Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

The New York Project

Here’s a fun timelapse of New York City. Nothing particularly unusual about it, but the city looks great. Awesome in full screen, high definition. If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo. h/t Likecool

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Cities: New York
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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

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

Overselling America’s Infrastructure Crisis

60 Minutes ran a segment last week called “Falling Apart” that was another alarmist take on the state of American infrastructure. I’ll embed here but if it doesn’t display for you, click to CBS News to watch (autoplay link).

We’ve seen this story before. America’s infrastructure is falling apart and we need to spend many billions on upgrades, but politicians won’t agree because they are too craven.

There’s some truth to this point of view. The problem is that it’s oversold using the worst examples. It also gives short shrift to the many infrastructure upgrades that we have been making. And it ignores how people and businesses make capital purchase decisions in the real world.

First, I’m not surprised to see that 60 Minutes spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania. In my experience, Pennsylvania is in a class by itself when it comes to infrastructure. Drive something like I-70 from Washington to the Ohio state line and prepare to be appalled. Pittsburgh legitimately has a massive infrastructure maintenance overhang. Philly too. And much of the infrastructure there was under built to begin with. The Schuylkill Expressway goes down to two lanes each way, for example. Similarly, 60 Minutes is right about some of the obsolete bridges on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. They may have easily included other high profile embarrassments like LaGuardia Airport or Penn Station. Or they might have taken a look at state of decay of Rhode Island’s bridges.

There are clearly some high profile legacy items that need to be addressed. But that neglects the other side of the coin, namely that there’s a ton of major infrastructure that has been upgraded.

60 Minutes includes some footage of Chicago. Clearly there’s a need for bigtime investment there. But in the last 20 years or so IDOT reconstructed completely many of the major freeways in the area like the Kennedy and Dan Ryan. The Tollway Authority widened virtually the entire system and implemented open road tolling, vastly reducing congestion. Similarly the CTA opened the brand new Orange Line, did major work to renovate the Green and Pink Lines, just did major infrastructure upgrades on the south branch of the Red Line, and expanded capacity on the Ravenswood. They’ve also gone from tokens and cash to electronic fare collection. At least one new commuter rail line was opened (the North Central line). The O’Hare Modernization program is underway with new runways already online and a significant reduction in congestion there. A new terminal was also built and the existing terminals given some refreshes.

Is there a lot to do in Chicago? Undoubtedly. But let’s give credit for what has already been done.

It’s the same elsewhere. Nicole Gelinas notes that New York has invested $123 billion in the transit system in the last 30 years. That’s not chump change. The third water tunnel is now online there as well. Indianapolis built an ultra-modern airport terminal complex that’s up to international standards. Many other airports like DTW, SJC, SFO, etc. have built major new terminals or seriously upgraded their acts. There have actually been a lot of investments in port infrastructure to get ready for post-Panamax ships.

I’m told even Pennsylvania has done a good job of starting to address its infrastructure problems. The Philadelphia airport is actually quite nice these days, for example.

So we’ve actually done a lot already that 60 Minutes doesn’t give us credit for.

But what’s more, the presence of infrastructure that’s at or near the end of its useful life isn’t necessarily a bad thing anyway. Would it make sense for every single car on the road to be brand new? Of course not. Most cars ultimately end up getting driven till the wheels fall off. And that makes perfect sense. Why would you junk an asset that still has lots of service life left? We reallocate ownership of a lot of those cars during their lifespan, but we try to get the max out of their useful life.

It’s similar in our homes. How many of us replace a furnace at the first sign of rust? Yes, sometimes we do a complete upgrade or refresh of a kitchen or bathroom, but most of the time we don’t replace major household systems like furnaces or roofs until they appear to be at a point where paying for repairs when they break appears to be futile in light of the asset age. It makes sense to pay $400 to replace a starter that fails when the car has 125,000 miles. It’s more questionable when the transmission goes out at 175.

The fact that some issues or incidents with infrastructure can cause temporary closure or disruption is exactly how most personal capital assets work. A part goes out on our car. It needs to be towed and fixed. And it’s out of commission during that period. That’s annoying, disruptive, and costly. But does it mean that we should all go out and buy a brand new car? I don’t think so. And that’s certainly not how people behave in the real world. Obviously you have to build in a margin of safety on items like bridges where a failure would be catastrophic, but the same general principle applies. We shouldn’t wait for them to fail before replacement, but we do and should get the full useful life out of them.

Why would we expect our government to spend our money on its capital assets in a manner differently from how we spend our money on our own personal possessions? This explains why the public is much more skeptical of spending on infrastructure than the infrastructure lobby would like. It’s to be expected that some percentage of our infrastructure will perpetually be at or near end of life, as that’s the nature of the capital asset life cycle.

What’s more, when we replace a furnace or car, most of us don’t go out and buy Cadillacs. We buy something that fits the budget. Unfortunately, this mindset doesn’t seem to penetrate the public sector, where a significant amount of infrastructure is gold plated and priced at a level far out of line with international comparisons. The big problem in New York isn’t a lack of investment in transit. It’s the fact that the region has just about the highest transit capital costs in the world. Wonder why Madrid and Calgary have nice train systems? Among other reasons, they were very cost-efficient in their design and construction. Rather than more money, maybe we should first try some reform in our broken system of building stuff that results in lengthy project timelines and out of control costs.

So there are some things that need to be taken care of and we need to do that. But scaremongering about dangerous bridges isn’t the right answer. And where I see the biggest infrastructure needs are on local streets and bridges, where federal and state dollars are least likely to be applicable. It’s no surprise to me that most of the pothole ridden, bombed out streets we drive on are local city streets, where they are the maintenance responsibility of an entity that lacks the large, dedicated infrastructure revenue streams available to the state and federal governments. But that’s a topic I’ll have to explore in a future post.

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.

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Lessons On Spending Responsibly

My latest column is now available in the November issue of Governing magazine. It’s called “Lessons from Kokomo on How to Spend Responsibly” and takes another look, obviously, at Kokomo. But my focus here is the intersection of fiscal responsibility and investment. I highlight not just Kokomo, where getting a handle on the budget enabled investment, but also Los Angeles, where losing control of it has resulted in serious infrastructure problems. Here’s an excerpt:

Kokomo can spend money on these items because it took care of fiscal business. Not all debt is bad, but in this case, by mostly resisting the urge to borrow, Kokomo will retain the ability to invest well into the future by not encumbering future cash flow. As a small industrial city, Kokomo still has challenges to be sure, but it appears to be on the right track.

Other cities are in different stages of this process. Consider Los Angeles, which is also making national news, this time for its crumbling infrastructure. The New York Times reported that it faces more than $8 billion in needed repairs just to bring its worst roads, sidewalks and water lines up to par.

Why can’t Los Angeles afford to invest in infrastructure? Because it allowed its budget to get out of control. Some blame this on the city’s fear of raising taxes, but L.A. is hardly a low-tax haven. Instead, as a report issued earlier by City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana notes, while revenues are anticipated to grow 4.4 percent — faster than national GDP — expenditures have been growing at an even faster rate.

Read the whole thing.

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Topics: Public Policy, Sustainability
Cities: Kokomo (Indiana), Los Angeles

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Football States

The NYT’s Upshot program features a lot of data visualizations and infographics. Here’s one they recently wrote about based on Facebook “Likes” of college football. This isn’t a map of specific teams like (though they link to one of those if you click through). Rather, it’s just overall interest in college football.

Why put this up? Because once again it shows how state borders matter. There are cultural items, commonalities, etc. that follow state boundary lines even when there isn’t an obvious reason for them to in the larger frame. Though we live in a global era of metro-centric economies, geographies like states still exert power not just legally, but also culturally.

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Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Covering Corruption

I’ve written a few pieces on corruption lately. I’ll continue in that theme with this 30 minute video, part of series called “Straight Up” from Brooklyn Independent Media, about how journalists should think about covering corruption. As important topic as obviously the media plays a huge role in breaking corruption stories. If the video doesn’t display, click over to Vimeo. h/t City Limits

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Cities: New York

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Two Chicagos, Defined by Pete Saunders

[ Here’s another nice piece of analysis about Chicago from Pete Saunders. He originally did this earlier this year – Aaron. ]


Chicago skyline.  Source: wikipedia.org

Years ago, when I first started working as a planner for the City of Chicago, my primary responsibility was working with community organizations that received Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for commercial revitalization activities.  This being CDBG funding, our work was constrained to areas of the city where 51% or more of households earned less than the median household income for the Chicago metro area.  In the early 1990’s, this hardly interfered with our work — outside of the Gold Coast, the Near North Side, Lincoln Park, Lakeview and a few parts of the Northwest and Southwest sides, we were able to grant CDBG funding to virtually the entire city.

Fast forward twenty years.  Chicago’s transition from Rust Belt Capital to Global City has been unparalleled.  Where there once had been large swaths of middle-class, working-class and impoverished neighborhoods, with high-income enclaves, there are now nearly as many high-income neighborhoods as there are of the other three.  Perhaps someone who moved to Chicago post-1995 and lives in one of the up-and-coming areas is vaguely aware of this, but anyone who was here before then is quite right to be astounded.

Despite Chicago’s transformation, it’s been pretty well-documented that not all parts of the city have benefited.  The battle over the closing of nearly 50 schools, mostly located in the city’s poorer South and West side neighborhoods, brought this to light, as did Chicago’s high-profile murder and violent crime rates through 2013 (which, to date in 2014, have gone down dramatically).  Inequalities and disparities became evident in both areas; University of Chicago graduate student and blogger Daniel Kay Hertz brought the disparities to light with his analysis of violent crime in Chicago.  As he said in his piece:

Over the last twenty years, at the same time as overall crime has declined, the inequality of violence in Chicago has skyrocketed. There have always been safer and more dangerous areas here, as there are everywhere; but the gap between them is way, way bigger now than it used to be.

Over the last two decades a new but undefined paradigm has emerged, the one of “Two Chicagos”.  This is probably best explained once again by Dan Hertz, who recounted an overheard conversation on the L:

I was on the train earlier this week, and two white men got on and asked their neighbors, who were two black women, how to get to a hotel. The women told them. And then began a sort of stock conversation that Chicagoans have with tourists: How do you like the weather, ha ha? The men, who were from Atlanta, did not like it. Have you been on a subway before? Yes, but not often. Would you come back? Oh, yes. We love Chicago, the men said.

The men reached their station, and left.

One woman said to the other: I hate it when people say that – I love Chicago. No, you don’t. You love downtown and the North Side. The other woman said, Uh huh. 

That is a frequent sentiment of those who live on the other side of the invisible divide in Chicago.  But what, exactly, is that divide?  Where are the boundaries?  Exactly how deep are the difference?

I took a stab at trying to figure this out.

I compared some socio-economic statistics for the 56 zip codes in Chicago against medians and averages for the entire Chicago metro area (Indiana and Wisconsin excluded).  The differences are stark.

Let’s start by looking at maps of the areas of examination.  Here is the seven-county Illinois portion of Chicago’s metro area, with Chicago etched in:

I gathered data for all suburban municipalities and all City of Chicago zip codes within this area, for five variables — population, non-white population percentage, median household income, and median home value, and bachelor’s degree or more for persons 25+.  The data comes from the 2011 U.S. Census American Community Survey.  After collecting that data, I established an “average of medians” or “average of averages” to get a baseline for the metro area, and an understanding of how jurisdictions or zip codes would compare to one another.  One fairly big caveat — an average of medians or average of averages weighs all jurisdictions equally, skewing the numbers higher due to the number of small but well-to-do suburban municipalities.  So while the 2011 actual median household income for the seven-county area overall was $61,491, the average of medians was $74,731.  But since all data is expressed this way, differences are negated.

Next, I looked for Chicago zip codes that were above the metro area average in at least one of three categories — median household income, median home value, and bachelor’s degree or more for persons 25+.  These are the higher income neighborhoods that can be called “Global Chicago”.  Within the city, they look like this, in yellow:

Most Chicagoans would recognize this as the wealthier parts of the city.  It stretches from the far Northwest Side eastward to the lake, south to downtown and continuing south before ending in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side.  Again, I included all zip codes that were above the metro average for at least one of the three categories I examined, so not all communities are the same.  Hyde Park, for example, is here because it has high educational attainment, but is below the average for income and home value.  The same applies to Rogers Park and Edgewater on the city’s northern border with Evanston.  Jefferson Park, Norwood Park and Sauganash, on the other hand, located on the Northwest Side, rank highly in home value but lower for income and educational attainment.

Taken together, you can see how “Global Chicago” compares with the Illinois portion of the metro area, the metro area excluding Chicago to give you Suburban Chicago, and the balance of the city beyond “Global Chicago” that I’ve called “Rust Belt Chicago”:

The differences are indeed stark.  “Global Chicago” is on par with the Chicago suburbs and the metro area overall in terms of income, and has a lower percentage of minority residents compared to the metro area.  Interestingly, “Global Chicago” has a much higher home value and educational attainment when compared to the metro area overall or the ‘burbs.  Meanwhile, “Rust Belt Chicago” lags far behind.  “Rust Belt Chicago” has a large majority-minority population, has an income nearly one-half as much as the suburban households, and has only one-third as many college graduates as “Global Chicago”.

I decided to take this analysis a little further and determine if there is a core to “Global Chicago”, and how it would compare to the rest of the city.  I collected data for zip codes that exceeded the metro average in two or more of the three categories.  That produced this map:

And this table:

Here, a “Super Global Chicago” compares favorably with the ‘burbs in terms of income, but far exceeds it in terms of home value and educational attainment.  Including some of the peripheral areas of the previous “Global Chicago” with the previous “Rust Belt Chicago” to produce an “Average Chicago” leads to some gains, but it still lags far behind the other slices of the metro area.

Right now, the CNN series “Chicagoland” is doing its best to illustrate the “Two Chicagos” meme, highlighting blues festivals and Stanley Cup championship celebrations on one end of town and school closures and endless crime on another.  However, these maps and tables may do a far better job of demonstrating the impact of past and current practices and policies on the city’s landscape.  In fact, I think Chicago’s example is one that will serve as a model, for better or worse, for other cities across the nation.

In reality I see the “Two Chicagos” meme as overplayed.  Chicago may be better understood in thirds — one-third San Francisco, two-thirds Detroit.

This post originally appeared at Corner Side Yard on March 18, 2014.

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

The Ideology Driven Privatization Backlash

A couple of incidents recently highlight how many communities have taken a sharply negative turn when it comes to privatization. A look at the cases in question however, shows that the objections to it appear to be as much ideological as performance based.

In Indiana, a group of seven counties through which the Indiana Toll Road passes want to buy it themselves from the bankrupt operator and its bankers.

The Indiana Toll Road lease was an unambiguous win for the state of Indiana. Was it perfect? Of course not. But those seeking to portray it as a bad decision always have to cite some peripheral defect. They can’t talk about core matters like the roadway condition, which is in better shape than ever and now with electronic toll collection, nor its operations, which are solid. Nor have I ever seen a critical financial analysis that was remotely credible. (One study in an academic journal that got a lot of airplay used ridiculous discount rates in their analysis, including literally 0% in one of their primary scenarios. This is what they are reduced to in trying to undermine the deal’s logic).

The bid by these counties seems motivated more hostility than logic. La Porte County Commissioner David Decker says, “The nonprofit would not be beholden to shareholders who siphon all the money off. We want to put money back into the road.”

Let’s analyze this a bit. The road is bankrupt, so the shareholders aren’t “siphoning” anything off at this point. I suspect that Cintra and Macquarie (the original lessees) protected themselves well in this deal, however. I’m not crying for them. But the concessionaire did go belly up.

Then there’s the idea of putting the money back into the road. Where were these counties when the state was running the road and letting it deteriorate so badly? There were some truly decrepit stretches of highway, especially in Lake County. Where were all these counties back then? If the public sector is so much more responsive and attentive to public needs, why didn’t the state ever fix this when it owned it? Why didn’t the state ever install electronic toll collection? I started telling INDOT they should install this as far back as the O’Bannon administration, but nothing ever happened. It wasn’t until the privatization deal that money did indeed start getting invested back into improving the road.

Then there’s the counties’ proposed financial structure. The private company paid $3.9 billion and went broke. These counties think that they can pay $3.7-4.1 billion for it, and make a profit of $38-50 million per year even after they – get this – pay a private company to operate the road anyway. How is that supposed to work? Yes, they can issue tax exempt bonds at a lower interest rate. But they want to limit repayment only to the toll road revenues, so that will limit their rate savings. Also, they won’t be able to take advantage of the huge tax write-offs from depreciation and such that the private company had available. I’d have to see the details on this, but it’s quite a financial claim they are making. They are basically saying that they can buy the road back from the bankers and run it at a profit of $50M higher than the bankers could. (Remember, any profits the banks might actually make would surely factor into their sale price). That seems a bit dubious. If it’s really true, every county in American ought to think about turning themselves into a private equity fund to invest in infrastructure assets.

Then there was an article in the Guardian talking about Hamburg voters approving a measure to buy back their electric and gas utilities that were privatized a few years back, or reclaim them when the contracts end.

Again, let’s ask what the problem is. Has the private operator breached its covenants? Have they provided poor service? Have the prices been at issue? No, no, and no. The article talks about pricing as a factor in some “remunicipalizations” of utility service, but not here. Instead what we see is that the real driver is political:

In Hamburg, activists launched the Unser Hamburg, Unser Netz (Our Hamburg, Our Networks) campaign in 2010 after noticing that the city’s existing contracts with Vattenfall and E.On were set to expire. The campaign brought out a wide range of supporters: environmental groups said buying back the grids would give Hamburg more control over its energy systems, and make it possible to really drive the city’s Energiewende transition away from coal and nuclear power and towards renewable energy.
….
The motorways running in and out of Hamburg are lined with giant windmills, slowly churning the air, constant reminders of the country’s ambitious green goals. Shifting the city’s energy transition into higher gear was one of the key promises of remunicipalisation.

The referendum ballot proposed not only to take back the city’s energy grids, but to institute as a binding target “a socially just, democratically controlled and climate-friendly energy supply from renewable sources”.

It seems pretty obvious that the drive to buy back the utility was driven by greens, who hope to use political control to implement their preferred energy generation schemes. In short, it’s about ideology. The article quotes a professor saying that privatization itself is promoted for ideological reasons, but here we see de-privatization happening in the same way. A touch of the increasingly anti-infrastructure bias of the German electorate comes through as another ideological factor.

Lest you say “it’s about climate change, not ideology,” the policy response to climate change very much falls within the political and ideological sphere. The German greens are, as the article notes, anti-nuclear. The Green Party driven, legally mandated decommissioning of Germany’s zero emissions nuclear infrastructure is a big reason why the country is still constructing coal plants in the first place. That doesn’t seem very green to me.

I’ve not hesitated to rake bad privatization deals like the various parking meter leases over the coals as bad public policy. But in these cases we see moves to cancel privatization deals coming from a root of ideological bias, not the public interest.

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Topics: Public Policy, Transportation

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