Leonard Quart: Cities take lead on social change



Given the paralysis of our federal government, the revitalization of cities has begun to lie in the hands of the municipalities themselves because they can now look less and less to the federal government for help. For example, federal funding typically allocated to local housing agencies has been steadily declining since 2000. The same is true for many other areas of urban funding threatened with cuts, like transportation and federal block grants, because federal government austerity is the norm.

The Boston Globe wrote that potential remedies for our nation’s problems are treated with "with almost complete indifference in Washington, the world’s capital of gridlock." In a piece in The Nation, "Power to the City," Michelle Goldberg emphasizes that it’s mainly on the city level that political excitement and innovation exist.

Given that in the ‘60s and ‘70s cities were synonymous with violence, chaos, and poverty, it’s hard to imagine the American city as one of the few places of hope in our bleak political landscape. Many cities, Detroit, Saint Louis and Buffalo among them, never recovered from the nightmare of those decades. They still confront massive deterioration and economic desperation, and there are plans to shrink the footprint of cities that have had immense population losses. In fact, of the 235-odd cities with more than 100,000 in 2000, 38 have lost population in the last decade, and their levels of income and income growth are about 20 percent below the national average.


Still, there are cities where progressives have come to power. Besides Bill de Blasio of New York, who garners the most publicity, the list of progressive mayors includes Marty Walsh of Boston, Pittsburgh’s Bill Peduto, Minneapolis’s Betsy Hedges and Seattle’s Ed Murray. Of the 30 largest U.S. cities, 26 have Democratic mayors, though a number are Clintonian centrists like Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, and others are mere timeservers.

But many of the progressive mayors came to power defeating centrist establishment figures and calling for higher minimum wages, universal preschool, more backing of local union organizing efforts, and building energy-efficient affordable housing. In a state like Arizona, which boasts of punitive anti-immigrant legislation, Phoenix’s progressive City Council and mayor have asked its lobbyists to prod Congress to enact immigration reform. In the words of Harold Meyerson in "Revolt of the Cities" (American Prospect): "These leaders are, in short, enacting at the municipal level many of the major policy changes that progressives have found themselves unable to enact at the federal and state levels. They also may be charting a new course for American liberalism."

Goldberg’s piece also mentions: how San Francisco has adopted near universal health coverage; Richmond, Calif., a working-class city, is "pushing a controversial plan to take over underwater mortgages through eminent domain;" and another working class city, SeaTac, in the state of Washington, has raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Of course, city governments have an advantage over the federal government, for in New York, Boston and San Francisco, the far right barely exists. There is rarely any real conflict on social questions like gay marriage or gun control, and limited government is not an option. Even in red-state Texas you have progressive cities like Austin, and ultra-conservative Utah’s capital, Salt Lake City, is much more liberal than the state.

The key to these transformations in urban government has been the demographic changes in cities over the last few decades. The Hispanic population in New York has increased to 27.4 percent, and coupled with blacks and a rising Asian population, this has meant the city’s population has become increasingly minority. That is also true for Los Angeles, Houston, Boston and other major cities.

Besides people of color, who are more pro-government than whites, younger well-heeled and well-educated whites ("millennials") are a large part of New York City’s third consecutive small gain in its non-Hispanic white inhabitants. And that population is also flocking to cities like Boston and San Francisco. The increase in their numbers is so important because they are politically more open to social change than the older white working and lower middle class population that has departed (fled) the city. They are also more entrepreneurial and better off than the whites that have left, increasing the tax base of the city, so reform initiatives can be funded. These demographic shifts, combined with support from municipal workers and other unions, have helped create new progressive coalitions in many American cities.


Still, many cities lack the universities and research institutions, the strong communities of artists and writers, and the high-tech industries that attract the young, mobile and talented. So the majority of American cities, even if they desire to institute social change, lack the economic base to fund it. The most liberal cities have those resources, but their commitment to progressive policies can still only do so much to change the lives of their inhabitants. In fact, because they attract the young and affluent, and in New York City’s case, international millionaires and billionaires, income inequality is greater in New York and other progressive cities than in less dynamic cities like Columbus, Ohio, and Wichita.

The mayors of these cities still have to compromise with the private sector on development and they have limited resources to make a radical dent in the problem of income disparity. Nevertheless, it’s a hopeful sign, in this era of federal government inertia and dysfunction, that some local governments are working to bring about social change.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com.


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