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City Urbanism and Its End.

City Urbanism and Its End, by Douglas Rae. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003, 544 pp., $30.00 cloth, $20.00 paper.

Political science has had a nearly fifty-year love affair with New Haven, Connecticut, sparked by Robert Dahl's 1961 classic, Who Governs? The city is now serenaded in a September song by Douglas Rae's City Urbanism and Its End--except that Rae's book is not just political science but sociology, history, geography, and economics woven into a rich, two-centuries-long, analytical reflection on the fate of urban America.

Dahl's answer--that Mayor Richard Lee's central role in New Haven's important decisions saved democratic theory and perhaps the city--provoked decades of lively debate. G. William Domhoff and others suggested that Dahl failed to find elite control because he looked in the wrong places. Morton Baratz and Peter Bachrach criticized him for ignoring nondecisions. More sympathetically, Raymond Wolfinger and Nelson Polsby deepened and extended the New Haven story.

And it was not just about New Haven. Although Edward Banfield wrote about Chicago, Douglas Yates about New York (and New Haven), and Clarence Stone about Atlanta, these and other scholars were essentially suggesting different answers to Dahl's question. Banfield: the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Committee (who happened to be mayor). Yates: nobody. Stone: a business-led regime. Now Rae changes the question. It is not who governs but, to put it awkwardly, "Who governances?" Or, perhaps, "Who bombed in New Haven?" His answers are that as Americans, we all do and we all did.

Governance, Rae says, is about influencing decisions outside as well as inside city hall, and the outside decisions are often more important. "Urbanism" is his term for "patterns of private conduct and decision-making that by and large make the successful governance of cities possible even when City Hall is a fairly weak institution" (p. xiii). The outside decisions are as huge as the departure of industry after alternating current electricity and motor vehicles freed it from New Haven's rail hubs and slow-water port, and as small as the closing of the New England Typewriter and Stationery store on Crown Street, seven decades after its owner, Joseph Perfetto, went into business for himself. But inside decisions also helped determine New Haven's fate, not the least of which was Lee's relentless pursuit of urban renewal.

The mayoral terms of Frank Rice, 1910-1917, are Rae's "window" on urbanism, through which he looks backward to New Haven's seventeenth-century beginnings and forward to the early 1990s, when he completed almost two years of service to Mayor John Daniels and returned to Yale University. The institutional settings for "patterns of private conduct" important to cities have been given prominence by other writers--civic and recreational clubs by Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol, neighborhood stores and busy sidewalks by Jane Jacobs, Catholic parishes by Gerald Gamm--but Rae weaves the story of their decline into a powerful, unifying narrative. Opposite the site of Perfetto's store in 1913 were a hotel, several residences, a restaurant, two saloons, a delicatessen, a barbershop, a club, and a caged bird shop; peering through the window in 1999, Rae sees a parking lot and largely empty, nondescript commercial buildings. Richly illustrated with detailed maps and photos--such as Perfetto and his future wife among crowded shelves in 1948, their best years and a suburban home just ahead of them, urban renewal and the personal computer further down the road--Rae's story appeals to the heart as well as to the head.

But one important institution is given less attention than it deserves. Rae, like Dahl and many subsequent urban scholars, has much to say about New Haven's relationship with the federal government and little to say about its relationship with the state. What Rae does say, in roughly 13 pages out of 432, largely repeats the conventional wisdom of state interference in city government. His observations, focused largely on Rice's "sidewalk republic" (fixing sidewalks was the mayor's chief priority), are not so much wrong as incomplete. To cite two examples, Rae, like Dahl, omits from his rich history any detailed recounting of state legislation that lifted the burden of social welfare spending from Connecticut cities or created the state authorization and funding necessary for Lee's groundbreaking use of federal aid.

In 1942, Connecticut state government spent 39 percent of total state-local expenditures from its own sources, 5 points below the national average; in 1957, during Lee's mayoralty, the state spent 55 percent, 8 points above the national average. Connecticut was performing particularly well in two redistributive categories regarded as problematic for local economies and taxpayers. State spending for public welfare rose from 42 percent of state-local spending in 1942, 19 points above the national average, to 95 percent in 1957, 23 points above the national average; for health and hospitals, it rose from 79 percent in 1942, 29 points above the national average, to 83 percent in 1957, 22 points above the improving national average.

Did Connecticut mayors fight for these changes? Would Lee's developmental politics have been possible without this state-funded safety net? Was Lee, a local who cast his lot with the cosmopolitans--unlike Richard J. Daley, a former state legislator--diverted from the grittier but perhaps in the long run more important work of state politics by the lure of easy federal aid secured by technocratic means? We do not know.

Ironically, the state appears briefly in Rae's final chapter as the venue where a number of New Haven's more serious problems will have to be addressed. Already helping poor school districts and compensating municipalities for tax-exempt property (like Yale), the state, he suggests, could regionalize important services, streamline city government, restrain rent-seeking city unions, perhaps even shrink New Haven's council (sounds a bit like state interference in local affairs). But Rae also hopes that renewed interest in dense urban living and many "small acts of courage" can save cities whose inequalities are now cumulative, not (as Dahl found) dispersed.

New Haven under Lee led all cities, per capita, in federal aid. Rae's book assures that this small city will continue to lead, per capita again, in first-rate urban scholarship.

Joseph P. McLaughlin

Temple University
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Author:McLaughlin, Joseph P.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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