Urban Politics Research Paper

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By the time Banfield and Wilson’s major text, City Politics, was published in 1965 the book and its title already seemed inadequate to describe the processes of conflict, competition, and negotiation taking shape in the public sphere of America’s large metropolitan centers (Banfield and Wilson 1965). According to Banfield and Wilson, ‘city politics,’ which ‘rarely occupy the serious attention of practical men,’ simply concerned who got elected to office, how to apportion the local tax burden, and where to locate various public facilities in the city’s ethnic checkerboard (p. 18). But American cities in the 1960s had begun to change since the immediate postwar decade, as blacks and other racial minorities began to assert themselves at the ballot box and in the streets, as population and economic activity migrated to suburban locales, and as neighborhoods suffered under the destructive onslaught of drugs, crime, and family disintegration. Hence the emergence in common use of the term ‘urban politics,’ a more resonant, grittier description of the processes by which people and groups in big cities sought to mobilize and allocate public resources to deal with these new developments.

If the term ‘urban politics’ was originally meant to dramatize the emergence in metropolitan centers in the 1960s of an altered civic landscape, it has now come to conventionally refer more simply to patterns of politics in large cities. These patterns are in fact constantly evolving. The texture and scope of urban politics in the US are best understood by examining three closely intertwined patterns: the shifting nature of political conflict in big metropolitan centers, the changing preoccupations of local politics, and the functional evolution of city government as the institutional center of the urban political process.

1. Shifting Patterns Of Political Conflict

In the first half of the twentieth century, politics in big American cities was typically defined by the conflict between working class European immigrant groups and middle class native Protestant interests. This was a period of Irish Catholic ascendance in cities as diverse as Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, but other ethnic and religious minority groups also emerged in local politics in these decades, including Eastern Europeans, Italians, and Jews. The characteristic vehicle for promoting ethnic political interests was the ‘political machine’ a disciplined, hierarchical organization designed to capture local elective office for the purpose of distributing city jobs and spending to coethnics and allies. As the power of ethnic machines took shape, Protestant political and business elites responded to the threat of displacement by promoting municipal reform, an agenda of structural changes, such as city manager government and the nonpartisan ballot, designed both to make city government more businesslike and to undercut machine dominance of electoral competition.

By the 1960s the last vestiges of machine organization had crumbled in most cities, in no small part because of their inability to reconcile the demands of newly militant African American voters, who the machines had historically exploited, and their traditional white ethnic base, fearful of housing and school integration (Grimshaw 1992). It was in this context that urban political conflict evolved from class and ethnic divisions within the white community to competition based predominantly on race.

In the two decades after 1967 black mayors came to power in more than 300 towns and cities in the US, including nearly every one of the largest places. In the typical contest for city hall, the electorate polarized along racial lines, although skillful black politicians often managed to win just enough white votes to carry them into city hall (Sonenshein 1993, Kleppner 1985). In cities like Chicago and New York the politics of race sundered the traditional alliance of Jews and blacks, who had come together in the early civil rights movement, leaving a stark racial divide. In cities that became majority black, such as Atlanta, Cleveland, and Detroit, black challengers eventually emerged to run against black incumbents. These black-on-black elections have sometimes featured one candidate who is the clear choice of white interests, generating divisions in the electorate identical to the earlier white-on-black contests. However, with time, the prospect of a black mayor became less threatening to most whites, and many municipal elections with one or more black candidates have now lost their sharp racial edge. Blacks began to win the executive office in cities where black voters constituted less than a majority, such as Seattle, Minneapolis, and Denver.

Racial interests continue to define much of urban politics—police conduct and public school reform are examples—but new patterns of conflict have emerged around a broad set of development issues. In the old downtowns of major cities, the issues are how to use central space and how to apportion the costs of development between the public and private sectors. Developers of office towers compete with developers of loft housing for the attention of mayors and their economic development agencies, and both in turn compete with casino and hotel investors, professional sports teams, preservationists, and public parkland advocates. Another line of cleavage has opened between those who seek to invest capital in commercial and entertainment properties and those seeking to maintain neighborhood residential communities that occupy desirable development locales (Logan and Molotch 1987). Conflicts over development often dominate public discourse in major cities, transcending racial and ethnic cleavages or cutting across them in unexpected ways.

2. Changing Preoccupations Of Urban Politics

In the heyday of the ethnic political machine, the object of politics was to win control of local government in order to get access to its spoils. Politics was a means of livelihood. Thus, the Irish, skillful practitioners of the politics of patronage, came to dominate the municipal workforce early in the twentieth century (Erie 1988). Eventually, the spread of civil service merit systems diminished the number of jobs that could be handed out by urban bosses.

The chief preoccupations of urban politics began to shift with the political emergence of African Americans. Certainly many of the political goals of black Americans recall those of the Irish and other white ethnic groups of the earlier period: blacks want a fair share of municipal employment and city contracts. But they brought to the streets and the ballot box, a political agenda whose instrumental ends were shaped by broader social justice concerns. Urban politics in the decades of black emergence revolved not simply around demands for jobs, but for an end to police bias, housing discrimination, and school segregation (Sugrue 1996).

By the 1990s black mayors were commonplace. Most urban police departments had been racially integrated, and many were administered by black police chiefs. School integration as an end in itself had receded in importance for many black parents, replaced by a determination to improve public education through vouchers or charter schools. As racial justice goals lost their urgency, a new generation of black mayors and their white colleagues as well, turned their energies to the development agenda.

Urban development takes a variety of forms, and choices are inevitably contested. Many cities have pursued a strategy designed to attract tourists and business visitors, investing in convention centers, stadiums, and riverside entertainment centers. Advocates for neighborhood housing, public schools, and social welfare programs tend to oppose such projects as frivolous. Other cities pin their development aspirations on technology parks; yet others on creating the infrastructure—world trade centers, port and airport facilities—to launch themselves into the global economy.

A central responsibility of the public sector in the development process is to create conditions conducive to profitable private investment. Such an undertaking has typically inhered in crafting a favorable tax climate, adopting flexible land use regulations, and building good infrastructure. One means by which urban mayors integrated these tasks in the 1990s was to embrace a management reform agenda that proponents claimed would ‘reinvent government’ by introducing such initiatives as privatization and competition and by empowering public employees to act as problem-solvers rather than cogs in the bureaucratic wheel (Goldsmith 1999). Faithfully pursued, such a strategy was expected to impress and reassure investors by reducing the size and reach of local government, making it more efficient and responsive, and easing the tax burden. ‘Government reinvention’ became a preoccupation that transcended the lines of partisan and racial divisions, reducing some portions of urban politics to a technocratic debate over the nature of public management.

3. Evolving Municipal Functions

Through the first half of the twentieth century the singular function of city government was to offer a set of basic public services to promote public safety and health and to facilitate local commerce. These traditionally local responsibilities included public safety, streets, sanitation, libraries, parks, water systems, land use regulation, and occasionally, mass transit systems. City governments received little fiscal assistance and little guidance from either the state or federal governments. However, at mid-century the US Congress passed a series of housing laws that put an ‘urban renewal’ program into place, a combination of public housing subsidies and support for slum clearance and redevelopment. The result was to usher in a new functional role for city governments as partners with the federal government in administering a variety of national programs designed to address the cities’ physical and social deterioration. Federal resources raised the stakes of urban politics.

This partnership lasted in full force until the election of XXX to the presidency in 1980. For three decades city governments planned the specific implementation of general federal programs and often provided matching funds in areas that ranged from housing and community development to policing, and from job training to the construction of sewage treatment plants (Gelfand 1975). In these years the city evolved from a self-financing and relatively autonomous level of local government to a major, though fiscally dependent, partner in a three-tiered (local, state, and national) federal arrangement. Urban politics in this age of federal partnership was often animated by disagreements not only over basic strategies of program implementation, but over where to locate certain federally funded facilities within the city (e.g., public housing projects) or who should control certain federal programs (the war on poverty programs in the 1960s and federal economic development empowerment zones in the 1990s are good examples). Some mayors eventually came to believe that as long as cities were held in the thrall of the federal government that their program priorities and spending decisions would always be distorted (Norquist 1998), but most relished the expansion of local capacity and responsibilities that federal programs underwrote.

With the substantial federal aid cuts that began in the Reagan presidency, cities entered a period of greater fiscal self-reliance. Although the primary function of city government remained the provision of basic local services, its role as a player in the federal system receded in favor of an emerging responsibility as steward of the local economy. This function called for the development of new public expertise in a range of financing, real estate, and entrepreneurial skills that were once the exclusive domain of business people. Cities established or greatly expanded their economic development departments, and city councils put into place an array of financing subsidies and business incentives to lure investors. Mayors became brokers of deals between developers and the financial community. Mayors and other local public officials led trade missions abroad to tout local industries and seek foreign investment, and cities established trade offices in other states as well as foreign capitals. It became common to speak of ‘entrepreneurial cities’ (Sbragia 1996).

4. Conclusions

The participants, preoccupations, and institutional setting of urban politics in the US give it a distinctive cast. Urban politics is not national politics written small. It is not party politics, nor is it shaped by regional conflicts. It is seldom animated by ideological disagreements, which may explain why Republican mayors have been easily elected in traditionally Democratic cities like New York and Los Angeles. Race and class divisions are common in the contests over development and the administration of public services that dominate public debate in big cities, although these issues are as likely to be fought out along other lines of cleavage such as newcomers versus old residents, downtown versus neighborhood actors, or corporate versus local business interests. Urban politics is an arena in which all sorts of crucial, if undramatic, decisions are made: the length and conditions of the daily commute to work, the level of security citizens feel on the streets, the quality and diversity of the venues that vie for people’s leisure time and money, the availability of affordable housing, and the esthetic character of the built environment and urban open space. In all respects urban politics has become a major setting for collective debate over the quality of daily life for most people in America.


  1. Banfield E C, Wilson J Q 1965 City Politics. Harvard University Press and the MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  2. Erie S P 1988 Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840–1985. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  3. Gelfand M I 1975 A Nation of Cities. Oxford University Press, New York
  4. Goldsmith S 1999 The Twenty-First Century City. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD
  5. Grimshaw W J 1992 Bitter Fruit: Black Politics and the Chicago Machine, 1931–1991. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  6. Kleppner P 1985 Chicago Divided: The Making of a Black Mayor. Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb, IL
  7. Logan J R, Molotch H L 1987 Urban Fortunes. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  8. Norquist J O 1998 The Wealth of Cities. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA
  9. Sbragia, A M 1996 Debt Wish: Entrepreneurial Cities, US Federalism, and Economic Development. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA
  10. Sonenshein R J 1993 Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  11. Sugrue T J 1996 The Origins of the Urban Crisis. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
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