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Sunday, March 1, 1998

Breaking Cities

To the Editor:

In his article "Broken Cities: Liberalism’s Urban Legacy" (March–April 1998), Steven Hayward makes a few good points. American cities, despite upbeat rhetoric to the contrary, are still struggling with high rates of unemployment and crime, broken schools, and subpar municipal services. Businesses and middle-class families are being pushed away from urban settings. Mayors should focus on a nonpartisan, back-to-basics agenda of "public safety, public works, and education." (The successful ones are doing just that.) And the federal government does burden cities with regulations that make re-using urban land prohibitively expensive. It should experiment with radical devolution.

But some of Hayward’s assertions are completely off the mark. He states that "the decentralization of cities, and the dispersal of people, especially middle-aged, middle-class people, is a natural phenomenon that we should not hope to reverse completely." He is wrong to see the suburbanization of families and businesses as a wholly "natural" event. Although suburbanization is partly market-driven, there are, and have been, a slew of state and federal policies that underwrite suburban development and drain the vitality of cities and older suburbs. Government transportation spending is skewed toward the extension of roads into the countryside, making commercial strips and housing subdivisions economically feasible. Existing infrastructure, by contrast, is neglected. Tax subsidies for homeownership enable homebuyers to build bigger homes on bigger lots outside city limits.

Other government policies that are by no means "liberal" have helped fuel the rise in concentrated urban poverty, which is directly correlated with failing schools, high crime, and depleted services. State laws permit suburban communities to effectively bar low- and moderate-income residents from their neighborhoods and schools and to insulate themselves from the social obligations of the entire region. Housing vouchers—designed to give low-income families choice in the rental market—have been administered by a patchwork of political jurisdictions without regard to the geography of the metropolitan marketplace.

The other mistake Hayward makes is to assume that liberals, and only liberals, "are in a lather about ‘sprawl’ and want to impose huge new land-use regulation schemes to achieve ‘the new urbanism’ of higher density development." New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, Connecticut governor John Rowland, and Ohio state treasurer Ken Blackwell, hardly liberal standard-bearers, have all backed variants of "smart growth" policies.

The "smart growth" movement is, in fact, deeply conservative. It says that states and localities cannot build what they cannot pay for now or support in the future. It says that farmland, small towns, and the treasured character of particular places are valuable, and should not be paved over in the name of progress.

As for "huge new land regulation schemes," Maryland’s "smart growth" plan, backed by Democratic governor Parris Glendening, lets developers build anywhere they choose. But if they want state support in the form of subsidized roads, sewers, and schools, they must build in areas targeted for development.

If we want a serious urban policy, we cannot confine ourselves to an agenda of schools, crime, and deregulation. That agenda will not be enough to help cities counteract government-subsidized sprawl. Much of what has undermined cities has occurred outside city limits. We cannot save the cities without looking beyond their borders.

Bruce Katz
Brookings Institution
Washington, D.C.


To the Editor:

Steven Hayward correctly condemns the pathology-based social programs that have harmed American cities. Tolerance of crime, the public-school monopoly, bureaucratic government, and social welfare programs that infantilize the poor have all taken their toll.

But Hayward overstates his case by proclaiming that "the overriding cause of the nation’s urban calamity is modern liberal social policy." If that were true, why do socialist Stockholm, recently communist Prague, and liberal, welfare-oriented Toronto look so nice and function so well? Although all three cities would certainly benefit from more market-based public policy, these cities have experienced nothing like the economic devastation found in America’s old cities. So what is the difference? I would argue that massive federal subsidy of highways, to the near-exclusion of any other form of travel, is the overriding cause of the nation’s urban calamity.

In Canada, the national government provides no money for interstate highways or mass transit. The major cities of Canada—Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver—all have healthy downtown areas with a rich variety of travel choices, paid for mostly by local government.

In the United States, the national government pays 90 percent of the capital costs of interstate highways, states pay 10 percent, and local sources provide nothing. The federal money overwhelms local choice. If you want to correlate the decline of American cities to a government policy, correlate poverty to miles of urban freeway in a city.

For example, compare impoverished Detroit, which has gone ahead and built every freeway it ever thought up, with San Francisco, where commuters can still choose among various forms of mass transit. Better yet, compare Berlin, most of which had been reduced to rubble by the end of World War II, with Detroit, which was then the thriving factory of world democracy. Today, someone unfamiliar with World War II would probably assume that it was Detroit that had been the epicenter of wartime destruction. Despite a social welfare system beyond the scope of anything in America, Berlin has been completely rebuilt.

Hayward needs to account for this difference. He would discover what conservative Paul Weyrich has long known: that the U.S. interstate highway program is among the most foolish and destructive federal programs ever imposed on the American people.

Mayor John O. Norquist
Milwaukee, Wis.

Steven Hayward replies: Both letters grudgingly admit that my main critiques of urban policy were on target, and then rush to change the subject. Bruce Katz jumped for the suburban bait hook, line, and sinker, while Mayor Norquist, whose administration I admire, reminds me of the blind man who, upon feeling the elephant’s trunk, declares it to be a snake.

Mayor Norquist’s letter is mildly baffling in the sense that it bolsters my central point—that liberal social policy is responsible for the destruction of our urban areas—while trying to argue with it. It is true (though exaggerated) that the interstate highways have had significant effects on central cities, but that’s just another example of centralized, liberal federal policy altering incentives and speeding the collapse of urban America.

The mayor’s correlation of urban poverty to freeways won’t hold up, however. In San Francisco, my former hometown, the pockets of poverty are correlated with proximity to mass transit, which in any case has hardly impeded the process of suburbanization in the Bay Area. Another counter-example would be Washington D.C., which has few freeways downtown but lots of poverty.

There is some merit to the writers’ points, but their central contention that suburban areas have received disproportionate subsidies is at best not proven, and at worst incorrect. Katz’s tacit premises are that suburban growth depends on government subsidies because it doesn’t pay for itself and that "sprawl" (which is never defined precisely, even in the pages of the Journal of the American Planning Association) is consuming large amounts of valuable land. Both premises are axiomatic among urban planners today, but both are the result of unchallenged groupthink.

The total area of developed urban and suburban land is about 3 percent of the total land area of the continental United States, which hardly justifies the crisis rhetoric that surrounds the issue of "sprawl." The controversy over whether growth pays for itself is complicated, but Helen Ladd’s study for the Lincoln Land Institute found that local government budgets grow faster in fast-growing counties than in slow-growth counties, exactly the opposite of what one would expect if it were true that "growth doesn’t pay for itself."

I agree strongly with Katz’s critique of exclusionary suburban zoning practices, but the right solution would be a greater respect for property rights. Liberals recoil from this principle, however, and prefer another dose of regulation and social engineering.

My great fear these days is that I will have to return to Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship in 15 years to write an article titled, "Broken Suburbs: Liberalism’s Suburban Legacy." Having failed at urban renewal, let’s leave suburban renewal out of government’s callused hands.


Lotts of Learning

To the Editor:

I enjoyed Tyce Palmaffy’s article on Thaddeus Lott ("No Excuses," Jan.– Feb. 1998). I am from the Houston area, so I am aware of his successes. It’s a shame that he seems to be the exception instead of the rule.

I teach at Hambrick Middle School in the Aldine school district just north of the Houston school district. Last year, we received a new principal, Nancy Blackwell, who is doing great things at Hambrick. Our passage rate on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills rose to more than 80 percent last year, and we’re aiming higher this year. The rules she has put in place have put pride back into our school community. Last year, Hambrick earned "recognized" status from the state, as did the Aldine school district as a whole, the largest district in Texas to do so.

I wish that more people would take note of what Hambrick and other schools have accomplished and not just dwell on the negative, wringing their hands and talking about junking the whole public-school system. Thanks to excellent leadership, teachers across the state are expecting a lot more from Texas students than they used to.

Winifred Bellido
Houston, Texas



To the Editor:

"See Dick Flunk" by Tyce Palmaffy (Nov.–Dec. 1997) was a brilliant review of the issues pertaining to reading. I now require my education students to read it, since most are brainwashed by faculty who adhere to whole language. The tragedy is that most teachers do not read such articles, nor are they aware that whole language is unsupported by research.

An excellent point was made in the conclusion, which read, "Egalitarians worried about the increasing distance between rich and poor should take heed of researchers’ warnings." I am often shocked by conservative leaders and thinkers who are unaware that many of their ideas would benefit the poor. They allow President Clinton and other liberals to take the high ground, even though most of their proposals would hurt poor people.

Fred Stopsky
Professor of Education
Webster University
St. Louis, Mo.


WFB in Stereo

To the editor:

I thoroughly enjoyed Mark Herring’s article on the need for an Electronic Conservative Clearinghouse Library ("Virtual Veritas," Nov.–Dec. 1997), and I agree with it completely. This would be not only a wonderful resource on the history of the conservative intellectual movement but would also provide scholars with a place to go for primary information.

I did want to mention that at least one of the items on Herring’s conservative audio wish list is already available. "Imagine," Herring writes, "sitting down and listening to William F. Buckley Jr.’s oral history of the founding of National Review."

I conducted that interview, and donated it to the Library of Congress’s oral history section, where patrons can listen to it. I assure you, it makes for an absorbing hour.

Tim Goeglein
Press Secretary
Office of U.S. Senator Dan Coats
Washington, D.C.

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