Forum Dialogue: Urban Neighborhoods in a New Era

Clarence Stone and Robert Stoker’s edited volume Urban Neighborhoods in a New Era: Revitalization Politics in the Postindustrial City (2015, University of Chicago Press) featured research from an array prominent scholars of urban politics, policy, and planning.  Focusing on neighborhoods in Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Toronto, the authors collectively make a case that post-industrial cities are starting to change in productive ways, ways that see economic growth and neighborhood improvement as complimentary.  Recently, Timothy Weaver wrote a strong critique of Urban Neighborhoods in Perspective on Politics. Focusing primarily on Stone and Stoker’s contribution, the gist of Weaver’s review is that he does not see the same seeds of equity and prosperity in American cities that the book’s authors do.

The Urban Affairs Forum is excited to be able to continue this important discussion about how cities and neighborhoods are and are not changing by presenting a two-round dialogue between the authors and the critic.  Today, we have the first round of that dialogue, beginning with Stone and Stoker’s response to Weaver’s review followed by Weaver’s rebuttal.  Both pieces deal with incrementalism and periodization.  We will be publishing the second round in the coming weeks.

Scott Minkoff, Urban Affairs Forum Editor

Dialogue Contents:

Round 1
Stone and Stoker: Significant Political Change
Weaver: Claims of a New Era are Overstated

Round 2
Stone and Stoker: Acknowledging New Configurations
Weaver: The Poverty and Possibility of Urban Politics

Clarence Stone and Robert Stoker: Significant Political Change

Clarence Stone is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland and Research Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at George Washington University.

Robert Stoker is Professor of Political Science at George Washington University.

Authors and reviewers often bring different mindsets to their respective roles and this can be a foundation for constructive dialogue.  So it is with Timothy Weaver’s review of our book Urban Neighborhoods in a New Era, which offers an opportunity to ponder the nature of political change, consider what brings about a consequential level of change, and weigh alternative approaches to urban social reform.

Research we conducted with colleagues in six North American cities leads us to conclude that substantial changes in neighborhood politics have taken place over time.  Across the cities we observed the emergence of new ideas, interests, participants, and relationships in neighborhood policy-making.  In contrast to the “redevelopment period” that began at the end of World War II in which a powerful, capable, and coherent coalition of government and business leaders advanced a redevelopment agenda that often marginalized neighborhood concerns, we see in the “new era” the possibility of complementary relationships between economic and community development.  Local elites have become more likely to view community improvement as a key component of development projects.  For their part, community groups that once sought to block development projects now in significant instances organize to participate and seek community benefits.  Though cooperation is sometimes achieved begrudgingly, one-time opponents are finding new ways to work together.

Weaver doubts that city politics today is all that different from the redevelopment period because the continuing prevalence of market forces overshadows piecemeal shifts in the principal players, in how they relate to one another, and in forms of local policy interventions.  How do authors and reviewer end up so far apart?  In the present instance, we see embedded in Weaver’s review two assumptions to challenge.  One is that local actions on neighborhood conditions warrant little attention; for Weaver the appropriate reform aim is the big picture of a “refashioned political economy” (2017, 1159).  By implication, incremental changes amount to little; only a fundamental dethroning of the market holds a possibility of real change.

Whereas Weaver dismisses incrementalism, we as authors do not.  We see our book, Carolyn Gallaher’s recent treatment of gentrification (The Politics of Staying Put, Temple University Press 2016), Leland Saito’s study of community benefits (“How Low-Income Residents Can Benefit from Urban Development” City and Community 2012), and other works as making a case that reform can be advanced by giving attention to the particulars of local policy and process.  “The devil is in the details” can have a positive side.  Weaver’s review pays little heed to the useful things coming about through connecting a body of increments.

Weaver’s second assumption is that analysis that covers several cities calls for cross-sectional comparisons as the main way of identifying variations in causal mechanisms.  Disregarded is the pioneering work of Robert Salisbury, who, in looking at multiple cities, called for cross-time analysis as a way of identifying crucial changes (“Urban Politics” Journal of Politics (November 1964)).  Our book explicitly endorses Salisbury’s approach.


A recent study of condo conversion in gentrifying Washington DC offers a focused examination of gradual, but significant change.  Carolyn Gallaher’s research examines the interaction between a “hot” housing market and government intervention.  She poses the likelihood that incremental policy moves are the most feasible pathway to larger changes; small policy steps can cumulate and give rise to major shifts in politics.  Gallaher makes a convincing claim that DC’s TOPA (Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act) constitutes a hybrid policy form (hybrid policy is a partial adjustment to market processes that through regulation also promotes collective voice by renters).  TOPA’s 1980 enactment did not fundamentally alter DC’s housing market, but it did contrast sharply with the city’ massive and socially disruptive displacement that occurred years earlier under urban renewal.  As such, TOPA has a capacity to mitigate displacement despite the continuing presence of market forces that promote it.

Gallaher’s study reminds us that incremental moves can contribute to reform on a scale that matters.  Gallaher discusses the concept of radical incrementalism as a potential pathway to “collective forms of solidarity and mutual empowerment.”  In this view, the move from individualized thinking to collective consciousness does not come through a sudden mass awakening but rather through “multiple small revolutions that at unanticipated and unexpected moments galvanize into deeper ruptures that accelerate tectonic [political] shifts” (2016, 222).  What appears to be a sudden shift may have come about through a series of small steps.  As has come to be well understood in today’s scholarship, while the civil rights movement had several dramatic moments with a cumulative impact, each of them came after a low visibility construction of a different context.  Rosa Parks’ refusal to conform to the “back of the bus” rule was itself a significant moment in the civil rights movement, but it was not a spontaneous moment standing alone; it was a move preceded by extensive local organizing and time spent by Rosa Parks and many others at Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School.

Deep political ruptures often come less from carefully designed blueprints than from a process of unplanned accretion.  Standing alone, accretion steps may look incremental and insignificant.  It is only in retrospect that such steps, even when imbued with intention, become visible as part of a process.  Gallaher’s theorizing about incrementalism points to a shift in focus from Weaver’s idea of transforming the national political economy to smaller and more diligently pursued increments of local change.  Although our book does not explicitly theorize about incrementalism, our concluding chapter describes incremental moves that are designed to encourage local political change.


To gain a more complete context for our argument about a non-revolutionary approach to political change, let’s bring together the significance of local action with an appreciation of what can be learned from cross-time analysis.  Leland Saito’s (2012) study of the changing politics of development in Los Angles, and particularly the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) linked to the LA Live project, asserts that CBAs mark “a significant change in the relationship between developers and low-income residents” (2012, 130).  He further asserts that CBAs represent a new form of civic engagement by low-income residents that constitute a fundamental change in urban politics.

Saito contrasts the politics of development surrounding LA Live with what was typical of an earlier time.  He sees the emergence of overlapping interests between developers and low-income residents as a transformative change.  Developers want to cultivate community support when seeking cooperation and aid from the city.  In the past, when faced with development projects, low-income communities often resisted in vain.  However, the opportunity to negotiate CBAs transformed opponents into potential allies because low-income communities view development projects as a gateway to community benefits.

The background story of LA Live’s CBA is an earlier redevelopment history of vast dislocation of residents in the Bunker Hill neighborhood and Chavez Ravine.  Against a canvass of a transformed political economy capable of grand strides toward greater equality, the community benefits scenario in Los Angeles is indeed small.  But compared to an earlier time of mass displacement, the current political scene takes on significance as a path of demonstrated feasibility—something more concrete than a hypothetical system transformation.

We think the urban changes that have unfolded as the immediate postwar years have given way to a now maturing post-industrialism are sufficient to constitute a shift from one period to another.  Periodization seldom comes via a sudden broad sweep.  To those living through a transition from one time to another, change arrives piecemeal and only cumulatively takes shape as a new period.  Nor do all parts of the change process have a linear direction.  Further, the local and the national coexist but may display important differences.  Consider the combined impact of globalization and the diminished scale of federal assistance to cities.  Standing alone, this combination would likely have produced little but neglect for urban neighborhoods.  Yet, in the face of these trends, we see fitful progress.  To explain why a negative direction did not prevail, we looked to political agency.  Hence our emphasis is on new players, new ideas, new relationships, and fresh policy tools.

From this set of changes, we observe a different order of politics.  While not revolutionary in scale, significant markers of change are evident.  In Baltimore Johns-Hopkins University initiated The Access Partnership to provide medical care for uninsured and under-insured residents in seven zip codes surrounding the medical campus, a remarkable change in university-community relations.  The entry of the Annie E. Casey Foundation into the redevelopment process did not stop disinvestment in East Baltimore, but, at the foundation’s insistence, it did bring about modifications that reflected community concerns.  Especially notable is change in compensation for housing displacement from market value to replacement value.  When combined with heightened attention to and monitoring of workforce development along with added features such as an early childhood center, the foundation’s involvement becomes quite significant.  Our subsequent observations suggest that the new era is continuing to unfold in Baltimore: The pending Port Covington development features a CBA that includes initiatives in youth and workforce development, affordable housing, transportation, minimum wage and benefit commitments, and preferences for local hiring and minority contracting.  Gone are the days when the city’s redevelopment policymaking process was designed to be insulated from community concerns.

In each city our team examined new players had emerged and new policy practices were identified.  The Los Angeles chapter highlights differences in neighborhood experiences, but also calls attention to a major breakthrough that occurred in the city’s politics.  Through the formation of entities like the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and the development of CBAs the city altered how the costs and benefits of large-scale projects are allocated.  In the new era, community groups do not only accept new development in their neighborhoods, they mobilize to attract it.  Phoenix has undergone its own shift in the allocation of the costs and benefits of development.  Similar to Los Angeles, Phoenix’s early experience with expressway construction was one of total removal of residents from a targeted neighborhood.  From that earlier time, Phoenix moved to institutionalize a program of conservation through the city’s Neighborhood Services Department, a change that constitutes a different order of operation from the one that prevailed when the Charter Government Committee of city business elites controlled the city electorally.  Denver, Chicago, and Toronto show complicated nonlinear paths of policy development, but a tilt away from the bulldozer days.  In Denver and Chicago, the philanthropic sector is seeking opportunities to modify economic development plans to include community development features (in Toronto, a similar role was played by the United Way).

As beacons of a new era, the six cities our team studied do not stand alone.  In the 1980s, when national policy and politics took a turn decidedly less favorable to those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, evidence of a new era can be found in many cities, including those as varied as Seattle, San Jose, El Paso, Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Hampton, and Savannah.

Urban Social Reform

A noteworthy feature of both Gallaher’s and Saito’s work is that the communities gaining from the local initiatives they describe were in many ways profoundly disadvantaged.  Gallaher shows how a diffuse and often marginalized group (in her case, renters) can be strengthened politically through enhanced bargaining power generated by local policy.  Her analysis posits that a few minor and highly feasible adjustments could have strengthened TOPA to make it an even more robust and effective factor in the city’s housing scene.  Saito describes the beneficiaries of the LA Live CBA as “an unlikely political force” (2012, 140), mainly immigrants with low levels of English proficiency and many lacking citizenship.  Despite these difficulties, Saito observes that political organization can compensate for a host of limitations.

While we acknowledge that the new era has yielded limited and uneven results, our analysis nevertheless explores how choices made locally could enhance agency and yield a larger impact, even in the face of national austerity.  Agenda changes and new policy practices do not occur in a vacuum, but instead in tandem with changes in political arrangements.  In each city our team observed there was activity that revealed political agency that could be enhanced by local changes, even among the most distressed communities.  Our book concludes with a reform agenda targeting the local political milieu to improve the prospects for disadvantaged communities: New era political possibilities are more likely to be realized when community-based organizations enjoy enhanced capacity that amplifies their voice.


Timothy Weaver brought to his review of Urban Neighborhoods in a New Era a frame of mind quite different from the one we brought to our work.  In contrast to Weaver’s review, we think the full scope of political change in the new era is far from trivial.  We believe that our focus on political agency and an incremental scale of change is part of a wider school of thought found in other notable research.  We are disappointed that Weaver failed to engage directly what we see as important differences in approach.  We hope that an exchange of views surrounding the two schools of thought identified here will be fruitful for the urban field and we welcome continuing dialogue in this vein.

Timothy Weaver: Claims of a New Era are Overstated

Timothy Weaver is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Albany

I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to Clarence Stone and Robert Stoker’s response to my original review of their edited volume. On a personal note, and in my capacity as Treasurer of the Urban and Local Politics Section of APSA, I’d like to thank them for their generosity in donating profits from the book to support the section—yet another reason to go out and buy the book!

Both in the book and in the response, these leading scholars raise key issues that strike at the heart of important empirical and normative questions about the character of the contemporary city and direction of urban political development. As such, I hope our dialogue will be of interest to a broad range of urbanists. I will focus this reply on three areas: the merits of incrementalism; periodization and change; and unanswered questions.

Before getting to these three topics, however, I would like to respond to Stone and Stoker’s claim at the end of their piece in which they suggest that I “failed to engage directly” with their approach. Ultimately readers will have to judge whether or not this is a reasonable charge. I would simply note that my review includes ten direct quotations from the book, which draw both on the central argument and on key passages from the substantive chapters. It’s true that we differ in interpretation, but that is another matter entirely.


In their reply, Stone and Stoker launch a defense of incrementalism. They rightly suggest that my review “dismisses incrementalism.” To that charge, I plead guilty. Let me explain why. In my view, given the vast scale of human suffering in American cities, incremental shifts in the right direction are wholly inadequate. Let’s take one measure that in all likelihood understates the degree of privation—the poverty rate. Of the six largest cities in the US—New York, LA, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, and Philadelphia—the poverty rate in 2016 ranged from a low of 18.9% in New York to a high of 25.7% in Philadelphia (a city Stone and Stoker identify as an additional “beacon” of a new era beyond those case studies to which a chapter was dedicated in their volume). To take Philadelphia, the city that I have written about at some length in my book Blazing the Neoliberal Trail and elsewhere, in addition to its 25.7% poverty rate, we also see a “deep poverty” rate of 12.3%, and child poverty rate of over 37%. Such deplorable conditions persist despite the conspicuous revival of Center City, a rising population, and skyrocketing property values in the gentrifying districts that abut the downtown core. It strikes me that under these conditions, incrementalism as a strategy for improving neighborhood conditions means that very high levels of poverty would have to be tolerated for years or even decades.

Hence, if the policy challenge is to improve urban neighborhoods, and if poverty elimination is central to this challenge, then incrementalism does not look like a very promising strategy. Moreover, tolerance for such impoverished conditions (or their very gradual amelioration) strikes me as a morally unsustainable position. Would Stone and Stoker disagree? Incrementalism suggests the urban poor will have to wait, but for how long I wonder? To put it another way, it seems to me that incrementalism is desirable to the extent that the status quo is more or less satisfactory; the worse the status quo, the less attractive incrementalism becomes. I’d say the status quo is far from acceptable.

As Stone and Stoker rightly note, “small policy steps can culminate and give rise to major shifts in politics” and in turn “can contribute to reform on a scale that matters.” Yet, the example they give of the Civil Rights Movement underscores my concern about incrementalism. After all, despite the key victories of the Civil Rights Movement, and major progress particularly for black women, it seems clear that many—even most—blacks do not enjoy full and equal standing socially or politically either compared to whites or to any reasonable standard of justice. Indeed the black poverty rate in Philadelphia is 30.8 %. As such, the struggle is surely ongoing, the victories partial and fragile. Moreover, in the wake of the Great Recession, and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, we see evidence of significant backsliding on both economic and political fronts.

Perhaps it might be useful if Stone and Stoker could clarify whether they regard incrementalism as an attractive approach per se or as a pragmatic posture that should be adopted because it offers a more politically feasible pathway to progressive change. This would help to clarify whether we disagree in principle or merely strategically.


In my original review, I argued that: “the slicing up of urban political development up into fundamentally distinct “eras” seems to work better in theory than in practice. After all, in at least two regards, the new era looks strikingly like the old era. First, downtowns have continued to enjoy preeminence in terms of levels of investment; and second, market-led redevelopment continues to dominate, even if its locus now includes neighborhoods primed for gentrification.” Are these two claims in dispute? Stone and Stoker do not respond to these points specifically but do maintain that the decline of a unified downtown elite and a greater role for community, non-profit, and philanthropic actors are of such magnitude that we are now in a “new era” governed by a “different order of politics.” While there are certainly promising examples, both in the book and in the response, of neighborhoods having stronger “voice” and receiving a some benefits from development that neighborhoods used to secure, I still harbor doubts about the overall significance of this shift, not least because it comes alongside at least two other shifts which aggravate neighborhood distress—mass incarceration and neoliberalism. These forces, I would argue threaten to overwhelm signs of progress that Stone and Stoker identify.

In respect of Stone and Stoker’s empirical claims about what has actually changed, as I noted in my initial review, “the case studies strain to find examples of major neighborhood improvement that did not involve displacement and other factors of gentrification.” And while it seems to be the case that the mass displacement associated with urban renewal has abated, I am not as sanguine about the claims of “overlapping interests between developers and low-income residents.” I would venture to suggest—and would like to see systematic evidence on this front—that in some cities the compounding effects of gentrification since the 1970s may well have displaced more people than urban renewal, albeit less brutally. Moreover, while enhanced side-payments in the form of enhanced compensation or other community benefits for housing displacement represent an improved situation, one cannot help but think that the new arrangements—signaled by the “mitigation” of displacement—underscore the might of market forces: the community is not rising up to thwart displacement, but rather has an enhanced role in negotiating the terms of surrender.

So, yes, some changes are evident, but are they sufficient to buttress claims of a new urban order? I’m still unconvinced, and, at times, Stone and Stoker seem equivocal too. Note how they refer to Denver, Chicago, and Toronto in which they see, not a decisive shift, but a “tilt away from bulldozer days” (emphasis added). Elsewhere they talk of “fitful progress” and characterize change as “limited and uneven.” Indeed, at the outset, Stone and Stoker tepidly remark that “[w]hile neighborhoods are seldom the top local priority, they can often claim positive consideration.” It is the very lack of major change (or what I have referred to elsewhere and urban political development), that gives rise to this striking statement by Stone, Stoker, and Martin Horak (who co-authors the final chapter): “we make no present claim even of the glass of neighborhood improvement being as much as half full, though we do see a metaphoric glass one-quarter full.”  In other words, the new politics has not resulted in major effects. In light of these qualifications, the evidence presented in the volume, and given the pressures of gentrification, I maintain that claims that we are in a new era of urban political development are overstated. It may be that major change—via the gradual accretion of incremental improvement—might one day appear, but the volume does not give us sufficient reason to believe we are there yet, nor does it paint a clear picture of what neighborhood revitalization would ultimately look like.

Stone and Stoker ask: “How do authors and reviewer end up so far apart?” Put differently, how do I look at Philadelphia and see doom and gloom when they see sunny uplands? While I doubt we will get on the same page, perhaps we can wind up at least in the same section of the library. Maybe if we broaden our analysis to allow for the presence of multiple political orders (rather than a singular developmental order giving way to a postindustrial one), we might be able to develop a model that sees a place for a series of clashing political coalitions that seek to institutionalize their ideological and economic interests in various spheres. As I mentioned in my review, perhaps what is going on in North American (and many other) cities is a fight between those looking to protect use-value of land, on the one hand, and those seeking to advance exchange-value, as Logan and Molotch suggested in Urban Fortunes. The victories Stone and Stoker point to may reflect those occasions in which the use-value coalition manages to get the upper-hand. It may even be the case that they are getting the upper-hand more often. Yet if we remain alert to the continuing role of the developer’s exchange-value interest, and the coalition and ideology that supports it, we can also capture the other major dynamic washing through the neighborhoods: gentrification. We could broaden our perspective still further, as I have recently argued, by considering the possibility of at least three urban orders at work in the contemporary city—conservative, progressive/liberal, and neoliberal. Urban political development, I suggest, results from the inter-current clash among these three orders. My hope is that this kind of framework might be able to capture both the positive and negative tendencies that characterize urban change, and the differing trajectories of change in different policy domains, thereby obviating the need to break up time into distinct “eras,” and thus circumventing the analytical pitfalls of such an effort.

Unanswered Questions

In my original review I suggested that Stone and Stoker failed to lay out a clear logic of case selection. I also averred that, given the volume was essentially a piece of comparative urban politics, it might have presented the opportunity for theory-testing. Both these points did not receive serious attention in their response. Instead, they simply say that they “explicitly endorse” Salisbury’s call for cross-time analysis. The further charge that Salisbury’s work is “disregarded” in my review seems a bit rum given that their own discussion of Salisbury is extremely limited. Still, on the substance, I have no objection to cross-time analysis—I did it myself in my book. And yet, even if one is limited to cross-time analysis, the issue of case selection still needs to be addressed. Moreover, given that this book was about urban neighborhoods in a new (temporally bounded) era, then surely a cross-sectional analysis would be appropriate and potentially rather fruitful. Do they disagree?

Finally, throughout the conceptual chapters of the volume, much rests on the future about which Stone and Stoker are “cautiously optimistic.” As I noted, “we do not fully discover what, in their view, a robust neighborhood politics would look like. As a result it is unclear if there is a normative standard against which existing a future efforts ought to be judged.” I suggested a revitalized neighborhood would be one in which people had jobs with good incomes, decent housing, good-schools, well-funded amenities and so forth. Yet, Stone and Stoker eschewed the opportunity to sketch out their vision. I wonder if they might venture to do so; if they did, it would help us to figure out how far we’ve come and how far we still need to travel.

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