The answer: it all depends on the courts. Two legal standards—one on “germaneness” and another that legal scholars appear to just call the “gun to the head” test—will determine whether Trump can set back the city by $1.3 billion (14 percent of the budget) or $78 million (less than one percent of the budget).
I just picked up (ordered to my Kindle) The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, an American urban history classic that’s been on my list for years. It explores how, and why, between roughly World War II and 1980 northern Brooklyn transitioned from a prime candidate for slum clearance and urban renewal to the treasured capital of New York’s, and the country’s, “new middle class” (or “creative class,” or whatever). Though the focus is on Brooklyn, it’s a story that has obvious structural parallels in many other cities, including Chicago.
Anyway, I’m just about a third of the way through, and have no overarching conclusions, except that if this sounds remotely interesting to you, it is even more interesting in the actual reading, and here are ten notes on what I’ve read so far.
I have an entry in this year’s “Best of Chicago” issue of the Reader:
There were supposed to be more of them. It was in the Plan. (You know which Plan.)
In the Plan, diagonal streets spanned the city like the Hancock Center’s Xs, creating crosstown routes and turning perfectly perpendicular intersections into junctions of six or even eight corners: 51st and King, LaSalle and Ohio, Western and Fullerton.
But Chicagoans love Daniel Burnham’s Plan mostly in theory, and so today the city has fewer Grid-defying streets than in 1909, when Burnham and his coauthor, Edward H. Bennett, made their recommendations. (There’s probably some Mark Twain quote about the Bible that would be applicable here, along the lines of “often cited, rarely read.” That’s how Chicagoans love the Plan.)
In Chicago, aldermen often set zoning to be more restrictive than the kind of development they eventually plan to approve, so as to maximize their negotiating power.
But there’s a loophole: all residential zoning, no matter how strict, allows single-family homes.
So developers looking to avoid negotiation can just build (very expensive) single-family homes.
The downzoning-as-negotiating-tactic ends up leading to more single-family homes than aldermen (or local residents) actually wanted.
That’s a problem on a number of fronts: affordability; public resources; transit; climate change; and so on.
If we’re going to move towards a system in which every development has to be negotiated, then that rule should apply to single-family homes as well as apartments and condos.
In the most naive version of the story, zoning is a quasi-objective, quasi-scientific endeavor. Planners, in consultation somehow with the public or their representatives, assign every plot of land in the city a code that denotes the kind of uses, and intensity of uses, that are appropriate to undertake there. They determine “appropriate” according to some sort of rational set of criteria: putting denser uses closer to major transportation corridors and nodes of activity; keeping “incompatible” uses, like factories and homes, apart; and generally respecting the existing built environment.
Of course, at least in Chicago, you don’t have to poke the zoning apparatus very hard before this story falls apart. With the exception of the immediate area around downtown, Chicago does not allow more density in many of the places that planning textbooks would tell you it should go: near transit stations, for example. (Yes, we have a “transit-oriented development” law, but it’s mostly about parking requirements. It only gives a modest density bonus to parcels that are already zoned relatively densely.)
And while Chicago’s zoning code mostly keeps factories and residential homes apart—though not always, as the above map shows; that vertical corridor of uncolored land is a manufacturing district in the middle of a residential neighborhood—beyond that, it often fails miserably at even pretending to be keeping incompatible uses apart. Remember, theoretically, each zoning category is different enough that it ought to be “incompatible” with every other category; otherwise, the authors of the code would have just combined them. That’s not to say they can’t be relatively close—say, commercial with apartments above on a main street, and residential-only on the side streets nearby—but it would be ridiculous to have a bunch of different zoning categories hopscotched around the same blocks.
Except Chicago does that all the time. Above, you have a checkerboard of single-family-only districts (red), small apartments (yellow), larger apartments (green), and even a smattering of very dense apartments (purple). And while the densest category is only found near the corner of Chicago and Ashland, two major streets, the other three categories are liberally sprinkled around the very same blocks on the very same side streets. In many cases, “zones” make up just one or two buildings, surrounded on all sides by other, supposedly incompatible, zones!
But whatever. Maybe the issue is an overzealous application of the “existing built environment” criterion. After all, Chicago’s side streets were usually built as a haphazard mix of single-family homes, small apartment buildings, and larger apartment buildings. If we just zoned each parcel to the category closest to its current building, then you might end up with something very much like the above map.
Except that’s not how we do it, either. The block above happens, at least, to be consistent in its zoning: it’s all single-family only. But literally none of the existing buildings—which, by the look of them, have been around for well over a century—are single-family homes.
Nor is that at all unusual. Every building in the above scenes is also zoned to be single-family only—anything else would be, according to law, “incompatible”—despite the fact that none of them depict any actual existing single-family homes.
So what’s going on?
Well, an alternative theory would be that instead of zoning being the result of a professionalized, semi-scientific process of analysis, it’s instead the result of politics. In particular, local politics, since in Chicago zoning changes controlled virtually entirely by the ruling alderman.
And who controls the local political process? Well, over at City Observatory, I covered the debate between two theories. One, the “growth machine,” basically posits that local politics are dominated by business and development interests, which manipulate zoning to overbuild, relative to what an “objective” observer might think appropriate. On the other side, there’s the “homevoter hypothesis,” which suggests that local politics are dominated by homeowners, who are mostly interested in maintaining the value of their homes. As a result, they’ll make zoning that leads to underbuilding, so as to reduce the number of “competing” sellers and avoid other neighborhood changes that might risk reducing property values.
If these are the options, which wins? Well, the study I wrote about at City Observatory, which was based on zoning changes in the 2000s in New York City, found that in places where you might expect it would be most valuable to build—areas near high-performing schools; whiter neighborhoods; neighborhoods seeing high home price appreciation and population growth—there were many more zoning changes to allow less density than to allow more density. That’s really hard to square with a growth machine story, but fits in perfectly well with a homevoter hypothesis story.
And what about Chicago? Before even looking at the city at all, you would probably expect that Chicago would be closer to the homevoter hypothesis than New York—simply because there are way more homeowners here (the homeownership rate is about 45%, rather than 35%).
But beyond that, and without doing a whole study, I can make an observation that makes me lean towards the homevoter hypothesis here, too: while there are abundant examples of neighborhoods where current zoning allows less density than the prevailing built environment—that is, for example, it’s illegal to build a three-flat on a street full of three-flats—there appear to be vanishingly few parts of the city where zoning allows more density than the prevailing built environment. Since intensifying land use is basically the guiding philosophy of the growth machine, a situation in which very little land is allowed to have its use intensified as of right seems hard to square with that sort of regime.
(There are two exceptions. First, areas with lots of vacant land often have zoning that allows reasonably dense buildings as of right, which you could reasonably claim would be “intensifying.” But for one, there’s generally very little building going on in these areas, and I suspect the arrival of construction would result in a flurry of rezonings; and two, if the goal of the “homevoters” is to increase their property values, getting rid of vacant lots makes a lot of sense. The other place where lots of intensifying is allowed is downtown. I think there’s a longer story to tell here, but I also would probably concede that much of downtown is, in fact, ruled by the growth machine.)
Politics are not only about constituents. They’re also about actual officeholders. And if you’re an officeholder, regardless of what your constituents want, you probably want maximum flexibility, and maximum leverage, in any given situation. In Chicago’s “planning” environment—that is, where all zoning changes are controlled solely by the local alderman, and where zoning changes can be made by that alderman very easily—that means there’s a massive incentive to downzone so that every potential developer will have to negotiate with the alderman. In the best possible interpretation, aldermen do this to allow public meetings where neighbors have the opportunity weigh in on exactly what they’d like to see built on every single parcel as developer interest arises, and then act on those wishes. In a less generous interpretation, aldermen do this to allow public meetings as a show of democracy, placating local voters while expecting things to end up basically as they would have anyway. In the least generous interpretation, you might note that this creates an incentive for developers to, say, give campaign donations to any aldermen whose wards include land they’d like to build on, since they’ll need aldermanic approval for every single project.
But even if we stick to the most generous interpretation, there are a few problems.
First, by moving planning from a theoretical planning department in City Hall to the local alderman’s office, they have shrunk the pool of voters who are consulted about changes from (theoretically) the entire city, with perhaps an extra weight given to people nearby, to only the people who show up to a given community development meeting. Without going into a whole spiel about the issue of hyper-local planning, I’ll just say that excluding many of the people who are affected by decisions about housing from having a voice in those decisions is a recipe for problems. (If this doesn’t make sense in the context of, say, Logan Square, imagine who doesn’t get a voice in hyper-local community meetings in, say, Lincoln Park.)
Second, while it’s not necessarily bad to allow negotiations over land use—you get a bit of extra density in exchange for another design concession, or less height, or more greenery, or whatever—it might be better to have these negotiations at the level of a neighborhood plan, rather than parcel by parcel. That’s both because of the “who’s enfranchised” issue above, and because negotiations require a lot of everyone’s time and effort. The smaller the payoff, the less inclined people will be to expend that time and effort. Meaning, in this context, that you might just shut out smaller developments—three flats, say—altogether, with developers deciding it’s only worth going through a whole community process if they’re proposing much larger buildings.
Finally, there’s a huge loophole: single-family homes. While in the story above, Alderman Burnett is downzoning to disallow all residential (even though, as he says, he only expects residential proposals, of which he will eventually grant one), much of the time, the alderman downzones to RS-3, which only allows single-family homes. In fact, there is no residential category that does not allow single-family homes as of right. Which means that big expenditure of time and effort can be avoided, if you’re a developer, by building single-family homes rather than apartments or condos.
If you’re inclined to be against density for the sake of being against density, then maybe that’s a feature, not a bug. But if you’re concerned about anything else, it’s a huge problem. Affordability? Basically all new single-family homes are going for the better part of a million dollars, and significantly more than units in a multifamily building in the same location. Plus, single-family homes won’t trigger the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance, so there won’t be any below-market units, either.
Transit? Allowing only single-family homes in central urban areas reduces the kind of density that supports bus and rail lines, leading to a vicious cycle of declining ridership and service.
Public services? Single-family homes will generally create less total property value than multifamily buildings, with smaller property tax bills to support vital city services.
Climate change? Less population density means more carbon emissions per capita.
Local businesses? Single-family homes mean fewer people within walking distance of local business districts. That sort of population decline may be a big part of why there are empty storefronts in some of Chicago’s most affluent neighborhoods.
Now! None of this is to say that I think we should outlaw single-family homes. I don’t.
But it does seem to me that these are, together, a good enough reason to believe that the single-family loophole is a problem. Remember, the issue is not that we’re zoning land for single-family homes because we think that’s the only “compatible” use, but because it gives us maximum negotiating leverage over the appropriate multifamily building we eventually want to approve. And yet, in the process, we’re giving developers a huge incentive to build less densely than we think is appropriate, which exacerbates all the issues above.
So basically what I’m saying is that if we’re going to move towards a system where every development is negotiated—where, in planning lingo, basically everything is a mini-planned development—then we should require negotiation for single-family homes as well.
It’s a bit weird that Chicago has something called a “pedestrian street designation” – after all, people walk on pretty much literally every single street in the city. But it does! Official “pedestrian streets,” which have existed since 2004, are designed to “promote transit, economic vitality and pedestrian safety and comfort” by disallowing certain things, like parking lots facing the sidewalk, and encouraging others, like storefronts and sidewalk cafes. The city’s transit-oriented development ordinance also applies up to two blocks from an L station along pedestrian-designated streets, as opposed to one block on other streets.
Recently, I saw a map of the city’s pedestrian-designated streets for the first time. This is what it looked like:
This is a map that made me say “hmm.” If you have any sense of Chicago’s racial and economic geography, it is probably making you say “hmm,” too. But just to hit the point home:
There is literally one pedestrian street in a majority-black community area: Commercial Avenue in South Chicago, between 88th and 92nd Streets. By contrast, the North Side east of the river is absolutely lousy with them; Milwaukee Ave., the retail backbone of the Northwest Side, has several large districts radiating from six-way intersections; and the Latino section of the Southwest Side, though it has way less than the North Side, at least has pedestrian designations on the busiest portions of 18th, Cermak, and 26th Streets.
To be clear, the people in charge of assigning pedestrian street designations are aldermen, not CDOT. That is, the issue isn’t that the Mayor’s Office is just choosing to give North Side streets “pedestrian” status and not South Side streets. But still, it’s a pretty notable pattern.
How much does this matter? I don’t know. You could observe, of course, that people in Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, West Town, and their aldermen, appear to believe that pedestrian street designations matter enough to slap them all over their neighborhoods. Alderman Ameya Pawar, for example, has been quite vocal in his belief that making commercial streets in his ward more pedestrian-friendly will improve his constituents’ quality of life and promote economic development, not to mention reduce injuries from car accidents.
And although people on the South and West Sides may have different concerns and priorities, certainly one of them is economic development and thriving retail districts, which exactly the sort of thing the pedestrian street designation is designed to support. Part of the issue is that a pedestrian street designation – and the somewhat more attractive street that results – is hardly a guarantee of new businesses. Underlying economic factors and the perceptions of business owners matter much more.
But a pedestrian designation is such a low-cost exercise that I’m not sure that explains it. More likely is that there’s a fear that the kind of businesses that have chosen to move into black neighborhoods – disproportionately national chains with auto-oriented cookie-cutter designs – would be deterred by rules that forced them to adopt more pedestrian-friendly formats.
There may be some legitimacy to that. But, for one, there’s more than enough room to place some drive-through restaurants in South Side neighborhoods while preserving and enhancing pedestrian-oriented retail streets. And for two, pedestrian-friendly design is likely best for the long-term economic health of those communities. After all, not only is the property value bonus for walkable neighborhoods well-documented, but there are plenty of South Siders who have noticed that there’s a difference between, say, Clark St. and Cottage Grove – and want to close that gap.
(I’d also note, as an aside, that the way the pedestrian street law is written seems to disadvantage South Side neighborhoods. The ordinance stipulates that pedestrian streets should be designated in places where there are “very few vacant stores,” which excludes many communities with trouble attracting retail – which is to say, most black communities in Chicago. But if the point of the law is to promote economic development, why would you specifically exclude places especially in need of economic development? I don’t think that this clause has actually prevented any given pedestrian street designation – I suspect that, as these things generally work, any alderman who wanted one would get it – but I do think it suggests that the law was designed with the North Side in mind. Which is unfortunate.)
In the wake of violent protests against yet another apparent police killing in Baltimore, variations of this meme spread rapidly in certain corners of social media. Their message went something like this: Pundits and politicians may think Baltimore’s crisis began with the first brick that hit a window at CVS, but we – the people who live there – know the crisis goes back much further, and much deeper.
With this in mind, there’s some irony to the spate of columnists warning that the disturbances in Baltimore mark a return to the “bad old days” of the mid-to-late 1960s, when a series of violent protests in America’s black neighborhoods held the nation riveted. Those riots, too, were treated as a crisis by pundits who had not applied the term to decades of housing discrimination, or illegal violence on the part of police officers and white civilians.
But using violent protests as a point of analytic departure – rather than the underlying crises that provoked them – doesn’t just (unintentionally) reveal one of the similarities between 1968 and 2015. It also misses a lot of the major differences.
That is, it’s easier to send black children to inferior schools if their schools are all on one side of town, and white schools are on the other. It’s easier to target housing and mortgage discrimination against blacks – one of the most important causes of the wealth gap – if all the black-owned houses are in one area. It’s easier to unleash abusive policing and incarceration practices on black communities without disturbing – or even attracting the attention – of whites for decades if whites and blacks don’t live in the same neighborhoods…. If this is why we care about segregation, then Silver’s measure – which doesn’t care which racial groups are mixing, as long as there is some mixing going on – is less useful. What matters then isn’t just integration: what matters is that privileged groups live in the same places as traditionally oppressed groups, so that place-based discrimination is made more difficult. In the United States, that means whites and people of color living in the same neighborhoods. Where that doesn’t happen – even if an area is integrated with, say, blacks and Latinos – then place-based discrimination is still viable, and it will be much easier to reproduce racial inequality.
Actually, given what’s going on in Baltimore right now – and the narratives it’s being fit into in a lot of places – I think I’ll republish an excerpt of a post I wrote back in 2013, before I really had any readers. I wouldn’t necessarily write this exactly the same way today, but I stand by the general idea.
All blockquotes are from Making the Second Ghetto by Arnold Hirsch, except where noted.
During the first two evenings of disorder, crowds ranging from 1,500 to 5,000 persons battled police who frustrated their attempts to enter the project. Mobs broke off their engagements with the police and assaulted cars carrying blacks through the area…. Blacks were hauled of streetcars and beaten. Roaming gangs covered an area…of nearly two miles…. An “incomplete” list…included 35 blacks who were known injured by white gangs, and the Defender reported that at least 100 cars driven by blacks were attacked. Eventually more than 1,000 police were dispatched to the area, and more than 700 remained in the vicinity a full two weeks after the riot had “ended.”
This post was originally supposed to be pegged to the Detroit bankruptcy postmortems, but I’ve been busy, and in any case the phenomenon at hand is hardly that specific.
The following weekend, one hundred and fifty white teens armed with metal rods and bottles rampaged through the park, injuring thirty black picnickers. “Hoodlums” broke the windows of more than twenty-five cars…. Officers refused to escort victims into the park to retrieve their belongings, left several black women and children stranded in a park building as the mob attacked, and again rebuked the picnickers for using the “wrong park.”
But that was a particularly stark moment, since it called on all sorts of people to recount a narrative of northern urban decline. And pretty much every single one I read said something like this, from the Boston Globe: “Detroit’s deterioration, which started in earnest after the 1967 race riots were among the most violent in the country’s history, has accelerated in recent years.” Or this, from NPR: “In the 1950s and ’60s, the car companies started moving factories from the urban core to the suburbs. Many white families followed, but discriminatory practices blocked that option for black families. As a result, Detroit got poorer and blacker, while the suburbs got richer and whiter — especially after the city’s 1967 riots over race and income disparities.” Searching for Detroit AND bankruptcy AND riots gets you over two and a half million hits on Google.
This sounds familiar, if you’re a Chicagoan. Chicago Magazine, in fact, published a post in the aftermath of the bankruptcy entitled “How Highways and Riots Shaped Detroit and Chicago,” which declares that the 1968 riots in the latter city “didn’t have the effect of Detroit’s (much deadlier) riots on the whole of the city, but it did permanently damage whole swaths of it while changing the commercial and racial makeup of the city.” It quotes another article: “Marie Bousfield has worked for Chicago’s Planning Department…for 15 years. ‘It’s my view that the riots were the cause of what you call “white flight,”‘ Bousfield told me recently, though she was quick to add that that’s only her personal feeling…. She is certainly not alone in believing that the riots were at least partly responsible. There’s no doubt that there was a dramatic increase in white flight…during the early 70s.”
The 1971 school year opened with the bombing of ten Pontiac[, Michigan] school buses, followed by mass protests…. [White] antibusing activists…vandalized school buses, puncturing radiators with sharpened broomsticks, breaking windows with stones and bricks, and forcing the district to create a high-security parking lot, complete with a bulletproof watchtower. Sweet Land of Liberty, Thomas Sugrue
This is something like a Big Bang theory of urban violence. There were always problems in American cities, the theory says. There were pressures. The seeds of disaster. But the riots of the 1960s, when black people looted and burned entire neighborhoods – their own, but no one at the time could be sure they would stay there – was the catalytic event that actually delivered chaos and unchecked violence. It was the moment when ghettoes like Detroit, or the West Side of Chicago, were born. The things I couldn’t explain from the other side of my train window – those are the “scars” (as the preferred metaphor goes) of the riots.
Monroe Anderson [Tribune reporter] It was almost a riot. When Harold [Washington] showed up and the press entourage showed up, there was this angry– people were approaching the car. People were out of control. I thought that we were in physical danger. And then we get to the church, and somebody spray-painted, on the church, graffiti that said, “Die, nigger, die.”
Ira Glass On a Catholic church?
Monroe Anderson Yes.
This American Life, Harold, describing events at a campaign stop by Chicago’s first black mayor, in 1983.
To get to the point, this is a theory that is tenable only because we have decided to eliminate all other forms of racialized violence from our collective history. When we talk about “the riots,” context is unnecessary: it is understood that we are talking about blacks, in the 1960s (or, maybe, the early 90s in LA), burning and looting the neighborhoods where they lived. As a result, we don’t even have a word for the things that we don’t talk about. We don’t have a word to talk about white mobs burning buildings in Northern cities, or beating or killing innocent people, who wanted to move into their neighborhoods. We don’t really have a word for this:
Estimates of the Englewood crowds varied from several hundred at the riot’s inception to as many as 10,000 at its peak. “Strangers” who entered the area to observe the white protestors and innocent passers-by…were brutally beaten.
A crowd of 2,000 descended upon the two-flat bought by Roscoe Johnson at 7153 S. St. Lawrence…. They started throwing gasoline-soaked rags stuck in pop bottles. They also threw flares and torches.
In Calumet Park, as dusk fell on the scene that saw whites attacking cars occupied by blacks, white handkerchiefs appeared on the antennas of cars driven by whites so that, in the diminishing visibility, the rioters would suffer no problems in selecting their targets.
A mob of 2,000 to 5,000 angry whites assaulted a large apartment building that housed a single black family in one of its twenty units. The burning and looting of the building’s contents lated several nights until order was finally restored by the presence of some 450 National Guardsmen and 200 Cicero and Cook County sheriff’s police.
When a black family moved to suburban Columbus in 1956, whites greeted them with a burning cross and cut telephone wires.
From May 1944 through July 1946, forty-six…residences were assaulted [in Chicago] (nine were attacked twice and one home was targeted on five separate occasions)…. Beginning in January 1945 there was at least one attack every month…, and twenty-nine of the of the onslaughts were arson-bombings. At least three persons were killed in the incidents.
But they all happened, and they deserve to exist, at least, in our collective memory.
And more than that, the white riots – the 48-hour flash-bang ones, and the slow-burn, once-a-month terrorist bombings – deserve to have as prominent a place in the narrative of northern urban decline as the black riots currently enjoy. Not to make white people wallow in guilt, or even to “blame” them (although those who participated, many of whom are still alive, probably should feel pretty bad about it, if they don’t already), but because any discussion of “what went wrong” that doesn’t mention white violence is just woefully incomplete, and yet that is pretty much the only discussion that we have. It’s like analyzing the causes of World War Two without having heard of the Treaty of Versailles.
Without this context – without the knowledge that the advent of black people to previously all-white urban neighborhoods caused a total breakdown of public safety pretty much immediately as a result of these white mobs – none of what we see in the ghetto makes sense. So we have to invent a narrative to explain it, and we tell stories about how black people burned down their own homes and businesses, and maybe, depending on our politics, about a “culture of poverty” or “welfare dependence.”
We also, of course, tell a story about economic devastation wrought by de-industrialization, automation, and offshoring jobs. But we never explain why black neighborhoods seem to be overwhelmingly the ones that are decimated, while the white ghetto, as a northern urban phenomenon, is practically unknown. True story: cross-racial comparisons of social indicators like teen pregnancy and street crime that control for neighborhood poverty are impossible in most large American cities, because there are no white neighborhoods as poor as the black ghettoes.
But if whites were so freaked out by the arrival of black people that they bombed their houses and even the buses that their children went to school on, maybe it makes sense that they (consumers and bankers) also pulled every dollar out of the commercial life of their neighborhoods when they decided they had lost the battle against their black neighbors. Maybe it makes sense that these places became as shunned and isolated as they did.
With this context, the black riot-Big Bang theory of urban violence becomes absurd. In the 1950s – years before Watts, or Detroit, or the King riots – Philadelphia lost a quarter of a million whites. Chicago lost 400,000. Detroit lost 350,000. The scale of the abandonment, as with the anti-black violence, was massive from very, very early on.
The web of political and economic and social causes that brought about that abandonment is, of course, extremely complex. I am not suggesting here that white violence was the only, or even overriding, cause. I am suggesting, however, that a conversation about urban decline without it is impossible, both because it was important in its own right and because it illuminates so many of the other causes.
If you spend much time in left-leaning precincts of the urban policy world, “neoliberal” and “neoliberalism” are wordsyouhear an awful lot. Notably, they are only ever used by people who do not believe that the word applies to them: “neoliberal” always refers to someone else, and is almost always a term of accusation. Sometimes, but rarely, there is a definition attached. The rest of the time, the reader is assumed to already understand what “neoliberal” means. But the word is applied in so many situations, and so broadly, that I’ve heard more than a few jokes along these lines:
But I think it merits taking slightly more seriously than that. (Not that I’m picking on Ted here, since he followed up on his joke by offering a real attempt at a definition.) So I asked Twitter for help.
Mostly, I didn’t get a huge number of replies – maybe ten, several of which were communicated to me privately through email or direct messages. From that, I take some combination of: a) I don’t actually have that many followers; b) most people aren’t that interested in defining abstract terms; c) people aren’t really sure what “neoliberal” means.
But still, I’m going to take a stab at a few possibilities. I don’t mean this at all to be comprehensive or definitive; I’m thinking of it mainly as another way to attract some feedback.
1. Laissez-faire economics
In one sense, this is the most obvious definition. Most sources that speak to the origins of the term seem to agree that the “liberal” in “neoliberal” refers to classical liberal economics. (Though even some of these acknowledge that pinning down an exact meaning is difficult.)
On the other hand, it’s hard to square this definition with the actual use of the term in urban contexts. I think it’s fair to say, for example, that mayors Rahm Emanuel in Chicago and Michael Bloomberg in New York have become poster children for neoliberalism in American local government. But while both of them have pursued some policies that would fit the free-market bill – privatization of public services, an emphasis on business-friendly deregulation – they’ve also embraced aggressive, and expensive, intervention in the private market. In Chicago, which I’m more familiar with, spending hundreds of millions of TIF dollars on building subsidies, infrastructure investments, and business incentives basically is Mayor Emanuel’s economic development program.
It isn’t necessary to judge the merits of those policies to see that they’re quite far from a Friedmanite, don’t-pick-winners approach to government. If neoliberalism is all about free markets, then either Emanuel isn’t a neoliberal, or he’s a very selective one.
@DanielKayHertz Someone whose view of development economics is in line with the Washington Consensus…
In poking around the Internet on this question, I came across this piece by Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber. Farrell has an interpretation of neoliberalism that I haven’t seen explicitly espoused elsewhere, but which I think hits some important notes. For Farrell, neoliberalism isn’t about free markets – it isn’t even really about any principles or policy commitments that are different from standard left liberalism. It’s about a theory of politics:
A theory of politics is a necessary condition for thinking about the relationship between policy measures and politics. A proposed policy measure that seems desirable in principle (because e.g. it is cheaper than another alternative) may not be so desirable if it has malign political consequences (it materially strengthens interest groups who have malign long term objectives)….
Lefties have a clearly discernible theory of politics, which has to do with collective action, and the building and sustenance of mobilizing organizations…. But neo-liberals – not so much, apart from a historical belief in the power of technocratic discussion to reshape politics. This not only means that they are less effective than they should be, but that they may push for policies that do long term political damage.
I’m not quite sure how to evaluate the accuracy of this argument, but it certainly resonates with some of the criticisms of neoliberal politicians and writers that you hear even from people who clearly do have major differences with what they perceive as neoliberal principles and policies. In particular, the accusation that neoliberals are somehow out of touch with real people – with communities – in a way that goes beyond policy disagreements. To go back to Ted Whalen for a second:
For me, the “market economics toolbox” implies a lot more than an inclination towards laissez-faire. It implies an approach to human behavior ruled by rational choice theory, and a policy approach that tends to treat people as free-floating individuals who desire to satisfy any number of preferences with regards to schools, public safety, and jobs, but aren’t super picky about how those preferences get satisfied. In other words, it suggests an inability to understand community, identity, respect, justice, or other values that often get short shrift in rational choice models. It suggests policymakers who may not realize, for example, how upsetting the loss of community resulting from a neighborhood school closure might be – even if your kid ends up going to a somewhat better school as a result.
In this reading, then, the leftist critique of neoliberalism is about a failure to understand the nature of power, and, as a result, the need for people- and community-centered organizing, rather than technocratic tinkering. This failure, moreover, may not be accidental, or simple naivete, but the result of a analytic “toolbox” that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to understanding power struggles in that way.
This seems, I think, like an important piece of the puzzle. But it suggests nothing about the motivations or interests of “neoliberals.” Which brings me to…
3. The growth coalition
This, to be honest, has been my fuzzy interpretation of the term for a while. The people and policies identified as neoliberal seem to reflect less any ideological commitment to markets, or naivete over how politics works, than the priorities of the good old-fashioned urban civic and business elites who have been ruling cities like Chicago and New York for decades. If you’re new to the terms “growth coalition” or “growth machine,” this is a very brief overview, and this is a somewhat longer one. But the basic idea is that the urban governing coalitions are driven mainly by a desire to grow the value of their property by, among other things, improving infrastructure and intensifying land use.
This explains both (laissez-faire-seeming) disinvestment in social services and aggressively interventionist economic development policy. On the other hand, if neoliberalism is just growth machine politics, then what, exactly, is new about it? Most leftist writers, after all, seem to take the position that this neoliberalism is a relatively new, or at least newly influential, force in American local politics. Is that really the case? Or is there something that differentiates the growth coalition of, for example, Rahm Emanuel from that of Richard J. Daley?
I like The Nation. I like Dave Zirin! But this column by Dave Zirin in The Nation is very, very bad.
The column is entitled: “Gentrification is the Real Scandal Surrounding Jackie Robinson West.” This is a very bad title. But I’ve felt misrepresented by a good number of headline writers in my day, so I tried to withhold judgment until I actually read the piece.
But no: in this case, it turns out that the headline is pretty fair.
The fact that the adults in charge of JRW felt the need to breach this rule perhaps has something to do with the fact that today’s urban landscape supports baseball about as well as concrete makes proper soil for orchids… This is because twenty-first-century neoliberal cities have gentrified urban black baseball to death. Boys and Girls Clubs have become bistros. Baseball fields are condos and in many cities, Little League is non-existent. The public funds for the infrastructure that baseball demands simply do not exist, but the land required for diamonds are the crown jewels of urban real estate.
There are levels to this.
On a nitty-gritty level, I would be interested if Dave Zirin can think of a single example on the South Side of Chicago of a) Boys and Girls Clubs that are now bistros, or b) public baseball diamonds that are now condos. Actually, I’m not that interested, because I know the answer, which is No, because a) those things did not happen and b) Dave Zirin made them up.
One reason I know that Dave Zirin made them up is that black neighborhoods in Chicago, particularly on the South Side, almost never gentrify. I know that they don’t gentrify partly because I live in Chicago, and I pay a lot of attention to neighborhoods and neighborhood change here, and I go places, and talk to people, and I see and hear that they don’t gentrify. I also know that they don’t gentrify because literally less than six months ago therewasawidely-reportedstudy by a very well-respected urban sociologist that documented, in rigorous detail, that black neighborhoods in Chicago don’t gentrify.
I also know that if you were to ask people to list black neighborhoods on the South Side that were maybe inching towards gentrification, they would list places like Bronzeville, Kenwood, and Woodlawn. Roseland, Washington Heights, and Morgan Park – the heart of JRW territory, and several miles further south – would not be on that list.
Which means that Dave Zirin didn’t just make up some fictional – but poignant! – events to more effectively illustrate a real phenomenon. He made up the entire phenomenon. Why did he do that? I don’t really know. I can observe, however, that this seems to be one of the more extreme examples of a different phenomenon, which is people who cannot discuss issues of urban inequality without using the lens of gentrification. Even where – as in the JRW neighborhoods – the fact that gentrification is completely and utterly nonexistent has already been made a national news story.
What’s unfortunate about all this is that there is an urban inequality story to tell here. Many stories, in fact. Zirin mentions the issue of school closure, and the demographic shift of African-Americans from the South Side into the south suburbs. That shift is certainly driven, in part, by the city’s failure to provide basic services and amenities to many of these neighborhoods. Many of them still appear to be losing population, and income, and jobs, and stores.
But that is not what “gentrification” means.
Moreover, Zirin’s column becomes episode one million of national (and local!) media deciding that a story about black boys from the South Side of Chicago must also, and straightforwardly, be a story about deprivation and poverty. But of course, as Pete Saunders and others have pointed out, many of these boys come from places – like Morgan Park – that are strongly middle class. The narrative of black South Side neighborhood pathology, though – the narrative that underlies the shunning of these places and the people who live there – demands their erasure, and writers on both the left and right are more than happy to oblige for their own ideological purposes.