OAH Reading: Carlton Basmajian on the Atlanta Regional Commission

I’m here at the OAH meeting in Atlanta, getting ready to give a talk on the complexities of black political positions on metropolitan consolidation and annexation in the 1970s. The typical discussion on the matter frames it as a conflict between the need to take in more territory and tax base and the black political imperative to avoid diluting the black vote as it became a majority in the city electorate. This framing is too binary and simplified, because it ignores the way that taking positions and advancing policies on annexation was a strategic maneuver that could demonstrate the bona fides of black politicians to compromise “black” interests and support policies the business elite favored. It also conceals the fact that many black politicians believed that a properly tailored annexation plan could both expand the city’s fiscal base and preserve black power even if it took in tens of thousands of affluent whites. And, even more subtly, black politicians had to avoid playing up that belief in order to make it look like they were actually making a political sacrifice.

My talk sort of tails off at the point where black city and state politicians drift apart on the annexation question. After the 1970s, a window closes, and the region and the state government become less interested in annexation and political boundaries (until relatively recently, with the push to split Fulton County).

A new book, Carlton Wade Basmajian’s  Atlanta Unbound: Enabling Sprawl Through Policy and Planning (Temple, 2013) helps to explain why in a clever and provocative way. The reason that the metropolitan area has fragmented more and momentum for consolidation has failed, Basmajian contends, is successful regional planning.

Wait, you might say. Successful regional planning in Atlanta, the land of sprawl? Yes. In fact, that landscape of sprawl is the purposeful creation of the Atlanta Regional Commission, chartered by the state in 1971 to coordinate the planning required to secure state and federal funding for the key infrastructural supports of growth: water and transportation. In both areas, the ARC managed information, planning, and political lobbying to create infrastructure that supported sprawl beyond Atlanta and Fulton County. This cemented a growth coalition that was not dependent on either the downtown business and financial leadership or the black political regimes that followed Maynard Jackson’s election. It also ensured that the demographics of Georgia shifted decisively. Instead of Atlanta becoming a dominant bloc in the legislature, its suburbs grew to hold significant power.

ARC was particularly effective in steering growth, Basmajian argues, by representing itself as an objective analyst of growth (presumably a natural process), and not as an advocate for any particular pattern. Technology was a key tool not only for planning, but more importantly for politics. In a section that should be eerily familiar to anyone concerned with the vogue for “big data” and “analytics” today, he demonstrates that the ARC constructed its 1976 Regional Development Plan with computer modeling, and stressed this fact as a source of credibility. This technology, at the cutting edge at the time,

reduced the complexity of a metropolitan region to a comparatively small set of variables, perhaps a necessary step in modeling complex social systems, [but] their popularity lay in their ability to provide seemingly precise, objective projections of the distribution of the population, employment, and land use at defined intervals of years with apparent objectivity (91).

The consequence, however, was a set of growth models that embedded faulty assumptions and prevailing conventional wisdom to “project” a demographic donut with a hollowed-out Atlanta at its center. This projection justified the formation of water and transportation planning to serve the edges of the donut,

privileging policies that matched projections of sprawling growth while hiding meaningful alternatives (86).


ARC and its 1976 RDP illustrate how federal policy merged with state and local politics to create a regional planning agenda marked by a self-fulfilling prophecy of sprawl (87).

This, as Basmajian ably shows, resulted in drastic changes not only in the region’s landscape, but in its political economy too. The book is well worth a read.


Rationality vs. Historicism in Political Economy of Cities

Robert Frank had an interesting article in the NYT  on March 29 about Detroit’s fine art collections. Frank argues quite simply that the best value proposition for the city is to sell the expensive works, rededicate its facilities to local and emerging artists, and pursue a comparative advantage strategy that maximizes return and minimizes costs. I like Frank’s work on the middle class and his evaluation of “smart for one, dumb for all” implications of rational individualism in Falling Behind, which I’m teaching to my students in a course on the American Middle Class. And anyone whose book is called “unfortunate” by the Mises Institute is generally OK with me. Which makes the “smart for all” implications of his argument tough to take.

It’s tough to argue that point on the surface, but among the points made a week ago by George Galster at the Urban Affairs Association meeting last week, as well as in his book Driving Detroit, is that the political-economic predicament of Detroit is more political than economic. And a major part of that politics is the extraction of resources across the city and county line to suburbs that are not simply competitors of Detroit, but often actively hostile. Nonetheless, residents of these suburbs are willing to use the city as a repository for big-ticket entertainment and cultural venues. These days, it usually means convincing city governments to enter into scams schemes infrastructure development partnerships for sports stadiums and arenas (for hockey, in Detroit’s case) for the short-term amusement of the suburban fringe.

And that’s where the rational utility argument for selling the art falls off. As Frank writes:

One way to think about the decision is to imagine Detroit as a new municipality about to build a museum stocked and operated at taxpayer expense. Which paintings should it display?

Perhaps the most important principle of economics is that an action should be taken only if its benefit, broadly construed, exceeds its cost.

This quote is such a target-rich environment that it’s hard for me to know where to begin, so I’ll just go in order.

First, imagining Detroit as a new municipality is an absurd counterfactual. In American metropolitics, new cities don’t form on the moon. They form where they can take advantage of certain “sticky” attributes of metropolitan agglomeration to benefit from the concentration of industry, culture, knowledge, and institutions, while deploying their boundaries to externalize undesirable costs. A city like Detroit is so intrinsic to the very formation of any hypothetical new municipality that to recast Detroit as the new municipality renders the whole exercise ridiculous.

Second, such new municipalities overwhelmingly incorporate along highly limited and even privatized models of governance, both because their affluent homeowner constituents want to minimize tax obligations and because they take advantage of sporting, artistic, entertainment, judicial, commercial, and transit facilities outside their jurisdiction, the costs of which are frequently borne by central cities with sunk costs invested in things like art museums. The notion that New Detroit would choose not to open an art museum is entirely contingent on the assumption that Old Detroit has already been operating and maintaining one for years, offering a collective benefit to the region while locally absorbing the costs imposed by the museum’s property tax exemptions and policing the streets for the benefit of nervous suburban residents.

It’s thus hard to be satisfied with the argument that, having been reduced to bankruptcy by internal and external political leadership with the able assistance of extractive financial industry, that Detroit should sell off the china, as it were. Those works of art are fruits of the public, they’re irreplaceable, and their sale to private hands would result in the diminishment of all of southeastern Michigan’s access to the arts.

Frank does acknowledge this, and the distasteful nature of the choice. He offers a reassurance that the buyers of Detroit’s fire-sale masterpieces will respond benevolently:

If fewer museums owned them, the rich would have good reason to lend them more often for public display, as indeed many already do, thus preserving and enhancing their value. If sold, many of the institute’s famous works would return as loaners, along with such works from other collections.

As an Ivy League management professor, Frank may have more insight than I do into the behavior of the art collector class. But even assuming that the average Michigander’s ability to view these pieces will remain the same, why should we accept the transfer? If owning the art has value to the collector/purchaser, why should we not assume that it has a rational value (or a no less irrational value) to the city? Why not ask the wealthy suburban collector to contribute directly to both the display of the artwork and the institution through taxation? There’s an unbalanced political situation in which money, property rights, public access, and operating costs are in conflict. That conflict could be resolved in any number of ways other than privatizing resources.

I’m not saying this won’t prove both politically and economically expedient, if temporary solution. But this kind of cost-benefit analysis ignores a century of metropolitan history through the facile assumption that all cities operate under the same independent conditions and avoids wrestling with the difficult fact of non-reciprocity. The “choice” of suburban municipalities to operate austere minimal cities is dependent on nearby large cities that have maintained public investment in the kinds of cultural amenities that most suburbanites enjoy to some extent but dislike paying for.

Irregularly Recurring Quote of the Day

From the introduction to Clarissa Rile Hayward’s How Americans Make Race: Stories, Institutions, Spaces (Cambridge, 2013):

Nevertheless, people do not only learn their identities in narrative form. They learn them practically, as well, as they navigate institutional settings structured by identitarian norms and expectations, and as they experience corporeally the material forms in which those norms and expectations are objectified.

I’m intrigued by this formulation both because it places racialization and because it seems to push back against certain forms of soft multiculturalism that insist on the fluidity of identity or its voluntary nature. As a historian, I work to reconstruct the agency and consciousness of people in the past, and am particularly concerned with the racialized metropolis in the post-civil rights era. This was a time when narrative was in flux, and, in places like Atlanta, segments of an urban Black political elite did tend toward the triumphal in the story they told about race and place, while old institutions changed slowly and metropolitan expansion (white flight and the inmigration of a half million whites to the Atlanta suburbs in the 1980s and early 1990s) created new ones with a new set of identitarian norms.

Paul Ryan and Obama on Urban Poverty

Real quick, read Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s piece on Jacobin.

Unlike Ryan, Obama has always coupled his condemnations of the black poor with quick nods to discrimination in the nation’s past, but the overwhelming emphasis is in sync with a broad and bipartisan agreement that a culture of poverty and lapsed personal responsibility are ultimately to blame for the disproportionate rates of African American poverty.

The reduction of the real issues confronting black and brown people in America’s inner cities to culture or an absence of “personal responsibility” is a well-worn trope in American politics. It is a logic that is deeply embedded in the more hopeful rhetoric of the American Dream and the false notion that hard work and “playing by the rules” can lead to success and financial fulfillment in our country.

I’ve written the same thought here, but by no means as effectively.

New Edition of a Classic

The University Press of Kansas is releasing the third edition of Dreier, Mollenkopf and Swanstrom’s Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century.

I’m eager to see how this edition addresses the neoliberal moment of Obama’s (mostly notional) urban policy, the ongoing neocon culture war against cities, and of course, secession movements.

I find it a bit curious that the promotional text heavily emphasizes the role of boundaries in reproducing class divisions while downplaying the kind of racial conflicts that I argue are highly relevant to boundary politics.

The problem of rising inequality is at the center of Place Matters. During the past several decades, the standard of living for the American middle class has stagnated, the number of poor people has reached its highest level since the 1960s, and the super-rich have dramatically increased their share of the nation’s wealth and income. At the same time, Americans have grown further apart in terms of where they live, work, and play. This trend—economic segregation—no longer simply reflects the racial segregation between white suburbs and minority cities.  In cities and suburbs alike, poor, middle class, and wealthy Americans now live in separate geographic spaces.

Prior editions of the work do stress the intersectionality of class stratification, racial segregation and metropolitan space, so I wonder if this is a press’s marketing strategy for our post-racial age? I’ll try to develop a metropolitics topics course next year to justify ordering an exam copy and get back to you..


I have occasionally written about the more risible claims of urban transformation advanced by the TechBro elite. But this piece by David Noriega (with a big nod to Nathan Newman) examines the deeper political economy of Silicon Valley as an artifact of the technologically enabled speculation that has driven up housing values for decades. Since Prop 13′s limits on upward reassessment and tax rates took effect in 1979, valley cities have modeled an entrepreneurial neoliberal governance model whose fruits are familiar: an ungodly expensive city without adequate basic services.

Read the whole series, starting with the introduction