The terrain of urban economic development policy and urban renewal is awash with bad ideas and awful consequences – intended and unintended (and certainly the Bronx is no exception). But in the context of urban austerity, and the growing idea that urban government should be limited to a skeleton of public safety services, it’s also important to remember the idea that government can shape local communities for the better. As many have forcefully argued, we are not truly in an era of government withdrawing from the economy, but we are in the midst of government’s intervention in the economy skewing away from the idea of serving the public.
Back from vacation and trying to keep up with the news out of Detroit, where the state is moving quickly to takeover city government. As the recession continues, and state budgets continue in the red, some cities are cutting down to the bone.
What distinguishes these latest austerity measures is how noticeable they are to ordinary residents. If health care cuts, pay cuts, layoffs and furloughs — and even limits on enforcing building codes or maintaining parks — are most apparent to the people inside city halls, everyone notices when his streetlights go dark.
Predictably, such cuts generate discussions of privatization and self-help:
In Highland Park, yard lights and even strings of Christmas lights are helping to illuminate some streets, and some leaders have urged residents to add their own lighting if they are worried about security — leading to complaints that the city is trying to shift items it cannot afford to residents who cannot afford them either.
In cities around the nation, similar ideas have emerged: streetlight user fees, private security lights, even optional “adopt-a-light” programs comparable to road sponsorships.
Cities Struggle as U.S. Slashes Block Grants Program
It is no secret that these are hard times for cities, with tax collections down, state aid dwindling, unemployment high and foreclosures pitting many blocks. So, as he sat in his office here, Mayor Ed Pawlowski of Allentown echoed the question mayors around the country are asking: Why has Washington cut one of the main federal programs for cities by a quarter in the last couple of years?
Like the California Redevelopment Agency program, federal block grant money is both valued and criticized for its flexibility. It can be used to pay for city needs from afterschool programs to building inspections. These funds, which represent (after the devolution of nearly every other federal program for cities) a key component of federal urban policy today. These cuts, even if small in absolute terms, will be part of the fabric of restructuring the relationship between city, state, and federal resources.
The word austerity has broad power as a framing device. In the news, it appears most frequently to describe national policies outside the U.S.: European politics in general seems centered on political debates about whether and how to implement “austerity measures.” Austerity crops up sometimes in discussions of balancing the federal budget, but I think that it has more politically complicated connotations in the U.S., despite the popularity of cries to “shrink government.” For the same reason that a language of consumption dominated political speeches after the 2000-2001 recession, politicians today have balance any calls for austerity with the perpetual narrative of America’s prosperous destiny. Part of my project is to understand that balance, the evolution of austerity in political debate this year (it’s now December, six months after Pelosi hopped on board the language of shared sacrifice, and it remains politically muddled).