Austin @ Large: Austin At Large

A Mayor Is More Important Than a President ... Just Ask New York

Austin At Large
Like Austin, New York will be choosing a new mayor on Nov. 6. As in Austin, that new mayor will be filling what the media says are big shoes. Not as in Austin, those shoes have gotten many sizes bigger in the past 10 days.

It's futile to marvel at how Rudolph Giuliani, heretofore thought by many a boorish know-nothing bully, has distinguished himself since Sept. 11. One would hope the horrific challenge to the city of New York would elevate all women and men beyond their bad reputations. Instead, marvel at how many people (certainly more than I'd expect) have had the guts to compare Giuliani to George W. Bush and find the president wanting.

That is because a mayor is more important than a president. Love or loathe W., it's hard to imagine any president not taking the same steps as Bush, in the same order. But when your city has fallen under the latest blitzkrieg against humanity, the mayor cannot dither or disappear or delegate leadership to some functionary (even if it is Colin Powell), or dispense harsh words mixed with healing nostrums and consider that a full day at the office. Even in a city the size of New York, the mayor's decisions and actions do not merely "touch" but change the lives of all citizens, and all the more so when those lives are hanging by a thread, at all times, not just in wartime.

Whatever else the Twin Towers assault was -- an act of war, a crime against humanity -- it was an attack on urban America itself in its most iconic aspect. If you're not safe inside the World Trade Center -- a fortress so much stronger than the average skyscraper that even its 1993 bombing could barely be felt on the upper floors -- then where would you be safe in the city? And when the Twin Towers themselves became a weapon of mass destruction, their collapse boomed with the echoes of the anti-urbanism, the fear of the big city, which has always percolated through the American experience.

Which brings us back home, where we are so reluctant to buy lifetime membership in the Urban America Club. The scale of the New York disaster simply cannot be translated into Austin terms. On a typical day, more people could be found inside the Twin Towers than on the UT campus. Between the towers and the surrounding buildings -- subjected by the collapse to a simultaneous earthquake, hurricane, and landslide -- New York has, by at least one estimate, lost more than 30 million square feet of office space, which is several times more than the capacity of downtown Austin. Beyond the lives lost, more than 50,000 people are suddenly unemployed -- as if, one morning, Dell and Motorola both just ceased to exist. All minor impacts compared to the loss of life and dignity and humanity, but nonetheless real issues for an urban government.

This Is Why We Vote

It would take a far smaller act of God or man to render Austin a city in crisis. It only took one false move by a tugboat to leave South Padre Island marooned physically and electronically, and it will be months before that town returns to normalcy. It's tasteless and wrong to suggest that our current or prospective city leaders may not be up to the task of guiding Austin through tragedy and terror. The point, rather, is that doing so is part of the job of an urban government, and it is a much more arduous labor than the presidential mandate to assume the proper stance.

From their inception centuries ago, American cities have had little tolerance for risk. Public safety and health services, utilities and infrastructure, codes and ordinances -- all make our cities more secure than we fear they would be otherwise, and the average U.S. city deploys them with more sophistication than do even the greatest cities abroad. (Those cities are, rather, more civilized, in their parks, schools, museums, libraries, and such.) Which is why our local governments are the most powerful in the world, and why the city of New York -- even after losing hundreds of firefighters and police officers and its actual emergency operations center -- could respond to the Twin Towers assault with only a modicum of outside help, and why even the mighty U.S. military needed help from the suburban fire departments of northern Virginia to save people trapped in the Pentagon.

It also should be why six times as many Austinites get it up to vote for mayor and council as do to voice their choice for celebrity-in-chief. The reverse is actually true, but people who ignore the importance of Austin government -- or who confuse it with the mean and greasy theatre of Austin politics -- do so at their peril. Our next mayoral election is only six weeks away, and the need for decisions -- real decisions involving basic facts that will determine our integrity and viability as a city -- is greater than the formerly desultory, now basically dormant, public dialogue would indicate. Perhaps by May, with the next round of council elections, the seriousness of urban government will have sunken in. Be assured that, for those who are or would be Austin civic leaders, it already has.

The War Comes Home

Not to splash gaily in the troubled waters again, but a couple of weeks back, among the things I said that I am told I shouldn't have said was a reference to the Nation of Islam. For the record, whatever controversies surround the Nation as a voice in American life, I feel (and felt then) that the Nation has had a net positive effect on life on the Eastside, especially around its 12th and Chicon base, which is about eight blocks from my home.

On Sunday, one or more unknown idiots decided it would be useful to attack the Nation of Islam with firebombs, which luckily failed to ignite. The Nation of Islam is part of my neighborhood. An attack on the Nation is an attack on my neighborhood. 'Nuff said.

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Austin, mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, World Trade Center, City of New York, George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Dell, Motorola, South Padre Island, Nation of Islam, Eastside

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