Local Leadership and Civic Networks: What History Can Tell Us About Urban Success
What made Chicago a great city? Its location on the Great Lakes, Western migration, a timely ascent during railroad capitalism, or proximity to natural resources? Certainly, all were key to Chicago’s success, but one of the most important factors in Chicago’s meteoric rise is often overlooked.
At first glance, Chicago’s story lends itself easily to placing urban success (or failure) solely on economic or social forces. Chicago benefited tremendously from important transportation technologies, access to abundant resources, and emerging forms of market activity. From 1840 to 1870, Chicago grew from a town of 4,000 residents to a city of nearly 300,000—making it the second largest in the U.S. At the same time, Chicago would become the world’s largest railroad center and one of the nation’s leaders in commodity transactions. Although multiple cities in the Midwest had similar traits, no other city experienced such dramatic growth as Chicago did in the nineteenth century.
Chicago was certainly blessed with natural resources and strategic location. Yet at the center of every rail line built in the city, and every urban improvement scheme undertaken, was some Chicagoan arguing for change before a skeptical public or advocating before a New York financier wary of investing in the frontier city. The networks and connections these “boosters” formed within Chicago and across the country were vital in bringing in capital investment as well as convincing local officials to implement much-needed infrastructure improvements. Without the work and connections of these boosters, Chicago would not have been able to fully take advantage of the many opportunities afford to it.
Within a political climate that has brought to the surface important questions concerning urban decline in particular regions in the country, the way Chicago’s boosters helped their city succeed can help illuminate the myriad ways local leaders and their networks can foster urban success.
In his book, Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown, Professor Sean Safford asks a very simple question: during the Rust Belt’s decline, why did the city of Allentown, Ohio remain resilient while its cousin Youngstown, Ohio did not? According to Safford, at the onset of deindustrialization and the decline of manufacturing in the mid-twentieth century in the region, both cities had similar economic makeup, history, ethnic composition, and geography. Yet Allentown was able to successfully transform its economy from heavy to high-tech industry in a way that Youngstown did not. In turn, Youngstown struggled to stay afloat and eventually became the quintessential struggling Rust Belt city—a narrative that remains even to this day.
The key difference between the two, Safford argues, was in their leadership networks. Youngstown’s networks were relatively homogenous, tighter, and inward-looking, which made them brittle and slow to adapt to drastic economic and social change. Business leaders were also largely absent from the community, making it easier for local businesses to move out than stay and fight. On the other hand, Allentown’s leadership was more diverse and geographically diffused, making it easier for the city to incorporate new ideas and adapt. Because they were woven into the fabric of the community, Allentown’s business leaders were given opportunities to serve their city and to form vital networks and connections. Rather than merely succumb to global transformations in the economy, Allentown adapted to the shifting landscape of smaller firms and knowledge workers by pursuing change through its diverse networks of local leadership.
Even the city of Detroit—long seen as a passive victim of deindustrialization and white flight—was shaped by a complex array of intentional decisions, social compromises, and civic choices. In Detroit, business, political, and labor leaders engaged in both combat and compromise for the soul of the city. When manufacturing reached rock-bottom, there was nothing guaranteed about the city’s future. Changes in the political landscape at the national level, local political battles between liberals, conservatives, and radicals, racial polarization, compromises between labor and capital, and shifting patterns of urban settlement all provided the background for the way local leaders negotiated and fought with one another. In fact, a key decision by labor leaders in the early 1970s to aggressively undermine the militant factions in their unions weakened their collective ability to bargain with management—a move that would eventually shape the manufacturing trajectory of the region.
All the while, Sunbelt cities were actively courting Northern cities for their business. Cities like Phoenix aggressively sent booster emissaries to meet with Northern business leaders in order to promote their places. These boosters promoted their “business climate” of low taxes, limited union power, and cheap labor—a highly crafted message meant to encourage invest in the city. Shortly after World War II, in an attempt to encourage investment beyond natural resource extraction, local business leaders and high-level industrialists in Phoenix actively transformed their city through local, state, and national policy-making. They collectively worked the political machinations of state action for deregulation and tax breaks, they collaborated with local elites to sell their vision to the public, and they recruited corporations and factories wary of the Northeast. Regardless of how one feels about their philosophy of change, Phoenix’s economic success was no accident, but rather an active and determined move by its leaders and the networks they cultivated.
The successful stories of Allentown, Chicago, and Phoenix reflect a growing body of research by Michael Porter, Mark Granovetter, Chris Brenner, Manuel Pastor, and others that highlight the importance of leadership and civic networks in fostering urban thriving. According to Brenner and Pastor, these networks are not “simply regional collaboration where everyone just gets along. Indeed, one of the most important characteristics is that skirmishes and conflict do not necessarily shred trust but can be part of the building of relationships.” And with the U.S. economy having moved past large-scale plant production into a more contextually-specific knowledge economy, the importance of these networks is only going to increase.
Today, national networks such CEOs for Cities and community development methods such as Collective Impact all prioritize the role of local leadership networks in facilitating community change. And we at Thriving Cities have seen in several cities across the country the important work that communities and organizations are doing to bring leaders together for the good of their places.
So the next time a city or community is struggling, rather than looking only to macroeconomic forces or national policymakers for reasons, we should equally examine the strength of local leadership and the texture of their networks.