As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
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A century ago, working-class radicals frustrated with the pace of change often scoffed at their more patient comrades in city government, calling them “sewer socialists.” The latter, however, numbered in the hundreds, and, in their heyday, were quite influential in cities both large and small. After being elected to municipal positions on the Socialist Party ticket, they labored mightily to improve local services, from public sanitation to street repair. They even encroached on private markets by expanding public housing and experimenting with municipal ownership of utilities.
The national expansion of popular democracy sought by these left-wing reformers was, sadly, never achieved under their party banner. But several decades later, their many ideas for putting government to work for the people found traction during the New Deal. Programs to promote social equality and economic opportunity first tested at the state or local level became a Depression-era lifeline for millions of Americans nationwide.
In the twenty-first century, many on the left still yearn for economic and policy victories on the scale of the 1930s and the emergence at the federal level of a counter-force that might one again curb the influence of corporate America. While waiting for that second coming, progressive activists have, like the “sewer socialists” of old, been forced to grapple with serious problems—national and even global in nature—at the municipal level instead.
Some of the bravest (or most ambitious) among them have sought and won local elected office. So, in city halls across the country, they are now trying to deploy the limited resources of local government to fight poverty, inequality and environmental degradation at a moment when higher levels of government have failed to address such problems or made them worse. To maintain public support, these reform-minded mayors, city councilors, county commissioners and allied civil servants must be as concerned about street paving and policing as saving the planet from global warming.
Until recently, most of these “pothole progressives” have toiled largely in isolation. They chipped away at local injustice or city hall dysfunction in ad hoc fashion with little national infrastructure to sustain or support them. But as their ranks have swelled in recent years, several networks have developed to promote greater coordination of this difficult work through systematic sharing of information, ideas, and technical expertise.