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Sam Smith: The Urban Myth Of Urban Reform

The Urban Myth Of Urban Reform

By Editor Sam Smith

As lower income ethnic residents are increasingly removed from America's major cities we find this change cloaked in the language of reform. The changes are described as "revitalization" or "economic development" when, in fact, those being truly revitalized or developed typically constitute a small percentage of the population. For example, a study by David Schwartzman found that in 1998 those earning over $100,000 paid 66% of all US income taxes paid in Washington DC. Those earning over $200,000 paid 50% of all US income taxes. It has clearly only gotten more so since.

In 1998, those earning over $200,000 and paying 50% of all US income taxes represented only 2.6% of DC's population. Those earning over $100,000 represented 8.1%.

How many people are we talking about? Less than 22,000 taxpayers, 7,000 of whom earned over $200,000.

At the other end are 209,000 taxpayers who earned less than $50,000. Together, they provided only 16% of the city's federal income tax.

One would assume that a city that is truly being revitalized would find more and better jobs for its residents. In fact, jobs for DC residents have declined fifteen percent over the past 20 years.

One would also assume that a city that is truly being revitalized would find its population growing. But this isn't the case for those urban areas that make the most noise about economic development.

A recent study reported in USA Today found that "more cities with 100,000-plus residents shrank from 2004 to 2005 than in the previous year: 97 vs. 82. Costly coastal cities are among the new losers: New York, San Diego and Long Beach" along with Washington which once was the tenth largest city in the country and may be soon smaller than Las Vegas. Only 20 cities went from loss to gain, including Indianapolis, Wichita, Jersey City and Fort Wayne - not ones that you generally associate with the much ballyhooed "creative class."

As happened in the previous century, urban elites are simply reclaiming cities from ethnic groups - while calling themselves reformers and revitalizers. In fact, they are just taking power. In Creating Portland, a book about Portland, Maine, Joseph Conforti describes how it happened there in the last century:

"Portland's increasing ethnic diversity played a role in the adoption of a city manager form of government in 1923, a Progressive-Era reform that altered politics in many American urban communities. As cities expanded social services and assumed more debt, city manager government offered the promise of greater efficiency and economy in the conduct of municipal affairs. Business principles would replace partisan politics as the mainspring of city government. Such a prospect appealed to many citizens in cities seemingly caught in a spoils system of partisan ward politics that divided a predominantly native-born Republican constituency from a rising Democratic Party increasingly ethnic and immigrant in its makeup. . .

"Republicans long dominated city government, but Democrats controlled ethnic wards on the peninsula. After voters narrowly rejected a new city manager charter in 1921, reformers mounted a second, acrimonious campaign two years later. . . Fissures emerged between the working-class wards of Munjoy Hill and the upper-middle-class neighborhoods of the West End; between the peninsula and Deering; and between Catholic-Jewish voters and native-born citizens. A prominent Jewish lawyer ridiculed city manager reform in 1923, claiming that 'If this plan goes through, every man of Irish descent may as well pack up his trunk and leave the city as far as representation on the city government is concerned.' A revitalized Ku Klux Klan organized rallies in support of the new charter and encouraged voters to purge municipal government of Catholics and Jews."

It is assumed by many - particularly in academia and the media - that we are well rid of old-style ethnic urban government and its corruption, replacing it with such modern tools as city managers and urban planning. The truth is that in the old days one could buy favors, but today you can buy the whole city for the benefit of a few developers and other big businesses. The truth is that many of these corrupt ethnic politicians did more to help the underclasses of their cities than the reformers who replaced them.

This is an issue I addressed some years back: This is an issue I addressed some years back:

|||| In 1816, Columbus, Ohio, had one city councilmember for every hundred residents. By 1840 there was one for every thousand residents. By 1872 the figure had dwindled to one to every five thousand. By 1974, there was one councilmember for every 55,000 people.

The first US congressional districts contained less than 40,000 people; my current city councilmember represents about twice that many. Today the average US representative works for roughly 600,000 citizens. This is double the number for legislatures in Brazil and Japan, and more than five times as many as in Australia, Canada, France, Great Britain, Italy, and West Germany.

It isn't just a matter of numbers. Back in the early days of television and the late days of the Daley era in Chicago, Jake Arvey was an important man in national Democratic politics. At Democratic conventions, Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley would ponder what Arvey was going to do; presidential candidates would seek his blessing.

Yet Arvey's power base was not a national organization nor telegenic charisma, but rather the 24th Ward of Chicago, from which he helped to run the city's Democratic machine.

Another Chicago politician described it this way: "Not a sparrow falls inside the boundaries of the 24th Ward without Arvey knowing of it. And even before it hits the ground there's already a personal history at headquarters, complete to the moment of its tumble." There was plenty wrong with the Daley machine and others like it. One job seeker was asked at a ward headquarters who had sent him. "Nobody," he admitted. He was told, "We don't want nobody nobody sent."

Among those whom nobody sent were women and minorities. The old machines were prejudiced, feudal and corrupt.

And so we eventually did away with them.

But reform breeds its own hubris and so few noticed that as we destroyed the evils of machine politics we also were breaking the links between politics and the individual, politics and community, politics and social life. We were beginning to segregate politics from ourselves.

George Washington Plunkitt would not have been surprised. Plunkitt was a leader of Tammany Hall and was, by the standards of our times and his, undeniably corrupt. As his Boswell, newspaperman William Riordon, noted: "In 1870 through a strange combination of circumstances, he held the places of Assemblyman, Alderman, Police Magistrate and County Supervisor and drew three salaries at once -- a record unexampled in New York politics.". Facing three bidders at a city auction of 250,000 paving stones, he offered each 10,000 to 20,000 stones free and having thus dispensed with competition bought the whole lot for $2.50.

Tammany Hall was founded in 1854; its golden age lasted until the three-term LaGuardia administration began in 1934. For only ten intervening years was Tammany out of office. We got rid of people like Plunkitt and machines like Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government. But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out a philosophy and an art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia, we had determined that family values and personal loyalty were somehow by association criminal as well.

Plunkitt was not only corrupt but a hardworking, perceptive and appealing politician who took care of his constituents, qualities one rarely find in any plurality of combinations in politics these days. Even our corrupt politicians aren't what they used to be. Corruption once involved a complex, if feudal, set of quid pro quos; today our corrupt politicians rarely even tithe to the people. . .

Tammany Hall, at its height, had 32,000 committeemen and was forced to use Madison Square Garden for its meetings. In contrast, when the Democratic National Committee decided to send a mailing to all its workers a few years ago, it found that no one had kept a list. The party had come to care only about its donors. . .

Wrote a newspaperman of the time, William Riordon:

The Tammany district leader reaches out into the homes of his district, keeps watch not only on the men, but also on the women and children, knows their needs, their likes and dislikes, their troubles and their hopes, and places himself in a position to use his knowledge for the benefit of his organization and himself. Is it any wonder that scandals do not permanently disable Tammany and that it speedily recovers from what seems to be crushing defeat?

Such practices contrast markedly with the impersonal, abstract style of politics to which we have become accustomed. It was, to be sure, a mixture of the good and the bad, but you at least knew whom to thank and whom to blame. . .


It has been a favorite myth of political scientists and historians is that corrupt ethnic machines of the Tweed or Curley variety were replaced by progress. A similar myth surrounds today's urban gentrification. In fact, much of the change merely transferred the power to corrupt from one ethnic group or economic class to another. The term corruption, of course, is no longer used, but rather revitalization. And it is happening all over urban America.

It has been a favorite myth of political scientists and historians is that corrupt ethnic machines of the Tweed or Curley variety were replaced by progress. A similar myth surrounds today's urban gentrification. In fact, much of the change merely transferred the power to corrupt from one ethnic group or economic class to another. The term corruption, of course, is no longer used, but rather revitalization. And it is happening all over urban America.


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