Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Tales of Two Big American Cities Sweeping Modern Histories of New York and Chicago, as Ambitious and Energetic as the Cities Themselves, Remind Us That Our Great Urban Centers Make America Grand

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Tales of Two Big American Cities Sweeping Modern Histories of New York and Chicago, as Ambitious and Energetic as the Cities Themselves, Remind Us That Our Great Urban Centers Make America Grand

Article excerpt

Chicago liked watching things being built," the late Severn Darden, an original member of The Second City comedy troupe, once said. "New York audiences like to watch things that are already completed and polished."

Darden is scarcely the only person to compare New York and Chicago -- or to reflect on their distinctive qualities. After all, with the possible exception of Los Angeles, which is really a collection of suburbs connected by highways, they are America's quintessential cities.

Two books published this spring capture the dynamism and the defects of New York and Chicago during their heydays in the middle of the 20th century. They remind us that, for better and worse, our great urban centers have been magnets for immigrants, seedbeds for creativity and innovation in public and private activity, and stimulants of modernity and mass-market culture.

* * *

Originally a doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, "City of Ambition" provides a richly detailed examination of the improbable political partnership between President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, a Republican, to help New York City recover from the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s and '40s. Mason B. Williams uses his narrative -- which is, in essence, a political biography of LaGuardia -- to praise the New Deal experiment in "inter-government relations" and to admonish 21st-century opponents of an expansive role for the federal government.

The New Deal proved, he claims, that "cooperative federalism," characterized by shared national, local and state responsibilities, was not a zero-sum game. By combining the resources in Washington with the operational capacity of municipalities, the New Deal "enabled local action rather than displacing it."

Mr. Williams shares LaGuardia's view that government's relationship to society and the economy should not be tightly circumscribed but used (when states and localities cannot adequately address the challenges they face) as an instrument to implement the collective good. Public investment, he writes, is a "lost legacy" of the New Deal, which provided an infrastructure (including roads, bridges and schools) that also permitted private industry to flourish.

Although "City of Ambition" makes a compelling case for public investment, Mr. Williams does not always refute its critics. He indicates, for example, that studies showed that the Works Progress Administration construction was inefficient and that the same projects could have been done for 50-60 percent of the cost. Without elaborating, however, he moves on, citing impartial audits that found that the WPA projects were, "by and large, of notably high quality." His book underscores, no doubt inadvertently, how difficult it is to parse the dueling statistics advanced by New Deal and anti-New Deal partisans.

The New Deal, Mr. Williams emphasizes, occurred at "a singular moment." When the Depression emergency ended, and millions of Americans moved to the suburbs, producing downward pressure on central city property values, the politics of New York City -- and other large urban centers -- became a contest between "endless ambitions" and "finite resources." Obscured by the remarkable prosperity of the post-World War II baby boom decades, problems returned, with a vengeance, in the 1970s, exacerbated by racial tensions and, ironically, because the revolution in expectations generated by the New Deal pushed municipal spending even higher.

Although the threat of default passed, Mr. Williams concludes, New York politicians were left to wonder, with the New Deal legacy largely undone, how (and whether) they could govern their cities. Although he does not assess the administrations of mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, it seems clear that Mr. Williams believes the jury is still out on the future of The Big Apple. …

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