Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Progressive Cities

"If there is a negative conclusion people have drawn from the experience of progressive cities, perhaps it is a warning about the destructive effect that involvement in city administration has had on community organization."

Pierre Clavel,Activists in City Hall: The Progressive Response to the Reagan Era in Boston and Chicago

A couple of weeks off has helped. I think I'll post weekly and see how it goes. Obama should read this book and ponder the question: What happened to the movement?

For your reading enjoyment -- written before Richard M. Daley announced his retirement:

Book Review—September 1, 2010

Pierre Clavel
Activists in City Hall: The Progressive Response
To The Reagan Era in Boston and Chicago
Cornell University Press, October 2010

Reviewed by: Bob Giloth

Back to the Present

Memory loves to play tricks. For those who lived in Chicago during the mayoralty of Harold Washington (1983-1987), the images and sounds of that tumultuous time come back easily. It was a special time, or maybe a disastrous time, depending upon your point of view. For others, heck, it’s almost thirty years ago.

The parallels with today are provocative. Chicago’s first black mayor, the nation’s first black president -- both elected by social movements, taking office in tough economic times, and trashed by right and left. Harold Washington needed progressive national policies to complement Chicago efforts; Barack Obama needs local and regional innovation and partnerships.

And, against all seeming common sense, they both had (or are having) a love affair with manufacturing as perhaps a way of “building on the basics” to get our economies going for the long term and to spread the benefits of economic growth to a wider swath of people. For both, the real estate boom and promise of its benefits was disastrous, irrelevant, or undermining of existing businesses that actually produced something.

It’s more than an historical footnote that Obama was getting his community organizing sea legs in the Chicago neighborhoods devastated by the fall of the steel industry at the same time Harold Washington was attempting to craft local and regional industrial policy.

And now we have Pierre Clavel’s, Activists in City Hall: The Progressive Response to the Reagan Era in Boston and Chicago, which seeks to tell part of the story of the mayoral administration of Harold Washington. I have to disclose that I played a role in city government at the time, know Pierre Clavel as teacher and friend from Cornell University, and have taken my own stab at explaining the this era in various publications. On the other hand, I left city government and Chicago in the summer of 1987, and have had the opportunity to put the Harold Washington experience into a broader context.

Clavel coins the phrase “progressive city” to describe that handful of U.S. cities since the 1970s that advanced policies and practices to expand social equity and open new avenues for citizen engagement and participation. Places like Boston, Cleveland and Hartford get on his list – as well as Santa Monica, Burlington, and Berkeley.

He talks about the interweaving of “two stories” in many of these progressive cities – the story of neighborhood movements and struggles for racial justice and the story of government administrators and public officials trying to govern in new ways with new constituencies and new goals. Lots of friends and colleagues in these cities stumbled over each other as stories unfolded.

Most of these places attempted to build affordable housing, open the doors of city hall, increase access to basic goods and services, and experiment with new forms of business. Chicago worked on many of these fronts as well, but the storyline that Clavel focuses on was Chicago’s attempt to develop a local set of policies and interventions that built upon and enhanced the strengths of Chicago’s neighborhood-based manufacturing sector.

Why would so-called progressives focus on manufacturing? Unions, to a degree, but many of these businesses were of the “mom and pop” variety. Manufacturing jobs certainly paid better and had the magic multiplier – 3 or 4 indirect jobs created by every manufacturing job (a function of inputs and expenditures), and workers tended to live closer to manufacturing jobs, sometimes in the same neighborhood. In a larger sense, the manufacturing economy was toppling all around the Midwest in this era of deindustrialization, with firms often owned by out-of-towners closing their doors sometimes after drinking mightily at the public trough of subsidized loans and incentives. It was a good terrain for practical action and populist rhetoric.

The mantra of the Washington administration’s economic developers was “jobs not real estate,” but local government was always about turf and place. The city improved infrastructure investments in industrial districts, fought incursions into manufacturing areas by speculative uses, improved business visitation and early warning efforts to detect business disinvestment and potential plant closings, convened industry sectors, like steel and garment, to jawbone about how to reposition these flagging industries for the future, built capacity in the neighborhoods to work with local businesses, and experimented with a host of new ideas related to capital, environment, ownership, and public policy.

Did any of this work, much less accomplish bold progressive aspirations? Clavel is a sympathetic and curious researcher who doesn’t back off from the hard questions. This is a tough assignment as he documents the criticism that Harold Washington didn’t save long-demolished Wisconsin Steel on the southeast side with eminent domain; that the administration obstructed progress (high-end neighborhood real estate development), according to a high-profile investigation in the Chicago Tribune; and that overall jobs number kept declining. All true, perhaps. What Clavel finds is an ambitious and distinctive set of local policies and practices that sought to build upon local economic strengths to improve social equity. This approach had some staying power in Chicago beyond the Washington administration and influenced many similar efforts beyond Chicago.

We can play a memory game by asking what would have happened if Harold Washington hadn’t died in November 1987. Would these progressive city policies and practices have been consolidated, expanded, and institutionalized? Would these approaches have reshaped Chicago in the 1990s with the long spurt of economic growth? Would Chicago be better prepared today to think hard about “building on the basics” as a response to the Great recession? Unfortunately, we simply will never know.

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