In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cities tried to respond to [internal] issues with active government–what historians have labeled progressivism. Despite the persistence of corruption, widespread poverty, and racial discrimination, cities increased municipal expenditures, professionalized their administration, and constructed buildings and infrastructures that supposed the most vibrant and successful era in American urban history. in the late twentieth century, by contrast, the response to similar issues was the withdrawal of active government, evident in reduced federal funds, reliance on market based solutions to urban problems, and the need to turn to private initiatives, like special service districts to carry out public functions, such as street cleaning and security. The results are everywhere to be seen, in homelessness on city streets, poverty spreading outward to inner suburbs, uncontrolled sprawl eating up open space, crumbling infrastructure, gross inequity on public education, the future of urban finance mortgaged to casino gambling, the incapacity to prevent or respond effectively to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the subprime mortgage crisis. The widely heralded comeback of American cities is thing and fragile. If you move away from shiny center cities, it is not nearly so visible. Look at city budgets, and it does not seem nearly so robust. The question, What is an American City? has begun to elicit both a cacophony of definitions and an array of intelligent and promising ideas about ow to respond. But we have yet to see a powerful and pervasive new urban progressivism. Clearly,, though, without the will to forge an effective and coordinated political response, the future of American cities, however defined, is unlikely to be as buoyant as their past.
Michael B. Katz, “What Is An American City?” Dissent 56, 3 (2009)