Oops! How the Government Did Its Part to Destroy Our Cities

For a couple of years I've been writing about the question why, as opposed to how, America destroyed its great cities in the second half of the 20th century (see "Why Did America Destroy Its Great Cities?"). I don't necessarily expect that future historians will find purposeful reasons for the emptying out of our great cities. More likely, they will seek to identify social, economic or demographic reasons that resulted in the urban crisis.

Having just read Professor Roger Biles' 2011 book chronicling the federal government's involvement with trying to save America's cities, The Fate of Cities: Urban America and the Federal Government, 1945-2000, I suspect that historians will take that lack of purposefulness to a new level. The reason for urban destruction during those years, at least to the extent government was involved, seems to have been a matter of sheer incompetence more than anything else: and not merely individual incompetence, but incompetence at the highest social level.

Prof. Biles, who teaches history at Illinois State University, tells a story about the dysfunctional side of America's pluralistic and decentralized democracy, a system of government and politics that had evolved by the mid-20th century into something a genius might have designed to preclude thoughtful, pragmatic and integrated planning and action.

I'm writing this as someone who believes in government, not only because there is no alternative to government in a complex world of massive private entities and institutions, but also because government (at all levels) is the best means available for achieving public goals. Certainly there were wonderful successes of government action over the same half-century during which the cities fell apart, such as, to name a few, the drastic reductions in the number of impoverished elderly, the space program that not only put men on the moon, but also vastly increased humankind's knowledge of the universe, the massive expansion of higher education, and the success of environmental legislation in cleaning our air and water.

But The Fate of Cities is about failure.

In his book, Prof. Biles largely assumes that readers already know the dimensions of the urban crisis; occasionally he describes elements of the problem, such as when he points out that "[t]he steady decline of older Frostbelt cities, fueled by the flight of population, industry, and retail to the suburbs, had reached crisis proportions by the 1970s. During the decade, Cincinnati lost 15 percent of its population, Detroit lost 21 percent, and St. Louis lost 27 percent." (p. 202) And that was just one decade.

Prof. Biles largely evaluates the federal government's response to the urban crisis by how much money it, at any given time, was willing to spend on urban programs. As it happened, only for a few years during the Johnson administration did the cities receive nearly what they wanted, let alone needed, in the way of funding. When Republicans were in charge, or even Democrats like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, who were not city-oriented or were otherwise constrained by Congress, funds for cities were especially hard to come by.

But sadly the government's failure went far beyond the lack of funding; indeed, much of the spending that did occur made things worse. It's painful to acknowledge, but when Richard Nixon, during his 1968 campaign for president, stated that the Kennedy and Johnson programs that had poured money into solving social problems, including those in the cities, had in fact made things worse, he was, with regard to the urban programs, largely correct.

Prof. Biles rarely can describe a federal program that did much good, in sum, to save the cities, although at times he might argue that if a program had been better funded, it might have helped. There were programs, such as aid to mass transit, where the amount of money was itself crucial, and in those cases the funding was often beneficial. But many of the programs that the federal government-funded proved disastrous for cities, including urban renewal and various misguided housing programs that destroyed more housing than was built, not to mention the interstate highways that cut cities into pieces (often at the behest of mayors who thought expressways would save the cities by connecting them to the suburbs).

At the same time that the federal government was arguably not spending enough on urban programs, it was massively subsidizing suburban development, and had been doing so since the original New Deal and Fair Deal housing programs. These policies that enticed the white middle-class out of cities, and redlined the cities themselves, did more damage to cities than could possibly be repaired by programs like Model Cities or public housing.

The lesson is not that the federal government didn't have a role to play in saving the cities, or that federal money couldn't have helped cities, but that people need to be smart about how they spend money. Prof. Biles' book shows that smart people don't necessarily make smart decisions, especially when they are enamored with their own idealism.

The outstanding truth that stands out from Prof. Biles' history is that at the root of so many urban problems was poverty. For reasons that need to be understood, America transported its poorest and least educated people -- rural African-Americans in the south -- into cities, and then destroyed most of their housing there and moved the jobs they had there somewhere else.

I'm still trying to figure out why.

The Fate of Cities: Urban America and the Federal Government, 1945-2000, by Roger Biles; University Press of Kansas (2011); 464 pages, $39.95.