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After resigning as Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Clinton, Henry Cisneros went on to become president of Univision Communications (UVN, info), the Los Angeles-based Spanish language network. But a few years later, he is back in the housing game with his new company, American CityVista, which hopes to capitalize on the housing crunch and a new interest in city living by building housing projects for middle-class families on underused urban properties. Cisneros tells Business 2.0 Online about his new venture, shares his thoughts on the digital divide, and talks about receiving a pardon from Clinton in January, two years after pleading guilty to improprieties related to payments to a former mistress while in office in 1996.

Why do you think the New Economy can revitalize the inner cities?

What we called the urban crisis for the last 40 years was, in fact, an American economic transformation. The employment and economic base of most American cities in the 1950s were heavily dependent on manufacturing. As American manufacturing went offshore, or went to the suburbs, the cities were left with the physical residue of America's industrial heyday--old industrial plants, salvage yards, or environmentally hampered sites. Over the last 20 years, there has been a good deal of cleanup and consolidation of those sites. And now the New Economy, nonmanufacturing businesses--software development and new media companies--can find these places compatible and workable. It's a new ballgame for cities.


How does American CityVista fit into this urban renewal movement?

We wanted to focus on building homes on central city sites, where the need is huge because more and more people are deciding they don't want to live on the outskirts of cities anymore, with the congestion and so forth. There's also the whole smart growth movement that's urging cities to utilize the investment that has already been made in streets and water systems and utilities, as opposed to constantly building at the fringes of the metropolitan areas. The homes we are building are intended to be single-family homes for sale at median prices--not upscale high-rise apartments and not low-income subsidized housing.


As the president of Univision, you chose not to air any dot-com ads. Are you concerned that this decision prevented your largely Hispanic audience from getting information about the Internet and what it had to offer?

No. The Spanish Internet offerings then were neither numerous nor sophisticated enough that I felt we would be doing the audience any damage. Since then, there’s been a sorting out among the Spanish language dot-coms which makes my point. There was nothing so established that our audience missed out, because many of them don't exist anymore. Univision needed to first establish the proper course for our own Internet offerings before opening up our air to other Internet companies.


Given the current downturn and a decreased spirit of philanthropy from a year ago, are you concerned that the opportunity to bridge the digital divide was missed?

I think there was substantial progress made, but I think what’s going on now also shows that it’s important to think in terms of both philanthropic and governmental activity to assure the maximum use of the Internet for public purposes. Closing the digital divide is so important that it has to be addressed in a more strategic and stable manner than just relying on philanthropy. I think the PBS model from television has some applicability here in the sense of the government providing capital for the use of a public medium for content and subject matter that can’t be sustained by the marketplace. I would love to see an Internet-based curriculum developed that would assist parents, especially immigrant parents, in helping their children with education. That's not likely to be offered in a setting that has to be sustained by advertising, but it is the kind of thing that I think would be important in making the Internet more useful to more people.


How does a presidential pardon actually work? Do you get some sort of official certificate that you keep in your wallet?

No, not to my knowledge. I don't have anything to carry around with me. I got a telephone call on the Friday before (President Bush's) inauguration telling me that I was on the list, but that no final decision had been made. And then, the next thing I knew, I was getting reporters' calls on Saturday saying that I was on the final list and that was it. I was not expecting it and I did not ask for it. I had already been through a resolution of my case, and as far as I was concerned it was behind me. So this was a mixed blessing because it raised these issues again. But I would never question the president's right or motives or intent. He felt that he was doing the right thing in my case and I appreciated the thought. He's a dear friend--he's like a brother to me--and I will always be grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to serve in his cabinet. I relished every moment of it.