Renewal: Hype or Reality?

Times Staff Writer

If you're interested in uplifting stories of urban success, stay away from "American Cities: A Report on the Myth of Urban Renaissance" by Michael C. D. Macdonald (Simon & Schuster, $16.95, 428 pages).

Even the booming Sun Belt fares none too well in this work, based largely on news stories in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, along with other newspapers and news weeklies. Macdonald acknowledges his debt to the late John Gunther's "Inside U.S.A.," Joel Garreau's "The Nine Nations of North America" and trend-setting books by Neal R. Peirce and John Keefe, among others.

Sun Belt cities of the South and West have been violent areas since the era of western mining camps and southern slavery and Macdonald sees little improvement in places like Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta and Houston today. If anything, gang warfare in Los Angeles and the high crime rates of all the Sun Belt cities are getting worse, even as Midwestern and Eastern cities are experiencing downturns in crime.

In Los Angeles, he blames this much of the crime on young minorities, especially Latinos and blacks: "In per capita terms, Los Angeles in 1980 had 35% more murders than New York and 40% fewer cops. Most of the violence inevitably occurred in slums like Watts and East Los Angeles. Gangs and their violence have escalated rapidly in Los Angeles. Some gangs were black ones from Watts, but many were groups of Mexicans from East Los Angeles."

In contrast, Snow Belt cities like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Kansas City and Wichita have stable population growth, relatively few minorities and crime rates among the lowest in the nation, he points out. It's no wonder that he singles out these four cities as the four "paragons" in the Snow Belt.

Injecting a personal note, as a resident of Milwaukee for nearly a decade from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, I can attest to his view of Milwaukee as a relatively safe big city. The statistics cited by Macdonald back up this feeling. My wife and I lived near Lake Michigan a mile from where I worked (the morning newspaper) and we didn't feel overwhelmed by fear during walks to the supermarket or shoe repair store. I can't make that statement about any residential area in Los Angeles a mile from Times Mirror Square!

All four Midwestern "paragons" are remarkably diversified cities with manufacturing, financial and service segments. Milwaukee is as much an insurance center (Northwestern Mutual, MGIC) as it is a beer capital and Minneapolis-St. Paul was home to high-tech industries (Control Data, 3M) long before the word "high-tech" was coined.

Macdonald doesn't think much of the much-heralded downtown renaissance, featuring attention-getting projects like Renaissance Center in Detroit, Harborplace in Baltimore, Omni International and Peachtree Center in Atlanta and Quincy Market in Boston.

"All the shiny new office towers, luxury hotels or pedestrian malls downtown cannot hide the growing abandonment behind Potemkin village facades," he writes. (He should see the "sound-control" block walls on the Hollywood Freeway, effectively blocking out views of the teeming masses for commuters on their way to and from work!)

Downtown developments can be successful tourist attractions and are used by suburbanites during their lunch hours, but do little to add street life to cities after dark, he asserts. Considering the crime rates of Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta and Boston, one wonders what could possibly get people to stroll around these cities after dark!

It might be an oversimplification, but central cities today lack the balancing factor of the middle class. All too often, only the rich and the poor are center city residents, with everybody else fleeing to the relative safety of the suburbs. This is certainly true of Los Angeles, which empties out quickly after 5 p.m., and is just as true of "paragon" Milwaukee, where the commuters escape to places like Brookfield, Wauwatosa, Greendale or Mequon.

Macdonald's book could have benefited from personal visits to some of the places he writes about, but on the whole he seems to capture the essence of the cities that he discusses. Books like this can quickly age, but "America's Cities" should have value 10 or 15 years from now. Gunther's books are still useful and "Cities in a Race With Time," by Jeanne R. Lowe, is acknowledged by many urban watchers as still valuable even though it was published almost two decades ago.

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