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A New Breed of City Boss
by Thomas J. Bray
Are cities obsolete? Yes, say observers like George Gilder, who see information technology driving a radical decentralization of society. And yes, say others who simply think that many of America's greatest cities are so far gone that they'll never come back.
Now come John O. Norquist and Stephen Goldsmith, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee and the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, to enter strong dissents. Both believe there is much that cities can do to bootstrap themselves back to health. And both see reasons for optimism.
"A new breed of mayors now occupies city halls across America," enthuses Mr. Goldsmith in "The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America" (Regnery, 241 pages, $24.95), citing a bipartisan list that ranges from Bret Schundler of Jersey City to Richard Daley of Chicago.
And Mr. Norquist, in his "The Wealth of Cities: Revitalizing the Centers of American Life" (Addison-Wesley, 237 pages, $25), insists that "U.S. cities are not dead. They are not even dying. . . . History shows that as nations and empires come and go, cities endure."
The original sin, says Mr. Norquist, was the Depression-era decision of key mayors to throw themselves on the mercy of the federal government. The flow of funds grew into a flood over the years, particularly in the 1960s, when big-city mayors, in league with civil-rights organizations, found they could successfully play on fears of urban disorder.
The money came with some strings attached, however, and left cities saddled with high taxes, abandoned housing and dependent populations. The lesson is clear, says Mr. Norquist, once a card-carrying liberal: "You can't build a city on fear, and you can't build a city on pity."
Elected in 1988, in the wake of a 28-year reign by an avowed socialist, Henry Maier, Mr. Norquist clamped a lid on spending and taxes, added 272 cops to the police force and worked to revive Milwaukee's neighborhoods. He also joined the battle led by Polly Williams against the public-school monopoly. Ms. Williams, a black state legislator and former welfare mother, was fed up with the education—or lack of it—that her children were receiving.
"What's wrong with parents freely choosing to send their children to an accredited religious school if that's what they really want?" asks Mr. Norquist. "Not being able to read at all is a much greater problem for children than is reading from scripture."
When Stephen Goldsmith took office in Indianapolis in 1992, by contrast, his city was in relatively good fiscal shape. Even so, Indianapolis faced many of the same problems as other cities, including an inefficient unionized work force and competition from the suburbs.
Mr. Goldsmith decided to pursue a strategy of privatization. The local water company first claimed it could save only 5% by taking over the city's sewer billing functions. So the mayor put the contract up for bid—and the same company came back with a proposal saving 30%. To neutralize union objections, city workers were allowed to bid on other contracts. The city road department actually won the pothole-filling job—reducing costs 25%.
Mr. Goldsmith claims a cumulative $230 million in savings. This has allowed him to cut the Indianapolis budget 7% since 1992 even while adding police officers and expanding infrastructure spending. "Competition, not privatization, made the difference," he says.
Where Mr. Goldsmith focuses on the mechanics of city government, Mr. Norquist offers a more historical and philosophical discussion. He also spends much time decrying highways, cars and urban sprawl, which he seems to think would be fixed by mass-transit subsidies and "new urbanism"—architecture and land-use planning that create habitable, high-density neighborhoods. "A lot of dissatisfied suburbanites may not yet be able to articulate just what it is they want," he says, but build it and they will come.
Maybe. But most people seem to like their suburbs just fine. And spending more money on mass transit, or imposing growth limits on suburbs, smacks of the same command-and-control strategy that Mr. Norquist elsewhere debunks. Both he and Mr. Goldsmith could profitably have devoted more time to pondering the larger context in which American cities have declined: a "progressive" tax system and inflationary policies that have punished the risk capital most needed by urban areas; a regulatory morass; and a judiciary that coddles criminals and sets ethnic groups at each other's throats.
Until such macro problems are fully addressed, even the best mayors are unlikely to make more than marginal progress. By the most basic measure of urban health—population—Milwaukee is still declining and Indianapolis has grown a mere 7% since 1980. Hats off to Messrs. Norquist and Goldsmith for pushing at the boundaries of the possible. But still more will be needed to restore our cities to good health.
©1998 The Wall Street Journal
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