In the age of Trump, asks a Berkeley panel, what do cities do?
By John King
San Francisco Chronicle
8 February 2017
At a moment in our nation’s politics when chaos is the new normal, Monday evening’s panel discussing “Cities in the Age of Trump” at the College of Environmental Design sounded as skittish as everyone else. The panel expressed their gloom, hope, what-ifs and pragmatic advice while discussing what the local impacts might be now that the Republican Party controls Congress and we have a new president with no experience in government.
“We will need to throw tacks in the road when they try to roll back things we don’t think should be rolled back,” said I. Donald Terner Distinguished Professor of Affordable Housing & Urban Policy and Faculty Director of the Terner Center Carol Galante.
Galante was one of four panelists being quizzed by William Wurster Dean and Professor of City & Regional Planning Jennifer Wolch. The others included Prudence Carter, Dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, and two visiting lecturers and alumni in the Department of City & Regional Planning: Gabe Metcalf (MCP ‘02), President and CEO of SPUR, and Fred Blackwell (MCP ‘96), is CEO of the San Francisco Foundation.
The quest to provide housing for low-income people is a field where one savors small victories rather than being overwhelmed by the immensity of need. Though Galante is troubled by the actions of President Trump and those around him — “it’s hard even for me to be particularly optimistic,” the self-described optimist said — she suggested that much of the current sound and fury might pass.
“You can only do so much with executive orders,” Galante said, referring to such actions as Trump’s decree that federal funding be withheld from sanctuary cities because they “have caused immeasurable harm ... to the very fabric of our republic.”
“I’m not saying they don’t have consequences, but they can’t change basic laws and rights,” Galante said. “The federal workforce really believes in the work they are doing, and if the bureaucracy doesn’t want to move something, the bureaucracy is not going to move it.”
Carter, who has written books on persistence of inequality in the education of America’s children, added a twist to the question of how public schools might fare the next four years. She explained she is no fan of the newly confirmed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime booster of charter schools. But Carter pointed out that most education funding comes from local governments, not Washington.
The decision making that counts is “what we do as citizens,” Carter said. “We should be real about what our practices are. ... What makes any school work is the resource context and the cultural context.”
This was a strand throughout the discussion: Federal-level efforts by Trump and Republicans to undermine the more inclusive values embodied by former President Barack Obama can also serve as a prod for liberal metropolitan regions to prove that forward-looking innovation pays dividends for all.
“If cities across the country can be a success, they can be beacons within their states,” Metcalf said. “The Bay Area can be a model, staking out a claim that we have a different way by welcoming immigrants and finding ways to boost new forms of research and business,” he explained.
That point of view is hardly limited to Metcalf, and it brought a mild rebuke from Blackwell, a city official in San Francisco and Oakland before his 2014 move to the San Francisco Foundation. His philanthropic organization distributes nearly $100 million annually and has turned its attention to the region’s need for racial and economic equity.
“We have to be careful about how much we in the Bay Area characterize ourselves as a model,” Blackwell suggested. “Our perception of ourselves is out of line with how people of low incomes and people of color experience this region.”
If there was a takeaway from the evening, it was that the future is murky and there are reasons to be fearful. But the flip side is that in a place like the Bay Area, urgency might translate to a productive reaction.
“This is a moment to crystallize and capitalize on the energy in response to something that we see as dangerous,” Carter said. Instead of self-interest, she sees a pursuit of the common good in such efforts as last month’s women’s marches all across the Bay Area and country.