The Model Cities experiment proved to be a disastrous failure. This was especially true in the most fragile neighborhoods, which were most in need of help. In a few years, for example – a very few years – the South Bronx was converted from a struggling but intact neighborhood into an empty war zone.(1) Granted, South Bronx hadn’t exactly been a model community since Gouverneur Morris died there in 1816, but prior to Model Cities it was getting along. Families lived there, small businesses flourished, there were churches and restaurants and bars and even a few good jazz clubs.(2)
Bedford-Stuyvesant didn’t fare much better, and East Harlem was spared the worst of the destruction only because of the continued influx of Hispanics that caused it to become known as El Barrio.(3)
Then things got worse. As crime soared in the three Model Cities neighborhoods, it soon spilled out into the broader city. In 1960 NYC had been one of the safest large cities in America, but by the late 1970s it was one of the most violent. And crime continued to spiral out of control, not peaking until 1990. In 1983 my own wife was the victim of an attempted robbery on West 44th Street at four o’clock in the afternoon.
New York found itself in a vicious downward spiral, with no end in sight. Commentators identified many possible culprits in the City’s decline and eventual Lost Decades, but Exhibit A would be the well-intentioned but murderously wrongheaded Model Cities Program.(4)
Then, just when everything seemed hopeless, New York City came back. Improved policing methods, the decline of the crack epidemic (these phenomena being related) and other factors powered a remarkable renaissance. The crime rate in the city plummeted. From a peak of almost 2,300 murders in 1990, the number dropped to 414 in 2012 and most of those were concentrated in a few high-crime areas.
Today, overall, New York is much safer than scores of cities 1/100 its size. From a close brush with irrelevancy, it has regained its place as the most powerful and important city in the world. And it only took three decades!
You might think that this is the end of my story, but it’s not. Stay tuned for my next post.
(1) In the 1970s, almost half the buildings in the South Bronx were burned out or abandoned. Many who saw the place said it reminded them of Dresden in 1945.
(2) South Bronx would eventually become renowned as the birthplace of hip-hop culture, but first it starred in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.
(3) When, in 2000, HUD published a long list of “major HUD-related programs” launched between 1934 and 2000, it omitted, Soviet-style, any mention of the Model Cities Program, the largest project in its history. See Basic Congressional and Presidential Actions Establishing Major HUD-related Programs, http://www.hud.gov/about/libraryresources.cfm#basic.
(4) NYC could have spared itself a lot of trauma if it had emulated Chicago. Then Mayor Daley saw clearly that HUD’s support for community activists as the leaders of the Model Cities effort was a recipe for disaster. The Woodlawn Organization, known as TWO, had developed its own competing Model Cities plan for Chicago with HUD’s backing, but Daley outflanked TWO and the Feds and kept a firm grip on the HUD money. It’s true that in Daley’s hands the money did little good for Chicago’s poor neighborhoods. It’s also true that it didn’t destroy the city.
Next up: How Social Policy Gets Made: HCZ
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