What’s the Progressive City? – 3     (11 APRIL 2014)              834


The progressive city entails a collective consciousness of what it is.

In Cleveland when Norman Krumholz’s city planning department studied MUNY Light the city’s struggling public power company, they concluded it was nevertheless invaluable as a rate-setter, keeping the larger private utility the Cleveland Electric Utility Company’s rates lower than they would have been, to the benefit of most citizens. Key people listened, and later Dennis Kucinich, the city’s populist mayor fought and won a referendum to save the struggling public company.

Other progressive cities did redistributive initiatives – Boston subsidized affordable housing, Burlington supported non-profits like community land trusts that kept housing permanently affordable, Santa Monica enacted the nation’s strongest rent  control law until it was eviscerated by the state legislature under landlord pressure.

A complementary approach stressed open government with simple measures like putting city council meetings on the radio; and more complicated ones like establishing neighborhood councils.  Arguably, the “progressive city” was distinguished by its ability to both do redistribution and also to open up city hall to greater participation – and many activists won re-election, some of them multiple times.

But there was also lots of resistance, and one subtly different approach to “progressive” has been to focus not on cities, but on policies.  What if a city paid little attention to its sense of purpose as a whole, but instead just stayed open to  advances where the energy and motivation was. Greg Schrock argued for a sectoral approach to city industrial policy based on his Chicago research on the history of workforce development there. After noting positive experiments that went nowhere under the openly – some thought too blatantly — equity oriented Harold Washington mayoralty and movement in the 1980s, the workforce development activists finally “got it right” under Richard M. Daley, whom few would think of as progressive  overall (he was busily devising ways to support massive gentrification of the city while poor neighborhoods languished) – nearly two decades later in 2005.

And policy analysis came in a book last year by Donald Rosdil, who sought to define the progressive city through empirical research of dozens of variables across samples of 42 (indices of sustainability), more than 80 (redistributive housing indicators) and 131 (redistributive economic policy incentives) cities.

[Donald L. Rosdil, The Cultural Contradictions of Progressive Politics: The Role of Cultural Change and the Global Economy in Local Policymaking. London: Routledge, 2013].

I’ll admit that seeing collective consciousness in sporadic efforts in Cleveland, Chicago, Boston or Santa Monica suggest more of a literary than scientific sensibility; and perhaps that is why I did case studies of these places end even found a kind of truth in the words of activists who paid little regard to standards of objectivity. But I do not want to let go of the idea of collective consciousness. I’ll just list a few reasons.

  • Progressives, at least a core group of activists who gained political leverage by electoral means, really did see a collective consciousness in a critical mass of the citizenry.  In the progressive cities this was a consciousness of horizontal ties among sometimes disparate groups.
  • In many cases it was oppositional tied to a sense of victimization by class, sometimes tied to race: Harold Washington’s constituency had endured too many decades of denial based on race, finally saw an opportunity in the weakness of the longtime political machine, and got together around a charismatic candidate.
  • Similar things happened in more homogeneously white cities — around essentially class issues.  Often there were class-based triggers, like elite over-reaching – a fatal flaw in capitalist ideology, which gives lots of leeway to “entrepreneurship.”  That was the case with rent control in Santa Monica, when landlords sold the Proposition 13 cap on tax revenues in 1978 with the promise that tax relief would result in rent reductions – and instead they rose markedly.
  • Overarching commonalities could engage whole cities. Capitalist elite over-reaching goes far beyond the Santa Monica landlords: destruction of treasured buildings or natural areas; gratuitous plant closings; non-local intrusions, for example big-box stores destroying local competition.

The more holistic “collective consciousness” and the disaggregated policy approaches to progressive outcomes can be complementary. Schrock seems to suggest this.. Washington’s short lived “First Source” hiring policy had gotten support from an extensive neighborhood based constituency, so that when it was cancelled under Daley in after 1989, there was an immediate backlash looking for some further development, which finally emerged in 2005.

It appears generally that the institutionalization of particular policies depends not simply on grassroots support, but also on the intellectual content of that support. Neighborhood organizations that saw the connections between very local level issues – e.g. housing improvements – and larger economic issues like the supply of good jobs – was crucial. In Chicago this was abetted by university support and overarching collectivities of neighborhood based units like CWED, and later PRAG.

In effect, the holistic and sometimes perceived too blatant equity bias in the Washington administration was a precondition for the incremental advances made under Daley.

Ironically, if this possible causality existed, it was not generally acknowledged. Washington’s administration was officially forgotten during the two decades under Daley, and scarely mentioned in the 2011 electoral season that ensconced his successor, Rahm Emanuel. Similar excisions of city history occurred in other progressive city histories, as aftermath: Ray Flynn in Boston, Nick Carbone in Hartford. Were these deserved in some sense?  There’s no public debate, and so it is hard to tell.