Quick: When you think of inner-city poverty, urban blight, gang violence, and steep high school dropout rates among chronically unemployed minorities, what American cities come to mind? Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Chicago, maybe Saint Louis? Yet recent studies show that smaller cities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, are plagued by the same problems—indeed, to a worse degree. Small-to-midsize older industrial cities didn’t experience the “comeback” secured via globalization and high-tech development that helped lift bigger metropolises out of the doldrums over the past two decades. Instead, these “forgotten cities” slid further into postindustrial malaise, with a massive influx of non-English-speaking poor seeking relief from high living expenses in larger metro areas. Saddled with fraying civic infrastructures, these places were ill equipped to prevent suburban flight or attract the young.
Gerald Grant does not place Hope and Despair in the American City into this broader context explicitly. But his book is essential reading not only for his target audience of education reformers but for anyone concerned with the fate of smaller cities. An education and sociology professor at Syracuse University who’s spent most of his life in the central New York city, Grant begins by drawing a rich, personally informed historical portrait of his hometown’s perilous decline. Over the past four decades, the Syracuse metro area has lost 30 percent of its manufacturing jobs, and the city proper almost 40 percent of its population; by 2006, barely half the city’s ninth graders, now mainly poor and minority, graduated high school.
At the center of Grant’s story is the foolhardy decision, replicated throughout the country in the ’60s, to “clear” the city’s predominantly black neighborhood to make way for a ghastly interstate running through the center of downtown. Federal “urban-renewal policy” (truly an Orwellian phrase) combined with redlining and restrictive racial covenants in outlying suburbs. The result was the doughnutlike metro geography we know all too well today: city centers filled with dislocated minorities, devoid of public resources, and surrounded by fluffy, affluent white suburbs. Today, it’s become a self-perpetuating dynamic driven not by white racism, Grant insists, but by unruly, increasingly low-performing urban public school systems.
Raleigh, North Carolina, was headed down the same dreary path, Grant recounts—but in 1976, the city and Wake County school boards made the extraordinary decision to merge into one school district under the direction of the county. The winning rationale that brought business and civic leaders on board was articulated well before that decision, however, in a 1965 Vanderbilt University study concluding that the merger not only made good financial sense and would stabilize racial integration but also “would be a determining factor in the successful development of the Raleigh Wake County Community into a major . . . industrial urban complex.”
The promise of the Wake County merger was not redeemed, however, until a decade ago, when county superintendent Bill McNeal urged the school board to commit the district to a 95 percent pass rate on state standardized tests. He had a lot to work with. The district had already achieved considerable integration through cross-county busing (thanks to post-Brown judicial pressure), which was made palatable by establishing many desirable magnet schools. McNeal further altered the system in three ways: He made socioeconomic status, rather than race, a main factor in school assignment; he shook up the “teaching culture” by giving teachers more autonomy while also expecting them to work together on teaching strategy, with the most gifted sharing knowledge with the most challenged; and he rushed resources to underperforming students and classrooms.
McNeal staggered the program, implementing it in two five-year periods, first in the K–8 schools (1998–2003), then in the high schools (2003–2008), which were thus unable to blame failure on poor grammar school preparation. The results have been remarkable. Many schools attained the 95 percent test-pass target, and between 1994 and 2003, third graders’ pass figures on math and reading tests rose from 71 percent to 91 percent. For poor children, the math figures went from 55 to 80 during the first five-year period. Wake also retained good teachers, willing to educate their own kids in the school district, and attracted high-caliber teachers from across the nation.
But the book’s real barn burner comes late. In the early 1970s, Detroit devised a metropolitan-desegregation plan similar to Raleigh’s, in which the city and its adjoining suburbs would be rendered into pie-shaped school districts. It was, of course, challenged, and Milliken v. Bradley went all the way to the Supreme Court, stacked with freshly minted Nixon appointees, in 1974. The court ruled the plan unconstitutional, since the predominantly white districts did not block black families’ access to their schools. Though few know it, we now live with a grand historical irony: Public schools in the South are far more integrated than most in the North, whose cities, especially the “forgotten” ones, have become ever more doughnutlike.
When we consider the failures of busing, we think of the awful mid-’70s wars in Boston, which pitted urban working-poor communities against one another and asked nothing of affluent suburbanites. Grant’s fine book shows there’s another way, one keyed to restoring the educational center of metropolitan-wide economic development, if only we can summon the political will to do it.
Catherine Tumber is the author of American Feminism and the Birth of New Age Spirituality: Searching for the Higher Self, 1875–1915 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).