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Speeches

18 May 2010

Ubiñas Gives Opening Remarks at Washington, D.C. Summit on Auto Communities and the Next Economy

Hosted by the White House Council on Automotive Communities, U.S. Department of Labor, Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, and Funders Network for Smart Growth Washington, D.C.

I'm going to begin my remarks today by talking about a place in America that not long ago was the poster child for urban decay.

This was a place where nearly 40 percent of the residents had left in the previous 10 years. Forty percent of the housing stock had vanished. Much of it had gone up in flames—burned to the ground by landlords who could only recoup their investment by destroying it.

South Bronx slide 1
South Bronx slide 2
South Bronx slide 3

I'm speaking, of course, of the neighborhood where I grew up—the South Bronx. These images behind me—taken around 1980—capture much of the hopelessness and despair that defined the South Bronx back then. Much has changed since these photos were taken. I've seen it myself.

Last month, I walked with a friend from 138th Street in Mott Haven to Yankee Stadium. It's about two miles. There were no burned out buildings or vacant lots strewn with trash. No syringes on the sidewalk. No acrid smell from the previous night's fires. What we saw was a place where hard working people send their kids to decent local schools, shop at neighborhood stores, and even tend their gardens.

Today the South Bronx is everything it wasn't in 1980—a sustainable, low-income community.

This once-unthinkable transformation reminds us not only of how far we've come in restoring American cities, but of how far we are able to go. We know, I know, that even today's most distressed city can be reclaimed.

Unfortunately, the metropolitan areas we are here to talk about today are still losing jobs, losing residents and losing the fabric of their communities. Infrastructure is aging, environmental challenges are growing and in some locales the public safety gains made in the 1990s are eroding.

Despite the lessons of the 1960s and 1970s, today, we continue to allow environments like the South Bronx of those despairing photos to grow.

As profound as these challenges may seem—there is reason for optimism. And it comes in the cooperation and commitment to shared goals reflected by the many organizations represented in this room.

This collaboration represents a crucial level of dedication among government, philanthropic organizations and the private sector to target resources to cities in transition, to turnaround cities. Each of us has a unique role to play in this process. Many of you here have done the research, writing and intellectual spadework in support of policies that will rejuvenate America's metropolitan areas; others—both inside and outside of government—are setting the new national agenda on metropolitan issues.

At Ford, we are promoting bold and experimental ideas—and taking the sort of risks that those in government and the private sector often cannot. Now, when we speak of our commitment to these issues at Ford, we are communicating not just the aspiration of leadership, but the reality of it.

We are committing today, and I am saying this for the first time in this room, we are committing today an investment of $200 million over the next five years in our new Metropolitan Opportunity initiative. An unprecedented sum. This multi-faceted program is promoting smart, creative regional solutions for communities of all kinds, and it has special potential to address the issues affecting America's most vulnerable metropolitan areas.

Even more, we believe the value of this investment will be magnified because of its independence—a quality that is essential to our sector and one that Ford values highly and fights to preserve. With independence comes the freedom to promote new initiatives that stretch the boundaries of how we approach the most serious social and economic issues facing this country. It gives us the opportunity to challenge government, business and even other philanthropies. It gives us the unique opportunity to channel resources toward systemic and complex challenges, without thinking about the next quarter or the next election.

Maintaining that sort of independence is perhaps the most fundamental element of effective and enduring philanthropy. It should be the goal of all philanthropic institutions. But independence doesn't mean isolation. By partnering with an array of organizations—for profit and nonprofit—we are supporting some of the most innovative approaches to urban and economic revitalization in the country.

We believe that vast resources independently deployed in a broad-based partnership will bring the kind of impact our cities need. It's an aspiration borne out of Ford's longstanding focus on urban development. But above all, it is grounded in the idea that everyone, regardless of where they reside, should have the opportunity to live in a community with well-paying jobs, good schools and affordable homes.

We believe that to achieve this goal we need to move beyond labels like city, or even suburb and exurb. No one here would characterize a place like Washington, D.C., as simply Georgetown, Anacostia or Shaw. It's also Prince George's and Montgomery counties; It's Fairfax and Alexandria; It‘s the high-tech corridor.

As Bruce Katz, the director of the Metropolitan Policy Program here at Brookings has long argued: Communities are part of a larger ecosystem, a metropolitan area. They each have their own unique identity, but they each represent an integrated regional economy.

The metropolitan areas that surround cities like Detroit, Cleveland or Gary, Indiana, are the cornerstones of this nation's manufacturing economy. They have the potential to be the key to the creation of new industries, new technologies and the Next Economy that will spur 21st-century development.

These regions share common assets like transportation and energy systems, housing and labor markets, natural resources and an ecosystem of businesses that are mutually reliant upon each other. Only by tackling the challenges facing these metropolitan areas in a comprehensive manner will we be able to foster economic development that is truly sustainable.

That's why we are supporting organizations that are advocating for quality housing options in stable neighborhoods, while also thinking about how to link them directly to public transportation, good schools and decent jobs. It's why we are supporting research and advocacy that prioritizes public transportation funding, while encouraging regional efforts to use these systems to link jobs and transit-dependent populations. It's why we are supporting groups like the Center for Community Progress, which began in Flint, Michigan.

CCP is being launched as a national resource so that other communities can learn from the progress made in Flint in promoting metropolitan land-use policies that turn abandoned property and land into valuable assets for the Next Economy. I'm particularly pleased to see Dan Kildee here today. Dan's been a national leader on this issue and will head the new center.

Now, let me share with you an example that illustrates the power of collaboration.

Few cities face a greater set of challenges than Detroit. Fifty-five percent of its children live in poverty, unemployment is at 30 percent—for African American men, the figure may be as high as 50 percent—and a lack of adequate transportation alternatives has left city residents economically isolated. A vast island of poverty. Thousands of abandoned properties and vacant lots repel would-be investors. But as we know cleaning up blighted and contaminated places can transform them into assets for the entire metropolitan area and unlock the economic potential of an entire region.

Together with the Detroit Downtown Partnership and its funders, the Hudson-Webber Foundation and the Kresge Foundation which has provided a $36 million grant we are supporting efforts to promote economic development, develop mixed-income housing, and engage community residents in planning for light rail development along the Woodward Avenue corridor.

This transformative project could be the first step toward building a regional transit network that will help connect city residents to the region's employment centers. We are also partnering with the Kellogg Foundation and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan to support small-business development along other important corridors, such as East Jefferson Avenue.

South Bronx slide 4
South Bronx slide 5
South Bronx slide 6

Other Ford partnerships are spurring longer-term economic development in the region. For example, the New Economy Initiative is a $100 million effort that brings together 10 national and local foundations to promote entrepreneurship and transform the Southeast Michigan region into a "knowledge-based" economy.

While these remedies are not a panacea, if these efforts can be successful in Detroit and the other cities where we are working, then they can and should be replicated elsewhere.

Let me conclude by bringing forward in time those photos we saw at the outset. Let me show you pictures of the South Bronx today. It's a far cry from 30 years ago.

What you see behind me is a thriving and vibrant working community defined not by despair, but by hope: The hope that hard work can bring an individual, a family, a community closer to the dream of American prosperity.

The challenge of fixing America's cities can seem insurmountable. That's why it's so important to remember the experience of the South Bronx. It is a reminder that in this great country we know how to move from urban decay to metropolitan opportunity—and bring enduring change.

Thank you.

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