City-Building in America by Anthony M. Orum

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Posted 2005-06-17

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

This book examines the political and economic forces shaping city life. The author looks at specific cities as case studies and then attempts to discern general patterns.

Orum examines Milwaukee, Wisconsin as an example of an industrial city that grew in the 19th century and declined in the 20th, losing manufacturing jobs and population. Orum then compares Cleveland, Austin, and Minneapolis to Milwaukee to come up with general patterns and conclusions.

Orum uses themes and ideas (pp. 13-22) that come from "new urban sociology" in which not just the objective dimensions of land use, population, and capital investments are examined but social forces including government and capitalism, global economics, entrepreneurs, environmental circumstances, regional economics, and transportation play a role. Orum adds an emphasis on what he calls "place entrepreneurs" (p. 17) and social classes, neighborhood organizations, coalitions, and corporate bodies. In general, Orum looks at how the growth of cities leads to costs that may not be borne by those who benefit from the growth (p. 19).

Part II is an in-depth examination of Milwaukee. The city's pre-industrial stage (1818-1870) was marked by an "entrepreneurial energy that became both the leitmotiv and the underlying principle dictating the life of the early city" (p. 38). In Milwaukee's early industrial stage (1870-1900), the city became a "factory city" marked by expanding industrial activity and also pollution, huge machines, and workers--including children--toiling in tough conditions. The period 1900 to 1930 marked Milwaukee's mature industrial phase, when the city government included socialists and government became a dominant player. In this period, a pattern of city core versus suburbs was set. The reshaping period of 1930 to 1950 was marked by labor strikes, rising taxes, and loss of profits and then jobs. Orum traces the decline of industrial Milwaukee (1950-1990) as a time in which the loss of manufacturing jobs and population accelerated and government policies in transportation and housing further destroyed central Milwaukee in a systematic and very efficient fashion (see also Norquist 1998).

Orum's examination of Cleveland shows a similar pattern as Milwaukee: the departure of industry and suburban growth at expense of the inner city (p. 163). This pattern was same with the absentee ownership of industry (as in Cleveland) as in the long-time family-dominated control of industry as in Milwaukee.

Austin, Texas, followed a similar pattern in which entrepreneurs gave way to larger firms and then municipal governments as key players. Austin, however experienced much slower growth and did not industrialize early, but had growth triggered by federal government activity and immigrant populations (p. 172). Austin's expansion included high-tech and electronic enterprises and later reliance on the University of Texas for innovation. Both Minneapolis' and Austin's lack of industrialization meant that these cities did not have the "lure of blue-collar industrial jobs for minority groups, especially African Americans" and thus not did develop a strong, systemic separation of suburb from a permanent, inner-city underclass (p. 190).

In brief, Orum concludes (p. 195) that the building of cities is marked not just by the conflict between city growth and social equity, but also a life cycle that can be summarized by stages:

  1. Incubation: economic entrepreneurs and speculators spark growth and activity
  2. Expansion: an array of firms emerge as the main actors
  3. Cohesion: municipal government becomes the main actor to address population needs; municipal land expands, eventually bumping up against natural barriers or suburbs
  4. Decline: enterprises face labor costs and taxes; companies depart the inner core to areas with less problems
  5. Decay: departing enterprises lead to a loss of jobs and tax revenues; the wealthy and middle-class flee

Orum points to some options that might ameliorate the decline of cities (p. 203-205) including metropolitan cooperation or consolidation to reduce the core v. suburban conflicts and state government initiatives in jobs and education.

The author points out that city building does not stop. Post-industrial cities may face flush times now, but population growth can get out of hand, leading to traffic, water, and sewage problems, and a large population base vulnerable to economic downturns (p. 207).

As a followup to Orum's 1995 book, the period 1995 to 2005 has been a time of continued, albiet slower, population decline for Milwaukee, but a reinvigoration of the downtown area in terms of a new convention center, housing developments, restaurants, and attractions for visitors (including a notable Milwaukee Art Museum expansion) and central city retail. As such, Milwaukee may be entering another incubation period in which the urban form provides a stage for entertainment and lifestyle pursuits (Kotkin 2000) and human capital (Norquist 1998).

In my view, Orum's title may be a misnomer. Another way of looking at urban issues is to see how cities have been systematically deconstructed by the very efficient collaboration among groups--political, commercial, and criminal--which benefit from a permanent urban underclass and a perpetual urban v. suburban standoff.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©