Obama to Cities: Drop Dead—the Life and Death of a Great American Urban Policy

web obama jasonseiler Obama to Cities: Drop Dead—the Life and Death of a Great American Urban Policy

(Jason Seiler)

From his corner office on the 35th floor of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building downtown, Adolfo Carrion could once survey much of his domain. The regional administrator for HUD Region 2, Mr. Carrion was responsible for the federal government’s housing and urban development projects in New York and New Jersey. Stretching out before the floor-to-ceiling windows is lower Manhattan. Brooklyn and Queens are off to the left. Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty peek out from behind the towers of downtown. Out across the harbor to the right is Jersey City and, off in the distance, Newark. Glory and destitution in one vista.

Peering down, it is easy to see a century’s worth of transformational urban development. The redbrick monoliths of the New York Housing Authority, the brainchild of Robert Moses and the WPA, abound. Idyllic towers propagated by LaGuardia, Rockefeller, Lindsay and a thousand other urban dreamers, these are the projects that deteriorated into The Projects. Ringing the Battery and over the bridges to Long Island are the FDR, the West Side Highway, the BQE and the rest of Moses’s great interstate network. After four decades, Battery Park City is nearly complete, built on the landfill dredged up by the World Trade Center. More than $20 billion in Liberty bonds is at work rebuilding the Trade Center and other pieces of lower Manhattan, ravaged on 9/11.

Yet for all this work, it is hard to recognize a marquee project, a bright shining beacon of the Obama administration on the scale of those that came before.

Squinting, it is possible to see from Mr. Carrion’s office the aluminum siding wrapping the Brooklyn Bridge. It is being rebuilt for $508 million, $30 million of which came from the president’s stimulus fund. The government is not building a new bridge or new apartment complex, and it is only building a new office tower because the one that came before was destroyed. In so far as something new has been accomplished, it is in the philosophical and cerebral fashion that has been both a blessing and curse to this president.

This is about thinking about the way we want Americans to live, in this country and as a global player,” Mr. Carrion said. “This is about building a foundation for the future of the country and about rebuilding the economy.”


When Barack Obama took office, he created the first-ever White House Office of Urban Affairs, and he tapped Mr. Carrion to be his city’s czar. This was seen as the first great signal that things would be different, that the promises made by Candidate Obama, of “putting the UD back in HUD,” would be fulfilled.

“It’s symbolic, the White House Office of Urban Affairs,” said Ed Blakely, the former dean of the New School’s urban policy department and New Orleans’s “recovery czar.” He currently directs the United State Studies Center at the University of Sydney in Australia. “It’s very important because it showed the president’s commitment to cities, though a lot of work remains to be done.”

But the office fell by the wayside amid the mounting recession, competition from the cabinet agencies and ambivalence within the administration. When Mr. Carrion left for his provincial position at HUD in May 2010, it all but vanished, with staff falling from six to two. The White House switchboard cannot find it sometimes.