Bobby Kennedy Proposal: Revitalize America's Downtown

Emerson College Puts Dormitories in Downtown Boston

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U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy Proposal Rejected by Executives

U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy
U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy

There seems to be renewed interest in trying to give America's ailing cities a helping hand by encouraging businesses, universities and other potential employers to set up shop in the depressed, dying downtowns of medium-to-large municipalities.

Boston's Emerson College, for instance, recently bought some property and put dormitories in a downtown area only a few subway stops from the infamous Combat Zone. Some other colleges are doing roughly the same thing.

Undoubtedly, there are examples of corporations that are making some forays into this uncharted territory, but, unfortunately, none comes to mind.

Social Awareness

Business in general appears to be making an attempt, albeit somewhat limited in numbers, to increase its awareness of social issues and recognize its responsibility to the community. But this kind of long-term thoughtfulness is not something that comes naturally to corporations, whose No. 1 priority is enhancing equity (i.e., making money.)

There have been a number of attempts over the years by a variety of interest groups to entice business communities to open offices or build factories in the ghetto areas of the nation's larger cities, but, generally, these efforts have met with little success.

One of those efforts took place in the mid-1960s when I was employed on the staff of a nonprofit industry association with headquarters in New York City. The effort was led by U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy Letter

Kennedy sent a letter to the association -- and, I'm sure, to hundreds of others -- asking that its members consider the plight of inner cities when formulating plans for new facilities or offices. He had hoped the business community would consider creating jobs that might lead to at least a limited economic revival in the country's downtown areas.

The group's chairman, in an apologetic manner, informed the two-dozen middle management men at the meeting of the letter's contents.

The executives' response could not have been more negative.

Idea Greeted With Disdain

The all-male group greeted the issue like school children, interjecting occasionally with uncomplimentary comments that made clear their disdain for Kennedy's initiative, which they clearly saw as political -- and unworthy of serious consideration.

It would seem reasonable to assume that other board members around the country were duplicating this New York scene; after all, these men were drawn from every section of the country.

Perhaps, some 30 years later, businessmen and corporations have learned that it's in their best interests, as well as the nation's, to help rebuild the cities.

Opening of New Markets

Revitalization of the inner cities would open a new, lucrative market for many companies -- and save the government the cost of dealing with widespread substandard conditions.

The plight of our cities can continue to be ignored only at an unacceptable cost in terms of humanity and economics. It certainly would be cheaper and easier to revitalize urban America through voluntary efforts rather than through expensive, new government programs.

Continued failure -- by everyone -- to address the problems of the cities would severely aggravate existing conditions.

Let's be part of the solution, not part of the problem!

I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on June 2, 1997. I now write my views on a wide variety of topics on HubPages. To view my HubPages Profile Click Here

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Comments 6 comments

Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 6 years ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

Great hub. I remember in the 1970's our little town change the streets to a serpentine pattern in an effort to promote more downtown shopping. Now it is filled with specialty shop and all th ebig stores have moved to one mall and of course we have the Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Targets etc in the oouter areas of the town. There is constant promotion of the downtown area as business struggle to pay hige rents and stay afloat.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

There's a lot that can be done to promote our country's downtowns Fiddleman. While some cities and towns have made headway in that regard, it will take more effort by the big corporations to make it happen throughout the country. Thank you for your nice comment.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 6 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Since moving to central Oklahoma, I've noticed in each small town I've been in or through that the Wal-Mart is *always* as far from downtown as possible. I suspect, therefore, that W-M is the "anchor store" for the exodus from Main Street. Where they build, other big box and fast food chains follow, in their wake local stores and restaurants businesses fail, and what used to be a thriving downtown is left with many eyesores. If local governments would have the chutzpah to require W-M and fast food chains to build on *existing empty property* (or property scheduled for demolition anyway) in the downtown area, there'd be no need for downtown revitalization projects.

That said, many times all it takes to bring a blighted area back to life is a few individuals with money and determination taking advantage of the low real estate prices and moving into a neighborhood. Instead of huge, expensive revitalization projects, cities should think small. Focus on bringing back one block, then another, and over time a blighted neighborhood is no longer an eyesore and a drain on limited public resources.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thank you, JamaGenee, for your comment. After a large portion of the downtown shopping area in Norwalk, Connecticut, was destroyed in the huge 1955 flood the city fathers tried vainly to get a "big box" anchor store on a six-acre site in the heart of downtown Norwalk. The effort failed as the site was deemed to be too small. Downtown Norwalk slid into decades of decay which they are still trying to recover from. Most businesses shun the downtown areas these days because they are often deemed to be unsafe. They also have trouble getting cheap labor. True success, I think, will take a concerted effort by government and business to provide a suitable environment for a thriving retail community.


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 5 years ago

Great piece, as usual, William.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 5 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thanks, Ralph. Unfortunately, my plea for some help from the world of business appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

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