There’s new interest in cities – once called the “lost world of municipal  government,” where only the small stuff happened. [1] Partly it’s frustration with Washington, where political gridlock has stopped many good ideas.  Partly it’s a sense of urgency about the increasing gap between rich and poor, and the barriers to getting such remedies as a federal minimum wage increase, much less the more optimistic hopes for a “livable wage” through congress. It’s also concerns over other fundamental issues like global warming, pollution, the deterioration of the material well being of the middle class. The upshot is that issues of “equity” – long thought to be most effectively addressed by federal legislation, are now seen to be more tractable in city halls.

And commentators have given evidence of local will to tackle these problems.  John Nichols and The Nation resolved to cover Bill de Blasio,  elected mayor of NYC in 2013 and the most prominent case as he sought state approval for an increase in the city’s minimum wage (denied, but eventually sought statewide), then pushed universal pre-kindergarten, paid sick leave and other measures through the city council.

Other cities and mayors also came to prominence: Peter Dreier noted, alongside de Blasio, the dramatic city council election of socialist Kshama Sawant in Seattle along with a progressive council majority and Mayor Ed Murray, soon to enact a significant increase in the city’s minimum wage, and also mayors Betsy Hodges (Minneapolis), Martin Walsh (Boston), and Gayle McLaughlin (Richmond, CA). [2]  Harold Meyerson followed with further detail for Bill Peduto (Pittsburgh),  and others, writing “The mayoral and council class of 2013 is one of the most progressive cohorts of elected officials in recent American history.” [3]   All in all, one could imagine a leftist resurgence in the nation’s cities, despite gridlock in Washington and conservative domination in most of the statehouses.

But wait a minute.  This is great journalism, but there are deeper issues. Meyerson gets at some of these, noting major demographic shifts reminiscent of a century go, and evolving presence of nonprofits in places like Minnesota and Pittsburgh. [4]  But it can’t be as easy as winning elections or proposing fine ideas. That is what an earlier generation of progressives found out a century ago.  They created high level commissions, which soon were captive of the industries they were supposed to regulate. They established the city manager system for cities, only to find the new city halls harder to penetrate than the old machines were. Even the New Deal, a generation later with FDR and large majorities, has finally been undercut by a combination of bought-out media and money-dependent legislatures, so that even the most stable institutions are under attack (Social Security, for example).

What hope is there, then, for city level reforms, even if aggregated across a nation, to solve the fundamentally structural and supra-local problems that we are now beginning to see?

In part, there is a history with some lessons we can distil. As Dreier reminds us, there were socialist and progressive mayors and city councils a century ago, and perhaps we can learn from this history how to figure out the national level reforms we need.  Equally, or perhaps more to the point in the current environment, there is more recent experience. Here are a few points briefly stated (We hope to embroider on these with details in future posts).

·      Chicago, first under mayor Harold Washington then with successors Eugene Sawyer and Richard M. Daley, and after many false, finally got a handle on how to support the continuation of many types of manufacturing firms and jobs. By the 2000-2010 decade, with Planned Manufacturing Districts, new workforce development arrangements and a private sector Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council, observers were describing the city as “arguably the most ambitious city-based industrial program” in the nation. They did this by a combination of city hall and grass roots efforts – supported by university based “intellectuals” who engaged street level problems and inspired a generation of students and workers to create a pool of workers and technical skills and management.

·      Boston found a way to harness a downtown real estate development boom in the 1980s,  essentially by getting the expertise in its main planning agency to understand that it had the leverage to extract linkage payments and create an affordable housing trust fund out of the profits developers would make putting up new office buildings in that city’s downtown office boom of the 1980s. Then, with the boom ended, Flynn and his successor Tom Menino, still had the wherewithal to pressure local banks to provide additional support to create new housing that served the city’s middle class as it fought against rising prices to remain in the city.

·      Cities also learned the need to create institutions backing up what city hall could not do alone. Burlington created neighborhood assemblies, then backed them up with a Center for Community and Neighborhoods (CCAN) while helping the growth of nonprofits like the Burlington Community Land Trust; Chicago’s expansion of city aid to economic development oriented nonprofits in the 1980s resulted in a powerful planning operation within city hall that contributed to an industrial retention program in the 1990s and in successive mayoralties; and for at least one crucial period in the 1990s citizen involvement spurred the Daley administration to innovative policies.

·      Finally, locals could not do it alone. Their efforts need state and federal help. What we’d better hope is that cities figure out which of the many apparent steps they can take in support of reviving middle class fortunes will actually make a difference; and which ones will build hope – that can survive and generate additional support at the federal level and in other cities and states.

First step, perhaps: lets have a list, and at least get started projecting impacts and costs.[5]




[1]    Lawrence J. R. Herson, “The Lost World of Municipal Government.” American Political Science Review, Vol. 51, No. 2 (June 1957), 330-345.
[2]    Peter Dreier, “Radicals in City Hall: An American Tradition. Dissent, December 19, 2013 [ ]
[3]    Harold Meyerson, “The Revolt of the Cities” The American Prospect Online  [ ]
[4]   Meyerson, writes: “This isn’t the first time that America’s cities have collectively shifted their political identities. As political journalist Samuel Lubell documented in his 1951 study The Future of American Politics—most particularly his chapter “Revolt of the City”—the New Deal coalition was prefigured by the change in urban voting patterns during the 1920s. . .

[5]    Again, one can recommend Meyerson: “In one major city after another, newly elected officials are planning to raise the minimum wage or enact ordinances boosting wages in developments that have received city assistance. They are drafting legislation to require inner-city hiring on major projects and foster unionization in hotels, stores, and trucking. They are seeking the funds to establish universal pre-K and other programs for infants and toddlers. They are sketching the layout of new transit lines that will bring jobs and denser development to neighborhoods both poor and middle-class and reduce traffic and pollution in the bargain. They are—if they haven’t done so already—forbidding their police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities in the deportation of undocumented immigrants not convicted of felonies and requiring their police to have video or audio records of their encounters with the public.”