Rendell gives reality check to mayors

Forget the good news, the good press and, basically, the good vibrations - America's cities are still in crisis mode, according to Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell and three other big-city mayors who participated in a panel discussion on political leadership, part of the three-day Steinberg Symposium, "Beyond Ideology," held Nov. 17 to 19.

Rendell offered the grimmest portrait of urban ills. The other mayors - including Indianapolis' Stephen Goldsmith, New Orleans' Marc Morial and Baltimore's Kurt Schmoke - touted programs of theirs that worked and partnerships with faith-based institutions that proved worthwhile.

"I disagree slightly," Rendell said following the other three mayors' opening, optimistic comments. "I worry about cities. Despite the good press, and innovative governments, better services and lower costs, the feeling that cities have conquered their problems is an illusion."

Downplaying his success in turning Philadelphia around, Rendell spoke gravely of welfare reform repercussions and aired his belief that in pockets of many American cities, including Philadelphia, there is a "total lack of hope."

"When there's a lack of hope, all hell breaks loose," Rendell said. "We are facing serious problems, exacerbated by the perception that cities are out of the woods."

Penn Professor of History Michael Katz, also a panel participant, agreed with Rendell and praised his new urban agenda - one that came up with solutions rather than taking to begging in the Beltway.

"A change in America's governments is represented," Katz said of the attending mayors. "This new approach, using business principles and marketing, recreates markets in inner cities."

In keeping with a theme of this year's Steinberg Symposium, faith-based alliances of inner city churches and social services agencies were praised as a boon to city leaders.

"Whatever it takes," Morial said. "Perhaps the most powerful instrument [in city leadership] are churches. They have a level of credibility that politicians cannot relate to."

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Originally published on December 3, 1998