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We need to lift up, not tear down, our American cities

From the President

With so many eyes on Detroit during this week’s Democratic presidential candidate debates, we have an opportunity to cast in bright relief just how much the occupant of the Oval Office can matter in the life of a city. For some eight years, the residents of Detroit witnessed first-hand the power of compassionate, competent presidential leadership, leadership that changed the arc of an emblematic American city’s path to renewed health and vitality. Rather than learning from that experience, however, we are instead being versed in power of a very different kind. It is a false and feigned power of puerile tweetstorms deriding and disrespecting the citizens, the history, and the aspirations of the city of Baltimore.

Innumerable commentaries over the last days have correctly pointed out that the president of the United States should aim higher. That a president can reach out with a helping hand rather than a punch to the face.

In the early days after assuming office, and during one of the darkest periods in Detroit’s recent history, the Obama administration reached out to our city with heart, expertise and imagination. With the city facing automotive bankruptcies, political corruption scandals, and the housing foreclosure crisis, the president told his cabinet that he would not permit Detroit to become a Katrina on his watch. They began by providing temporary federal assistance that averted the collapse of the nation’s auto industry, both the emblem and foundation of Detroit’s economy.

It wasn’t a one-and-done engagement. A story too-little known is the administration’s subsequent effort to engage its top talent with political, civic, community and philanthropic stakeholders as one of the cities in the Strong Cities, Strong Communities program. It was an engagement based first on listening and study to understand the roots of the city’s decades-in-the-making problems. And it proceeded to finding of workable solutions with resources at hand from all sectors.

Those efforts helped create a scaffolding that supported the city even as it fell into the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history. After the bankruptcy was announced in 2013, I received a call from the administration’s chief economic adviser, Gene Sperling. Sperling observed that although the administration couldn’t forgive the city’s mounting debt or pass emergency legislation for the benefit of a single city, it wanted to explore other options to help. He asked us to pull together a package of possibilities.

An extraordinary White House meeting followed. For 2½ hours, Detroit leaders from a range of sectors met in the Roosevelt Room with members of the White House staff and cabinet, testing the limits of that package. Whether a housing program could be applied more flexibily. How a regulatory barrier to a proposed light rail line might be waived. Whether unspent public safety monies might be transferred from another city. How the administration’s expertise in technology, municipal innovation, and other areas could be tapped.

The ideas that emerged from that meeting were then shopped around a score of federal agencies to test their feasibility. Within a few months, the administration assembled a $300 million aid package – including coordinated contributions from business and philanthropy. It isn’t possible to overstate the power of that package in boosting the city’s flagging fortunes and signaling support when we were at our lowest. There is no question that those actions helped Detroit gain the momentum to exit bankruptcy through a collaborative, cross-sector “Grand Bargain” after 15 months rather than many years.

The spirit exhibited in that conference room was rooted in something deeper than politics, or even pragmatism. It was instead rooted in the realization that any federal administration must be the proud and powerful steward of all this nation’s cities, large and small, vibrant and struggling.

The tragedy is that the White House of the last week seems utterly incapable of rising to that spirit. As Detroit did, so too can Baltimore still use a helping hand. Until that hand arrives, all of us have to brace for the punch.

Rip Rapson is the president & CEO of The Kresge Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @riprapson.

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