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Mayor Raymond Flynn of Boston was talking tough. Newly installed in San Diego as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he was needling both political parties for having neglected urban problems, and promising that he would "rock the boat, speak out and put the cities of America back on the national political map."

Flynn, an amiable and ambitious 51-year-old Democrat now preparing to seek a third four-year term, has hit on a hot issue and knows it. Many U.S. cities, beset by serious problems, need all the help they can get. Flynn traces many urban ills to Washington's indifference. He derides national political leaders for a feeble grasp of issues such as drugs, crime and housing, and describes their attempts to discuss such problems as "laughable."This is combative talk, but Flynn is a combative guy. He has been trying for years to establish himself as a spokesman for a new urban agenda and believes that Washington will respond only if mayors inject urban issues with the kind of urgency not seen since the 1960s. But he and his colleagues are urging Washington to hand out another $12 billion in emergency urban aid, and this simply will not happen. Money is too scarce and the cities' political clout is too feeble.

This conventional perspective overlooks a more troubling possibility - that the heyday of the large American city has passed. Conceivably, our society and economy have changed so drastically in recent decades that large cities may no longer be vital as centers of commerce, business, finance, transportation and culture.

The tendency to centralize, which has sparked the growth of cities since the nation's birth, is now moving in reverse. Corporate home offices relocate from Wall Street to the suburbs, where employees have free parking and instant contact with the world through fax and computer. Airlines keep moving out of congested big-city airports and centering their operations at regional hubs. Shoppers have long since shunned big-city department stores in favor of the bland accessiblity of suburban malls. Cable television and home videos keep consuming more of the leisure time that used to be devoted to theaters, museums and concert halls.

America's big old cities today find themselves stretched taut by powerful forces they cannot control. They have become home to large dependent populations of the poor; they are riddled by drug traffic and other street crime; they are losing tax revenues even as operating costs keep climbing. These stresses, as Mayor Flynn rightly observed, give mayors the toughest political jobs in the nation.

What makes matters worse is the stagnation afflicting many of the institutions that have grown up at the heart of city life. These institutions - school systems, public employee unions, welfare departments, political machines - tend to be fiercely protective of their domains. Hence, instead of taking the lead in encouraging change, they tend to balk. Some of the very elements of a city's life that should be invigorating its future are obstructionist because they remain shackled to its past.

If a city's economic functions continue to disperse, if its public institutions have become more of a problem than a solution, and if its population is reduced to a small affluent sector and a large, dependent underclass - if this is what's in store, how can large cities claim that they remain vital to the nation's well-being? If they proceed on this track, they will become hollow shells, with facilities decayed, people fearful and embittered, and public coffers perpetually empty.

None of this is foreordained. Many great cities continue to thrive - look at Western Europe - and clearly fill functions that cannot be filled anywhere else. But restoring a city's vitality requires far more than the conventional nostrums of more government handouts. It requires a longer-range vision than many elected officials possess; it requires leaders willing to take risks; it requires the creation, somehow, of a sense of community in which every citizen has a stake in successful outcomes. And it also requires long-term financial stability that may be achievable only through metropolitan government, with wealthier suburbs helping to pay for the costs of center-city services.