Why Cities Work Even When Washington Doesn't

The case for strong mayors
Knox White, the mayor of Greenville, South Carolina, with Nancy Whitworth, the city’s director of economic development. The two helped revive a dying urban area and turn its decrepit downtown into a walkable center that is a regional attraction. (Peter Frank Edwards)

Is America in an irreversible decline? Four years ago, when I came home after a long stay in China, many people viewed China as unstoppable, while America seemed to be falling apart. Fortunately, what I heard from economists, historians, entrepreneurs, and others I interviewed at the time were hopeful signs that have now become more evident. Yes, the overall economy—jobs, housing, savings, security—had been knocked way down, but it was beginning a slow recovery. America’s worst economic challenge was not some flaw unique to declining empires but a pattern shared worldwide: the growing gulf between the rich and everyone else, and the concentration of benefits into too few hands. The real long-term worry for the country, they said, was not the then-frightening economy but the very structure of our national government, set up in the 1700s, which was more resistant to change than most other aspects of our national life and was making it hard to get the basic work of running a modern country done.

The good news, which my wife and I have been surprised by as we’ve traveled in smaller-town America these past few months, is that once you look away from the national level, the American style of self-government can seem practical-minded, nonideological, future-oriented, and capable of compromise. These are of course the very traits we seem to have lost in our national politics.

During the eras of Michael Bloomberg in New York, Thomas Menino in Boston, and Richard Daley and now Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, everyone has recognized the power of major-city mayors to announce big plans and to carry them out, for better or worse. Illustrations of the better, from my personal perspective: Bloomberg’s insistence that restaurant menus show calorie counts, Menino’s development of Boston’s waterfront and new industrial zones. Illustration of the worse: Daley’s midnight dispatch of bulldozers to destroy the runway at the lakefront Meigs Field in 2003, stranding airplanes that had landed and leaving the FAA to fume impotently about the loss of an airport the federal government had spent millions to help operate. But even with their excesses, our big-city mayors have been, like Mussolini, the people who could get things done, while presidents and legislators seem ever more pathetically hamstrung.

City-level success is of course no substitute for a functioning national government. Washington is where we set overall economic and tax policy; open or close our borders; negotiate for global standards on labor rights and the environment; decide on peace and war. Every bit of our American landscape shows the effect of crucial national undertakings, from the Northwest Ordinance to the National Park Service to the interstate highway network to the university research centers that run on grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department’s DARPA. When visiting each new small town, my wife and I usually start by seeing how many civic structures—parks, swimming pools, post offices, bridges—are relics of New Deal–era construction under the Works Progress Administration. They’re a bigger part of 21st-century urban infrastructure than you might guess.

But city-level success is better than city-level failure, and what we’ve seen recently is that this is not limited to the biggest cities with the most dominant (or richest) figures as mayors. “Being a mayor, especially in a ‘strong mayor’ city system, gives you tremendous opportunities,” I was told early this year by Don Ness, the mayor of Duluth, Minnesota. A hundred years ago, Duluth was one of the fastest-growing cities in America. Thirty years ago, it was, like Flint, Michigan, and Gary, Indiana, one of the most distressed. Now it has begun a tech, services, and tourism recovery. In the 2000 census, Duluth’s population was older than the state’s as a whole. Today it is getting younger and wealthier.

Ness was elected mayor in 2007, at age 33, and was reelected without opposition four years later, the first time that had happened in Duluth’s history. “It’s a job that requires—and allows—you to create and implement a tangible agenda,” he told me. “You can carry that out in a way that most positions in American politics just don’t permit.”

To see what that means and why it matters, consider some superficially very different cities whose stories have surprising points of resonance.

Greenville, South Carolina, and the Upstate

Every city has a cliché anecdote or slogan. By the sixth or seventh time you’ve heard it, you have a clearer idea not so much of the community’s reality but of what people believe that reality to be. For New York: “If you can make it there …” For Washington: “The most important city in the world.” For Austin, Burlington, Boulder, Seattle, Santa Monica: variations on “we’re so lucky to live here.” For Sioux Falls, South Dakota: “I grew up in a little farming town.”

After a few days in Greenville, South Carolina, we thought of its characteristic phrase as “Greenville? Are you kidding?” We heard it from many people, but here is the version told by Knox White, a 60-year-old lawyer who grew up in Greenville as part of an old local family and who, since 1995, has been its mayor. “I heard from the CEO of a company in Houston,” he told us. “It was transferring a division here, and one of their key talents said: ‘Greenville? Are you kidding?’ They wouldn’t come here—until they came here, kicking and screaming, and the next thing you know, they’d bought a house.”

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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