Forum Dialogue: Urban Neighborhoods in a New Era (Part 2)

Earlier this month we brought you the first part of a two-round dialogue between the authors of Clarence Stone and Robert Stoker’s (editors of Urban Neighborhoods in a New Era: Revitalization Politics in the Postindustrial City, 2015, University of Chicago Press) and Tim Weaver (University at Albany).  Their dialogue deals with important questions related to what it means for urban neighborhoods to be making economic, social, and political progress.

Today, we have the second round of this dialogue for you.  We begin with Stone and Stoker’s response to Weaver’s last post and conclude with a final rebuttal from Weaver.

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: Acknowledging New Configurations

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.

Our book is not about identifying and evaluating strategies to alleviate poverty.   At no point have we claimed that the case for a new era rides on the degree to which urban poverty has been reduced or city-wide revitalization has been achieved.   Our book is about political change as evidenced in new ideas, new players, new political relationships, and new policies and issues.   As such, we see Weaver moving toward common ground with our book in his recent paper, mentioned in his reply.

In his response to our original post, Weaver acknowledges that he dismisses incrementalism.  He asserts that incrementalism in the face of “very high levels of poverty” is not a morally sustainable position because the status quo is not acceptable.  We assume that Weaver was not serious when he implied that our work exhibits moral depravity (a toleration for or indifference to the plight of the poor).  After all, blogs are supposed to be fun and edgy.  Right?

We will focus instead on Weaver’s concern about the pace of change.  Weaver rejects incrementalism because he seeks change at a faster pace.   Charles Lindblom (“Still Muddling, Not Yet Through,” Public Administration Review 1979) addressed this issue:

…incrementalism in politics is not, in principle, slow moving.  It is not necessarily, therefore, a tactic of conservatism.  A fast-moving sequence of small changes can more speedily accomplish a drastic alteration of the status quo than can an only infrequent major policy change (see page 520).

Weaver also contends that incrementalism is not a promising strategy.  We ask: In comparison to what?  Weaver has expressed his concern for the poor.  He has not explained the actions he recommends to alleviate poverty (his stated concern) or to enhance the political capacity of disadvantaged groups (the concern of our book).

Finally, we view Weaver’s construction of the question as a false choice.  We need not choose between making incremental improvements in the local political status of disadvantaged community groups and larger efforts aimed at combating poverty.  If the action Weaver proposes to alleviate poverty involves expanding the political capacity of disadvantaged groups we would observe that our ideas are complementary, not competitive.

In our search for an appropriate but realistic reform agenda we turned to Cathy Cohen (The Boundaries of Blackness 1999) and Mario Luis Small (Viva Victoria 2004). Cohen’s work emphasizes the core strengths of marginalized groups through intra-community organization, identity, cohesion, and communication.  These factors influence how effectively community-based groups can participate in local policy making; enhancing these strengths can make community-based groups more formidable opponents and more attractive partners.  Small’s work emphasizes what he calls “intermediate factors.” He observes that the effectiveness of community-based organizations varies, despite ongoing structural inequality.  This suggests that the efficacy of marginalized groups can be enhanced through organization, mobilization, and modifications in institutional design.

Our core disagreement with Weaver is reflected in his claim that the new neighborhood politics we describe is nothing more than negotiating the “terms of surrender.”  This idea reflects the old thinking we have challenged and rejected.  Behind it is a conception of urban development policy as a zero sum game; what pro-development interests gain, neighborhoods lose.  That was the paradigm of the redevelopment period that we assert has been displaced in the new era.  We addressed this issue in our original post and will resist the temptation to cover that ground again.

Perhaps rather than diminishing the progress made by community-based groups as “negotiating the terms of surrender” Weaver could instead acknowledge the new configurations of players, ideas, and relationships behind searches for community benefits through development.  To do so would be to accept the central claim of our book.

In his recent paper embracing urban political development, Weaver moves toward such a broad conception and endorses scholars who differentiate political orders by terms like coalitions, ideas (or purposes), policies, and institutions.  These terms fit nicely within our analysis.

In considering the extent to which there might be common ground between our book and Weaver’s recent paper, we would be careful to acknowledge the socioeconomic context within which the battle of ideas takes place.  Policy domains that are formally separate nevertheless operate and interact within a shared context.  Further, when political-development scholars like Orren and Skowroner highlight legal authority and enduring institutions, their understanding is shaped largely by observing national-level politics.  Cities differ in an important respect: They are more vulnerable to sharp shifts in factors such as deindustrialization and drastic demographic change.

In our book we cope with this inescapable reality by thinking in terms of overarching struggles.  The redevelopment period encompassed two major ones: The transition from an industrial economy through redevelopment combined with varying accommodations to the African-American mobilization for inclusion in the nation’s mainstream.  It would be hard to understand city politics in the decades following World War II outside the interplay between these two forces cutting across multiple policy domains.  The still emerging postindustrial period involves a more fluid set of arrangements, including a notable change in federal-city relations and an overall shift in intergovernmental politics.  We see the overarching struggle as a response to the social disruption and cross-domain neglect that took place during the redevelopment period.

We concur with the assertion in Weaver’s paper that multiple orders are fully in evidence in local politics and policymaking.  However, while contending purposes are very much part of the contemporary scene, our new-era findings show a trend toward a greater intermixing of initiatives across traditionally defined policy domains.   All in all we continue to see evidence of a new era.  That is our story and we are sticking with it.

Timothy Weaver: The Poverty and Possibility of Urban Politics

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

In their latest response, Stone and Stoker take issue with my emphasis on the problem of urban poverty. I argued: “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.” Their response was to defend incrementalism and insist that their “book is not about identifying and evaluating strategies to alleviate poverty.” They further aver that “at no point have we claimed that the case for a new era rides on the degree to which urban poverty has been reduced or city-wide revitalization has been achieved.” Instead, their focus is “political change.” Thus, any discussion of poverty is apparently irrelevant to, or at least beyond the scope of, the question of neighborhood revitalization and unrelated to the political changes that the book seeks to identify. But is poverty really of such marginal importance to neighborhood revitalization or their analysis of it? I think not. And is not the purpose of political change to address human needs of which the elimination of poverty would rank very highly?

Indeed, poverty received significant attention in the volume itself. For example, in the preface—on the very second page of text no less—Stone tells us: “Not to be overlooked is that poverty persists, neighborhood distress remains a highly visible feature of the urban landscape, and cities are at the center of contemporary inequality” (page x). Moreover, we are told (in italics) that “neighborhood revitalization is about attempts to bring about improvement for those who are experiencing residentially clustered forms of distress” (page 23). Is urban poverty not the sine qua non of “residentially clustered forms of distress”? Then in Chapter Two we are presented with a table on city and suburban poverty rates (pate 45) and one on concentrated poverty (page 46). Indeed, poverty is discussed on several occasions in each and every chapter of the volume and appears no fewer than 77 times overall. As such, even on their own terms, it seems that any in discussion of neighborhood revitalization attention to urban poverty is inescapable.

In my initial review and in my reply, I encouraged Stone and Stoker to paint a picture of neighborhood revitalization. Yet, again, they have failed to do so. This is regrettable because it means we are left without a yardstick by which to measure current and future efforts. Had they taken up the challenge, surely they would have included low or negligible poverty as one key factor (among others) of neighborhood revitalization. Therefore, Stone and Stoker’s insistence that poverty is unconnected to the central themes of the book strikes me as rather peculiar.

On the question of incrementalism and morality, let me be crystal clear: I did not mean to imply that their work “exhibits moral depravity.” However, I do not think we can or should dispense with questions of morality when considering the question—what ought we to do about the deleterious conditions urban neighborhoods? Indeed, I assume Stone and Stoker’s efforts to seek out examples of neighborhood revitalization are in part rooted in a moral concern about such conditions and in the hope that suffering is being alleviated. Moreover, consider some of the central issues in the study of urban politics–racial and class-based inequality, poverty, food deserts, citizenship, social justice, the rise of the carceral state, climate change, gentrification and so forth. For me, and for many other urbanists I would venture, these are not merely a set of intellectual curiosities—empirical puzzles to be solved dispassionately—but moral challenges too. If this is right, then moral considerations should inform our recommendations as to what policies ought to be adopted and what the pace of change ought to be. Furthermore, though Stone and Stoker emphasize the political issue of enhancing “the political capacity of disadvantaged groups,” this cannot be detached from the anticipated consequences of such a shift. After all, why should the “the political capacity of disadvantaged groups” matter if it does yield concrete improvements in material conditions and social standing?

On incrementalism, Stone and Stoker quote Limblom’s claim that “A fast-moving sequence of small changes can more speedily accomplish a drastic alteration of the status quo than can an only infrequent major policy change.” But they simply leave things there. We are left therefore to infer that they believe that incrementalism is the preferred method for yielding neighborhood revitalization. And yet, the examples of change cited in the book are neither “fast-moving” nor do they involve “a drastic alteration on the status quo,” as they readily acknowledge. Hence, on the Stone and Stoker evidence they present—and with respect to their example of the civil rights movement—I would suggest we have sufficient reason to doubt the efficacy of the incremental approach. And I’m not sure we can afford to wait to find out.

Stone and Stoker tempt me to offer recommendations for poverty alleviation. Naturally, space does not allow for an adequate response, but I’d like to make a couple of broad points. First, my thinking on urban poverty is heavily influenced by the late Michael B. Katz, in my mind the foremost authority on the subject, at least as it applies to American cities, and under whom I studied at the University of Pennsylvania. In an epilogue to his revised masterpiece, The Undeserving Poor (2013), Katz asks the fundamental question: what kind of a problem is urban poverty? He examines the problem from six angles: persons, places, resources, political economy, power, and markets. He concludes by arguing that “we need to pay special attention to those strands that mainstream poverty policy treats most lightly: resources, political economy and power.” I agree. He further urged scholars to “recapture [the] energy and faith” of Progressive reformers who saw poverty primarily as a tractable problem relating primarily to inadequate income.

With Katz’s insights in mind, my recipe for eliminating poverty would necessarily involve: reforming the political economy (locally and nationally) so that working people enjoyed a greater share of profit; introducing social policies that provide a basic income, free healthcare and childcare; and, an empowered working-class that could control forms of capital in ways scholars such as David Imbroscio have suggested. But for any of this to be achieved, we need to take stock ideologically. This means seeing past the darkness of conservatism, which sees poverty as a problem of culture, beyond neoliberalism, with its obsession with market-based competition, and that recognizes the limits to liberal incrementalism. I elaborate on these themes in a forthcoming article, “A City of Citizens” (New Political Science, March 2018), in which I make the normative case for urban social citizenship.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Stone and Stoker take issue with my skepticism about the community benefits flowing from development. And, they accuse me of engaging in the “old thinking” that they are boldly challenging. For them, there is no longer a zero-sum game between developer interest and neighborhood interest. In this Third Way world, everyone can be a winner. I do wonder about this. Far from being “new” thinking, this seems like New Labour and New Democrat thinking circa 1993, which seems especially dated in the aftermath of the Great Recession in which almost all the benefits of the economic growth have flowed to the top at everyone else’s expense. Still, maybe the macroeconomy—which surely has exhibited zero-sum characteristics—is different from the win-win patterns of the inner city. The problem is that the evidence they presented falls short (see direct quotes in my original review and reply). Let me put it this way: unless and until we can show that the “new politics” has resulted in substantial material improvements reflected by major reductions in “residentially clustered forms of distress” my view will remain unchanged.

So, on the centrality of poverty alleviation to neighborhood revitalization and incrementalism we seem to be at odds. Still, Stone and Stoker were indeed right to detect the possibly of fertile common ground with respect to the multiple orders analysis I advocate. Indeed, the substantive chapters of their volume seem to contain the raw materials for such an analysis—more neighborhood control in some areas, gentrifying displacement in others. And yet, having endorsed a multiple orders view, they stick with their “new era” story. But a multiple orders view, encourages us to think about the contradictions, conflicts, and inconsistences that stands in tension with their conceptualization in which the old-order (and “old” thinking) is replaced by the new. Still, I want to conclude this reply by stressing that I see Stone and Stoker’s openness to the notion of thinking in terms of urban political development and multiple urban orders as very welcome and look forward to further dialogue with them and others on the issue.

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