polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Searching for a Metropolitan President

by Alex Schafran

In 1967, Carl Stokes and Richard Hatcher became the first African-American mayors elected to head large American cities, part of a wave of African-American urban leadership that would sweep the North and South alike over the course of the next three decades. African Americans would be elected to head famously black cities like Chicago and Atlanta, famously white cities like Spokane and Seattle, and famously Latino cities like Los Angeles. Since Stokes and Hatcher, African Americans have been elected to head virtually every major city in the United States.

It has not always been an easy ride. African-American leadership has come under fire over the past forty years as cities struggled. Inner-city poverty, much of it African-American, worsened in many places, even as core parts of many cities gentrified with public support that seemed to benefit the growth machine as a whole but not many of its poorest citizens. What we tend to forget is that African Americans won the battle for urban leadership just as the abandonment and denigration of American cities was reaching its apex. The cities they took over were wracked by abandonment, stripped of their power and populace by federally subsidized suburbanization, and ripped apart by the modernist folly of slum clearance and freeway building. Undoubtedly mistakes were made, often in the name of maintaining power rather than using it for the public good, but this merely continued an American political tradition dating back to Tammany Hall and beyond.

As protesters occupy the centers of American cities from coast to coast, President Obama would be wise to remember this history — not simply because he shares a skin color with his urban predecessors, or because of any debt Obama owes to African American leaders, but because the story of pioneering African American mayors parallel his current situation in more ways than one. He too broke through one of human history's most famous barriers to take the helm of a polis just as it has reached its nadir; he too has fallen into sad traditions of maintaining power by kowtowing to the powerful rather than using power to reduce suffering or raise up the powerless; he too has taken over a debt-ridden economy beset by rising inequality and redevelopment for profit rather than people, all while under-invested infrastructure crumbles and the core reproductive functions of mobility and education remain inadequate.

In the aftermath of the election, as the full weight of decades of neoliberal economic policy and two generations of terrible or nonexistent urban policy came crashing down on President Obama, I remained more sympathetic than most, in part because of the clear parallels between his situation and that of many of his trail-blazing predecessors. For all the talk in the post-election excitement about Dr. King, my mind was squarely on the bravery and tragedy of Harold Washington, Chicago's first African-American mayor. He bore the brunt of an obstinate city machine and a brutal urban history and paid the ultimate price. This was going to be exceptionally difficult, and any progressive who felt otherwise was simply blind.

But now the time for empathy has passed, and it is time for President Obama to remember that he was elected by many of us not to be the first black president but to be the first truly urban president in American history. Part of the legacy of the past forty years is that the overblown line between city and suburb has been blurred. When we speak of urban America what we really mean is metropolitan America — those amorphous regions at the heart of our economic innovation and the overwhelming majority of our populace. Eighty-five percent of Americans live in the 376 metropolitan areas in the country, more than half in the top 50 alone. The New York, Chicago and Los Angeles regions account for more than one in ten Americans.

But President Obama should not only pay attention to the metropolis because we are the overwhelming majority, but because some of the often-ignored roots of our problems lie in our tragic lack of true urban policy, as do many of our solutions. While Wall Street greed undoubtedly fueled the financial crisis, let us not forget that this whole mess could not have been built on any other commodity than the American home — the only product essential and ubiquitous enough to carry the debt load needed by Wall Street to fuel its speculation. We bought into it because we wanted the American Dream, not realizing that during the past 30 years more and more of that risk was placed on us as individual consumers and citizens rather than backed by the full weight of the country itself. Whereas prior generations could count on federally-backed mortgages and transportation, the past 30 years were built more and more on sub-prime loans, unequally divided local tax dollars and a fragile and ineffective patchwork of assessment districts and impact fees — a splintered urbanism built in reaction to the sins of the postwar suburban boom, which actually made things much worse.

The true tragedy of the past 35 years is that, rather than correcting the true problems of post-war urban development — racism, an emphasis on auto-dependent development, political fragmentation, etc. — we laid blame on federal involvement in this process, crippling its critical role in urban development. We then opened up suburbia to everyone who was denied the first bite at the apple. Except this time, suburbia was being built on bad debt while the gentry slowly reclaimed the core of the city — in part through high incomes generated by a global Wall Street. Now there are more poor folks in suburbs than cities, a foreclosure problem in some of the deepest exurbs you can find, and many of the same people who got screwed by urban abandonment are getting screwed by the new struggles of suburban America.

More than ever, we need an Urbanist-in-Chief unafraid to look to the metropolis for solutions to the problems of the 99 percent. Obama needs to channel his memories as an organizer in Harold Washington's Chicago and develop and articulate a true metropolitan vision for America. We need to invest from the federal level, as we once did, in the transportation infrastructure of our nation: everything from inter-metropolitan, high-speed rail to bike lanes, from car-sharing facilities to Bus Rapid Transit, from aging roads to crumbling bridges. We need to invest in housing our working and middle classes and providing the secure tenure that is such a part of the American dream, but this time under the rubric of a retrofitted, denser and more equitable suburbia and a healthier and more affordable city.

And we must build — using the carrot and stick of federal monies — a regional fiscal infrastructure that can sustain future generations of American schools, roads, police officers, parks and social programs. These three actions alone can help put millions of Americans back to work in jobs that can not be outsourced, restore faith in the possibility of government at all levels, break the ridiculous political dichotomy of city versus suburb (which fuels our red versus blue mentality) and undermine the grip of Wall Street on both our wallets and our soul. We now live in an urban and metropolitan world, a world in which urban development drives industry and economy and not the other way around, and we must recognize that economy, community and politics revolve around the spaces and places we occupy.

Credits: Photos by Alex Schafran.

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