Over the last month much of the public’s attention has been focused on the nation’s capital as the new President and the 111th Congress tackled Mr. Obama’s economic recovery plan. While lawmakers debated the legislation on Capitol Hill, the nation’s economy continued its rapid decline with unemployment hitting 7.6 percent and a loss of almost 600,000 jobs in January. As bad as the statistics read, the reality on the ground is bleaker than even the numbers reveal as cities across the country struggle to preserve services and social order.
In recent days several mayors of major cities have delivered their “State of the City” addresses, describing the challenges their cities face, their need for assistance, and their plans for the future. Mayors are particularly hard pressed during this recession as many cities have seen declining fortunes over the last three decades as manufacturing and other blue collar jobs have vanished, tax revenues have shrunk, and poverty has increased with intensity within some segments of urban populations. Complicating matters is that for most big city mayors, there is no relief from their state governments because state treasuries are also pinched and many governors are looking to Washington for help too.
The stress on cities is evident in cutbacks to vital services such as police and fire protection, libraries, maintenance of streets and sewer systems, parks, public transit, public hospitals, cultural programs and public school districts. Unlike Washington where the pain of the recession is often buried in the pages of reports, press releases and legislation, city residents experience it on a day-to-day basis as their quality of life is affected. Given the level of demand for many of these services that are reduced or outright eliminated, by the time they are restored considerable damage has been done in terms of increased crime, wear and tear on infrastructure, jobs lost and communities scarred by the loss of vital institutions. A tour through many American cities reveals the damage that has resulted from years of disinvestment.
When our cities are in crisis, the Black community is also in crisis since many of our largest urban centers such as New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Detroit continue to have sizeable Black populations. Many of these cities have been operating in perpetual “crisis mode” for decades. Even in places like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Atlanta where there have been signs of urban renewal, the Black community in these cities and others has not fared well. In fact, in some of these cities Blacks exist almost as a colony; separate and apart from the business district and relegated to neighborhoods with poor housing stock and very little in terms of economic development. One of the most eye opening corridors is Amtrak’s northeast line that passes through Newark, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chester, Wilmington, and Baltimore en route to Washington, D.C. There is a stark difference between the glimmering downtowns of some of these cities and neighborhoods where Blacks reside. The impact of this recession only heightens those disparities.
Despite these difficulties, city leadership is not sitting on their hands as was evidenced in the speeches delivered by several mayors over the last week. In her “State of the City” address on February 9, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon noted plans for construction of a new city light rail line, the Red Line, and the larger Community Compact that was created to identify job training opportunities for high school students and investments in neighborhoods on the line. Mayor Dixon also noted plans for a large development on the city’s Westside that will include affordable housing. Dixon also spoke of legislation approved by the state legislature last year that created a Land Bank Authority to allow the city to acquire vacant residential buildings to tear down or resell.
If there is any city in America that is the face of this recession, it’s Detroit. For decades now the city made famous by the automobile and the sounds of Motown has seen more than its share of troubles. The recession has had the effect of “piling on.” With the automobile industry hitting rock bottom, and by association auto parts suppliers, the local economy has been devastated. Even with federal aid Detroit’s auto manufacturers will still hemorrhage jobs, pushing home foreclosures up for unemployed workers, increasing homelessness, and hunger.
Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel, who succeeded Kwame Kilpatrick and is a candidate for a full term, addressed his city on February 10 and described conditions in the Motor City in stark terms. “Too many Detroiters are out of work. Too many are still trying to recover from the shock of a layoff – doing their best to rebound as quickly as possible. Too many Detroiters are fighting to avoid foreclosure. And too many Detroiters – our friends, neighbors and family members – have given up on the hope of a good life in our great city. They have simply packed up and headed out of town or out of the state.”
Cockrel noted the city’s General Fund has an accumulated deficit of up to $300 million, more than $100 million of liabilities from fiscal year 2008 remained unpaid at the beginning of the current fiscal year, and the annual financial audit from 2007 was past due.
Like his colleague in Baltimore, Mayor Cockrel also pointed to the construction of a light rail line and the development of a regional mass transit system to connect residents to job opportunities. The mayor also pointed to the City Council’s approval of a plan to expand the city’s convention center, Cobo Hall, to accommodate larger trade shows. The expansion was the center of controversy this past week as Council President Monica Conyers had attempted to kill the project. Cockrel also pointed to efforts to create “green jobs” in the city, citing one company that creates environmentally sensitive cleaning products and a not-for-profit advocacy group that has a workforce development project to prepare Detroit residents for jobs in environmental cleanup and remediation.
With an eye toward Washington, Mayor Cockrel said, “I expect many more jobs to be created in Detroit once the much-debated economic stimulus package is approved by Congress and signed by President Obama. My administration is working closely with the Governor, the Detroit legislative caucus and Michigan’s congressional delegation to secure Detroit’s fair share of federal funding for shovel-ready projects that could improve our infrastructure while creating jobs.”
With the economic recovery legislation nearing approval, these cities, and others, will be queuing up to make certain that dollars passed down from the federal government are quickly invested in critical areas. In what will likely be the largest infusion of federal aid to cities in four decades, mayors are sensing that they are at a “now or never” moment to use the windfall to address long standing problems that have frustrated their best efforts to move their cities forward.