When President Clinton goofed during the State of the Union address, solemnly paying tribute to Vice President Gore for his effort to "make our communities more liberal," he got a lot of laughter. And even more when he flubbed it again. But the guffawing audience didn't know how very true Clinton's Freudian blunder was.
Clinton was talking about Gore's Livable Communities initiative, which purports to curb sprawl and preserve open spaces. It is a proposal marketed to soccer moms while secretly aiding the welfare moms too. In other words, it panders to swing voters while benefiting the liberal Democratic base -- minorities and the urban poor. It is also wonky and green -- vintage Gore.
Here's the soccer mom narrative. For decades, Americans have moved out of cities for the peace and open space of the suburbs. But as more people move out, suburbs become clogged with traffic and blighted by strip malls. Sprawl eats up surrounding farmland (not to mention other undeveloped areas such as the Florida Everglades), and cars pollute.
Gore's initiative, based on a philosophy called "smart growth," buys land for preservation and improves public transportation. It also proposes funding -- though at the budgetary equivalent of pocket change -- to fix city schools, combat crime, and clean up toxic waste sites in cities to ready them for developers. It's intended to suck suburbanites back to cities.
Smart growth advocates -- a cult-like group of environmentalists and urban planners -- are elated to have a national figure touting their bubbling movement. They argue that as cities become more attractive, people move back in, traffic clears, and venerated "green spaces" are preserved. And it saves government the cost of building new roads, sewers, schools, post offices, and other amenities that already exist downtown.
Suburbanites love smart growth. No wonder. Newspapers have been running photographs of choked highways, and "road rage" has become part of the lexicon. In 1998, voters passed almost 200 growth-related ballot initiatives; twenty-nine governors have advanced smart growth in major speeches. Politicians in New Jersey, Oregon, and Maryland have become green idylls.
Based on this momentum, as well as polls and focus groups, Gore pollster Celinda Lake predicts that smart growth could be a political slam-dunk -- so long as it's framed with suburban swing voters in mind. Here's the calculation: The Democratic base lives in the city, and the Republican one on the periphery. As more voters move to the suburbs (50 percent live there now, according to one measure), Democrats must earn their votes or risk becoming obsolete.
If Gore wins the Democratic nomination as expected, he's going to need every suburban vote he can get. So he's working it. In numerous speeches in the last two years, he has felt the pain of parents who have to read their children a bedtime story from their cell phones while stuck in traffic. (Swing voters have cell phones.) With smart growth, he burbles, "Our kids will see horses, cows, and farms outside books and movies." Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer -- who rides his bike to the Capitol and uses words like "greenfrastructure" -- wonks wildly that in our sprawling suburbs "you have to burn a quart of gas to buy a quart of milk."
It is certainly true that sprucing up cities will help suburbanites. But the secret -- unceremoniously blurted before Congress and the nation -- is that livable communities efforts would achieve the liberal goal of helping poor minorities trapped in the inner cities at least as much as it would aid suburban road ragers.
Here's why: Sprawl has devastated cities, causing them to hemorrhage jobs and businesses. With the wealthy moving out, cities have lost their tax base, causing city services and schools to deteriorate. In large part, minorities have been left behind, poorer and more isolated than before. If done right, livable communities initiatives could make city living more attractive, bringing jobs, businesses, and tax dollars back to the cities. (In fact, many of the tenets of smart growth sound eerily like liberal solutions to poverty marketed to a different crowd.) Ideally, smart growth might also slow
the resegregation trend in housing and schools.
(For an explanation of sprawl's racist roots, click here.)
Though he hasn't said much about it, it's clear that Gore had "liberal communities" in mind when he proposed his initiative. Christopher Edley, Jr., who has spent an illustrious career advocating old-style liberal solutions to racial isolation, is one of the Gore campaign's top policy architects. And while Gore's publicly feeling suburbanites' pain, he is privately meeting with urban and minority grass roots groups.
Though they acknowledge how much smart growth could do to help inner cities, pollsters warn that saying so could destroy smart growth's appeal. "Clinton became president through his ability to retract the Reagan Democrats into the Democratic fold," says David Rusk, a former politician and author of a book on the politics of sprawl, "For many Reagan Democrats, the specter of poor black folks being a part of their community is pretty menacing."
Maybe so. But now that the cat is out of the bag, advocates might as well groom it and let it preen on the couch in the living room. Smart growth is one of the few ideas that can simultaneously benefit rich and poor, suburban, urban, and rural, black, white, and Hispanic. When there are so many issues that pit groups against each other, maybe "liberal communities" wouldn't hurt.
Watch the American Prospect Magazine for more articles on sprawl.
The Racist Roots of Sprawl
In 1934, with the country mired in depression and more than a thousand Americans losing the deeds to their homes every day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed a law aimed at helping Americans achieve the American Dream. The National Housing Act allowed the federal government to insure private home loans for middle class Americans, setting off an unprecedented housing boom.
The catch was that the Dream was only made available to white people. The government mandated that insurance only go to homes in areas that were "racially homogenous." They drew now-infamous red lines on city maps delineating where minorities lived and then explicitly refused to insure homes in those areas. Frequently, only the suburbs were sufficiently far from what manuals called "adverse influences," so many city dwellers moved out to get loans. Even after World War II, The GI Bill of Rights gave 14 million veterans an even better home loan deal -- but with the same segregationist ground rules.
In the 50s came "urban renewal." Over three decades, the federal government provided billions to clear slums and rebuild cities. Sounds good, but in practice, planners frequently provided no new homes for the poor minorities whose homes were cleared or crammed them into segregated high-rise housing projects. In New York City alone, 250,000 primarily poor city dwellers saw their homes bulldozed for highways. Urban renewal earned the moniker "Negro removal."
The Supreme Court mandated school desegregation in 1954. But it later denied courts the right to force integration across most existing school district lines. So more whites moved to suburban districts -- out of desegregation's reach.
Once explicit racial segregation became illegal and unpopular, many localities found creative ways to carry on. Many zoned land for single-family homes with minimum lot sizes, effectively shutting out low and middle-income housing. Numerous cities used other methods of keeping the poor in their place. In Detroit, buses stopped at city limits, and the suburbs put the closest connecting stops miles away -- making it nearly impossible to take public transportation from city to suburb. In New York, planners built overpasses too low for buses to block people without cars from certain areas. Enormous road-building and sewer projects subsidized those who move out to the suburbs.