condition of the local economies. But this is not the case. Moreover, Washington is never used in the urban literature as representative of anything other than itself–its history, governance, and economy are understood to be unique.

One of the recurring themes in Siegel’s book is that urban liberals were mau-maued by black militants. Siegel argues that funds from the federal Community Action Program, a neighborhood-based anti-poverty program, were used to buy peace from the black militants, allowing them to develop their own neighborhood-based patronage networks. This was supposed to have been particularly true in New York, where white liberals like Lindsay were easily guilt-tripped. Here’s where a broader selection of cities would have made a big difference. In 1973, political scientists David Greenstone and Paul Peterson examined the Community Action Program in five cities–New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia–and found that it worked differently in each place. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley retained complete control over the federal funds and distributed them to black neighborhoods through his Democratic machine. In New York, Lindsay used them to augment a scheme for political decentralization that began in the 1950s, under Robert Wagner. More importantly, all these mayors went to Washington for funds, and of them only Lindsay would be considered a liberal reformer. No doubt, the mayors who took these funds did try to use them to consolidate their political bases. They were operating in the great-urban-machine tradition of buying support.

I n the last few lines of his book, Siegel waxes strangely optimistic:

[E]ven after being taken down a notch or two, [cities] will remain, by virtue of their concentrations of energy and intellect, at the center of the American political imagination. These great cities will continue to shape our future.

But if ideologically driven mayors and radical black activists have taken over, then the future of American cities should be bleak. It isn’t, of course. Across the country, immigrant groups, faith-based institutions, and bootstrap mayors are reinvigorating cities. In New York, for example, where more than half the city’s current population is foreign-born, immigrants have helped renew neighborhoods: Koreans and Chinese have revitalized Flushing, Queens; as have Russian Jews Brighton Beach; Caribbeans Flatbush; and Dominicans and Irish Washington Heights. Each of these stories is more important to New York City’s future than those that Siegel chose to tell.

What’s more, New York’s current renaissance is happening because there is something to come back to. The “overspending” that the city engaged in during the Depression, which Siegel decries, may be contributing to the current rebirth of the city’s economy, which centers on tourism, culture, financial services, and information technology. In New York there is, at least, an infrastructure to rebuild, cultural institutions that draw tourists, and a wealth of human capital with technical and creative energy. Were it not for LaGuardia’s grand vision of public hospitals, colleges, parks, public transportation, and affordable housing, New York City might have just been another Newark. In a recent Gallup poll, New York was identified as the city that Americans would most like to live in. Nothing in Siegel’s work could explain this perception.