The idea of Team Trump now planning the nation’s post-coronavirus recovery while simultaneously managing the current crisis certainly staggers the imagination. We’ve gone from no problem — a hoax! — to a problem that could start winding down in time for Easter Sunday or maybe by the end of April. The mind reels.
But in other tumultuous times our country has been able to do two things at once. In December, 1942, a little more than a year after the U.S. engaged in World War II, some Americans were already looking ahead to what could and should happen when the war ended. In Syracuse, New York, city leaders were concerned about the postwar future. Sears Roebuck was relocating its store from downtown to the outskirts. Transportation infrastructure was proving to be inadequate. People complained that it took too much time and money to get to work, to go to school, or to make deliveries or business calls.
A panel of experts, including the president of the American Institute of Planners and an economist from the American Bankers Association, was convened to consult with city leaders. By May of 1943, while the war was still at its height in Europe and the Pacific, a report was issued. Its title: “Syracuse Tackles Its Future: An Alert City Gets Set to Put Some Meaning into Postwar Planning.”
But there was one significant difference between the situation then and what is being bandied about now at the President’s daily press briefings. The people tackling the postwar planning for Syracuse were not the same people as those overseeing the war effort. In Syracuse the initiative was led not by federal or even state or local government. Rather it was spearheaded by Time Inc.’s bold and innovative business magazine, Fortune, which commissioned the outside experts and wrote the report published in the magazine’s May, 1943, issue.
The Syracuse experience during World War II raises the question: Wouldn’t it now be smart to convene a task force to study post-coronavirus recovery efforts? And wouldn’t it be smart to separate the entity trying to solve the problem from the entity trying to forge a path forward. The great urbanist, Jane Jacobs, made exactly that point in 1992 in her next-to-last book, Systems of Survival. Jacobs defined two pillars of politics and commerce: the guardian approach (government), which takes political responsibility for enacting policies into law, and the commercial approach, which finds creative ways to implement those policies. Trouble begins when the government tries to do the work of commerce, or vice versa. So what’s the first step?