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Advertise on the Tentacle

December 7, 2004

How To Unmake a Dangerous City!

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Morgan Quitno Press has released recently their annual list of most and least dangerous American cities. Many great cities are celebrating being listed, but just as many regret the release of this annual publication.

The first question is who is Morgan Quitno, and why are they qualified to act as judge and juror? Morgan Quitno Press is an independent, non-partisan research and publishing company located in Lawrence, KS.

Scott and Kathleen Morgan have spent their adult life in the public sector, with specific experience in federal and state government. Scott served as staff counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and also worked as staff counsel to the governor of Kansas.

Kathleen has worked as a researcher in a District of Columbia law firm, and held several important positions with the U.S. Department of Transportation, including the deputy director of Congressional Affairs.

Hopefully, their bona fides justify their research and documentation. Public policy makers, media outlets, and academic researchers use the Most Safe/Most Dangerous City List throughout the year for a variety of purposes.

Topping this year’s list is Camden, New Jersey. Camden is a very dangerous place, all the more because of a relatively small population in relation to a very high crime rate. Detroit follows closely in second place, having surrendered the top spot this year (probably at gunpoint).

Really, I don't mean to make fun of these once grand cities. It is saddening to see some of these places listed as dangerous, and brings a sad reminder that millions of people cannot walk through their hometown without facing deadly consequences.

Number six with a bullet (oops) is Washington, DC, our nation's capitol. We all know the sad story of the city behind the federal city, and most of us who have worked there or visited frequently know not to travel beyond the monuments and museums.

Baltimore, our very own Charm City, finds itself firmly ensconced in 11th place. I chuckled when I read The (Baltimore)Sun article recently. It seemed to imply relief at being 11th, probably fearing a higher ranking.

So why are these cities listed in this manner? What are the contributing factors that result in DC and Baltimore showing up in 6th and 11th place, respectively? Are there any similar circumstances in the results?

One factor is readily apparent. Most of the 25 most dangerous cities have been led for decades by leadership that focused on creating expanding opportunity and building on a culture of empowerment through give-aways.

From Detroit to DC, Atlanta to Hartford, Gary to Richmond, decades of these chief executives and dominance in the legislative branches by similar leaders has opened the door to union workplace dominance, civil service buildup, and expansion of government programs as a replacement for private investment.

An interesting corollary is that the most stringent local laws on gun control exist in these very same “most dangerous” cities. No responsible citizen can arm themselves against the wave of street criminals and thugs that wander these communities, but the criminals themselves threaten and shoot themselves and others with reckless abandon.

Sadly, these same cities show up year after year. Baltimore has seen wide swings in the style and manner of management in their mayors for decades. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be a problem that can be solved. Even Mayor Martin O'Malley's considerable charm and eloquence haven't helped him put together meaningful reforms.

I really thought Mayor Anthony Williams had the tools to help D.C. dig itself out of the hole of hopelessness and despair. He seemed to understand the concept that investment had to come from the private sector. He followed through on several initiatives geared toward encouraging major development in the Federal Triangle and Convention Center neighborhoods.

Again, the spector of armed drug – and street – gangs controlling whole city sectors overwhelmed the positives resulting from Williams' initiatives. If you can't keep their children safe on the way to school, you can never convince them to bring their business to your city!

I offer as compelling evidence of my theory the return to political prominence of former DC Mayor Marion Barry. Mr. Barry turns up again, this time as an at-large councilman. His conviction for crack possession is forgotten, but his largess with DC revenues in the form of giveaways isn't!

Mayor O'Malley is learning that the hard way. Headlines about unsafe school hallways and classrooms scream, while his CitiStat tracking system and Inner Harbor and entertainment district projects get relegated to whispers in the Metro section.

I wish I was smart enough to have the answers. The one thing I do feel certain of is that we already know what doesn't work. Repeating the mistakes of the past is the worst road we can take. Building more public housing to accommodate people who trade work and responsibility for government handouts is a dramatic failure.

We need a new set of government programs. These programs would be targeted only at the top (I guess I mean bottom) 25 most dangerous cities. The programs would be constructed similar to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, but on a much smaller scale.

The programs could be funded using some the hundreds of millions that currently are spent on Section 8 housing, welfare, drug treatment, food and medical assistance in declining cities. The programs would require meaningful, measurable work in exchange for the benefit.

The downside would be the lack of access to a range of programs and services previously considered a right, not a privilege. Yes, that means what I intended. There might be some people who would refuse to work, and the consequences for them would be severe, potentially fatal.

The work would be patterned along the lines of the CCA of the post-World War II era, with workers paid to renovate dilapidated schools, playgrounds, and public spaces. We could pay people to remove millions of linear feet of plywood covering broken windows and doors, converting empty apartment buildings into viable living space. If you do the work, you get the house.

Your pay would be a voucher to buy health care, food, job training, and other services paid for currently by general tax revenues (that means everyone other than those who use most of those services).

If you didn't have a job, you would report to work on your block in the morning, rain, snow, or sunshine. You'd be obligated to clock in a full day, and in exchange, you'd have access to the existing network of subsidized healthcare and support services.

If you already did have work, the requirement for work investment could be adjusted appropriately. Community colleges and local builders’ organizations could combine to offer hands-on training in carpentry, plumbing, landscaping, painting, and electrical trades. Working on your own home could also lead to the development of marketable, meaningful skills.

Faith-based groups could be given the lead in project management, especially if they could manage work in the communities they are located in. Federal and state fears over involvement of the faith community are largely unfounded. In most examples of true and lasting urban renewal, local churches, pastors, and deacons have led the way.

The overarching shift in thinking is the tying of welfare services to real personal sacrifice and unavoidable personal responsibility. Years of giving something for next to nothing has led some of our greatest cities to descend into violence, decay, and despair.

Hope springs from accomplishment, especially accomplishment of something previously considered impossible. Imagine the hope that could spring from whole city blocks blossoming back to life, with curtains replacing plywood, with flower boxes replacing broken bottles, and with neighbors swapping recipes instead of gunshots.

Utopian and unrealistic? Maybe, but haven't some of history's best inventions sounded unrealistic at first? Besides, the status quo has been a dismal failure.

The politicians who claims to represent the people have failed to address the fundamental issues that plague our cities. Maybe a new set of politicians should be given a chance. Who knows what other revolutionary proposals are out there?

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