Recently, Gabriel Metcalf’s essay in Citylab about Progressivism and San Francisco’s housing crisis threw kindling onto the flame of a long-running discussion about the role of progressive politics in contemporary housing and urban policy. It’s a broad, interdisciplinary discussion that has (typically) devolved at times into name-calling. In my humble opinion, the whole debate has lacked significant historical context and nuance that might help us urbanists understand how progressives come to hold positions that don’t make much sense in the broader scheme of planning. To help get me thinking, and to shed light on some of this, I called on an expert on historical Progressivism–my father, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in the Progressive Era. He’s written a book about the middle class in the (then and now) Progressive mecca of Portland, and is working on another on a topic that I believe has some parallels to the question of progressivism and housing: opposition to mandatory vaccination. This post is likely the first of several from a long email chain. Messages have been edited and condensed. Enjoy!
Sandy: Sends link to Metcalf piece, writes “I think he probably doesn’t give enough credit to SF’s white working class reactionary streak (see White, Dan). But it’s interesting.”
This is a very thoughtful, challenging, insightful, and powerful essay. I really appreciate you passing it on.
I agree that the Dan White strain of working-class (alas, lower-middle-class too?) exclusionary politics doesn’t get any play here. I think, though, that the power of capitalism also fails to get enough attention. For all the progressivism in the city, and for all its social democratic practices and institutions, SF was always controlled ultimately by the forces of capital. I don’t mean to say this in a deterministic way, because it was definitely a loose and contested control, as it always is. But THEY ran the show.
The author spends most of his time simply supporting “development,” before recognizing that, of course, a very special set of development policies would have been necessary to keep SF “freak, immigrant, and radical” friendly. But given the tight hold that corporate real estate interests and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have on the city (and, as he notes, the region), what chance would such truly populist policies have had? I don’t like to be a naysayer, but I’m not sure that the chances would have been good.
So, ultimately, in a combination of self-congratulatory and naïve thinking, Metcalf seems to greatly overestimate the power of progressives.
That said—and you have always been very persuasive on this front—progressives desperately need to have the kind of discussions that he is pushing. The big question is, then, how do you persuade progressives to move beyond either overt or unconscious NIMBYism? That, of course, is another core issue in our Larger Discussion.
A couple other things:
–the cities in the graph that he doesn’t talk about, about places that do not have affordability crises, hardly strike me as bastions of progressivism (or, perhaps with the exception of Pittsburgh), middle-class (not necessarily coded white) people. I would have liked to have seen more discussion of this.
–as he indicates, we know a lot about why white folks fled the cities in the first place. But why *did* they move back? Did, indeed, no one anticipate that? I’m sure you know a lot about this, but I don’t!
Very thoughtful questions! Thanks. I agree that urbanists tend to underrate the structural power of capital in shaping a city. I think there are a couple of aspects to this. First, a lot of urbanists and planners are kind of still under the thrall of Jane Jacobs. And for all her brilliance, structural analysis (of any kind) was not really her thing. Second (and related) I think if there’s a kind of “urbanist nostalgia” it’s for the days when small builders would build new, denser housing on small lots in low-rise neighborhoods. SF urbanists support big towers downtown and on the waterfront–but they also support the kind of small-scale densification of residential neighborhoods that can really lead to affordability (think knocking down a bungalow for a three-flat, in Chicago terms), and which doesn’t require the same kind of concentration of capital. This is also precisely the kind of development that SF’s super-tight housing restrictions (EVERYTHING needs individual approval) is designed to suppress (arguably, suppressing this kind of development actually serves the interests of organized capital by reducing small-time competition).