Our Cities Continue to Shrink; There Goes our Future

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Eye from Albany
August 2003

Our Cities Continue to Shrink; There Goes our Future
by Paul M. Bray

Right before our eyes the upstate cities of New York continue to shrink. Latest population estimates by the U.S. Census have Albany along with other upstate cities continuing to lose residents during the last two years as suburban communities continue to grow. It is more of the same: more sprawl and more decay of our cities despite the State’s commitment to quality communities (its version of anti-sprawl smart growth). Is anyone paying attention?

This year Buffalo needed a control board to finance its way out of a financial collapse and other cities are mortgaging their future with growing debt. Yet, no one is treating this as the serious crisis it is for our State let alone suggesting any viable strategy to turn cities around to be the productive economic engines they should be.

Our cities badly need structural reform and the will power to be competitive using their inherent assets. Yet, neither meaningful structural reform nor the will to competitiveness seem to be in the cards.

The case for structural reform is compelling. Clearly, the deck is staked against cities. Their tax base has shrunk with the exodus of jobs and people while suffering a significant reduction in federal funds. Funds available to cities are inadequate to cover the growing costs of the problems of poverty populations left behind in cities. Seventy percent of the public school population in Albany, for example, is eligible for assisted school lunch.

While Federal reimbursement to localities for expenses related to alleviating poverty use is a per-capita allocation, the Wharton Real Estate Center has documented that the greater the concentration of poverty the more expensive it becomes to deliver services such as fire, health, police, and education. Cities also suffer a multitude of inequities when it comes to the distribution of State funds or, in other words, getting their fair share of State services compared to rural and suburban communities.

You don’t need to see a welcome sign to Albany to know you’ve crossed its city line on one of many state highways like New York State Routes 5, 9, 20, 377, 32, 85, 443 or 9W. You will feel the difference as the City’s roadway’s condition deteriorates from decades of deferred maintenance. The same applies to cities across the State.

The reason is simple; the State Department of Transportation is fully responsible for plowing, filling potholes, resurfacing and reconstructing State highways in rural areas and suburbs until the State highway enters the city. Similarly, county roads are maintained by county government. There are no county roads in cities so maintenance rests totally with cities.

A major city expense not found in most rural and suburban areas comes from uniform services, police and fire. Suburbs like the Town of Clifton Park near Albany and rural areas get their law enforcement from State Police and Sheriff patrols.

Most state park and recreational facilities and programs occur outside of cities. When the State is engaged in cities as it is with state designated heritage areas, the State is a “partner” meaning that the city incurs the ongoing cost of operating heritage area visitor centers and programs.

When it comes to state aid for school facilities in suburban school districts, they get state aid in the range of 70 to 85% while the Albany City School District is getting 57% for current projects and that is more than they have ever gotten before.

These are only some of the structural equity problems that cities have to deal with. The question we need to address is where do we find the path to solution.

Professor Theodore Hershberg of UPenn makes a case from demographic facts that suburbanites have a compelling economic interest in the condition of cities.

He points out that “between 1995 and 2020, the nation’s population will grow by 60 million people, 47 million of whom will be African Americans, Latinos, and Asians.” Furthermore, “45 percent of all children under 18 will be nonwhiteSgrowing up in the nation’s worst environments and attending our worst schools.” If cities are not healthy, they are likely to become a growing drag on the nation’s economy and that is on top of missed opportunity benefits that could come from healthy city economies.

Hershberg believes suburbanites have passively let traditional cities “slide down the greased skids” because “they believe decades of federal interventions failed, proving that the city’s problems are intractable and that city politicians are too prone to mismanagement and corruption to sustain long-term reform.” In other words, Americans are not big on supporting losers. And that is compounded in the case of cities by the nation’s lack of a tradition celebrating our cities as cultural icons as other great nations do and have done over time. It is time for New Yorkers to take a whole new look at our cities from our great, world class economic and cultural engine of New York City to our many other important cities, large and small, from Buffalo to Albany to Yonkers. The focus should not only be on fixing what is broken, but assessing our cities inherent capacity to thrive at a time when information technology (IT), bio-tech and culture and entertainment, all industries of the mind, need what cities have beginning with first class educational institutions in order to flourish. Our cities should be in the vanguard of the State’s prosperity in the 21st century.

Sci fi writer Frederick Pohl pointed out “it is not etymology that makes city equal civilization. A village can support a store, a policeman and a post office. A town, more stores, a fire department and perhaps a movie theater. But these are only the beach froth of a great wave of civilization. To support specialized hospitals and specialized schools, an opera company or two, great libraries, a choice of churches and sport teams-to support all these things and people, to provide a means and an outlet for all the manifold ‘civilized’ activities of human beings what is necessary is critical mass. When enough of all these things come together we have civilization, and the place where we find it is called a ‘city’.”

Keeping what Pohl has in mind, our cities are not just something broken that needs to be fixed, but assets of our State’s culture and economy needing to be restored to an economically competitive position. Who is going to step up to the plate on this one.

Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is pmbray@aol.com and past columns can be found on www.braypapers.com.