Sunday, March 11, 2012

Beyond Smart Cities

Book Overview

book by Tim Campbell

The promise of competitiveness and economic growth in so-called smart cities emphasizes highly educated talent, high tech industries and pervasive electronic connections. But to really achieve smart cities — that is to create the conditions of continuous learning and innovation — this book argues that there is a need to understand what is below the surface and to examine the mechanisms which affect the way cities learn and then connect together.

This book draws on quantitative and qualitative data with concrete case studies to show how networks already operating in cities are used to foster and strengthen connections in order to achieve breakthroughs in learning and innovation. Going beyond smart cities means understanding how cities construct, convert and manipulate relationships that grow in urban environments. The eight cities discussed in this book — Amman, Barcelona, Bilbao, Charlotte, Curitiba, Portland, Seattle, and Turin — illuminate a blind spot in the literature. Each of these cities has achieved important transformations, and learning has played a key role, one that has been largely ignored in academic circles and practice concerning competitiveness and innovation.

With Forewords by Dr Joan Clos, Executive Director, UN-Habitat, and Wim Elfrink, Executive Vice President and Chief Globalization Officer, Cisco

CONTENTS
1- Overview
2- The Slow Emergence of Learning Cities in an Urbanizing World
3- Cities as Collective Learners: What Do We Know?
4- A Gamut of Learning Types
5- Light on a Shadow Economy: City Learning in 53 Cities
6- Informal Learners—Turin, Portland and Charlotte
7- Technical Learning: Curitiba and City Think Tanks
8- Corporate Styles: Bilbao, Seattle and Others
9- Clouds of Trust in Style
10- Taking Stock: Why Some Cities Learn and Others Do Not
11- Turning the Learning World Upside Down— Pathways Forward in Policy and Research

Tim Campbell is Chairman of the Urban Age Institute, which fosters leadership and innovation between and among cities. He has worked at the World Bank and taught at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. He holds a PhD from MIT.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Government Reorganization Fact Sheet


I wonder if urban is built into the mix here somewhere...


The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release
January 13, 2012
Government Reorganization Fact Sheet

Looking to make our government leaner, smarter and more consumer-friendly, the President will call on Congress to reinstate the authority that past Presidents had, over decades, to reorganize the government.  With the exception of President Ford, every President from Herbert Hoover to Ronald Reagan had reorganization authority.  Presidents had this sort of authority for almost the entire period from  1932 through 1984.Unlike the authority granted in the past, the President’s proposal would initiate new accountability by mandating that any plan must consolidate government - reducing the number of agencies or saving taxpayer dollars.

The President will also lay out his first proposed use of that authority: consolidating six agencies into one more efficient department to promote competitiveness, exports and American business. The President knows this is a make or break moment for the middle class and those trying to reach it.  The President’s proposed reorganization would help small businesses grow and, in doing so, would help get more Americans back to work.

For too long, overlapping responsibilities among agencies have made it harder, rather than easier, for our small businesses to interact with their government.  Those redundancies have also led to unnecessary waste and duplication. President Obama is committed to rethinking, reforming and remaking our government so that it can meet the challenges of our time and is worthy of the American people.

Today’s proposal is just one example of the kind of action the authority he is requesting would allow.

Competing in a 21st Century Economy

We’re living in a 21st century economy with a 20th century bureaucracy. Our economy has fundamentally changed but the government has not. The needs of our citizens have fundamentally changed but their government has not. Instead, the government has grown only more complex.

Over the past three years the Obama Administration has taken  numerous steps to address this problem by eliminating government waste and inefficiencies.  Clearly there’s more work to be done. 

The President’s First Action

The President’s first focus under the Consolidation Authority Act would be to make it easier for America's small businesses – which are America’s job creators – to compete, export and grow. 

Currently, there are six major departments and agencies that focus primarily on business and trade in the federal government.  The six are: U.S. Department of Commerce’s core business and trade functions, the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. 

This is redundant and inefficient. Small businesses often face a maze of agencies when looking for even the most basic answers to the most basic questions. There is a whole host of websites, toll-free numbers and customer service centers that at times offer them differing advice. The result is a system that is not working for our small businesses. 

The President is proposing to consolidate those six departments and agencies into one Department with one website, one phone number and one mission – helping American businesses succeed.

One Department: there will be one Department where entrepreneurs can go from the day they come up with an idea and need a patent, to the day they start building a product and need a warehouse, to the day they are ready to export and need help breaking into new markets overseas.

The new Department will lead the development and implementation of an integrated, strategic, government-wide trade effort and have a focused capacity to help businesses grow and thrive.    


Business USA

We will also be unveiling a new website: BusinessUSA. This site will be a virtual one-stop shop with information for small businesses and businesses of all size that want to begin or increase exporting.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Comeback Cities



In their recent book, Grogan and Proscio offer the “Comeback Cities” model to engage the multifaceted variables of poverty in renewed economic development in urban areas of the United States. Using primarily data from the 1990s, the authors’ argue that cities in the U.S. are revitalizing in ways only dreamed of in the past. They encourage a third-way of policymaking, allowing space for the public, private and nonprofit sectors to work together. Grogan and Proscio suggest cities are changing the status quo because of four fundamental factors: engagement in grassroots participation, the promotion private investment, the slashing of bureaucratic red tape, and the decrease of intercity crime. This new model engages political and social problems to tackle the hard economic disparities in a given locality. This essay will briefly describe the “comeback cities” approach, and then apply lessons learned in redeveloping Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Camden.

First, Grogan and Proscio describe how the new insurgences of grassroots community-based efforts are promoting a positive environment for cities. Community Development Corporation (CDC) are the legal entity for social groups to engage in rebuilding their communities They integrate private initiative and finance with loads of social capital to revitalize desperately blighted areas. Their first efforts were to acquire and rehabilitate affordable housing. The CDC model then extended into community finance corporations, development assistance corporations and enterprises economic development, to name a few. The general idea builds on a community’s efforts to rebuild, one home at a time, and then to further reinvest and promote the newly constructed areas with strong community support. This causes the gentrification of neighborhoods.

This new approach adopted by private citizens has several obstacles. First demonstrated in Detroit’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, many intercity residents harbor long-term resentments. In his book, Surgrue highlights the profound nature of structural racism predominated in housing and employment in the city, which might be a challenge for many to overcome. Although the 1960s racial tension pushed the establishment of the Great Society programs, they also subsequently, evolved into political battles in the 1970s-80s as demonstrated in Camden After the Fall. The potential for future conflict still exists. Secondly, the authors should be wary of perceived participation. As Venkatesh demonstrates in American Project: The Raise and Fall of the Modern Ghetto, that people’s racism and social capital can be used for unproductive means. Although intercity people might get involved, they do it for selfish reasons. When the money dries up or they are not benefiting, they may not be as willing to participate with a predominately “white” initiative. Furthermore, the jury is still out in recession times whether continued credit will be given to the nonprofit organizations, working to rebuild blighted areas. Capital might go to other areas instead like contracts for services. The question arises if the nonprofit sector work to “investing in people and skills to promote their own development” is sustainable without outside capital.

Next, Grogan and Proscio insist the revolution of private markets into blighted community is key to its development. They highlight Michael Porter’s landmark articles and work to revitalize urban areas by finding new markets for corporate investments (Porter, 2005). Niche products are key to the success. The authors suggest you can realize neighborhoods with supermarket chains and small businesses. The also mention the push factor from the influx of immigrants and a positive growth spurt in the US economy. The majority Latin migration of the 1990s contributed to the new urban populations with the build up of the construction industry. Thus providing a natural connection between the first factor on rebuilding the housing listed above and the intercity business development.

From Detroit’s cautionary tale, policymakers need to be careful with this new labor pool once the housing construction market is on the decline. Not all the new local markets will be ready for business. Their may be too many workers without jobs, creating high unemployment rates, restlessness and lawlessness in the newly developed areas. As in the 1950s with the deindustrialization in Detroit, the next possibility for CDCs to do is to provide training centers, job placement opportunities and even daycare for working parents. Hopefully the resurgence of anti-immigrant (or racism) will be mitigated by support programs, and thus avoiding any potential for racial conflict, as seen in Detroit in the 1950s.

Third, Grogan and Proscio describe the eradication of crime helps, not only the reinvestment of the intercity, but also its future revitalization efforts. They highlight the broken window effect of neighborhoods, which suggests the neglect of one criminal activity could spiral into more unforeseen events. The example provided is the broken window of a car in a transition neighborhood. Grogan and Proscio believe in “the growing revolution in police practices…” and the revitalization in and of itself are the “both a cause and effect of the failing crime rates,” (Grogan & Proscio, 2000, pg. 5). The more community policing, or people watching the streets, help prevent crime before it happens by changing the very nature in which crime occurs. In addition, with more eyes on the street, like Jane Jacobs argument, provides higher risk to get caught and less of a change at committing a crime.

Bissinger’s book A prayer for the City describes the criminal behavior in Philadelphia. By telling the story of Philadelphia’s assistant district attorney Michael McGovern in the prosecution of urban violence, like the case of Robbie Burns’ murder, he depicts the complexity of street life and crime in urban areas. The profuse nature of criminal activity and how its interwoven into people’s personal lives are not elaborated enough in Grogan and Proscio’s book. The case, like many others that McGovern litigated in his years of public service and others described in the book, captures race and poverty of street kids. Furthermore the profound nature and public outcry that emerges from these episodes engages the whole community.

This is also demonstrated in Venkatesh’s American Project with the death of little girl that stopped the gang warfare between the sharks and the black kings. In Chicago’s projects, there wasn’t a lack of eyes watching the streets, but rather the imbalance of power held by the gangs, who were predominantly young males. The Grogan and Proscio’s book does not highlight the demolishing of the public housing and dispersion of gang violence as another way to eliminate crime. The future challenge is whether the dispersion of gangs will also disperse crime to unforeseen areas or eliminate it completely. Grogan and Proscio’s assumption is that crime will be eliminated, but their theory isn’t tested in times of economic decline.

Fourth, and finally, Grogan and Proscio describe how contracting out government services and devolving power and authority to cities, schools and development councils will reconstruct social trust and create more effective social policies. This effort requires balanced budgets and positive income flows into public projects. It also requires people’s engagement into their children’s education and willingness to volunteer into the community to create a better environment for all.

Bissinger’s book A Prayer for the City suggests that engaging in financial matters with citizens isn’t so simple. Bissinger’s description of the city’s manager David Cohen, a former corporate lawyer, in his task to mend the fiscal stress of the large budget deficit, showed the diligent work of personal dedication and fortitude for Grogan and Proscio’s “simple task”. Cohen’s personal dedication and commitment to Randell’s administration not only assisted to create a stable budget, but also later developed into a budget surplus was substantial. Furthermore, he had to battle the unions to lower their benefits in citywide contracts. Cohen relied heavily on Linda Morrison’s libertarian ideas. She wrote a series of memos that assisted to cut unnecessary expenditures and start contracting out government services to private entities. The simple reliance of one or two dedicated bureaucrat is one thing, but another is the defeat of political cronyism and positive transparent budgeting process.

Grogan and Proscio’s new “comeback cities” model is highly optimistic and leaves little spaces for economic downshifts and other problems that U.S. cities face. It provides for a constructive spin in good times, but doesn’t challenge the status quo for times of trouble.

A Prayer for the City





In his monograph A Prayer for the City, award-winning journalist Buzz Bissinger depicts Ed Rendell’s mayoral terms in office through the eyes of individuals living in Philadelphia. Each character confronts issues of politics, economic development, housing, and inner city distress through their own personal histories. Bissinger captures each while interweaving their lives with city’s policies and Randell’s efforts to remedy their circumstances. These thick descriptions of public problems are brought to life, as they are scene affecting the vary individual’s lives in which they are made to help. Although the origins of each problem are hard to define with precision, so too are the overlays in
Sunset
Originally uploaded by heydee
which they affect one another and more so the people’s lives. The hope that fuels this book is located in the dynamic work with gusto in which the public officials—like that of Randell himself—perform day in and day out.


For example, Bissineger first describes the life and work habits of David Cohen, a former corporate lawyer and Randell’s chief of staff. His first task and substantial obstacle in the office was to mend the fiscal stress of the large budget deficit. His personal dedication and commitment to the Randell administration not only assisted to create a stable budget, but also later developed into a budget surplus. In order to balance the budget, Cohen must negotiate with the city’s unions. This obstacle faced by the Randell administration is complex and multifaceted. Cohen and Rendell view the contracts with the city to provide public services too laced with personal benefits. Overcharged for the services, Cohen and Rendell feel citizens should spend less and receive more benefits. They work to lower the hourly wage and the benefits structure for the public workforce, which constitutes of primarily African Americans. The negotiations are laced with race relations, politics and budget constraints. They must work delicately in order not to disenfranchise a large sector of the city’s population, while increasing the public good. Finally with 20-hour working days, Cohen is able to negotiate a fair price with the unions. This early success predicates Cohen’s hard work and dedication to the Rendell administration.


Next, Bissineger describes Ed Randell as a charismatic popular lawyer with so-so university grades and an affective leadership style. The first description of his character is when he rushes into a hospital waiting room to assist a family in-need after a life threatening shooting on the streets. Randell holds the attention of a young boy while the doctors operate on his father. Bissineger illustrates Randell’s dedication with the explanations of his own father’s death at the age of eleven. Street violence is a reoccurring theme in the book, which envelops issues of poverty, white-flight, job loss and racial tension.


In order to highlight this racial tensions of the streets, Bissineger traces the life of Fifi Mazzccua, a widowed, grandmother whose son Tony was jailed for shooting someone, his wife on crack, and their son, Keith killed on the street, along with her additional grandchildren. Mazzccua’s faith and life are portrayed as she visits her son in jail, attends church where Randell knows the pastor, and manages the care taking of the rest of her family in a small apartment in the black side of town. Her life embodies those survivors of the streets, which offer little in way of jobs and public support.


Bissineger uses Assistant District Attorney Michael McGovern prosecution of urban violence like that of Robbie Burns’ murder to further depict the street life and crime in Philadelphia. The case, like many others, which McGovern litigated in his years of public service and others described in the book, captures race and poverty of street kids. Robbie Burns was white boy shot in the head by a group of black men when coming out of a convenience store one summer night. The public outcry that emerged from the particular episode engaged Rendell as he held a community meeting the following night at a public school’s gymnasium. Yet, countless cases like this forced McGovern to become desensitized by the endemic problems of black crime. He final decided to leave his job for the private sector and the city itself. He became another constituent of white flight because of crime, low paying city wages and his children’s raising college tuitions.


White flight emerges as another obstacle for Rendell. The loss of tax dollars by white residents fearing urban violence, race relations and crime, puck-up and leave the city for the suburbs. For which Bissineger describes a city financial analyst Linda Morrison’s history of migration into and later out of the city. Not only had this libertarian’s memos assisted to cut unnecessary expenditures and helped Cohen to start contracting out government services in her professional life. But Morrison’s personal life is also used to explain how the public housing unit near her urban residency dissuaded her from living in the city. After many sleepless nights, the birth of a son, and several shooting incidences, she moved to the periphery of the city and later with stolen tires and her car on blocks, pushed her to buy a home in the suburbs. Housing in the city was just another problem for Philly residence.


The public housing crisis hit Rendell’s term midway. The interaction to deal with the problem engaged Rendell to work with the US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Henry Cisneros, which further described how local policy begins to confront the national government. The public housing problem’s originated from the reevaluation of the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) where red-lining was common place and blacks were disenfranchised from obtaining loans to purchase homes. Minorities primarily lived in public housing, which created race politics especially when they were managed poorly as was the case in Philly. The possible take over of the Pennsylvanian Housing Authority (PHA) by HUD created new tensions between Rendell and City Council President John Street, who ultimately replaced Randell as mayor. Housing discrimination followed race relations and poverty for many residents. Furthermore, Randell saw jobs as his key impediment and believed the creation of more jobs could to confront all other social ills together.


Randell’s experience with economic develop was described with the life history of Jim Magnan. A middle aged white American with six kids who worked in the city’s naval yards as a welder. The yard was closed after 195 years of operation under Randell’s time. Randell was able to negotiate additional work for the shipyard but ultimately failed to win over President Bill Clinton to persuade congress to sustain military contracts for the city. His only resolve was to try a new strategy. First to promote tourism in the city with the opening of the new convention center; next to create an enterprise zone for the city; finally to persuade Bernard Meyer, a German entrepreneur to buy the yard and start a private ship building company. Again, with high drama, Bissineger describes Randell and Cohen’s negotiations between Governor Tom Ridge, Mr. Meyers and even President Clinton and Chancellor Herbert Kohl as vibrant and intricate. But with no avail, the deal was killed and a different US based entrepreneur purchased the yards for more public money and less associated jobs. This provides a clear description of Randell’s engagement in providing jobs, the tax dollars involved with enterprise zone and economic growth and the fragility of the issue.


Finally, Bissineger describes Randell’s obstacles with the press in two narratives. The first was a 911debatical, which used a press expose laced with race relations published in the Philadelphia magazine. The issue presented was how various callers calling in crime incidences faced discrimination by the vary way they called out for help. Furthermore, highlighting that race relations, crime and poverty are inseparable issues for citizens living in Philadelphia. Next, Bissineger describes Kathy Sheehan’s, a city journalist who wrote for a local magazine, encounter with Randell at a book opening reception. Rendell lost his cool and snapped at the journalist. This exhibition reveled Rendell as human and vulnerable under pressure.


Final blows that ended Rendell’s terms in office ended with thorny race relations, job loss, crime and poverty among blacks. He was able to develop a balanced budget, care and assistance to city residence. But his track record dealing with city problems crumbles. Furthermore his political career didn’t end with being mayor of Philadelphia, rather he continues to work for the citizens of Pennsylvania, as govern. Further demonstrating the hope of this book—the hard work and determination can help to overcome the wicked public problems of the next century.

Camden After the Fall

In Camden After the Fall, Howard Gillette describes the historic degradation of an industrial city and its subsequent recovery efforts to rebuild. The book illustrates one city’s development process, its efforts to get out of poverty and its ongoing consequences of failed policy attempts. Through the thick description of economic recovery, the reader can observe the structural and contextual factors that impede Camden, New Jersey’s search for growth. According to Gillette, the sources of Camden’s on-going problems are multifaceted. Migration patterns, racial make-up, the low-level labor supply, the lack of public financing dollars, and levels of social capital are all attributes that make up Camden’s current economic status. This essay will describe those structural factors, discuss each policy endeavor attempted, and finally, relate those efforts to the public, private, and nonprofit arenas.


Gillette uses the term “recovery” to connote the efforts to rebuild buildings in depressed areas, instead of assisting in the human development of the individuals in need, which dominates Camden’s redevelopment efforts. He tracks Camden from the turn of the century until today, but spends most of his time explaining policy attempts from the 1960s President Johnson’s War on Poverty to 1990s President Clinton era “Comeback cities” approach. Nearly all Washington euphemisms/schemes for economic development have been tried in Camden. Efforts to build social capital, contend with suburbanization and white-flight, redevelop of their waterfront, build a theme park, contract-out public services, and create public private partnerships for development are described in the book.


Starting in the early twentieth century, Camden faced several major urban transformations. First, Camden’s population changed from primarily European immigrants to Southern blacks. In the 1920s-30s Camden’s population consisted of working class residents from various immigrant populations. Germans, Italians, Poles were the first to immigrate to Camden. But as the recent immigrant’s wealth increased, they sought a better life outside the city into suburbia. Next, the insurgence of the “great migration” where African American move from the poor agrarian south to the rich industrial north after World War II replaced urban centers. And finally, the African American’s followed their white predecessors to the suburbs, being replaced by newly immigrated Hispanics in the 1970s-90s. The working class homes remained, thus recycling the poor inhabitants for others.


Although the immigrants held thick levels of social capital, most brought solely might and not skills to the labor supply. Early on industrial jobs were the main source of employment for most people in Camden. The primary employers in the city were RCA, Campbell’s Soup and the New York Navy Yard. If workers were not at the factories, they worked in service industry, servicing the needs of the workers. For example, the community thrived with small businesses, bars, restaurants and sources of entertainment. Industrial jobs were often sporadic and not permanent. Thus providing a predominate role for social organization and mutual aid societies to assist people with short-term needs.


The major structural factors derived from a culture of low wages and manual labor jobs. Without new forms of capital coming in, urban areas expand into pockets of poverty. Possible new forms of wealth for development sought higher levels of human capital. Camden never successfully contested a larger stratified society, like its neighbors of New York or Philadelphia, but predominately maintained a solid working class environment. Because of this, city officials in Camden face the problem of funding formulas for the disadvantaged. The housing market defines a number of decisions about local governments services and its allocation of limited resources. The price of homes determines the public revenue flow (through property taxes), which in turn resolves the quality of public services a city can offer. For example, the tax base in a community determines the quality of education that children receive. Camden made various efforts to create a qualified workforce to look for skilled jobs, but without sufficient resources in the first place, its efforts never materialized.


In the 1960s, Camden confronted its lack of public financing problem. It needed to reclaim tax dollars that flew to suburbia. The city decided to offer services like a trash incinerator, a cement plant and cogeneration factory to the newly incorporated towns in the surrounding areas. In addition, Camden hosted criminals in their jails and charged rates for the service. Unfortunately, this new public sector approach to generate new forms of wealth faced new battles. Whereas the city though it had created a plausible solution to offer its residence, their response was fueled with protests and demonstrations. The civil society protested the infusion of carbon dioxin into the environment and criminals living near their schools. But the city proceeded to bring in larger contracts of direct unburnable waists into its landfills (Gillete, pg. 111). The courts were slow to eradicate the newfound revenue. Environmental injustice fell into the same category, where the poor encounter the negative externalities disproportionately.


Within the milieu of the spatial disparity, based on unequal race and class-based injustices, political fights enraged city hall in the 1970s. Political battles and court appeals maintained the resident’s momentum to fight back. They repealed redlining and urban zoning codes that create city boundaries that funneled private capital funding and public allocation from Federal and State agencies. This accompanied an insurgency of intercity political movements. Racial politics encouraged races to vote for one another instead of the most qualified candidate, thus maintained the status quo and fostered constituent dependency. Historical precedence in Great Society programs cultivated fights for policies like affirmative action, welfare roles and housing subsidy. The politics of identity didn’t help the city of Camden in its efforts of economic development but rather reinforced cultural tendencies of separation and division.


Furthermore, the 1980s national policy agenda changed its perception from the poor deserving government support to one of self-sufficiency, which also affected Camden. The underlining change from the Great Society to Reaganomics pushed from the intercity strife of racial politics, untimely calling on the private sector to find solutions to public problems. Noting that the public solution to problems caused additional headaches, private investors stepped in. The waterfront reinvestment program expected financing for the aquarium would help by developing spillovers for the poor. Yet the tourist bubble to create jobs, encourage people to re-invest, and buy new products as they visited tourist attractions didn’t pop or provide the necessary spillovers as expected. Public-private partnerships united public land with private finance to invest in the redevelopment. Additional dollars were invested in walkways, a park, condominiums and additional amenities, often provided by individual contributions, only directly benefited a few.


Unfortunately, the private financed dollars stayed in the few hands and hardly added additional jobs for Camden residents. The community’s economic impact was scant and expected spillover minimal. The benefit the waterfront reinvestment did have was gentrification with new condominiums inhabited by rich Philadelphia residents. Thus creating the “recovery” but not resiliency to lift people out of poverty.


The neighborhood redevelopment efforts showed some hope. Community Development Corporations (CDC) are responsible for organizing and generating new human and monetary resources (Gillete, pg. 145). Instead of strictly building areas or investing in contracts for services, the nonprofit sector has worked to invest in people and skills to promote their own growth. They provide training centers, job placement opportunities and even daycare for working parents. Even with the CDC efforts with the influx of social capital and private finance, Camden has not immediately bounce back. Gillette suggests that the structural problems of poverty (the racial milieu, low-level quality labor and housing stock, lack of public financing) are not abruptly mended.


This current effort of the “comeback cities” model engages the multifaceted variables and encourages the third-way of policy making. Focusing on the problems of poverty and thus taking on the tough problems one at a time with all three: public, private and nonprofit sectors. Not one effort of a single sector to encourage development will eliminate all the city’s problems. But through a piece meal approach and view of history, readers can see which efforts minimally assisted, while other areas exploded. This model engages political problems, social problems to tackle the hard economic problems in a given locality. Gillette highlights this method for Camden’s next policy idea, but warns that history will be the determinate of its proper implementation.

The American Project

In American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, Sudhir Venkatesh describes the social interaction in the Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing development in Chicago, from the 1960s to the mid 1990s. He uses participant observation to write a historic monographic about how people lived in and around this modern ghetto. Venkatesh argues that while the creation of the public housing structures were well intended by local and national bureaucracies, but its decline was due to their retreat both in financial and political resources. Regardless, residents of the “projects” were embedded with thick social capital, which assisted them to live and sustain their livelihoods, both financially and socially.

As part of the New Deal legislation, Robert Taylor Homes were constructed in 1962 for approximately $70 million dollars. The 4,500 apartments consisted of three, for and five bedroom units which would home Chicago’s poor black population. The tenants first consisted of families with several children, but with more difficult times, the homes were inhabited increasingly with female-headed households. Because the quarters were tight, mundane chores were often performed collectively. Community trust was a large component of the environment.

For the most part, after national legislation like the New Deal (1940s) and the Great Society (1960s), local governments filled the gap to implement housing, social and economic policy. The actual establishment of the projects, although a novel idea at first, became the bastion of problems for the local government. Because of the high concentration of poor people into one area, their public needs became greater. More police, job training centers, youth centers and other public social services were needed. Except the political will was not there. The project’s representation in Chicago’s local government political machine was minimal. Residents participated worked with the public sector though the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and Local Advisory Councils (LAC). Whereas LAC was composed of residents, they sent representatives to work with CHA, the city’s representation of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

At first residents volunteered to participate in LAC eagerly. Primarily these participants represented new leadership among the poor and downtrodden. They saw their representation as a way to create a better environment for their fellow community members. For example one primarily responsible included reporting systematic upkeep of the infrastructure within the homes like pluming issues or exposed electrical outlets, but these leaders helped to organize community events. The leadership within the LAC relied heavily on the promised met by CHA funds.

But as time went on, the CHA budget decreased and they were unable to meet these requests. The political wind of the Great Society politics changed in Washington and so too did HUD’s budget for public housing. Venkatesh describes the residents’ reactions to these outside pressures. The new emerging leadership changed. Identifying the lack of a patron saint to support their needs, some argued to reach out beyond the CHA, city government of Chicago and speak directly to HUD. But for the most part, residents hunkered down and created new strategies to deal with their increase problems of dilapidated infrastructure and changing demographics.

Although some argue that the new so-called leaders would move out when their finances permitted, CHA representative dispelled that notion and suggested that the mother receiving Aid to Dependent Children (the government supported program) were some of the most effective leaders. Venkatesh illustrates this sentiment through first hand accounts of these mothers describing their participation with the LAC. These mothers activism carried the community culture, especial though the economic downturns of the 1970s and 80s, which lead men to be increasing unemployed. In such conditions, hustling became the “modis operandi”.

Because law enforcement was scant, police where afraid to enter into the buildings, the community developed its own policing and social control as best they could. The ghetto community developed it’s own code and ways to deal with its troubles. The binding social capital assisted with troubles. “Everyone” knew who was doing what and when. For example, some apartments converted into brothels or gambling parlors to generate income. Although neighbors knew about these activities, they didn’t complain to the police because they wouldn’t come into the unlighted buildings. Therefore informal trades and bargaining began. Social assistance was generated as needed. Neighbor would assist neighbor with their needs if they hushed up to the LAC and CHA representatives. In addition, tenants started to pay off the LAC building presidents either monetarily or informally like with babysitting. A type of unofficial culture of informal assistance began.

The hustling culture further embodied the projects as the men and youth became further disenfranchised from society. They engaged in selling drugs to fuel this informal way of life. Venkatesh delicately portrays the blunt options of young men as they engaged in the startling economy of the 1970s and 80s. Often with substandard levels of education, men could either work for minimal wage and slave away or they could fulfill their manhood by selling drugs, allowing them money to assist their families, community and spend time at home. Therefore there was a strong desire to be manly, deal drugs, pay for family needs and engage in the community. As drug money soared, so did their reliance on the community, which assisted with the underground dealings. Again, the community was well aware of the boys’ activities (most participants were between the ages of 14-34), but they were also bought out with gifts such as building improvements and community carnivals.

Although not all community members agreed to the drug money influence, there was little many could do. The community didn’t complain about the gang problems formally until the 1992 fatal drive by shooting of a twelve-year-old girl. This dates when the community’s super gangs of the Black Kings, representing members of the Robert Taylor Homes, and the Sharks, from another neighborhood, met with the NGO No More Wars as intermediates to describe their grievances. Venkatesh highlights this moment as an epiphany and transition point for the community. He describes how No More Wars was a community-based organization, which settled into the area after no official governmental agency would work there. An energetic priest established a youth center and engaged the boy’s pursuing the wrongful activities. Venkatesh argues that one of the many failures the city’s government did was not to find constructive amusement or workforce training for the youth, especially young men in and around the housing project. The gang behavior was developed because of lack of other outlets for these youngsters to use their time wisely.

The 1992 gang summit, finally engaged the outsiders into the internal political process. The Robert Taylor Homes coped as best they could by hustling or the informal exchanging goods and services though economic downturns. The lack of external assistance for the community fueled the informal market of drugs and violence. The lack of political voice into the Chicago machine, the fear of the police in the a impoverished majority black complex, and the constant budget lashing of the CHA by national policy leaders embedded the problems Robert Taylor Homes residents faced.

According to Venkatesh, the problems only stopped in 1996 when the Robert Taylor Homes were demolished and the community members were dispersed throughout the greater Chicago area. Disintegrating the high levels of social capital built up of the years while “assimilating” the people with the rest of society. Finally the tale ended as being the most prominent of HUD’s programs to be studied.

The Origins of the Urban Crisis

Although many Americans remember the 1950s for its great prosperity, Surgrue in his historic monograph, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, depicts Detroit as a divisive and poverty ridden, where many residents faced systematic and structural racism. He argues that the mundane discrimination, most prevalent in employment and housing practices, caused the Detroit’s crisis of racial segregation and conflict in the 1960s. The local government only reinforced this discrimination based on its own incentives created by the emerging, predominantly white, working class.

The US government responses to Detroit’s housing and employment markets during the 1930s-1960s were drastically different from the national to the local level. Where as the New Deal policies encouraged homeownership, entrepreneurship and collective organizing, this disproportionately affected blacks and whites because blacks faced upward challenges of racial inequalities. Structural racism was mutually reinforced by local laws and city government actions.

In the early 1930s, the housing supply for the blacks was wretched. Poor blacks didn’t own their homes and many families were forced to live together. Pockets of poor housing existed, blacks couldn’t get loans, properties deteriorated, black neighborhoods were condemned and areas became blight. Living conditions became worse as the federal housing officials classified black neighborhoods as sub-standard. Overcrowding created sanitation, safety and fire hazards. Blacks also faced highway construction throughout their neighborhoods, which downplayed the human costs and displaced many. Rental costs for blacks were disproportional higher than for whites of up to 40 percent or more.

The housing shortages complicated additionally problems for blacks in their pursuit of purchasing homes in the later 1940s and 1950s. White homeowners were the city officials, bankers and loan officers, who constructed policies like red lining which discriminated blacks from the housing market. Private sector discrimination doubled with these bad bank-lending practices. Black’s became risk adverse.

Deindustrialization began in the 1950s, as did “white flight” into the suburbs. White city planers avoided building public housing in the suburban areas, which drew distinctive lines for where blacks and whites could live. Local politicians also siege on the segregation of housing settlements suggesting lower values for black homes. The inter-city public housing built only made a more decisive role in racial inequality instead of creating a city of inclusion.

Unfortunately, the workplace only maintained similar discriminatory practices that grew out of the housing environment. Not only were less desirable jobs offered to black, they were also paid less. Even with racially progressive unions, cultures within the organizations, labor market structures and internal firm dynamics generated workplace discrimination. Items like union-negotiated rules, seniority and apprenticeship fostered the same gender and racial segmentation and exclusion.

Stereotypes—like blacks were lazy, unproductive, and unreliable—also fueled unfavorable employment practices. The “brotherhood” culture of highly labor intense working environment did not encourage racial diversity, nor trust with individuals who didn’t look similar. Each industry whether it was an employment agency, the auto industry, municipal jobs, skill trades or retail stores, blacks were often disregarded, selected for the worst jobs or hide behind counters. This endemic discrimination created a huge underclass of workers. The new emerging middle class whites more over had better jobs in the auto factors, guilds and stores, which enabled them to have stable incomes to buy homes. Thus developing two Detroit’s, one black and the other white.


Yet beginning in the 1950s, much of Detroit’s auto industries saw deindustrialization. For the Chrysler Corporation to compete with Ford or General Motors, they needed to shrink their labor supple, relocated manufacturing plans in the suburbs with atomization, and sought after tax breaks and non-unionized labor. Job loss and economic distress predominated in the 1950s and 1960s. As the major auto industries decentralized their related industries like shop-owners, taxpayers and homeowners also moved out and left town. Along with it, “white flight” moved homeowners to the suburbs. Deindustrialization only fortified the already strained black employment market. Sugrue highlighted job training programs only partially assisted the situation, because they would first help all-white jobs and later help the black pioneers.

Between national legislation of the New Deal (1940s) and the Great Society (1960s), local governments filled the gap to implement housing, social and economic policy. Although the systematic roots of racism became further embedded into society while white elites were elected officials and managed to maintain race lines in new home construction and management of public resources. Although black politicians and the NAACP elected pro-integration leaders, patterns of divergent residential lines and poor-paying jobs in the context of deindustrialization lead to further racial tension and decay. Also black politicians were outnumbered in local voting practices.

Residential fighting first began with the game of blockbusting. Although housing discrimination was illegal, real-estate brokers developed blockbusting by creating “panic among whites,” encouraging them to move because a black family would purchase a home on the block. Once one block would “turn” housing prices would follow south, thus many people left as soon as they could. The turnaround of neighborhoods would be on a house-by-house and block-by-block ratio. Class and status matters, but more so did race. As blacks increased in class and status, their white counterparts fought more vehemently. While the Irish Catholic immigrants seemed to be the most fanatical; the least were the more elite, which were also less affected.

Local government representatives and community leaders followed the white politicians as they attack the black encroachment with zeal. Sugrue suggested the New Deal ideology of self-help and individual achievement helped blacks to buy homes, as well as helped whites to build civic associations and neighborhood watches in order to be vigilant of the potential “invaders”. The city government followed the political influences shaped by the civic associations and neighborhood groups. As the grassroots organized participatory democracy of values embroiled the average white mother with their children to protest black homebuyers in their neighborhood. Also white real estate developers assisted with the racial exclusion by creating and enforcing building restrictions, codes, and zoning laws.

As the white political elite developed how to manage public resources, they systematically created benefits for their own color and class. Because of personal incentives, whites continued to discriminate in employment practices, thereby not allowing blacks the same benefits of the New Deal policies. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis argues that the actual implementation of these policies at the local level from the 1930s to mid-1960s played a crucial role in the developing civil unrest in the city of Detroit.

Race riots were the outcome of the profound segregation and structural racism. Sugrue implied the violet summer of 1943 was only a fractional background to the 1967 riots, which were deeper and more profound because the fighting became ever more bitter and multifaceted. Young black men on the city streets without work and white ladies fighting off property invasions juxtaposed the racial tensions. The lack of jobs, depolarization of African Americans for the work place and deeply unsetting them from homeownership created chaos and conflict. Sugrue ultimately argues that the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty came too late for the deteriorating development of Detroit. White flights proceed as black power surged. The silent majority didn’t receive attention in time to confront the major deficiencies in work and living greatly deserved by African Americans after the Second World War. The eroding society and community is what still remains in Detroit today lacking sufficient capital and attention for rebuilding.

Although it can be argued, which Sugrue omitted, that without the New Deal assistance of social security, unemployment insurance in addition to other social benefits, African Americans may have faired far worse. Regardless, in this historical review of Detroit, Sugure describes how complex racial inequality fortified itself though a structural explication of individual actors making rational decisions. Only through the thick interwoven history, Sugure can describe how pervasive and destructive this situation effected Detroit residents even prior to deindustrialization. Major factors for this pervasive structural racism are described through the city’s housing and employment practices.

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