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Public Papers - 1990

Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the All-American Cities Awards


The President. Thank you very much. Excuse the little delay here. Welcome to the White House. I want to single out an old friend of mine, Henry Cisneros, the chair of the National Civic League. Wayne Hedien of Allstate, Members of Congress who are here, State representatives, mayors and, above all, some friends of the finest cities in America, it's an honor and, indeed, a pleasure to have you here at the White House.

The event is special. It's special because too often it seems the function of the Federal Government is to make laws and set limits. But the cities and citizens we honor today are reminders that America's potential is truly unlimited. The All-American Cities are all-American success stories. At a time when so many mourn what's wrong with American cities, you have quietly gone to work to make them right. You've refused to surrender to crime and to drug dealers and to natural disaster, to despair. You refuse to see the problems of the homeless and the jobless as somehow impossible to solve. Instead, you've set out to unleash the infinitive range of what is possible when Americans really put their minds to it.

Along the way, you've reaffirmed the American ideal of empowerment. Empowerment sounds like a new idea, but it's something President Teddy Roosevelt well understood and wanted to promote when he founded the National Civic League back in 1894. ``There are many different ways,'' he once wrote, ``in which a man or a woman can work for the higher life of American cities.''

Well, the men and women with us are proving Teddy Roosevelt right. So, we've gathered to celebrate the spirit of empowerment and the potential of partnerships perhaps unique in America, the spirit that in an earlier time could have built a meetinghouse or raised a barn on a windswept field.

Today the All-America Cities are forming partnership for challenges of every kind. In small industrial towns, in urban canyons, citizens, businesses, government, and volunteers are joining forces for the future of their communities. In some cases, they've mobilized after an accident, like Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa, whose citizens had planned and acted on an outstanding emergency response system. Or, they've responded to a natural disaster the way the people of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, did after Hurricane Hugo.

All Americans are uplifted by stories of courage and compassion that emerged during those difficult times. No hand was idle and, certainly, no heart was untouched. But these cities and others have been just as notable, I think, for their courage and creativity in meeting the longer term challenges.

When the schools of South Gate in Los Angeles faced an enrollment explosion, young kids -- many of them immigrant and at-risk in overcrowded classrooms -- civic volunteers, and local businesses volunteered money and time and talent to turn the tide against drugs and gangs. The kids, 15,000 of them, got involved in marches and posters and essay contests and assemblies and antigang, antidrug pledges. Test scores improved. Attendance went from among the lowest to among the highest in the Los Angeles School District, and the dropout rate is now the lowest in the L.A. Unified School District -- an outstanding case study in how to save our schools.

The same vision for a better future has driven the city of South St. Paul as they deal with the challenges and the change. Rather than mourning the loss of a key industry, citizens began to plan a public walkway and trail system on old industrial land along the river. And volunteers work tirelessly at town meetings to convince their neighbors that urban renewal means an improved city, economic growth, and new jobs. Stock certificates for Mississippi Miles were sold for each, enlisting even the kids. Now the center of South St. Paul is coming back to life. One high school senior even told a local historian, ``I just have to thank you for giving me back my hometown.''

For 41 years the National Civic League has recognized community excellence through these awards. Success stories like these -- as in Bakersfield, California, and Tampa, Florida; Coeur D'Alene, Idaho; Hamlet, North Carolina; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Abilene, Texas -- all are a hopeful reminder that the success of democracy depends on the resilience and capacity of citizens for self-governance, education, civic responsibility, and economic development.

We single out all 10 of these cities not because they claim to be the best cities in America -- I think they're too smart or, in some instances, too modest for that -- but because they represent what's best about American cities. Rather than looking for an outside solution or a quick fix, they're looking within for the answers and they're finding them. By recognizing and unleashing the power and potential of the people themselves, they're proving that big cities can meet enormous challenges, small towns can do very big things.

So, congratulations to all of you. You've earned the admiration of the Nation because when people say, ``It can never be done,'' you're doing it. And when they say, ``You can't get there from here,'' you've proved that you can. So, I'm very grateful, and now if I could ask Henry and Wayne to join me up here, we'd like to present this year's awards. Congratulations to all of you.

Note: The President spoke at 10:15 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. In his remarks, he referred to Wayne Hedien, chairman and chief executive officer of Allstate Insurance Co.

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