December 23, 2016

1966. The Senate Weighs in on the "Crisis in American Cities"

"Crisis in American Cities"
"Mayor-elect John Lindsay is flanked by TWU President Mike Quill (left) and mediation chairman Nathan Feinsinger at meeting," 1966 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

August 22, 1966

We dropped in at the Senate hearings on the "Crisis in American Cities" held on Capitol Hill today—and came away feeling like the Washington tourist caught going upstream on one of the Capital's busy one-way streets during rush hour.

"Where do you want to go?" a policeman asked.

"I don't know," said the tired traveler, "but I can't get there from here."

New York City's youthful mayor, John V. Lindsay, was today's star witness before the Senate's investigation into the "crisis in our cities." A couple of years ago while serving in Congress, Lindsay was regarded as one of the up-and-coming young hopefuls in the liberal wing of the Republican Party. He looked older today—New York politics can do that to any man—and it took Mayor Lindsay an hour and a half to read out an endless rota of problems besetting the world's largest urbanity—to give you an idea of what is not going on.

Lindsay's main point was that the migration of the population to the urban centers across the nation has so changed the character of American life that no metropolitan center in the country can handle its own problems alone; the burgeoning growth of U.S. cities is a federal problem which demands federal government aid in solving it.

Then Manhattan's mayor shook even such sophisticated urbanites as Connecticut Senator Ribicoff and New York Senator Robert Kennedy. Lindsay was asked how much federal money he would need to make O. Henry's "Baghdad on the Hudson" the kind of metropolis it should be. The mayor consulted his staff briefly and replied:

"I would say that New York City would need $50 billion over the next ten years to make it a fit and exciting place in which to live . . ." And Lindsay added, "That's the minimum figure . . ."

Fifty billion dollars is about half of the entire federal budget of last year, and about what the Defense Department spent for national defense, including the war in Vietnam.

But whether John Lindsay was exaggerating or not, he succeeded in underlining the problems which not only the mayor of New York City faces, but also the mayors of every major city in the country—more than two hundred of them.

The new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Robert Weaver, points out that seven out of every ten Americans already live in the nation's cities, and within a few years it will be eight out of ten. The people are coming together to form what sociologists call "strip cities," amalgamations of population centers whose border areas blend into each other. Weaver says there are thirteen such "strip cities," easily identifiable across the country, which contain half the population of the United States.

It is in the growing, seething, changing and demanding people living in these metropolitan areas where the American genius for self-government; where our democracy and justice is getting, and will continue to get, its greatest task. Secretary Weaver calls it the "urban frontier."

Many Americans see the racial explosions in New York's Harlem, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Omaha, and Los Angeles in the past few years as merely an extension of Southern white prejudice to the North and other parts of the country. Most white Northerners disclaim responsibility for such ethnic backwardness regarding the colored people searching for social and economic justice—and that they prove it by moving their families to safely expensive suburbs.

It could thus be said that the racial crises now disturbing America's new "urban frontier" are also the result of missed opportunity, or ignorance and unconcern of the cities. Municipal government too often has been left to the politicians or to stagnate. The lack of foresight and confusion which has resulted in the "crisis of our cities," however, cannot solely be blamed on the lack of grassroots interest in municipal government.

The other day Senator Ribicoff sought to determine how much federal money for urban renewal, transit aid, public housing, and other projects is going to American cities now this year. Attorney General Katzenbach told the Committee that $13 billion was the total. Secretary Weaver said $28 billion was going to the cities. And in a speech at Syracuse, New York, last Friday, President Johnson put the figure at "almost $30 billion."

As the Washington tourist said: "You can't get there from here," and if the problems of Urban America are not defined and tackled as soon as possible, we won't get there at all.

This is Bill Downs, substituting for Edward P. Morgan, saying good night from Washington.