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.