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The Future Once Happened Here Hardcover – September 10, 1997
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Fred Siegel loves cities but hates what has happened to them since the 1960s. Overreaching economic policies have strangled businesses and destroyed jobs. Libertine social philosophies have allowed public order to disappear. Racial antagonisms have corroded a sense of common culture. Siegel--a New Yorker with New Democrat politics--makes a strong case for why cities have declined, yet his book is not entirely gloomy. He believes that after three decades of failed public policy, America's urban centers may finally be headed toward a revival. An invigorating piece of social and political analysis, The Future Once Happened Here is the best book on U.S. cities to come along in years.
From Library Journal
Siegel, a processor of history at Cooper Union and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, here offers a provocative perspective on big-city politics, suggesting that a "riot ideology" of confrontation and compromise has characterized the relationships among community leaders and officials in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles since the 1960s. He argues further that officials have treated the symptoms rather than the core problems of poverty and racism. Welfare dependency, fiscal crisis, loss of community, deteriorating public space, and failures of public order have resulted. Even New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, on whose campaign Siegel worked, may not be able to overcome that legacy. The analysis will appeal to urban scholars and other followers of big city politics, although the thesis may not. A thoughtful, challenging work; for most collections.?William L. Waugh, Georgia State Univ., Atlanta
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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I found the book's analysis of the race riots of the 1960s (and the more recent riots in Los Angeles) to be disturbingly simplistic; it reminds me of the late Edward Banfield's writings on "rioting for fun and profit." Siegel has at best a callous view of the urban underclass and little empathy for the plight of minorities trapped in the inner cities. Among his personal demons are mayors John Lindsay and Tom Bradley, neither of whom deserves the rather short shrift he gives them. (While each of them had their faults, they were to some extent visionaries and innovators; Siegel sees virtually nothing good about their adminisrations.)
I had also expected the book to draw some comparisons among the three cities on which it focuses. (After all, why present three case examples if you aren't going to contrast them?) But the histories of the three cities might just as well have been published separately. Little attempt is made to draw lessons from their three disparate recent histories.
Although the book was published in 1997--and one cannot expect the author to have foreseen the future--a single assertion perhaps best characterizes the book's deficiencies. Siegel makes the point that those who characterized Rudy Giuliani as racially insensitive and showing proto-fascist leanings had certainly exaggerated their portrait of him. The developments in the Dialo and Louima cases over the last year alone certainly suggest otherwise.
And the election of Anthony Williams in Washington seems to indicate that Siegel's pessimistic view of that city was overly overstated. (He characterizes the city as inextricably linked to politicians like "mayor-for-life" Marion Berry and his ilk.) As a person who works in Washington, I feel that Mayor Williams offers a lot of hope for the city.
I do not altogether regret that I read this book, but I feel that as an academician, the author was obligated to clearly state his biases at the outset of the book. That way the reader could at least have put the book in the proper context.
The conventional wisdom has been to blame the decline of the cities on external factors, especially a perception that the US federal government has failed to provide sufficient financial resources. But Siegel disputes this view, showing that federal funding has not declined, it has only not risen as fast as burgeoning city budgets. Siegel shows that central city decline is, first of all, the result of conscious city-level policies that have "back-fired."
For those inclined to believe that the central cities must be restored to their former importance, such as through densifying "new urbanist" policies, "The Future Once Happened Here" will be very disappointing. Siegel shows that the cities have been abandoned by middle income people because they have failed in their fundamental duty of security (crime prevention), failed to educate children effectively, failed to provide quality public services and failed to maintain a competitive tax structure. Siegel's work supports the thesis that the fundamental problem of the cities is not revenues, it is spending --- how else could such public policy failure be achieved at so great a cost? Residents are free to leave, and many do. Siegel notes that a large percentage of residents in each city plan to leave. Ben Bissenger's recent book on Philadelphia ("A Prayer for the City") chronicles the decision making process of one dedicated urbanite family that tried more than once to live in the central city, but was driven out by crime. It is a less difficult decision for people and families who have no particular passion for the city. As a result, the cities are increasingly populated by those with low income, and those with high enough income to opt out of reliance on city services, through expensive private schools and high security apartment buildings. But there are even worse examples than the New York, Washington and Los Angeles examples that Siegel relies upon. In less than 50 years, St. Louis has managed to drive away 60 percent of its population. More people have moved out of Detroit and Chicago combined than live in metropolitan Portland (Oregon). Cleveland --- the current darling of the urban revitalization cheerleaders --- has dropped below 500,000, a humbling development for a city that neared one million at its peak. The list goes on and on.
While Siegel ends his book on an optimistic note, there is, at best, faint cause for optimism. Urban revitalization is now largely limited to superimposing publicly subsidized infrastructure, such as convention centers, domed stadia, entertainment facilities and light rail lines on organism with some vitality at the center (downtown) surrounded by tire shaped devastation. It will be sad indeed if the ultimate revitalization of the cities is to convert their downtowns into the equivalent of regional amusement parks.
Fred Siegel brings a fresh and innovative perspective to a problem that is much more fundamental than is usually admitted --- the effective demise of US central cities.
Wendell Cox (email@example.com)
Former Member, Los Angeles County Transportation Commission
Wendell Cox Consultancy
Belleville, Illinois US