America’s Cities Are (mostly) Better Than Ever

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Though progress was often sporadic, city government widened its competence and improved its performance. Tensions between reformers and urban machines resulted in permanent gains, for after each revolt was beaten back, some improvements were always retained. Civil service slowly produced a bureaucracy that, for all its clumsiness, was distinctly superior to the earlier rampant patronage system. Zoning put a measure of predictability, if not control, into land use. And nearly everywhere the quality of urban leadership was noticeably better than before. A few old-time bosses persisted, but they were viewed as quaint anachronisms rather than as the logical expressions of city politics.

This considerable achievement rested on two historical conditions—the general prosperity of the period and the ample municipal limits which permitted expanding economic activity to take place within a single political jurisdiction. Except for the Great Depression and occasional sharp dips in the business index, American cities generally witnessed sustained growth. Even wartime did not interrupt the expansion; indeed, immense military spending acted as a swift stimulus to urban economies. Municipal progress cost money—a lot of it—and American cities generally had it to spend. And when they did not, they borrowed, confident that the future would be even more prosperous.

This was, moreover, the age of the self-sufficient city. Municipal boundaries were wide and continually enlarging. In 1876 St. Louis reached out into neighboring farm land and incorporated all the area now within its city limits. In one swift move in 1889 Chicago added over 125 square miles to its territory. And in 1898 New York absorbed the four surrounding counties—including Brooklyn, the nation’s fourth largest city—making it the world’s Empire City.

In 1900 municipal boundaries were generous, almost always including unsettled and undeveloped land. As populations grew, there were always fresh areas to build up. This meant that all the wealth, all the commerce, all the industry, and all the talent lay within the city. When serious problems arose, all the resources of the metropolis could be brought to bear to solve them. More prosperous than either the state or federal governments, the cities needed no outside help; indeed they met any interference with the demand for home rule.

For as long as these historical conditions prevailed, American cities could make incremental progress in attacking even the most vexing problems. But after the Second World War, two divisive elements entered the metropolis, destroying its economic and governmental unity and profoundly altering its social structure. The first division was between suburb and city; the second between black and white. Actually, these fissures always had been present, but not on the same scale or with the same intensity, and certainly not with the same significance.

Suburbanization is almost as old as urbanization. American cities always have grown from the inside out; as population increased, it spilled outside municipal limits. Initially these suburbs were not the exclusive resort of the wealthy; many poor lived there to avoid city taxes and regulations. But railroad development in the mid-nineteenth century produced modern commuting suburbs: Chicago had fifty-two of them by 1874. Though suburbs grew rapidly, their numbers were always relatively small and their locations governed by rail lines. By the 1920’s the automobile spawned a second generation of suburbs, filling in the areas between the older ones and setting off an unprecedented building boom beyond the municipal limits.

The crash of 1929 put an end to suburban expansion for fifteen years. During the Depression, people could not afford new housing, and when war came, the military consumed all available construction material. But the pent-up demand broke loose with the coming of peace. By 1970 the census reported that more people in the metropolitan regions lived outside the municipal boundaries than within. All cities, even smaller ones, were surrounded by numerous small jurisdictions, self-governing, self-taxing—and growing.

The historical remedy to this problem—annexation of surrounding areas—was no longer available. In most states the process required a majority of the voters in both the cities and the suburbs to support consolidation, and after 1920 the outlying areas were increasingly against incorporation. The cities, now with fixed boundaries, gradually lost population, while the suburbs experienced steady growth.

Moreover, this demographic change profoundly altered the social structure of the metropolis. The middle class rapidly evacuated the old city in favor of the suburbs. In turn, they were replaced by migrants from the South and from Latin America. The newcomers were mostly poor and racially distinct. With little education or skills, they were tax consumers rather than tax producers. They needed help on a large scale. Most of all they needed jobs. But industry and commerce had followed the outward movement of people. At just the time municipal government faced additional responsibilities, it saw its revenue base shrinking. Inevitably, various groups fell to quarreling over these limited resources, producing new tensions and anxieties.