News: American Cities on the Mend

Author brings his message of urban renewal and hope to Cincinnati


You might not have noticed, but many American cities are becoming better places to live. Reforms and movements in public housing, education, policing, finance, welfare and community building are gradually erasing the stigmas of poverty, crime and obsolescence cities have suffered for decades, according to Paul Grogan, co-author of Comeback Cities.

City crime rates are drastically lower than a decade ago, as are the number of people on welfare. Infamous public housing projects, often poorly maintained, are coming down, replaced by more human-scaled houses and apartments partially owned by residents.

Bureaucratic city school districts, some unable to provide basic skills, are attempting to raise standards through competition and decentralized experimentation.

New housing and businesses are filling even such bombed-out areas as the South Bronx, thanks to the efforts of non-profit community-development corporations (CDCs). CDCs are usually small, community-staffed corporations devoted to building or renovating housing and businesses. Since 1994 these grassroots organizations have built between 40,000 and 50,000 homes and apartments per year, according to Grogan.

Of course, the expanding economy has also helped, but that doesn't tell the whole story, Grogan says. From 1986 to 1998 he was president of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), the nation's largest donor to CDCs and other community development groups.

The Ford Foundation helped start the LISC in 1979 with $9.5 million in seed money. Since then, the LISC has invested more than $3 billion in private capital in inner-city redevelopment.

CDCs started in the 1970s when no one was looking, Grogan says. In the South Bronx, small groups of stubborn residents began saving buildings by forming these tax-exempt organizations, believing they could do better than the government. CDCs scraped together money from foundations, government grants and private business and used it to fund a block-by-block building spree.

With $1.36 billion in city, state, federal and private investment, CDCs built 10,000 new houses and apartments in the South Bronx between 1988 and 1997, Grogan writes. Property-tax collections doubled from 1990 to 1996 and felonies dropped by more than 61 percent.

The South Bronx still isn't a middle-class neighborhood, Grogan writes; but it's a much better place to live than 20 years ago.

"And I think it's hard for people to see these things happening," Grogan says. "It's even happening in some of the worst places."

More than 3,500 CDCs are active across the country, including 21 in Boston, where Grogan lives.

Grogan will be in Cincinnati on Monday at the invitation of Community Investment Partners, a local LISC-like group. Founded in 1998, Community Investment Partners receives funding from Fifth-Third Bank, Procter and Gamble, the United Way and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

Many of the movements Grogan discusses are happening here.

· The Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) has received $66.5 million in federal grants to replace or renovate 1,837 public-housing units at Laurel Homes and Lincoln Court, both in the West End. Although the number of housing units will decrease to 1,215, CMHA expects housing vouchers to make up the difference. About 15 percent of the new units will be for rent or sale at market rates, an effort to attract a mix of incomes.

· The City of Cincinnati has spent $63.2 million, and private groups $31 million, to build or renovate 1,800 new housing units in the first six months of 2000, according to the Department of Neighborhood Services.

· Hamilton County welfare cases decreased from more than 63,000 in 1993 to fewer than 21,000 this year.

· Cincinnati Public Schools is creating decentralized offices around the city and giving schools more autonomy in spending, setting schedules and teaching. The district backs three charter schools, and is restructuring its five high schools into smaller schools.

· The Cincinnati Police Division has been focusing more on preventive community policing through crime watches, community patrol groups, neighborhood officers and anti-drug marches.

The new efforts follow the "broken windows" theory of policing, according to Lt. Larry Powell, community police coordinator. The theory holds that seemingly minor problems such as graffiti and broken windows, if left alone, tell criminals no one is looking out for a community, and therefore encourage crime.

Police are also trying to learn residents' concerns, instead of just reacting to problems after the fact, Powell says.

Cincinnati crime decreased in almost every major category from 1991 to 1999. The number of murders fell 42 percent; rapes, 29 percent; robberies, 39 percent; aggravated assault, 60 percent; and petty theft, 28 percent. Only auto theft has stubbornly resisted the trend, increasing by 4 percent.

Larger cities have seen even more dramatic decreases. Between 1990 and 1996, New York's homicide rate dropped by 58.7 percent and Boston's by 61.2 percent.

Of course, cities still have problems. Many, including Cincinnati, still lose people to the suburbs, in part because of the better schools and because few new houses are being built in the city. For some, cities still conjure up images of poverty and crime. And a certain number of Americans still look for the peace and quiet of a semi-rural atmosphere.

"We live in a society that's hostile to cities," Grogan says. "It's going to have to be a cultural change."

Europeans, by contrast, have largely maintained their urban centers. Americans often abandon buildings decades after they are built. Europeans, on the other hand, find productive uses for centuries-old buildings.

The urban successes haven't happened quickly or easily. In Harlem, small, independent business owners opposed new retail, fearing competition. In Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine is caught between entrepreneurs and advocates for the poor.

Cities declined with a lot of federal help, Grogan says. The Federal Housing Administration's guaranteed mortgages and tax credits decreased the cost of buying a home, but redlining restricted loans to largely white, suburban areas. Limits on immigration after World War II to the 1960s reduced the number of people moving into cities. And the interstate highway system overran many urban neighborhoods.

How far can cities rebound with so many legal, economic and cultural rules still favoring suburban development?

"I don't know, but I think it's a hopeful time," Grogan says.

Welfare reform has yet to endure a recession, and the effectiveness of education reforms will take years to assess. But if cities can survive under such stacked odds since World War II, Grogan says, imagine what they could be with fair treatment.

Grogan will be at the Queen City Club from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday. For reservations, call 852-6888, ext. 222. Admission is free. ©