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American Cities and the Fragmentation of Political Power

WHAT American cities have not had the attention, or the respect, that they deserve over the past several presidential cycles was apparent before Los Angeles erupted in violence April 29.

But the riots that flared after four white police officers were cleared by a jury of brutality charges in the beating of a black man have made the urban agenda everyone's agenda - for now, at least.

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Careful students of race relations and the urban scene have said they don't expect a return to the proverbial long hot summers of the late 1960s. The United States cannot, however, go on forever accepting less than full participation of a big segment of society.

The violent aftermath of the verdict in the Rodney King case had to do, at one level, with black people's lack of confidence in the justice system. But fuller engagement in the economic system would have helped contain the rage of those who ended up looting - or redirected that rage to a more effective political expression.

There is a moment to be seized here, surely. But it's not clear that the cities will be able to focus their political power long enough to get the job done.

Politics has changed since the days when party bosses could "deliver" their cities' votes to politicians who would then be in their debt. "Politically, cities don't have the power to punish that they had in the '50s or '60s," a National League of Cities official says bluntly. In the television age, the politicians go over the heads of the party bosses to the living rooms of America. "Community" is as likely to describe an interest group as a group of individuals living in the same place.

The rise of political-action committees to finance elections, moreover, has meant that politicians spend more time chasing funds and less time hashing out issues in a platform-writing process. "There's a whole policymaking process that's been circumvented," the league official says.

And nowadays campaigns are waged and won in the suburbs, because that's where more of the voters are; at least, that's where they sleep. Millions of suburbanites depend on the cities for their jobs, but it has been too easy for them - and the politicians wooing them - to see the cities as problems rather than resources.

Lack of unified metropolitan governments doesn't help matters any. In the latter part of the 19th century, towns accepted or even sought out incorporation into adjacent major cities, but today's affluent suburbs resist annexation. The political reality of competing municipal jurisdictions is at odds with the economic reality of a metropolitan whole. Politicians seek the favor of suburban voters by ignoring the problems of the cities or, worse, playing to a sense of class or racial divisiveness.

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An interesting indication of the price of that divisiveness is a study by the League of Cities on the disparities between the residents of city centers and their suburban counterparts, and how those disparities relate to job creation.

Employment growth was found best in metropolitan areas where city-dwellers' income was a high proportion of suburban dwellers'; where urban/suburban disparities were highest, employment actually shrank.

Considering 57 metropolitan statistical areas (the federal government's standard designation for big cities), the league found that where urban per capita income ranged from 32.1 to 43.6 percent of suburban income (as reflected by 1987 figures), employment growth fell 3.2 percent from January 1988 to August 1991. In the top quintile, with city income 78.4 percent to 90.0 percent of suburban income, employment growth rose an average of 5.9 percent over the period.

"This is a powerful message about what happens when people, neighborhoods, and communities become divided, polarized, and isolated," Glenda E. Hood, president of the NLC and city commissioner of Orlando, Fla., said in a release. "The effort to escape or ignore the factors that create disparities ends up weakening the whole region....What this report also suggests is that places that have retained a stronger sense of shared prosperity, in terms of city and suburban incomes, are doing better overall and a re likely to continue to."

The league is modest in its claims; spokesman Randy Arndt says the study was intended more to open a discussion than to provide the last word. But it is an important subject to keep talking about.

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