Urban Government

Urban Govt

Over a century before the age of industrialization and urbanization in America, the Founding Fathers held conflicting visions of what form localized governments should take. Federalists like James Madison, though they may not have envisioned the sheer size to which American cities would grow, espoused a strong centralized system of government. The Federalist model would be evident in the urban machine model that characterized the city governments of almost all major American centers during the Industrial Age. The urban machine and its head of state the "Boss" consisted of a strong singular leader, with minimal public participation in local political affairs. At the same time, Federalists opposed strong state governments, implying ultimately weak powers offered to county and city governments. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Thomas Jefferson advocated ready public participation in local affairs. New England town councils that were remnants of the colonial era remained in place as a testimony to the popularity of the Jeffersonian republican ideal of local governance and direct democracy. The town council system and the urban machine model remain viable in various cities throughout the nation. If the Founding Fathers agreed on anything related to urban governance it was that localities should at the very least be able to choose a model that best represented the needs and desires of its residents, rather than force each municipality to conform to a predefined structure. Various urban models continue to flourish throughout the nation.

Diverse models of urban governance were originally due to historical, commercial, regional and cultural variations. For example, New England town councils and town halls reflected an ideal of self-rule and direct democracy. Stronger, more centralized systems of local governance such as those present in New York and Boston continue to reflect the Federalist tradition. The nature of municipal governments in many cases reflects state constitutions, as state governments allocate institutional, pragmatic, social, and fiscal responsibilities to the municipalities within their borders. Issues of local interest including street lighting, pavement, garbage collection, and water supply generally fall under the jurisdiction of the urban government. Therefore, city governments have the responsibility to levy taxes, as local interests cannot be fully funded by state or federal taxes alone.

The face of local politics changed dramatically during the late 19th century due to immigration, industrialization, and urbanization. Each of these three factors led to the rise of the urban machine in the United States. The term urban machine, moreover, underscores the importance of machine-based economics in the United States during the Industrial Revolution. Chicago provides a classic model of urban machine government, especially since the Chicago urban machine remained operative until relatively recently. Urban machine politics demonstrate several features; most notably the urban machine mirrors the federalist model of a strong centralized government. The head of the urban machine is commonly called the "Boss." Although the Boss is an elected official, he earns votes not via issues-based campaigning. Rather, the Boss offers favors to local businesses and special interest groups in exchange for the votes that keep that machine in power. Because of their potential for corruption, urban machine politics fell under heavy criticism during the Progressive Era.

However, the urban machine served its constituents in ways that town council-style governments could not. The urban machine became especially viable in large urban centers, which drew influxes of immigrants during and after the Age of Industrialization. In fact, the urban machine model can be said to best represent the needs of heterogeneous, populous urban centers, whereas the town council model may better serve the needs of a smaller and more homogenous city. Although the age of city Bosses has largely passed, the urban machine model persists in America's largest cities including New York City, Boston, and Chicago. Strong mayoral systems of local government most closely resemble the urban machines.

Apologists of the urban machine champion its role in offering opportunities for employment and social services, especially for politically disenfranchised groups like new immigrants and minorities (Biles 2004). Thus, immigrants fed the machine with their votes, and the machine helped to literally feed new immigrants. The machine system used what are referred to as a "spoils," a graft, or a patronage system. City bosses rubbed elbows with local business and service providers, ensuring jobs for large numbers of non-white residents and providing health care and educational services that might not have been available through a city council-style system, peopled by members of existing elite or aristocratic groups.…