Mustering the Little Platoons

One mayor's attempt to create active citizens.

Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work Through Grassroots Citizenship, by Stephen Goldsmith, Noblesville, Ind.: Hudson Institute Publications, 200 pages, $19.95

Prior to 1965, "urban policy" meant a redevelopment czar, a master plan, eminent domain, "people clearance," downtown megaliths, and high-rise public housing ghettos for the displaced poor. In that year it became clear this was a recipe for social disaster.

The flames over Watts, the uprising on Chicago's West Side, the marches in Boston's Roxbury, and the turbulence all over America put the "plight of the cities" high on the nation's policy agenda. Thus began a 30-year experiment in urban policy, centering on federally funded "community action," liberalized welfare entitlements, and "model cities." All of this proved to be at least as ineffectual, disruptive, and ill-conceived as the previous urban renewal regime.

By 1977 neighborhood activists across the country had mustered enough political strength to get Congress to force an unwilling Carter administration to accept the creation of a National Commission on Neighborhoods. In their site visits around the country, commission members heard an appalling litany of grievances, most of them concerning injuries inflicted by governments.

Even avowedly liberal neighborhood witnesses blasted governments for their stupid rules, venal politics, lust for tax dollars, pilfering and wasting of funds, suppression of grassroots initiative and, with respect to neighborhood organizations, complete disinterest at best and inveterate hostility at worst. As Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) ruefully remarked to a witness at a 1977 Senate hearing, "You would probably have better neighborhoods today if there had been no federal programs at all!"

The Carter White House clearly had no use for the commission's 1979 report and deep-sixed it on arrival. Ronald Reagan, before he became president, had derided "foolish government policies over the past several decades [that] have often worked to undermine, even destroy established neighborhoods," but his White House staff and Housing and Urban Development appointees had little knowledge of or interest in anything below the level of city government. Eventually, the movement for a neighborhood-oriented national urban policy subsided.

What had perished in the swamps of Washington, however, emerged alive in Indiana. In 1992 Stephen Goldsmith was sworn in as the Republican mayor of Indianapolis. (With its combined city-county government, Indianapolis is one of the few large cities that has a chance of regularly electing a Republican mayor.) He became one of a small handful of mayors, including Democrats John Norquist in Milwaukee and Kurt Schmoke in Baltimore, who, in Goldsmith's words, "tackled problems like crime, high taxes, and poverty by reversing the ways in which local government was actually perpetuating the problems rather than helping to solve them."

Putting Faith in Neighborhoods is Goldsmith's front-line memoir of how he and his administration changed the traditional rules of urban government by bringing neighborhoods, their people, and their little civil societies to the forefront of urban policy. It is a sequel to his well-received 1997 volume The Twenty-First Century City, published when he was in the sixth of his eight years as mayor.

The earlier book earned considerable attention for its account of Goldsmith's results-oriented management and path-breaking municipal service privatization. While it contained chapters on crime, neighborhoods, and civil society, they tended to be anecdotal and to recount ruefully some of Goldsmith's early mistakes. The new volume, which includes a 45-page case study of Goldsmith's Neighborhood Empowerment Initiative by Ryan Streeter of the Hudson Institute, is a focused, systematic, and remarkably perceptive primer for a neighborhood-oriented urban policy that works.

From his years as city prosecutor, Goldsmith had concluded that Indianapolis' overriding problem was a crisis of citizenship and a disintegration of local civil society. Over the previous 30 years, Goldsmith writes, "big government systems such as welfare created an attitude of entitlement among those in need and marginalized the local faith-based and other community groups that are often highly effective in transforming individuals' lives. Indeed, America's value-generating civic institutions were often derided as oppressive, parochial backwaters of bigotry and ignorance."

Though highly critical of traditional urban government, Goldsmith was no libertarian. He writes that "if government tries to do too much, it often strips away the motivation people have to be engaged in their communities. If it does too little, citizens often do not have the resources or access to information to tackle their problems." He recognized that the great challenge is, as liberal thinker Michael Sandel put it, "reversing a pervasive sense that our most important civic institutions are unraveling and a feeling that we are not in control of the forces that have the greatest effects on our lives." In short, Goldsmith staked his mayorship on reawakening power in his city's neighborhoods.

To do that, Goldsmith operated from two fundamental principles. A healthy civil society depends on habits of self-governance and personal responsibility. Residents are wise enough to provide direction to their neighborhoods, and government must be responsive to this wisdom.

For those who came of age with the urban policy of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, this was a form of radicalism rarely heard from a mayor's office. It was especially radical to a generation of urban leaders who viewed ordinary citizens as potential problems to be entitled, delivered to, managed, disciplined, and displaced as might be necessary to carry out the Master Plan but never empowered to act in their own petty little interests. Goldsmith obviously has learned much from the writings of Robert Nisbet, Jane Jacobs, Peter Drucker, and above all Alexis de Tocqueville.

Goldsmith is committed to market forces as the ultimate engine of economic progress. He rightly takes credit for making his city much more business-friendly by lowering tax rates, scrapping counterproductive regulations, and creating an overall environment conducive to enterprise. But Goldsmith believed that free market reforms occur within a matrix of cultural values and social capital. He focused his efforts on changing that matrix.

Neighborhood residents needed to know that their civic leaders heard and understood them. Goldsmith invited them into his office and sent city officials out to meetings all over the city just to listen -- a simple, powerful, and surprisingly rare practice. Neighborhood leaders needed knowledge and leadership training. Goldsmith created a Neighborhood Resource Center to educate and train them. He brought in Robert Woodson's National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise to teach them how to run constructive grassroots organizations.

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