You Can't Get There From Here: An Urban Proposal

Wriston, Walter B.


Those of you who are exposed to today's popular music, and it is almost impossible to escape it, must be aware that lyricists have not improved a great deal since our time. One of the worst examples of fractured English appears in the hit song "Winchester Cathedral" which contains the following deathless prose: "You didn't do nothing, you let her walk by."

Despite the so-called generation gap, we can learn even from this. The business community must make certain that in discussions of the urban problem in America, no one can level a finger at us in the private sector and say that we "didn't do nothing" except deplore the deterioration of the core city.

There has been a great deal done both in the public and the private sectors about the urban problem. So far, however, the major effort has been concentrated on defining goals rather than devising the methods to achieve them. This has been a long process. Over 35 years ago the first Presidential Commission on the subject was formed, and since then committees, seminars and conventions have proliferated almost endlessly. Even with all this activity we are apparently not much closer to the answers. For years we have known about the centrifugal tendencies of our cities to spin off affluence, leaving them with hard cores of poverty and slums. Two years after the fact we are still questioning the why of Watts and assessing similar catastrophes this past summer. Despite our real concern, we occasionally have even asked the wrong questions.

Although Albert Einstein's political acumen did not equal his mathematical genius, his comment on the League of Nations' first disarmament conference is relevant. "What would you think," he said, "about a town council that met because an increasing number of people are knifed each night in brawls, and proceeded to discuss the proper length and sharpness of the knives that inhabitants should be allowed to carry?"

Our response to violence in the ghettos, however, may be symptomatic of our penchant for instant remedies and indicative of where we have gone astray. In a rush to transform the conditions of insurrection into the resurrection of a whole segment of society, we have been unwilling, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Robert Weaver suggests, to face the fact that "we've got to be honest and tell people it's going to take time." Although the concept of "The Revolution of Rising Expectations" was coined for the developing world, it is as apt for our cities where unfortunately the result has only been exasperation.

However much we may desire a future in which affluence is shared by every man, we cannot get there from here with an aerosol solution to the most rending social, economic and political problem of the century. Neither politics nor business can afford politics and business as usual.

Just as Harpers Ferry marked a turning point in the affairs of this nation, so Watts may have signaled a sharp break with the past. For over 100 years we have ignored the challenge that Lincoln prophetically posed to the nation: "When you have succeeded in dehumanizing the negro ...," he asked, "are you quite sure that the demon you have roused will not turn and rend you?" Now, whether we can reassemble the shards of our fragmented society may depend upon a willingness to acknowledge our bankruptcies, to assess our available assets and to proceed along paths that are consistent with our claims to be a nation of problem solvers and political pragmatists.

In thinking about the urban problem, a great deal has been written about the sheer arithmetic: what will it cost to upgrade our housing, clean our air, cleanse our rivers, unplug our transportation and upgrade our school system? The range of the figures is so wide, running from two hundred billion to over a trillion, that they are almost meaningless. This is a whole subject in itself which is receiving expert attention, but today I want to make only a few points about why we can't get there from here in finding an answer to the urban problem and suggest a possible new road that may lead to some solutions.

The first reason that we can't get there from here is deceptively simple to delineate and incredibly difficult to change. I refer to haphazard political boundaries that make a mockery out of coordinating metropolitan programs.

In a world full of image makers, it is not surprising that at least one of the reasons why we are becoming a nation of cities is because the Census Bureau says so. It defines any town with a population of more than 2,500 as "urban." Working backward from its own definition, it is possible to say that 70 percent of our population lives in urban areas. But if your ideas about an urban area are slightly more realistic, you will quickly find that 58 percent of our population lives in towns with less than 50,000 people; still less than 10 percent lives in cities of over one million. Thus, the urban problem is big city problems and little city problems tied together by a common denominator of under-education and its hand-maiden, poverty. And the little urban centers, while maintaining their local independence, are really part of great economically integrated metropolitan areas. Unfortunately, while we can package Armageddon in missiles that span the continents in minutes, we have not as yet found a political container for the exploding Metropolis.

Established by history, state and local boundaries are completely unrealistic in the context of today's social and economic realities. State governments have shown relatively little inclination to collaborate with neighboring states. They have made only small attempts to modernize local governments, although all of the 50 states have absolute power to create and dissolve these modern anachronisms. In too many instances state constitutions are not policy documents but almost unintelligible collections of outmoded legislation. And because we are not making the orderly changes that modern living demands, we have opened the way to a disorderly takeover of local functions by the Federal government.

No one has said this better than Robert C. Wood when he wrote in 1961: "On the eastern seaboard of the United States, where the State of New York wedges itself between New Jersey and Connecticut, explorers of political affairs can observe one of the great unnatural wonders of the world; that is, a governmental arrangement perhaps more complicated than any other that mankind has yet contrived or allowed to happen. A vigorous metropolitan area, the economic capital of the nation, governs itself by means of 1,467 distinct political entities (at latest count), each having its own power to raise and spend the public treasure, and each operating in a jurisdiction determined more by chance than design." It does not move us closer to a solution to suggest that this political hodgepodge is sacrosanct and cannot be altered in the face of pressing problems. This political crazy quilt has demonstrated an incapacity to solve today's problems.

These artificial political boundaries create all kinds of side effects as people concentrate in the core cities and dump a disproportionate amount of trouble upon the cities' resources. Simultaneously, political subdivisions tend to make it increasingly difficult to finance the needs of the communities. For example, the central cities of the country's 12 largest metropolitan areas account for about one eighth of the country's population, but they are responsible for about 40 percent of health and welfare outlays which are met by local taxes. In New York City, the local bureaucracy numbers more than 16 percent of the whole country's local civic employees, while the New York area accounts for less than five percent of the country's population. A lesser education in the big city may cost more than one at a much better school system in the suburbs, often because real estate and services are more expensive in crowded areas. To build only the plant to correct this deficiency may call for the doubling of cities' outlays for education.

These are only small facets of the unbelievably broad revenue-consuming responsibilities of urban government. Most of them fall upon a reliance on property taxes that are largely unresponsive to economic growth and diametrically opposed to our efforts to upgrade our own underdeveloped areas. Property taxes generally account for about 20 percent of the total rental value of urban housing. The other side of this very worn coin is that we are putting what amounts to an excise tax of 25 percent on net housing expenditures at a time when we should be encouraging new building.

Since the taxing power of the core cities is often limited and the Federal government takes the lion's share out of our pocket books, it is little wonder that local governments turn in desperation to Washington. Too often the proliferation of federal programs compounds the economic burden by requiring states to match appropriations at the very moment that federal taxation increasingly preempts state and local taxable resources. We collect billions locally, send them to Washington where a heavy administrative charge is deducted, and then ship back the balance to where the money is needed, all in the name of an efficiency that is bankrupting city governments.

This threat is seen with great clarity by John Gardner, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, who warned that if it were to continue, "all state and local governments would then be mere branch offices of one all-dominating national government." Those of us who live and work in the City and State of New York are painfully familiar with the local nationalism which would warm the heart of General De Gaulle as the Mayor makes his annual trek to Albany to obtain some money already paid by his own constituency. And that trek, incidentally, is only a mopping-up operation, for New York City maintains a staff of 12, full-time lobbyists, the largest lobby of any kind registered in the state capital.

When this country was founded, perhaps the greatest constitutional expert in the world at that time described our constitution as "all sail and no anchor" and predicted its early demise. But that constitution was uniquely founded on our own needs and over the years, whenever our needs have crystallized and the problems have been delineated, we have devised institutions to solve them. When the need arose, we constructed the Marshall Plan to rebuild a shattered Europe, and the Federal Housing Authority and the Veterans Administration to catch up on the building stagnated at home by the war.

It is time to look afresh at the political boundaries of this country and inquire whether it makes any sense at all in 1967 to have one side of the harbor of the Port of New York under the aegis of one state and the opposite side controlled by another state. True, we have spanned the harbor with the Port of New York Authority in an attempt to solve a problem based on antique boundaries, but it is only a beginning as the urban area of New York spreads out across many political boundaries.

Americans have built a continent into a nation and have always been skeptical of the pessimists who said that "it has always been done that way" and can't be changed. We can ask at this point in time whether the ancient political units constructed mostly by the accident of history are responsive to our current problems. Or, whether like the Jeffersonian maxim of one mule, one acre and one man, they have served their purpose, and the economies of scale must be served in politics as they are in industry. With present political attitudes, however, the odds are long indeed of breaking the inter-locking chain that runs from education to jobs to decent housing to workable, livable cities and metropolitan areas.

Nevertheless, from the beginning of our history, Americans have always invented the machines and tools, known in the current jargon as hardware, to help us solve our problems. The proliferation of technology has been so enormous that for the first time in the long history of man we have within our grasp the technical capability to feed the world, to control our population, to house our people, and to care for the sick, the halt and the lame. I suggest to you that the same spark of inventiveness that produced everything from the long rifle to the third generation computer can produce the spark which will arc across into the design of institutions to solve the great social problems of our time. If the private sector can respond so quickly and effectively to the changing needs of our times, I do not believe that it is too much to ask the political structure of this country, which advertises itself as being responsive to the needs of its citizens, also to put aside petty local sectionalism and to concentrate on the crucial problems of our times.

Eric Hoffer has pointed out, "Some generations have patience and some are without it. This is one of the most crucial differences between eras. There is a time when the word 'eventually' has the soothing effect of a promise, and a time when the word evokes in us bitterness and scorn." Ours, I believe, is a time between. "Eventually" is no longer good enough. "Instantly," as I suggested earlier, has been an impossibly empty promise. More likely the word we want is "presently," which is a word for today and tomorrow. For there is evidence that we are acting now in ways that will produce results before long. What I find especially hopeful is the increasing role of the private sector, for only the private sector cuts across all of the artificial, outmoded, political boundaries, accumulating resources from widely divergent local sources and concentrating them where they are needed most. Here, I suggest, is a second road around our inability to get there from here.

Many people who have not worked closely with the new technology believe that the computer can solve all problems without realizing that the computer is a moron and if a man asks a silly question he will undoubtedly get a stupid answer, neatly printed out to be sure, but still meaningless. Similarly, there is a belief that money, or even better an appropriation, will cure the problems of our core cities, but money, like the computer, has no life of its own--it is amoral. It will buy guns or butter, it will proliferate culture or sin, it will buy hospitals or destruction. It is up to us to devise the means and methods to channel the expenditure in a way that serves the common good.

The private sector has demonstrated its ability to handle large problems of organization, research, innovation and production, and it is now turning more and more to the problems of its environment. The affairs of men tend to go in cycles, and each generation tends to forget yesterday's lesson. As the nation's highway program really began in the 1790's by turning to private companies to construct and operate toll roads, so also does our current government purchase its fighter planes and armaments from the private sector. It is interesting to see the proposals advanced to turn the Post Office of the United States over to private hands. Any of you who are either historians or devotees of the late, late show on TV cannot help but be reminded of the fact that the wheel has gone full circle. The efficient pony express which bridged our continent was owned and operated by private enterprise under contract to the government. This group needs no proof that private enterprise at a profit can serve the public interest. The shortest, most effective argument is to make a telephone call in the United States which goes through smoothly, quickly and inexpensively, and then try your luck in any other country of the world where the phones are owned by a state monopoly.

The concept of the government contracting with the private sector is as old as our country, but it assumes an urgency at this point in time to solve our urban problems. Many great corporations are already moving into the area of planned communities, one of which already has a fire department owned and operated by an insurance company under contract to the city. It would be hard to find a stronger motivation for an efficient fire department. There is no barrier to having many other public services performed by contract.

The program for the revitalization of New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant section is a case in point. The recent determination of the insurance industry to dedicate one billion dollars for investment in low-cost housing and job-producing industries is another. Similar examples are appearing all across the country as the public sector and the private sector are cooperating in one way or another to alleviate the conditions that raise summer temperatures. And this tendency must accelerate as we become more deeply involved in what may be called the contract state. More and more, government is turning to private business to perform under contract the things that we were formerly led to believe only government could do. This development is one of the private sector's important contributions.

One particular contribution strikes at the heart of the urban problem which is unemployment. Very often people are unable to hold a useful job because their level of literacy is just too low. In this modern age, getting the dropout back into productive work is something the private sector is beginning to do by contract with the government. Private industry has made some real breakthroughs in teaching and training techniques that are being put to work for the good of all. Instructors who are not trained teachers are using programmed learning techniques to prove daily that both children and men and women whose educational level ranges from total illiteracy to the sixth grade can be raised from two to four levels in reading and arithmetic in some six to 10 weeks. Even this limited literacy means access to jobs for people who were formerly unemployable.

As private industry moves more and more to fill the needs of the public sector on a contract basis, it will become even clearer that the regulatory agencies are moving at a snail-like pace in a world of technological explosions. Our transportation system appears to have spent as much time pleading with regulatory bodies, hiring lawyers and arguing cases in courtrooms as it has moving the men and the freight of this country. If industry is adapting itself to its new environment, the regulatory agencies must do the same.

Although the communists like to think of their way of life as a permanent revolution, in point of fact, that concept better describes the evolution of our own society. I believe we are now on the threshold of a major social innovation which will emerge in the years ahead as a typical American solution in response to our urban problems. The federal, state and local governments are already beginning to develop contracted research and development and implementation programs in the nondefense sector of our economy. These new areas will encompass everything from transport, primary and secondary schooling, air pollution, crime and traffic control, and information systems. The 1970's should see these projects move from the planning to the implementation stage and the rapid development of the new institutions which will be needed to solve these problems.

The emergence of this new social contract between the public and the private sectors could be one of the most important and exciting developments in our social history. There are unmistakable signs already that both business and politics are beginning to understand that if we can't get there from here, neither can we stand by and do nothing like the boy in the song lyric I quoted. All of the creative capacity of all sectors of the nation must be harnessed together, but in new patterns. We cannot let history "walk by."

Whatever important progress we are making presently on a number of fronts, the imperative indispensable lesson we have yet to absorb is one we can learn from Papo Giordani. Papo is a leader of an East Harlem group called "The Real Great Society." He was reared in the slums. He was a gang leader at 10 and now he is a leader of 200 ill-educated youngsters from the slums who are nevertheless trying to do something about their plight. It was Papo who ran through the streets on the night of the East Harlem riot this past summer with the message that said it all: "Cool it. There's more than one way to change a neighborhood."

  • The document was created from the speech, "You Can't Get There From Here: An Urban Proposal," written by Walter B. Wriston for the New York Commerce and Industry Association on 25 October 1967. The original speech is located in MS134.001.001.00032.
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