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Once a Crisis, Always A Crisis? Obama and Cities

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When Washington politicians speak about cities and urban policy, their speech is reliably punctuated with catchphrases about decline, crumbling infrastructure, and Detroit. If a conservative isn't suggesting that aid for "distressed" cities is being used to buy the allegiance of urban votes, a liberal is fulminating against the "urban crisis." Urban scholars don't seem to help the matter, as Dennis Judd documents in his descriptively titled "Everything Is Always Going to Hell: Urban Scholars as End-Time Prophets."

This is a strange phenomenon given the (somewhat deceptive) fact that the majority of the nation's population and jobs are located in and the majority of the nation's GDP is generated by the nation's metropolitan areas. Cities are engines, as mayors often say. The situation of cities at the current economic moment, though, is quite complicated. The fiscal difficulties of state governments are well known, while those of cities are forgotten. Unemployment is frighteningly high in, yes, Detroit, but also in Providence and cities throughout California. At the same time, Washington, DC, Albuquerque, and areas in Texas are starting to pull out of the recession.

The Obama administration entered office pledging to resist the temptation to describe urban conditions in the dire terms that politicians, and particularly past presidents, have often used. In creating the White House Office of Urban Affairs, President Obama charged Adolfo Carrion, his urban affairs czar, with the task of creating an urban agenda for cities that banked on their strengths and utilized their policy innovations while recognizing the diversity of problems they face. Sounds great.

Yet, defining what a federal urban policy is or should be composed of is exceedingly difficult. Certainly, the legislative bogeyman called the farm bill is evidence enough that Congress would never take up a legislative package of grants and loans just for cities. Even if it did, centrifugal forces would pull funds outward toward the districts of suburban legislators and away from central cities. Further, unlike a farm bill that is in many ways about resisting development, federal urban policy is part of almost every spending decision made by the federal government. The Community Development Block Grant funnels aid to distressed neighborhoods, but Defense Appropriations bills alter the economic wellbeing of entire swaths of the nation.

Judging the administration's urban policy efforts, as the National Journal did this week, is then a complex affair. There are obvious successes, such as the Livable Communities initiative, an interagency program to connect transportation to affordable housing in healthy environments; a memo from OMB Director Peter Orszag directing agency heads to consider improvements to their budgets based on "place"; and this week's new rules governing transit funding, which broaden criteria for eligible projects to include environmental, economic, and other livability benefits.

The most obvious disappointment is that, probably by design, the Office of Urban Affairs has taken a low profile. Whereas other White House "czars" have led congressional negotiations about, for instance, health care, Adolfo Carrion has led a listening tour around the country while Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, with a much more specific portfolio (that is, transportation) has been the most obvious proponent of strengthening urban infrastructure. The stimulus bill, as well, prejudiced city governments and, as the Congressional Black Caucus has recently pointed out, did not focus as much on creating jobs in disadvantaged communities as it could, and should, have.

Carrion's assertionto the National Journal that "We're a supporting actor. We're not the lead actor here" - it is unclear whether he is referring just to his office or to the entire administration - is certainly understandable given the vast array of decisions, both federal and local, both public and private, that impact where people live and work. But Carrion's words are belied by the administration's several successes in advancing the cause of cities. In many ways, a federal urban policy or a federal urban agenda is less about big steps and much more about a transformation in orientation that is less immediately visible. In contrast to the exclamations of urban emergency, making this much clearer - a job the Office of Urban Affairs should take on - would begin to clarify that the interests of cities are intimately tied to the interests of the country at large.

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