Oh Goody, “Fresh Ideas” in Urban Transportation

Techies commuting in San Francisco sometimes have to wait for one or two stuffed buses to pass before boarding one with room to carry them from Marina or Mission downtown. This obviously takes away from time they could be devoting to disrupting things, which is obviously terrible.

My old-economy, twentieth-century brain is thinking that buying more buses, hiring more drivers, and expanding the SF Muni system to make more seats on more buses for everyone would be the way to go to resolve this problem.

How wrong I am! The answer, as always, is a private startup!

These buses are going to have fancy coffee and WiFi, and they’ll go where the people who can pay $6 per ride want to go, instead of stopping at other places along the way where “the public” might try to get on board.

Don’t worry, this isn’t creating a price-based filter to keep poor people out while shunting the wealthy into a private and more desirable alternative. It’s “reimagining” transportation!

“Urban transportation is an area of extreme impact that still desperately needs fresh ideas,” said Banister, previously a co-founder of IronPort and an early adviser and board member at PayPal. “As a private player, Leap has the flexibility to reimagine mass transit, creating new ways to get people where they need to go while also enjoying the journey.”

Truly, a new idea that no one’s thought of before.

Cartoon John T. McCutcheon, 1905

Cartoon John T. McCutcheon, 1905

The history of public transportation has always been intertwined with conflicts that have arisen from sharing urban space across the social boundaries created by class inequality and institutionalized racism. Who gets to “enjoy the journey” has been a fraught question. Robin Kelley’s work in Race Rebels offered an innovative and influential look at transit in the Jim Crow south as a theater for acts of aggression and resistance that replicated the Jim Crow system in microcosm and allowed Black southerners the opportunity to resist it in small ways that became a large and transformative social movement. As Kelley writes,

Examples of black working-class resistance in public spaces offer some of the richest insights into how race, gender, class, space, time, and collective memory shape both domination and resistance (56)

These small experiences created an infrapolitics–an implicit script of action that helped to define and shape daily life in Jim Crow Birmingham. I don’t want to diminish the significance of major events like the Birmingham campaign of 1963, but the contested question of who would enjoy the ride to work on a daily basis was as much a part of the fabric of life in Birmingham as the actions of Bull Connor or the determination of the city’s business elite to resist integration.

Elsewhere in the South, Kevin Kruse in White Flight has analyzed a different dynamic–white abandonment of Atlanta’s buses after desegregation in protest. However, Kruse’s evidence shows that white disdain for integrated public transit–the problem being that whites no longer “enjoyed the journey” on terms of white supremacy–was hardly a Southern problem:

A northern man warned Chief Jenkins about what would happen to Atlanta’s desegregated buses as whites fled in fear. “As of today, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland public transportation systems are shells of their former place in public utility…. They are almost abandoned to the private car—bumper to bumper, one man to a vehicle—definitely to avoid Integration.” (115)

Even today, certain residents will joke that MARTA, the  Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority which operates buses and rail in Fulton and DeKalb (and soon Clayton) Counties, stands for Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta. Throughout the country, as Amanda Hess notes at Citylab, transit ridership is laden with racial and class stigma that discourages “choice” commuters, leaving regular riding the domain of “captive” commuters. Ditto for DJ Waldie, citing the work of urban planning scholar Steven Spears on cognitive barriers to transit ridership. And, as recent work by Robert Bullard and others in Highway Robbery shows,

Transportation planning has duplicated the discrimination used by other racist government institutions and private entities to maintain white privilege. The transportation options that are available to most Americans to day were shaped largely by Federal policies as well as individual and institutional discrimination…. Transportation decision-making is political. (20)

Part of the decision-making process lies with the San Francisco Muni system. Like other transit agencies, though, they face severe budgetary constraints on expansion. And the private decisions of individuals and entrepreneurs–to shun a public system but flock to a private and elite alternative, or to invest in a private and for-profit system rather than promote the public one as a tacit statement on civic participation by the new tech elite, are political too. In the long run, those diffuse private decisions will be just as historically consequential, and the motives and purposes of the people making them are fair game for analysis. Here, in a photo from one of Rebecca Solnit’s London Review of Books diaries from San Francisco, two protesters try to stop Google employees from enjoying their ride:

They seem to be making some kind of point, or even resisting the daily infrapolitics of an increasingly socially segregated city. Of course, this is San Francisco and there’s no racism here, so maybe my analogy is flawed….

The City that Works (To Enrich Private Interests)

At this blog, we are personally rooting hard for Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to defeat Rahm Emanuel in Chicago’s mayoral runoff. Garcia’s support from the teachers’ union is a big factor, but as I wrote here and here at the height of the teachers’ strike in 2012, the bigger problem with Rahm’s administration is his enthusiasm for selling off the legacy of decades of public investment in schools, roads, and other infrastructure in deals that aren’t even all that great in the short run, but result on putrid return on investment in the long term.

Rick Perlstein’s piece in In These Times in January hits the nail on the head. He discusses the deep links between Emanuel’s appointed school board and for-profit charter school operators, and the mayor’s deep professional debt to Illinois’s new Republican governor Bruce Rauner, whose efforts to destroy public worker pensions and pass right-to-work laws will adversely affect the majority of Chicagoans. But the big takeaway of the piece is a discussion of the horrid long term leases negotiated for the operation of the Chicago Skyway toll road and the city’s parking meters, deals which will strip the city of public assets for decades while allowing private operators to rip off the public by raising tolls, fees, and fines. The only winners are politicians like Emanuel, who seem to exercise fiscal responsibility by closing short-term budget deficits (without having to raise Bruce Rauner’s taxes).

Why would politicians negotiate 75-and 99-year contracts that systematically shortchange their constituencies the longer they last? Because the concessionaires are able to exploit the simple fact that no politician, even ones named “Daley,” last in office that long. Politicians reap immediate glory for closing deficits without raising taxes and funding popular programs, an irresistible temptation. Voters blame the corporations that operate the roads for the toll increases and revenue shortfalls, not the politicians who wrote or voted for the deals in the first place. Then, when the damage is done, IBDYBD—“I’ll be dead, you’ll be dead,” to repurpose the phrase that became popular among the cynical Masters of the Universe who structured the financial time-bombs like mortgage-backed securities that tanked the global economy in 2008.

They are the people’s schools, the people’s bridges, and the people’s parking meters. They aren’t Rahm Emanuel’s to give away. This is the unfolding of urban history yet to be written.

One thing that’s encouraging from reading this article? This was Perlstein’s closing paragraph on January 21:

What’s next? Now that Emanuel is gliding to likely re-election in February, quite possibly a municipal constitutional apocalypse. The enabling legislation for his infrastructure trust includes the following language: “To the extent that any ordinance, resolution or order of the city is in conflict with the provisions of this ordinance, the provisions of this ordinance shall be controlling.” It sounds like a formula to turn the governing of the City by the Lake over to the bankers on a street called Wall. When Chicago voters go to the polls on February 24 to decide whether to keep Rahm Emanuel as their mayor or replace him with someone else, this is what that race should be all about.

Six weeks later, it looks like Chicago voters have done just that. Voters might be sick of the daily hassles imposed by privatization, or they might be more aware of its long term costs. Or, it might be that visibly sucking up to a union-busting Republican governor when you’re running for mayor in one of the most Democratic cities in America is still colossally arrogant and strategically inept no matter how much campaign money you have.



New Metro Atlanta Cities–Maybe Not About Good Government After All?

Mark Niesse at the AJC has been covering the Georgia General Assembly’s debates on bills to allow incorporation referenda and annexations in DeKalb County. His efforts to dig beneath the slogans and rhetoric on this issue has been commendable. I’ve been particularly interested in an article he wrote in late February that predicts a rapidly diminishing rate of return for each successive incorporation in the region.

All of the seven cities that have been created since 2005, when Sandy Springs started the local government trend, have become mostly white islands of safety and affluence. What’s remaining is heavily black, less well-off and will have to devote more resources to solve tougher crime problems.

Niesse goes on to make an argument that echoes what I’ve written about the limits of public choice theory in practice–the early adopters of incorporation secure control of high-value taxable property and are able to set boundaries that enclose affluent populations that demand few services. The real equity problem comes from the fact that a process that works well for the early-adopting cities is inherently less good for latecomers.

They also lack as much precious commercial property whose taxes help fund municipal governments. Only two of them, LaVista Hills and South Fulton, would bankroll their own police departments. The potential cities of Greenhaven, Tucker, Sharon Springs and Stonecrest would continuing to use county police.

The formation of wealthier cities has denied unincorporated residents resources, said Kathryn Rice, who lives in the southern part of DeKalb County. She too wants safer neighborhoods, fewer potholes, freshly paved roads and better parks.

“They need to know that they’re hurting me,” Rice said. “We don’t want to be scapegoats.”

What’s interesting, however, is that the new cities in Fulton and DeKalb Counties may not even be good instruments for local control or good, responsive government. Johnny Edwards and Craig Schneider in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provided an interesting report in late January describing on discontent among residents with local government in many of the suburban cities incorporated since 2005. I had meant to blog about it at the time, and didn’t, but since incorporating more cities is on the agenda in the Georgia Legislature’s annual session, it’s worth digging in a little bit.

As Edwards and Schneider write,

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found numerous problems among the growing ranks of metro Atlanta’s new cities, from Johns Creek to Brookhaven, Dunwoody to Sandy Springs. Elected leaders have faced complaints that they steered city business to relatives and campaign donors, accepted gifts and favors barred by ethics codes, spent too freely on salaries or dreamed up mega-dollar development deals that many constituents didn’t want.

  • Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker took a free vacation and rented a townhome from a developer and campaign contributor, then voted favorably on his zoning request.
  • A family member of Brookhaven Mayor J. Max Davis secured a $28,000 renovation contract with the city.
  • A Brookhaven councilman’s top campaign donors quickly won city work, and another councilman faced complaints that he routinely conducted private business at City Hall.
  • The impulse to smaller government sometimes turns into grand civic dreams once a city is born. Sandy Springs, the first in the wave of new cities, now plans a $100 million city center to house government offices, a performing arts center and shops.

The last is particularly ironic, because the movement to incorporate Sandy Springs drew great strength from the tax revolt that erupted in Fulton County in 1991. That tax revolt was a backlash by many of Fulton County’s wealthiest residents against legally required corrections to property tax assessments that finally made owners of the most valuable property pay something resembling the full share of taxes mandated by state law. But leaders of the tax revolt, many of whom would take leadership roles in the Sandy Springs incorporation movement and hold elected office in new cities or represent north Fulton voters in the state legislature, directed ire toward Fulton County’s “Taj Mahal” government center.

More seriously, advocates for cityhood in north Fulton areas in the 2000s and in DeKalb today, along with advocates for splitting Fulton County, frequently defend against the charge that they seek to create majority-white political enclaves by shifting the conversation to “good government” and condemning corruption at the County level.

This, however, is an example of the kind of good government that some residents of new cities have been getting, as Edwards and Schneider describe:

In 2013, several city officials in Johns Creek accused Mayor Mike Bodker of unethical conduct in his official dealings with men who had given him campaign contributions and gifts. The city hired former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson to investigate.

According to Wilson’s preliminary report, Bodker pushed the council to buy property from a campaign donor, Bob Cheeley, and urged the city to pay Cheeley’s asking price. Cheeley gave Bodker’s campaign $1,000 in 2006.

Cheeley was asking for more than $3 million for the property, former City Manager John Kachmar told the AJC. The council insisted on an independent appraisal, which came in at $2 million.

Wilson’s report also explored Bodker’s relationship with developer Richard Aaronson. Wilson said that in 2010, Bodker spent a free week in Aaronson’s Destin, Fla., beach house, then spent a year renting a townhome from Aaronson at a rate below what other tenants were paying.

In December 2010, a few months after the beach trip and just as he was moving into the townhome, Bodker voted in favor of changes Aaronson had requested in the Johns Creek Walk Phase II project.

The Aaronson family and company gave Bodker’s campaign $2,000 in 2008 and $3,500 in 2013.

Edwards and Schneider note that these actions are not in and of themselves illegal. But is “not technically against the law” a good standard for government integrity? In some of the new metro Atlanta cities, where

Gaining influence with top officials can be easier…. There are fewer power players, and some have known each other and done business for decades,

that standard might have to do.

I won’t beat a dead horse about this any more than necessary, but these kinds of complaints do suggest that the folks in most of these communities who voted to incorporate may have had a particular vision of “good government” in mind when they hit the voting booth. The notion that African American voters are not to be trusted with the public purse is hardly novel in Atlanta’s political culture, and there’s pretty strong visual evidence for the proposition that the complexion of new cities’ leadership strata is not an irrelevant factor in enthusiasm for incorporation.

from "New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race", Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

from “New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race”, Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

Sometimes, an apparent failure of policy–cityhood opening the door to corruption instead of responsiveness and transparency–reflects a critical misunderstanding of the actual goals of the policy.

Net Neutrality is an Urban Issue Too

We tend to think of the internet as a placeless space–an experiential reality that transcends geography in connecting people and information globally. However, the internet is really a place (warning: somewhat crude humor). And, apologies to Mr. Chappelle, it’s a real rather than a metaphorical place in the sense that its traffic is handled by servers and transmission facilities that occupy space on the earth. The internet is also a place in the extent that its usage varies among human beings occupying space on the earth. More to the point, places are (or are not) on the internet to the extent that their populations use (or don’t) the internet. The digital divide is a geographical divide as well as a social one. As the Pew Center for Research reports, rural areas have disproportionate numbers of people who don’t use the Internet. In the aggregate, urban and suburban areas have the same proportion of non-users, about 14%. However, this aggregation ignores the tremendous socioeconomic variation within cities and among diverse suburbs. Consider another risk factor for the digital divide: wealth.

If you have a college degree or live in a high income household, you’re much more likely to use the internet. Only 4% of college graduates do not use the internet compared with 41% of those without a high school degree. And only 4% of those with a household income of $75,000 or more don’t go online, versus 24% of those earning less than $30,000 per year.

These differences suggest that there are many suburbs and urban neighborhoods where Internet usage is virtually 100%, and many where it is very low. Further, statistics about internet usage obscure something more important: members of minority groups and low-income internet users are much more likely to use the internet in facilities like public libraries.

Which is why today’s decision by the FCC to regulate the Internet as a public utility is so significant. Most people rightly argue that Net Neutrality is important for the free flow of ideas, without restriction by network providers. But the decision also took a stand that truly recognizes that the internet is a public utility like drinking water or roads. Denial of access to that utility equals a denial of full participation in the society. It affects individuals and it affects communities that incur the costs of that denial on a social level.

Carl Smith’s wonderful book City Water, City Life made the point quite elegantly that part of the political movement to create public waterworks in American cities was the recognition by elites that they bore the cost (materially and physically from disease, and aesthetically from “filth”) that accrued when the public lacked access to clean water.

If cities bear the human capital and employment costs of the digital divide, why shouldn’t they likewise act to provide broadband access to their residents? Per Rebecca Ruiz and Steve Lohr at the Times:

Also at the Thursday meeting, the F.C.C. approved an order to pre-empt state laws that limit the build-out of municipal broadband Internet services. The order focuses on laws in two states, North Carolina and Tennessee, but it would create a policy framework for other states. About 21 states, by the F.C.C.’s count, have laws that restrict the activities of community broadband services.

Here, you can see where municipalities have acted to create public broadband, and where they have been preempted from doing so by state legislation, frequently aided by the templates helpfully provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

This interference with municipal power to provide needed utilities is nothing new. It’s been a recurrent response to cities asserting broader powers in order to provide for their residents’ needs. Want to know more? Gerald Frug’s book City Making: Building Communities Without Building Walls is a pretty good place to start, and his discussion of the idea that limits on city power have served as limits on the ability of particular classes of city residents (minorities, the poor, immigrants) to make claims on public resources leads to an interesting discussion of the legal architecture of spatial injustice in metropolitan areas. Though, if you want something more recent, Frug and fellow law professor David Barron have produced City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation. Looks like I’ll have to read it now, particularly since it addresses Atlanta’s relationship to the State of Georgia, a particular interest of mine.

Municipal Preemption in the News

As I wrote recently, preemptive laws prohibit municipal governments from enacting particular policies. Preemption in the nineteenth century was extensive, as business interests used state legislatures tilted toward rural interests to thwart the efforts of municipalities to meet public needs through taxation and spending. Legislative limits are coming back in a big way, as Shaila Dewan reports in the New York Times today:

Darren Hodges, a Tea Party Republican and councilman in the windy West Texas city of Fort Stockton, is a fierce defender of his town’s decision to ban plastic bags. It was a local solution to a local problem and one, he says, city officials had a “God-given right” to make.

But the power of Fort Stockton and other cities to govern themselves is under attack in the state capital, Austin. The new Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has warned that several cities are undermining the business friendly “Texas model” with a patchwork of ill-conceived regulations. Conservative legislators, already angered by a ban on fracking that was enacted by popular vote in the town of Denton last fall, quickly followed up with a host of bills to curtail local power.

“The truth is, Texas is being California-ized, and you may not even be noticing it,” Mr. Abbott said in a speech at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, just before he took office last month. “Large cities that represent about 75 percent of the population in this state are doing this to us. Unchecked overregulation by cities will turn the Texas miracle into the California nightmare.”

So, local governments that serve 75% of the population of Texas are taking action to represent their residents’ best interests. I guess that really is a nightmare.

Pre-emption invokes a paradox for conservatives, like Mr. Abbott, who have long extolled the virtues of local control in some areas, like education, but now say uniform standards are necessary in others.

Oh.  Well, I’m sure that “necessity” is determined by public interest, and not by organized industrial groups….

The strategy was pioneered by tobacco companies 30 years ago to override local smoking bans. It was perfected by the National Rifle Association, which has succeeded in preventing local gun regulations in almost every state.

More recently, the restaurant industry is leading the fight to block municipalities from increasing the minimum wage or enacting paid sick leave ordinances in more than a dozen states, including Florida, Oklahoma and Louisiana. “Businesses are operating in an already challenging regulatory environment,” said Scott DeFife, the head of government affairs for the National Restaurant Association. “The state legislature is the best place to determine wage and hour law. This is not the kind of policy that should be determined jurisdiction by jurisdiction.”

This year, a combination of big money in state politics and a large number of first-time state legislators presents an opportunity for industries interested in getting favorable laws on the books, Mr. Pertschuk said. Increasingly, he said, disparate industries are banding together to back the same laws, either through the business-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, or by way of shared lobbyists. “There is going to be a feeding frenzy all year long in the state legislatures,” he said.

I’ve got some work that is nearing press that addresses the history of this aspect of state-municipal politics. I won’t spoil the plot, but this preemption is part of a long effort to suppress the democratic potential of American cities. This battle was expressed most influentially (perhaps notoriously) in the 1872 expression by Iowa Supreme Court Justice John Dillon of the notion that cities are constitutionally “creatures of the states.” It was purely coincidental that Dillon was a career railroad attorney, that railroads, the largest corporate enterprises of their day, were engaged in extensive battles against local governments over taxes and regulation, and that state legislatures were notoriously influenced by railroads. Indeed, the much-maligned headnote in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad that established the principle of corporate personhood was rooted in just such a dispute.

That’s not what’s happening today, right?

James Quintero, the director of the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said the pre-emption of city power was “new to the conservative movement here in Texas.” Still, he was ready to counter accusations of hypocrisy: “What we’re arguing is that liberty, not local control, is the overriding principle that state and local policy makers should be using,” he said.

OK. Liberty.

In Texas, many of the bills before the Legislature aim to prevent more cities from following Denton’s lead in banning hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. State Representative Phil King, a Republican representing a district near Denton, has sponsored two pre-emption bills. The first bill would require local referendums to be certified by the state as legal, and the other would require an assessment of the cost, in tax revenue, of any local attempt to regulate oil and gas.

Liberty it is.

The Stadium Scam and Cities as Instruments of Democracy

I’m working on the edits for an article I’ve been working on in some way, shape, or form since 2010. Yes. 2010. Such is academic publishing. The article (no spoilers) deals in chief with the ways that cities as legal corporations might potentially serve as instruments of public democracy by expressing and acting in the public interest. I counterpose this kind of democracy with a prevailing privatized view of political participation defined by the contribution to a candidate or a single-issue nonprofit advocacy group.

Spoiler alert (OK, a little one): I contend that public democracy is better. However, a big problem for cities, where people have routinely demonstrated a desire to practice public democracy, has been the renewed opposition of state legislatures, substantially influenced by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to urban government action in response to democratic pressure.

What has made working on these edits tolerable and not a crushing reminder of the absurdities inherent in the academic publishing model is that current events keep reinforcing the argument. Today’s example comes from Deadspin, which, while nominally a sports blog, is routinely at the front of the line identifying the ways that sports (among other spectacles) have been leveraged by capitalists to transform cities and secure extensive public subsidies for billionaires (see also here and here).

The stuff that Bill Bradley describes could be happening anywhere, but it has particular poignance since it’s happening in Detroit, where local democracy has taken a considerable beating at the hands of capitalists and rural-suburban politicians). There, the city council has advocated requiring developers receiving public funds for major development projects to sign Community Benefits Agreements, legally binding contracts that would set terms by which the developer would be required to abide. These might address hiring, the number of construction and non-construction jobs to be established, the wages and benefits to be paid, and the proportion of local residents to be hired.

The precipitating events behind the proposed local law were many, but one stands out:

“We are allowing these large corporations—companies that could build a hockey arena without our money—to get in the corporate welfare line and take resources away from us,” Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan state representative who serves Detroit, told me. “In exchange for what?”

The hockey arena Tlaib mentioned is for the city’s beloved Red Wings, owned by pizza baron Mike Ilitch. The Ilitch family, whose net worth is estimated at $3.2 billion thanks in part to their Little Caesars pizza empire, received $284.5 million in public money to build a new, $450 million arena in the city’s Cass Corridor neighborhood. (They are desperately and vapidly rebranding it as the “arena and entertainment district.”)

While the Ilitch family was finishing up its honeypot stadium welfare deal last year—not to mention a wildly below-market rate $1 land transfer for 39 vacant parcels—they refused to sign a CBA that would ensure a certain percentage of permanent, non-construction jobs at the arena went to Detroiters. A group of locals formed the Corridors Alliance in an attempt to engage with the Ilitches, but their efforts were futile. The Ilitches did, however, agree to a mayoral executive order that demanded 51 percent of construction jobs go to residents and 30 percent of construction contracts go to local businesses. (The mayoral order, like Marathon’s hollow promise, is not legally binding.)

Take public money, the CBA reasonably insists, and deliver public benefits. Sounds about right? Not so fast:

The opposition made it all the way to the state capitol in Lansing during December’s lame duck session, where Republican State Representative Earl Poleski introduced House Bill 5977, which would “prohibit local units of government from creating a ‘community benefits ordinance.'” The bill, which died in December and was reintroduced in January, would ban Detroit’s proposed ordinance outright.

“House Bill 5977 sets up the state as a dictatorship telling local units of government that they cannot do what is best for their community, workers and residents when it comes to wages and benefits tied to economic development in that community,” Tlaib said in a statement.

I should also mention that the Detroit Regional Chamber Political Action Committee donated money to Poleski’s reelection campaign last summer, according to Secretary of State disclosures. And while it was a paltry and deeply stupid check for only $250, it’s worth asking why the Detroit Regional Chamber is propping up a state representative from Jackson, a county 80 miles west.

The reason of course, is that the concept of pre-emption, which plagued cities in the nineteenth century when urban special interests could leverage the anti-urbanism of rural legislators to stop cities from doing anything they didn’t like, has come back in with a vengeance. Whether it’s an idiosyncratic case like Detroit’s CBA initiative or the kinds of cookie-cutter pre-emption bills ALEC has distributed through the State Houses to try to kill off living wage bills or environmental protections, urban special interests of the stadium-building class have discovered that the states are a potent weapon against local democracy.

Contract Cities Then and Now

A cool discussion here by Ryan Reft on the historical roots of municipal service contracting. Someone we know was quoted talking about the Lakewood Plan in Los Angeles County, which, beginning with the incorporation of the suburban city of Lakewood in 1954, launched a wave of “contract city” incorporations that reshaped both the political economy of metro Los Angeles and cultural conceptions of what a city is, stretching from California to suburban Atlanta to Bali. Lakewood as a historical site is rich with meaning and ironies, and Reft, I think, does a great job showing some of the tensions that always existed in the community and that are frequently glossed over by today’s advocates of contract cities and municipal privatization. Among those I’ve written about:

  • Lakewood was a community of hopeful lower-middle class and skilled blue-collar workers, whose interest in low taxation meshed felicitously with the interests of the city’s main developer.
  • Lakewood offered an attractive model of family life that convinced outsiders that the contract services system and the political fragmentation it encouraged were wins for choice and local control, though in practice the system tied many incorporated cities to Los Angeles County’s service bureaucracy.
  • The Lakewood Plan, and related changes to California’s local option sales tax system, initially helped Lakewood as an early-adopter of suburban incorporation, but incorporation offered diminishing returns across metro Los Angeles as more cities competed to lower property taxes by attracting sales tax-rich businesses.

Reft also cites lifelong Lakewood resident D.J. Waldie’s memoirs of the growing community, which are a vital read for anyone who wants to better understand the experiential dimension of a new working-middle class growing in American suburbia. Waldie tends to be more approving than I do of the politics of the Lakewood Plan (he did work as the city’s Chief Information Officer, an innovative PR position that the city created), but reading his accounts helps clarify something that a colder political economy analysis can miss: the wave of movements for suburban political autonomy was not only a movement to shield the assets of the relatively privileged (although, yes, it was in effect just that); it was also a cultural movement in which ordinary people, encouraged to view their homes as avatars of social respectability (and financially tied to maintaining that respectability materially and socially), became coalition partners with some of the most powerful figures in metropolitan LA–the County Supervisors and major real estate developers–to transform the region. They, as Waldie’s accounts make clear (and as Joan Didion’s later reflections on Lakewood in the wake of deindustrialization and a high-school sex scandal), didn’t understand fully what they were doing at the time. A half-century and more later, we are still figuring that out.