UHA Meeting 2014

I’ve gotten settled back in after returning from the Urban History Association meeting in Philadelphia. The theme for this year’s meeting was Metropolitics, a matter near and dear to me, and a theme that I’m excited to see becoming central to the craft of what urban historians Building on early urban histories of political development and infrastructure, a second wave of urban social history, a new wave of urban histories exploring the “urban crisis,” and the explosion of suburban history, many of the talks I saw (and, arguably, one that I gave!) represented efforts at thinking through the connections between cities, suburbs, and hinterlands at multiple spatial scales and in the registers of migration, electoral politics, the environment, and social activism. It was a great meeting all around, and definitely the most blogged and tweeted UHA yet.

One other exciting thing about this meeting? The number of papers on Atlanta. As the Tropics of Meta crew notes here, tax revolts, public housing, and transportation in the ATL came in for analysis, in ways that linked institutional changes and political activism in interesting ways. I might smell an Atlanta panel for the 2016 Organization of American Historians meeting on “Leadership”–let’s put that topic in its (urban and metropolitan) place!

I’d recommend the rest of the writeups on Tropics of Meta’s Academics In the Wild for anyone interested in a serious (but witty) recap. If you’re not down with UHA, maybe the academic TMZ will be stalking your next meeting to observe what happens when they let us out of our offices, classrooms, and archives. And the UHA’s The City in History blog has come on strong to consistently deliver some great writing from urban and metro historians connecting historical processes to current urban problems (in ways that the professional field sometimes fails to encourage) and pulling back the curtain on the craft of research. Their coverage of the meeting is here.

The next UHA is in Chicago in 2016.

Legislative Delegation Gerrymandering: UPDATE, UPDATE 2, UPDATE 3

I’ve written before about the redrawing of Georgia’s legislative district boundaries as a means by which north Fulton County Republicans have tried to overcome the Democratic leaning of the county, which went 2-1 for Obama over Romney in 2012. In Georgia, which has relatively weak home rule, a great many matters of consequence to local governments, both municipal and county, are decided in the legislature. The compromise to preserve some measure of home rule has been to allow each county’s legislative delegation to essentially act as gatekeepers for legislation of local interest. It clears the deck for statewide business and allows local communities, in principle, to decide local affairs even in a state that nominally follows Dillon’s Rule and treats local governments as “creatures of the state.”

However, this breaks down in dramatic fashion in cases where a county like Fulton is strongly internally polarized. It breaks down still further when a county like Fulton is surrounded by some strongly Republican-leaning suburban areas and when a Republican legislative supermajority is able to draw district boundaries to help augment the power of a core constituency like north Atlanta suburbanites. By redrawing legislative boundaries to connect parts of Fulton with parts of surrounding counties, the legislature’s Republican supermajority changed the majority of Fulton’s legislative delegation to Republican.

One of the first results of that was that the Fulton delegation approved a raft of Republican-sponsored legislation that has favored affluent north Fulton residents by restricting the county’s taxing powers, by converting an at-large Board of Commissioners seat to a district-based and Republican-dominated one, and by vesting control over the county elections board with the legislature instead of the Board of Commissioners. The full impact of the voting change has yet to be determined, but it’s not a big stretch to assume that the legislature will favor any and all changes that limit the ability of Black and Democratic party voters in Fulton to cast ballots. North Fulton Republicans like Hans von Spakovsky and Karen Handel have long been advocates for restrictive voter ID laws, with the former building on his experience as the chair of the Fulton County GOP to become a prominent advocate of voting restrictions, first in the George W. Bush Justice Department, and today in the pages of the National Review.

Then there’s this news item. State Senator Fran Millar, a Republican, represents Dunwoody, a recently-incorporated affluent enclave in northern DeKalb County as well as a narrow band of Sandy Springs in north Fulton County. For good measure, his 40th Senatorial District includes part of Gwinnett County, too. So Millar sits on three legislative delegations and in each case, he represents a constituency of mostly white and affluent Republicans in counties that are either majority-minority and tilt Democratic (Fulton and DeKalb) or have growing minority populations (Gwinnett) and are economically diverse. Although his district is split by the counties, his vote in each’s delegation is the same as a legislator whose district sits entirely within the county. This is a major loophole in American voting rights law that gives small numbers of county residents disproportionate influence over legislation affecting the county.

Here’s what he had to say about DeKalb County’s decision to designate a Sunday in October for early voting in the November elections, which will elect Georgia’s governor and a U.S. Senator:

Now we are to have Sunday voting at South DeKalb Mall just prior to the election. Per Jim Galloway of the AJC, this location is dominated by African American shoppers and it is near several large African American mega churches such as New Birth Missionary Baptist. Galloway also points out the Democratic Party thinks this is a wonderful idea – what a surprise. I’m sure Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter are delighted with this blatantly partisan move in DeKalb.

Is it possible church buses will be used to transport people directly to the mall since the poll will open when the mall opens? If this happens, so much for the accepted principle of separation of church and state.

It’s possible that Millar genuinely does care about the separation of church and state, since the American Conservative Union most recently gave him a squishy, RINO-ish 88% rating. Presumably he was too busy earning a 100% rating from the Chamber of Commerce and attending American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conferences to much bother with the social issues. At any rate, his church-state concerns seem to have a more instrumental purpose. The AJC’s political blogger Jim Galloway didn’t include this nugget that Think Progress picked up from Millar’s Facebook page:

On his Facebook page Tuesday, Millar stood by his comments, writing: “I would prefer more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters. If you don’t believe this is an efort [SIC] to maximize Democratic votes pure and simple, then you are not a realist. This is a partisan stunt and I hope it can be stopped.”

So, to recap: Fran Millar gets to vote as a member of three county legislative delegations as a Georgia senator, but thinks the republic will collapse if Black voters take a church van to the mall to vote on a Sunday.

UPDATE:

Fulton County has approved Sunday early voting in October.

In entirely unrelated news, Georgia Attorney General Brian Kemp has issued a subpoena in a registration fraud investigation of the New Georgia Project’s efforts to register new voters. The group was founded by Rep. Stacey Abrams, an Atlanta Democrat. New Georgia Project claims that the investigation into their group is a naked attempt at vote suppression. The enthusiasm of Governor Nathan Deal for the investigation tends to support that argument.

Kristina Torres (or her editor) at the AJC buries the lede here, as the last paragraphs of the post make clear that this use of state resources is much more about intimidating potential voters and groups registering them than about preventing improper voting:

Fewer than 25 forms out of the 85,000 submitted are involved in the investigation, Abrams said: “What we are being accused of is turning in the information we are required by law to turn in.”

Michael McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida and director of the United States Elections Project, said it was not unusual to have some forms flagged among tens of thousands turned in. He likened it to millions of metro Atlantans driving to work at the same time on the same roads every morning: “There are going to be accidents.”

In cases involving voter registration drives, McDonald said, “if there’s fraud, typically it’s fraud against the organization that’s coordinating the drive, not the state.” It was not unusual, he said, to flag such forms given the legal requirement to turn everything in.

“The question is, will this fraud somehow translate into fraudulent votes, and the history of this is no, it does not,” McDonald said. “There are enough checks and balances in place that the vote fraud does not occur,” including a requirement in Georgia to show identification when voting.

So, too, does a recording of Kemp speaking about the potential impact of newly registered minority voters on the November election (transcript from AJC):

“In closing I just wanted to tell you, real quick, after we get through this runoff, you know the Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines, if they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”

 

UPDATE 2:

Yes, the AJC reports, in the lede this time, we are talking about 25 out of 85,000 voter registration applications. Just like in the ACORN fiasco, New Georgia Project has inadvertently enabled its adversaries by following the law and turning problematic applications in to the county registrar, which is the only entity with the authority to disqualify a registration application. This investigation stinks.

UPDATE 3: 

As David Wickert has been reporting, the members of the Republican-dominated Fulton County legislative delegation have been meeting to discuss the coming year’s agenda. When the Assembly convenes in January 2015, expect another round of legislation aimed at shrinking Fulton government and bringing the public sector in line with the wishes of tax-averse north Fulton Republicans. As Wickert reports:

Republicans on the County Commission and in the General Assembly have long complained Fulton spends too much for a county where most residents get police, fire and other basic services from cities. They think the county should downsize, and they’re willing to use state laws that target a specific jurisdiction — known as “local legislation” — to make it happen.

“We took action,” said Rep. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta. “People thought that Fulton had not really adjusted its costs based on all the new cities.”

The fact that Millar is even part of the Fulton legislative delegation, as well as the agenda that he supports, reflects a long and successful attempt by north Fulton Republicans to use the state legislature to make an end run around the continuing power of Democrats in Fulton County. These are the rules of the game, and the north Fulton GOP understands how to make those rules work in their own interests. So this is not a matter of ethics but of politics. Still, the willingness to jump scale to the state level does undermine any principled claim to local control:

They want to be the Fulton County Commission,” Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “Why should the 236 members of the General Assembly and the governor in effect become the Fulton County Commission?”

Balko on Municipal Predation on the Poor

This is a compelling analysis by Radley Balko  of something that’s gotten a surprising and welcome boost of attention as a structural part of the hostility between residents and the criminal justice apparatus in places like Ferguson.

It’s by no means unique, however. Read this by Sarah Stillman in the New Yorker to grasp the way that a cottage industry of entrepreneurial police officers has spread aggressive civil forfeiture across the United States.

There’s deservedly a lot of attention focused on the the predatory nature of the processes in both of these articles–that poor residents, likely to be inadequately represented in the legal system, become cash cows. Stillman also focuses on the historical role of the War on Drugs in boosting asset forfeiture as a law enforcement tool and then as a revenue stream. It’s worth noting, though, that local governments jumped on forfeiture at a point in time when Federal aid to lower levels of government retrenched. Shortfalls had to be made up, and in the structure of interlocal competition that exists in the US, making them up by taxing the wealthy, businesses, or commercial or industrial property carries the risk of capital flight. The poor, in a bitter irony, have become important to strapped local governments because, although they don’t have many assets, they are fairly immobile.

Detroit Water

Apparently, activists in Detroit have convinced the city’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to halt plans to shut off water to customers delinquent on bills, return the management of the Detroit Water and Sewer Department to the city’s elected government, and implement caps on billing linked to household income. The decision apparently comes as a bankruptcy judge was preparing to issue a decision on a restraining order preventing DWSD from shutting off water for unpaid bills. If this is a signal that Orr expected the ruling to favor water users, it’s a bit of good news.

The group Detroit Water Brigade has a statement here, which includes this key point:

We commend the move by Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, City Council and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Rhodes to return control of Detroit’s water to the democratically elected leadership of the city of Detroit. This is a positive step in the direction of popular control of Detroit’s water and other common resources by the people of Detroit.

Indeed, this is bigger than Detroiters’ access to water as a right of habitation (n.b.: if you inhabit Detroit, it’s hard to imagine what could be more important) and speaks to a more general way of thinking about the way that cities have historically developed to provide for common need, as well as the ways that a privatized political economy has grown out of suburbanization to become a dominant model for urban governance as well. Because the relationship between cities and suburbs is one of dense but non-reciprocal interactions, the governance models of privatization and minimal local states that have arisen in suburbia are not just ill-suited to urban communities, they essentially depend, in the favored places where they do work, on those places’ relative advantage over other nearby places.

As I wrote in summary of Carl Smith’s excellent City Water, City Life, urban water systems provided a material basis around which cultural and political debates about common provision could cohere, and gave thousands and then millions of people a material stake in a common environment and social system. We risk more than public ownership by privatizing resources like water; we risk the idea of a public itself.

More Ferguson (Update)

There has been a lot of good writing and a lot of bad writing to come out about Ferguson. I’ll try and compile some of it here soon. In the meantime, this piece by Peter Coy in Bloomberg BusinessWeek is neither good nor bad writing, I guess, but it does point to the relationship of metropolitan fragmentation and the political disempowerment of African Americans in St. Louis County as well as suggest that the proliferation of jurisdictions makes goals like economic coordination for development quite a bit more difficult.

Coy tends to overstate the case a bit; the dynamics of the real estate market, employment, and educational inequality can operate to disadvantage minority group members within the borders of large jurisdictions just as much as in small fragmented ones. And no one who has been paying attention to the LAPD or the NYPD, for example, would suggest that things automatically improve for minorities when control of policing is carried out at a large scale.

But, there are important dynamics that do unfold in a metropolitan context, in the relationship among jurisdictions. And the more jurisdictions there are, the greater the force of those dynamics. One of these is the cutthroat competition for revenue-producing businesses. Coy writes:

Businesses choosing where to locate can play the tiny municipalities off against one another for tax incentives, prompting a race to the bottom that robs them all of desperately needed revenue. “There’s a tremendous opportunity and incentive to just poach from one municipality to another,” says University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.

Coy makes a couple of contradictory points: that the race-to-the bottom effect of competitive localism disadvantages some jurisdictions, and he implies that this is the case with Ferguson. Yet, Ferguson is not exceptionally impoverished nor is it distant from many centers of economic activity. Its residents may have to cross municipal borders to go to work, but that’s not illegal (at least not yet).

There’s another piece of the puzzle that links competitive localism to the situation in Ferguson, and specifically to the mutual hostility between the city’s Black residents and the police. Local public defender Thomas Harvey (with ArchCity Defenders) has written a paper addressing this specific linkage (h/t Vox and Sarah Kliff).

In Ferguson, court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone. That’s become a key source of tension. There is a perception in the area, Harvey says, that the black population is targeted to pay those fines. Eighty-six percent of the traffic stops, for example, happen to black residents — even though the city is 67 percent black.

The key that ArchCity Defenders report is that

the amount collected through the municipal courts seems to be inversely proportional to the wealth of the municipality.

Put simply, when cities lose in the race to the bottom, many turn to fining their own citizens as a revenue measure. And paradoxically, those with the least means to pay traffic tickets and fines will find themselves targeted for this kind of enforcement because they are also the people with the least means to leave a city that’s oppressively policing them.

Update: See Peter Dreier and Todd Swanstrom, two of the authors of the updated classic Place Matterscomment on this issue in the Washington Post. By publishing this sort of analysis on its Post Everything online venue, Kaplan Test Prep partly makes up for publishing last week’s truly execrable “Do what the cops tell you or it’s your fault if you get shot” post. Read it if you think I’m being ungenerous in my summary.

Segregation, Policing, and St. Louis

I’ve been horrified by the recent events in the segregated and disadvantaged St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. A half century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the essential civil liberty of being in public space is far from secure for Black people in particular and racial minorities in general, who can be killed by the police while unarmed on a public street (women face a different set of restrictions on their ability to be in public that are privately enforced but sanctioned by state inaction against sexual violence).

I’m preparing to teach a course on race in America as an interdisciplinary study, and the social psychology of implicit bias and threat perception are highly salient to this question. One internet commenter has poignantly noted that Black men appear to possess a magical ability to convince white police officers and vigilantes that they are holding deadly weapons. Perhaps many of these white agents of public safety harbor genuine animus against Black people (it’s possible). Yet, another possibility, not a mutually exclusive one, exists: that whites’ responses to Black people in public represent a convergence of the psychological phenomenon of implicit bias through the ideological constructs of self-defense by armed force promoted by the gun industry.

The habitus of whites in America–the everyday conditions under which most white people live, and the ideas they draw from those conditions, constitute a pedagogy about race and danger that, despite the growing disrepute of racial supremacy in public speech, is nonetheless powerful. It affects whites’ support of policing, and it sustains their support for harsh sentencing and longer incarceration when they are made aware that Black people are disproportionately incarcerated.

These and other social science perspectives on race are valuable; integrated, they point to what Barbara Reskin calls a “race discrimination system” in which the interaction of diffuse parts of society–institutions, ideologies, and accumulated legacies of past discrimination–produce emergent and ongoing racial disparities. It’s important to understand racism as something alive that is being reproduced every day rather than as something inert and dead that is being eroded slowly and gradually.

I of course want to think about how a series of systemic moments link across space and across time. That is, I want to do history with this. George Lipsitz has a useful term, the “public pedagogy” to describe how the spaces created by racial segregation channel opportunity, embed existing prejudices, and create the conditions under which today’s “color-blind” or “laissez-faire” racism can flourish as whites identify the local social and economic traumas of systemic racism with the presumed cultural attributes of Black or other nonwhite people. Lipsitz’s book How Racism Takes Place is a lucid and compelling account of this process across time, and how interventions in urban planning, the law, and ideological production, among other factors, have sustained a public pedagogy that puts over the lesson with stunning effectiveness that Black people are dangerous and must be contained. Coincidentally, Lipsitz writes a great deal about St. Louis in parts of this book, and it’s all very urgent in light of current events.

Another historian whose work should get significant attention as a way of understanding the tragedy in Ferguson is Colin Gordon, whose book Mapping Decline shows the spatial reallocation of real estate wealth and insurance coverage in metro St. Louis in the post-WWII Era, and exposes the evolving pedagogy of place that informed and grew out of bureaucratic decisions made by planners, urban renewal experts, bankers, and insurance agents. These processes seem dry and technical, but they sustained, with profound consequences, the idea that Black people’s presence in St. Louis’s neighborhoods was dangerous to the personal and economic safety of whites and the health of the body politic, and needed to be contained by mapping the metropolitan area and delineating whose bodies would be welcome and whose would not. These decisions drove white flight but they also determined that more affluent Black St. Louisans would run on a treadmill of property, acquiring suburban residence as white neighbors left, taking access to credit and insurance, as well as social esteem with them. One of Gordon’s interviewees would call the transition of University City and Ferguson among other close-in suburbs “Ghetto spillover,” which dramatically misconstrues the social agency involved, placing, as so often happens, blame for the area’s perceived decline on the people most directly affected by it.

You can see some of those maps here.

 

Water

This post was occasioned by a confluence of two events. I recently finished Carl Smith’s wonderful book City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, and a 93 year-old water main in west Los Angeles ruptured, sending up to two feet of flood water across Sunset Boulevard and parts of UCLA’s Westwood campus, including the famous Pauley Pavilion basketball arena. Although I’m sure my reading of Smith had no causal effect on the water main rupture (that would be a result of the combination of chemistry, physics, and systemic neglect of public infrastructure), I can’t let such a wonderful coincidence go by without comment (for somewhat more pointed comment, see Charlie Pierce).

Smith’s book is a clever and well-developed synthesis of several strains of urban historiography. He connects the kind of infrastructural history of waterworks and institutional history of public health and sanitary movements associated with Joel Tarr’s pathbreaking work to the analysis of the creation of a public city through infrastructure and governance developed by reform intellectuals like Frederic Howe and later historians like Thomas Bender. Smith further considers the way that ideas, expressed in public through polemic, the rhetoric of water boards’ annual reports, and even art commemorating and monumentalizing the establishment of municipal water service as a kind of secular urban miracle, drove the development of infrastructure and governing authority and helped to make clean and safe water a taken-for-granted part of American urban life.

This is no mere history of waterworks (though it does shed new light on the efforts to establish them in three cities). Smith makes insightful arguments about how the struggle to provide water changed the meaning and experience of urban life, physically, politically, and ideologically. One key way, Smith argues, that it did so was through changing the way that urban dwellers related to time. Specifically, when cities committed resources through bonded debt to build waterworks, they compelled their residents to accept a financial burden on behalf of future generations of residents (as well as on behalf of other members of an urban collective in their own day), and the elites who frequently championed and shepherded the idea of waterworks to fruition developed novel and sophisticated appeals to historical immortality, family morality, and self-interest to encourage residents, and especially those of means, who would bear much of the financial cost, to embrace that burden, and to justify extending it to the future.

 The borrowing demanded by waterworks inspired bold and ingenious invocations of history and time that characterized a debt as a bequest or endowment for which future residents should be grateful, not as a burden they should resent…. The Watering Committee [of Philadelphia, in 1799] pointed out that people living in the city in years to come would be “justly made to pay, in some proportion, for the benefit they would receive.” A water loan should be viewed as a gift to them, not an encumbrance, since it did no less than make a greater Philadelphia possible. (211-12)

Smith’s work takes on a particularly tragic resonance in light of the LA rupture which, to be honest, is receiving attention mostly because it flooded a famous sports arena, rather than for what it says about our collective capacity to connect our own interests to others in our place and time and those whose lives will be shaped in the future by our present actions. In California and across the country, Americans have turned the idea of committing future generations to public infrastructure on its head, deciding now to abandon our water, sewer, road, and communications systems and tell our progeny to decide on their own if they want to fix it. Today, with near-zero interest rates, we could be deciding on behalf of our grandchildren to issue infrastructure bonds that would help guarantee the movement of people, goods, and ideas, and ensure the provision of clean water and the safe evacuation of sewage from our homes. I don’t think they’d resent us for it, even if we used some of the money to make some self-congratulatory statues in our own honor (which the Philadelphian waterworks champions of the late 18th century certainly did). Imagine if Philadelphians in 1799 had watched Fox News….

It’s also worth noting that the development of water works required urban elites and ordinary residents to wrestle with and find pragmatic solutions to allocating costs for water service. While home usage was amenable to a user fee model that continued the idea of private responsibility, building capacity for public uses of water like fire protection defied all efforts to assign costs to individual beneficiaries, becoming a true public good. Further, while many debated how to link payment to usage, the public health promises of clean water in an age of deadly epidemic disease raised an opposite point–that access to clean water could be construed as a right and entitlement of habitation of a city that couldn’t be denied to individuals for humane reasons and that should not be withheld for the benefit of the city as a whole.

To distribute water without charge was never a serious option…. At the same time, however, no humane community could deny an individual access to water even if that person could not afford to pay for it. In short, figuring out fees for water, while it entailed financial considerations that were challenging for technical reasons, also posed more abstract questions of individual and collective obligations and rights. (93)

In our contemporary terms, residents of nineteenth century Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago established, sometimes unwittingly and not without the recurrent expression of contrary opinion, that access to clean water was a human right. Today the United Nations “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” The appointed emergency management of the city of Detroit, of course, disagrees, and has ordered the termination of water service to 17,000 homes and businesses for delinquency on water bills. John Nichols estimates that there are up to 90,000 low income Detroit families who may face a water shutoff over water bills that have continued to rise under pressure from bond investors and emergency managers to shore up the finances of the city’s water services. This might mean up to 300,000 Detroiters and 40% of water customers.

Smith’s thesis is that an “infrastructure of ideas” as much as an infrastructure of pumps, pipes, and spigots, brought water into the fabric of urban life. It was once unthinkable to deny access to water because of the inability to pay, as it was once unthinkable to make one generation’s investment in infrastructure a casualty of a later generation’s refusal to pay the upkeep.  Read Smith’s book and reflect on the consequences of abandoning the accumulated infrastructure of ideas of two centuries.

________________
Smith, Carl S. City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.