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The State of Our Cities: A Debate With U.S. Mayors
Tuesday, April 1, 2003
4:15 PM - 5:30 PM

Concurrent Session

Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn makes a point while Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, left, and District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams, right, listen.


Jerry Brown, Mayor, City of Oakland; former Governor of California

James Hahn, Mayor, City of Los Angeles, California

Anthony Williams, Mayor, District of Columbia


Ross DeVol, Director, Regional Economics, Milken Institute


An educated populace and a number of public amenities indicate a successful city. This was the conclusion reached by the panels, Mayor Jerry Brown of Oakland, Mayor James Hahn of Los Angeles, and Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington, D.C.

Cities are presently facing a number of difficulties. Large cities show a slower growth rate than that of surrounding suburbs. Cities tend to be bimodal, having large numbers of affluent people on one end and a large numbers of poor people on the other. Mayor Williams, who was CFO of the District of Columbia before he became mayor, describes his city as a "tale of two cities" type of situation. His describes his city as having "some of the richest" and "some of the poorest," with some of its residents having only a third-grade reading level.

Poverty is a symptom of troubled cities, not a cause. Cities must have competitive assets and be competitive to flourish. Los Angeles remains a creative center, but also has the most people living in poverty by number. After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the city grew in population nearly every year, while simultaneously losing jobs in each of those years. As a result, the ratio of residents to jobs increased every year from 1992 to 2000.

New York′s economic success began when New York was "perceived as safer," says Hahn. He is pleased with his appointment of William Bratton as Chief of Police and expects him to make good progress in reducing crime. He views an appearance of safety as the first step in attracting investment and jobs to the region.

Oakland had the "benefit of a lot of regional growth" during the nineties, according to Brown. The tech boom that benefited many Bay Area cities also benefited Oakland. Brown wants to see Oakland continue to thrive. He hopes to see Oakland′s airport surpass the size of San Francisco′s over the next thirty years. While airport traffic at San Francisco International Airport decreased after September 11th, traffic at Oakland International Airport increased. Brown sees this as a sign of Oakland′s vitality and intends to foster its growth.

In order to achieve this aim, Brown wants to improve education and spur economic development. There are "a lot of people who aren′t going to be in the knowledge economy," he says. Many of those people will instead fall into a crime economy, which is an inefficient and unsustainable model for Brown. The prison system is a "way to manage people in a very inhumane and unworkable way."

The mayors each agreed that educating their residents is essential to promoting economic growth. "Literacy is the biggest barrier to job entry," says Williams. "Job readiness is hugely important." Hahn adds that in order to create skilled workers in Los Angeles, people "need to finish school," and the city needs to "do something about the high dropout rate."

Even third-generation, immigrant families are not going to college in Los Angeles. Hahn attributes this to a misperception that college is too expensive. He noticed that Los Angeles County ranked near the bottom of counties in California accessing the Cal Grant and created programs to address this. Hahn believes the success of Los Angeles′ economic future is tied to educating the city′s residents. "We′ve got to do something drastic to get kids graduating high school and getting to higher education," he says. He adds, "Older adults, not just kids, are going to city colleges." He cites city colleges as "hugely important" in providing an educated workforce able to participate in the knowledge economy.

Brown wants more structure in the urban school system. "There′s a lot to be done," he says. "The money′s not there; the structure′s not there." Brown argues that the current educational system weighs the mediocre with the bad and the excellent. This is "not a formula for moving forward," says Brown. He would like more control of the educational system to enact greater reforms.

Aside from education, the key to economic development success for Brown is first attracting small shops to build a local retail economy. Brown argues that a person needs a pretty free hand for economic development. The primary ingredient for economic development is "someone with money and an idea." Immigration is essential for maintaining cities′ vitality and maintaining economic growth.

Hahn argues that in order to have economic growth, private companies must be willing to invest. "At the end of the day, nobody wants to spend any of their money." Private companies are essential both for bringing jobs and increasing tax revenue in a region.

Los Angeles has the highest business tax of any community in the region and has 64 categories of business tax. Hahn would like Los Angeles to be a home to small business in which "taxes are not an obstacle." To further this end, he has implemented an amnesty on business tax for new businesses for the first two years.

Each of the mayors agrees that the current economic climate is making his job more difficult: the downturn expressed itself in the reduction of tax revenue. Williams says, "We are so much subject to what is happening on the macro [and] federal levels." Hahn concurs, saying, "We are at the mercy of what happens at the state or national level." Brown argues that while the federal government is slicing away at grants to cities, state government is exacerbating the problem and cities must cut their budgets to remain solvent.

Still, each mayor wants to improve his city and leave it better than when he took office. Williams asserts that a successful city is marked by "great neighborhoods, a great downtown, great arteries of commerce and a great waterfront." Washington, D.C., is "very much a planned city," says Williams, originally designed in the image of Versailles. Williams′ vision is "revitalizing and making a first-rate waterfront." He has set a 10- to 20-year time horizon and wants to make an impact.

Hahn says that Los Angeles has had 225 years of success as a largely unplanned city, but that this lack of planning has also created many problems. He wants the port of Los Angeles to be both a great seaport and neighbor. He thinks it′s possible to have both a functional port and an attractive waterfront. Hahn wants to redevelop and beautify the Los Angeles River.

Brown too, seeks to beautify his city and leave a lasting legacy. He cites the citizens approving a $200 million bond issue to improve Oakland′s lake and surrounding water amenities. "If you′re near water, you build on that," says Brown.

These priorities were reflected in the final question to the mayors, in which each mayor was asked to spend a hypothetical billion dollars on his city. Brown said that he would fix the Fox Theater and "build stuff," like an art center and other amenities. Hahn would improve transportation, the freeway system and public transit and would build housing. Williams, too, would build housing, expand the tax base and create greater choice in schools for middle-class parents.

Background Info:
State Technology and Science Index: Comparing and Contrasting California
The Impact of September 11 on U.S. Metropolitan Economies
Knowledge-Value Cities in the Digital Age
America's High-Tech Economy: Growth, Development and Risks for Metropolitan Areas
The Impact of an Entertainment Industry Strike on the Los Angeles Economy
America's Demography in the New Century: Aging Baby Boomers and New Immigrants as Major Players
Can the Cities Be Saved?
A Bit of a Chill For Hot Times In the Big City
Cities Must Change to Survive
The Declustering of America

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