Madonna’s Bra and the American Dream

Article by Tom McEnery

Kindred spirits seem to find one another. In a San Jose neighborhood centered on a small school called Arbuckle, off a street called Poco Way, a group of Santa Clara University students came face to face with a simple fact on a sunny Saturday in late May.

A day-long community cleanup sponsored buy the City of San Jose dovetailed nicely with my intention to provide a behind-the-scenes view of modern urban America for the students in my class on “The City”. “It is safe to say,” I had told them, “that the success of our society in the 21st Century will be predicated on the success of our cities.” Our classroom studies and lectures needed to be supplemented by some time at ground zero. They spent it in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the Bay Area has to offer. The class joined city workers, social service counselors, teachers and police officers, in a genuine attempt not only to get a glimpse at the future, but also to change it. We had all seen, too graphically, what the future might hold if nothing were done.

Hell, a wise man once said, is truth discovered too late. South Central Los Angeles’ truth was revealed only by the recent inferno. It reached City Hall, the White House, and even engulfed the Fredericks of Hollywood store. While the President and other officials reacted, the manager reported that “they stole Madonna’s bra. Madonna’s bras is replaceable,” she went on tearfully, “but Ava Gardner’s isn’t. It was worth a lot.” We need to replace something beyond a piece of lingerie. We are relearning the meaning of societal value, and we need to replace despair with hope for the future of the American city. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or the Mayor as I was, you need to see a silver lining in the horror of our neighborhoods.

An incomprehensible suburban jury and a mob in the inner city have pulled back the curtain of values. Behind it, and on the small screen across the land, black and white citizens see their worst fears of the other. There is no city on a hill visible, only a society paralyzed by frightening images and the results of the “opportunity ’80s.”

This is surely not progress. Teen mothers and crack babies, neighborhoods with crumbling schools and barbaric crime rates, all have been bellowing the truth at our leaders. Career politicians were oblivious to the meaning of the glowing embers, allowing young men to face a death rate on the streets of America higher than in most wars. Now with the outbreak of the fires, small stirrings distract us, as we see brief glimmerings of concern. Jack Kemp is returned from limbo, advising on enterprise zones and empowerment. Peter Ueberroth is drafted as rebuilding czar.

Why has it come to appointing a czar to deal with nightly staples of many localities? The warnings were clear to the powers that be for a decade. When I was Mayor of San Jose, we answered the warnings with a workmanlike approach, setting our sights at winning the battle block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood. We said that we would not surrender one blade of grass to the drug dealers. First, we met the enemy head on, with “Project Crackdown”, a multi-agency, multi-service effort for direct intervention in areas most affected by crack cocaine. The Crackdown team was like football’s “flying wedge,” leading with the Police Department’s Narcotics Enforcement Team and following up with intensive enforcement of health and safety codes, improved lighting, removal of abandoned vehicles (often the venue of drug deals), and neighborhood cleanups like the recent one in Poco Way to remove the visual impact of graffiti and blight. In its first year, Project Crackdown resulted in an 80 percent reduction in drug-related arrests in targeted areas, but our effort couldn’t stop there. I spent many days and nights out there, but the courage of those who actually lived there was prodigious. We know that long-term success would come only if local residents were empowered, spurring parents and families to reclaim their streets, their parks, and their schools. San Jose hired several full-time, bilingual coordinators to organize neighborhood Community Action Teams, which meet monthly and discuss strategies to keep their neighborhoods safe. With police, city services, and neighborhood residents all working together, we have had some remarkable success. As my students saw in May, we restored playgrounds to students, because we put our faith in the courage of parents and teachers, and the resilience of children. One school in a Crackdown area, O. B. Whalley Elementary, has received a national award from the President, in a place where formerly students carried fear of drug dealers instead of homework to school each morning.

We do things quite differently in San Jose. Just as America launched the Marshall Plan to rebuild a war-torn Europe after the cataclysm of World War II, we planned to build quite literally on our successes in battling urban deterioration by priming the economic pump ourselves. In the Capital of Silicon Valley, instead of debating enterprise zones for a decade, we enacted them in eight weeks. By waiving taxes initially to attract small and large businesses, we soon saw tax revenues flow into our coffers. We gave to get. One glittering result in San Jose’s remarkable new downtown skyline, featuring the landmark Fairmont Hotel, office towers, a new Convention Center, three new museums, light rail trolleys, and a city full of workers making good salaries and paying taxes to hire cops and youth workers. Enterprise tax incentives, still debated in theoretical terms in Congress and in cities like Los Angeles, brought our city cash and enthusiasm, jobs and hope, providing the foundation for one of the most successful urban revivals in the country. To maintain the economic base underwriting all our efforts in building a safe community, we aggressively sought business partners among Valley firms, following the advice given in “Casablanca” by Claude Rains: we began to round up the usual suspects. An entrepreneurial City Hall helped IBM, Hewlett-Packard and dozens of others expand, while we recruited Fujitsu, Hitachi and Sony to our industrial tax base, adding more revenue. Even now, amid recessionary budget cutbacks, San Jose is keeping its commitment to add more police, and the benefits are doubled: the lowest major-city crime rate in the country, plus a “community policing” force becoming a mirror image of our diverse population. If cities are not entrepreneurial, they will find themselves begging with a tin cup, watching their tax base erode.

Our demanding San Jose formula gave us a record to be proud of, but we hoped to teach and learn. We looked for leaders, on the state and national level; we found only politicians, unwilling to replace failed ideas with new approaches. I don’t believe many were even interested in the topic. Prior to the Rodney King verdict it was not in vogue to worry about cities.

Our political structure is rapidly becoming the moral equivalent of last year’s I-5 freeway mass collision. The trip from Desert Storm to Desert Pileup took only a year. Fingers point and blame abounds, but Washington sees no destination. Politicians speed ahead, wrapped in a sandstorm, oblivious to the carnage just down the road. It is not a question of Democrats or Republicans, there are only Demopublicans, the national incumbent party, bereft of ideas and willpower. Little wonder that many voters are enamored of a candidate like Ross Perot.

Our leaders in Washington let us cling to the medieval strategy of “drawbridge defense.” Raise the bridge and remain safe in Fortress Suburbia. Tepid and confusing comments from President Bush and Governor Wilson reflect their calculated dismissal of votes from the inner cities, seeking electoral victory in the “edge cities” of Middle America. This morally repugnant course of abandoning America’s cities is merely smart, cynical politics. The politicians may be confident; they may be re-elected. Yet we will not be safe. This political victory will come at a very high cost to the country. Out every highway from every inner-city slum and drug-infested neighborhood, germs travel. No wall is high enough, no highway long enough. Any family can be touched tragically, and no election slogan is clever enough to stop a bullet.

Only death and destruction bring us to South Central L.A., John Gregory Dunne wrote long before these riots. Unless things change, it will be death and a photo opportunity. I want to believe that the basic decency of President Bush will assert itself, that Congress faced with a national emergency dwarfing Panama or Iraq will steel itself to action. Perhaps one hundred Peter Ueberroths will provide a partnership with those millions that still believe in the American dream. I, too, want to believe in America’s ability to heal herself. But we cannot wring our hands and wait for Uncle Sam’s largesse to solve the problems of urban America.

Earlier this spring, at the Santa Clara University “Forum on the New City-State,” a campus audience listened to five current and former big-city mayors debate the future of our cities. Dianne Feinstein, now the Democratic nominee for a U.S. Senate seat, led the way in eloquently criticizing Washington’s decade-long chokehold on federal funds for cities. Yet there was a note struck at the forum, as leaders went beyond simplistic appeals for “more money from Washington.” The mayors of the Bay Area’s two largest cities, San Francisco and San Jose, joined in recognizing that in today’s fiscal climate, cities must go it alone. “We have to make things happen ourselves,” argued Mayor Susan Hammer, my successor, and she cited our successful redevelopment program over the past dozen years as an example. The ideological base beneath the San Jose strategy is not liberal or conservative dogma, but practicality.

All the mayors on the panel nodded in affirmation as Phoenix’s former mayor Terry Goddard, who had a string of solid successes in that booming Sunbelt capital, spoke of a new, self-reliant approach to meeting urban challenges. It was encouraging to see consensus on self-reliance, and the Los Angeles flashpoint only three weeks later reinforced the lessons we learned in the forum and in the classroom. Washington and other cocoons, take note: innovative programs and leaders around the country share a new vision of the American city, independent in its approach to problem-solving, and confident in its faith in people working to improve their neighborhoods and their lives.

When I see the excitement and enthusiasm in the face of the multi-ethnic neighbors of Poco Way, and look at the joy on the faces of the children at Arbuckle School, I know that these students of SCU, participating in Project Crackdown’s community empowerment, are on the right track. We are all on the right track. Through similar efforts with the East Side Project and the Santa Clara Community Action Program (SCCAP), Santa Clara students are giving much more than a monetary donation or a good wish. They are giving themselves. It is the ultimate contribution.

In such a struggle, dollars cannot be the primary currency. We need the human resources of our major corporations, like those we are enlisting in this effort in Silicon Valley to adopt schools and entire neighborhoods. We must forge an alliance with suburban parents who know that no locks can protect their families unless children everywhere are safe. We need our great universities in the vanguard of this battle. Government must show a courage and selflessness in the finest traditions of our nation and give city residents the tools to take back their neighborhoods, as our San Jose model has done. This is the battle for the New Domestic Order, the restoration of America’s social contract. We must not lose it.

Perhaps out of the tragedy of Los Angeles, we can find the will to restore the ability of a child to dream. We know that we can replace Madonna’s bra; we know its value. Our students at Santa Clara and the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley know that success comes when you drop old icons and accept the risk of new ideas. We must replace politics as usual with the best combination of private sector entrepreneurship, government activism, and human concern. As a nation built on hopes and dreams, we can do no less. Hope must be restored in America’s cities.


Tom McEnery, Mayor of San Jose from 1983-1990, is a Presidential Fellow at SCU and is currently writing a book on the future of the American city.

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