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

“There was so much hope for cities,” said Terry Mazany, director of the Chicago Community Trust. “Now, four years later, we are back to the sense that if cities are going to thrive, they are going to have to do it on their own. They’re not looking to Washington for the resources anymore.”

Look no further than the State of the Union. One of his pre-eminent initiatives last year was mass transit. “Within 25 years our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail,” the president declared. This year, the only mention of transportation was the success of GM. The message has been the same across the country. A recent report by WNYC analyzed the president’s rhetoric over the past 12 months, and it found he moved from a peak of 18 train references in speeches in April to none in November or December. Meanwhile, discussions of road construction rose to 41 mentions in September and 49 in October.

“I’m hoping what we’re going to find out at the beginning of his next term is he’s already done all these transformative things at the agencies that will let him just take off on all these project,” Ms. Vitullo-Martin said, echoing the sentiment of her many city-centric colleagues. “In the meantime, we don’t have too much to look at.”


“He’s done the best that he could,” Robert Cahouette said, standing on the corner of 129th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard. “I hope he gets another four years so he can complete some things.”

A Korean veteran with the Marines hat and pins to prove it, Mr. Cahouette had been living at the St. Nicholas Houses for the past five years. He said he thought the president had been good for cities, but he could not point to any specific programs. Nor, like many of his neighbors, did he even realize that the administration had helped facilitate and pay for the school being plopped down in his backyard, half finished after breaking ground in April. There was no mention of the federal government anywhere on the construction fencing surrounding the massive project, twice the size of any of the neighboring redbrick apartment buildings. The president’s image-minders had the good sense to put signs by the side of the road saying the paving was paid for by the federal government, so why not here?

That might have lost them some votes, actually. “The president, Shaun Donovan, John Rhea, Adolfo Carrion, they’re all pimps,” William Danzy declared. “They sold us out.”

Mr. Danzy, with his Yankees cap and brown suede jacket, then proceeded to give a lesson in urban planning to rival Jane Jacobs. He said the idea to reconnect the street grid, to “densify” the complex, to correct the supposed ills wrought by Robert Moses, was all wrong. The 60-year-old life-long resident of the complex said most of the benches the elderly relied on were gone. “It’s not just the kids hanging out,” he said.

“Look at the Lower East Side, the Warsaw ghetto,” he continued. “These projects were meant to correct the social ills inherent in the slums. Anxiety, stress, conflict. The planners tried to eliminate that. All these cats and their new ideas, they’re full of crap.”

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC