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How to Save a City

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books and culture

How to Save a City

A new book offers good advice for impoverished municipalities—if you read past the anti-capitalist bromides. July 7, 2022
Cities
Economy, finance, and budgets

The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America, by Michelle Wilde Anderson (Avid Reader Press/Simon and Schuster, 368 pp., $30)

In her new book, The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America, Stanford law professor Michelle Wilde Anderson frames an important challenge for American local government: How can jurisdictions of deep and almost universal low-income—a situation she calls “citywide poverty”—provide essential public services? Those who believe in American localism cannot quickly dismiss the question. Cities and counties, both rich and poor, rely significantly on local property-tax revenues to pay the cost of policing, firefighting, parks and sanitation, and, in some areas, school systems.

In places of declining population, a downward spiral can set in. Local government must raise taxes to keep providing services, but doing so causes even more citizens to leave and potential newcomers to stay away. Anderson observes that “chronic poverty stacked in local government boundaries creates particular challenges. . . . When local governments have less money coming in, they defer improvements to obsolete infrastructure and technology, and keep on using worn-out buildings, vehicles, and equipment. High-poverty cities and counties pay their employees less for work that is higher risk.” Anyone who has been to East St. Louis, Illinois, East Cleveland, Ohio, Benton Harbor, Michigan, or Paterson, New Jersey, will be familiar with the phenomenon she describes. These are far worse places to be poor than New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles—places with large tax bases that can direct revenues from high-income neighborhoods (West L.A.) to lower-income ones (East L.A.).

Anderson uses her own case studies—two small cities (Stockton, California, and Lawrence, Massachusetts), a rural area (Josephine County, Oregon), and one big city (Detroit)—to illustrate the problem and show how and why these jurisdictions have made progress in ameliorating it. She prefers to focus less on government actions than on citizen movements. She dismisses the libertarian nostrum that, as economies collapse, area residents should just move elsewhere to find jobs. Residents frequently have family ties, limited means, or just a deep sense of loyalty to their homes that make this advice unlikely or impractical. Americans are not pure members of the species homo economicus; we invest, psychologically and otherwise, in our communities, and in so doing forge civil societies that help them thrive. But Anderson, having dismissed glib approaches to the problem, doesn’t go on to provide a well-organized set of ideas that such locales might adopt. Her ideas are contained within her overlong and unfocused text, but readers will have to work to identify them.

The book’s true intent, apparently, is to cast blame on the American economic system, while minimizing local government missteps. Anderson links each city’s story with a Howard Zinn-style exposé of the sins of capitalism and imperialism. Filipinos are only in Stockton, for example, because of “America’s imperial effort in Southeast Asia in 1900,” and the city traces its origin to the first Transcontinental Railroad, which she describes as “ruthless and mighty.” Stockton residents suffer from “racial segregation and intergenerational poverty,” and the city has had to cut back drastically on services, including policing. A close reading, however, reveals that this predicament had much to do with the city’s ill-advised borrowing to subsidize hotel and restaurant developments and its overgenerous, unfunded pension promises, which led to municipal bankruptcy.

Similarly, Anderson dwells at length on the labor strife in the Lawrence mills—more than a century ago—and blames uncollected local property taxes on wealthy property owners rather than incompetent local government. She manages to overlook decades of corruption in Detroit, including that of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, forced to resign after a federal indictment. She acknowledges that federal environmental protection regulations involving the spotted owl decimated the timber industry of Josephine County but places more blame for declining revenue and services on entrenched “anti-tax” forces—as if falling household incomes had nothing to do with it.

Had Anderson settled for a clear-eyed and specific narrative about how local government and civil society can start to reverse the ill fortunes of such places, she would have provided a genuine service. Her book is filled with inspiring specifics: how a neighborhood group in Stockton, working with a reform-minded mayor, shut down a supermarket that had devolved into a popular site for drug-dealing; how volunteers organized soccer camps and basketball games that brought life back to a dangerous park; and how a new mayor (a Stanford graduate returning to his hometown) used a sales-tax increase to reopen libraries and recreation centers.

Anderson also gives short shrift to a key factor in Detroit’s ongoing recovery: a municipal bankruptcy that drastically cut its obligations to retired city employees. It’s mystifying, too, why she has such contempt for Quicken Loans billionaire Dan Gilbert’s investments in the Motor City’s downtown. To reverse the fortunes of cities of “border-to-border low income,” one must embrace, not disdain, gentrification, which creates the tax base on which city services depend.

Nevertheless, The Fight to Save the Town offers useful lessons for low-income cities. Don’t chase glittery redevelopment projects. Don’t over-promise on pension plans. Don’t incur debt to pay operating costs. Concentrate on providing the most essential services first and foremost. None of this sound advice, to be sure, precludes state or federal governments from providing assistance in core services. That’s what state aid and the federal community-development block grants were originally intended to do, though the first too often becomes a bailout from municipal mistakes and the second comes with too many conduits for abuse, from congressional patronage to expanding social programs. Anderson rightly notes that falling revenues can lead to a municipal tailspin—and poor cities may not be able to break out of it entirely on their own. If one can look past the politically correct histories and code words, The Fight to Save the Town demonstrates how neighborhood groups and competent local governments can turn around some very tough places.

Photo by NICK OTTO/AFP via Getty Images

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