The Case for Centrist Mayors: Best #Cityreads of the Week

A round-up of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.

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A round-up of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days. Leave your picks for next week in the comments, or email aerickson@theatlantic.com.

"Liberals Should Vote Centrist in Local Elections," Michael Schaffer, The New Republic

Imperial mayors succeeded because they picked battles that were winnable. And the earlier model of city governance showed that it’s much harder to fix the big, historic issues—discrimination, deindustrialization, and now income inequality—at the local level.

Bloomberg helped make New York mainstream enough that a mayoral election there, rather than being viewed as a quirk, can be heralded a sign of a changing national narrative about how Democrats should or shouldn’t cultivate the super-rich. I hope it is. But de Blasio is probably enough of a student of history to know that one botched snowstorm can upend your whole agenda. And he’s surely realistic enough to know that the press will open up on him at the first sign that the end of stop-and-frisk has made crime go up.

"Love Hurts," Alexander Nazaryan, Newsweek

This fall marks 35 years since Love Canal became "one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history," as the Environmental Protection Agency called it back then. It was in August 1978 that New York officials declared a State of Emergency in this working-class community at the base of Niagara Falls, deeming Love Canal a "public nuisance" and ordering pregnant women and toddlers to leave.

Five days after the state's declaration, President Jimmy Carter stepped up with funding for the evacuation of the first wave of families. Over the next two years, nearly 1,000 left their homes by government order. And most never came back.

But after a massive clean-up and government assurances of safety, about 200 rehabilitated homes on the north and west end of the canal were sold to the public starting in 1990. The new neighborhood was called Black Creek Village, because people wanted to forget.

And yet Love Canal clamors for our attention, and concern, once again. Some of the people who came to live in Love Canal after the government spent some $400 million and 21 years to clean up the site - are claiming there is still poison in ground. Three lawsuits have been filed, with more on the way, claiming that "toxins are leaching out every day."

 

"Stay Put, Young Man Americans," Timothy Noah, Washington Monthly

In our own time, though, all of that has changed. Americans are moving far less often than in the past, and when they do migrate it is typically no longer from places with low wages to places with higher wages. Rather, it’s the reverse. That helps explain why, since the 1970s, income inequality has gone up and upward mobility has (depending on who you ask) either stagnated or gone down.

"Why Do Cities Struggle to Replicate Best Practices?" Mike Pagano, Governing

Silver bullets and magic beans slay the dragon and usher in the good life but are rarely replicable and almost never considered a best practice. A reporter asked me recently if, now that Detroit is entering federal bankruptcy courts through a Chapter 9 filing, we might be at the beginning of a parade of cities that follow its lead in adopting this particular best practice. Chapter 9 is a best practice?

"Technology Gives Form and Face to a Forgotten Place," Anthony Townsend, Planetizen

Once upon a time, pedestrians in American and European cities lived in fear of airborne feces: before modern sanitation was introduced, the cry of “Gardez l’eau” (literally “Look out for the water!”) would herald the evacuation of one’s chamber pot into the street. As cities like London boomed during the nineteenth century, every available body of water, from creeks to rivers to ponds, became an open cesspool. Only repeated cholera epidemics, and the “Great Stink” of 1858 (which forced Parliament to soak the curtains of the House of Commons in lime to mask the foul odor of the Thames River) would spur government action.

Today, this ugly practice has reemerged for a whole new generation of city dwellers in the developing world, an ad hoc adaptation to unplanned urban growth and a lack of investment in sanitation. In the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, in place of chamber pots the residents of the massive Kibera slum have put the ubiquitous plastic bag to work. The process is much the same, however. Squat, step to the window, and hurl. Throughout the night, “Scud missiles,” as the locals mockingly dub the flying waste packets, rain down on tin rooftops and hapless pedestrians. Compared to nineteenth-century London, the results are actually quite good. Sealed in their plastic tomb, disease-carrying microbes have a much harder time spreading. Cholera, dispersed through London’s contaminated water supply, killed more than ten thousand people in 1853–54 alone. Kibera has its share of water-borne disease but nothing on that scale.

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.