Albany’s Machine: Last of the Old Breed or First of the New?

One of the really fascinating things about moving to Albany has been educating myself about the city’s complex and often messy political history. The last century of that history has been dominated by the extraordinarily long-lived O’Connell-Corning machine and its legacy, but that legacy is often misunderstood. Though often portrayed as the last of the great ethnic machines (Erastus Corning’s death in office 1983, his 42nd year as mayor, is generally understood to be the end of the machine), the Albany machine in fact evolved into something more complex that can perhaps be understood as a precedent of sorts to some of today’s entrepreneurial, neoliberal city governments.

In a (that I know of) otherwise unpublished paper presented at the 1987 Chicago meetings of the American Political Science Association, “Albany’s O’Connell Organization: The Survival of an Entrenched Machine,” Todd Swanstrom and Sharon Ward make a convincing argument that in its later years the Albany machine morphed from a classical ethnic machine to what they describe as an “entrenched conservative machine”:

The Albany machine evolved from a classical political machine consistent with the industrial growth period of the 1920s to an entrenched conservative machine more compatible with its position in a declining service sector city. The basis of its appeal shifted from poor ethnics in unstable neighborhoods to lower middle class, largely Irish Catholic, homeowners in stable neighborhoods. Its characteristic method of co-optation changed from high levels of service and patronage to low levels of taxation and special tax breaks for homeowners. Conservative businessmen, who did not require active intervention by city government in order to invest, supported the machine for the low taxes and stable environment it provided. (Swanstrom and Ward 1987, 10-11) 

The late O’Connell-Corning machine (Swanstrom and Ward argue that the transition in paradigm was complete by the 1950s) was beholden not primarily to a particular ethnic class, but to an economic class (which did have significant convergence with its Irish ethnic base): homeowners. And it’s that drawing of primary support from the homeowning class that perhaps provides the best link from the anomalous late Albany machine to another paradigm of urban government—the entrepreneurial, “neoliberal” model of mayors such as Michael Bloomberg and Rahm Emanuel.

Of course, Albany in 1983 was a very different place than New York or Chicago in 2010 or 2014. Development and gentrification are currently hot-button issues in NYC and Chicago in ways that they certainly were not in Albany then, and really aren’t today either. The concept of City Hall being beholden to homeowners as its primary constituency, though, links the governments of those cities together across time. The image of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty in New York is fixed in the public mind: a new skyline, giveaways to developers, and a tidal wave of gentrification. But for those who follow housing and construction trends, the Bloomberg paradigm is a little different. The Bloomberg administration did indeed upzone several areas in Manhattan and the core of Brooklyn, but a truer accounting reveals that downzonings across the outer boroughs pretty much kept pace with core upzonings, with the result that housing production stayed low. The outer-borough upzonings and their constraint on housing supply were, naturally, not random; they were a sop to the homeowning middle class that formed the core of Bloomberg’s support (and that of Rudi Giuliani before him). Homeowners tend to like downzonings for several reasons: 1) They are perceived as keeping prices high by limiting supply 2) bias against renters 3) They protect “neighborhood character.” Of course, in a more progressive planning and policy scheme, the citywide effects of downzoning on housing prices would be considered alongside the wants of local homeowners, but with the Bloomberg administration having identified homeowners as one of its core constituencies, the chances of such logic being taken into consideration were low. 

Nor is the paradigm of entrepreneurial government being beholden to homeowners limited to New York City. Daniel Kay Hertz has exhaustively documented how the Daley and Emanuel administrations in Chicago adopted a similar zoning paradigm to that of Bloomberg’s New York. By “protecting” already-gentrified or homeowning neighborhoods through preventing growth in the number of units, the city inflated housing costs–and appeased homeowner paranoia about the “negative social effects” of density and renters. 

Whether in 1983 Albany, or New York in the past decade, or Chicago in this, the exact mechanisms are different, but the principle remains the same: politicians identify homeowners as their core constituency (or at least one of several), and serve their wants and needs at the expense of the generalized interest of the city, and of communities with less financial and political clout. We associate entrepreneurial, neoliberal government with giveaways to wealthy developers and businesses, and that is absolutely part of the typical model. But we should not miss the ways in which some city governments have chosen to use planning and policy tools to effect another kind of upward transfer of wealth (even if that is an unintended consequence, rather than a driving motivator for policy decisions).

The Albany machine and both the Bloomberg and Emanuel administration cloth(ed) their appeasement of homeowners in language of stability and neighborhood character. And it’s worth remembering that in a vacuum, those are desirable qualities, which is why NIMBYs tend to use them in their rhetoric. But city life and policymaking does not exist in a vacuum. Favoring one group of city residents or stakeholders inevitably has negative effects on everyone else. In Albany, black neighborhoods are still suffering the consequences of the absolute neglect they faced under the machine (to be fair, not a unique story). In contemporary New York and Chicago, the costs of appeasing homeowners are perhaps less immediately apparent, but they are no less real. Refusing to allow growth causes housing prices to shoot through the roof (in New York, across most of the city; in Chicago, in certain neighborhoods). In any case, the effect is to make the city harder to live in for the non-homeowner class. To the political establishment, that’s the cost of doing business. To the city, it can be incredibly damaging.

Albany’s machine may have been perceived as anomalous and backwards at the end of its run, but there were some aspects of its model that looked forwards in sadly unfortunate ways. In many ways, the attachment of the Albany machine to homeowners was a product of midcentury housing policy and ideology, so it is somewhat depressing to see it turning up in political paradigms another 30 years on. The world of urban policy, though, is a very different—and much more hopeful—place in 2014 than it was in 1983. As we move into the future, one where homeownership seems to be on the decline and renting on the rise, it is wise to remember the consequences that selling out to a privileged class can have for cities, and the desperate, self-interested ways in which that paradigm of urban government arose.




3 thoughts on “Albany’s Machine: Last of the Old Breed or First of the New?

  1. This is thoughtful, and wise. However, this ol’ non-privileged Renter Guy might push back against you. Is support for homeowning *inherently* bad? What if it were indeed racially neutral, or even affirmative? What if policies helped renters who wanted to buy? What if renters got some of the direct fruits of social democracy, as well as the indirect benefits of stability?

    Perhaps too pie in the sky to consider…but in terms of realism, I wonder: how realistic is it for current urban regimes to ditch the homeowners?

    –The Dad Guy

  2. What a great piece! I especially loved the analysis of what urban politicians can deliver today, versus what they could deliver in the machine heyday.

    My question: Is this necessarily machine politics at work? Or democracy — in which the most organized groups, the ones with most political capital, have the most influence on the process? Public participation is low in our democracy. Homeowners — a group that often correlates with asset wealth (though not as seamlessly in larger cities) — probably participate disproportionately in most low-participation communities, especially where the labor movement has withered (which is many places, but not all cities). So anyone who wants to get elected listens to the 7 people who turn out to community meetings and who call their politicians. (Or the 50 people during periodic NIMBY implosions.)

    “Machine” is an interesting term. For most of us it evokes the corrupt, transactional organizations that dispersed jobs and other favors to emerging ethnic groups at transitional points in American cities’ developments. (Their defenders argued that the machines offered shut-out, discriminated-against groups an entree to civic success as well as a door into democracy, which is true. Defenders say that resultant ineffective and corrupt government actually hurt the majority of people in those same groups through a chipping away at the foundations of effective government service delivery as well as broader access to government decision-making, which is also true. Still others note that established groups in power who didn’t need machine favors had their own backroom, non-democratic ways of running cities.) More broadly, any politician who wants to get elected must assemble a “machine,” a group of people who, for whatever motivations (some venal, some noble, most mixed), is interested in working on elections. I find the term more neutral in that sense. I’m wondering just how the term fits in to Sandy’s fascinating analysis here.

    • Thanks, Paul! I couldn’t agree more on the “they who show up, govern” issue and its relationship to homeowning. In fact, it was part of what I wrote about in this piece: . I think planners in particular get so fed up with the crazy, obsessive, ignorant stuff that so often gets thrown at them in public meetings that they get lazy about the whole public-outreach thing. In a lot of circumstances, I can’t blame them, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is rarely a good idea, and I’d rather see more robust efforts to proactively reach out to populations who are less likely to show up at meetings or have the resources to wage long-term political battles.

      It speaks, I think, to the ultimate tension in the planner’s job: is it our job to serve the public through the “democratic” process (which obviously is not always democratic) or through applying our specialized knowledge and advocating for what we believe–but can’t know for certain–will be the best for the city? And furthermore, what if what’s best for the city is perceived as (or actually is) bad for certain communities? There are plenty of cities out there that *need* the investment that comes with gentrification, but have large poor/minority populations that are forced out.

      As for the term “machine,” I certainly wouldn’t apply it to the Bloomberg or Emanuel operations, or to any city government I know of today. I think it carries a connotation of some degree of permanence–like it has to last 20 years or so to be called a machine.

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