Nicholas Lemann, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and a frequent commentator on the state of urban affairs in America, caused a firestorm of controversy in our community. His New York Times Magazine article, “The Myth of Community Development,” painted a pessimistic picture of community revitalization. His argument is that we’ve been unsuccessful in fighting the war on poverty in our inner cities because it is unwinnable. And it will remain so until we redefine the terms of success and fully marshal our resources into making inner cities decent places to live.
In this issue of Shelterforce, Vice President Al Gore, Robert Zdenek of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Jim Sleeper of the New York Daily News, and Mark Alan Hughes of Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia each respond to Lemann’s thesis and explain how the war on poverty can be won.
But has the war ever been truly fought?
How is it that the nation that defeated Communism, placed a man on the moon, and invented the nuclear bomb can’t get rid of urban poverty? Maybe we just haven’t tried. Maybe the real effort has been made, as Sleeper says, in directing “billions of public dollars [to grease] the real-estate industry’s promotion of suburbia with subsidized mortgages and interstate roads.” “Federal programs to revitalize ghettos,” he adds, “have been an afterthought – and funded like one.”
If we believe our authors, the tactics necessary to overcome poverty are apparent – making neighborhoods safe, improving our schools and providing decent jobs. But these tactics require a financial commitment that our country has not yet been willing to make. What’s lacking, then, is an effective political strategy to change America.
A strategy, John Atlas observes, that must be built on a populist coalition of the poor and middle class. Informed by the writing of veteran social and political analyst Kevin Phillips, Atlas urges us to join issues and find solutions that will benefit most Americans – the “bottom” 80 percent of the socioeconomic ladder.
Larry Yates of the Low Income Housing Information Service takes strong issue with Atlas, seeing such a populist movement as another opportunity to override the needs of the poor by the interests of another “group of white males.” In his view, change will come when those most hurt by today’s system – the poor, people of color and women – organize into a “justice” movement built on the models of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.
John Davis, housing director for the city of Burlington, Vermont, wants to move beyond populist slogans to “models, policies, and programs with the most promise for building solidarity among the ‘bottom’ eighty percent of the population.” His approach seeks to bridge the chasms created by ideology to develop more “rational” approaches to housing affordability and fairness. Many of Davis’ idea are reflected in the approaches taken to housing by Ed Goetz and Michael Stone, whose books are reviewed in this issue..
We hope this issue settles some of the dust Lemann stirred, but, even more, we hope it begins to turn on the light in a few dark and rarely visited rooms. We look forward to your comments.
We would like to offer our thanks to the following individuals and organizations who have become sustaining supporters of Shelterforce since the beginning of the year.
Kent R. Beittel
Robert J. Brand
Antoinette Ellison, Citizens Research Ed. Network
Robert S. Gardner
Greg Goldman, Philadelphia Foundation
Nora R. Greer
Illinois Hsg. Development Authority
Inner City Christian Federation
Mary McGuire, Catholic Family Center
Neighborhood Partnership Fund
Jacqueline Copeland Olagbaju, Philadelphia Foundation
Michael Pensack, Illinois Tenants Union
Salt & Light Company
Onix A. Sosa, Sinergia Inc.
John Wong, Education Development Center Inc.
Thaddeus J. Zielonka, Hoboken Housing Authority