Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

The Three Generations of Black Mayors in America by Pete Saunders

[ This week is the Thanksgiving holiday in the US, so I’ll be away and enjoying it for the rest of the week. As a holiday long read for you, I’m posting this very important piece about the three generations of black mayors in America and how the timing of the election of the first black mayor affected the trajectory of those cities, with implications even today. Pete is the best writer on urbanism and race that I know and you can read his writings about this and more on his site Corner Side Yard – Aaron. ]


The Monument to Joe Louis, commonly known as “The Fist”, in downtown Detroit. For more than thirty years, the sculpture has been a controversial symbol of black power in Detroit.  Source: Pete Saunders

A select group of cities elected black mayors during the brief and tumultuous Black Power Era, seeking to implement an activist social justice platform.  These cities – notably Cleveland, Gary, Newark and Detroit among large cities — became stigmatized in a way that few have been able to recover from.   A negative narrative was developed about most of them that stuck, despite considerable efforts to dispel them.  Cities that elected “first black mayors” after the Black Power Era, during a period of relative calm, were able to adapt as the political skill set grew in the African-American community.  However, the Black Power Era’s near-toxic combination of heightened white racism, black disenfranchisement and disillusionment – and ill-prepared black political leadership – accelerated the downfall of these select cities.

If the cities that elected black mayors during this tumultuous period are ever to move forward, to achieve their potential, they must be released from the purgatory they inhabit.

Just as many people have well-developed thoughts and opinions on the American Civil War but little understanding of the turbulent Reconstruction Era that followed, many are familiar with the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement, yet are far less knowledgeable about the local social and political events that followed it.  The Black Power Movement supplanted much of the Civil Rights Movement after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, with an emphasis on turning social activism into political empowerment.  Several cities elected their first black mayors during that period.  Cleveland was the first with the selection of Carl Stokes as mayor in 1967.  Gary, Indiana followed suit the same year with the election of Richard Hatcher, and the federal government appointed Walter Washington to become Washington, DC’s first black mayor as well.  Later, Newark (Kenneth Gibson), Dayton (James McGee) and Cincinnati (Ted Berry) followed suit by 1972, and culminated with the elections of Tom Bradley (Los Angeles), Maynard Jackson (Atlanta) and Coleman Young (Detroit) in 1973.  A new era of African-American political empowerment had begun.

Taking a long historical view, it’s clear that the people who became first African-American mayors beginning in the late ‘60s and continuing through today held different views, developed different paths to victory and methods of governance, and had differing perceptions of their skills among their constituents.  Mayors elected through about 1975 were often activists straight from the Civil Rights Movement, and were looking for ways to turn the movement into actual political power.  The group of black mayors that followed them, from about 1975 to 1990 or so, had more distance between them and the Civil Rights Movement and were less concerned about implementing movement politics; they were more concerned about developing the kind of coalition that could get them elected and help them win legislative victories once in office.  The third group of “first black mayors”, coming after about 1990 and continuing through today generally came to terms with a different demographic landscape in most major American cities.  Whereas first black mayors elected twenty years prior could dependably rely on a supermajority of black votes in their favor – and an equally large supermajority of white votes against them – the most recent group works in a more nuanced and less racially charged environment.  Younger white residents without the racial grievances of their parents or grandparents were returning to cities, and Hispanics were rapidly increasing in numbers.  Anyone who would attempt to become a “first black mayor” in that environment would have to develop an appeal that goes beyond racial boundaries.

And yes, the decade that followed Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination was as tumultuous as they come for America’s largest cities.  That period, well remembered by those who lived it as a time of particularly strong urban and social tensions, coincided with the downward slide in momentum of the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent rise of the Black Power Movement.  Older adults likely remember the period well: urban riots, fights over school busing, Affirmative Action battles, efforts to eliminate long-entrenched policies like blockbusting and redlining.  Skyrocketing crime, heated debates on the inequity of public services, and the development of a new, rapidly expanding land called “suburbia” that was looking very appealing to a growing number of city residents.  Nearly all large cities developed scars during that period.  The question is whether they healed, and healed well.

“It’s Our Time”


Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.  Source: Detroit News

Coleman Young, elected as Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973, in many ways epitomizes the first group of black political leadership that emerged following the Civil Rights Movement.  One might call them the Black Power set.  Born in 1918, Young was part of a generation of African-Americans who stood tantalizingly closer to economic prosperity and social equality than any previous generation, yet were reminded that they could never achieve it.  After serving as a bombardier and navigator for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, Young returned from his service disillusioned by the segregation he and his fellow troops suffered.  He went on to become a labor leader with the UAW and later built a political base as a state representative and state senator in the Michigan Legislature, representing Detroit’s East Side.

Young became a vocal critic of local leadership after the 1967 riots, and targeted the heavy-handed efforts of Detroit police to reduce crime.  Young announced he was running for mayor in 1973 in large part to work to disband the Detroit Police Department’s STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) unit.  The unit was often mentioned as the initiator of police brutality complaints, and was allegedly responsible for as many as 22 deaths of black residents over a 2 ½ year period.  Young ran against John Nichols, the city’s police commissioner and staunch supporter of the troubled unit.

Young won a narrow victory over Nichols in 1973 in a race that was almost entirely split along racial lines in the nearly 50/50 city.  In his inaugural address, Young famously told “all those pushers, (to) all rip-off artists, (to) all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile Road! And I don’t give a damn if they are black or white, or if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road.”  Young maintained that his message was that criminals were not welcome in Detroit; the quote has often been interpreted by white former Detroit residents as a throwing down of the gauntlet, urging whites to leave the city for the suburbs.  Young went on to win four more terms in office.  He balanced budgets yet struggled to maintain services in a city with a rapidly declining tax base.  He remains one of the most controversial leaders in Detroit history.

Conversely, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes and Newark’s Kenneth Gibson may not have provoked similar passions in their respective cities, but they did not fare much better.  Stokes obtained his law degree in 1956, served three terms in the Ohio Legislature and narrowly lost a bid for mayor in 1965.  His eventual win in 1967 garnered him plenty of national attention as he became the first African-American mayor of one of the nation’s ten largest cities.  He was successful enough to pursue and win a second two-year term in 1969, but his tenure in office was characterized by constant feuds with the Cleveland City Council and the Police Department.  Stokes left office at the end of his second term.  After studying civil engineering in college, Gibson worked for nearly two decades as a structural engineer with the New Jersey Highway Department, the Newark Housing Authority and the City of Newark.  He pursued the mayor’s office as a reformer wishing to restore honor to the office following the corruption scandals of incumbent Hugh Addonizio.  Gibson won in 1970 but perhaps his attachment to people like Newark poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, who challenged Gibson to push the city’s corporate interests to take a more active and responsible role in the community, served as a lightning rod to the city’s remaining middle class element.  Gibson was elected to four terms, but Newark’s slide continued unabated.

Black National Political Convention

It’s probably fair to say that the political pinnacle of the Black Power era took place between the elections of Gibson and Young, with the advent of the Black National Political Convention in 1972.  Held in Gary, Indiana and hosted by Mayor Richard Hatcher, delegates from the entire spectrum of black leadership convened to establish a black political agenda for urban America.  More than 8,000 people attended the three-day convention, with 3,000 selected to be voting delegates.  Newly elected black officials attended, along with celebrated black nationalists and revolutionaries.  Delegates with more moderate position also attended.  However, whites were not invited.  No white speakers whose views were sympathetic to the movement; not even white reporters.  This exclusion caused groups like the NAACP and the Urban League to skip the event and be critical of the gathering.

Renee Ferguson, a former Chicago local news television reporter and currently the press secretary for U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), attended the convention as a 22-year-old reporter for the Indianapolis News.  In an interview with Chicago public radio station WBEZ remarking on the 40th anniversary of the convention in 2012, she spoke about the frenzied nature of the event.  “When I got there it was very disorganized, much bigger than anybody had planned for and impossible actually for anybody to see what was happening. The speeches were long and there were a lot of egos and there weren’t many women.”

Ferguson said that the agenda of the convention was framed by a basic question, and was the source of great tension.

“Are black people going to work on the inside with the system, or are they going to have their own and work on the outside? And that was the big argument no matter what else they talked about,” Ferguson said. “That was the underlying intrigue and the most interesting thing for me to document as a young reporter.”

In the end, black nationalists won the day.  The prevailing theme of the convention was that African-Americans would seek to create change outside of the system.  The agenda included platforms that had support from other liberal factions (elimination of capital punishment, national health insurance), but also included platforms that sought to consolidate political control with the growing number of leaders (community control of schools, busing for school integration).  Perhaps the biggest message of the convention, however, was that “White politics had failed Black people”.  And a new group of leaders set out to implement that vision.

Coalition Builders


Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the day after winning the election in 1983.  Source: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Almost immediately after the convening of the convention, a group of rising black political figures who rejected the premise of the Black Power era leaders sought to ascend through coalition building.  Rather than work exclusively outside of the system, and alienating those who disagreed with them, this group stressed their ability to work within the existing power and political framework.

As a state representative at the time representing Illinois’ 26th legislative district, Harold Washington would’ve been eligible to serve as a delegate to the Black National Political Convention.  Whether he attended is uncertain.  But it is clear that he adopted a coalition-building style that served him well as he ascended to the office of Mayor in Chicago.

Born in 1922 and just four years younger than Detroit’s Coleman Young, Harold Washington nevertheless followed a different path to mayor of Chicago.  Washington also served in the Army during World War II, building runways for long-range bombers in the North Pacific.  Upon his return from service he graduated from Roosevelt College in Chicago in 1949, and from Northwestern University Law School in 1952.  Washington immediately became immersed in local Chicago politics after law school, working for 3rd Ward Alderman and former Olympic athlete Ralph Metcalfe.  While working with Metcalfe Washington became intimately familiar with Chicago’s brand of Machine politics – a spoils system, patronage, and a personal approach to bringing out the vote on Election Day.

Contrary to Young’s experience in Detroit, African-Americans in Chicago experienced a fair amount of political enfranchisement.  In many respects, African-Americans were just one part of the ethnic milieu that made up Chicago’s political landscape, like the Germans, Poles, Italians and Irish.  The foundation of Chicago’s political machine was its ability to meet the specific needs of those who could be convinced to depend on them, and convincing as many people to depend on them as they could.  The Machine’s success meant that it could not ignore or exclude potential votes, wherever they came from, and that included the African-American community.  The Machine’s strength was derived from its network of precinct captains, committeemen and elected officials that would convene regularly to discuss its political platform, slate of candidates vote targets and distribution of benefits.    Washington received a sound political education in coalition building through his work in Chicago’s Machine.

Washington was elected into the Illinois House of Representatives in 1965 and to the U.S. Congress in 1980.  Over the years, he developed a reputation of independence from the Chicago Democratic Party leadership, often becoming an unreliable member of the Machine’s state legislative contingent.  As a State Senator Washington was one of a group of independent black Democrats who partnered with white liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans to push forward the Illinois Human Rights Act of 1980.  His ascension to Congress later that year, defeating Machine loyalist Bennett Stewart, further alienated him from the Machine.

This effort afforded Washington a unique political perspective.  He enjoyed strong independent support from his African-American base, largely developed apart from the Machine.  He had strong connections with members of Chicago’s “lakefront progressive” community, which had a fairly large contingent in the city’s Hyde Park community, where Washington also lived.  It was likely evident to Washington and others that this pairing provided him a wider base than other black elected officials who rose through the ranks and focused solely on serving the needs of their African-American constituents.  Furthermore, Washington likely realized that the Hyde Park progressive community’s networks with other progressives, particularly on the North Side, opened up opportunities for offices beyond Congress.

Washington rode the wave of his unique coalition into mayoral politics in 1983.  Bolstered by support from his African-American base and reform-minded white progressives, Washington won against Republican Bernard Epton that November.  Once elected, however, he was confronted with a solid bloc of 29 aldermen (out of 50) firmly wedded to the “Democratic Organization” structure that had survived for so long in Chicago.  The bloc led a four-year period of legislative gridlock in Chicago known as Council Wars – the bloc assumed control of all Council committees, allowing it to set the legislative agenda; the bloc voted down virtually all of the mayor’s appointments; the bloc fought bitterly with Washington’s supporters on budget and appropriations.

Despite the challenges, however, Washington’s coalition held firm.  Federal lawsuits led by Washington allies challenged Chicago’s ward redistricting following the 1980 Census.  At the time, Chicago’s population included approximately 40 percent white and black residents, and 15 percent with an Hispanic background.  However, Washington supporters argued that wards were gerrymandered to maximize the number of white aldermen in the racially polarized city – at the time of Washington’s election as mayor there were 33 white, 16 black and one Hispanic aldermen.  Federal courts ruled in favor of Washington’s supporters in 1986, causing a redrawing of seven wards and special elections.  Washington supporters won four elections, creating a 25-25 split in the City Council and effectively giving the mayor control of the Council through his ability to cast a deciding vote.  Unfortunately, Washington’s control was short-lived.  He died of a massive heart attack on November 25, 1987, just months after his defeat of the obstructionist bloc.

Whereas Harold Washington’s political acumen made him a coalition builder, Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke’s stellar athletic and academic pedigree, wonky sensibility and personable nature drew coalitions toward him.

Schmoke attended the prestigious Baltimore City College for high school, where he excelled in football and lacrosse.  He entered Yale University in 1967, where he played quarterback for the freshman team and developed into an undergraduate student leader.  After graduating from Yale with a degree in history in 1971, Schmoke studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1976.

Schmoke’s first electoral victory was as Baltimore State’s Attorney in 1982.  He defeated William Swisher in a surprise landslide, running a race-neutral campaign against the law-and-order, and (according to some) racially insensitive incumbent.  Schmoke was technically not Baltimore’s first black mayor; that title goes to Clarence “Du” Burns, who was elevated to mayor after the election of the previous mayor, William Donald Schaefer, as Maryland’s governor.  But Schmoke inherited much of Schaefer’s progressive and business establishment, as they saw him as the one who could articulate their agenda in a largely black city.  Schmoke challenged Burns in 1987 and won narrowly.  Recalling Schmoke’s victory for an article in Baltimore’s City Paper, City Council member Bill Cunningham said it was a “new-day-is-dawning thing.”  In the same article, the Rev. Arnold Howard of Enon Baptist Church said, “We were looking for someone to encompass our hopes for the future, someone who would validate our own journey.  He went into office with all that on him. He was the new savior. He was the one who would fulfill our dreams.”

In the end, however, despite being twice re-elected, Schmoke’s analytical approach to leadership alienated coalitions who thought they were getting something else.  He developed a reputation for establishing bold policy goals that were difficult to build consensus around – improving adult literacy, drug decriminalization – and put in place department heads who brought the same policy wonk approach to their work that he did.  The business establishment and African-American community alike thought they were electing a dynamic “mover and shaker” who could energize them as they pushed toward new heights.  But Schmoke was perhaps more manager and caretaker than mover.  As a result he left office in 1999, deciding not to seek a fourth term, with a frayed coalition: a business community slightly betrayed, and an African-American community slightly disillusioned.

Trans-Racial Appealists

With the start of the 1990’s a new type of black political figure began to emerge.  Gains made through increased access to education and job opportunities were putting more African-Americans in previously unattainable positions, and allowing them to pursue previously unattainable avenues.  Wellington Webb, the first black mayor of Denver, fits this bill.

Webb was born in 1941 in Chicago and arrived in the Mile High City at age 11.  In his autobiography, he chronicles a difficult childhood; his mother had a drinking problem and he ended up being raised by his grandmother, and he had academic difficulties at Denver’s Manual High School.  But Webb fought through his family problems and personal demons.  He attended and graduated from Northeastern Junior College in Colorado in 1960, and obtained his bachelor’s degree from Colorado State College in 1964.  He was introduced to politics by his grandmother, who was a Democratic Party district committeewoman in Denver.  Webb wanted to become a teacher, but found it difficult to obtain a position in Denver’s public schools, and thought local political involvement in some of the federal “War on Poverty” programs of the late 1960’s might help.  He transitioned from working in a potato chip factory to working in city government, and later obtained a master’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado in 1971.

Webb developed a reputation as a numbers-cruncher and policy wonk in city government, and was pulled into politics rather than pushed into it by any sense of bitterness.  He was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1972 and represented the Northeast Denver neighborhood he grew up in.  In 1977 he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as regional director of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and in 1981 he was appointed by Colorado Governor Richard Lamm to be executive director of the state Department of Regulatory Agencies.  Webb held that position until 1987, when he ran and won in the election to become Denver’s city auditor.

Webb’s political ascendance through the ‘70s and ‘80s certainly put him on a path to consider pursuing citywide and even statewide positions, but it was unclear whether an African-American in a city with a small minority population, in a state with a small minority population, could be competitive.  He did not start with a built-in large political base like Young or Washington; nor did he have to ability to strengthen a base through coalition building the way Washington did.  His only strategy, should he pursue another office, was to make a trans-racial appeal that would highlight his experience, skills and vision.

Webb entered the campaign in late 1990.  Three leading candidates emerged: Webb, Denver District Attorney Norm Early (also African-American), and Republican lawyer Don Bain.  Webb carried out his “Sneaker Campaign”, going door-to-door in virtually all of Denver’s neighborhoods while preaching a message of competency.  He surprised everyone by forcing a runoff with Early in the May 1991 primary, finishing with 30 percent of all votes to Early’s 40 percent.  Webb was able to consolidate the support from other candidates with a law-and-order platform prior to the general election against Early in June 1991.  Webb won with 57 percent of the vote.


Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.  Source: gbmnews.com

Perhaps a better version of a first black mayor who won with a broad trans-racial appeal would be Kevin Johnson of Sacramento.  Johnson was born in Sacramento, where he was a standout student and athlete.  He excelled in basketball and baseball, and accepted a scholarship to play basketball at the University of California, Berkeley.  From there he went on to a storied college basketball career and a long professional career with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns.

Even during his playing days Johnson maintained strong roots with his native Sacramento.  He established the Kevin Johnson Corporation, which focused on real estate development and business acquisitions, and the St. HOPE nonprofit organization as an after-school program in the Oak Park neighborhood he grew up in.  After his retirement from basketball in 2000, he broadened St. HOPE to include charter schools and nonprofit development in Sacramento.  Today, St. HOPE is a network of four charter schools in Sacramento, and a development company with more than a dozen new construction and renovation projects in Sacramento.

Johnson had intimated his political ambitions for years, but finally announced his run for mayor in 2008.  Race was hardly a factor in the race; indeed, Johnson was viewed as a decorated favorite son of California’s capital city.  Johnson received numerous endorsements from Sacramento’s business and political establishment, and was the highest vote getter in the nonpartisan election that June.  He forced a runoff against two-time incumbent mayor Heather Fargo, and soundly defeated her in November.

Johnson has parlayed his athletic, corporate and nonprofit success well in the government sector.  He has been a staunch supporter of charter schools, along with his wife Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, DC Public Schools.  He was actively involved in keeping the NBA’s Sacramento Kings basketball team from fleeing the city, orchestrating the team’s sale to a group of local investors.  He easily won reelection in 2012, and in April 2014 was elected as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

There are other black mayors who fit the trans-racial appeal profile, but are not the first black mayors of their respective cities.  Kasim Reed of Atlanta, Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, and Cory Booker of Newark each brought impressive academic credentials, strong corporate backgrounds and youthful passion to their positions as mayor, distinguishing them from their predecessors.    Reed interned for U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II before earning his juris doctorate from Howard University, and became a partner at a law firm prior to entering politics.  Nutter earned a business degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Booker earned his bachelor’s and masters degrees from Stanford, earned a Rhodes Scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, and earned his juris doctorate from Yale.

Because of their academic and corporate credentials, Reed, Nutter and Booker are as comfortable in corporate boardrooms as they are in churches or community centers.  Each has forged partnerships with political opponents, and adopted a pragmatic bipartisan approach to governing cities.  Each has focused on effective service delivery rather than empowerment or redistributive policies.  Booker’s success as mayor of New Jersey’s largest city propelled him to his current position as New Jersey’s junior U.S. Senator through special election in 2013.

The Power of Perception

Detroit, Cleveland, Newark, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore and Sacramento occupy different positions on the success spectrum of American cities.  Of these five Chicago would certainly occupy the highest perch.  Chicago clearly is a global city – a world financial center, the home of a dozen Fortune 500 companies and the critical link in the nation’s rail and air transportation network.  The Windy City has extensive economic connections throughout the world.  Indeed, world-class architecture firms based in Chicago are designing the gleaming skyscrapers sprouting everywhere in China’s large cities.  Denver would rest in a position not far behind Chicago.  Denver has become the capital of the Great Plains and Mountain West, a mid-continent transportation hub that built its wealth on its access to mineral resources in the Rocky Mountains.  Sacramento would likely occupy a position behind Denver.  Sacramento’s growth has been more recent than the others, and it still sits in the shadows of much larger California metropolises.  But as the capital of our nation’s largest and most influential state, it has heft.

Baltimore, Cleveland and Newark would occupy another place on the spectrum.  All are well known for enduring the storm of industrial decline, and in Cleveland’s case, fiscal insolvency.  They’re slowly recovering from a nadir reached perhaps a decade or two ago and have made small steps toward improvement.  They’ve worked hard to revitalize their cores – Newark has leaned on its financial services sector to turn the tide, while Baltimore and Cleveland have relied on their assets in education, health care services, and biomedical and biotech research.  However, all are far from being complete success stories.

Then there is Detroit.

Each city has had African-Americans serve in the city’s highest office.  Chicago’s Harold Washington endured tough times as mayor of Chicago, but he built a lasting coalition that allowed him to prevail.  Denver’s Wellington Webb learned to adapt in a pluralistic environment and raised the profile of a Western city.  Cleveland, Newark and Detroit each elected first black mayors during the turbulent post-Civil Rights era and paid a steep social price for doing so.  Cleveland and Newark began their turnaround some years ago; perhaps Detroit’s, with its recent bankruptcy filing, has just begun.

If anyone doubts the impact of electing an African-American mayor during the racially tumultuous late ‘60s-early ‘70s era, examine the general perceptions that formed of the cities during that period and have endured ever since.  Newark and Detroit, already tainted by the aftermath of urban riots, were effectively shunned by white residents after the elections of their first black mayors.  Cleveland may have been headed down the same path after the election of Carl Stokes in 1967.  But Stokes chose not to run for a third two-year term as mayor, leaving a wide open field.  Stokes was followed by three consecutive white mayors — Ralph J. Perk, Dennis Kucinich and George Voinovich – before the election of the city’s second black mayor, Michael White, in 1990.  Atlanta touted itself as the “City too busy to hate” in the ‘70s, but Maynard Jackson’s 1973 election coincided with rapid white flight out of the city, at the same time that Sun Belt migration from the north was strengthening the suburban base.  In Washington, DC, black political empowerment there was often wrapped up in the controversy of federal political representation for the District.  Mayors in the District were federally appointed until Walter Washington was elected mayor in 1975.

Perhaps the best way to view perceptions of cities that elected “first black mayors” during the Black Power Era is to examine the fortunes of Detroit and Philadelphia during and after this period.  Entering the 1970’s the Motor City and the City of Brotherly Love had similar populations (about 1.5 million people in Detroit, 1.9 million in Philadelphia), with a similar geography (about 140 square miles) and similar demographics (approximately a 60/40 split between whites and blacks).  As noted, Coleman Young was elected mayor of Detroit in 1973, narrowly winning against Police Commissioner John Nichols.  It was clear that Nichols’ candidacy was an effort by his constituency to restore order to a city during a difficult time.  Meanwhile, another police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, assumed power as mayor of Philadelphia in 1971.  As mayor Rizzo was regarded as having a strained relationship with the city’s African-American community.  Rizzo’s “law-and-order” tactics were viewed positively by his white ethnic base and have been credited by some for keeping Philadelphia from suffering the same fate as other cities.  Could the Nichols campaign have been modeled after the successful Rizzo election two years earlier?

Possibly.  Yet it is instructive to view the difference in perceptions of both cities since that time.  Philadelphia was certainly hit hard by the decline of the nation’s manufacturing sector.  Philly had substantial losses in the shipbuilding, oil refining and food processing industries over the decades, losing thousands of jobs as a result.  Yet did Philly endure what was in effect a boycott of the city by white residents?  Troubled North and West Philadelphia are well known, but did their troubles define the entire city?  I think many people could imagine a real-life “Rocky Balboa” coming from Philadelphia in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but far fewer could imagine a similar character coming from Detroit.

Philadelphia’s national perception took a tumble over the last 40 years, but the city has fought back hard to rebuild itself as a premier city with a strong economic foundation in education, health care and financial services.  Detroit, however, continued on a descent no other city endured.  High crime rates, racial tensions, dilapidated abandoned buildings in a desolate post-industrial landscape  — all defined Detroit then and continue to define it today.

Between 1970 and 2010, Philadelphia’s population dropped by 22 percent, from 1.9 million to 1.5 million.  The decline was largely driven by a substantial loss of its non-Hispanic white population over the period, which declined by 56 percent.  Over the same period, Detroit’s population dropped by 53 percent, from 1.5 million to just over 700,000.  Its decline too was largely driven by a loss of its non-Hispanic white population, which dropped by 93 percent.  Ninety-three percent.

Something happened that kept a base or core of white residents in Philadelphia.  Something happened in Detroit that led to their virtual disappearance.

Cities that elected their first black mayors during the Black Power Era deeply suffered in national perception because of the gamut of social challenges they had at the time, and found it difficult to stabilize poor economies or for revitalization to gain traction.  But they suffered far worse than other cities because they were in effect shunned.  They suffered from the greatest increases in crime.  They experienced the largest declines in school quality and performance.  They witnessed the steepest drops in property values.  They had the widest divides between police and community.  They had the highest numbers of white middle-class residents departing for the suburbs.  Newark was shunned.  Gary was shunned.  Detroit was shunned.  Maybe Cleveland, Los Angeles, or Cincinnati, or Dayton did not suffer the same fate because African-American populations there did not approach parity with whites, who were eventually able to “reclaim” the city’s highest office.  In the end, however, select cities paid a price for the election of black mayors during this time, a price not paid by cities that elected black mayors after them, or not at all.

Another Transition


Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on election night in 2013.  Source: wikipedia.org

On January 1, Michael Duggan assumed the difficult and unenviable responsibility of becoming the 75th mayor of Detroit, Michigan.  Given the most recent difficult period that Detroit has endured, and the continued difficult times ahead, Mayor Duggan’s inauguration was a subdued affair.  There was no inaugural ball or celebration.  The new mayor was simply sworn in with a short ceremony in his new 11th floor office in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

The new mayor said he would focus on operations – removing blight, snowplowing streets, repairing lights, making sure buses run safely and on time.  The mayor suggested he would move into Manoogian Mansion, the palatial mayoral residence on the Detroit River that was deeded to the city in the 1960’s.  As far as the focus on operations goes, he really has little choice in the matter.  The State of Michigan-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr, brought in with exceptionally broad powers to resolve the city’s financial mess and currently leading the Motor City’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, has a lock on policy decisions right now.  Mayor Duggan says his focus is to “return the city to elected leadership on October 1,” the day that Orr’s 18-month appointment from the state ends.

And with that, Mike Duggan became the first white mayor of Detroit since 1973, mayor of a city with a population that is 83% African-American.  This most recent election, most observers believe, is a venture into the unknown, and is as much an experiment as Detroit’s bankruptcy itself.  An era of African-American political leadership has ended in Detroit, but no one is certain of what the next era might be.

Perhaps the bankruptcy, the election of a white mayor and the growing urban pioneer spirit that is visible in parts of the city means that the shunning of Detroit has ended.

This post originally appeared on August 10th, 2014 in Corner Side Yard.

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Las Vegas: The Once and Future Downtown Project

[ To my email subscribers: I’m about to start cutover type activities to my new mailing list system. So if you get some accidental test messages in there, my apologies. I’ll be in touch further as this moves along – Aaron. ]

There’s been a lot in the news lately about the troubles plaguing Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project in Las Vegas. The latest is a longish report in the Guardian, which notes:

Yet by late September of this year, the press – especially the technology press – had begun asking some serious questions, as the Downtown Project suddenly laid off 30 people – 10% of the total it then directly employed. Alongside portentous headlines announcing this “bloodletting” appeared claims that Hsieh had “stepped down” from his position of leadership of the project. A damning open letter from the Downtown Project’s former “director of imagination”, David Gould, called the operation from which he had just resigned “a collage of decadence, greed and missing leadership … There were heroes among us,” he added, “and it is for them that my soul weeps.”

Technology web site Re/code also ran a seven part series on the Downtown Project, some of it unflattering, including a part focused on a spate of suicides there, and other on about a prominent failed startup.

I made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Downtown Project in 2013 and wrote up my observations in a three part series, of which you can read part one, part two and part three.

I noted at the time the audacity of one project trying to completely transform a place like downtown Las Vegas:

Las Vegas has the single most savagely bleak downtown of any major city I’ve ever visited. The Downtown Project is almost literally starting at zero. There are practically no assets. So anything that the Downtown Project accomplishes needs to be seen against that backdrop. Most of these other cities have been at the downtown redevelopment game for 30+ years, have massive architectural and institutional assets, and have already been the recipients of untold billions in investment, much of it public money.

I also mentioned that the accolades the project had received in the press were disproportionate to the actual accomplishments to date:

Honestly, it’s a bit infuriating as a guy who lived in Indy, Louisville, and Providence to see a place where so little has happened garner such massive press and accolades when most other regions the size of Vegas have done more while getting far less attention.

Indeed, it’s hard to think of a single downtown redevelopment effort that received as much glowing coverage as the Downtown Project. Not even Dan Gilbert’s Detroit efforts received such fawning attention. This is an accomplishment I’m not sure most people fully appreciate. Tony Hsieh was very savvy in using his status as a tier one entrepreneurial superstar, along with a bank of free “crash pad” apartments for visitors, to create buzz and publicity. Other cities should definitely stand up and take notice.

However, the very success of the project on the PR front primed it for inevitable blowback when problems arose. As the Guardian piece notes, “The story fairly demands an apocalyptic ending.” The higher a star soars in the celebrity firmament, the more knives get drawn when anything disturbs the pristine image. The Guardian reporter also said, based on a very recent trip, that reports of the project’s demise are premature.

So the Downtown Project has run into turbulence? Film at 11. Startups are hard, risky, trouble fraught endeavors. Tony went through multiple meat grinders in the past, and if you’ve read his book it’s by no means certain that Zappos would even survive. There were many times it could have gone under. Clearly the man has a massive appetite for risk, and the Downtown Project was certainly a risky and ambitious undertaking.

The initial puffery was overblown. Time will tell if the blowback is as well. Success was always going to be difficult. I noted last year that the project was going against the grain of the DNA of Vegas as a city, was very reliant on “best practices” type solutions vs. the innovative cultural approach of Zappos, and that “curating” a city was inherently dubious. Yet I admire the ambition and believe they’ve done a lot of things right.

I doubt that the project will ever realize the full, audacious vision that was laid out at the beginning. The commitment of Zappos to its downtown HQ probably prevents a complete flameout. But it may turn out that Tony was unwise to have so heavily promoted the project up front. That has more or less ensured that anything less than perfection will be judged as a failure. He set the bar so high, it is almost impossible to clear. Had there been more modest ambitions, then probably even incremental progress against the backdrop of the disaster zone that was downtown Las Vegas would have been seen as a win. But perhaps in one example of how the Downtown Project did match perfectly with the Vegas DNA, Tony Hsieh elected to pile all his chips on Red 14.

Full Disclosure: I had previous financial relationships with Downtown Project related entities and stayed for free in one of their crash pads during my stay.

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Chicago’s Corporate Culture

Here’s another episode of Carol Coletta’s Knight Cities podcast. This is an interview with Chicago Community Trust President Terry Mazany with interesting thoughts on Chicago’s culture. My commentary is below the audio player. If the audio doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

The bulk of the show is taken up with a discussion of a community dinners event the CCT (Chicago’s community foundation) put on to celebrate their 99th anniversary. This may or may not be of interest to you. But the beginning is Mazany’s take on Chicago’s culture.

I’ve always struggled a bit with the classic consulting SWOT framework (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). That’s because I have trouble classifying things. So often to me internal factors can be strengths or weaknesses depending on the context. For example, the same personal qualities that are our strengths are generally also weaknesses in other ways.

So it is with culture. Chicago has a very powerful civic culture. I won’t claim to have it fully defined. But like everyplace it has its own way of doing business. As Mazany notes, this culture involves a very powerful and engaged corporate sector, including at the CEO level. This is something I’ve noted has long disappeared in so many other cities.

Obviously things like a corporate orientation have their downsides, as I and others have written about elsewhere. Also obviously Mazany is going to present Chicago’s culture as a positive. Since this is his show, let’s stick with that for today.

I think it’s pretty clear that Chicago’s strong corporate and philanthropic leadership played a key role in preserving Loop as the region’s commercial heart, especially during the nadir of downtowns in the 70s and early 80s. Chicago did lose HQs to the suburbs, but even suburban based CEOs have played a big role in backing downtown Chicago. The corporate sector also has raised a lot of funds for civic projects like Millennium Park. One can certainly complain about the cost overruns and corporate logos, but a lot of private money went into this and many other things. Business leaders, notably Lester Crown, were the big promoters of the O’Hare Modernization Program.

Without a doubt, the corporate culture of Chicago is a big part of what had made the city work. That’s part of why simply copying the projects and techniques of other cities doesn’t necessarily translate to success. It’s the values and culture and other attributes of the city that lies beneath the projects, etc. that are often the real differentiators.

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Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Back to Vlasic


Image via OC Mini Market

Earlier this year a trend called “normcore” got a lot of press. Normcore is a fashion idea based on wearing boring, undistinguished clothing such as that from the Gap. Jerry Seinfeld is a normcore fashion icon.

While normcore was at least in part a joke, I think it illustrates why trend chasing by uncool cities will never make them cool. So you live in some place which isn’t on everyone’s list of the coolest cities. You read all about what’s happening in places like Brooklyn with micro-roasters, micro-breweries, cupcake shops, and artisanal pickles, and you’re like wow, my city has all that now, too. We’ve arrived.

No you haven’t. Do you think for a minute that the cool kids are going to let you just catch up and join the club? It doesn’t work that way. By the time you get to where they were, they’ve moved on to something else. You’ll never catch up doing it that way.

The idea of normcore, though probably just ephemera, shows how quickly the script could be flipped on you. Just as you finally master pretentious esoterica, the cool kids suddenly revert back to ordinary.

I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see something like that happen, actually. While I shouldn’t underestimate the ability of creative people to continue playing leapfrog to new levels of local, bespoke, exclusive, etc., at some point that trend will be played out. Then were do you go? Back to the comfort of ordinary.

Just when your Rust Belt burg finally has seven different artisanal pickle purveyors, don’t be surprised when the New York Times does an article talking about how the latest trend in Brooklyn is Vlasic kosher dill spears. (In an era in which Millennials are under huge financial pressure, this, like the sharing economy, would also be conveniently a matter of self-interest). Heck, maybe they already have and I just missed it.

Again, it’s like the way that these industrial towns abandoned their local culture to pursue cool city culture, only to have those cool cities re-appropriate working class culture – Pabst, workwear brands, etc – for themselves. Now these Rust Belt cities are re-importing their own culture back as supplicants. Remember, back in the 90s, the cool cities list used to frequently include the number of Starbucks locations as an indicator. Things change fast.

I like being able to get a good cup of coffee in these industrial towns now. I think it’s great for cities to have nicer stuff. But don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that by itself will change your relative standing in the marketplace.

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Topics: Civic Branding, Urban Culture

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Flatness by Drew Austin

“Two extremes of redundancy in English prose are represented by Basic English and James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake. The Basic English vocabulary is limited to 850 words and the redundancy is very high. This is reflected in the expansion that occurs when a passage is translated into Basic English. Joyce on the other hand enlarges the vocabulary and is able to achieve a compression of semantic content.” — Claude Shannon

Bandwidth is a late machine age term that helps illuminate the millennia of technology and culture that preceded its coinage. The definitions of bandwidth vary, but its most basic meaning is a channel’s capacity to carry information. Smoke signals and telegraphs are low-bandwidth media, transmitting one bit at a time in slow succession, while human vision transmits information to the brain at a much faster rate. The past century has yielded tools for measuring bandwidth and quantifying information (see Claude Shannon) as the channels for carrying that information have advanced rapidly.

matrix

Source: Ceasefire

In any era, but never more so than now, the landscape of existing technology is a palimpsest in which the cutting-edge, the obsolete, and the old-but-durable all coexist as layers of varying intensity and visibility. New, unprecedented means of information exchange and communication are invented constantly, while their older equivalents live on long after they’ve stopped being state of the art. Information reaches each of us—and often assaults us—through a multitude of high-bandwidth and low-bandwidth channels, some of which we permit to speak to us, and some of which do so uninvited. Sitting down to watch TV, checking one’s iPhone during dinner with a friend, or finding a quiet place to read a book all represent conscious choices to block certain channels and pay attention to others. Marshall McLuhan recognized that technologies in our environment have a rebalancing effect on our senses, writing that each medium is an “intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what’s happening to it.”

Human attention, then, is a finite resource. A variety of criteria inform everyone’s small, constant choices about which media to focus on and which to tune out, and those choices often have little to do with their bandwidth, but today one thing is certain: Our own brains, not anything manmade, are the bottlenecks that limit how much information we can receive at once. The contemporary world offers as much space for storing information as we’ll ever need, and we can instantly send any amount of it to the other side of the planet. Well before either were the case, however, humans learned to ignore the features of our environments that we deemed irrelevant—the noise surrounding the valuable signals we actually wanted or needed to receive.

Claude Shannon’s quote above, from his Mathematical Theory of Communication, introduces a qualitative layer to the question of human bandwidth and the environments we seek: People move continuously through information-rich and information-poor environments and are affected differently by each. Basic English is “redundant,” meaning it’s a language that requires many words to convey even simple messages—and is therefore a language that few would choose to use for anything but utilitarian purposes. Finnegans Wake, at the opposite extreme, could not be richer in information or content, to the point that it can barely be compressed or summarized. In Shannon’s example, the rich, information-dense content of Joyce’s novel represents a higher quality of communication, and Basic English a lower quality, although the latter fulfills plenty of functional roles.

Low-information, redundant content has a flatness to it. It’s less interesting. The Residents expressed this a different way on their Commercial Album, which comprises 40 one-minute-long pop songs. The liner notes explain:

“Point one: Pop music is mostly a repetition of two types of musical and lyrical phrases, the verse and the chorus. Point two: These elements usually repeat three times in a three-minute song, the type usually found on top-40 radio. Point three: Cut out the fat and a pop song is only one minute long.”

Plenty of pop music, in other words, is redundant and can be compressed without losing anything. This might be too harsh and cynical a judgment, but it’s valuable as a polemic. Modern environments, from top-40 radio to architecture to fiction, are full of redundancy and thus thin on information. The ease of digital information storage and transmission help explain why we can afford to be less economical with information than we were in the past, but getting used to redundancy, like getting used to a diet full of salt and sugar, reinforces our appetite for it and actually influences the types of information we produce. If the manmade world seems like a flatter place in the Information Age (not in the Thomas Friedman sense), this might be part of the reason.

As communication technology improves, the argument periodically surfaces that face-to-face interaction and cities in general will become obsolete. Joel Garreau rebutted this argument a few years ago in his article “Santa Fe-ing of the World,” in which he praises the high bandwidth that physical proximity and direct experience afford. He writes, “Humans always default to the highest available bandwidth that does the job, and face-to-face is the gold standard. Some tasks require maximum connection to all senses. When you’re trying to build trust, or engage in high-stress, high-value negotiation, or determine intent, or fall in love, or even have fun, face-to-face is hard to beat.” Even the most advanced digital media, in other words, are limited compared to full sensory engagement with one’s environment—the digital, closer to Basic English than Finnegans Wake, is still a utilitarian solution to problems like distance more than it’s an ideal theater for the highest levels of human contact. As our reality becomes more automated and algorithmic, our truly complex, nuanced, information-rich activities will continue to justify their existence, while the flat and redundant will increasingly disappear into the digital. By recognizing this condition, we can learn to preserve the depth of the former instead of simplifying our reality for easier absorption into lower-bandwidth channels.

This post originally appeared in Kneeling Bus on October 5, 2014.

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Topics: Technology, Urban Culture

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

Replay: Global Cities Don’t Just Take, They Give

This post originally ran on April 28, 2013.

Creativity for the world or for your city gives something back – Charles Landry

I had an interesting conversation about Washington, DC with Richard Layman a few months back. One of his observations, rooted in Charles Landry’s, was that great global cities don’t just take, they give. To the extent that Washington wants to be a truly great city, it needs to contribute things to the world, not just rake in prosperity from it.

Affecting the world, often for good but unfortunately sometimes for bad, is a unique capability that global cities have because they are the culture shaping hubs of nations and world. When an ordinary city does something, it can have an effect to be sure. But things that happen in the global city are much more likely to launch movements.

For example, Chicago did not invent the idea of doing a public art exhibit out of painted cow statues. I believe they copied it from a town in Switzerland. But when Chicago did it, it inspired other cities in a way that Swiss town did not. In effect, ordinary cities influence the world usually by influencing a global city, which then influences the world. Often it is the global city that gets the credit although the actual idea originated elsewhere. Thus the role of the global city is critical. But we shouldn’t assume that all ideas originate there or that other cities can’t profoundly influence the world.

We might also think of bicycle sharing, which was around in various forms for quite a while. But it was the launch of the massive Paris Vélib’ system in 2007 (which according to Wikipedia was inspired by a system in Lyon) that made bicycle sharing a must have urban item the world over.

Similarly it was the High Line in New York that has every city wanting to convert elevated rail lines into showcase trails. New York is really the city that made protected bike lanes the new standard in the United States as well.

Beyond simple urban amenity type items, global cities can also launch profound cultural and social transformations. A few examples.

The first is from Seattle, a sort of semi-global city. It was in such a depressed state in the 1970s that someone put up a billboard that’s still pretty famous: “Will the last one leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” Yet in Seattle there was a coffeehouse culture that spawned a movement out of which came Starbucks which literally revolutionized coffee drinking in America and event pioneered the entirely new concept of the “third place.”

A lot of people like to attribute the emergence of Seattle as a player to Microsoft moving there from Albuquerque in the late 1970s. However, I think the coffee example shows that there were interesting things already happening in Seattle long before that. It was a proto-global city waiting for a catalyst.

Another example would be the emergence of rap music out of New York City. Or house music from Chicago.

Or consider the 1963 demolition of Penn Station in New York in 1963. The wanton destruction of this signature structure horrified the city and led to the adoption of its historic preservation ordinance. This was not the birthplace of historic preservation in the United States, but this demolition played a key role in bringing historic preservation to the fore, not just locally but nationally.

Lastly, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 clearly played a signature role in the gay rights movement in America. Many pride parades today are scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the event.

Who knows what might have happened with coffee in America without Seattle. But I think it’s clear that both the historic preservation and gay rights movements would have emerged at some point anyway regardless of what happened in New York. However, the events in New York clearly provided a sort of ignition and acceleration.

How many historic buildings in America were saved because Penn Station was lost? (Think about how many might have been destroyed had the historic preservation movement emerged later).

Think about a state like Iowa where gay marriage is legal. How many people in Iowa 40+ years ago had any idea that an obscure incident in New York City would ultimately transform the social conventions of the rural heartland?

I think this shows the power of the global city. I’m sure that there are things happening underground in New York and elsewhere that right now that we don’t know anything about yet that will ultimately transform our world 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. It’s crazy to think about.

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Portland Mayor Charlie Hales

I was out in Portland, Oregon last week and while there I sat down for an interview with Mayor Charlie Hales. We talked about the real Portland vs. the idea of Portland, the city’s industrial base, retrofitting suburban infrastructure, and a lot more. If the audio doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

Mayor Charlie Hales. Image via Wikipedia

Here are some edited highlights of our conversation. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

Mayor Hales rejects the idea that we will have to strategically abandon infrastructure because the finances don’t add up:

My point here is that this is about political will. It is not inevitable or immutable that America is going watch its infrastructure decline. It’s a choice. It’s a bad choice to dither and do nothing. And it’s a good choice to step up and do something. And I think you’ll see more cities doing what we’re doing here in Portland. Which is to say, we’re going act locally, and then keep the pressure on Congress and the State House to do their part too.

Regarding how hard it really is to find a job in Portland:

Not hard. In fact, I think it’s 4.8% – the unemployment rate – among 25-34 year olds here – lower than New York, lower than a lot of places. We’re the 3rd greatest city in terms of college educated immigrants moving here deliberately. They move here, and then not long after, they find work. Or they create work by starting their own business because we’re a very entrepreneurial city as well. I did this in 1979. It’s not an original thing for Portland. In fact you could say it’s been happening since Lewis and Clark that we – that people immigrated here from elsewhere because they saw some opportunity here. We’ve been absorbing those people as they come to Portland. They find work. But that’s the value set of that 25-34 year old cohort. They care about quality of place, quality of life, and what they’re going do when they’re not working. And that doesn’t include, say, sitting in traffic in suburbia. So they like the idea of living in Portland, and they come here and try to make it work. And most of them do. Again, we have a better employment situation for those folks than New York City does. So it’s not true that young people come here and are stuck in jobs that they’re way over qualified for indefinitely.

About how the real Portland differs from the idea of Portland people have from the media:

Like all good caricatures, Portlandia makes fun of some things about us that are true. I mean, we do love localism, so Colin the Chicken is somebody that we would care about here in Portland. And we are relentlessly earnest about our values.

There some other ways that we don’t. We’re still an industrial city. We’re a big hands, port industrial city. We build boxcars and barges. We just cut the ribbon on the biggest dry dock in North America last weekend. So we employ a lot of welders and steel fitters and plumbers and pipe fitters, and all those hands-on trades. We build trucks here. We build boxcars. We make steel pipe. There’s a lot of traditional “old economy” industry here.

Another part of Portland that doesn’t show up in the caricature is…the other half of the neighborhoods that were half-baked suburbia when they got annexed into the city. And we’re trying to make them complete communities with a local economy in that neighborhood and those kind of services that you can walk to. And, oh yeah, in many cases, there aren’t even sidewalks, and there’s no neighborhood park. So, we’re spending a lot of effort and money on trying to retrofit those suburban parts of Portland, to not be physically identical to the old neighborhoods, but have those ingredients of a complete neighborhood that Portlanders like to see.

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Creating a Culture of Honest Critique

City Lab ran an interesting piece about Mark Lamster, architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, called “Dallas Finds Its Voice.” Lamster was brought to the city from New York by a joint hire between the newspaper and the University of Texas at Arlington. The goal was apparently to bring in a top notch out of town critic who wasn’t afraid to apply the same lens to Dallas that he did to the Big Apple. He appears to have succeeded:

Mark Lamster’s very first assignment for The Dallas Morning News was a bombshell. His review of the George W. Bush Presidential Center appeared on the front page of the paper in April of last year, days before the library opened to the public. It didn’t pull any punches. “Everywhere competent, it nowhere rises to a level of inspiration,” Lamster wrote. The newspaper’s newly minted architecture critic called out the project’s host, Southern Methodist University President R. Gerald Turner, for a directive that “precluded a work of more adventurous design.”

“It was very embarrassing to a lot of what I’d call boosters in town,” says Bob Mong, the editor-in-chief of The Dallas Morning News, who brought Lamster down from New York. Mong nevertheless put it smack dab on A1. “It got everyone’s attention, let me tell you. When you stand back from it and look at what he wrote, it holds up very well today.”

Readers greeted Lamster cautiously. “Must be a Democrat,” said one commenter. “The review was written before the yankee [sic] got there,” chimed another.

But while Johnny Football would’ve ruined one of Dallas’s greatest institutions, Lamster is elevating the city through his reporting and criticism. “Welcome to Dallas: Paradox City,” a September report on the conflicting interests driving development there, could double as a mission statement for his work as a critic. Earlier this month, he explained the function and history of a complex of jails that he describes as the “unholy gateway to our city.” That report segues neatly into “Building the Just City,” the title for the third annual David Dillon Symposium, a conference he is helping to host today and Saturday for the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.

Lamster’s hiring seems to have filled a key gap in Dallas, namely finding a knowledgeable critic who is willing to call them like he sees them. Finding this sort of realistic self-assessment is very hard for cities that aren’t in the first cultural tier. In my experience, grade inflation and softball reviews are rampant.

I’ve thought about the dynamics of this with regards to smaller cities for a while. One is that the audience is primarily made up of locals who aren’t plugged into cultural capitals. The comparison is generally versus what existed in the local market previously – which often results in seeing marked improvement – rather than a comparison against an outside standard or a comparative benchmark. One reason I started my blog as a regional blog is that so few people were aware of what was going on in places even just a short drive down the interstate that they believed things like downtown condo construction meant something special was happening in their town – as opposed to the reality that it was simply a trend that was hitting everyone else also washing over their city. Critics, maybe because in smaller cities newspapers and such sometimes simply assign a local reporter to that beat, seem to judge by the same standards.

A second problem is social. And it’s a two-fold problem. The first part is that strong critique has likely never been a part of the local culture, thus it’s simply not how things are done in the town. It’s hard to argue with this in a sense as a community is certainly free to adopt those values. But such a value set comes with consequences.

The other part is that even in regions as big as two million or more, the cultural class isn’t that large and is very interconnected. It’s inevitable that you are going to have to interact with the people you write about socially at some point. So if you write a critical review, that’s going to make for some awkward moments. In a place with no culture of it, people might not react well to being critiqued, and the reviewer himself probably doesn’t have a lot of experience at dealing with blowback, and so is emotionally sensitized to it.

Thirdly, there’s generally a desire in these places to want to support local businesses, cultural groups, etc. A lot of the folks engaging on the field of battle culturally are those who could have left town, but elected to stay. And there’s a desire to support them in their choice. In fact, the people who did make that choice can even feel entitled to that support. This isn’t just in small places either as “buy local” reigns almost unquestioned as preferred among the intelligentsia.

Again, that’s a valid cultural decision to make. I myself prefer to patronize local establishments where I can, and I’m even willing to pay a bit of a penalty in terms of price and quality to do it. But too often I think local purveyors of various products and services and cultural activities are basically given a free pass on quality. And often the people doing the truly best work aren’t appreciated, particularly if it’s innovative. By definition innovative work is contrary to the conventional wisdom, and to the extent that smaller local markets seek to boost their status by glomming on to trends, innovators can seem genuinely uncool. Additionally, people locally may not recognize or be willing to pay for true quality. For example, their definition of a luxury watches might include Rolex, but they’ve never even heard of say FP Journe.

Now Dallas is bigger than the regions I had in mind. I speculate based on the article that they had a similar relationship to criticism, however. It would take a local to say for sure what cultural factors are at work. But it’s interesting to see them stepping out a bit. I haven’t done enough analysis of Lamster’s work to judge, but if the comments even on City Lab are any judge, he’s already stirring up trouble.

Whatever the case, this shows that the Dallas Morning News at least wanted to try to elevate the game of Dallas. As I wrote in a previous post, some in Dallas are no longer satisfied with purely commercial success and are seeking, like other boomtowns before it, for Dallas to get classy too. This would appear to be in line with those efforts. That requires a community that’s willing to take a hard look in the mirror and be honest with themselves about where they don’t measure up versus their aspirations (and boosterism rhetoric). When it comes to architecture, they’ve apparently gone in search of someone who will hold up that mirror. The question is what they are willing to do with the images they see.

Friday, October 10th, 2014

More On the Midwest vs. the South

My post on Sunday about SEC vs. Big 10 football produced quite a stir. There are 165 comments and counting, and it even prompted posts by Richard Longworth and Crain’s Cleveland Business.

Not everyone was critical but the ones that were basically say that it’s ludicrous to say that football proves anything. I don’t think that it does. But I will make three points:

1. The differing fortunes of the two conference is yet another in an extremely long series of data points and episodes that demonstrate a shift in demographic, economic, and cultural vitality to the South.
2. Sports is one of the many areas in which Midwestern states have clung to traditional approaches, even though those approaches haven’t been producing results.
3. Demographic and economic changes have consequences. It’s not realistic to expect that the Midwest’s excellent institutions will necessarily be able to retain excellence when supported by hollowed out economies.

I’d like to throw up a couple of charts to illustrate the longer term trends at work. The first is a comparison of per capita personal income as a percent of the US average for Illinois vs. Georgia since 1950:

il-vs-ga

Here’s the same chart of Ohio vs. North Carolina:

oh-vs-nc

If I put up the population or job numbers, the same charts would show the South mutilating the Midwest. (Indiana, Georgia, and North Carolina were all about the same population in 1980, but the latter two have skyrocketed ahead since then for example). What’s more, the South’s major metros score better on diversity and attracting immigrants than the Midwest’s major metros as a general rule.

These charts show the convergence in incomes over time. The decline in relative income of the Midwest is possibly in part to increases elsewhere, not internal dynamics. But think about what the Midwest looked like in 1950, 60, or 70 vs the South, then think about it today and it’s night and day. The Midwest may still be endowed with better educational and cultural institutions than the South, but we can see where the trends are going. Keep in mind that those things are lagging indicators. Chicago didn’t get classy until after it got rich, for example.

Now we see that Southern income performance hasn’t been great since the mid to late 90s. This is a problem for them. As is their dependence on growth itself in their communities. I won’t claim that the South is trouble free or will necessarily thrive over the long haul. But they seem to have a clearer sense of identity, where they want to go, and what their deficiencies are than most Midwestern places.

Longworth seems to buy the decline theory but has a different explanation of the source, namely that Chicago has sucked the life out of other Midwestern states:

In the global economy, sheer size is a great big magnet, drawing in the resources and people from the surrounding region. We see this in the exploding cities of China, India and South America. We see it in Europe, where London booms while the rest of England slowly rots.

And we see it in the Midwest where, as the urbanologist Richard Florida has written, Chicago has simply sucked the life – the finance, the business services, the investment, especially the best young people – out of the rest of the Midwest.

To any young person in Nashville or Charlotte, the home town offers plenty of opportunities for work and a good life. To any young person stuck in post-industrial Cleveland or Detroit, it’s only logical to decamp to Chicago, rather than to stay home and try to build something in the wreckage of a vanished economy.

This seems to be a common view (see another example), even in the places that would be on the victim side of the equation. But I’ve never seen strong data that suggests this is actually the case. Are college grads and young people getting sucked out of the rest of the Midwest into Chicago?

Thanks to the Census Bureau, we now have a view, albeit limited, into this. The American Community Survey releases county to county migration patterns off of their five year surveys sliced by attribute. There seems to be some statistical noise in these, and for various reasons I can’t track state to metro migrations, but thanks to my Telestrian tool, I was able to aggregate this to at least get metro to metro migration. So here is a map of migration of adults with college degrees for the Chicago metro area from the 2007-2011 ACS:

degree-migration
Net migration of adults 25+ with a bachelors degree or higher with the Chicago metropolitan area. Source: 2007-2011 ACS county to county migration data with aggregation and mapping by Telestrian

This looks like a mixed bag to me, not a hoover operation. What about the “young and restless”? Here’s a similar map of people aged 18-34:

ya-migration
Net migration of 18-34yos with the Chicago metropolitan area. Source: 2006-2010 ACS county to county migration data with aggregation and mapping by Telestrian

This is an absolute blowout, with a massive amount of red on the map showing areas to which Chicago is actually losing young adults. Honestly, this only makes sense given the well known headline negative domestic migration numbers for Chicago.

I do find it interesting that there’s a strong draw from Michigan. Clearly Michigan has taken a decade plus long beating. There’s been strong net out-migration from Michigan to many other Midwestern cities during that time frame, and its the same in Cleveland, which also took an economic beating in the last decade. This is just an impression so I don’t want to overstate, but it seems to me that a disproportionate number of the stories about brain drain to Chicago give examples from Michigan. Longworth uses the examples of Detroit and Cleveland. These would appear to be the places where the argument has been truly legitimate, but that doesn’t mean you can extrapolate generally from there.

What’s more, even if a young person with a college degree does move to Chicago from somewhere else, will they stay there long term? They may circulate out back to where they came from or somewhere else after absorbing skills and experience. It’s the same with New York, DC, SF, etc. I’ve said these places should be viewed as human capital refineries, much like universities. That’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s a big plus for everybody all around. Chicago is doing fine there. But it’s a more complex talent dynamic than is generally presented, a presentation that does not seem to be backed up by the data in any case.

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

More Praise For Boring

As a follow-on to my Guardian piece last week “In Praise of Boring Cities” I want to highlight a companion piece by Victoria and Albert Museum curator Rory Hyde called “Bollards, Bricks and Black Cabs: Why the Best Urban Objects Are Mundane.” His arguments in it are in line with my old adage that the mark of a great city is it how it treats its ordinary things, not its special ones. Every city does their main street, their war memorials, etc. up right. There’s no distinctiveness there. But what about the average street, space, or object? That’s when the real values of a place are often revealed. As Hyde puts it:

Mundane city objects also offer a glimpse into the operational logic of a city. Pedestrian buttons, building materials or the Johnston typeface are the visible moments when vast urban systems reveal themselves. They are the hooks that invite our participation in the system. Despite or because of their mundanity, they are the city – as close as we can get to this big machine we inhabit.

Whatever you think of these projects (does it matter that the traffic light MoMu celebrates was actually designed in 1965, not 1868 as the label claims? Kind of, yes), noticing city objects “in the wild” can jolt you out of the moment to reflect on the millions of design decisions that bring the city into being. Boring objects can teach us that the city is an intentionally constructed project – and therefore a project that can be changed for the better.

Again, I’d add that by inspecting these elements, something important about the city and its people is revealed.

As I wrote previously, it’s London, a city chock full of iconic buildings and such, that perhaps best embodies the notion of treating the ordinary as special. This is easily seen in its black cabs, retro telephone boxes, and police uniforms. True, there’s an element of kitsch at work. But that too is a part of the city. It’s just another small entry showing the why London has remained arguably the premier city in the world for so long.

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