Robin Hood mayors

Activists in City Hall: The Progressive Response to the Reagan Era in Boston and Chicago
By Pierre Clavel
New York, Cornell University Press, 225 pages

reviewed by don gillis

boston’s ray flynn and Chicago’s Harold Washington both rode into office as mayor in the early 1980s on the waves of grass-roots neighborhood movements. At a time of federal retreat from city concerns, both leaders pledged to pursue a progressive municipal agenda focused on the plight of the urban poor and working class. More than 20 years later, Cornell University professor Pierre Clavel, in Activists in City Hall: The Progressive Response to the Reagan Era in Boston and Chicago, has offered an appraisal of their efforts to achieve greater economic equity by using the tools of city government to deal with problems of poverty, inadequate housing, low-wage jobs, and disenfranchised neighborhoods.

Both Flynn, who served from 1984 to 1993, and Washington, in office from 1983 to 1987, were mayors a time when the federal government under President Reagan was slashing aid to urban areas, leaving local governments to go it alone. Clavel examines what Flynn and Washington were able to achieve against enormous odds, not just by evaluating the policies they adopted, but also by looking at the political dynamics that shaped their administrations.

On the surface, Boston and Chicago seemed to have little in common at the time. Chicago was America’s second-largest city, with just over 3 million residents, while Boston had just 560,000 people, ranking 20th. The cities were linked, however, by mayors promoting a local agenda of income redistribution that was highly unusual. Both were elected in response to widespread dissatisfaction with the urban policies of their predecessors. The recent past in both cities was marked by racial and ethnic conflict and support for a business-backed growth coalition, which promoted downtown development while ignoring the needs of deteriorating neighborhoods. In different ways, Flynn and Washington challenged that corporate agenda and set their cities on a new course.

Flynn, a self-styled populist and maverick City Council member, was catapulted into the mayor’s office by a coalition of labor, community, tenant, and former civil rights activists, many of whom joined the fledging administration in 1984. Clavel details some of the major policy initiatives Flynn undertook with a particular emphasis on the redistributive “linkage” plan under which downtown developers were required to contribute to a neighborhood housing trust to receive approval for their projects.

The results were substantial, allowing Flynn to use more than $70 million in linkage funds to support local community development corporations and private developers in building thousands of affordable homes in city neighborhoods as the downtown skyline boomed. Flynn could only do this because he was not controlled by the powerful leaders of the downtown real estate industry, who realized that in order to make money they would need to play ball with the mayor’s agenda. Linkage became a symbol of Flynn’s economic-justice populism, helping him realize his vision of shared prosperity at a time when the federal government abandoned cities.

While Clavel provides an interesting analysis of Flynn’s economic agenda, he falls short in his analysis of Boston on two fronts. First, Clavel overstates the extent to which racial politics played a role in policy disagreements and neighborhood conflicts, and in Flynn’s response to such conflicts. Although the Irish-American Flynn hailed from South Boston, the anti-busing stronghold which resisted a 1974 federal court order to desegregate the public schools—and Flynn had himself played a leading role in the anti-busing movement—as mayor he placed a high priority on being a racial healer, and focused on economic opportunity issues for all Bostonians. Once in office, he peacefully integrated public housing projects in several neighborhoods and incidents of racial violence decreased significantly citywide. Secondly, Clavel’s book focuses exclusively on “activists” and their role, ignoring the fact that Flynn built a broad-based coalition that included not only left-leaning activists, but also more conservative neighborhood, labor, and religious leaders. I can attest to the vociferous policy debates that took place among those factions, give-and-takes that, in the end, enabled Flynn to govern effectively.

In Chicago, Harold Washington took a different path. As a congressman from the South Side he was an early part of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political machine, and later benefited from the civil rights struggles in Chicago neighborhoods, which by 1980 were 40 percent non-white. Washington’s cadre of activists, comprised mainly of urban planners, community organizers, and academics, helped lead the neighborhood movements of the 1960s and ’70s. They joined him in city hall and ran a campaign focused on “jobs, not real estate,” in contrast to past policies. Their goal was to preserve the dwindling manufacturing based in Chicago’s neighborhoods by focusing on the creation of planned manufacturing districts, which gave zoning protection to manufacturers who were pressed by neighboring residents and real estate developers who would otherwise transform the districts to upscale residential or commercial uses.

When Washington took office, manufacturing jobs in Chicago had reached an all-time low, falling from 688,000 in 1947 to 277,000 in 1982, a decline of 59 percent. Washington also initiated a capital spending plan and distributed resources and decision making to hundreds of neighborhood groups as “delegate agencies” in an effort to unify the racially divided city, policies never before heard of in Chicago’s machine politics. Washington was initially hampered by opposition from the former Daley machine and its remaining allies on the City Council, resulting in what Clavel describes as the prolonged “Council Wars” fueled by racial antagonism.

Clavel’s analysis lacks a clear explanation for why Flynn focused on housing production while Washington emphasized protecting manufacturing jobs. Though the affordable housing production that resulted from Boston’s linkage program is documented, the book is unclear on the most crucial question regarding Washington’s initiative: whether Chicago ultimately succeeded in saving manufacturing jobs in the face of global competition and outsourcing which were (and continue to be) national challenges. Clavel laments that while there were indirect effects and anecdotal reports on the jobs saved, “no evaluations, or measurement, have been done.”

Clavel artfully weaves stories of various policy initiatives together with detailed accounts of civic engagement in each city. He accurately credits both mayors for having clear visions for social justice and forging alliances with neighborhood leaders. Both mayors implemented redistributive policies and neighborhood empowerment and planning initiatives that changed the way business was done at city hall. With cadres of former community organizers on their staffs, they pursued a new type of economic development relying on local neighborhood-based community development corporations, which were emerging nationally.

Flynn left office in 1993, when he was named US ambassador to the Vatican. Washington died of a heart attack at his desk in 1987, only months into his second term. The successors to Flynn and Washington did not sustain all of their progressive initiatives, but their legacies were institutionalized in terms of linkage and jobs policies in Boston and planned manufacturing districts in Chicago, while the community organizing that launched their mayoralties has largely faded from view.

So why did their successors, Boston’s Thomas M. Menino and Richard M. Daley in Chicago, return to the growth coalition model favored by downtown real estate interests?

Clavel argues that the community activists that helped Flynn and Washington get to city hall initially pursued an oppositional approach to government, but later became either part of the administration or the community institutions that each mayor supported—such as community development corporations and grassroots community organizing groups. At the same time, each city faced larger social and economic challenges, including the loss of jobs due to deindustrialization and the flight of the middle classes to the suburbs. Both Daley (now in his sixth term), and Menino (now in his fifth term) have presided over an expansion of downtown real estate development while not effectively building upon their predecessors “redistributive” policies aimed at slowing the staggering growth of income inequality in each city.

Efforts to retain the middle class by improving public education led to successful efforts in both cities for mayoral control of the school systems. Both Flynn and Washington developed an education reform agenda, with Flynn winning control of the schools in 1991 and Washington forming parent community councils, which were enacted into state legislation a year after his death. In 1995, under Daley, Chicago, too, moved to full mayoral control of the schools.

The jury is still out as to whether mayoral control of schools has had an impact beyond gains realized through federal and state-mandated standardized testing. The education challenges ahead are to improve teacher quality and accountability coupled with longer school days and more school-based decision making so that more lower-income urban dwellers complete post-secondary education and are able to compete for the jobs of the 21st century.

The August US Census report showed that 43.6 million Americans, or one out of every seven, are poor, with 50.7 million lacking health insurance. As the very rich get even richer, the report indicated that median family income has continued to decline. Joblessness continues, with more than 15 million Americans out of work. The hardship reflected in these numbers is felt sharply in cities. With growing income inequality in Boston, Chicago, and cities across America, mayors would be well advised to adopt redistributive policies to address these issues rather than leave it up to the private marketplace.

The key lesson of Activists in City Hall is that progressive mayoral administrations can have some success in providing a measure of equity in policies that most directly affect low-to-moderate income families in both affordable housing and securing jobs for city residents. They can support the rebuilding of neighborhoods by the residents and their organizations. They can balance the interests of downtown business leaders and neighborhood activists. And they can most certainly promote healthy civic engagement. But they don’t last forever and can’t fix everything.

Clavel suggests that progressive cities can serve as national models for an urban policy that addresses growing wealth inequality. With urban areas home to more than 80 percent of the nation’s population, political leaders, students, and scholars can learn valuable lessons from this tale of two cities.

Don Gillis is a senior teaching fellow and lecturer on the sociology of Boston’s people and neighborhoods at Boston University. From 1984 to 1993 he served in the Flynn administration as director of the Office of Neighborhood Services and, subsequently, as director of the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation.