The Short Answer: David Rusk

A former New Mexico state senator and mayor of Albuquerque, David Rusk writes and lectures on urban regionalism. His most recent book, Inside Game/Outside Game, looks at how racial segregation and urban sprawl perpetuate cycles of poverty.

Interview by Salvatore Deluca 

David
David Rusk

Credit: Salvatore Deluca

What is regionalism?

It's a recognition that many problems transcend municipal boundaries. To be successful, regions must work together across jurisdictions to confront these problems. The basic regional question is, What gets built where, for whose benefit? Almost never is anything built for the region's poor, and often that which is just makes the problem worse, such as more low-income housing in already low-income neighborhoods.

What did your 1999 study of the New Orleans region reveal?

As a region, it's highly segregated, and there's basically been no economic progress over the past 30 years. During the decades after World War II, Jefferson Parish, right outside New Orleans, was the land of opportunity, especially for whites. But by the 1980s, it was clearly in decline. Its municipalities were poorer in 1990 than in 1980, and the trend continued through the 1990s, when the land of opportunity moved 22 miles across a causeway, across Lake Pontchartrain, into St. Tammany Parish.

What resulted from your study?

Very little. It did call attention to the need to deconcentrate poverty. One small but significant step was the city's first Hope VI project, which uses federal money to finance redevelopment. The project, near Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District, had been failing under a previous developer when responsibility was reassigned to Pres Kabacoff of Historic Restoration Inc., which has done wonderfully creative renovations of old warehouses in New Orleans and St. Louis. Kabacoff is now successfully creating a mixed-income neighborhood.

After the Times-Picayune published your study, a battle erupted between Kabacoff's group, which had enlisted Wal-Mart to anchor its development plan, and the National Trust and other preservationists. Can you comment on this?

That was an example where two good causes ended up pitted against each other. Sustaining viable buildings and historic neighborhoods is integral to making a city a living and dynamic place. But the need to deconcentrate poverty and mainstream the urban poor, particularly the black poor, and open up business for them, is even more vital in my view. The Wal-Mart, which was scaled down to fit the development better and address preservation concerns, has not had an adverse impact on the vitality of businesses on Magazine Street, according to the Times-Picayune.

How does Hurricane Katrina affect your findings?

The rebuilding of New Orleans has to be done on an inclusionary basis. In October, USA Today reported a poll that they had taken of 1,500 refugees registered with the Red Cross throughout the Southeast. Forty percent said they weren't returning. Many of them have neither homes nor jobs nor communities to go back to. The first task is to make sure that a nationally coordinated effort provides these people with opportunities to succeed in new communities elsewhere. The second task is rebuilding the Gulf Coast area. Some parts can't be rebuilt, like much of St. Bernard Parish. Other parts shouldn't be rebuilt until we do other things first. For instance, there ought to be priority given to restoring the wetlands and the barrier islands. It's not just a question of levees; it's also a question of what nature provides to blunt the impact of hurricanes.

Why is it important to have affordable housing in traditionally affluent neighborhoods?

Let's say you're living in Fairfax County, Va., 15 miles from Washington, D.C., and you have an elderly parent in a nearby nursing home. Perhaps a nurse's aide has lovingly taken charge in looking after your parent. Are you going to tell that person, "Well, Ms. Smith, I thank you so much for taking such wonderful care of my aged mother, but I'm not going to give you a chance to live in my neighborhood near this job." Come on! We often talk about how police officers, firefighters, and schoolteachers cannot afford to live in the communities they serve. But others, like hospital orderlies, dry cleaner clerks, and supermarket cashiers, all make a vital contribution to a community's health and well-being. They ought to be able to live there and, more importantly, to send their children to the high-quality schools that those communities tend to support.

You've argued for the urban poor's property rights. How?

In the immediate three-county area around Detroit, over the past 30 years, homebuilders have built 560,000 new homes for something like 270,000 new households. The new homes always sell, but ultimately somebody pays the price. Those somebodies are the owners of older homes in core communities. At one time, each home had been some family's most valuable asset, which was reduced to zero value by such excess building outside Detroit. What about the property rights of those people?