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The Wall Street Journal.

Scenes From the New Metropolitan Life
May 17, 2000

By STEVEN LAGERFELD

Urban policy used to be a depressing business, dominated by experts who plumbed an ocean of intractable problems and emerged with a boatload of impossible solutions. Their ideas for improving cities usually required spending large amounts of money while studiously ignoring the fact that the vast sums already spent had achieved little (or ill) effect.

No wonder a sense of futility prevailed. But in the boom-driven urban renaissance of the 1990s, that sense dissipated as New York and other cities discovered a new set of winning approaches to urban problems. There's been no better source of such ideas than City Journal, the engaging quarterly published by the Manhattan Institute. This collection of its choice essays easily lives up to editor Myron Magnet's claim that it offers a blueprint for restoring the health of cities.

In a 1993 essay about New York, "Fate of a World City," Nathan Glazer sounded the reformers' main theme about the pre-renaissance urban dilemma: "New York stopped trying to do well the kinds of things a city can do, and started trying to do the kinds of things a city cannot do." After 1960, the city (like others) spent profligately in a futile attempt to solve the social problem. Redistributive programs in welfare, health, social services and housing swelled. Meanwhile the tasks that cities can reasonably hope to accomplish -- maintaining public order, picking up the trash, repairing roads and other infrastructure -- went largely neglected. It is a reminder of how quickly matters have improved to hear in Mr. Glazer's essay, now only seven years old, a despairing note.

What changed? Obviously, an economic boom didn't hurt. Nor did a demographic shift that shrank the pool of young crime-prone males. But the tide would not have turned without an intellectual revolution that shifted the focus of thinking about urban problems from large, impersonal forces to the human dimension. This revolution owes something to Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte and other thinkers who rejected the abstractions of modernist urban architecture and planning and insisted on a fresh understanding of city life built on people, streets and neighborhoods. You might say that it was abstract modernist thinking in the 1960s and '70s that put the police in patrol cars chasing arrest statistics, and the urban realist reformers of the 1990s who put them back on the streets making neighborhoods safe.

That quality of realism is evident in these essays themselves, superbly written and edited, easily intertwining theoretical principle with street-level reporting. Even when attacking the education establishment for its addled doctrines that cripple the public schools, for example, City Journal contributing editor Heather Mac Donald doesn't settle for flaying a few books plucked from the library shelves but fearlessly plunges into college classrooms where the doctrines are taught, with results that are both hilarious and depressing. Education is one of the big three problems, along with welfare and crime, that get extended attention in the collection. Contributing editor Sol Stern's articles on the power of teachers' unions and the promise of school vouchers eloquently make the case for school choice.

Crime and public order have provided the reformers' biggest victories so far, thanks to methods detailed in articles by four New York City public officials. The new realism shines through in former police chief William J. Bratton's article, with William Andrews, detailing his efforts to revitalize the NYPD. These essays reveal an acute sensitivity to how police (and criminal) organizations actually work. Patrick J. Harnett, former head of the Narcotics Division, with Mr. Andrews again as co-author, describes how he took crime-fighting teams that had once roved the city busting small-time drug dealers and put them to work targeting gangs and pieces of turf. The four crime articles are useful, even exciting, pieces but they suffer for lack of a strong reply to critics of police practices in New York -- not just the ideologues but those who wonder how community policing and other less confrontational methods used elsewhere might work in combating petty crime.

The book's New York focus is otherwise an advantage, since the city has been the leading reform laboratory of the 1990s. Many of the pieces do draw on experiences in other cities, and there are solidly reported articles on the general state of Los Angeles, Oakland, Philadelphia and San Francisco. This is a collection of surprising breadth and coherence, addressing not just the big three issues but also urban design, business improvement districts, the contributions of immigrants, noise pollution and other matters. From Roger Scruton, the British philosopher, comes a fine essay on the importance of well-designed mailboxes, benches and other "street furniture" as everyday symbols of civic dignity and authority.

For cities that haven't mastered the back-to-basics catechism, a better guide than "The Millennial City" (Ivan R. Dee, 440 pages, $27.50) is hard to imagine. Yet new questions are bound to preoccupy New York and other cities in coming decades. Despite a flush of boom-induced prosperity, their economic health remains precarious, with unemployment high even in these giddy days. A few of the "Millennial City" writers venture into this area, calling for tax cuts and the breakup of big cities into smaller municipalities better able to tailor economic policies to local needs. Yet some tasks facing cities -- such as building efficient transportation networks -- call for action on a metropolitan and regional scale. Among policy intellectuals there is a rising cry (again) for metropolitan government, but history argues for some combination of large and small political structures. Sorting it all out will likely be a task of City Journal's second volume of greatest hits.

Mr. Lagerfeld is editor of the Wilson Quarterly.

©2000 The Wall Street Journal

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