Tales of the City

It was the night before Christmas Eve, and I was dragging my carry-on bag through Chinatown puddles. Sheets of rain soaked my ticket.

“Apex Bus to DC?”

“Nex’ one.”

Always the next one. I trotted nine bus lengths down East Broadway and eventually found mine. The last seat was at the very front, next to a man who beamed when I piled a wet coat, hat, gloves, umbrella, bag, and coffee cup into our tiny space.

Marc didn’t fit the Chinatown bus profile either. White professionals over thirty take the train to DC, or they rent cars. (Some of them even own their cars, I’ve heard.) But bargain ticket prices make for more interesting passengers, and besides, I like the occasional reminder of my chicken-bus travels.

We were city people. The pissing rain and swishing wipers reminded us of places we had lived in London and Dublin, and set us talking. We had theories on how urban life should be lived, and how dense foot traffic should be to keep human beings comfortable, and how tall we should build our dwellings, and how we should transport ourselves, in every sense. All of this we established before our bus had churned twenty blocks through traffic so heavy we knew we were there for the night.

It turned out that Marc knew a little more than I did on these topics. He had been a professor of urban development, planning and preservation at Columbia University, and had founded a Prague-based think tank to study the history and future of urban civilizations. Wouldn’t that be fun?

At Stanford he had been an anti-war protester, with a burned draft card and an FBI file. Most of my Boomer-age friends marched too, or say they did. But Marc was unusually clear that it was the Vietnam war he opposed, and not the American military, and to prove it he joined the infantry as soon as it ended. “They sent me to boot camp in South Carolina,” he said. “Can you imagine? A little Jewish hippie anti-war guy from Chicago!”

For two years his superiors followed him and squinted, and when they finally realized he was in earnest, they were so grateful his service–as movie critic on an army paper–that they awarded him the highest peacetime honors. The GI Bill carried him through his PhD, and then he went to London to study under Eric Hobsbawm.

In the early nineties, he left academia to join the Clinton Administration as a senior housing policy advisor in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Under Reagan and Bush, levels of homeownership had fallen for twelve years.

“Homeownership strengthens families and stabilizes communities,” wrote Clinton in 1994. “It encourages savings and investment and promotes economic and civic responsibility…It spurs new investment, strengthening the economy and creating jobs. A stronger economy in turn enables more people to buy homes. For all these reasons, it is in our national interest to expand homeownership opportunities for all Americans.”

With his boss, Henry Cisneros, Marc worked on a plan to get eight million more people owning their homes. They started with groups who owned proportionately fewer than the rest of the population—African-Americans, Hispanics, women, low- and moderate-income households, young people, and urban households. Congress was busy halving HUD’s budget, and they knew they would find little support for major legislation, so the National Homeownership Plan focused instead on private-sector partnerships with realtors, mortgage bankers, and builders. They worked to pass fair-lending laws and affirmative policies such as the Community Reinvestment Act. They tried to cut costs, open the housing market, and let people know they could take part.

Eight million people buying homes in just a few years. In 1994, after twelve straight years of decline in the number of homeowners, it seemed ridiculous; a ‘stretch target,’ in the strange language of MBAs. When the Republican Congress failed to abolish HUD altogether, they managed to reduce its budget by 25% a year in 1995 and 1996. The plan meant aiming resources and policies towards groups that needed help, which is rarely popular in the US. But still they managed to build enormous public and political support, and a strong tailwind from Robert Rubin’s Treasury Department carried them through their goal and beyond. He grew teary as he remembered it.

They began to knock the worst of the inner-city projects and replace them with mixed-income, mixed-use community housing. The Left protested as “units” of public housing were reduced, even as they lay empty because life was so bad in those towers. The Right protested that the government shouldn’t be in the business of building public housing that looked like any other kind; it was too attractive.

“When both sides screaming at you, you know you’re on the right track,” he said.

To change something, he said, you had to start with language. Replacing jargon with real, humane names helps people better imagine something new. He trained his staff to say ‘homes’ instead of ‘units’, ‘projects’, or ‘developments’. (Cisneros tried to change “HUD” to the “Department of Homes and Communities”, but failed.) When he was brought in on the control board of the city of Washington, DC after Mayor Marion Barry was removed, he asked his staff to call the city by its real name rather than “The District”, which had become the white suburbs’ code for badlands.

He was proud of Washington. “That city has the largest educated black middle class in the country. And do you ever hear that? No! There is so much fantastic stuff and all you ever hear is drugs and guns. I hate that fucking “District” TV show. It’s propaganda!” He insisted that the city people were an asset, not a problem to be solved.

When he arrived on the control board, he found a large chunk of forgotten funds that had piled up, unspent, for three years. So he announced a plan to allocate it in the form of business loans. Anyone–anyone–could apply. His staff would train them to present their plans, PowerPoint and all. There would be three approval rounds, and on the first, applicants would rank one another, so they could see what was going on. Then his staff would score them, and finally the control board would make a decision. Everyone, including the applicants, would decide on the criteria. Was it feasible? Was it bold? How many people would it help? Scores came forward–church groups, restaurants, minibus operators. For most, it was their first time presenting their ideas to a group, and they were terrified. Not used to being consulted. He and his staff coached them through the process for weeks. When the grants were announced, they arranged a ceremony with giant gameshow checks, and there were tears.

Now he works half the year in the old town in Prague, figuring out how cities should evolve. It’s a big question, best studied in places that have evolved from centuries-old patterns of use. A third of the world’s population lives in urban areas now; it’ll be half by the end of the century. City people think differently, spend differently, vote differently, and we need to figure out what that will mean. We can’t afford for half the world to live like San Franciscans, or even Czechs, but there are still ways to shape growth that bring out the magic and vitality of urban life.

We arrived in Washington close to midnight, and were dumped out in a parking lot somewhere in another Chinatown. He commanded a cellphone from another passenger and called a friend to pick him up. It was freezing.
“It’s funny,” he said, finally slowing down to a conversational canter. “I’ve spent so much of my career pushing home ownership in this country. And at 53, I’ve never owned my own home.”

4 thoughts on “Tales of the City”

  1. Thank you. I love these stories.

    (Of course, they always leave me convinced that I must be in the top five dullest people you know.)


  2. Bring him to Ireland so he could sort out the shambles that his housing in this country. His perspective is certainly interesting


  3. I, just by growing up in 1970s Manhattan, you’re already ten steps ahead of the rest of us in the glamour stakes.


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