Problems and Promise: Meeting the challenge of America’s cities

I commend The Brookings Review for devoting its winter issue to America’s cities and for assembling such a distinguished group of contributors to address some of the challenges cities face. These articles provide new insights and information in the ongoing dialogue about the outlook for cities. Any such dialogue must recognize this singular reality: strong cities are essential to a strong America.

The authors of these articles are realists. They recognize the tremendous problems confronting our nationþs cities, but, whether directly or by implication, they also recognize the tremendous promise cities hold as centers of expanding opportunity.

On the following pages, these diverse commentators share a number of pragmatic ideas on how to strengthen cities so that they can realize that promise. These ideas include: increasing the level of cooperation between cities and their inner and outer suburbs (Orfield); harnessing the power of the African-American church to redeem and renew distressed urban communities (Loury and Loury); working to increase African-American owned retail establishments (Rauch); applying lessons learned from the experience of stable integrated neighborhoods (Ellen); resisting simplistic ideas about private schools as “the answer” to inner-city education woes (Cookson); and making welfare reform work (Burtless and Weaver; Weir).

Like many big-city mayors, I view public-private partnerships and regional cooperation as essential to strengthening our cities and improving the quality of life they provide. The bottom line is that government cannot solve the problems of cities by itself. The problems are too daunting and the resources too meager. We need the assistance and involvement of the profit and nonprofit sectors. Moreover, because suburbs and cities are “joined at the hip,” as Henry Cisneros has written, we must recognize the folly of trying to address city problems in isolation.

I am pleased, therefore, that these articles reinforce the importance of both public-private partnerships and regional cooperation. Consider James E. Rauch’s plan to provide corporate support to link small-scale African-American retailers to independent buying agencies. Or Margaret Weir’s suggestion that regional cooperation may help big cities cope with the increased burdens of welfare reform. Or Glenn and Linda Loury’s challenge to African-American churches to take a more direct role in helping to change patterns of behavior among the urban poor that prevent them from taking advantage of opportunity. Altogether, it’s a provocative read.