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AN AMERICAN VIEW OF MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT IN
THE UNITED STATES
By the Hon. SETH Low, formerly Mayor of the City of Brooklyn
A city in the United States is quite a different thing from a city in its technical sense, as the word is used in England. In England a city is usually taken to be a place which is or has been the seat of a bishop. The head of a city government in England is a mayor, but many boroughs which are not cities are also governed by a mayor. In the United States a city is a place which has received a charter as a city from the legislature of its State. In America there is nothing whatever corresponding to the English borough. Whenever in the United States one enters a place that is presided over by a mayor, he may understand, without further inquiry, that he is in a city.
Any European student of politics who wishes to understand the problem of government in the United States, whether of city government or any other form of it, must first of all transfer himself, if he can, to a point of view precisely the opposite of that which is natural to him. This is scarcely, if at all, less true of the English than of the continental student. In England as upon the continent, from time immemorial, government has descended from the top down. Until recently, society in Europe has accepted the idea, almost without protest, that there must be governing classes, and that the great majority of men must be governed. In the United States that idea does not obtain, and, what is of scarcely less importance, it never has obtained. No distinction is recognized between governing and governed classes, and the problem of government is conceived to be this, that the whole of society should learn and apply to itself the art of government. Bearing this in mind, it becomes apparent that the immense tide of immigration into the United States is a continually disturbing factor. The immigrants come from many countries, a very large proportion of them being of the classes which, in their old homes from time out of mind, have been governed. Arriving in America, they shortly become citizens in a society which undertakes to govern itself. However well-disposed they may be as a rule, they have not had experience in self-government, nor do they always share the ideas which have expressed themselves in the Constitution of the United States. This foreign element settles largely in the cities of the country. It is estimated that the population of New York City contains eighty per cent of people who either are foreign-born or who are the children of foreign-born parents. Consequently, in a city like New York, the problem of learning the art of government is handed over to a population that begins in point of experience very low down. In many of the cities of the United States, indeed in almost all of them, the population not only is thus largely untrained in the art of self-government, but it is not even homogeneous. So that an American city is confronted not only with the necessity of instructing large and rapidly-growing bodies of people in the art of government, but it is compelled at the same time to assimilate strangely different component parts into an American community. It will be apparent to the student that either one of these functions by itself would be difficult enough. When both are found side by side the problem is increasingly difficult as to each. Together they represent a problem such as confronts no city in the United Kingdom, or in Europe.
1 This chapter is copyright, by Seth Low, 1888.
2 In Scotland, where there have been, since the Revolution, no bishops, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen are described as cities. Westminster is a city, but has never had a bishop.
The American city has had problems to deal with also of a material character, quite different from those which have confronted the cities of the Old World. With the exception of Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and New York, there is no American city of great consequence whose roots go back into the distant past even of America American cities as a rule have grown with a rapidity to which the Old World presents few parallels. London, in the extent of its growth, but not in the proportions of it, Berlin since 1870, and Rome in the last few years, are perhaps the only places in Europe which have been compelled to deal with this element of rapid growth in anything like a corresponding degree. All of these cities, London, Berlin, and Rome, are the seats of the national government, and receive from that source more or less help and guidance in their development. In all of them an immense nucleus of wealth existed before this great and rapid growth began. The problem in America has been to make a great city in a few years out of nothing. There has been no nucleus of wealth upon which to found the structure which every succeeding year has enlarged. Recourse has been had of necessity, under these conditions, to the freest use of the public credit. The city of Brooklyn and the city of Chicago, each with a population now of three-quarters of a million of people, are but little more than fifty years old. In that period everything now there has been created out of the fields. The houses in which the people live, the water-works, the paved streets, the sewers, everything which makes up the permanent plant of a city, all have been produced while the city has been growing from year to year at a fabulous rate. . Besides these things are to be reckoned the public schools, the public parks, and in the case of Brooklyn, the great bridge connecting it with New York, two-thirds of the cost of which is borne by Brooklyn. Looked at in this light the marvel would seem to be, not so much that the American cities are justly criticizable for many defects, but rather that results so great have been achieved in so short a time. The necessity of doing so much so quickly, has worked to the disadvantage of the American city in two ways. First, it has compelled very lavish expenditure under great pressure for quick results. This is precisely the condition under which the best trained business men make their greatest mistakes, and are in danger of running into extravagance and wastefulness. No candid American will deny that American cities have suffered largely in this way, not alone from extravagance and wastefulness, but also from dishonesty ; but in estimating the extent of the reproach, it is proper to take into consideration these general conditions under which the cities have been compelled to work. The second disadvantage which American cities have laboured under from this state of things has been their inability to provide adequately for their current needs, while discounting the future so freely in order to provide their permanent plant. When the great American cities have paid for the permanent plant which they have been accumulating during the last half century, so that the duty which lies before them is chiefly that of caring adequately for the current life of their population, a vast improvement in all these particulars may reasonably be expected. In other words, time is a necessary element in making a great city, as it is in every other great and enduring work. American cities are judged by their size rather than by the time which has entered into their growth. It cannot be denied that larger results could have been produced with the money expended if it always had been used with complete honesty and good judgment. But to make an intelligent criticism upon the American city, in its failures upon the material side, these elements of difficulty must be taken into consideration.
Another particular in which the American city may be thought to have come short of what might have been hoped for, may be described in general terms as a lack of foresight.
It would have been comparatively easy to have preserved in all of them small open parks, and generally to have made them more beautiful, if there had been a greater appreciation of the need for these things and of the growth the cities were to attain to. The western cities probably have erred in this regard less than those upon the Atlantic coast. But while it is greatly to be regretted that this large foresight has not been displayed, it is after all only repeating in America what has taken place in Europe. The improvement of cities seems everywhere to be made by tearing down and replacing at great cost, rather than by a farsighted provision for the demands and opportunities of the future. These unfortunate results in America have flowed largely from two causes : first, from inability on