Last September’s tragedy in New Orleans revealed, in the starkest manner, the soft underbelly of America’s cities. After all the 1990s rhetoric insisting that “Cities are back!” we got a glimpse behind the facades of a major urban center and tourist mecca which revealed many utterly dependent and disorganized residents, looking more like Third Worlders than denizens of a modern metropolis. In the process, the urban liberalism that has dominated city administration for the last generation was unmasked...
...The truth is that, rather than improving conditions for average residents of their cities, many urban politicians and interest groups have promoted policies that actually exacerbated a metastasizing underclass. Urban liberals tend to blame a shrivelling of Great Society programs for problems in cities. Observers such as former Houston mayor Bob Lanier have suggested, however, that the Great Society impulse itself is what most damaged many cities—by stressing welfare payments and income redistribution, ethnic grievance, and lax policies on issues like crime and homelessness, instead of the creation of a stronger economy.
This modern liberalism veered far from the traditional progressive visions of politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia. Those leaders believed in the basics: building up the economic infrastructure that government has long been responsible for (like ports and transportation), efficient and honest provision of services like education and policing, and mainstream, even conservative, social policies. Today, only a handful of mayors like Chicago’s Richard Daley, Jr., Charleston’s Joseph Riley, and Houston’s Bill White still stick to this “back to basics” focus. Most other urban leaders have turned to more ephemeral issues, less mainstream values, and economic policies that largely surrender to public worker unions, spiced with an emphasis on cultivating arts, entertainment and pro sports, tourism, and show-projects.
None of what Kotkin writes in his article is news. Edwin Banfield noted it in The Unheavenly City back in the early 70s. But then - like now - the truth hurts.