The Triumph of the City by Ed Glaeser and Double Trouble by J. Philip Thompson III

I finally got around to finishing The Triumph of the City along with my Urban Context class this year. It’s a fine book, but I have some problems with it. Glaeser is a wonderful writer, and he has chosen lots of clever cases, and that’s good to make it engaging, but where Steven Leavitt benefits from a journalist to help him close the loops in his “look it this! Isn’t it unexpected!?” narratives, Glaeser does not have a journalist helping him do that–and an editor should have. The result is that the first half of the book sloshes you back and forth between illustrative cases without really helping you understand how those cases fit together to form a consistent narrative about what readers should know about cities other than “cities are awesome.” He does better with giving the reader some footholds and signposts in the second half of the book, for topics he’s studied more closely himself.

There is a particular part of the book that really bothers me, and that’s the part where Glaeser Monday morning quarterbacks on Detroit’s Coleman Young—and then completely waves his hands as to what Young could have and should have done differently. God knows Coleman Young was no saint, but Glaeser seems to blame Young’s unwillingness to cajole and reassure white voters as part of the problem for Detroit’s decline and white flight. Um, no. There’s a problem there, but it’s not a black politician’s unwillingness to reassure white people that racist institutions are A-Ok.

There’s no real reason to believe that any mayor could have stopped what happened in Detroit, particularly after Glaeser makes such a convincing argument that the unions are at fault for the decline in regional economy anyway. Moreover, there’s quite a bit research on the political problems faced by black mayors, and Glaeser should have availed himself of the research in writing that section on Young.

One resource I have used for my class is J. Philip Thompson III’s excellent book Double Trouble: Black Mayors, Black Communities, and the Call for a Deep Democracy. It’s a very good discussion on the whipsaw that black leaders face (those ragging on Obama should read it) between serving their multiple constituencies but still having to kowtow/reassure white voters–a problem that politicians from ethnic majorities never to have grapple with.

You can’t win if the problem presented to you is “improve the capability for growth and human development in urban African American neighborhoods but don’t dare redistribute either money or power from anybody.” Duh, Coleman. Why couldn’t you make that work? Since Mr. Young has gone on to his reward, I can select one of my favorite quotes of his to respond:

“There is no brilliant single stroke that is going to transform the water into wine or straw into gold.”

No, I don’t think Coleman Young should have been elected five times. But I also very much doubt that LBJ or Jesus himself could have changed much about Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s, and I find little enlightening about the overly long discussion that denigrates Young’s legacy in Glaeser’s book. Readers less familiar with urban politics than me aren’t going to have the basis for calling BS, and the whole discussion highlights that Glaeser is an economist, not a political scientist, and his areas of ignorance show through here.

Oddly enough, though, one of the best things about the book is Glaeser’s nonspecialist’s willingness to redefine the mayoral role in a refreshing way. At one point, he notes that a mayor who has increased the human capital of a city’s residents is still a success even those residents eventually move away. It’s a nice way to shorten the discuss of perpetual debate between people-based versus place-based economic development, and short as the quote is, it offers the possibility to redefine success in leadership in a very meaningful way.