How Government Ruined the Cities

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How Big Government Cannibalized the Cities and Spawned Suburban Sprawl

A personal essay by Paul H. Belz, 2015

The ravaging of cities and the growth of suburbs in the United States following World War II was accompanied by the decline of mass transportation systems and a sudden lurch toward total dependence on the automobile. The car in suburban America from the early 1960s through the end of the century transcended its anticipated role as a utilitarian adjunct to peoples’ lives. Owning one evolved into an unrelenting necessity for even the most mundane tasks such as buying a loaf of bread or getting a haircut.

Four specific developments following World War II catapulted the auto to transportation supremacy, concomitantly triggering a devastating inner-city exodus and the explosive growth of sterile, insanely-zoned suburbs.

The first development revolutionized the home financing process and created an unprecedented demand for houses. Two existing laws began to be vigorously promoted which made home purchases easier for millions of Americans.

The National Housing Act of 1934 had established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to foster home ownership in America. The agency provides insurance protection to approved companies that offer home financing for consumers. After World War II the agency began aggressively promoting programs making it possible to buy homes with virtually no down payment.

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 established the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) which enabled military veterans to obtain government guaranteed home loans with literally a zero down payment.

As a consequence of these two federal government policies, families that had postponed home purchases during World War II could buy large individual houses with sizeable lots without the onerous necessity of pinching pennies for years to save a down payment. Additionally, the loans obtained through both programs featured lower interest rates and easier qualifying terms than were available in conventional mortgage markets. Prior to WW II most people paid cash for houses. The long-ignored mortgage interest deduction became one more incentive to buy a new home and take out a mortgage. Lenders began eagerly marketing these government insured/guaranteed loans because “Fannie Mae,” created in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, made it possible for them to sell their mortgages and make new ones, thereby generating lots of fees. Everything coalesced to create a “perfect storm” for unprecedented housing demand.

The American economy prospered during the decades just after World War II because Europe and Japan needed American dollars, goods, and services to rebuild their infrastructures and economies. That prosperity released a pent-up interest in starting families and buying homes in which to raise them.

Couples that had postponed having children during World War II accelerated their child-rearing timetables in 1946, creating what sociologists christened “the baby boom.” Fueled by the realities of rapidly expanding families, plenty of well-paying and secure jobs, automobiles running on cheap gasoline and government loan programs eliminating the need to spend years saving a down payment, demand for housing was poised to explode. The only missing ingredient in the recipe for a home building frenzy was easy access to outlying areas where the homes could be constructed.

The second development provided that missing ingredient. The Highway Revenue Act of 1956 established the Highway Trust Fund as a mechanism to finance an accelerated highway construction program. The Interstate Highway System was born. A tidal wave of federal and state government funds flowed into the construction of roads as money for mass transit simultaneously evaporated, to the detriment of urban cores. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, trolley cars were rapidly supplanted by diesel buses while passenger rail travel languished. America did everything short of holding a coronation ceremony for the automobile.

In my hometown of Baltimore in the summer of 1962, a six-lane divided highway without traffic lights or tolls opened and was called the “Baltimore Beltway.” The Beltway circled the city of Baltimore and became a connector to Interstates 70, 83, and 95. One might visualize the inner city as the hub of a wheel. All of the large, north/south and east/west radial highways are the spokes connecting the hub to the wheel’s outer rim—the Beltway. These interstate highway system links were quickly added to intersect the Beltway and carry traffic through the city’s central business district. It had become possible to commute from rural and suburban areas around Baltimore to any point in the center city in about half-an-hour. This development was mirrored in countless cities across the nation, including Washington, D.C., Baltimore’s nearest big-city neighbor.

The Interstate Highway System, combined with the FHA and VA mortgages, made it a certainty that suburban development would commence quickly, that construction would proceed at a pace unprecedented in America, and that the automobile would be a critical tool in facilitating that growth. Government had unwittingly encouraged toll-free movement out of the cities by the middle class.

It was the third government development, however, which determined that mere reliance on the automobile would be transformed into the enslavement of the suburban family by that vehicle. Exclusionary zoning was to become a stake through the heart of cities everywhere. Zoning is a local government prerogative, but a federal government with prescience would never have countenanced its exclusionary elements.

Exclusionary zoning dictated that the new suburbs would not have main streets as small towns and cities had enjoyed, where residents could walk to churches, schools, recreation, and shopping. Exclusionary zoning channeled the barber, dry cleaner, and other retailers into their own districts, segregated from residential sites. Industrial, office, farming and retail zones were isolated from one another as were developments of high-priced homes, low-priced homes, and apartment complexes. This separation made it virtually impossible to walk to most of the destinations people wanted or needed to access. Many roads had no sidewalks. No mass transit systems were established. Suburbanites had unwittingly become slaves to the automobile.

Since the husband needed a car to access his job in the city, families now required a second car for the wife to shuttle kids to doctors, music lessons, shopping, movie theaters, and athletic practices. As the women’s liberation movement gained momentum and the American family evolved into a two-working professional unit, a third car became a necessity for families with college-aged kids. The enslavement was complete.

The fourth and final development, called “blockbusting,” created a sense of urgency to act on the government-spawned lure of moving to the suburbs. In 1954 the U. S. Supreme Court’s intention to desegregate America’s schools was affirmed in the landmark decision known as Brown v. Board of Education. This put the civil rights movement on the front page of the nation’s newspapers where it remained for the rest of the century.

As the movement accelerated into high gear in the 1960s, whites resisted integrated housing. Without the three aforementioned government programs, however, most middle class whites would necessarily have continued living in the cities and reluctantly worked out racial differences. But the appeal of cheap mortgages, spacious individual houses with large back yards, new schools for their kids, zoning to keep the poor away, and easy access to their city-based jobs via new toll-free highways proved irresistible to whites. Our government had precipitously sown the seeds for disaster in America’s cities and the Ku Klux Klan couldn’t have scripted a better strategy for building an impenetrable racial divide.

Marketing-savvy blockbusters injected a sense of urgency by convincing many whites that integration was going to destroy the value of their city homes if they didn’t act quickly and move to the suburbs. Homeowners sold to them at a discount and they resold to blacks at a premium. Additionally, blockbusters pointedly reminded whites terrified of the increased crime associated with integration that blacks couldn’t follow them to the suburbs because exclusionary zoning would keep poor people out of their new neighborhoods. “No low-income housing or mass transit,” would become the mantra of many county executives. Those exclusionary zoned apartment districts did not allow low-income units. Numerous county executives got elected by promising to maintain this closed-door to the poor.

This fourth unseemly development was the final crucial ingredient in spawning the perfect storm. Demand accelerated exponentially for suburban housing during the 1960s. From 1955 to 1965 my family’s Edmondson Village neighborhood in West Baltimore lost 20,000 whites who were replaced by 20,000 blacks.

Following the mugging and robbery by a black man of my saintly grandmother as she walked to church, my own family succumbed to the siren call of the blockbusters. Forced to choose between the perceived best interest of the family and the best interest of society, most families, black or white, will choose the alternative most beneficial to their own family. This opinion is supported by the fact that throughout the 1990s middle class blacks forsook “black solidarity” and migrated from Baltimore city to the suburbs at a faster rate than whites.

My father’s choice was between keeping his family in the city, thereby exposing them to increasing crime while watching the value of his largest investment diminish, or accepting the government incentives of cheap mortgages, good highways, exclusionary zoning, inexpensive individual houses with large lots and new schools in a metropolitan area county. For a family with eight kids in a one-bathroom city row house it was an easy choice.

Government’s role should be to create policies and incentives to ensure that decisions which help families dovetail with the best interest of the larger society. It should be government’s role to anticipate and short-circuit choices such as my father’s but ironically the government was not only an incompetent facilitator, it was the perpetrator.

The aforementioned generous government programs tragically widened the racial chasm in America and rained catastrophic consequences on the cities. My father’s decision was not based on racism but on family security along with logistical and economic common sense. It was the best long-term investment decision he ever made for our family. Given commensurate economic incentives in the 1850s, the middle class would have been fleeing the violent, white, Irish Catholic gangs then terrorizing Baltimore. My father’s decision did not help America. His decision, duplicated multiple millions of times across the nation, created a phenomenon which was dubbed “white flight” by sociologists.

Without the government-created incentives to populate suburbia, blockbusting could not have flourished, whites could not have fled urban areas en masse and America’s cities would have undoubtedly been spared their ignominious economic and social decline. Instead of forcing the “melting pot” concept to work, however, the United States government myopically created a new pot; suburbia.

With a multitude of people inhabiting the new suburbs and driving incessantly, what now beckoned entrepreneurs was the need to invent a new gathering place where folks could mingle and achieve multiple shopping goals. The same builders who had prospered by meeting the demand for suburban housing positioned themselves to multiply their wealth by satiating the demand for shopping. The initial answer was the strip shopping center, which evolved into the enclosed neighborhood mall and then the regional and super-regional shopping mall. For better or for worse, the mall became the new main street for suburban America.

And what became of those super-rich builders once the primary mall-building cycle was finished? The homes and malls which they had built in the suburbs with government encouragement facilitated the flight from cities of millions of people across America. This abandonment was a primary and direct cause of the subsequent disintegration of urban America as populations were left with higher concentrations of poor, fewer jobs, inferior schools, and decimated tax bases. With their windfalls banked, those super-rich builders then saw opportunities to become even richer by returning to the blight they had wreaked upon the center cities to window-dress it with tourist attractions and glamorous retail centers. With consummate chutzpah they portrayed themselves as risk-takers whose projects could only be feasible with the help of huge government tax breaks.

Prototypical developers like James Rouse returned from the suburbs posing as saviors to make more money revitalizing the cities their “vision” had helped destroy. With breathtaking irony, America’s now mega-rich white real estate developers—who had raped the cities and constructed a suburban lifestyle which was racist, antisocial, architecturally sterile and lemming-like—returned to the devastated center cities, built their tourist attractions and retail centers adjacent to the blight and were indeed hailed as saviors and philanthropists. Their prior complicity with the government in draining the cities of jobs, businesses, and the middle class created a vacuum which was quickly filled by a violent drug culture.

Rouse took the concept of “suburbs” to its quintessential by building an incorporated suburban city in Maryland named Columbia. Most cities have an economic rationale for their existence. Baltimore was born as a major seaport. Washington D.C. was born as the nation’s capital. Columbia’s raison d'être was that it was midway between those two cities and could drain middle-class taxpayers and businesses eager to flee both, making it more the offspring of a bottom-feeding opportunist and talented capitalist than of a “savior and visionary” producing a multi-cultural, planned solution to America’s urban malaise. Brilliant public relations work made it sacrilegious to suggest the sainted Rouse was the former rather than the latter. Yet Columbia, Maryland became a popular destination for middle class blacks, thereby increasing the concentration of poor blacks in both Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

As the 20th century waned, for decades the suburban mall remained the only venue in America where people of all races, religions, social and economic levels, ages, and occupations routinely mingled. City-dwellers were forced to travel to these malls because national retailers refused to open stores in poor, violent urban cores. For eight years I spent one to two hours a day walking for exercise and observing mall life at various times of the day. I became acquainted with hundreds of people from across the spectrum of humanity and I became attuned to the daily life cycle of the suburban mall.

America evolved in ominous directions throughout the second half of the twentieth century lending prescience to John Adams’ observation, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Similarly, Oscar Wilde quipped, “America is the only country to go from barbarism to decadence without the benefit of civilization in between.” By the end of the twentieth century his irreverent comment evoked not the laughter of a quip but the alarm of national self-recognition.

As the century waned, the regional mall was the only place in America’s suburbs which could be utilized to genuinely feel the pulse and gauge the spirit of a society whose citizens were growing ever more disconnected from one another.

New technology such as the Internet and the cellular telephone were fostering an increasingly cocoonish, isolated, and angry populace, as evidenced by soaring rates of random violence, road rage, and other forms of anti-social behavior. The mall became a prominent symbol of a materialistic society whose citizens sang the anthem of opportunism, moral relativism, and victimhood when personal contact was unavoidable and then retreated to their cocoons to experience the virtual lives of big screen television and the Internet.

The disintegration of America’s urban cores left their residents in a horrific environment: unrelenting violence, drug trafficking, abysmal schools, skyrocketing unemployment rates, high taxes, decaying housing and infrastructure, and no answers. It left suburbanites enslaved to the automobile in a sterile environment groomed by toxic chemicals.

The root cause of the problematic realities facing urban areas and suburbs in the 21st century wasn’t racist-fueled white flight or drug trafficking. They were symptomatic not causative. The root cause was an inept Federal Government with no foresight into what it was unleashing with its programs, regulations or lack thereof. The housing and highway programs were not inherently problematic but their simultaneous implementation outside the strictures of insightful strategic planning was cataclysmic. As is typical with hastily-imposed government programs, the devil is not in the wonderful grand vision but in the details, which don’t fit into thirty-second re-election infomercials.

The malignancy is metastasizing because citizens expect the same institution that created the problem to solve it—big government. That’s unlikely because the institution is populated by men and women hard-wired toward pursuing repeated short-term success in the electoral arena rather than advancing the long-term well-being of the nation-state. Those goals are incompatible and a nonviolent solution is presently inconceivable. Politicians will invariably and indignantly protest that their prioritization is the reverse, but that’s the first lie elected officials invariably tell.

Political term limits would be a sensible start toward a cure. Officials unconcerned with the time-consuming, corruption-inducing re-election process would be more likely to place the nation’s welfare atop their priority list. As a second step, eliminating the ability to profit from past elective office would also help ensure motives in the national interest. Merging cities and counties into regional governments would be a sensible third step. As a fourth step, mandatory national service would re-awaken the average citizen’s awareness and concern about the military-industrial complex’s deepening roots into the national bedrock. Since President Richard Nixon eliminated the military draft, private companies and their lobbyists have acquired a growing stake in America’s military ventures. Jobs once assigned to military personnel are now performed by private companies earning billions of dollars. Those are tax dollars lost to rebuilding cities as the nation faces an $18 trillion debt in 2015. Perpetual warfare is in the military-industrial complex’s economic best interest. In the 1950s President Eisenhower warned of this possibility. An engaged and concerned public is the only possible braking mechanism for this troubling evolution.

Of the four suggestions proffered above, none are politically palatable or likely.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” Evidence that the American city’s hope for a better
future will soon take flight and soar isn’t vaguely discernible.