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.

Neighborhood residents needed larger incomes. Goldsmith launched an innovative Independence Initiative, organizing business sector groups to line up job openings and employing the for-profit firm America Works to train welfare recipients and put them into jobs. Entrepreneurs needed opportunity. Goldsmith recognized that every struggling business and grassroots organization in his city faced a maddening array of government regulations, most of them of no value to the public. "Between 1994 and 1999," Goldsmith reports, "the [Regulatory Study] Commission saved Indianapolis taxpayers $3.3 million by getting rid of 157,000 processes and regulations….As far as I know, no one misses any of them."

Neighborhoods needed facelifts and repairs. Goldsmith spent $1.3 billion repairing and cleaning up streets, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, parks, and buildings, and did it without raising tax rates (thanks to management efficiency, privatization, business partnerships, and refinancing). He put volunteer county jail inmates to work beautifying common areas and parks (139,000 man-hours over eight years).

Neighborhood organizations needed funding. Goldsmith created a Community Enhancement Fund that made over 400 competitive awards totaling nearly $1 million to grassroots organizations. With these modest grants, Goldsmith reports, "an east side mentoring initiative arranged for twenty high school students to serve as mentors and tutors for nearly one hundred elementary school students. Groups turned vacant lots into parks, ugly areas into neighborhood gardens, graffiti into murals, and much more."

Neighborhood residents lacked self-governance. Goldsmith launched a Neighborhood Empowerment Initiative, hoping to move toward a true municipal federalism. It was, alas, thwarted by the City-County Council, whose elected members saw themselves as the only legitimate manifestation of government in their townships (the boundaries of which bore little relationship to actual human communities within the city).

The mayor realized that residents related to their society through faith-based institutions, which had traditionally been excluded from public policy. Goldsmith created a Front Porch Alliance, enlisting leaders of grassroots value-shaping organizations as intermediaries between people and city government.

So did Goldsmith's faith in "Tocquevillian empowerment" prove a success? Not entirely. Real-world urban problems are so deeply seated and intractable that it is rare that any leader can claim an unqualified success in dealing with any of them. In many cities the measure of success has come down to, "Hey—nobody rioted."

Still, Goldsmith can take credit for an effort that produced a lot of very positive results—not by showering neighborhoods with taxpayer largesse but by emphasizing character and responsibility, devolving power, and rebuilding the institutions of local civil society. His efforts won encomia from people such as Steve Forbes ("one of the most effective, innovative mayors in American history"), Mayor Ed Rendell of Philadelphia ("one of America's most innovative mayors"), and Jack Kemp ("demonstrated that expanding private enterprise, not government, is the key to efficient, high quality services and, more importantly, to the empowerment of the city's residents").

In 1996 Goldsmith—far from an ebullient campaigner—ran for governor of the Hoosier State. He lost by a five-point margin to the popular lieutenant governor, Democrat Frank O'Bannon. More surprisingly, Goldsmith lost Marion County (Indianapolis).

Three years after that defeat, Goldsmith abruptly and inexplicably announced that he wouldn't be running for a certain third term as mayor. (After leaving office, he became a major architect of President Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program.) He had no heir apparent. The Republican nominee to succeed him was the Indiana secretary of state, with little experience in urban management or policy. The neighborhoods that had appreciatively voted for Goldsmith in 1995 reverted to their normal voting habits.

With Goldsmith gone, the city's neighborhood organizations—only recently empowered—were not sufficiently strong and cohesive to force his unwilling successor to continue his program. The new mayor, business Democrat Bart Peterson, promptly dismantled Goldsmith's alliances and initiatives, vetoed budget items for their support, and reinstalled traditional top-down managerial government. File the Goldsmith years under "Bright Shining Moments."

Goldsmith's book reveals his impressive philosophical depth as well as his practical experience. Unlike most mayors, he saw that social problem solving goes beyond the province of experts, planners, and managers and that most baneful of concepts, "delivering services." The key to success is the transformation of ordinary people into active citizens.

The recipe is easy to state but daunting to achieve: Empower people, enlarge their capacities, strengthen their local civic institutions, lower government-created barriers, increase information flow, create networks for expanding opportunity, demand responsibility and performance, and, above all, recreate a sense of efficacy among those who had viewed themselves as alienated and powerless.

Every aspiring urban leader should read Goldsmith's illuminating little book. Not everything he tried worked in Indianapolis. Not everything that worked in Indianapolis will work elsewhere. But the book's principles and policy ideas are perceptive and powerful. For any leader seeking to revive a lost civil society, they are also indispensable.