You could call this the best of times and the worst of times for the nation’s Black mayors. On the one hand, the leaders of some of our nation’s largest cities face the challenge of maintaining the quality of life in their communities during an unprecedented global recession. At the same time, the economic downturn allows mayors to think boldly about re-imagining their cities while gaining the benefits of the recently approved federal economic recovery legislation. The recession has put the spotlight back on City Hall as mayors seek ways to resuscitate local economies while tending to bread and butter issues such as police, fire safety, sanitation, public works and education.
In several of the nation’s large cities with Black mayors, the recession could not have come at a worse time. For metropolises such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., the downturn has forced layoffs among local employers, driven unemployment rates upward, and lengthened unemployment lines. Cities are under great stress and mayors are expected to come up with the answers.
However, for the first time in nearly forty years “urban policy” has regained currency inside the Beltway. The appointment of Bronx (N.Y.) Borough President Adolfo Carrion as President Obama’s urban policy “czar,” means cities will have a real advocate in the White House. For many mayors it represents a major paradigm shift and offers hope that the federal government will be an ally in their efforts
Combined with the housing crisis, joblessness has the potential to destabilize these cities as the quality of life decreases in neighborhoods that lose stable households and become potential prey for criminal activity. Even absent an increase in crime, these cities will see other effects of this downturn, including public hospitals and health clinics overrun by people who cannot afford to see a private physician due to the loss of their health care coverage resulting from a separation from employment.
At a time when residents face dire circumstances, cities are being looked upon to do more with less. With local tax revenue down in most places, mayors must come up with creative ways to maintain vital city services against the opposition of residents to any increases in taxes or fees. For many mayors the expectations of residents and the reality of city finances allows no choice but to try to raise revenue in any way possible, from aggressive traffic violation enforcement to a host of fees and increases in local tax levies. For many mayors the current economic climate is providing the toughest challenge to their leadership since they were elected. Some will rise to the challenge while others may be casualties but there is one thing that is certain, cities will need to go through a period of transformation to remain vital.
Over the next year the mayors of these cities, and smaller municipalities, will be under a spotlight as federal stimulus spending will be tracked and bean counters will be looking for hard evidence as to its effectiveness and reach into urban communities. Two cities, Detroit and Baltimore, offer two examples of varying challenges that confront Black mayors.
In Detroit, a city devastated by the collapse of the automobile sector, the next mayor will face the task of rebuilding the city’s economy without the benefit of the industry that made the city famous. While daunting, the next mayor, from one of 15 men and women vying for the post, will have the opportunity to put his or her mark on the city and reshape its economic landscape. The severity of the downturn and the fact that at least two of the major automakers – GM and Chrysler – will be playing by rules dictated by the federal government, means Detroit’s next mayor will be dealing from a reshuffled deck of cards. It presents an opportunity to seed new industries, retrain workers and prepare an emerging workforce for a 21st century economy.
Federal stimulus funding extending unemployment benefits, targeting infrastructure and worker training could provide a significant boost to the city’s recovery efforts. Already, a light rail project along historic Woodward Avenue is in the planning stages and will be well suited for stimulus funding. The mayor is also pushing for the renovation and expansion of Cobo Center, the city’s primary convention and exhibition facility. President Obama’s mortgage rescue plan could also help homeowners in the city, as mass layoffs in the auto industry will leave many families at risk of losing their homes. At the same time Detroit must still contend with a fledgling public school system and concerns over public safety.
Mayor Sheila Dixon of Baltimore is equally challenged but in her recent “State of the City” address struck an upbeat tone on her city’s future. While known to many visitors for its harbor side attractions, Baltimore has long had to contend with a number of crises. Crime has been particularly stubborn as the city has been plagued for some time now by violent crime, and menaced by a criminal element that has imposed a “stop snitching” mantra in city neighborhoods. It has left law enforcement particularly at a loss to solve crimes and bring criminals to justice. Like Detroit, and many big cities, Baltimore’s public school system is also in need of significant reform and is now under the stewardship of CEO Dr. Andres Alonso, appointed in June 2007.
Baltimore is not faced with the fallout from the loss of one industry, like what has occurred in Detroit, but is feeling the effects of a thousand cuts. It has been decades since the Chesapeake City had thousands of blue-collar workers employed at shipbuilding yards, automobile plants and breweries. The shift to tourism when the inner harbor opened did not supplant the many jobs that were lost in the city during the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the wages in the new service economy did not rival those that were paid in the manufacturing sector. As a result, the city became poorer and its population smaller as residents who could, moved to the surrounding suburban counties.
Despite Baltimore’s troubled past, Mayor Dixon can use the current economic crisis, and the influx of federal funds to push her city in a new direction. After much debate, it appears that a new rail line will be built to extend the city’s mass transit system. The project is considered a cornerstone in the city’s Westside development plans. It also includes the redevelopment of a state office complex and the construction of affordable housing. Dixon is also planning to use the city’s Land Bank Authority to acquire abandoned properties to demolish them or sell them.
The 12-16 months will yield some interesting outcomes for cities like Detroit and Baltimore, as the recession deepens, and federal aid makes its way to its targets. The clock will be ticking and the political calendar will mark time as these mayors will also have to contend with local politics, and some will face re-election challenges. Yet, there has been no better opportunity for these mayors to demonstrate their leadership prowess and those that rise to the challenge will likely be positioned for higher office.