Mason B. Williams is an assistant professor of history at Albright College. He is the author of City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York.
Public-works projects have historically improved urbanites’ access to opportunity and quality of life. But they've also helped the privileged at the expense of the marginalized.
Throughout his campaign, and again in the wake of his victory, President-elect Donald Trump pledged to rebuild America’s infrastructure. “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” he said on election night, promising to put millions of people to work building an infrastructure that would be “second to none.” In the weeks since his election, infrastructure has emerged as a potential bipartisan meeting ground for Trump and national Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, for one, said recently that Trump’s trillion-dollar plan “sounded good” to him.
But would a federal infrastructure plan be good for America’s cities? Infrastructure has played a crucial—yet at times problematic—role in the making, and remaking, of the modern American city. Public works have expanded access to essential goods and to economic opportunities, and they have contributed to universal improvements in the standard of living. But they have also conferred advantages on privileged parts of American society at the expense of the marginalized—a history the Trump administration would do well to consider as it plans for the future. For cities to continue growing and innovating, they need an infrastructure capable of serving as a platform for sustainable development. And they need an infrastructure that serves everyone.
The federal government has long played a crucial role in connecting American cities to each other. But prior to the 1930s, most infrastructure projects within cities were carried out by local governments. Municipalities used tools such as franchise grants, special assessments, and eminent domain to work collaboratively with private investors. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cities developed an impressive capacity to plan, finance, and carry out projects themselves; after World War I, new public-benefit corporations took over some of these functions. Cities built roads, bridges, tunnels, water systems, electrical grids, and mass transit systems—all with relatively little help from the federal government. Washington and the states only helped by linking localities through inter-regional transportation and the Postal Service.
It was during the Great Depression that the federal government and cities began to collaborate in the development of urban infrastructure. In 1933, Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt created the Public Works Administration, which offered local governments grants-in-aid for large, capital-intensive construction projects; two years later, Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration, which paid unemployed Americans to work on projects designed by local governments.
The success of both initiatives depended on the capacity and the imagination of both local and national officials; working together, cities and the federal government could do things that neither was capable of on its own. “We would have been awful damned fools,” WPA Director Harry Hopkins remarked, “if we thought for a minute that we have either the power or the ability to go out and set up 100,000 work projects ... without the complete cooperation of local and state officials. We couldn’t do it if we wanted to.” For enterprising local leaders—like New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and public-works czar Robert Moses, both of whom built their towering reputations with the aid of New Deal spending—the New Deal represented, as one official put it, “a challenge and an opportunity ... to have done those things which make our cit[ies] more beautiful and useful, and which [we] on [our] own behalf would hardly ever be financially able to do.” In the span of a few years, the PWA and WPA helped build a staggering amount of infrastructure: airports, bridges, tunnels, subway extensions, parkways, schools, public beaches, college campuses, health centers, and public-radio broadcast facilities.
The initiatives of the 1930s established a new model of collaboration between the federal government and local authorities. In the postwar years, Congress replaced the New Deal agencies with a variety of targeted grant-in-aid programs—notably, to support the construction of hospitals and airports. The federal government also took on the role of supporting the nation’s water systems through regulation, quality assurance, and assistance, and in the 1960s it began to support the development of mass transit.
At its best, midcentury liberalism strengthened urban neighborhoods by building a social infrastructure that made city life more decent and enjoyable. But some elements of the New Deal’s vision were also at odds with the very form of the dense, crowded industrial city. Wartime and Cold War spending on research and development funneled resources to new research complexes located on the outskirts of cities, such as Boston’s Route 128 and the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley. And starting in the 1930s, the federal government began to subsidize suburban single-family homeownership through federal support for the mortgage-lending industry. Some of these federally subsidized developments contributed much-needed middle-class housing within cities—the Trump family fortune derived in large measure from building subdivisions and apartment complexes in Queens and Brooklyn in New York. But many more lay outside the political bounds of cities, contributing to a metropolitan fragmentation that facilitated white flight and class stratification. Worse, these emerging forms of spatial inequality were racialized: Non-white people were locked out of this new federally supported housing infrastructure— including Trump’s father’s projects—through a variety of mechanisms, including government policy.
As suburbanization and corporate relocation drained older cities of residents and revenue, the federal government used infrastructure spending to try and help cities beat suburbia at its own game. Federally supported “urban renewal” projects flattened urban neighborhoods to create space for middle-class housing, commercial establishments, and third-sector institutions such as hospitals, university campuses, and cultural facilities. At the same time, new highways connected downtowns to outlying residential areas, stitching together the affluent, white components of the fragmented metropolis. From that point forward, the “historic role” of urban highways, noted the historian N.D.B. Connolly, has been to “help people move very easily across ... elaborately segregated landscapes.” Planners frequently routed these highways through communities of color, and they not infrequently used infrastructure to reinforce boundaries between white and non-white communities. Communities of color paid the price for urban renewal and highway building in other ways, too. Scholars estimate that some four million people, two-thirds of them black or Hispanic, were displaced in the heyday of urban renewal. Communities adjacent to highways suffered environmental degradation, contributing to, among other things, strikingly higher asthma rates.
Since the 1960s, public investment in cities has largely been on the decline, a pattern Trump seems interested in reversing. Citizens responded to the excesses and inequities of urban renewal with intense protests, leading to more rigorous permitting and approval processes. Total public spending on transportation and water infrastructure as a share of gross domestic product topped out in the first half of the 1960s. And it has been falling more or less ever since, although it revived temporarily following passage of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Both federal spending on infrastructure and federal contributions to cities have declined sharply since the end of the 1970s.
Increasingly, cities have found it difficult to maintain existing infrastructure, let alone build new projects. Cities like New York, once the showcase of the New Deal, have crumbled. When La Guardia Airport opened in 1939, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia wrote ebulliently to President Roosevelt, thanking him for helping build “the greatest, the best, the most up-to-date, and the most perfect airport in the United States ... ‘the’ airport of the New World.” In 2014, Vice President Joe Biden made headlines when he likened La Guardia Airport to “some third-world country.” And New York, a hub of the global economy, has been a comparative urban success story. Cities like Flint, Michigan, with its ongoing water crisis, have not been so fortunate.
Suburbanization and corporate relocation not only made it harder for city governments to fund essential projects, but also encouraged them to chase private investment for corporate headquarters, luxury housing, sports stadiums, convention centers, and other commercial facilities. The president-elect made his move into Manhattan in this context: His first great project, the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Manhattan’s 42nd Street, was built with the help of a tax subsidy amounting to some $360 million. During the same period, cities increasingly started to rely upon private enterprise to provide public services, sometimes out of ideological conviction and sometimes out of fiscal necessity. Private benefactors, eager to demonstrate the supposedly superior efficiency and capability of private enterprise and the desirability of putting businessmen in charge of public functions, were quick to take advantage—as when one Donald Trump wrested control of Central Park’s Wollman Rink, restoration of which the city had hopelessly bungled, and won headlines by bringing it in ahead of schedule and under budget. If Trump viewed Wollman Rink as an opportunity to build his personal brand, other investors have seen struggling public services as a source of profits. Particularly since the Great Recession, private equity has been moving aggressively into areas such as emergency response and the provision of water.
The president-elect has referred to each of these phases of history while discussing his nation-rebuilding plans: During an election-night speech, his rhetoric evoked Franklin Roosevelt, right down to the reference to “the forgotten man.” He has spoken of his “urban renewal agenda”—a historically loaded phrase that, given its links to the displacement of non-white communities, is on par with “America first” and “law and order.” But his actual plan represents nothing so much as the nationalization of the regime of pro-business subsidies and privatization that helped Trump make his name in 1980s New York. His plan, which is still thin on details, revolves around public subsidies for projects of interest to private investors—a principle which, his advisers frankly noted in an analysis, is “not especially new,” as it “has been used historically to target real-estate investment.” The plan’s co-author, private-equity investor and Trump Cabinet nominee Wilbur Ross, once served as an adviser to New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the privatization of public services.
The history of American cities suggests that such a program could do only so much to make America’s cities more prosperous and fair. There are good arguments for encouraging private investors to play a greater role in infrastructure. Most importantly, they could bring a needed discipline to the selection of projects; there are plenty of examples of bridges-to-nowhere that are a product of politically driven funding decisions rather than economically rational ones. Yet to allow private investors alone to drive public spending choices would be a mistake, for it would restrict infrastructure investment to projects that produce returns in the form of profit—potentially making the already-extreme inequality in American cities even worse. As the New Dealers recognized, there are some goods and services to which all people should have access as a right of citizenship. Spending on infrastructure projects of this sort should not be crowded out simply because it is not profitable. Neither should infrastructure be built to serve primarily those with a capacity to pay the fees that will line investors’ pockets.
Moreover, the profit motive offers little help in tackling the thorniest problem of urban infrastructure: inclusiveness. At its best, infrastructure has expanded access and opportunity, but at its worst, it has simply reinforced the advantages enjoyed by the well-to-do at the expense of the marginalized, as the history of highway-building suggests. Any infrastructure plan should take care that the benefits and costs of infrastructure are distributed fairly, and take special care to prioritize infrastructure projects that make opportunities and resources more accessible. Programs that would fit this description—such as a large-scale push to expand access to high-quality Internet service; new transit initiatives to mitigate the “spatial mismatch” between urban residents and suburban jobs; and a real push on affordable housing, the No. 1 infrastructure issue in many communities—have been conspicuously absent from the conversation to date.
Infrastructure sometimes seems like a highly technical issue—a question of engineering specifications, debt-amortization tables, obscure funding streams, and review processes. But once one understands the history of American cities, it becomes clear that questions about infrastructure are really questions about what kinds of communities a society wants to live in. Does it value commercial activity above all, or does it want to commit some resources to non-commercial goods? How committed is it to the idea of a commonwealth, an infrastructure that connects everyone to basic resources and opportunities? And who gets to decide the future of cities? Tackling questions like these requires vision and leadership. Supplying that vision and leadership, above all, should be the next president’s task.