It was always a more squalid than gracious city, but it used to be a place of opportunity for its teeming population. In the last quarter of a century, however, it has fallen on hard times. Its manufacturing base has steadily declined; unemployment has skyrocketed; the welfare rolls have been increasing inexorably; the municipal treasury is effectively bankrupt; whole areas have been vandalized and abandoned; crime, alcoholism and other species of social pathology have reached quite incredible heights.

The national government has not been inattentive. It has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into subsidized housing and subsidized employment. But the only visible consequence of such a compassionate policy has been to increase the size of the dependent population and further to demoralize it. The entire city today seems on the verge of becoming a violent slum, and the policymakers are at their wits' ends as to what to do about it.

The city in question is Glasgow, Scotland, inhabited by a people famous, if not for their sobriety, then at least for their diligence, thrift and self-reliance. And this should give us pause for thought as we await President Carter's new urban program. For it suggests how intractable the problems of a declining city can be, and how these problems can be unwittingly magnified by well-meaning but erroneous social policies.

The problems of Glasgow are, in one degree or another, the problems of all those cities whose prosperity, in the course of the 19th century, became linked to their being centers of manufacturing and/or transportation. Not all existing cities fall into this category, which is why loose chatter about a universal "urban crisis" is so mischievous and misleading. In Europe, many cities located their industry in their suburban rings to begin with, so that they have been less dramatically affected by the changes of recent decades. And in the United States, too, it has been estimated that, of the 57 cities with a population over 250,000, only 17 can be said to be declining, the others being stable or actually growing.

But it is unquestionally the case that many of our largest conurbations - New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago - are undergoing a painful change of life. These cities have become viable with every passing decade, as secular changes in technology and industrial organization have made them uneconomic sites for the kinds of activities that supported their population. It is simply not to be imagined that New York will ever again be a center for the garment industry, or that Chicago will regain its stockyards or its role as the hub of a railroad network.

This does not mean that these cities are doomed, only that they will have to discover new functions to replace the old. They may end up somewhat smaller than they now are; they will surely be different from what they now are; but - since they have many assets, including a remarkable concentration of talented people - there is no reason to think they are destined to be permanently depressed areas. The only thing tha tis certain is that the clock cannot be turned back.

Neverthless, a great many people seem determined to try to turn the clock back. They have apparently convinced themselves that the only reason these cities are in crisis is that the federal government has discriminated against them, by not spending enough money within the city limits or by tempting urban residents to emigrate in order to enjoy the tax benefit associated with the deductibility of mortgage interest on a suburban house.

There is little substance to such notions. Canada has no deductibility for mortgage-interest payments, and the process of suburbanization has proceeded there just as in the United States. Most people who move to the suburbs not only live there but also work there, because that is where the jobs now are. (Only 20 per cent of Westchester's labor force today commutes to New York City for works). As for largess from Washington - well, aside from the fact that most of the statistics showing "discrimination" against New York or the Northeast are highly questionable, it is also a fact that healthy cities are supposed to generate a nation's wealth rather the consume it. A city is not intended to be some kind of reservation for dependant and unproductive people.

All efforts, under the guise of "community development," to reestablish a manufacturing sector in the city are a waste of time, money and effort. The Carter administration, if reports are to be believed, thinks that an urban development bank, giving loans at low, rates of interest, will tempt employers to build factories in the South Bronx. The sad truth is that not even interest-free loans would do that. Nothing short of massive subsidies could do that, and these subsidies would have to be both permanent and annually increasing. This is what the British government discovered when it intervened to save jobs in the declining shipbuilding industry in Glasgow, with the displeasing results noted above.

Any sensible urban policy has to distinguish between two goals. Do we want to assist our declining cities? Or do we want to subsidize the poor so that they can continue to reside in those cities? These are incompatible intentions - though one can understand why many politicians, in deference to their constituencies, should insist on conflating them. Any policy that anchors poor people in a declining city - whether it be by generous welfare payments, subsidized housing or subsidized employment - is bound to be cruelly counterproductive. The kinds of jobs (unskilled, for the most part) these people can work at are not in these cities, nor will they ever be again. New York's central business district has lost over 400,000 jobs in the last decade. What "community development" program can possibly match that deficit?

It will at once be asked: But where will those poor people go? Well, since this is a free country, they will go where they wish to go - presumably where the jobs are. Government certainly can and should help them make the transition, and there is no reason why government should not be generous in its help, since the money would be well spent. But does it really make any sense today for the government to continue spending $65,000 to build a two-bedroom apartment in a low-income housing project in New York? Or to offer make-work jobs - truly "dead-end jobs" - at $3 an hour to unemployed teenagers, who quickly learn to have contempt for their work and a corresponding low opinion of themselves?

The test of any "urban policy" for the poor should be whether it prepares them to leave areas that lack opportunity, not to stay there. It is impossible to believe that we could not devise scuh programs if we set our minds to it. But official thinking, warped by political pressures, is determined not to proceed along such lines. Which is why we all ought to be pleased that current budgetary restraints will make it difficult for President Carter's new urban policy to be much more than an aggregate of token gestures.

As for the declining cities themselves, there is every reason to think that they can cope with the future, if given the opportunity. It is interesting to note that New York, at this very moment, is showing signs of life. It is flooded with affluent tourists who - to everyone's astonishment - are shopping and theater-going and taxi-ing like mad. Moreover, young upper-middle-class couples are beginning to return to some parts of the city, rehabilitating old dwellings and enlivening previously deteriorating neighborhoods. These may be misleading and evanescent symptoms of revival. But they also may be true indications that a new generation is beginning to figure out new uses to which old cities can be put. The fact that similar trends are noticeable in other cities adds further substance to this hope.

Ironically, many of our urban "activists" are quite upset with these developments! These are class-conscious liberals who become indignant at a spectacle of more affluent people - even more affluent blacks - replacing poor people in the inner city. They oppose that might encourage this trend - whether it be a cut in income taxes, a new convention center, new luxury housing, a modernized airport. For they are committed to the vision at once sordid and utopian, of a city of poor people "making it" by virtue of government subsidies.

That's not the way poor people "made it" in yesterday's cities. Even more certainly, that's not the way they'll "make it" in the cities of tomorrow.