In Prospect

Autumn 1999

Over the last decade, a new understanding of how to run cities successfully has taken shape, molded in no small measure by City Journal and the mayors who are its fans. The new principles are a total break with the old urban-governance orthodoxy that saw cities as vast repositories of wealth to tax, in order to pay for generous services and support for the numerous urban poor-services provided by hordes of well-paid municipal workers. Today’s smart mayors shun this municipal welfare-state approach, whose high taxes have driven away legions of rich and middle-class taxpayers and cost-conscious corporations, along with the jobs they create. These mayors concentrate instead on doing well the few fundamental things that cities need to flourish.

The first of these is fighting crime: the basic job of any government is assuring the safety of its citizens in their homes and on the streets. For too long, cities shirked this task, skeptical that police could do much to prevent crime anyway, and fearful of criticism from elites who believed that criminals were themselves victims. Innovative policing techniques—including vigorously trying to keep guns off the streets, for example, or enforcing quality-of-life laws against noise or prostitution—have cut crime by an astounding 68 percent in a city like New York, by making life tough for criminals and showing that police are serious about maintaining law and order.

Second, innovative mayors (often in concert with forward-looking governors) have been vigorous welfare reformers, cutting costs by cutting the rolls—now down nationally by almost 50 percent—and (more important) replacing a culture of dependency with a culture of work. In a related move, these mayors are making municipal government smaller but more effective by contracting out services to private companies and, as in the case of welfare, providing less of existing services or even cutting out services that cities shouldn’t be providing at all. The point is to stop sucking vitality out of the private economy by excess taxation—for, among other things, a vigorous private sector, with jobs for all, is the best anti-poverty program of them all. Finally, the new urban vision puts school reform front and center, emphasizing such system-transforming measures as vouchers and charter schools. For too long, the public-education monopoly has focused on making jobs easy and secure for its employees rather than on providing the decent education that kids need—especially inner-city kids, for whom good schools are the main road to opportunity.

This issue leads off with three object lessons in the new urban paradigm. Ed Rendell, recently elected head of the Democratic National Committee and nearing the end of his second and last term as Philadelphia’s mayor, burst on the scene in 1992 as one of the nation’s most dynamic municipal leaders—"America’s Mayor," vice-president Al Gore anointed him. But after a spectacular start, Rendell ran out of gas, as Fred Siegel and Kay S. Hymowitz show in their story on Rendell’s mayoralty on page 14. Why? For all his courage, Siegel and Hymowitz  explain, Rendell is a prisoner of the old orthodoxies and doesn’t understand the innovative measures that have revived other cities and that alone can stop Philadelphia’s slow decline. By contrast, as Heather Mac Donald shows on page 28, new Oakland mayor Jerry Brown—somewhat unexpectedly, given his familiar countercultural rhetoric—has taken the new principles to heart and is vigorously using them to transform his faded city across the bay from San Francisco. William J. Stern, who headed the state’s Urban Development Corporation when it put in place a $2.6 billion plan to resucitate Times Square, examines (on page 42) the rebirth that so spectacularly occurred, explaining that it had little to do with the UDC’s foray into state capitalism and everything to do with the policing, zoning, and tax cutting that are the proper functions of government.

This issue’s stories on the sexes by Roger Scruton (page 80) and Wendy Shalit (page 89) may seem far removed from cities and their problems. But in fact changes in our culture have had enormous consequences for cities over the last 40 years, as Stern’s Times Square story suggests. In particular, the decline of marriage, which Scruton and Shalit examine, has been key to the rise of the urban underclass, with its almost 100 percent illegitimacy rate. Our cities have long been Ground Zero for cultural experimentation, and figuring out just what is happening and what its consequences are, as both these stories so absorbingly do, is the necessary first step to cultural renewal.