Thursday, December 18th, 2014

The Urban vs. Rural Wars Within States

The well-known fault line between urban and rural portions of our states got a lengthy treatment (and one that not surprisingly tilts pro-urban) in the Kansas City Star:

It’s a formula played out in one state after the next. Rural areas hold political clout well beyond their numbers, winning regularly on the issues and in the division of tax dollars.

They triumph primarily by better holding their coalitions together — driven partly by the stubborn myth that they get the short stick from their big-city cousins — and because the drawing of legislative districts works in their favor.

The result leaves people in urban areas regularly outplayed at lawmaking. “We simply cannot count on the state government to help us,” said Kansas City Mayor Sly James, voicing a frustration felt by urban mayors across the country.

The piece is worth a read.

I’ve written on this topic before myself. As a guy who is the Urbanophile today, but who came from a rural area in Southern Indiana, I feel like I’ve got a foot on both camps.

I completely understand and share many of the frustrations of urban areas. State policies towards urban regions are often awful, and too many states seem determined to destroy their biggest economic success stories.

But in my view urban folks have as many blind spots and prejudices towards rural areas as the other way around. Clearly urban dwellers have no intentions of leaving rural residents alone to live in the country with their guns, farms, etc., so it shouldn’t be surprising to see that rural residents are painting a target on cities too. Part of the detente we need to have here is to adopt something of a live and let live philosophy, so that, if urban and rural people don’t agree on a lot of things, they’ll at least leave each other to pursue their own definition of the good life.

I’d also remind urbanites that they tend to advocate for increasing redistribution, not reducing it. The redistribution of revenue from metro to rural areas is in my view very consistent with urban values as urban areas are more prosperous as a whole than rural ones.

But beyond redistribution there needs to be a great effort made to build bridges and understanding between these areas, something that hasn’t been on the urban agenda. Here below is a column I wrote for the January 2014 issue of Governing talking about this issue and the new bargain I think we need to find a way to strike:

Who could argue against making things better? It seems absurd. So why is it so hard to make progress? One reason is that there are often structural forces that act to suppress improvement. One force in particular is the increasing divergence in attractiveness and performance between communities.

Ball State University economist Michael Hicks, writing in Howey Politics Indiana, elaborated on the problem: “Almost all our local economic policies target business investment and masquerade as job creation efforts. We abate taxes, apply TIFs [tax increment financing] and woo businesses all over the state, but then the employees who receive middle-class wages (say $18 an hour or more) choose the nicest place to live within a 40-mile radius. So, we bring a nice factory to Muncie, and the employees all commute from Noblesville.”

This tells you everything you need to know about why Indiana’s state government has traditionally been hostile to efforts by localities to improve quality of place, whether through mass transit or through public services such as new libraries and better performing schools.

To the extent that a place like the Indianapolis suburb of Noblesville continues to improve itself, this only increases the advantages it has in luring residents and jobs away from struggling post-industrial communities like Muncie that have fewer resources to rebuild with and are further out from the urban center. This dynamic is hardly unique to Indiana.

Struggling places that surround prosperous communities may not be interested in seeing those successful towns improve any further. That’s not necessarily out of malice, nor may it even be explicitly considered. It’s simply an implicit incentive, and has a certain amount of logic. If those struggling places constitute an influential block in the state legislature, they can certainly put roadblocks in the way of community improvement efforts that would only fuel the divergence that puts their city increasingly at a disadvantage. This creates a structural barrier to change.

Removing this barrier requires a type of thinking and bridge-building that has fallen by the wayside in the contemporary economy, namely restoring connectivity between thriving cities and their broader but less-well-off hinterlands.

In the age of globalization, cities and states would rather build bridges to the world than to the town next door. Some of this is simply the way the economy works. As Richard Longworth, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, wrote in his book Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, “Chicago probably deals more, daily, with Frankfurt or Tokyo than it does with Indianapolis.”

He went on to identify the problem at hand, noting that “Globalization is beginning to isolate cities from their hinterlands: The hinterlands see this trend and are disinclined to do anything to speed it up. They perceive that most of these people—globalization’s winners—have never spent 30 seconds worrying about globalization’s losers.”

This is the two-tier society we see developing nationally playing out at the local level. It creates a tug of war at the state policy level, and it tears apart the whole notion that we are a commonwealth. It creates states that are, as Longworth put it, “hives of warring interests.”

There are no easy answers for many of the struggling post-industrial cities in America. Many places realistically may not recover, particularly if they are too far from a metro center or too far into decline. But we can have more successful places than we do. One obvious challenge for smaller areas is that they are cut off from global flows and economic opportunities. Building stronger links to their neighbors that are connected is critical. That’s their potential on-ramp to globalization.

What’s needed is a new bargain in our states and regions. Larger metros and thriving regions will be given the authority, tools and financing they need to improve themselves and meet the demands of today’s globalized, talent-based economy. In return, they will be expected not just to send back tax “remittances” to the rest of their state, but also to deploy some of their intellectual and policy resources toward the problems facing the left behind areas. The losers need to let the winners get on with their winning, while the winners need to remember where they came from and who brought them to the dance.

Creating those connections won’t be easy. But it starts with a conversation, with getting to know each other, building trust and creating commitment. That’s not as sexy as an overseas trade trip. But if the winners want to get the losers on board with state policies that promote civic improvement instead of fighting every step of the way or trying to steer the course toward a race to the bottom, this is something they very much need to do.

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Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Kansas City

Monday, December 8th, 2014

London’s Global City Royal Flush

A recent article in the Economist about the Rosetta space probe reminded me again of the uniqueness of London on the global stage. The piece notes:

In a clean room at the Airbus Defence & Space (ADS) factory north of London, scientists are working on LISA Pathfinder (pictured), a hexagon-shaped satellite due to be launched next year. The aim of the ambitious space mission is to try, for the first time, to find and measure gravitational waves—ripples in space-time predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

About one-quarter of the world’s commercial communication satellites are built in Britain and 40% of the world’s small satellites…The whole space sector directly employs 35,000 people, and the supply-chain accounts for thousands more jobs. London-based Inmarsat is one of the world’s largest satellite operators, specialising in mobile telephony.

When you think of London, finance, media and creative industries tend to be top of mind. Aerospace and defense may not immediately register, but greater London is a key node in that global industry. Beyond the space related industries noted above, there’s also companies like defense contractor BAE Systems, and events such as the globally significant Farnborough Airshow.

In fact, in some of the research I contributed to a recent global cities survey found that London uniquely has some strength is every single globally important macroindustry I looked at. No other city – not even New York – was as simultaneously broad and deep.

London’s status as a global financial center is of course well known. It’s also hugely influential in global culture and entertainment. It is a global center of the music industry, with British acts predominantly from or drawn to London routinely becoming best sellers around the world. Warner Brothers has a major production studio there, creating such films as Harry Potter. The BBC, Economist, and Financial Times are news outlets of global reach and influence, even outside the English speaking world. The Daily Mail and the Guardian are the two largest newspaper web sites in the world. London is a major advertising and marketing hub, a major fashion hub, a major tourist destination, and is home to world-renowned cultural institutions.

London has also emerged as Europe’s stop tech hub. Not only are there tons of startups – it has the top ranked startup ecosystem that outranked any European city according to analysis of Startup Genome project data – companies like Google have opened huge offices there.

But there’s more to it than that. London is a center of the global pharmaceutical industry and is headquarters to GlaxoSmithKline and Astra Zeneca, plus is home to foreign HQ’d operations as well. BP is an energy major there and other big firms like Chevron maintain operations and regional HQs in the area. Oil services firm Petrofac is based there and its home to the European HQ Baker Hughes. Its weakest industry I found was automotive, but even here it’s home to Honda’s European HQ.

Not all of these companies are located in central London. But the Greater London area is home to a simply huge number of firms in all sorts of industries, making it a top to bottom global powerhouse. This isn’t just a global city built on finance and other services. It’s a global city built on everything.

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Topics: Economic Development, Globalization, Urban Culture
Cities: London

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

The Three Ages of Boss Rule by Stephen Eide

[ Steve Eide is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and also runs its fiscal policy oriented web site Public Sector, Inc.. After seeing Pete Saunders’ piece on the three generations of black mayors in America, he sent me the piece below with the same three generations structure, but talking about political boss rule, using Hollywood as a point of departure. It’s a great piece I’m delighted to get to share – Aaron. ]

Between roughly the Civil War and World War II, most American cities were at some point dominated by a boss and his machine. The term “boss” referred not only a powerful politician, but one who acquired, held and exercised power outside the channels dictated by law. Progressive reformers fought the bosses for control of American city government for over a century. The Progressives ultimately won, or, at least, the bosses lost.

All this is well known. What is less well known is that the entire history of bossism is contained in three films: Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (the origin), Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty (the peak), and John Ford’s The Last Hurrah (decline).

Gangs of New York: How Tammany Hall Civilized New York City

Gangs of New York (Gangs) takes place in New York City during the Civil War. Its plot concerns the war between Irish and nativist gangs for control of lower Manhattan. Both lose, leading to the rise of Tammany Hall, whose innovative manner of conflict resolution laid the foundation for modern New York. The ward heelers replace the warlords and the rigid identities of immigrant and nativist are dissolved. That’s how New York was tamed.

The film’s most memorable character is Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), the nativist gang leader bent on keeping the Irish down. A primitive man, Bill resembles Homer’s Cyclops in that he has only one eye and maintains his political authority through the open threat of violence. He’s the sometimes ally of Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), who functions as Tweed’s liaison to the slums of lower Manhattan.

In Gangs’ moral order, Boss Tweed represents progress. Tweed’s understanding of progress means thievery on a grand scale (rigging contracts for a new courthouse vs. exacting tribute from pubescent pickpockets) and bringing the Irish into the fold. Tweed tells Bill that to rely purely on violence is crude and inflexible, and he vows that Bill won’t last if he doesn’t adapt. Bill is less greedy than Tweed, and more principled in his own (bigoted) way. He’s ferociously independent, but also fatalistic. Bill knows that Tweed is right that his days are numbered. Nonetheless, he will go down fighting.

But the debate between Bill and Tweed is really a side show. Gangs’ main action concerns the struggle between the Irish and natives. The Irish are if anything even more primitive than Bill. They live in torch-lit caves, they are vengeful and as bigoted towards blacks as Bill’s crowd, and they reject the Civil War. Unlike Bill, the Irish have a bright future, but they, too, have bitter truths to learn. They seem to think that they can be New Yorkers without also being Americans. They are wrong. Scorsese asserts this by making the film’s climax not the 1863 draft riots themselves but the Union Army’s brutal suppression of them. The Army forces the Irish to submit to the legitimacy of the Civil War, and, by extension, the unconditional obligations implied by American citizenship. (Nation-building, 19th-century style.) Becoming American means becoming an American citizen, and citizenship implies renouncing the right to pick and choose among one’s obligations, and not least during times of crisis. Scorsese is slightly less clear about what becoming less Irish and more American will mean for the Irish than he is about the nativists’ education. But, at bare minimum, it means that they too will have to become more tolerant and capable of solving their conflicts through politics instead of violence.

Tammany did not itself vanquish the gangs (which were real by the way-see Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York (1928), on which the film was based, and Tyler Ambinder’s Five Points (2010)). That task required guns and muscle. But, in providing a ready-at-hand political alternative to the gangs, Tammany answered the question what next?

What is the purpose of city government? It is not only to provide basic services such as education and street-cleaning, but to manage conflict. Government is much more than just a fee-for-service arrangement. Humans tend to disagree about the true and the good, which produces conflict, which we need politicians to manage for us by means of persuasion, intimidation, flattery, deal making, and so forth. Politics will always be with us and we will always need politicians.

The urban party machines excelled at managing conflict. If we believe that honest, rational debate will be inadequate to resolve most conflicts, then something else will be necessary to prevent government from being rendered completely impotent and to minimize the potential for violence. In most functional democracies, that “something else” has been a party system. Centuries of political experience strongly suggest that a democracy requires some form of organized mediation to recruit and vet candidates for office, and then, when in office, provide them with the support they need to be effective. “Parties are as natural to democracy as churches to religion (James Q. Wilson).”

Scorsese seems to understand these virtues of boss rule, while remaining aware of its corruption and vulgarity. Gangs argues that boss rule was an improvement over what came before: the gangs were just as corrupt, more violent, less enlightened, and, most crucially, pettier. Modern New York for Scorsese is, above all, a great city. Tweed was not a great man, but, according to Scorsese, Tweed’s political system provided the conditions for New York’s future greatness.

The Great McGinty: Bossism Ascendant

The Great McGinty (McGinty) takes place in an unnamed American city sometime in the first half of the 20th century. Its plot traces the title character’s (Brian Donlevy) rise from the soup line to the governorship by means of his skills at repeat-voting, fighting, bullying, carousing, wisecracking, bid-rigging and spending public money wastefully. “The boss” (Akim Tamiroff) gives McGinty his initial break and then directs his rise. McGinty chafes under the rule of the boss, and hilarity, and McGinty’s downfall, ensue. The third major character is McGinty’s wife (Muriel Angelus), his moral guide, who bucks him up to reject the boss.

McGinty depicts boss rule at its height, when it seemed almost the natural form of American city government. Sturges gives us the fully-developed specimen. All of the essential features of Progressive age city politics are in evidence:

First, the boss was often not the mayor. Of the 20 municipal bosses surveyed in Harold Zink’s City Bosses in the United States (1930), 19 held some public office of some kind, but only two were mayors. There was no reason for the boss himself to be the mayor, since it was a ceremonial position with no real power. The office now known as the “strong mayor” did not become common until well into the 20th century. Progressive reformers strengthened the office of mayor by wresting fiscal and administrative authority away from the local legislature and lengthening the term of office. This left no choice to the boss but to become mayor. What few bosses have emerged to dominate urban politics since WWII have all been mayors. Examples include Richard Daley pere, Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo, and Newark’s Sharpe James.

Second, Machine politics was genuinely democratic in the sense that it enabled men to rise from exceedingly humble beginnings to positions of high authority. In this respect, a real life equivalent of McGinty would be Harry Truman, who owed his career to Tom Pendergast, the notorious boss of Kansas City.

Third, the lines between reformer and boss could be sometimes blurry. McGinty is first elected as a reform candidate (“Down with McBoodle! Up with McGinty!”). Wise bosses were highly sensitive to public opinion. They sometimes had to run candidates who were just distant enough from the machine to be considered graft-free. This practice was known as “perfuming the ticket.” Problem was, such candidates did not always stay in line when they got into office. Sometimes they chafed like McGinty did.

Fourth, women hated grafters. The Progressive-era movements for women’s suffrage and municipal reform were practically indistinguishable. Women getting the vote dealt the bosses a grievous blow.

McGinty is a satire and therefore anti-boss. Sturges certainly expects us to like McGinty, the boss and the gang, and McGinty does eventually redeem himself by breaking with the boss (on top of earning the love of a good woman), but to say that his deep engagement in machine politics required redemption implies that bossism was a rotten system. The audience’s proxy is McGinty’s wife. She loves him, but she certainly doesn’t love his politics.

At the same time, Sturges depicts a world in which bossism as such is not seriously under threat. No fundamental structural reforms are at hand, just the occasional defeat at the polls and visit to the hoosegow.

The Last Hurrah: Ciphers Ascendant

The Last Hurrah’s protagonist Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) is based on Boston’s James Michael Curley. We know this because of the many details drawn directly from Curley’s eventful life and career: Skeffington’s longstanding feuds with his city’s Cardinal and with the bluebloods, his personal dislike for FDR, his uxoriousness, his considerable charm and rhetorical skills, and the fact that he’s an old man running yet again for mayor in a predominantly Irish New England city. Skeffington’s final campaign forms the plot of Hurrah. Its events transpire in the mid-20th century, contemporaneously with the film itself (1958) and the book on which it was based (by Edwin O’Connor, published in 1956). Skeffington loses, to a young, upwardly-mobile Irish American put up by the local WASP establishment. Times have changed since Skeffington entered politics in the late 19th century. TV and radio have replaced flesh-pressing and spontaneous, street-corner oratory. The city is wealthier, and some of that wealth has reached the Irish, Skeffington’s traditional base. Their wealth has made them less resentful, rendering WASP-baiting demagoguery less effective than it used to be. Skeffington is aware of these changes, but he’s still convinced that one last victory is in his grasp. He believes that all it will take is a mix of charm, intimidation, patronage and loyalty, but events prove him wrong.

Skeffington’s is a personal machine. Bosses created machines, not vice versa. All urban machines depended on the leadership from a strong boss. We see this in the fact that we tend to refer to most of the important machines by the names of the boss who gave them life and influence (Pendergast, Hague, Crump). Tammany Hall, which did manage to last a long time and transcend the leadership of individual bosses, was the exception, not the rule.

And in that he controls the machine and not vice versa, Skeffington may be said to be his own man, the genuine article. He may be a bit of a grafter, but, in Hurrah, he’s not the candidate beholden to special interests. That would be McCluskey, Skeffington’s nebbish opponent. The film argues that, for all their faults, decline of Skeffington and his like heralded a more inauthentic form of politics. (The phrase used in Hurrah the novel is “a generation of ciphers.”) Politicians would thenceforth be packaged, handled and promoted like so many different brands of soap. The backlash against scriptedness and inauthenticity we see in the appeal of candidates such as Herman Cain and Ross Perot. These are not great men, but, in that authenticity is surely a condition of greatness, the decline of Skeffington’s ways portends the decline of greatness in city politics.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Hurrah depicts the last stages of unity and reconciliation projected by Gangs. The subtitle of The Last Hurrah could be The Revenge of the WASP. Skeffington finds himself fighting against both the new Irish middle-class and old money Protestants. His moment seems to have been a blip, a brief transition phase in American urban history. By the film’s conclusion, history has come full circle and ethnic conflicts are resolved in a way that could never have happened while blueblood-baiters like Skeffington remained in power.

It’s somewhat difficult for the audience to appreciate how Skeffington could have lost to McCluskey. Based on what we are shown, the latter seems like a total boob. But we’re not the voters. To the increasingly affluent second and third generation Irish-Americans, Skeffington comes off as uncouth, just as he always did to the WASPs. They want a mayor that mirrors their conception of themselves: young, well-educated (in a conventional sense), nicely (not nattily) attired, and untainted by unsavory connections and loyalties.

In their classic study City Politics (1963), Edward Banfield and James Q. Wilson argued that this trend was general among ethnic voters in the American city at mid-century. Yes, Jews still preferred to vote for Jewish candidates, Irish for Irish candidates and so on, but:

[t]he candidates must not be too Polish, too Italian, or too Irish in the old style…[N]owadays, the nationality-minded voter prefers candidates who represent the ethnic group but at the same time display the attributes of the generally admired Anglo-Saxon model. The perfect candidate, then, is of Jewish, Polish, Italian, or Irish extraction and has the speech, dress, manner, and the public virtues-honesty, impartiality, and devotion to the public interest-of the upper-class Anglo-Saxon (p.43).

According to Hurrah, the Progressives were far less consequential in bringing down the bosses than two other factors. First, New Deal social welfare programs devalued the soft and hard currencies with which the machines purchased the immigrant vote (this thesis is advanced more explicitly in the book than the film). Second, the rising tide of prosperity produced the lace curtain Irish, who were wealthier, younger and less angry than their parents and grandparents who had composed Skeffington’s base. There are Progressives in Hurrah, who provide important leadership and money, but this was a battle that they had been waging for decades. Why did they prove more successful at this moment? Because the Irish were ready to move on.

Conclusion

Gangs, McGinty and Hurrah set the standard not only because of their combination of historical accuracy and artistic merit, but because they are actually about politics. David Simon’s The Wire is probably the most highly-regarded recent treatment of city politics. But Simon doesn’t take politics seriously. The Wire holds that the real life of the city occurs in society, not government, and that politicians and their policies and institutions cause more problems than they solve.

Aside from the 2004 Gangs, most of the first-class filmmakers and writers in our own time tend to look past city politics. No one makes movies like these anymore. Perhaps the triumph of the Progressive vision of municipal reform made city politics less colorful. Hurrah portends a future of McCluskeys. But the problem cannot be purely for lack of material: there is nothing McCluskey-esque about Rudy Giuliani, Baltimore’s William Donald Schaefer, Philadelphia’s Ed Rendell and Providence’s Buddy Cianci. All made great copy, and yet they seem to have been largely overlooked by our more serious poets, filmmakers and novelists.

 

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Topics: Urban Culture

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.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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