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6 The Urban Crisis Is Over— Long Live the Urban Crisis! Blacks and the poor in America have travelled through the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier and the Great Society only to find themselves with no deal.—Amiri Baraka, 1973 In March 1973,nearly four months after Richard Nixon soundly defeated Democrat George McGovern and began his second term as chief executive of the United States, the president declared an end to the “urban crisis.” Taking to the airwaves, Nixon cited numerous statistics charting a decline in crime, cleaner air, and record numbers of low-­ income housing units having been built during his first term. These all indicated that, in his words, “today, America is no longer coming apart. . . . The hour of crisis has passed. The ship of state is back on an even keel, and we can put behind us the fear of capsizing.”1 Among the barometers Nixon deployed, perhaps the most telling was that “civil disorders [had] also declined.” When Nixon ran for president in 1968, he ran against the Great Society and the notion that the government should play a significant role in social support and the distribution of social welfare. Yet once he won, his administration was thrust—by the centrifugal force of urban rebellion—into the role of managing the Great Society instead of euthanizing it. It was fear of the easily combustible American city that kept Nixon at bay. Of course, the Democratic Party still controlled Congress, but the five years of violent upheaval that ended the 1960s had exerted a kind of discipline on elected officials of both parties, who looked to perform surgery, as opposed to amputation , on domestic spending that had grown with each spasm of rebellion. By the 212 The Urban Crisis Is Over early 1970s, the threat of violence had been replaced by campaigns for political office in Black communities across the country. Even Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party turned his energies toward running for mayor of Oakland. Newark , site of one of largest rebellions in the country in 1967, elected its first Black mayor in 1970. The small yet palpable growth of Black political representation made it seem that African Americans were no longer on the outside looking in.2 It did not mean that Black communities were quiescent—as evidenced by the growing organization among Black tenants and homeowners—but it did mean that the period of major upheaval and mass uprisings had passed. For more than the previous two decades, urban life and varying notions of “urban crisis” had animated the political landscape and dominated domestic politics in the United States.3 The apex of this political and legislative focus had come with the War on Poverty and Great Society programs of the 1960s. Of course, those programs addressed wide swaths of the American public, including people living in previously ignored and abandoned rural areas, but with the outbreak of urban rebellions and uprisings that dominated most of the 1960s, the fate of the cities became a political obsession. Nixon interpreted his decisive victory over McGovern and his consolidation of the white suburban voting bloc as a mandate to turn away from urban governance. Nevertheless, Nixon allowed for a long rollout after his reelection before ceremoniously declaring the urban crisis to be over. It had been a tumultuous four months. George Romney tendered his resignation from HUD immediately after Nixon’s reelection in November 1972. In a letter of resignation that was released to the public, Romney cited the lack of integrity and honesty in political contests as a reason for leaving public life. He complained that “inherent limitations in those political processes make the achievement of fundamental reform too dependent upon a crisis.”4 There was no doubt that he was referring to his inability to shift the administration or, in his mind, the country toward his understanding of the need for a solution that involved cities and suburbs to solve the urban housing crisis in the United States. Indeed, Romney’s political relationships within the Nixon administration had never recovered from the initial fallout over his advocacy of “open communities” and the strategy of using political leverage and the threat of municipal punishment to get (some) suburbs to open their communities to housing for poor and working-­class Black families. This strained relationship continued despite the fact that, after the conflict over the placement of low-­income housing, Romney became the loyal party man who thereafter vouched for every detail...


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