For Release Friday, May 13, 2011
Rail transit has been built in places you’d never have predicted, like Dallas and Salt Lake City. People are moving back downtown in search of urbanity. One recent study for the nonprofit group CEOs for Cities found that in large urban regions, since 2000 the number of young college-educated adults living close-in is up 26 percent.
Crime’s down, so people feel safer in the city. With ongoing reform efforts, some formerly disgraceful urban public school systems are improving — another draw. So why did I leave a conference here about the future of cities feeling gloomy? It’s because I’m afraid what Congress and state and local governments are doing will undermine the success cities are having.
Crime is down? Just wait: City governments are slashing public safety budgets. The New York Times’ Michael Cooper told us that Camden, N.J., outside Philadelphia laid off nearly half its police force though it has one of the nation’s highest crime rates. Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Diego and others last year started “rolling brownouts,” shutting some fire stations each day.
Cooper reported on 2-year-old Bentley Do in San Diego, who choked to death on a gum ball just 600 steps from a fire station. It was empty, its engine that night covering for a station closed in the brownout. It took 9 1/2 minutes for a fire engine with paramedics and equipment to arrive. In Prichard, Ala., pension checks to retired municipal workers stopped in 2009. A retired fire marshal was found destitute and dead in June, his electricity and water cut off. “Prichard is the future,” former San Diego city attorney Michael Aguirre told Cooper.
Governments are slashing transit crucial to many workers’ ability to get and hold jobs. Cooper reported on a suburban Atlanta county that eliminated its bus system, stranding 8,400 daily riders. Local governments are also closing libraries, recreation centers and schools.
Growth will return, sometime, of course. Larry Summers, ex-president of Harvard, ex-Treasury secretary (1999-2001) and ex-director of the National Economic Council for the Obama administration (2009-11) said the economy is coming back. You no longer hear much talk of a double-dip recession, he said, and corporate profits are healthy.
That was hopeful — sort of. But we also heard a fascinating yet worrisome demographic analysis from the University of Utah’s Arthur C. “Chris” Nelson. He titled it “The Decade of Calamity.”
He looked at population trends that affect housing and concluded the country is overbuilt with suburban, single-family houses — and it’s going to get worse as Baby Boomers age and many decide to sell the family house and move to a condo, apartment or assisted living center. Or they move in with the kids.
All those things diminish potential demand for single-family houses. Nelson predicted many states will have more houses for sale than people wanting to buy them. Even in states that his projections showed would escape that fate, weak markets can mean weak home prices and a lower property tax base.
The journalists’ conference — sponsors were the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Nieman Foundation and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design — also heard from Edward Glaeser, a free-marketeer Harvard economist whose book, “Triumph of the City,” makes an eloquent case that cities enrich our world economically as well as culturally, through innovations that arise when smart people work near other smart people.
Someone asked Glaeser what advice he has for cities. He said: “It’s fundamentally about schools. It’s fundamentally about kids. You really want to be investing in children.”
Or not. Or at least, not in many states.
In North Carolina, a General Assembly controlled by Republicans for the first time in more than a century is refusing to keep a temporary, 1-cent sales tax enacted last year, and instead is preparing for deep cuts in the state’s excellent university system, and to the state’s prekindergarten programs. In the state’s two largest cities, Charlotte and Raleigh, hundreds of teachers are likely to get pink slips; Charlotte is preparing to take a cleaver to its local prekindergarten programs, in addition to state cuts.
North Carolina isn’t unique. In Dallas, the public school system’s highly regarded Townview magnet school faces losing 27 percent of its full-time teachers; another excellent magnet school, Booker. T. Washington, faces losing 25 percent of its teachers.
Philadelphia schools may have to eliminate 3,800 jobs — including 1,260 teachers. Full-day kindergarten may end. The Chicago Public Schools, trying to close an estimated $820 million budget deficit, may have to lay off more than 2,000 teachers.
In the Bay Area of California, 11 different school districts have asked voters to OK temporary property taxes to avert teacher layoffs and other education cutbacks.
It isn’t just schools. In North Carolina, the legislature would eliminate a group of special courts — drug courts, family courts, etc. that, by sending criminals to treatment programs, save the justice system money in the long run. It also may cut positions of court administrators, who keep the courts running more efficiently. With less efficient courts, criminals can’t be tried as speedily, and some predict prosecutors will have to drop more charges.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s proposed budget would cut 18 fire companies and four ambulances, but would end the brownouts in effect since 2009. Sacramento is looking at possibly laying off more than 10 percent of its police force.
In all those cases — and many, many more — significant quality of life measures for cities are being badly wounded.
Weak public education, weak higher education, substandard public safety service and a sluggish justice system. And don’t forget: If you buy a house you may never be able to sell it.
Yep, your taxes will be nice and low. But tell me again why anyone would want to live in a city like that?
Mary Newsom is an associate editor at the Charlotte Observer, firstname.lastname@example.org P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28230-0308. Read her blog, The Naked City, at www.charlotteobserver.com, and follow her on Twitter @marynewsom.
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