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Obama's Urbanism (plus Bonus Law School Story)

Time's Amy Sullivan* has an interesting piece about Obama's urban orientation, noting that he's the first president in decades to hail from the big city. She writes:

What really sets Obama apart, however, is that despite his sensitivity to the problems that plague some urban neighborhoods, he does not view cities primarily as problems to be solved. "Federal policy has traditionally treated cities as victims," says Greg Nichols, mayor of Seattle. Ever since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, he explains, government has set up perverse incentives for cities by isolating funds in programs set aside for the neediest, most desperate localities. It's the urban policy equivalent of treating someone in the emergency room when they get seriously ill instead of investing in ongoing primary care and encouraging healthy behavior.

"If you don't live in a city, you look at them like they're basket cases," says Amy Liu, deputy director of the Brooking Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. "But Obama doesn't talk about urban policy in the traditional sense of distressed neighborhoods and crime. He talks about the assets he sees and about leveraging those assets."

Obama's view of cities as places where people live rather than problems to be solved dates back at least to his organizer days and probably earlier. But it's something he thought a lot about at Harvard in particular.

I've spent the last few weeks reporting on Obama's law school years (new stuff, not the same stories you've read 100 times--I promise!) and one of the anecdotes I heard involves a local government course he took from a professor named Gerald Frug. One of Obama's classmates recalled that Frug had wrong-footed the class with an exam question. But when they talked about it afterward, she said, Obama broke into an enormous grin. It turns out Frug based the question on something Obama had asked in class.

When I called Frug, he'd just dug up the old exam and confirmed that it was Obama's question. (It was, he said, one of the only times he'd ever used a student's question on a final.) So what was the question? Here's what Frug said:

It was a basic question about the future of the city. It summed it all up in some way…: "What can cities do in the United States about their own future?" ... It turns out that cities in the United States are created by state law. They're very much influenced by the way state law organizes them. ... There's a debate about whether we should build up the inner-city as the future of the city, or, to put it in the strongest terms, abandon it and integrate everyone into the larger metropolitan area. ... The issue was, what role does the city have to play in that question? Could the city influence policy in one way or the other? That’s the legal question. The question Barack asked, he was posing those two alternatives. I had them discuss that. ...

There are many different angles to thinking about the city. ... [E]conomic development--thinking about investment here and not there. In the District [of Columbia] and not Virginia. If Goldman Sachs moves across the river to New Jersey, it's a big deal to the city of New York. Or they think about attracting investment. What do you do? Again, it's some box. You notice in this conversation that whether or not poor black people are living in cities does not come up. [Except that] poor neighborhoods are seen as an inhibition to investors. ...

Since he had worked in the poor black community, he had this as his vision. It was not just that he asked one question once. He had this idea, an idea about thinking about this problem that influenced me enough to put it on the exam. 

--Noam Scheiber

*Amy Sullivan is my wife, for those Planksters not up on my periodic disclosures.