In November 1990, the mayors of America’s biggest cities gathered in New York to clamor for more federal aid. The unusual summit was a warning: in Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson’s words, “If the cities don’t make it, America’s going down the tubes.” To those who criticized the mayors for seeking a handout, Jackson retorted, “We have a right to demand what our people deserve.” The cities had problems, Chicago mayor Richard Daley said, that “we cannot solve . . . ourselves.”
As it turned out, the summit marked not the dawn of a new era but the closing of an old one. Since the mid-1960s, many big-city mayors and Washington policymakers had argued that the problems plaguing America’s cities—rising crime, deteriorating schools, sluggish economies, and social dysfunction—resulted from national and global economic forces that urban politicians were powerless to resist. Out of that period came an array of ambitious federal programs to aid city residents and revitalize struggling urban neighborhoods. Even though the programs—many of them carried out under the banner of the War on Poverty—did little to boost cities’ fortunes, the refrain that urban woes were Washington’s responsibility became commonplace among mayors and remained so for nearly three decades.
But just a few years after the summit, America witnessed the rise of a new group of mayors who rejected the notion that the federal government—or anyone else—should be their savior. Milwaukee mayor John Norquist decried the “tin-cup urbanism” that kept city officials looking to Washington for money and answers. New York’s Rudolph Giuliani argued that the tired ideology of urban dependency let cities “off the hook completely” for fixing their problems. The reformers, whose ranks also included innovators like Stephen Goldsmith in Indianapolis and Bret Schundler in Jersey City, didn’t just talk; they implemented policies that drove down crime, offered children and parents better alternatives to failing public schools, sent welfare recipients back to work, and improved the delivery of public services. Yet despite these successes, the urban-reform movement of the 1990s bypassed many cities, such as Buffalo, Cleveland, and St. Louis, where corruption and bad government continued to fester.
Now, though, at least two mayors of cities perennially deemed hopeless are trying to bring urban reform to city hall: Cory Booker, entering the fifth year of his fight to remake Newark; and Dave Bing, the former Detroit Pistons basketball star barely 18 months into his job at Detroit’s helm. Both mayors battle entrenched cultures of patronage, sleaze, and dependency that have made their cities virtual wards of the state and federal governments. Both challenge residents and policymakers to find solutions at home, not look for them in Washington. In some ways, their jobs are even tougher than those of the reformers of the nineties, since the troubles their cities face are more ingrained. Their efforts nevertheless offer two of America’s most distressed cities the first hope in decades.
Since the early days of the Republic, America’s cities have been centers of innovation, wealth, and power. As they grew larger and their governments more commanding, places like Boston, Chicago, Newark, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis also became battlegrounds where political machines contended for influence. The early ideal of the part-time citizen-legislator gave way to the professional pol. In his 1904 The Shame of the Cities, Lincoln Steffens observed that big-city governments across America had been undermined by a series of problems, including police corruption, politicians using the public till for their own gain, and rampant bribery in awarding public contracts, known at the time as “boodle.”
The out-of-control corruption brought in response a reform era led by progressives, like Theodore Roosevelt, who argued that modern scientific principles and ideas of efficiency, not smoky backroom deals, should direct city policy. For instance, as president of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners from 1895 to 1897, Roosevelt revamped the city’s police department, considered among the most crooked in America, by changing hiring procedures to favor the most qualified candidates rather than the politically connected.
However, some voters, not without reason, saw the progressives as cold, distant elites, uninterested in neighborhood issues. And the reformers occasionally overreached, as with their support of Prohibition. As a result, progressives—New York City mayor Seth Low, who governed in 1902, is a good example—were sometimes turned out of office as the public’s zeal for reform waned. So the old-style ethnic political machines held on to some measure of influence in many American cities through the first half of the twentieth century. And cities that remained in thrall to the machines weren’t ready to confront the economic and social changes that swept the nation during the 1960s.
Newark is a case in point. Founded by Puritan farmers in the seventeenth century, it slowly began to transform itself in the mid-nineteenth century into a powerful regional manufacturing center, blessed with an important port, superb rail connections, and proximity to mighty New York City. The city thrived through the post–World War II industrial boom, when its population swelled to nearly 440,000 residents in 1950 (see “Cory Booker’s Battle to Save Newark,” Spring 2007).
Newark’s industrialization also attracted powerful unions, infiltrated by organized crime, whose members gained a stranglehold not only on labor but, through payoffs and influence peddling, on city government, too. Infamous bootlegger Abner “Longie” Zwillman, an associate of Al Capone, wielded enormous sway in Newark government from Prohibition until his 1959 death (killed by rivals, some say). Stepping into the void was a capo in the Genovese crime family, Ruggiero “Richie the Boot” Boiardo, who helped fix the 1962 mayoral election for Democratic congressman Hugh Addonizio.
The ongoing corruption had profound consequences. One 1950s study estimated that government’s per-capita cost in Newark was twice as high as the average for similar American cities. When, starting in the late fifties, growing competition from southern states and overseas manufacturers put pressure on industrial concerns in Newark, businesses fled to cheaper venues—just as a generation of poor, unskilled blacks leaving the rural South were resettling in the city, adding to the ranks of the impoverished and unemployed. Tensions rose, and finally a confrontation between police and residents of the predominantly black Central Ward exploded into violence. The riots of July 1967 devastated swaths of Newark and sent a middle class that had lost faith in the city’s incompetent government scrambling to the suburbs.
The riots prompted investigations, and Mayor Addonizio was eventually convicted of corruption. But the old, mob-influenced political machine simply gave way to a new kind of machine that emerged in the 1960s. This new machine, made up of nonprofit organizations and public-sector unions, thrived on the billions of dollars that architects of the federal War on Poverty bestowed on Newark and other reeling cities. Addonizio’s successor, Kenneth Gibson, ran on a reform platform in 1970, but scandals continued to plague Newark during his 16 years in office, including his own indictment and trial for dispensing no-show jobs. Though Gibson avoided conviction, many city officials went to jail.
Gibson’s successor, Sharpe James, won the mayoralty in 1986 after vowing to reform city hall, but little changed during his two decades in power. In 1995, the state, citing vast corruption within Newark’s schools, took them over. The next year, Newark’s police chief pleaded guilty to ripping off a federal fund designed to combat drug crime, at a time when the cash-starved department lacked computers and residents complained of waiting hours for 911 responses. James’s chief of staff was found guilty of taking bribes; investigators had discovered $157,000 stuffed under the floorboards in his home. A prosecutor described city hall as a “supermarket,” since everything was for sale. Several years later, a federal audit of the city’s housing authority found millions of dollars misspent. In 2006, James himself went down on corruption charges. By then, governed for 35 years by mayors promising reform, Newark was worse off than ever, with a population shrunk to about 270,000, an unemployment rate double the national average, and a median family income just slightly above $30,000.
Like Newark, Detroit confronted increasingly severe social and economic problems during the second half of the twentieth century. Its auto industry began slumping in the mid-1950s—again, just as poor Southern blacks were pouring into the city. Detroit’s key governmental institutions, notably its schools and its police department, proved woefully unprepared to deal with the challenges. Amid rising racial tensions in Detroit in the summer of 1967, a police raid on an after-hours club, breaking up a welcome-home party for two Vietnam veterans, ignited a series of confrontations that led to six days of awful riots.
Massive federal, state, and private aid showered on Detroit, but the city’s downward spiral only worsened. Six years after the riots, Detroit elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, who preached revival but who further polarized the city’s race relations. In their groundbreaking paper “The Curley Effect”—named after James Michael Curley, mayor of Boston for much of the first half of the twentieth century, who favored Irish neighborhoods with extra services while promoting policies that encouraged other ethnic groups to leave the city—Harvard economists Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer show how Young slashed services and departments valued by middle-class constituents while hiking taxes on middle- and higher-income residents, helping speed white flight. Detroit went from about 44 percent African-American when Young first took office to 76 percent by the end of his tenure.
Young was a onetime labor organizer with a radical bent, and his idea of reform was to blow up the putatively unjust power structure without worrying much about what to replace it with. For instance, rather than improve the largely white police department, often criticized as insensitive to the needs of the city’s black neighborhoods, he went to war against it. In 1976, as crime was rising, he cut the force by an astonishing 20 percent. The police, reacting to Young’s frequent attacks and worrying about charges of racism, became reluctant to fight crime. “I wouldn’t write tickets for black kids,” admitted former Detroit officer Freddie Williams in Tamar Jacoby’s Someone Else’s House: America’s Unfinished Struggle for Integration. Young’s handpicked police chief, William Hart, dismissed complaints about the lack of enforcement as “racism and sour grapes.” Newspapers reported growing violence, such as a rock concert disrupted by a massive riot to which the undermanned police waited more than an hour to respond.
A refrain grew in Detroit’s white neighborhoods, and in the suburbs that ringed it, that Young wanted it to be a black city. The charge gained credence with the razing of the city’s Poletown neighborhood, an enclave of ethnic whites. To make way for a General Motors plant, the city seized more than 1,500 Poletown homes and 144 businesses and displaced some 3,500 people, half of whom were elderly and had lived there for decades. Residents resisted until the city withdrew services, including policing—a vivid illustration of the Curley effect. Arson became endemic. “The night air was always smoke-filled and people slept with guns nearby,” wrote George Cosetti, a documentary filmmaker on hand at the time. “City services became almost nonexistent. There was virtually no trash pickup, no police presence and before long the once quiet neighborhood was a jumble of looters and demolition crews during the day and arsonists and fire trucks by night.”
The Motor City’s demographic transformation left it much poorer, with fewer resources to address its difficulties. The population declined by half a million, the unemployment rate doubled, and the poverty rate jumped by some 75 percent. Yet the population change also secured Young’s hold on the electorate. His margin of victory increased in mayoral elections from a narrow initial win in 1973 to subsequent landslides. As his hold tightened, so did corruption and patronage within his administration. In another echo of Newark, to take one example, Detroit’s police chief and one of his deputy chiefs got caught trying to embezzle more than $2 million from a fund that financed police undercover operations.
As Detroit crumbled around him, Young became distant and isolated. He cruised through the city in an armor-plated Cadillac and outside the city in a Rockwell Sabreliner jet that cost more than $600,000 a year to operate—this at a time when Detroit needed handouts from the state and federal governments to keep functioning. Federal grants paid for one-quarter to one-third of city employees’ salaries at the height of Detroit’s dependence.
The mayor’s approach to governance outlasted him. When Young retired in 1993, Dennis Archer, a Michigan Supreme Court justice, won the mayoralty promising reform, but he struggled to enact his agenda in a city still dominated by Young’s allies. And when Archer decided not to seek a third term in 2001, Detroiters elected 31-year-old Kwame Kilpatrick, a Michigan assemblyman soon known as the “hip-hop mayor.” Under Kilpatrick, Detroit government returned to political extravagance and blatant patronage. Kilpatrick used a city credit card to pay for hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of lavish meals at pricey restaurants, spa massages, and Moët & Chandon champagne. He leased a Lincoln Navigator for his wife at taxpayer expense. As administrator of the city’s water system, he bypassed procurement procedures to issue contracts to political allies, earning a rebuke from a Detroit judge. In the episode that eventually brought him down, he carried on an extramarital affair with his chief of staff and then lied about it under oath until text messages exposed him.
Kilpatrick ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice and agreed to resign. It was this long legacy of corruption and mismanagement that Dave Bing had in mind when he observed, in his State of the City address earlier this year, that he had “inherited a city near bankrupt financially, ethically, and operationally.”
Today, luckily, Newark and Detroit resemble each other in a more encouraging respect: their mayors are advancing remarkably similar ideas about how to restore trust in government, reestablish competence in city hall, and revamp essential services that a city must deliver if its citizens and businesses are to flourish. After five years, Booker has come close to effecting just such a transition, some argue. Newark “will never return to an insular, siloed city,” maintained Rutgers University political scientist Clement Price during Booker’s reelection campaign earlier this year. “Newark is increasingly driven by people guided to come here because of Cory Booker and because of the new Newark.”
The two mayors have made disorder and crime a top issue—understandably, since both Detroit and Newark have, at various points, earned the unfortunate sobriquet “America’s crime capital.” Booker signaled his seriousness on this crucial front by selecting Garry McCarthy to lead his police department. McCarthy is a veteran of the Giuliani-era New York Police Department, which drove down crime in Gotham 70 percent by implementing the policing innovations of Commissioner William Bratton and his successors. To those who criticized hiring an outsider, Booker said he wanted results, not political posturing: “I will be relentless in the enforcement of the law. My residents shouldn’t have to deal with drug dealing on their corners punctuated by violence.”
McCarthy instituted a computer-based, NYPD-style crime-tracking system in Newark. He created the city’s first fugitive-apprehension squad. The police also installed a technologically advanced gunshot-detection system to alert them quickly to shootings anywhere in the city. Supported by the mayor, Newark cops have directed more of their resources to enforcing quality-of-life laws, seeking to instill respect for the law. The changes are clearly working. So far, overall crime is down about 15 percent since Booker took office. Violent crime has fallen even further—shootings are down nearly 50 percent and murders by about a third, though a series of drug-related shootings spiked the crime rate briefly this summer.
Booker is also trying to break the cycle of recidivism, a huge problem in Newark as ex-cons return to the city—and to their criminal ways. With support from various private groups (including City Journal’s publisher, the Manhattan Institute), Newark has introduced a promising new program based on the successful welfare reform of the nineties, which required aid recipients to work. The program has already placed some 500 ex-offenders in jobs. “Work provides dignity,” Booker says. “It’s a powerful moral, spiritual transition a person makes.”
Like Booker, the more recently elected Bing is working to bring modern policing to his city. One of America’s most violent urban areas, with a murder rate eight times that of New York, Detroit desperately needs better policing. The Detroit police make arrests in just 37 percent of all homicides, compared with a 60 percent arrest rate nationally. Whole floors of detention facilities in the city sit vacant, not because crime has fallen but because cops make so few arrests. Residents also complain about 911 calls that go unanswered. Public cynicism about the police is understandably widespread. “I’ve talked to dozens, probably hundreds, of people in the community who are telling me they never made a report because the police never came,” one official told the Detroit Free Press. “The delay in response time is such that many, many, many crimes don’t get reported.”
During his mayoral campaign, Bing said that reducing crime “requires a data-driven process built upon timely, accurate crime reporting” and “rapid deployment” of police to troubled areas, adding that “this policing philosophy has proven successful in other cities, including but not limited to New York City, which is arguably the safest large city in America.” Once elected, Bing kept his word and began installing a crime-tracking system like New York’s. He also found resources to put 150 more cops on the street to quicken response times to 911 calls, and the police department has established new units, including one to track down fugitives. Bing has worked to reopen police precincts closed by previous mayors and embarked on a plan to tear down vacant homes in the city, especially those near schools, that have become havens for drug dealing and other criminal activity.
Still, Bing has no easy task ahead. Shortly before he took office, a Detroit News investigation revealed that the police department had been systematically undercounting crimes, including murders, for years. Murders alone, the police admitted, were 23 percent higher than reported. Adding to Bing’s woes is that the police chief he selected to push for reform resigned, just a year into his term, after agreeing to have the department take part in a TV series that portrayed Detroit unfavorably.
Partly to end the perception that municipal government is an employment service, Booker has looked outside Newark’s traditionally patronage-laden government to find new talent. Heavily criticized himself for being an outsider during his run for mayor, Booker brought in not just McCarthy but also Stefan Pryor, a former New York City executive, to serve as head of economic development, and Bo Kemp, a New York native, tech executive, and Harvard Business School grad, to take over as Newark’s business administrator.
Booker has also tried to break from the old days of patronage and corruption by reducing bloat. In the waning days of the James administration, a federal investigation into Newark’s housing authority found it acting as a jobs program, using money intended for capital projects and maintenance to pad payrolls. Booker’s housing director, announcing that government in Newark would no longer operate as employer of last resort, cut the agency’s payroll by 50 percent and saved another $1.5 million annually by outsourcing services to private contractors. Unfortunately, such moves have been unpopular in a city where government has long been the biggest employer. Booker has thus made only partial headway in shrinking the rest of the city’s workforce, which is one reason that the city has confronted outsize budget problems during the current economic downturn. His latest goal is to eliminate about 700 more municipal jobs over the next several years.
Rather than expecting new funding from Washington or from the cash-strapped state government, Booker has turned to private foundations and charities for help in enacting his agenda. Many have responded because of Booker’s convincing argument that he is turning the city around. His privately funded endeavors include a Newark police fund, which has raised some $3 million to pay for innovations like cameras in public places and the gunshot-detection system. He has also raised millions of dollars in private money to support charter schools and clean up and maintain city parks. Several donors stepped up during recent budget shortfalls to keep city services, like pools, from being cut. As one donor to the parks told the New York Times, “I can’t imagine them doing this while Sharpe James controlled the parks department. You’d worry the money would be mismanaged or looted.”
Bing has been even more adamant about streamlining and professionalizing. During the campaign, Bing suggested that his private-sector experience—after playing in the NBA, he founded a steel company, built it into a successful manufacturing conglomerate, and managed it for 30 years—would help him transform city government. Shortly after taking office, he announced a new dress code at City Hall, required workers there to be at their desks by 8 am, and asked them to sign a pledge to adhere to the city’s ethics policy. He also commissioned a panel of experts to identify ways to overhaul the city’s creaky government. It came up with dozens of recommendations that could save some $500 million over several years, including privatizing crucial city assets like airport management and consolidating and downsizing the government.
Bing has turned to the city’s business community, so often shut out of Detroit government for the past 40 years, for talent. He lured Robert Buckler, former chief operating officer of Detroit Edison, out of retirement to serve as his own COO. Bing also hired a General Motors veteran to head up city procurement and a former executive at Freedom One Financial as controller. The mayor is particularly eager to convince businesses that Detroit government is doing things differently now. “If you’re looking to do business with the City of Detroit, here’s a piece of advice: the best bid wins,” Bing said recently. “I’ve made it clear to our city departments and contractors that the old way of doing things is unacceptable.”
The new mayor’s boldest argument may be that Detroit needs to shrink to revive. Detroit has contracted from 2 million residents to about 900,000; whole areas of the city have virtually emptied. As many as 70,000 homes stand abandoned. On some blocks, many homes have gone unoccupied and untended for so long that summer vegetation completely engulfs them; only the outline of the house suggests something man-made. Detroiters refer to certain city districts as “feral”—that is, having reverted to nature. Yet the city must still provide services to these areas’ few remaining occupants, at great cost.
Bing hopes to raze entire underpopulated neighborhoods and relocate their few residents to more viable areas of the city. Perhaps as much as one-quarter of Detroit would revert to unoccupied parkland and woods under Bing’s plan. The controversial initiative is a necessary step, the mayor believes, in reducing the size of government and hence regaining control of finances, out of balance after years of mismanagement. The city has an accumulated deficit of $300 million. Even though Bing has already cut about 1,000 positions, the city still employs some 13,000 workers to serve its fewer than 900,000 residents, yielding one of the highest ratios of workers to population among major American cities.
Despite the many encouraging initiatives under way, Mayors Booker and Bing face formidable challenges—above all, their cities’ dismal schools. In recent state assessment tests, about 70 percent of Newark’s middle school students failed to show proficiency in language arts. Of the estimated 11,750 high school students in the city’s system, about 5,400 will drop out before graduating, a new state report estimates. Booker, who cofounded an education-reform group before becoming mayor, made little headway until recently in persuading New Jersey to return control of the schools to Newark. But September’s $100 million donation to the Newark school system by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who decided to invest in Newark after meeting Booker, has persuaded New Jersey governor Chris Christie to give the mayor increased say in running the system. Booker also continues to advocate for more choice as a way to improve schools, backing a proposed state law that would let businesses make tax-deductible contributions to a scholarship fund to send kids in districts with failing schools to private institutions.
Detroit’s school system is in even worse shape than Newark’s, if that’s possible. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently called it “a national disgrace.” The problems are both financial and academic. Because the political class in Detroit has long viewed the schools as patronage mills, the system didn’t shrink as enrollment fell by half over the last decade. A state-appointed monitor has uncovered approximately 500 employees on the payroll in positions that aren’t budgeted. He’s requiring workers in the system to show up to collect their checks in person because of widespread concerns about “ghost” employees ripping off taxpayers. Detroit also suffers from astonishingly poor academic standards. In last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, Detroit’s students registered the lowest score of any school system in the history of the test, with 69 percent of fourth-graders and 77 percent of eighth-graders scoring below the basic level in math.
Bing is pushing to regain the power to appoint school officials, which currently resides with the state. Supporting him is a coalition of business and civic groups called Excellent Schools Detroit, which is promoting a referendum that would make the mayor responsible for the system. Bing and the coalition are also seeking to raise $200 million in private money to start at least 70 charter schools in the city. One reason the group is willing to back the initiative is confidence in Bing, according to Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Dave Bing is not a typical politician,” Baruah says. “He’s focused on the fundamentals of better government. He’s all Bing and no bling.”
Newark and Detroit retain strengths that reform mayors can exploit. In fact, Newark should never have experienced such a steep decline in the first place. The city was well positioned, and remains so, to move from an early-twentieth-century industrial economy to a more modern one, thanks to its transportation infrastructure, its access to financial markets across the Hudson, and its cost advantages over expensive New York. Indeed, just as Newark was declining, Fortune 500 firms were beginning their march out of highly taxed Gotham to New Jersey. Many avoided Newark, however, settling first in the suburbs and later in revived urban settings like Jersey City and Hoboken. “The unrealized potential of Newark is tragic,” noted economic development czar Pryor when he first came to the city.
Booker has been able to attract a number of high-profile firms to Newark. Some, like Amazon.com-owned Audible.com, which brought more than 200 workers from suburban Wayne in 2006, see the city as an emerging trendy environment, with evocative architecture from its industrial years. “I was intrigued by what’s happening in Newark,” says founder Don Katz. Since then, he says, his company has become progressively more “Newark-centric,” with about 30 of its workers now living in the city. “I’m surprised more companies haven’t woken up to what’s happening here. It’s a matter of time,” Katz adds.
Newark also retains a far more vibrant blue-collar economy than do many faded manufacturing cities. The city is a crucial hub for domestic and international transport, a sector of the economy that has added workers since the 1970s, when Newark’s airport expanded. In fact, the airport was one of the nation’s fastest-growing even as the city’s decline continued. But few of the new blue-collar jobs have gone to Newarkers. Booker has tried to reverse the hiring calculus by persuading more airport employers to hire city residents. He’s lobbied Continental Airlines, one of Newark’s biggest employers, to hold more job fairs in the city and says that a quarter of the airline’s new hires at Newark Airport now come from the city itself, up from only 8 percent in 2006. In addition, big employers like Pitney Bowes have opened up shop in the city lately. “We have 180 workers in a new facility a mile from the airport,” says Robert DiVincenzo, president of international mail services for Pitney Bowes. “We committed to hiring new workers by looking at Newark residents. This is a great location for us.”
As for Detroit, it remains a gateway to Canada and the Great Lakes region, and its airport is one of the nation’s busiest. Despite the years of decline, the city boasts what development experts call a “meds and eds” economy—that is, major health-care and research institutions like Henry Ford Hospital and important universities like Wayne State. Detroit also has a rich infrastructure and architectural legacy from its glory days, including numerous art-deco commercial towers. Many of them were abandoned over the years but still stand, such as the hauntingly beautiful old Michigan Central Station and the Book Tower.
And the upside of the city’s population decline is that affordable office space and homes are plentiful, even in well-occupied portions of the city. “Detroit has the opportunity to make itself attractive to young professionals who work at its universities and are drawn to urban living, and to immigrants, who now make up just 5 percent of the population,” says Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, Inc., an economic development group. “Mayor Bing can make a difference by making government more business-friendly.”
The urban-reform movement of the 1990s made its greatest inroads in cities that had retained a middle class and boasted a signature industry, like Wall Street in New York, to form the basis for revival. Newark and Detroit are in another category altogether, having suffered from decades of mismanagement that squandered billions of dollars in federal and state aid, delivered terrible services to those residents who remained in the city, and ensured that those who fled wouldn’t come back.
Today, the two cities finally have mayors who understand the urban achievements of the 1990s and are imitating them. Reform in the twenty-first century may come slowly to Newark and Detroit, and it may well require the work of several successive mayors. Even in their own cities, Booker’s and Bing’s efforts may remain controversial, as the recent defeat of Washington, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, a strong school-reform proponent, shows. But the two mayors have made a promising start.