Urban politics provides a means to understand the major political and economic trends and transformations of the last seventy years in American cities. The growth of the federal government; the emergence of new powerful identity- and neighborhood-based social movements; and large-scale economic restructuring have characterized American cities since 1945. The postwar era witnessed the expansion of scope and scale of the federal government, which had a direct impact on urban space and governance, particularly as urban renewal fundamentally reshaped the urban landscape and power configurations. Urban renewal and liberal governance, nevertheless, spawned new and often violent tensions and powerful opposition movements among old and new residents. These movements engendered a generation of city politicians who assumed power in the 1970s. Yet all of these figures were forced to grapple with the larger forces of capital flight, privatization, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, immigration, and gentrification. This confluence of factors meant that as many American cities and their political representatives became demographically more diverse by the 1980s and 1990s, they also became increasingly separated by neighborhood boundaries and divided by the forces of class and economic inequality.
Urban Politics in the United States since 1945
New York City
The contemporary city of New York, comprising the five boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island, covers three hundred square miles and contains almost nine million people. Often described as the center of the world, the city is home to the headquarters of the United Nations and is a hub of global media and finance. Yet New York is also a city of neighborhoods, animated by remarkably local concerns. The dense population, the complex government, the vast wealth, the archetypal urban poverty, and the intricate and impressive built environment have all taken form through a layered series of encounters among groups over the course of four centuries. The Lenape Indians, the original settlers of the area, encountered Dutch colonizers in 1624. The English seized control from the Dutch in 1664. Both the Dutch and the English imported enslaved Africans in large numbers. The natural advantages of the harbor propelled the area’s growth, attracting settlers from elsewhere in North America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Human-created infrastructures like the Erie Canal spurred economic growth after 1825 that attracted European immigrants from western and northern Europe in the mid-19th century and Europeans from southern and eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1898, five counties were consolidated and created the five boroughs of New York City with a population surpassing three million. African Americans from the US South and Latinos from the Caribbean migrated to New York throughout the 20th century; by 1950, the city’s population was 7.8 million. After 1980, the population began to climb again with new waves of immigration from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. For more than four hundred years, the processes of conflict and cooperation have been animated by schisms and tensions of religion, ethnicity, race, and class. As groups and individuals competed for resources and power in the city, politics and governance confronted conceptual issues such as calibrating the extent of public services, the role of religion in public life, the rights of workers, and the value of living in a multiethnic and multiracial society.
Jessica Ann Levy
The city of Atlanta sits on land once occupied by Creek and Cherokee Indians, whose forced removal during the late 18th and early 19th centuries as part of white settler colonialism preceded and helped to set the stage for Atlanta’s founding in 1837 as the terminus for the Western & Atlantic railroad. Henceforth, Atlanta’s rise has been shaped by various, and sometimes competing, events occurring at the local, state, national, and international level, including slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the New Deal, World War II, the civil rights and Black Power movements, the LGBTQ rights struggle, and multiple transportation and communications technology revolutions. Throughout its history, Atlanta’s role as a center of trade and commerce has attracted migrants from across the region, country, and, more recently, the globe, contributing to the city’s incredible diversity. Such diversity, coupled with a history of radical organizing, has lent credence to Atlanta’s reputation as a bastion of progressive politics, hailed as both a Black and LGBTQ mecca. Yet, make no mistake, Atlanta has long been a city deeply divided along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and religion. As the 2021 attack on several Asian-owned massage parlors and the continuous flood of visitors to Stone Mountain each summer, delighting in a popular light show set against a Confederate monument suggest, the city still has a long way to go to live up to its claim as the capital of the New South.
Urban Politics in the United States before 1940
James J. Connolly
The convergence of mass politics and the growth of cities in 19th-century America produced sharp debates over the character of politics in urban settings. The development of what came to be called machine politics, primarily in the industrial cities of the East and Midwest, generated sharp criticism of its reliance on the distribution of patronage and favor trading, its emphatic partisanship, and the plebian character of the “bosses” who practiced it. Initially, upper- and middle-class businessmen spearheaded opposition to this kind of politics, but during the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, labor activists, women reformers, and even some ethnic spokespersons confronted “boss rule” as well. These challenges did not succeed in bringing an end to machine politics where it was well established, but the reforms they generated during the Progressive Era reshaped local government in most cities. In the West and Southwest, where cities were younger and partisan organizations less entrenched, business leaders implemented Progressive municipal reforms to consolidate their power. Whether dominated by reform regime or a party machine, urban politics and governance became more centralized by 1940 and less responsive to the concerns and demands of workers and immigrants.
The Teacher Uprising, 2010–2021
When Chicago teachers went on strike in 2012, they highlighted an emergent militance among teachers in the United States. Led by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), the Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) in the 2010s sought to use the collective bargaining process not only to fight for better salaries and working conditions, but also to dramatically improve the lives of their students through racial justice initiatives and more services such as school nurses and social workers. Other big city unions, some in dialogue with the CTU through the United Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE), embarked on similar campaigns. Elsewhere, teachers staged state-wide walkouts. In February 2018, teachers in all of West Virginia’s fifty-five counties went on strike to protest stagnant pay and escalating healthcare costs. Their efforts, which forced a Republican legislature to substantially increase education spending, inspired similar red-state walkouts in the months that followed. Strikes in Oklahoma and Arizona also won major funding hikes, for example. Then, in early 2019, militant teachers walked out in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Denver, and in the fall, the CTU was on strike again, this time with even broader demands than in 2012. Another year of militance might have occurred in 2020, but the global COVID-19 pandemic forced school districts and unions to focus on the immediate public health crisis. Unions pivoted to demanding that districts maintain protocols to ensure teachers, students, and their families were kept safe from the virus.
The Great Migrations and Black Urban Life in the United States, 1914–1970
During the 20th century, the black population of the United States transitioned from largely rural to mostly urban. In the early 1900s the majority of African Americans lived in rural, agricultural areas. Depictions of black people in popular culture often focused on pastoral settings, like the cotton fields of the rural South. But a dramatic shift occurred during the Great Migrations (1914–1930 and 1941–1970) when millions of rural black southerners relocated to US cities. Motivated by economic opportunities in urban industrial areas during World Wars I and II, African Americans opted to move to southern cities as well as to urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. New communities emerged that contained black social and cultural institutions, and musical and literary expressions flourished. Black migrants who left the South exercised voting rights, sending the first black representatives to Congress in the 20th century. Migrants often referred to themselves as “New Negroes,” pointing to their social, political, and cultural achievements, as well as their use of armed self-defense during violent racial confrontations, as evidence of their new stance on race.