Reclaiming Sewer Reformism

Anyone who reads this blog knows I think that the approach many American leftists take toward urban policy is fundamentally broken.  It’s easier to come up with a critique than to propose a positive agenda, though, and it’s taken me a while to come up with the beginnings of one. Things started to crystallize a bit after the kind of remarkably random interaction that really only Twitter can enable:

I’m sure y’all can look it up yourselves, but for the record Emil Seidel was one of several Socialist mayors of Milwaukee between 1900 and 1960, serving from 1910-1912–indeed, the first elected Socialist mayor of a major city in the US (and no, I don’t know who runs the account, but they’re very thoughtful!).

As I mentioned on Twitter, Milwaukee’s Socialist tradition is indeed extraordinary, in part because the concerns of the city’s Socialist mayors seemed excessively mundane to many more ideologically inclined leftists. Indeed, ideologues gave the Milwaukee tradition the sobriquet “Sewer Socialism,” an intended insult that the Milwaukee crew adopted as a compliment.

Let’s take a look at some of the tenets of Sewer Socialism. The Wikipedia article linked above is pretty good, but I found this 2009 Journal-Sentinel article by John Gurda particularly accessible and informative; not by accident given what I will argue, the title is “Here, Socialism meant honest, frugal government.” Here’s what Gurda has to say:

The key to understanding Milwaukee’s Socialists is the idea of public enterprise. They didn’t just manage, and they didn’t just enforce laws and regulations. They pushed a program of public necessities that had a tangible impact on the average citizen’s quality of life: public parks, public libraries, public schools, public health, public works (including sewers), public port facilities, public housing, public vocational education and even public natatoria.

Underlying their notion of public enterprise was an abiding faith – curiously antique by today’s standards – in the goodness of government, especially local government. The Socialists believed that government was the locus of our common wealth – the resources that belong to all of us and each of us – and they worked to build a community of interest around a deeply shared belief in the common good…

The Socialists governed well, and they did so without breaking the bank. Contrary to another popular myth, these were not tax-and-spend radicals intent on emptying the public coffers. They were, in fact, every bit as frugal as the most penny-pinching German hausfrau. The Socialists managed civic affairs on a pay-as-you-go basis, and in 1943, Milwaukee became the only big city in America whose amortization fund exceeded its outstanding bond obligations. It was, in other words, debt-free.

Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialism placed good government–including good fiscal management–at the forefront of its public-facing persona. Not just something you had to pay homage to on the campaign trail, this ideology recognized that for government to win the confidence of the people and further an agenda of the common good, it had to prove its competence and earn that confidence. Placing something as “boring” as goo-gooism at the center of a political and governing ideology may indeed be “curiously antique by today’s standards,” as Gurda says–but perhaps it is a heritage that we should pay attention to.

Though socialist governance of any kind was rare in American cities, it was not limited to Milwaukee alone. Barre, Vermont also elected a pair of Socialist mayors in the early 20th century, as Robert Weir details for the Vermont Historical Society. As Weir argued, “municipal socialism” in Barre took on a very similar tinge to Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialism.

both Gordon and Suitor brought Barre into the modern age with relative efficiency. In the decades following the Civil War, American cities faced the challenge of transforming themselves from merchant hubs into industrial, commercial, and retail centers. Rapid urban growth quickly revealed the utter inadequacy of antiquated city infrastructure, often with disastrous results (epidemics, floods, poverty, class conflict). Every upgrade that cities needed—from tenements and streetcars to sewers and sidewalks—entailed enormous expense, hence opportunities for graft. The same was true of the incidentals associated with technological change, including the paving of roads to accommodate automobiles, the building of airports, the issuance of radio licenses, and the location of electrical and telephone poles. That Gordon and his protégé Fred Suitor helped Barre make these transitions without a whiff of scandal and with the interests of the citizenry in mind should not be remarkable, but it was.

As in Milwaukee, Barre’s leftists recognized that competence, honesty, and good government were essential to place at the center of any viable agenda.

Nor would I want to leave the impression that this emphasis on good, competent government was limited to the socialist or radical fringe. Not to keep it in the family too much, but I’ll refer to my dad’s book about Portland, OR, and specifically to the chapter about Harry Lane, mayor of Portland from 1905 through 1909 and later a Senator. A doctor by training, Lane was generally identified with the capital-P Progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

An interviewer asked Lane in 1914 to name the major problem with American municipal government. “Decentralized power,” Lane replied without hesitation. Lane went on to state, “A benevolent despot, if he is honest and capable, can manage a city better than can 50 men filling a dozen different offices…I would run a big city or a little city with one, two, or three men at the most.”

Unsurprisingly, Lane’s critics accused him–and other Progressives–of being technocratic elitists, but we can see the commonality with Sewer Socialism in the emphasis on efficiency and honesty. And indeed, my father–inclined as he is to be sympathetic to the petite bourgeoisie–defends Lane as a champion of the principles of small business rather than organized capitalism, and as a trenchant critic of technocracy who championed centralization because he thought it would be easier to hold a centralized government accountable.

To be sure, there were then and are now a wide variety of ideological differences among urban leftists. Weir analyzes some of the differences in the first few decades of the 20th century:

Gordon and Suitor, like most goo-goos and Progressives, believed in efficiency, industrial progress, and the material improvement of society, but they sought to expand democracy, not contract it. Barre’s socialist mayors were not revolutionaries, but neither were they seduced by the blind belief in experts, a hallmark of Progressive thinking. As Bruce Stave observed, “socialists generally opposed . . . attempts to institute city manager or commission forms of government,” staples of top-down Progressive urban reform. Gordon and Suitor encountered and resisted calls for commission-style government. As their battles with public service boards, power authorities, banks, and traction companies reveal, Barre’s socialist mayors were suspicious of the “experts” that Progressives thought should manage cities. The socialist perspective was the difference between trusting the masses to make bottom-up changes, and the Progressives’ paternalistic belief that meaningful reform should be imposed from the top, often by unelected policymakers….

There were other stylistic differences between Progressives and municipal socialists. The first group longed for consensus politics and sought order; the latter averred that political change was inherently chaotic. Progressive reformers sought centralized programs; socialists demanded grassroots local control. Socialists favored public enterprises often deemed unrealistic by Progressive reformers who believed (romantically) in the benevolence, efficiency, and civic pride of the private sector.

Emphasis mine. (Note: I’m sure my dad is going to comment here and say Weir’s view of Progressivism lacks nuance)

But I’m interested in looking at the emergent commonalities, not the differences. Whether against capitalism or for regulating it, what can the Left of the early 20th century share with the new urban age?

  • Milwaukee, Barre, and Portland all adopted competence-based leftist governance at a time of rapid growth. It’s hard to imagine today given the prevalence of NIMBYism from both limousine liberals and concerned poor communities, but there was a time when dealing positively with growth was recognized–properly, in my mind–as a Left issue, precisely because the newcomers were often vulnerable. Perhaps there is, after all, a Left ideology that can be recovered to help guide growth instead of resisting it.
  • Both Sewer Socialists and Progressives placed “taking on entrenched interests” (primarily, of course, corporate interests) at the center of their agenda. One challenge the Left has been slow to adapt to in contemporary high-demand American cities is the need to recognize that “entrenched interests” are not solely corporate, but sometimes come in the form of “the people”–and most specifically, homeowners who follow perceived self-interest at the expense of others.
  • Though some Progressive reformers sought an elegant urban model, most urban leftists seem to have understood–as in the bolded passage from Weir above–that change is both necessary and chaotic. In a sense, this understanding is a key counterpoint to the Modernist planning ideology that has captivated the US public mind–the idea that “order” is important and there’s a right amount of tinkering that can be done to produce an optimal city. (in an earlier post, I called the dissemination of this idea in homeowner circles the Bootstrap Theory of Urban Development) Rather, the Sewer Socialist/Progressive idea stresses getting the fundamentals right, probably but not necessarily under public ownership, and allowing democratic society to flourish and provide the rest. In that sense, it seems to share a lot with Jane Jacobs’ fear of too much government involvement and quasi-libertarian ideas about urban business; but that’s a much longer paper.
  • This really shouldn’t need saying, but reform is not neoliberal. There’s been a tendency on the Left of late, I think, to present all attempts at reform or making government more efficient as corporate raids intended to weaken government and privatize services. Some certainly are–cough, “education reform,” cough–but we should remember that there’s a proud, though perhaps neglected, Left tradition of prizing competence and efficiency precisely as a Left value . One wonders what impact such an agenda might have on relations with some civil service unions…

I’ll end this here, because it’s already been a very long post. Still kind of short on details, I think, but perhaps I have made some progress in recovering an intellectual tradition that can, with modifications, be of use in 2016 and beyond. I certainly think we could do a lot worse.


The Danger of Revenge Fantasies

Last night, voters in San Francisco rejected Prop I, which sought to impose an 18-month moratorium on market-rate housing in the city’s historic Mission district. I’m thankful to be writing this post in light of the measure failing rather than passing; despite its support from numerous groups claiming to support affordable housing and the progressive agenda, the measure reflected not progressive tendencies but in many ways the worst illiberal indulgences of the contemporary Left, a phenomenon that I will seek to explore here.

But first, if you will indulge me, a foray into a much older text whose values cannot possibly be consistently identified as liberal.

7 Then the king Ahasuerus said unto Esther the queen and to Mordecai the Jew: ‘Behold, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and him they have hanged upon the gallows, because he laid his hand upon the Jews. 8 Write ye also concerning the Jews, as it liketh you, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s ring; for the writing which is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may no man reverse.’… 10 And they wrote in the name of king Ahasuerus, and sealed it with the king’s ring, and sent letters by posts on horseback, riding on swift steeds that were used in the king’s service, bred of the stud; 11 that the king had granted the Jews that were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, and to slay, and to cause to perish, all the forces of the people and province that would assault them, their little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey, 12 upon one day in all the provinces of king Ahasuerus, namely, upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar. 13 The copy of the writing, to be given out for a decree in every province, was to be published unto all the peoples, and that the Jews should be ready against that day to avenge themselves on their enemies.

5 And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter and destruction, and did what they would unto them that hated them. 6 And in Shushan the castle the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men…15 And the Jews that were in Shushan gathered themselves together on the fourteenth day also of the month Adar, and slew three hundred men in Shushan; but on the spoil they laid not their hand. 16 And the other Jews that were in the king’s provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of them that hated them seventy and five thousand–but on the spoil they laid not their hand–(Esther 8:7-9:15, OJPS translation, via Mechon Mamre)

As some readers know, my undergraduate education wasn’t actually in anything related to urbanism or planning; I have a B.A. in Hebrew Bible and another in archaeology, and it’s fun to retreat to my previous intellectual endeavors sometimes. In this case, though I hardly think tussles over housing in the Bay Area rise to the level of (failed) genocide, I actually think that the book of Esther illustrates well the dangerous temptations facing progressive activists in contemporary urban America.

The narrative of violence over Chapters 8 and 9 of Esther has long troubled Jewish commentators, both traditional and contemporary. At this point in the story our heroes, Mordechai and Esther, have triumphed over the evil Haman, who has already been strung up from the gallows he intended for Mordechai. As such, the primary human drama of the the story has already concluded; these chapters represent the narrative zooming out to a near-worldwide (from the perspective of the characters) level. If the major plot line is over, and the Jews empowered, why the orgy of violence and revenge?

To some extent, the answers people have proposed to that question go to a much more fundamental question about Esther:  what the purpose of the book–a late addition to the Jewish canon–is at all. Contemporary scholars have proposed that Esther is a satire; a farcical comedy; or, as proposed at a public event at my alma mater, an ancient Jewish revenge fantasy in the vein of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds(yes, that event occurred while I was there. No, I didn’t go, and I actually still haven’t seen the film) The book obviously mixes elements of all of these genres, but at its heart I think it–and especially the last two chapters–belong most in the revenge fantasy category, whether self-consciously or not.

And that’s the connection I see between Esther and, however unlikely, Prop I, with its provocative noises about keeping the Mission Latino, and its progressive-NIMBY ilk. I argued here recently that the most unfortunate characteristic of recent identity-based lefty urban activism is its determination to preserve and advantage existing communities at all costs, including the expense of newcomers of all levels of privilege. It’s a politics of exclusion that relies on inverting the use of traditional discriminatory tools and implicitly arguing that the tools themselves are OK to use if they’re just placed in the hands of “the right people”–people who have previously been oppressed. As the argument goes, it’s OK for communities of color to use the power of government to exclude others from “their territory,” even though–or rather because–they have (and still do!) suffer the same kind of discrimination. This line of logic also pops up among less-than-thoughtful college students from time to time, generally in the realm of censoring critical discussion on difficult topics, such as recently at Wesleyan  and Colorado College (ignore the snarky tone of the writer in the second link, who–shockingly for someone at Reason–has apparently never spent time with LGBTQ people or their lingo; the case is still rather striking). In other words, the politics of lefty exclusion represents the Estherian (Esther-esque?) revenge fantasy of the identity-politics Left.

Sound familiar? Discomfort with using the tools of the oppressor to “empower” the oppressed is exactly what drives the lingering Jewish unhappiness with the conclusion of Esther. Esther is a revenge fantasy because its Jews use the exact same tools on their opponents that were intended to be used on them: Haman is hung on the gallows intended for Mordechai (who also takes his seat at the king’s right hand), and the king’s seal becomes a writ for pro-Jewish instead of anti-Jewish violence. No one would confuse the still-vulnerable Jewish community in post-Esther Persia for a dominant group, but they have–for now–adopted the symbols and mechanisms of power and used it not just to defend themselves but to slaughter.

In much the same way, some urban “progressives” are seeking not to fully dismantle discriminatory, exclusionary regimes of zoning, planning, and building, but to turn and adopt those mechanisms in ways that advantage their own communities. And that’s a problem not just because it’s inherently hypocritical, but because it will worsen the affordability crisis in places like San Francisco, and because it legitimates the use of those tools by completely unenlightened and very privileged groups, such as the racist, classist suburban NIMBYs whose voice still dominates planning in this country. Despite the words I’ve devoted here, the urban left is only a small (though very vocal) part of this country’s overall problem.

Needless to say, I don’t think this is progressive, and I don’t think it’s any way forward. I’ve devoted significant time recently to critiquing my fellow travelers on the political Left, and I still think we share more than we don’t–a vision that sees the world through the lens of structural social forces, a determination to bring down inequality, a commitment to social justice. But I think significant elements of the Left have lost their way on urban issues, and it threatens the viability of the progressive political project. Progressivism is about keeping alive the dream of altruistic policymaking, about tearing down barriers rather than using them for revenge. That many so-called progressives don’t act that way in real life perhaps speaks to the extent to which the movement has been infiltrated (corrupted?) by hardcore, dead-ender Marxist, anti-capitalist hardliners who really do envision a class revolution in which oppressed groups will rise and return the moral sin of their oppressors on their heads.

I’m grateful that San Francisco voters reject Prop I; though I’m not especially hopeful, perhaps it represents an opportunity for a turning point. As I’ve said before and will say again, it’s time for a new progressive politics of urbanism–one that is inclusive, and dedicated to fundamental reform, if not quite revolution. Let’s forget fantasies of revenge and go about the mundane work of making life better for everyone. After all, in the end of Esther, with Mordechai by his side, ditzy King Ahasuerus still had to raise taxes.

Progressivism and Housing: Looking at the Roots

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).

To be continued….