Saving Our Cities

summer 1992

America’s future lies in their success


By Tom McEnery

Hell is truth discovered too late, a wise man once said. South Central Los Angeles’ truth was revealed only by the recent riots. It reached City Hall and the White House and even engulfed Fredericks of Hollywood. While the president and other officials reacted, the Fredericks’ store manager reported that “[the riots] stole Madonna’s bra.” She went on tearfully, “Madonna’s bras is replaceable, but Ava Gardner’s isn’t. It was worth a lot.” Clearly, in America we need to replace something beyond a piece of lingerie. We need to replace despair with hope in the American city; we have already seen what the future will hold if nothing is done.

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.

Teen-age mothers and crack babies, barbaric crime rates, and decaying neighborhoods with crumbling schools all have been bellowing the truth at our leaders. Career politicians have been oblivious to the meaning of the glowing embers, allowing young men to face a death rate on U.S. streets higher than in most wars. Now with the suppression of the L.A. fires, we see glimmerings of concern. Jack Kemp returns briefly from limbo, advising on enterprise zones and empowerment; Peter Ueberroth is drafted as rebuilding czar-such tokens.

Why has it come to appointing a czar to deal with the nightly staples of so many localities? The warnings have been clear for a decade. When I was mayor of San Jose, we answered the warnings with a workmanlike approach, setting our sights on winning the battle block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood. We said we would not surrender one blade of grass to the drug dealers. First, we met the enemy head on, forming Project Crackdown, a multi-agency, multi-service effort for direct intervention in areas affected by crack cocaine. It led with the Police Department’s Narcotics Enforcement Team and followed up with intensive enforcement of health and safety codes, improved lighting, removal of abandoned vehicles (often the venue of drug deals), and neighborhood cleanups to remove the visual impact of graffiti.

In its first year, Project Crackdown resulted in an 80 percent reduction in drug-related arrests in targeted areas, but the effort didn’t stop there. We knew long-term success would come only if local residents were empowered to reclaim their streets, their parks and their schools. San Jose hired several full-time, bilingual coordinators to organize neighborhood community action teams, which now meet monthly to discuss strategies to keep their neighborhoods safe. With police, city services, and neighborhood residents working together, we have had some remarkable success.

We restored playgrounds to students because we put our faith in the courage of parents and teachers and the resilience of children. At one school, O.B. Whalley Elementary, students once carried fear of drug dealers instead of homework to school each morning. Today, the school boasts a national award from the president.

Just as America launched the Marshall Plan to rebuild a warn-torn Europe after World War II, we in San Jose planned a massive effort. We built 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 as Congress has done, we established 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. Once glittering result is San Jose’s remarkable new downtown skyline, featuring the landmark Fairmont Hotel, office towers, the 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. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to develop the formula.

Even amid recessionary budget cutbacks, San Jose is keeping its commitment to add more police, and the benefits are evident: the lowest major city crime rate in the country, plus a community policing force that is becoming a mirror image of our diverse population.

Our demanding San Jose plan 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 politically correct to worry about cities.

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 George Bush and Gov. Pete Wilson reflect their calculated dismissal of votes from the inner cities, seeking instead electoral victory in the “edge cities” of suburban America. This morally repugnant abandonment of American’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 high cost. 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.

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 100 Peter Ueberroths will provide a partnership with those millions who still believe in the American Dream. I too, want to believe in America’s ability to heal itself. But we cannot wring our hands and wait for Uncle Sam’s largesse to solve the problems of urban America.

At the SCU Forum on the New City-State earlier this spring, a campus audience listened to five current and former big-city mayors debate the future of our cities. Dianne Feinstein, now a Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, led the way in eloquently criticizing Washington’s decade-long chokehold on federal funds for cities. Yet there was a new 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 cities must go it alone in today’s fiscal climate. “We have to make things happen ourselves,” argued San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer, and she cited our successful redevelopment program during the past 12 years as an example. The ideological base beneath San Jose’s strategy is not liberal or conservative dogma, but practicality. That should be the only litmus test.

All the mayors on the panel nodded in affirmation as former Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard, who has a string of solid successes in that booming Sunbelt capital, spoke on a new, self-reliant approach to meeting urban challenges. It was encouraging to see consensus on self-reliance. 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.

Close to home, 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-the ultimate contribution. When I see the excitement and enthusiasm on the faces of residents of San Jose’s multiethnic neighbors, I know these SCU students participating in Project Crackdown’s community empowerment are on the right track.

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 the effort in Silicon Valley to adopt schools and entire neighborhoods. We must forge an alliance with suburban parents who know 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 courage and selflessness in the finest tradition 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 a New Domestic Order, the restoration of American’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 learn and dream. We know we can replace Madonna’s bra; we know its value. Our Santa Clara students and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs know 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, the United States can do no less. Hope must be restored in America’s cities-the success of our society in the 21st century depends on it.
Tom McEnery ’67 (M.A. ’69), mayor of San Jose from 1983 to 1990, is a presidential fellow at SCU and taught a class on “The City” this past spring quarter. He is currently writing a book on the future of the American City.

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