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Sewer Socialism

Cities need a back-to-basics strategy. Catering to art-loving yuppies just won't work.

September 12, 2004|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor of Opinion, is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of "The City: A Global History," to be published next year by Modern Library.

Not too long ago, U.S. elections were determined -- and sometimes stolen -- in cities. In the 21st century, however, the nation's major urban areas have become largely politically peripheral, except as stages for national party conventions.

As a result, neither major party makes a serious effort to address the crises affecting U.S. cities -- dysfunctional school systems, a declining middle class, eroding employment and rising populations of mostly poor, new immigrants. Instead, cities are essentially a kept constituency of liberal Democrats whose idea of an urban policy, aside from patronage, increasingly revolves around cosmetic face-lifts and the arts.

Missing today from national and local agendas is anything remotely resembling the progressivism that spurred the successful evolution of U.S. cities in the last century. Sometimes dubbed "sewer socialism," this program for development started at the municipal level and aimed to repair the legacy of the Industrial Revolution. From small, faded industrial cities like Bridgeport, Conn., to Los Angeles, enlightened administrations -- sometimes led by labor-oriented socialists, other times by business-oriented "progressives" -- cleaned up disease-ridden environments with new sanitation systems, created municipal-owned water and power systems, developed parks and upgraded education systems.

Cities' political irrelevance stems partly from their diminishing share of the nation's population and electorate. Fifty years ago, two in five Illinois voters lived in Chicago; today, fewer than one in five live there. New York City once contained half of New York state's electorate, a proportion that has been cut to less than one-third. In 1952, 40% of Maryland voters lived in Baltimore; today the city is home to less than 10%.

As the urban electoral base has shrunk, city politics have become increasingly homogeneous. A generation ago, a Ronald Reagan or a Richard Nixon could contest for working- and middle-class voters on Chicago's Northside, in the borough of Queens or in the San Fernando Valley. These areas today are so heavily Democratic that any national Republican effort to woo them would be virtually pointless. Most cities, says Brookings Institution demographer Bill Frey, have continued to lose middle-class, middle-aged, native-born Americans since 2000 -- the swing voters who supported reform-minded Republicans like Richard Riordan and Rudy Giuliani.

Cities' declining political clout is reflected in the state of urban policy. The focus now is on what sociologist John Kasarda calls "visual prosperity" -- the attempt to dress up urban areas with fancy edifices, cultural attractions and high-end housing.

"Patronage aside, Democratic Party policy in the cities," said Fred Siegel, professor of urban history at New York's Cooper Union, "often boils down to how to attract the beautiful people."

The policies of many of the brightest stars in the Democratic firmament -- Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Denver Mayor John W. Hickenlooper and Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm -- seem predicated on this beautiful-people principle. All emphasize the creation of cafe districts, arts entertainment and culture palaces as the best means to revive urban centers. In Los Angeles, Mayor James K. Hahn is similarly hitching his legacy to a $2-billion double feature for the leisure class -- the proposal for the ersatz Champs-Elysees on Grand Avenue and the glitzy LA Live project around Staples Center.

There is an alternative to the culture-and-arts approach to revive declining cities. It's sewer socialism, a back-to-basics strategy that encourages business investment and the development of healthy neighborhoods.

Such an urban agenda has its origins in the early decades of the last century. In the West, it unfolded under the tutelage of business-oriented progressives who invested heavily in basic infrastructure -- public education, transit, water and power systems -- to encourage commerce and improve the living conditions for at least part of the middle and working classes. In Los Angeles, cheap water was brought to a dry city to benefit citizens and businesses. Nominally nonpartisan, but mostly Republican, city leaders fostered municipal ownership of utilities and worked to prevent the Southern Pacific Railroad from dominating the city's new port. They also zoned to create a multipolar city to avoid the pitfalls of the traditional industrial one.

In the more industrialized Midwest and Northeast, the progressive impulse frequently took on a proletarian coloration. In places like Bridgeport, Milwaukee and, most remarkably, New York City under Fiorello LaGuardia, reformers were openly supported by socialists and leftist labor activists. The goal of their policies was to improve basic services and infrastructure for the vast majority of citizens, not just a designated elite.

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