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Lately, America's leaders have talked a lot about the need to rebuild. Has it begun?

Over the next couple of weeks, The Atlantic Cities will explore America's rebuilding efforts in a four-part series. This is the first installment.

Speaking at a construction workers' conference in Washington in late April, President Barack Obama acknowledged that our highways are clogged, our airports overwhelmed, and our roads and bridges in need of repair.

"American workers built this country, and now we need American workers to rebuild this country," said the president. "Join us in this project of rebuilding America."

Whether political point or post-downturn reality, the call to rebuild has been gaining traction among politicians, activists, businessfolk, and pundits, and it's about more than just infrastructure. If dubbing this an era of rebuilding requires some optimism, it might also be a necessity, particularly for American cities.

Leaders have been urging their citizens to rebuild at least since the ancient Greek statesman Pericles called his people to reconstruct their capital after Xerxes' burning of Athens in 480 B.C. Today, embattled European leaders invoke the better days to come. Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa recently laid out his Rebuilding Program for post-Mubarak Egypt.

Then there's the U.S. These last few years represent the country's most difficult economic period since the Great Depression. Yet our climb out of that earlier hole offers little to inform our current situation. The initiatives established under the New Deal – such as the National Recovery Administration, the Works Progress Agency, and the National Labor Relations board – focused on construction and industry and empowering American workers.

Today, Americans are struggling to recover not only from the devastation of the Great Recession, but also a loss of faith in financial institutions, housing, American manufacturing, even the very idea that hard work inevitably pays off.

Most low-skilled jobs are gone and never coming back, and in many ways, it's cities that have suffered most. Municipal governments are hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and facing bankruptcy. Vast neighborhoods have been hollowed out by foreclosures and blight.

While Detroit's magnificent collapse is widely known, Chicago, for one, has suffered a subtler decline. As reported in a recent OECD study on the Chicago region, overall job growth here has trailed the national average for decades. And from 1960 to 1990, more than 96 percent of new regional jobs were created outside downtown Chicago, the de facto regional capital.

That economic shift away from cities was the root cause of America's urban collapse. Starting in the 1950s, the middle class – and the American Dream – migrated from urban neighborhoods to the suburbs. Industry and corporations soon followed.

Ester Fuchs, director of Columbia University's Urban and Social Policy program, details the fallout in the latest issue of Columbia's Journal of International Affairs:

America’s great cities were left in economic free fall, with concentrated poverty, unemployment, high crime rates, failing public schools and severely deteriorating physical infrastructure, including roads, mass transit and parks. Academics and policy makers agreed that cities were irrelevant to America’s economic future; they would become places for poor minorities who could not afford to move to the suburbs. Urban policy became code for social-welfare policy.

Power players came to view cities as irrelevant to economic vitality. The reelection of Ronald Reagan in 1984, writes Fuchs, "showed it was possible to win a presidential campaign while losing the vote in America's major cities."

Now it's come full circle. Americans began returning to cities in the mid-1990s, sparked in part by Mayor Giuliani's turn-around of New York City. Today, both the U.S. and the world are more urban than rural. And just as we've come to accept that cities are the engines of the global economy, the economic downturn has pulled back the curtain on our long-festering national secret.

That explains why Chicago officials are worried that their city attracts a fraction of the information workers drawn to coastal cities like Los Angeles and Seattle, and why they've begun to focus on rebuilding.

In recent weeks, local and national observers have been debating Mayor Rahm Emanuel's innovative method of financing a city-wide infrastructure rebuild. The three-year-old Rebuilding Exchange hopes to change the way Chicagoans demolish and reuse housing stock, while the Rebuild Foundation is expanding its community-through-culture vision across the Midwest.

Of course, the local is national. At Chicago's Green Festival last weekend, Van Jones spoke about his new book, Rebuild the Dream, which lays out a vision to repair our government and renew the middle class. Similarly, Obama has made middle class revitalization a central policy goal.

A new non-partisan organization, Americans United to Rebuild Democracy, seeks to set Congressional term limits and clean up campaign financing in an effort to restore faith in elected leaders. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently acknowledged, “our country needs a renewal.”

Still, the latest jobs report shows sluggish growth nationwide, while new home construction remains particularly low in the Midwest. And construction workers, like those Obama spoke to last week, still can't find work.

Yet on the day of his speech, One World Trade Center became the tallest building in New York City. Just one small step on the way to 1776 feet, but perhaps an apt moment to mark the start of the Rebuild Era.

Photo credit: Kinetic Imagery/Shutterstock.com

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