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In a (that I know of) otherwise unpublished paper presented at the 1987 Chicago meetings of the American Political Science Association, “Albany’s O’Connell Organization: The Survival of an Entrenched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.