Schmoke’s Gamble: A Conversation with Urbanologist Fred Siegel

Last year, Frederick F. Siegel, a history professor at New York’s Cooper Union for the Arts and Sciences, released a somewhat pessimistic book on the fate of America’s cities, The Future Once Happened Here.1 During one of his recent visits to Maryland, the Calvert Institute conducted a lengthy interview with Siegel. In particular, the institute was interested in Professor Siegel’s views on Baltimore, which are reproduced below.

Fred Siegel was born in the Bronx in 1945. He has lived in every borough of New York except Staten Island. (“With luck, it will stay that way,” he adds.) A self-professed lover of the urban way of life, and a self-described adherent to liberalism, Siegel became disturbed by trends in both after the 1960s. In his own words, “I love cities. I wrote this book because I was unhappy with the self-destruction of my own city and other cities. It was my way of trying to aid the revival of city life. This is very personal.”

In addition to teaching at Cooper Union, Siegel has been a columnist for the New York Post and an advisor to New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. He also writes on urban issues at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, the think-tank commonly associated with the moderate wing of the Democratic Party.


Calvert Question: Your new book, The Future Once Happened Here, has caused quite a stir. Tell me a little about the book and its pessimistic view of urban politics.

Siegel Answer: The question behind the book is, why has the city done so badly over the past 30-or-so years? There is an autobiographical element to this. I am very much a city person, deeply attached to New York. I live in Brooklyn, in a lovely integrated neighborhood. For some time, I have watched the inner city crumble. In the book, I try to explain this in terms of the changing nature of liberalism. Until the 1960s, liberalism left New York in debt, but it did not leave it wildly overburdened with taxes. More important, there was a recognition of the importance of self-respect. The city was there to help you, but you had to help yourself, too.

In 1965, this changed. Liberal Republican John Lindsay was inaugurated mayor, ushering in what I call “dependent individualism.” This introduced the notion that the city had an obligation to support you, but that you had no obligation to help the city. Or anyone else, for that matter. Under Lindsay, the ideas of the Kerner Commission report were carried out in disastrous form. The Kerner Commission was established in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson (D) to examine the causes of the urban rioting that swept across the country in the mid-1960s. Lindsay was a leading light on the commission, eager to put print into practice in New York.

Lindsay Legacy

When Lindsay came into office, New York City had a black male unemployment rate of just four percent and some 538,000 people on welfare. Under Lindsay, the welfare caseload more than doubled to about 1.2 million. The tragedy is three-fold. First, Lindsay’s dependent liberalism pulled African-Americans (and Puerto Ricans) out of the real economy into the isolation of welfare and family breakdown just as they were starting to make it in society. The policy also produced fiscal breakdown. Someone had to pay for this welfare explosion, so taxes went up dramatically. Meantime, the quality of life declined as businesses left and productive employment consequently declined.

Experiment in Education

The second aspect of the Lindsay legacy was his experiment in education. In the 1950s and early ’60s, the city school system, though centralized, was a model of acculturation – taking blacks from the South and giving them basic literacy and numeracy. (At this time, migrants from the rural South were often illiterate.) An initially sensible effort to decentralize the city school system became a battle between the New York affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and a radical new organization called the African-American Teachers’ Association (ATA). The result was the concept of “community-controlled” schools. The first experimental district was selected, Ocean Hill, which was put under supervision of ATA member and Malcolm X-admirer Rhody McCoy, who immediately distinguished himself by inviting to his schools black nationalists who distributed leaflets denouncing Jews as “Middle Eastern murderers of colored people.” Albert Shanker, head of the UFT, was Jewish. In the Afrocentric schools, there was tremendous confrontation with teachers; white teachers were expelled. The ultimate result was an unfortunate prototype of today’s multiculturalism.

A Gamble on Crime

Lindsay’s third great gamble was crime. Drawing on the Kerner report, the Lindsay administration concluded that the only problem African-Americans faced was racism. Everything else flowed from that. Prior to this, it had commonly been thought that black migrants from rural areas needed to become acculturated into the urban economy. One feature of this assimilationist model was the assumption that certain sorts of public conduct were best abandoned upon arrival in New York. Lindsay rejected this as racist. The moral deregulation of public space followed, based upon the idea that the majority no longer had the right to regulate standards of communal behavior. The upshot was Lindsay’s supposition that, if the police ignored low-level and public-nuisance misdemeanors, they would be able to concentrate on – and so reduce – serious crime. It had the exact opposite effect, of course. As low-level crimes proliferated, so serious crimes escalated even more. And beyond that, at the more mundane level, the breakdown of public space was a death knell for the city because cities live on public space. If you can’t enjoy the public areas of a city, why stay? Better to leave; people do leave.

Lindsay’s brand of thinking spread to other cities in the 1960s. After the 1965 Watts riot in Los Angeles, federal policy shifted from encouraging acculturation to wondering how to pay people off to preclude another riot. In Washington, D.C., Marion Barry (D) was very much a product in this. Barry would constantly threaten more violence if he didn’t get his way. He was not alone. Even after the 1992 Los Angeles riot, the U.S. Conference of Mayors was ambivalent in its condemnation. One result of this moral neutrality is a sort of “rolling riot” in the form of endless street warfare in many central urban areas. The rolling riot has encouraged what I call riot ideology: Violence or threats of violence are seen as a means to bring public-sector funds into the city.

There has by now been something of a backlash. After the 1992 riot, old styles of policing went by the board – both the passive, ineffectual policing style of New York or the racist, paramilitary style of L.A. Now what you see is a move toward a new, zero-tolerance approach. This is based on George Kelling’s Broken Windows theory.2 The logic of Broken Windows is that, if you take care of small crimes, the big crimes will take care of themselves much more easily. If you allow graffiti to take over, if you leave broken windows broken, you put out the message that a neighborhood is ripe for crime. Insist upon the repair of broken windows and you send out the opposite message. What New York’s current mayor, Republican Rudy Giuliani, has done is apply this theory citywide. (And here I take small credit because I introduced these issues to Giuliani.) The Broken Windows approach represents the first urban-policy success in 30 years. In Baltimore, Councilman Martin O’Malley (D) pushed this for a long time, but he was ignored until recently.

The Baltimore Question

Q: Tell me more about how Baltimore fits into all this.

A: After the 1992 L.A. riots, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke (D), unintentionally I think, adopted the rhetoric of riot ideology – warning that he did not want to see cities burned down, Baltimore included, in order to get attention and money. This was unfortunate on Schmoke’s part, and also rather foolish, because Baltimore receives proportionately more state and federal funds than most cities.3 Just as New York’s Mayor Lindsay gambled and lost in the 1960s, so Schmoke has engaged in a series of failed gambles in Baltimore. One in particular has been written about extensively by the Calvert Institute – the question of the schools.4 Obviously, many middle-class people, black and white, leave Baltimore because of bad schools, though in some sense this is now off the board following the partial state takeover of school governance.

Nehemiah Project

Schmoke’s second gamble has been housing. Starting in 1988, vast quantities of federal, state and local funds were sunk into the Nehemiah Housing Opportunity Program (NHOP).5 This project involved grants to non-profits that in turn made low-interest loans to low-income families to enable them to buy new or rehabilitated houses. Now, this approach made sense for New York, where similar policies had been adopted. But the circumstances were different. New York had enjoyed a constant stream of in-migrants while Baltimore’s population had plummeted about 300,000 over 35 years. Enormous amounts of money went into new housing in Baltimore, while at the same time many parts of the city were being abandoned. Schmoke essentially wanted to build his way out of a housing surplus. The quantity of housing in Baltimore is no more of a problem than that of adequate school space. You have an infrastructure built for a million people when only two-thirds of a million still live in Baltimore. NHOP was a costly solution to a non-problem. Needless to say, it did nothing to encourage the city’s middle class to stay put.

Q: So how can the problem of middle-class flight be solved?

A: A: Suburban sprawl is a hot topic. To fight it, you have to take advantage of Baltimore’s existing infrastructure. You have to revitalize Baltimore. You have to address the reasons why people want to leave Baltimore in the first place. Central Maryland is an unusual region, caught between two disintegrating cities. There is no other place like it in the United States. With Washington decomposing to the south and Baltimore decomposing to the north, there results much sprawl without any particular economic growth, which is very unusual.

Crucial is Schmoke’s refusal to adopt the Broken Windows approach to policing. He insists on betting that drug rehab and needle sharing and so forth are the keys to reducing crime. He asserts that you cannot reduce crime if do not reduce the number of drug users. This is nonsense. In New York, we reduced crime dramatically – almost 50 percent in some categories – without reducing drug addiction. I am not arguing against drug treatment. But it cannot be the priority.

Padded Payroll

Q: What about city services?

A: Mayor Schmoke’s third great roll of the dice was that he could continue the patronage game, with appalling consequences for taxpayers. The Calvert Institute has written a great deal on the city’s top heavy government.6 Baltimore has completely ignored the strides made by other cities in streamlining service delivery. Unless cities try, Indianapolis style, to provide higher services at lower cost, they will continue to decay. There are models that work, as Mayor Goldsmith has shown in Indianapolis by means of competitive tendering for services.

The great tragedy of Lindsay and his heirs was that New York built a public-sector economy on packaging its poverty and selling the package to Washington in return for federal transfer payments. A whole industry was built upon failure. To a degree, Baltimore suffers from the same outlook. Annapolis has not helped. With the relative decrease in federal funds in recent years, the state government has stepped in to an extraordinary degree.7 This allows Baltimore to keep living in the past, endlessly postponing necessary reform. Annapolis probably gives more to Baltimore proportionately than any other big city receives in state funding.

What needs to be encouraged is a new leadership style. Take Goldsmith in Indianapolis, Giuliani in New York, Dennis Archer in Detroit or Mike White in Cleveland – these mayors understand that cities have to be self-sufficient to survive. This sentiment seems absent in Baltimore.

Fight Crime

Q: Much of Baltimore’s housing stock is solidly constructed, physically attractive. What can we do today, here and now, to bring people back into what was once quite desirable housing 100 years ago?

A: The first thing is crime. People forget that Giuliani brought about a reduction in crime before the stock market boomed. The crime reduction revived the New York City economy. That helped intensify the stock-market boom, because people were willing to spend more money in the city. If you don’t deal with the public-safety questions, little else can be accomplished. The point is this: Reestablish public safety and that beautiful Baltimore housing stock will look much more appealing to people thinking about coming back into the city. There is currently such a misalignment of availability and demand. Baltimore is a physically attractive city with housing enough for 300,000 more people than actually live in it. At the same time, acre upon acre is consumed every year for new development in the surrounding counties. Go figure.
One unusual feature of Baltimore’s housing stock is how quickly neighborhoods change. You can have a little, three-block-by-three-block area of very pleasant housing surrounded by desolation. (See the example in exhibit 1.) There’s is a little of that in New York, but not on the same scale. I can’t think of a parallel anywhere else. Be that as it may, Baltimore’s surplus housing represents the opportunity to slow sprawl and revive Baltimore all in one feSo, to reiterate, reduce crime and stop putting money into building new low-income housing in Baltimore. I know it’s an excellent patronage machine, largely paid for with federal dollars, but it does precisely nothing to attract the middle class, the true key to Baltimore’s future.


Q: What of race? Many conservatives who are concerned about the efficacy of building new housing projects suggest that the funding should instead be spent on more section 8 housing vouchers, allowing low-income Baltimoreans to utilize some of that surplus housing stock. But would the dispersal throughout the city of the low-income population, disproportionately black, increase white flight?

A: If you want social and residential integration, you must have economic integration. Because section 8 voucher recipients are not integrated into the economy, problems would occur. The neighborhoods into which they moved would be destabilized, while the lives of the section 8 recipients would not necessarily be improved. You are much more likely to have a successfully integrated neighborhood where people are in roughly the same economic class. I live in a very integrated neighborhood in Brooklyn. If suddenly section 8 housing was brought to my block, the middle class – black and white – would scatter. So before moving people about Baltimore, you must get them more involved in the economy. And the first thing to do in reviving the economy is to put public safety first. African-Americans in Baltimore, if they are given the opportunity to advance economically, will do so. They will then move into good housing in stable neighborhoods.

Q: Such economic integration may be difficult because there are thousands of people in Baltimore whom no small business could ever employ because they have absolutely no useful skills whatsoever, not even the most basic. What about them?

A: Ordinary job-training programs often don’t work. But job-readiness programs can be rather effective. A number of residents want to work but don’t have any of the necessary social skills, such as getting up on time and dressing right. Many small businesses do not require an inordinate amount of technical knowledge. What many require are simply employees capable of being polite to customers. (And here we return full circle to the acculturation model so high-handedly rejected by Lindsay and his ilk in the 1960s.) However, absent such skills on the part of the population, it is vital that the public sector not be used as taxpayer-funded sponge to sop up the unemployable excess. Given the size of Baltimore’s municipal government, the message has apparently not sunk in here. Yet, the private sector is the key to prosperity. There is no other way. Look at American history. The ethnic groups that didn’t go into business for themselves were the ones who were slowest to rise. Among whites, the Irish took the longest to rise economically because they relied disproportionately on public-sector employment.

Is this what we wish on African-Americans? No, we want them to get out of the public sector as quickly as possible. The public sector is a dead end for most people. So cities should encourage private businesses. At risk of being repetitive, the way to do that is through increased public safety and improved municipal-service delivery at reasonable cost.


Q: Talk about illegitimacy. Maryland has the ninth-highest rate of any state, and Baltimore City has the fifth-highest rate of any city, in the country.8 Is this important?

A: It’s very simple, really: Illegitimacy consigns people to poverty. It guarantees that people earn less, have a poorer lives and poorer lives for their children. Society’s moral equivocation on this issue is sad. Welfare reform is part of the answer. Under the old welfare system, a woman could only be married to the state. I am concerned by feminists who worry about “husband dependency” but don’t worry about “state dependency.” Because illegitimacy is not spread evenly across racial groups in this country, the topic is not discussed. The Reverend Floyd Flake, a New York City ex-congressman, is one of the few leaders willing to talk about this. He should be commended for this, but generally isn’t.


Q: There is occasional talk of abolishing the state income tax for people living in Baltimore City. Would this encourage the middle class to stay?

A: If this policy occurred by itself, I don’t think it would have very much impact at all. You have empowerment zones which do much the same thing for substantial portions of cities. They don’t have much impact. A no-tax policy might slow the hemorrhaging somewhat, but it wouldn’t reverse the situation. The core problem is managerial. Baltimore cannot continue down the path it is now on, where Mayor Schmoke waxes lyrical about trading baseball teams with Cuba, about drug policy, about a variety of other esoteric matters. These are not the issues now. The issues are: How well can he deliver services? What can he do about crime? These questions have been systematically ignored in Baltimore.

Q: What about regionalism, a merging of government functions between Baltimore City and Baltimore County?

A: It must be reciprocal. Before regional integration can occur, Baltimore has to reform itself. It has to bring something to the table. It can’t simply be a supplicant. Regionalism makes a lot of sense in terms of reducing costs and improving coordination. But it is not likely to happen as long as the city maintains a hostile attitude towards the suburbs. People in the suburbs will say, do I really want to be a part of that? In the long run, regionalism is not a bad idea, as long as it is not an evasion. However, I worry that most regionalists simply think that inner-city problems can be solved by redistributing money and the tax base. That’s not true regionalism; that’s an excuse.

Q: Are our city-saving efforts futile?

A: The history of cities since the Renaissance has demonstrated that cities rise and cities fall. They are very few New Yorks or Londons or Romes. Very few cities are eternal. This is not a tragedy in and of itself. The tragedy is that people are left behind, abandoned by the rest of society, abandoned by the economy. This may be unavoidable in some instances, but municipal reform and self-help can minimize the situation. Baltimore needs to learn this.

Calvert: Thank you for sharing your views.

Interviewer Doug Munro is the president of the Calvert Institute.
Interviewee Fred Siegel is a history professor at the Cooper Union for the Arts and Sciences, in New York City.

End Notes

[Top] 1. Frederick F. Siegel, The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A. and the Fate of America’s Big Cities (New York, N.Y.: Free Press, 1997), 248 pp.

[Top] 2. For a full discussion, see George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in our Communities (New York, N.Y.: Free Press, 1996), 319 pp.

[Top] 3. For a further discussion of this subject, see Douglas P. Munro, “‘We’re Different’ and Other Weak Excuses for City’s Padded Payroll,” (Baltimore) Sun, May 19, 1998.

[Top] 4. See especially Denis P. Doyle, David A. DeSchryver and Douglas P. Munro, “Reforming the Schools to Save the City, Part I: Toward a New Common School for Baltimore, Calvert Issue Brief, Vol. I, No. 1, August 1997 and Douglas P. Munro, “Reforming the Schools to Save the City, Part II: Survey Shows School Choice Would Prevent Middle-Class Flight from Baltimore,” Calvert Issue Brief, Vol. I, No. 2, August 1997.

[Top] 5. For a background discussion, see Harold A. McDougall, Black Baltimore: A New Theory of Community (Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1993), pp. 139-141.

[Top] 6. See Kantayhanee Whitt, “Padded Payroll: An Examination of Municipal Employment Practices in Baltimore City,” Calvert Issue Brief, Vol. II, No. 1, May 1998.

[Top] 7. For further details, see Munro, “‘We’re Different’ and Other Weak Excuses for City’s Padded Payroll.”

[Top] 8. Robert M. McCarthy with David B. Muhlhausen, “The Dissent: How the Townsend Report Fails to Address the Roots of Juvenile Crime and What to Do About It,” Calvert Issue Brief, Vol. I, No. 3, August 1997.

Posted in: News Series, Urban Affairs