Citiwire founder and syndicated columnist Neal Peirce, whose unique beat for four decades has been America's cities, announced last week that he is ending his Citiwire column. It’s not exactly the end of an era, but it is a good chance to pause to consider the one we are in.
All metropolitan-oriented reporting has been affected by Peirce's vigorous, honest, straightforward journalism. Sometimes "Cities" was a lonely national beat, but Peirce, originally a Connecticut Yankee, persevered, persuading others to join him. His current team of a half-dozen writers and commentators at Citiwire includes Seattle's Bill Stafford.
But he is not satisfied just to have mentored others. He also hints at the unveiling of a new project — an online international news service on cities. If that entails the use of stringers from urban areas globally, it could provide another fertile field for Peirce and his matchless network.
In his final column, Peirce describes the 38 years he devoted to Citiwire — traveling the country and the world, reporting on urban problems and successes and offering lessons for urban policy makers. Early on he conducted "city studies" that regional newspapers sponsored to give locals a sense of how they were doing in reference to other U.S. cities. (One on Seattle, in 1989, was sponsored by the Seattle Times and co-authored by Betty Jane Narver and Curtis W. Johnson.)
Crucial to the Peirce approach is reporting on several urban themes at once in any place: education, transportation, business climate, taxation, amenities and especially the role of community leadership — from citizen activists to elected officials. But Neal's fascination with cities goes back even further than 1975, when he started his column.
When I first got to know him in the early 60s, he was a young reporter in Washington, D.C. with the Congressional Quarterly, describing political developments across the country, district by district. Those were the days of "clipping services," which perused local papers, then collected and sent you copies of articles on topics you had given them. They, along with long distance phone calls and a great many puddle-hopping flights to keep in touch with local wise men —whom he collected — gave Peirce an advantage over other national reporters.
In short order, his geographical knowledge of politics became intimate and encyclopedic. Accordingly, his pre-election predictions were reliably insightful — based not just on polls, but personally compiled information. What the late Samuel Lubell was to door-to-door opinion surveys in the 50s and 60s, Peirce became to city reporting. Eventually, he grew bored with state and local politics as such and began to extrapolate patterns of change that yielded policy ideas from immediate local conditions. Along the way, he helped found the National Journal as a competitor to Congressional Quarterly and was picked up by the Washington Post Writers Group, the Seattle Times and other papers that gave him well-deserved respect.
Peirce was an early prophet of what was to be called "the new urbanism," the human scale qualities that make certain urban neighborhoods (and small towns) more congenial than urban blight or sprawling suburbs.
Over time, he grew more liberal as I grew more conservative. An especial antagonist of the automobile, Peirce declined to applaud the replacement of Seattle’s Alaska Way Viaduct with a bored tunnel. He would have preferred that people take transit and cabs, the way he does in Washington, D.C. But regardless of the liberalism of his ideas, they are most often framed differently. Peirce tends to place himself on the side of the local and tangible over the big and abstract — sometimes a more important divide than the conventional right versus left.
You could say that Neal Peirce and his beat came in with Jane Jacobs and "The Life and Death of Great American Cities" (1961) and is going out with Rod Dreher and the Crunchy Cons. Except that he is not going out, just on.
It takes exactly such good men and women — individuals of intelligent dedication — to make communities livable.