The Future Once Happened Here: Liberalism and the Decline of America’s Big Cities

MODERN LIBERALISM WAS BORN in the big cities and died there, a suicide of sorts. Beginning in the 1960s, urban America began to renounce its role as the proud center of commerce and innovation, increasingly presenting itself as the hopeless victim of racism and economic dislocation, in need of ever more government handouts. We became a nation of dependent cities filled with dependent people.

Liberals lost their birthright to govern urban America not because they were overwhelmed by a well-armed foe but because their sense of moral superiority made it impossible for them to adapt to new conditions or to learn from their critics. Urban liberalism died not because the federal government was insufficiently generous to the cities but because the money it sent sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Indeed, by the 1990s liberals had lost not only political control of the country’s preeminent cities—including New York, Los Angeles, and Washington—but the debate over urban issues as well.

Only now are America’s cities beginning to awaken from a decades-long spell of economic decline and social breakdown. The most surprising turnaround, perhaps, is seen in the sharp decline in crime in nearly all big cities. In New York City, for example, crime declined more than 25 percent in 1996 alone. High-end service sector jobs are booming in Chicago and Minneapolis, and even Detroit has cut its unemployment rate from 18 percent to 8 percent in the last few years. Los Angeles and San Jose are becoming incubators of the digital revolution, a key to the post-industrial economy. Cities are starting to repair the damage done by the three great gambles of the 1960s, in the areas of public order, incorporation, and welfare.

The Collapse and Rebirth of Public Order

The Los Angeles riots of 1965 and 1992, and the subsequent disorder that erupted nationally in their aftermath, were turning points in the lives of America’s big cities. Washington’s urban policy, which previously looked to integrate African-Americans into the mainstream economy, was, in a panic, replaced by what can only be described as a massive purchase of “riot insurance”—federal funds designed to forestall further violence. This policy, which in effect rewarded the very violence it sought to abate, became part of what can be called the “riot ideology”—the assumption that riots were an efficacious way to draw money and attention to the cities. And while the riots themselves ceased, they were replaced by the rolling riot of rising crime rates, growing welfare rolls, and government largesse.

The 1992 Los Angeles riot marked the beginning of the end of the riot ideology, though. For while it and the smaller riots it set off produced a vast volume of rhetoric, they generated no new aid. No longer able to hawk the failings of their residents for federal funds, the cities were forced to think about reintegrating the urban landscape into the larger economy.

Urban America wants to return to its past glory. But in an era that has been defined by the lasting achievements of the civil rights movement, there is no going back to a concept of community that is dependent upon government aid and federal mandates. Indeed, there is wide support for the reassertion of common standards of public decency. The cities, it seems, are turning inward and not outward for their renewal.

The Immigrant Model of Upward Mobility

The return to old assumptions about public order has been paralleled by a return to old assumptions about social mobility. In the mid-60s urban policymakers, under the influence of guilt, fear, and hubris, decided that when it came to blacks, and to some extent Hispanics, the immigrant model of incorporation should be jettisoned. Earlier assumptions about the close connection between work and well-being, the need for a common culture, and the importance of public order were redefined as racist and obsolete.

Today community activists and politicians around the country are embracing the assumptions once associated with immigrant ascent. Mayor Riordan’s landslide re-election in Los Angeles owed a great deal to the new Asian and Hispanic voters who responded to his appeals to them as citizens who needed jobs. While Riordan recognized the power of immigrant middle-class aspirations, his opponent, Tom Hayden, did not. Hayden lost immigrant support by casting them as victims who needed social programs. Asians supported Riordan by 62 per cent; Latinos by 60 per cent.

Replacing Work with Welfare

Replacing work with welfare was the third great gamble of the 60s. Sixties liberals redefined entry-level work as “dead end jobs” that went nowhere, and they ratcheted up welfare and related benefits to provide an alternative. Predictably, the number of people who became dependent on welfare increased, and the numbers in the labor force declined. Poor urban neighborhoods experienced increasing concentrations of what became known as “urban problems”—joblessness, poverty, and welfare dependence. Ultimately, the limits of the liberal welfare system became too obvious to ignore.

Last year’s federal welfare reform act is challenging the liberal cities’ sense of themselves, forcing them to confront their dependency on the federal government as their residents confront theirs. Cities are being forced to rebuild their economies, to nurture their economic growth, and to foster the growth of private companies which provide the jobs and opportunities that city dwellers need.

The future once happened in the cities. And it will again, although it will be a smaller, less imposing future in an Information Age economy that disperses and decentralizes everything from capital markets to car manufacturing. Great cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington are far more than “leftover baggage from the Industrial Era,” as many have suggested. America’s great cities will continue to shape our future, just as the future continues to shape itself within them.

Mr. Siegel is Professor of History at The Cooper Union for the Arts and Sciences, Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and author of The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America’s Big Cities, a new book published by the Free Press.