For Release Sunday, October 6, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group
The first of the weekly articles appeared in February 1975. Next week, close to 1,900 columns later, I’ll write the last.
A new project awaits me (more about that below). But it’s also time for a change. The journalistic world of 1975 was markedly different from today’s. Newspapers were in their heyday, featuring scores of columns on every topic from national politics to advice for the lovelorn.
But no national column had ever focused on America’s 50 states and their cities, analyzing the issues, the politics, the conditions they faced.
I decided the timing was right. I had just traveled to all 50 states, interviewing in each the governors, mayors, industrialists, labor leaders, citizen activists and more in preparation for a book series that concluded with The Book of America: Inside Fifty States Today. Everywhere I had asked: What makes this state or city distinctive? What’s the politics like, the tone and temper of public life, the economy, culture, living conditions?
But even if I was convinced the time was ripe for a column focused on state-local issues, the syndicates were skeptical. So I stepped out on the plank and took a gamble. I wrote to the editors I had met across the country, promising a column a week and asking for a check for any they printed. My kids grumbled but agreed to collate, staple, fold, stuff envelopes, attach address stickers and stamps.
Slowly editors started to respond (and I was on the phone pushing reticent ones.) Checks began to filter in. Two years later, the Washington Post Writers Group was ready to syndicate the column for me – and has ever since.
Looking back, I ask myself: What have been the major, prevailing themes of the columns?
The first is that bottoms-up democracy – local, regional, state – is incredibly important for citizen engagement and meaningful change. National government is important, but what’s local is often far more vital for people’s lives.
That said, an eagle eye has to be kept out for the opportunities – and dangers – in state and local policy. I’ve tried to think and write ahead on several key fronts.
A top example: Well before someone coined the term “smart growth,” I was focusing on the ways sprawl spells waste, undermines sound planning and a sense of community. I used my column to celebrate and spread word of pioneering state land use laws like those of Oregon, Washington and Maryland.
Cities were fast losing population and wealth to suburbs in the ’70s and ’80s. We Americans were forsaking the places of our history, culture and diversity. So I made it my business to look for early and successful recovery efforts bubbling up from Boston to Denver, Chicago to Seattle, bringing fresh spirit, confidence, economic vitality.
Gutsy neighborhood rebuilding efforts were multiplying, so it was only natural to celebrate the flowering of community development corporations and the national associations (Enterprise and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation) that courageously backed them. And it was natural to welcome federal housing policy’s rejection, under HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, of sterile high-rises for the poor, as the agency looked instead toward mixed-income recovery zones.
Regional governance in America seemed haphazard and weak, despite the deep economic and environmental interdependence of cities and suburbs. So with colleagues I co-authored a book (Citistates), following up with columns asserting how vital it was that metropolitan regions, to survive and prosper in an intensely interconnected 21st-century world, put aside city-suburban differences and coalesce on economic strategy, restraining sprawl and upgrading troubled neighborhoods and communities.
An array of deep social failings in our states and communities led me to use the editorialist’s pen in alarm, pressing for reform. Topping the list were columns on:
Prisons – The dangers of packing more people behind bars than any other nation on Earth.
Drugs – Our states’ (and federal government’s) misguided “war on drugs,” serving to pack the prisons, ruin lives, neglect sane rules and treatment for abuse.
Giveaways – Big state and local payments to snare or hold footloose plants or corporate offices, a waste of public resources and a zero-sum game for the American economy.
Taxes – State policies favoring corporations and the affluent over struggling low-income workers.
Guns – Tolerating increased injuries, murders and suicides triggered (literally) by lack of reasonable limits on ownership and use.
Voting – State laws advertised as fraud blockers, in reality designed with the cynical intent to limit voting by the poor and racial minorities.
Pensions – States and cities failing to fund the massive pension and retiree health benefits they’ve promised.
But there’s good news, too.
Increasingly, city centers are booming. Sprawl has been tamed, city (and suburban town) planning has improved. Youth are flowing into downtowns. Bicycles are staging a welcome comeback on our city streets (a special joy to an urban cyclist like myself).
And the news media picture has changed. In contrast to 1975, critical state and local issues are now well covered by Governing Magazine, the Pew Charitable Trust’s Stateline service, and an array of websites, blogs and tweets.
And I have a personal challenge: I need more time to devote to a vital international media project my colleagues and I will soon launch – “Citiscope Global News.” We’ll commission journalists worldwide to write stories on significant innovations in their cities, and then we’ll distribute their reports to news media outlets and city policy makers.
Next week, in my final syndicated column, I’ll tell more about this new adventure.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, email@example.com. (c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group