Six years ago, David Rusk, an urban affairs researcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Research Center in Washington, D.C., warned that York city and other municipalities were in a fast decline. He made some recommendations that would have steered troubled cities out of their quagmires.
Did anyone listen?
No. And now the urban planner says it might be too late. Rusk’s latest report, based on 2000 Census figures, shows that York is “past the point of (almost) no return.” He based his argument on three crucial facts:
First, York city’s population dropped 32 percent below its peak in 1950, according to Rusk.
Second, the city’s black and Hispanic population increased to 45 percent, nearly 17 times the suburban level.
Third, York’s per-capita income dropped from 71.4 percent to 61.1 percent between 1990 and 2000.
According to Rusk, no city has ever closed
the economic gap with its suburbs once it passed these points.
York isn’t alone.
Harrisburg is also on Rusk’s list. It has lost 45 percent of its population since 1950; it has an average city income of 69 percent less than that of the suburbs. For every black or Hispanic person in the suburbs, there are 11 in the city, widening the racial and economic gaps that divide the city and its suburbs.
Those facts are harsh, but they are facts. There are a couple of ways to react: do something about it, or bury your head in the sand.
Local officials took the path of excuses, misplaced pride and red herrings. “He (Rusk) based his point on numbers, and we all know there’s more to a city than just sheer numbers,” said York City Councilman Joseph Musso.
Other city leaders pointed out that Harrisburg and
York are spending millions of dollars on renovation projects, such as office development in downtown York and the revival of business on Second Street in Harrisburg.
They miss Rusk’s point. Those projects are not enough. This region will never prosper unless we take Rusk’s advice. Government policies and structures that encourage suburban sprawl are a mistake. These are not new issues. Envision Capital Region, South Central Assembly for Effective Governance and other groups have said the same things and have called for action on these issues before.
We need to stop suburban sprawl, and we need rational comprehensive land-use planning that requires consistency between state, county and local zoning.
Rusk’s recommendations will not be easy to follow without leaders who have political backbone. Cities cannot bear this burden alone. It will take the cooperation of the 231 municipalities in our five-county region.
It will take leadership at the state Capitol, too. Lawmakers must have the courage it takes to address the issues Rusk is talking about. That would mean making decisions that might end their careers but that would make the state a better place to live and work.
Rusk warned us six years ago that things would get worse if we didn’t change. We didn’t listen then. And we are doomed to make the same mistake, if our response is to ignore the person who has true vision.
Although Rusk is an “outsider,” sometimes it
takes someone not tied to an area to point out its
faults. His criticisms have merit. Our advice is for government officials to stop making excuses and stop being defensive.
If not, we would suggest that someone with Rusk’s vision is exactly what York needs for a leader, but, more importantly, it is what the state needs in a governor.