City Activism

1 Feb

The progressive response to the Reagan Era in Boston and Chicago

Activists in City Hall by  Pierre Clavel – Cornell University Press

This is an interesting read for active community organisers and local political leaders. Progressive black mayors, Washington and Flynn, were elected in Chicago and Boston with significant majorities after a history of community organising.  People were fed up with cronyism and ‘fixing’ by the political elites running cities.  The connection between the mayors and their communities meant that people became more imaginative about what they could demand more from the city administration in terms of rent-control, planning deals, jobs etc. The mayors also looked to employ creative and committed lad executives and help from the local universities to transform local administration policies.

This is the 1970-1980s a time of continuing manufacturing decline , and huge  job losses  in  Chicago and Boston, and when land was being snapped up by developers . It was a time of social movements and City activism was growing, often led by black community organisations and political leaders.

 ‘Activists in City Hall’ describes how local leaders  can make a difference when they move beyond ‘campaigning’ and become progressive city administrators.   They organised Trusts, Forums and Partnerships to give voice to disadvantaged communities, once these matured and gained in confidence these same neighbourhood groups demanded much more from local developers and from the city administration. These particular black mayors provided a bridge between the communities and the city administration. Many of the key managers they employed to develop their ideas and projects, jobs are women. However the significance of women as organisers  is not mentioned;   some key managers were academics.  University support in both cities was strong. City hall recognised that intellectuals were need for policy development as well as analysis, especially when national policies that disenfranchised the cities would make all their work irrelevant.

What these city leaders did was nurture local organising which led to an increased confidence and independence within neighbourhoods to flex their muscles and put more pressure on the city administrations.  Pushed from behind by growing neighbourhood militancy these mayors created a climate of hope.  Washington had a heart attack in 1987, and as times changed, growing neighbourhood demands for total local control of budgets were finally met with refusals by the city administrators.

This book is extremely relevant to the Big Society conversation and to the gap currently emerging between transitional public bodies and the demands from communities and social entrepreneurs. 

In the UK there is a tendency to capture local politics as ‘bottom-up’ activities that can tamed by technical managers – we are poor at telling the story about the power of communities to transform local administrations and academics reluctant to name community leaders and their role which undermines the power of local activism. Chuck Turner in 2004 stated that the transformation of Boston was totally dependent on a Rainbow coalition of local groups and that this was accepted within City Hall.

We have to recognise that unless have a national movement to pressure the president, the power of liberal communities and people of colour in Boston will not have any translatable impact of the lives of people.   


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