Thursday, May 2, 2013

Urban Fire Down Below

Hello Everyone:

I'd like to start off with a couple of announcements today.  First, I finally got my diploma from USC on Monday.  Now I feel like I really finished school.  If you'd like to see a picture, you can find it on my timeline at  You can also leave your thoughts there as well.  Second, "Form and Landscape: Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Basin, 1940-1990" is now live.  You can access this online only exhibition at  Click on the link that says current exhibition, scroll down until you find it and click on it, then click on the link that says "online exhibition."  If you remember from a previous post titled "Form and Landscape," I discussed the panel presentation I attended.  This is a great exhibit and I think you'll enjoy it.  All right onto today's topic the urban disaster in the making.

In Monday's New York Times op-ed section, Patrick Sharkey, an associate professor of sociology at New York University, contributed a column about what he sees as pending disaster in the urban areas.  Professor Sharkey states in the opening paragraph that all the necessary ingredients for an urban crisis have been in place.  Unemployment has floated above the fifteen percent mark, in most of the distressed cities and into the suburbs.  The housing collapse has left large swarths of communities in a state of blight.  However, through it all the cities have been quiet.  Crime is at its lowest point since the seventies, public housing complexes have not fallen into decay, and there isn't a large population of homeless people in the streets.  So where's the crisis?  The crisis is in the privacy of the American home.  The crisis has never made it out into the streets.  According to Professor Sharkey, it can also be called the "Private Recession."

Think about it for a minute.  When you look at major urban centers such as Los Angeles or New York, they seem to be thriving.  Yet when you go out to the suburban areas you find a much different story.  Homeowners who can barely afford to live in their homes and/or maintain their lifestyle.  Some would say it's their own fault for want a lavish life.  Sure it's easy to blame the person and to some extent it may be true.  But ours is not judge.  If you compare the current situation with the recession in the eighties, the current economic climate is different.  In the eighties, the recession was less severe but neighborhoods were deteriorating and violent crime was higher.  Cities were trying to deal with a host of economic and demographic changes: the loss of manufacturing jobs, white and middle-class minorities fleeing the downtown areas, and declining tax revenues.  Simultaneously, cities saw their federal aid quickly decline as the Reagan administration slashed programs such as Community Development Block Grants and public housing.  The result was a foregone conclusion.  Housing agencies were unable to maintain their complexes.  Public schools deteriorated, police departments were overwhelmed, public transportation fell apart. It took two decades for cities to recover.

There are many factors that contributed to the difference between the recession then and the one now.  Professor Sharkey points to the unpopular $840 billion  fiscal program, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act enacted in 2009.  Many of the largest and most significant investments made by the "stimulus" went into institutions and organization that were necessary to functioning communities.  Abandoned homes did not becomes crimes infested places, rather, almost $2 billion went into either demolishing or renovating them.  Class sizes did not swell and the police force did not disappear from the streets.  Instead, stimulus money went into stabilizing state budget, improving (some) underperforming schools and rehiring police officers for community based policing.  Great, sounds like a good use of funds.  So now what's next?  If we take into account the historical cycle of programs like this, we're about to experience a period of neglect and disinvestment, following the current period of major investment.

In the early days of the first Obama administration, the White House announced the formation of the Office of Urban Policy, the unveiling of several high-profile investment programs in urban communities, and the passage of the stimulus package.  The Office of Urban Policy really never got going, initiative such as "Promise Neighborhoods" were bogged down in politics, and the stimulus money was spent.  In the cycle of things, we're about to enter a period of neglect.  However, fear not, there is a way to break the cycle.  In order to accomplish this task there has to be a shift in federal urban policy.  Let's skip the fanfare in favor of policy that has a sustained federal commitment to urban communities and institutions.  This doesn't require large sums of money, but it does infer a shift in priorities.  One example Professor Sharkey cites is federal effort to end exclusionary zoning practices, de facto segregation, which allows communities to exclude low-income residents by restricting the types of housing that can be built.

Further, Professor Sharkey points out that the risks associated with growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood could be mitigated if the monies used for incarcerating young people could be shifted to re-integrating former prisoners into society, reinforcing the connections between police and community groups, maintaining clean streets and safe parks.  The idea of reintegrating former prisoners into society at large is good one but it should start in the prisons with academic and vocational education as well as a way for new parolees to obtain employment and housing when they leave.  The other suggestions are fairly typical suggestions not anything bolder.  Also, Professor Sharkey suggests that they shortage of affordable high-quality housing could be addressed if federal money forfeited to the home mortgage interest deduction was used instead to expand the housing and improve the quality of affordable public and private housing.  Okay, before some of you out there start screaming beggars can't be chosers, let me posit this, why should a low-income individual or family have to settle for substandard housing?  Would you live in something that was vermin and insect infested, bad plumbing, inadequate lighting and ventilation, and in disrepair?  I didn't think so.  So why should low-income individuals and families.  I smell a historic preservation planning initiative.

The Recovery Act provided these types of investments to localities across the nation but nearly four years later, unemployment has slightly declined in many urban areas and state tax revenues have partially recovered.  So with pending cuts to housing, schools, and community organizations from the sequester, fragile communities are in danger of going into neglect.  Professor Sharkey concludes that only a sustained commitment to urban neighborhoods can end the cycle of investment and neglect, avoid the urban fire.  

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