Excerpts from “The Formation of American Local Governments,” by Nancy Burns

Scholars have argued that part of the reason for the Salem witch trials was that Salem Town refused to let Salem Village secede to form an independent town. The residents of Salem Village faced land constraints and consequent decreasing income; the residents of Salem Town had access to other forms of income because the male residents there were largely merchants. Salem Village repeatedly petitioned for its own government; just as repeatedly, Salem Town refused. The Salem witch trial accusers were from Salem Village; the accused were from Salem Town. (p. 34)


Exclusionary zeal in various forms has been a part of American local institutions from their beginning…. The earliest tradition is the establishment of towns that create economic homogeneity…. In the seventeenth century this process was led by English merchants who planned the colonization of New England. The resulting communities are exemplified by the founding of Watertown, Massachusetts, in the late 1630s: “Everyone hoped that there would be no poor, and Watertown had made special provisions to exclude them.” To that end, they established that “anyone who ‘may prove chargeable to the town’ could be ordered to leave.” (p. 35)


Church groups in St. Louis decided to purchase twelve acres of land in Black Jack, Missouri, an unincorporated section of St. Louis County, in 1969. The land was zoned for multiple-family dwellings. The groups planned to build racially integrated, moderate-income housing on the site. Almost immediately, the white residents of the area…petitioned the St. Louis County Council to incorporate the area. They succeeded. Immediately upon forming the municipality, they zoned apartments – including publicly funded ones – out of the city. (p. 36)


“The real issue is not taxes, nor water, nor street cars – it is a much greater question than either. It is the moral control of our village. Under local government we can absolutely control every objectionable thing that may try to enter our limits.” – suburban Chicago newspaper editorial in favor of incorporating as a separate municipality, 1907  (p. 37)


“Planners and zoning experts often appeal to their clients, that zoning for height and lot area, and sometimes other items, will protect them from ‘undesirable neighbors.’ In fact, all the arguments adduced to show that zoning protects property values are meaningless unless they imply this important element in the determination of values. No height restriction, street width or unbuilt lot area will prevent prices from tottering in a good residential neighborhood unless it helps at the same time to keep out Negroes, Japanese, Armenians, or whatever race most jars the natives.” – Bruno Lasker, academic, 1920  (p. 57)

Americans have discovered in local institutions effective barriers to racial and economic segregation. Living within particular city boundaries means that schools will not be integrated, that neighborhoods will not be integrated, that offensive industry will not be apparent, and that taxes will not be higher. It also means that the problems of people in other – even, and especially, neighboring – cities will be considered irrelevant to local politics….

Because municipal boundaries can be boundaries between races and classes, boundaries that reinforce homogeneity, the possibilities for transformative public discussion in local politics are severely limited.

Moreover, the space we have created for local political autonomy means that we allow local boundaries to define citizenship, and we allow that definition of citizenship to carry weight in American politics. Boundaries, and the import we give to them, can thus legally impede desegregation efforts, halt efforts at redistribution, and restrict access to services. (p. 117)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s