Stimulate our cities

If you're looking for shovel-ready green projects, Mr. President, urban neighborhoods have plenty

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Dear President Obama:

Your goal of creating three to four million jobs through federal investment in a number of initiatives -- such as new sources of energy the repair of roads, bridges and transit, and improvements in health care and education -- is bold and far-reaching. One of the targets of investment you mention is Main Street. By Main Street do you mean what we urbanites mean? If so, you are recognizing an opportunity of gigantic proportions.

Main streets don't exist on their own. They are the central spines of urban neighborhoods. And the urban communities of our major cities are in urgent need of repair and investment. By investing in them, you could produce huge numbers of jobs and tax revenue.

In your past life as a community organizer and a state representative whose constituency was Chicago's inner city neighborhoods, you know at first-hand that our major cities are clusters of neighborhoods and small towns.

Consider Pittsburgh. We are not exceptional. Our metropolitan area of two million comprises dozens of neighborhoods and small towns. Each has its own heritage and identity. No one would confuse Lawrenceville with Oakland, or Hazelwood with Bloomfield, or the South Side with New Kensington.

Almost everyone in Pittsburgh lives in a neighborhood. Most were built before we had cars. Almost every amenity was within walking distance of home -- workplaces, parks, churches, schools, libraries and main-street shops.

Each neighborhood gained its distinct character from our topography of hills, valleys and rivers. But also from ethnicity, from the tides of immigrants who came to America to work in our industries and mills and who gravitated into religious and language clusters.

For the past 20 years I have lived in West Homestead, one of three contiguous communities that housed the steel workers in the great Homestead Works and Mesta Machine.

On the day I moved in, my neighbor came over with a bucket of chicken and dumplings. When I thanked her and she heard my accent her face clouded. "You're not a Hunkie!" she exclaimed. Then she softened. "Ah well," she said as she took my hand in hers, "you can be our neighbor."

I quickly learned about ethnic pride. My community has 12 ethnic churches on the National Register of Historic Places and several African-American churches, we have a historic main street of shops, and we have local schools, a park and a great Carnegie library.

In a word, Mr. President, before suburbia drained their strengths, neighborhoods in most of our major cities were like ours -- human-scale livable communities, each with its own special history and culture. Their residential streets had sidewalks and street trees, and their houses had porches, bay windows, dormers and pitched roofs. You knew your neighbors, and you knew your baker and your grocer, your librarian and your minister, and the teachers of your children.

Each urban community was a distinct and special place, linked one to the other by a network of roads and local transit systems. Essentially everything is still there today -- often run down and lacerated, but still there.

Neighborhoods are the essence of urban America, and they are desperately in need of revitalization. We have huge capital value in our urban heritages -- not just in our people and their local cultures, but in our buildings, our streets and even in our utilities and sewers. Yet our local and metropolitan governments are strained to the breaking point to maintain these amenities because tax revenues are inadequate -- tax revenues that in large part now depend on debased property values.

One thing we do not need is the expansion of highways, which would expand suburbs, industrial parks and big-box retailers, and which would further deplete opportunities for the revival of our cities.

We need precisely the opposite. Our neighborhoods and cities need to rise up and demand to be heard. We need to follow your lead, Mr. President, and say yes we can. We need the financial tools that would empower us to recreate our middle class, neighborhood by neighborhood, town by town, all across America. We, the people, can do the rest.

Putting historic buildings back to work is only part of what we have to do. By reviving shops and professional offices on our main streets, by encouraging urban industries and workshops, by restoring our schools so that they are woven back into the cultural life and upward mobility of our communities, and by restoring our residential buildings and streets, we could recreate the economic foundations of our neighborhoods. By revitalizing our walkable neighborhoods, we also could cut back on greenhouse gases and improve the health and life-spans of our citizens.

Just think of the long-term job opportunities that would be generated if federal financing were made available to revitalize urban communities all across America, employing carpenters, plumbers, road and bridge builders, roofers, insulators, electricians and transit workers, to say nothing of generating local investment and small business opportunities. Imagine a new kind of Marshall Plan that would invest in action at local levels, respond to priorities voiced by citizens and be repaid by the regeneration of urban tax bases.

It is not as if we have to invent anything new. We have local mayors and councils, we have citizen-run planning commissions, we have banks, architects and contractors, we have technical schools to train our young people in new skills and we have all the public agencies we need. Now we have to empower them so that they can work comprehensively together.

We have heard about the greening of America. Let's also green our urban grass roots.

David Lewis is emeritus distinguished professor of urban studies at Carnegie Mellon University ( ).


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