Like Urban Renewal, Only Backward

I’ve been trying to explain to my expat friend the mood in the country during a presidential primary season that has defied all expectations. “People are hopeful,” I tell her. “For the first time in a long time, we can clearly envision an end to the Bush years.” Sounding a bit like Hillary lashing out against Obama’s supporters, she lectures me on the dangers of being “dewy-eyed.”

She may have a point, but optimism feels good. And my expectation that I might once again live in a sane, smart, progressive country (without becoming an expat myself) has less to do with promises made by the presidential contenders and more to do with what I’ve seen down the food chain. I’ve noticed that America’s big-city mayors have emerged as a sort of government in exile, putting forth a remarkably progressive, and occasionally visionary, domestic agenda while the federal government has been AWOL.

I began to think about this when I heard Martin O’Malley, then mayor of Baltimore and now governor of Maryland, speak at a conference called “Urban Conversations: Cities at Risk,” organized by the New School in 2006. The subject was how America’s cities can gird themselves for disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. O’Malley described his unsuccessful efforts on September 12, 2001, to get anyone in Washington to return his frantic calls. Finally, he turned to his friend, former senator Gary Hart, who asked, “Why on earth are you calling Washington for answers?”

According to O’Malley, Hart argued that Washington “will be thirty to forty years catching up with this reality. You need to get the smartest people you can in your city to form your own, in essence, Baltimore security cabinet.” O’Malley then described an emergency support network that he organized with his fellow mayors in Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia—a sort of mini-NATO pact for the Delmarva region. “It’s the leaders of the big metro economies that are the targets in this new type of war,” O’Malley concluded. “They’re the ones who can rally together that local response.”

What struck me while listening to O’Malley was the extent to which America’s cities are on their own, taking a leadership role on issues that used to be the job of the federal government. New York City, for example, now has a crack antiterrorism agency within the police department, one that I instinctively trust more than the FBI. And it’s not just in preparation for cataclysmic events like 9/11 or Katrina; cities have stepped up to address issues such as global warming and the decay of our infrastructure.

Last year I interviewed Mayor Gavin Newsom about San Francisco’s ambitious plans for reducing its carbon footprint. He spoke at great length about projects big and small, mentioning a proposal to build “large wave platforms, about a mile off the coast, the size of a football field, that will harness the energy created by the waves.” He talked about “self-contained energy districts,” a setup whereby neighborhoods would collectively generate their own solar power. Some of the strategies he discussed were monumental (and expensive), others were about streamlining the city’s bureaucracy so that alternative -energy projects could move with ease through the permit process.

At one point I interrupted Newsom to ask whether it wasn’t unusual for a mayor—particularly one of a modest-size city—to be taking on global issues, and he told me about the United Nations’ World Environment Day, held in San Francisco in 2005. “When you’re going to get serious about addressing the issues of global climate change, it will be happening, by definition, in urban cores,” he said. “One hundred mayors have now signed up, including the mayor of Tehran. The fact is that we’ve all agreed to these environmental ­principles—twenty-one core principles on waste reduction. We’re basically following these UN environmental accords and doing it in the absence of leadership from our states and respective federal governments.”

Clearly it’s not just in the United States that mayors act with unusual determination and in ways that may be contrary to the policies of their national leaders. But because our social and technological progress has been retarded by the Bush administration’s narrow focus on war—and its crippling of federal agencies through cronyism, incompetence, and underfunding—mayors like Richard M. Daley, in Chicago, and Michael Bloomberg, in New York, look exceptionally capable by comparison.

So as this presidential election year unfolded, I began to think about America’s mayors as a political resource. Just as monasteries preserved literacy through the Dark Ages, the mayors have harbored a tradition of progressive thought through the Bush years. Nonetheless, the issues of our cities have not made much of a dent on the rhetoric of the candidates. According to a Web site sponsored by the Drum Major Institute (www.mayortv.org), launched in cooperation with the Nation magazine, “In today’s presidential campaign, America is all ­heartland—tractor pulls, county fairs, town halls and truck stops. …Yet we are an urban nation. More than 80% of Americans live in cities. Urbanites drive 90% of our economy.”

The sentiment is exactly right, but many of the videos on the site are disappointing because they focus more on mayoral complaints rather than on what they’ve accomplished in defiance of Washington. Atlanta’s mayor, Shirley Frank­lin, for example, decried the lack of federal dollars going into her drought-stricken city’s water infrastructure. Rocky Anderson, the antiwar mayor of Salt Lake City, reminisced about how Bill Clinton used to invite the mayors to the White House when they were all in Washington for their annual conference, but during the Bush years the welcome mat was withdrawn. In this ­geographically diverse group, it was only John Hickenlooper, mayor of Denver, who hit precisely the right note. “We’re Amer­ica’s laboratories,” he said. “But we need federal support to make sure we have the resources to roll [new ideas] out to the whole country.”

America’s laboratories. We’re accustomed to thinking of our cities as problems, warehouses of poverty and crime that need a big-daddy federal presence, like the urban-renewal programs of the postwar era. But while some cities are still in decline, many have experienced a renaissance in the past three decades. This urban vitality has produced the most forward-looking approaches to American life: the highly evolved bicycle culture of Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles’s efforts to remake its long-neglected downtown; the ambitious greening of Chicago; the support of inno­vative low-cost housing in Austin, Texas; and the emerging solar economy in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Our next president, whoever he or she may be, should piggyback on the collective wisdom of the cities. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has been peddling a ten-point plan for the past year; number one on its list is an “energy block grant” program that would fund “local efforts to improve community energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse emissions, and stimulate the deployment of new technologies.” Congress funded it to the tune of $10 billion in December. Other programs advocated in the plan include a “National Affordable Housing Trust Fund” and a green-jobs initiative. The plan is hardly radical; it’s just a baseline approach to good government. It wouldn’t be notable but for the fact that we’ve sunk so far below the baseline.

Note that my endorsement of America’s mayors as the repository of effective political leadership is not a pitch for a third-party run by Mayor Bloomberg. I just think that whoever winds up in the White House needs to turn to our cities, not only to give them the succor they’ve been denied in the past eight years but also to learn from them how this country can once again move forward.

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