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Activists in City Hall

The Progressive Response to the Reagan Era in Boston and Chicago

by Pierre Clavel

Publication Year: 2010

In 1983, Boston and Chicago elected progressive mayors with deep roots among community activists. Taking office as the Reagan administration was withdrawing federal aid from local governments, Boston's Raymond Flynn and Chicago's Harold Washington implemented major policies that would outlast them. More than reforming governments, they changed the substance of what the government was trying to do: above all, to effect a measure of redistribution of resources to the cities' poor and working classes and away from hollow goals of "growth" as measured by the accumulation of skyscrapers. In Boston, Flynn moderated an office development boom while securing millions of dollars for affordable housing. In Chicago, Washington implemented concrete measures to save manufacturing jobs, against the tide of national policy and trends.

Activists in City Hall examines how both mayors achieved their objectives by incorporating neighborhood activists as a new organizational force in devising, debating, implementing, and shaping policy. Based in extensive archival research enriched by details and insights gleaned from hours of interviews with key figures in each administration and each city's activist community, Pierre Clavel argues that key to the success of each mayor were numerous factors: productive contacts between city hall and neighborhood activists, strong social bases for their agendas, administrative innovations, and alternative visions of the city. Comparing the experiences of Boston and Chicago with those of other contemporary progressive cities-Hartford, Berkeley, Madison, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, Burlington, and San Francisco-Activists in City Hall provides a new account of progressive urban politics during the Reagan era and offers many valuable lessons for policymakers, city planners, and progressive political activists.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xviii

Neighborhood activists went into city halls in Boston and Chicago in the 1980s and, in doing so, changed the way these cities were governed. They did not do this by themselves, nor in one stroke. They allied with mayors and adapted to continuing neighborhood pressure. ...

List of Acronyms

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pp. xix-xx

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1. The Progressive City: Concept and Context

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pp. 1-15

Raymond Flynn, a white populist from South Boston, began as the “neighborhood mayor,” distinguished by his effort to treat major issues of racial division as economic problems held in common with his white populist base. Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, survived two years of “council wars” ...

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2. What the Progressive City Was

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pp. 16-34

During the “progressive” period in American history, mayors like Hazen Pingree in Detroit (1889–96) and Tom Johnson in Cleveland (1901–09) fought for public transportation and public power. One could search further for antecedents.1 But these are not the topic of this book, and their memory was not a major factor in, say, the postwar period. ...

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3. The Movement Becomes Politics in Boston

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pp. 35-58

Like some other cities, Boston had nurtured elements of U.S. populism and socialism in the 1970s. What was different was how these worked their way into the electoral campaign when, after a tie in the preliminary election, Ray Flynn defeated Mel King for mayor of Boston in 1983. ...

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4. Flynn’s City Hall and the Neighborhoods

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pp. 59-95

Flynn now had the challenge of governing the city. Later, Neil Sullivan wrote that “many presumed that Ray Flynn would be a one-term mayor.” Despite the surge of neighborhood activism that had propelled Flynn and King to prominence in 1983, the city was divided between downtown and the neighborhoods: ...

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5. Neighborhood Background and the Campaign in Chicago

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pp. 96-117

Harold Washington was a well-known African American mayor, but he was also notable because he was a reform mayor and, more than that, combined the ideals of reform with a community development program so that reform had a substance it had not had in a century of previous incarnations. ...

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6. Washington in City Hall

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pp. 118-145

Once in office, Washington faced a hostile city council. In a racially charged campaign, he had defeated the machine—still the way of life for the city council and embedded in the minds of the public and the press. The result was a struggle within city hall and with the council, one that hindered what he or his administration could initiate or accomplish. ...

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7. Later Developments in Chicago

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pp. 146-170

Key Washington administrators knew they were creating a different kind of city governance. But there was always the question of what would be a lasting change. Washington’s unexpected death did signal an end to much of what he had put in place. ...

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8. Race, Class, and the Administrative Struggle

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pp. 171-200

It is remarkable that Boston and Chicago produced progressive governments in the 1980s. No other large city did. There were several minority mayors, but they did not produce participatory and redistributive reforms to the same degree. The smaller cities described in chapter 2—though important precursors—did not generally face the same challenges or scale of problems. ...


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pp. 201-226


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pp. 227-232

E-ISBN-13: 9780801460111
E-ISBN-10: 0801460115
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801476556
Print-ISBN-10: 0801476550

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 726824282
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Activists in City Hall

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Boston (Mass.) -- Politics and government.
  • Chicago (Ill.) -- Politics and government.
  • Community activists -- Massachusetts -- Boston.
  • Community activists -- Illinois -- Chicago.
  • Urban policy -- Massachusetts -- Boston.
  • Urban policy -- Illinois -- Chicago.
  • Flynn, Raymond L.
  • Washington, Harold, 1922-1987.
  • Progressivism (United States politics).
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