CRF Blog

Why Cities Work Even When Washington Doesn’t

by Bill Hayes

In Why Cities Work Even When Washington Doesn’t for the Atlantic, James Fallows makes the case for strong mayors.

During the eras of Michael Bloomberg in New York, Thomas Menino in Boston, and Richard Daley and now Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, everyone has recognized the power of major-city mayors to announce big plans and to carry them out, for better or worse. Illustrations of the better, from my personal perspective: Bloomberg’s insistence that restaurant menus show calorie counts, Menino’s development of Boston’s waterfront and new industrial zones. Illustration of the worse: Daley’s midnight dispatch of bulldozers to destroy the runway at the lakefront Meigs Field in 2003, stranding airplanes that had landed and leaving the FAA to fume impotently about the loss of an airport the federal government had spent millions to help operate. But even with their excesses, our big-city mayors have been, like Mussolini, the people who could get things done, while presidents and legislators seem ever more pathetically hamstrung.

City-level success is of course no substitute for a functioning national government. Washington is where we set overall economic and tax policy; open or close our borders; negotiate for global standards on labor rights and the environment; decide on peace and war. Every bit of our American landscape shows the effect of crucial national undertakings, from the Northwest Ordinance to the National Park Service to the interstate highway network to the university research centers that run on grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department’s DARPA. When visiting each new small town, my wife and I usually start by seeing how many civic structures — parks, swimming pools, post offices, bridges — are relics of New Deal–era construction under the Works Progress Administration. They’re a bigger part of 21st-century urban infrastructure than you might guess.

But city-level success is better than city-level failure, and what we’ve seen recently is that this is not limited to the biggest cities with the most dominant (or richest) figures as mayors. “Being a mayor, especially in a ‘strong mayor’ city system, gives you tremendous opportunities,” I was told early this year by Don Ness, the mayor of Duluth, Minnesota. A hundred years ago, Duluth was one of the fastest-growing cities in America. Thirty years ago, it was, like Flint, Michigan, and Gary, Indiana, one of the most distressed. Now it has begun a tech, services, and tourism recovery. In the 2000 census, Duluth’s population was older than the state’s as a whole. Today it is getting younger and wealthier. [more]