Tag Archives: Municipal Elections

The Metropole Bookshelf: Matt Crenson on his new work, Baltimore: A Political History

The Metropole Bookshelf is an opportunity for authors of forthcoming or recently published books to let the UHA community know about their new work in the field.

By Matt Crenson

Matt Crenson. Baltimore: A Political History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2017

The idea of writing Baltimore’s political history came to me by accident – an accident for which I had been unconsciously preparing over decades. As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins I wrote some term papers about neighborhood Democratic clubs. In the process, a local party bosslet – “Murph” – recruited me to serve as his driver and gofer during a local election campaign. We lost, but I learned something about the kind of politics that never gets on the evening news. Then I left for graduate school in Chicago, where I became acquainted with politics in the style of Mayor Daley the Elder. The six years that I spent living there and in Boston and Washington served to bring some of Baltimore’s peculiarities into focus. After coming home, I produced some op-eds and articles about bits and pieces of local history, and a whole book about Baltimore neighborhoods. It was based on a sample survey of local residents, not historical records, but my attention turned toward the ways in which neighborhoods served as containers of local history.

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Seven Foot Knoll Light, Baltimore, Maryland, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Then, sometime in 2010, a former political science graduate student at Johns Hopkins advanced an interesting proposal for a collection of essays that would follow the nation’s ten largest cities through successive periods of American history. Richardson Dilworth, now a Professor at Drexel University, conceived the project and invited me to contribute nine essays about Baltimore to Cities in American Political History. By the time I was done, I had much more material than I needed for the essays. It looked like the start of a book.

It was, but only a start. Finishing it required extensive work in the city archives and various manuscript collections. Fortunately, the Baltimore City Archives were located in a warehouse only minutes from my office, and its staff was supportive and generous with their time. I spent one or two days a week there for about five years.

My nine essays for Professor Dilworth’s project were based primarily on newspapers and secondary sources. The archives told a somewhat different story. The journalists and historians had concentrated on the development of the city – events and circumstances that changed Baltimore. In the archives, I also found evidence of change, but far more striking were the continuities that emerged.

618cLJHlKAL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_For example, Baltimore exhibited persistent symptoms of political underdevelopment. The city emerged almost a century after the first British colonists arrived in Maryland, and from its earliest days it operated under that shadow of an already entrenched political establishment in Annapolis, the colonial and current capital of Maryland. The tobacco planters who dominated the provincial assembly granted only narrowly defined powers to the government of Baltimore Town when it received its charter in 1729. The Town Commissioners had to appeal to the assembly to deal with local problems such as the swine that roamed and befouled the town’s unpaved streets. Over generations, the town operated under a relatively weak and disjointed political system heavily dependent on private, informal and improvised political arrangements to address local projects and problems. The state continues to limit city authority today. Baltimore’s police department, for example, is legally a state agency, though most of its costs are borne by the city.

Then there are the neighborhoods that preserve fragments of the city’s history. By all accounts, there are at least 300 of them – far more than in any city of comparable size. Cities for millennia have been mechanisms of concentration, but the processes of concentration and centralization seem to operate less powerfully in Baltimore than in other towns; hence, the multitude of urban villages. Many of these miniscule neighborhoods also define the territories of drug gangs. Their struggles to challenge and defend so many boundaries may help to account for the city’s high homicide rate.

Baltimore’s political development may have been set back, not just by the authorities in Annapolis, but by its signature railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio. Its construction was a response to the completion of the Erie Canal, which undercut Baltimore’s geographic advantage as the westernmost port on the East Coast. Baltimore financed the railroad with borrowed money. As costs spiraled, interest payments became the single biggest item in the municipal budget, forcing the city to underfund almost everything from police to schools to sewers. The tight budget also restricted the supply of city patronage, inhibiting the building of a party machine with a powerful boss.

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203 delegates to the First Maryland State Conference of NAACP branches, Sharp St. Meth. Church, Baltimore, May 24th & 25th, May 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Baltimore’s struggle to pull itself together is one of two stories that unfold beside one another. The other is about race. White Baltimoreans displayed enduring ambivalence and avoidance of the issue as they skirted the color line. It’s the story that I discuss in my forthcoming blog post as part of The Metropole’s November Metropolis of the Month: Baltimore. The other side of the story, of course, has to do with the distinctive experience of the city’s African American population. In the days of slavery, Baltimore held the largest concentration of free black people in the United States. They created a distinctive community whose influence is still evident today.

IMG_5816[1].JPGMatthew Crenson is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Johns Hopkins University. He is a native Baltimorean who earned his undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Chicago. In 1969 he joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins after teaching at M.I.T. and spending a year as a predoctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He has specialized in the study of American urban and national politics. At Hopkins, he a served as Chair of the Department of Political Science and Associate Dean and Acting Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Crenson is the author or co-author of eight books, including Baltimore: A Political History (Johns Hopkins University Press, (2017).

Featured image (at top): “A Bird’s Eye View of Baltimore“, by Edward W. Spofford, Norman T.A Munder, and Spofford & Hughes, 1912, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

“PEOPLE WERE SAYING NICE THINGS ABOUT CLEVELAND AGAIN”: REFLECTING ON CARL STOKES AND CITY IMAGE

By J. Mark Souther

On a crisp October day in 1970, a crowd cheered Carl Stokes on as he scrambled down the dock behind Fagan’s Beacon House in his yellow fishermen’s boots onto a submerged platform and sloshed through the murky waters of the Cuyahoga River. Stokes, elected 50 years ago next month as the first African American mayor of a large U.S. city, had promised this stunt of appearing to walk on water as a demonstration of his faith in the fledgling entertainment district that had recently sprung up along the riverbank. Stokes’s messianic gesture was part of the Flats Fun Festival, an event intended to help Clevelanders reframe their perception of a river that infamously caught fire the previous year.

The savvy and charismatic Mayor Stokes was accustomed to embodying hope in Cleveland, a city that like many in the emerging Rust Belt was well aware of its own urban crisis before the river burned. Two race riots—the Hough uprising in 1966 and the “Glenville shootout” two summers later—had brought it into sharp focus. The city’s mishandling of urban renewal had even resulted in a federal freeze on releasing additional renewal funds to Cleveland until a few months into Stokes’s first term. Morale had sunk so low in 1967 that Stokes chose as his campaign slogan “I Believe in Cleveland” and promised a clear departure from the inertia of the “caretaker mayors” who preceded him.

The 1967 election produced jubilation. Like other energetic mayors of his time—New York’s John Lindsay, Detroit’s Jerome Cavanaugh, and Boston’s Kevin White—Stokes seemed capable of delivering a renaissance in Cleveland. He gave Clevelanders “a psychological lift” and, in the words of one observer, “a feeling . . . that perhaps the city can be saved after all.” And the hopeful image extended far and wide. The mayor’s executive assistant reported that wherever he traveled, “people were saying nice things about Cleveland again.”

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Carl Stokes for Mayor campaign ad:”I Believe in Cleveland”, 1967, Cleveland Plain Dealer

The success that Stokes had in reshaping public impressions of Cleveland owed in no small measure to William Silverman, a public relations guru who had cut his teeth on Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign. It was Silverman’s idea to brand the mayor’s agenda with a catchy name to wrap its many initiatives in a shiny package. Silverman’s conception, Cleveland: NOW!, soon became a tagline for TV ads, billboards, and was an ingenious way for Stokes to cultivate the appearance of progress through otherwise unrelated modest initiatives that were more readily achieved than his more expansive plans. The symbolism of Cleveland: NOW! was useful not only for countering the enervating effect of intractable problems but also for offsetting symbolic losses that paralleled the urban crisis. Among these losses were the closures in 1968 and 1969 of the beloved Sterling Lindner department store, shuttering of the row of cinema palaces that comprised Playhouse Square, and demise of Euclid Beach, Cleveland’s most storied amusement park.

Although Mayor Stokes cared more about expanding the city’s supply of affordable housing and improving access to industrial jobs, he was also conscious of the need to attend to Cleveland’s image, and nowhere was better for that than downtown, which inspired metaphorical description as the city’s “showcase,” “heart,” or “mainspring”—in short, a place thought to possess central economic and symbolic importance for the metropolitan area. Following a period when two previous mayors had struggled to produce just three sizable new downtown buildings even with the promise of the nation’s largest federally subsidized downtown urban renewal project, Stokes made regular use of his spade and scissors at groundbreaking and dedication ceremonies for an impressive roster of new high-rises. More importantly, his administration was attuned to the need to do more than simply rely on a building boom to create a larger captive audience of office workers that might stave off the decline of downtown retailing.

As in other American city centers, downtown Cleveland experienced a loss of shoppers to suburban shopping plazas after mid century. At a time when San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, a former chocolate factory converted into a shopping, dining, and entertainment complex, was an influential model for reorienting central cities as destinations for suburbanites and tourists, Cleveland planners were taking note. While the city’s 1965 reevaluation of the 1959 downtown plan continued to recommend the “malling” of Euclid Avenue as an antidote to retail decline, it also noted the 1890 Arcade’s potential to be Cleveland’s answer to Ghirardelli Square. Although the Arcade did not materialize as a major tourist venue, Stokes was the first mayor to actively pursue a leisure-driven agenda for downtown Cleveland as part of a broader effort to rejuvenate a city beset by problems. In the downtown segment of his televised Cleveland: NOW! documentary in 1968, the mayor told of a French magazine writer who remarked during a visit to Cleveland on how deserted the downtown streets became after dark. Stokes believed downtown could become a “people place.”

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Mall Cafe, a project initiated by Stokes’s properties director Ed Baugh, 1968, Cleveland Press Collection, CSU Library

The mayor’s vision found an advocate in Ed Baugh, who had recently left the Peace Corps to serve as Stokes’s city properties director. From his City Hall office, Baugh looked out on the Mall, one of the nation’s few Daniel Burnham City Beautiful plans to be implemented to a significant degree, and he saw an attractive but little-used expanse. In his mind’s eye, Baugh conjured a Tivoli on the Mall—piped music, live concerts, cafes, surrey rides, and nighttime floodlighting—as an antidote for what one of the city’s daily newspapers called Cleveland’s “grim, all-business image.” With the mayor’s blessing, Baugh opened the Mall Café and staged events such as Mall-A-Rama, with games, crafts, and even model boat races in the fountain pool, and Fun Day on the Mall, a music festival that brought rock and R&B acts headlined by Edwin Starr. Significantly, the administration took pride in drawing together a diverse audience and saw diversity as essential to the city’s future.

Baugh extended his version of the “Fun City” mindset that Mayor Lindsay championed in New York beyond the Mall. The administration recognized the potential of efforts by business owners and the Old Flats Association to turn the rough-and-tumble docklands of the Flats along the Cuyahoga into a place fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Old Town Chicago or Gaslight Square. The Old Flats Association, formed in 1968 by business owners such as Harry Fagan, (whose four-year-old tavern featured a New Orleans-style jazz band), found an ally in Baugh and the Stokes administration, which added gas lamps and signage and worked with organization to sponsor a rededication of the site where city founder Moses Cleaveland landed in 1796.

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Playhouse Square after theater closings; marquee advertises films at a suburban theater!, 1970,  Cleveland Press Collection, CSU Library

Even as the Stokes administration worked to carve out new entertainment destinations, it also labored to restore one that had been lost. The Playhouse Square area on downtown’s eastern end had once hummed with activity. In addition to the 12,000 seats in five theaters, dozens of fashionable stores and large restaurants lent a Times Square-like quality that persisted long after sunset. When the theaters closed, their demise took down a number of nearby businesses. Concerned business owners formed the 9-18 Corporation (named for East 9th and 18th Streets, which marked the boundaries of the part of Euclid Avenue the organization served). The 9-18 Corporation partnered with the mayor’s office to relight Euclid Avenue with super-bright “Lucalox” bulbs developed at General Electric’s Nela Park, its lighting division campus in East Cleveland.

Stokes’s predecessor, Ralph Locher, had undertaken a citywide plan for replacing streetlights with a similar symbolic gesture as part of a demonstration project to jumpstart a moribund urban renewal project in Hough just months prior to the Hough uprising, but before the relighting campaign could progress far, the murder of a Cleveland Orchestra chorister in the heart of University Circle forced the mayor to redirect new lighting to allay fears in the city’s cultural district. Three years later Stokes was making a similar move to quell concerns about the dark, forbidding stretch where theater marquees had until recently blazed with light. As Stokes’s utilities director later recalled, the Lucalox treatment was “something visual” to help “taxpayers see where their dollars were going,” and it was predictably touted as another public service of Cleveland: NOW! On a late October evening in 1969, the mayor flipped a ceremonial switch to dedicate what he claimed was now the brightest downtown in the United States and spoke of his hope for reinvestment in Playhouse Square.

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Ad for downtown relighting ceremony, sponsored by 9-18 Corp. and Stokes administration’s Cleveland: NOW! program, 1969, Cleveland Plain Dealer

The mayor went a step further. Understanding that the 9-18 Corporation, like so many other organizations formed over the years in the interest of promoting specific sections of downtown, was insufficient to the task of promoting all of the central business district, Stokes worked with business leaders to form the Downtown Consortium in 1970. The Downtown Consortium was Cleveland’s first public-private partnership to coordinate revitalization in the district. The new organization pledged to continue supporting efforts to revive Playhouse Square while also undertaking a variety of symbolic interventions. Perhaps the most noteworthy was the plan to hold a downtown festival and, at Ed Baugh’s suggestion, use the event to test an idea first hatched in the 1959 downtown plan: making Euclid Avenue into a pedestrian mall. The closure of the street for the festival separated this event from previous festivals sponsored by business interests, but it did not lead to a permanent “malling” of the street, leaving future planners to continue debating the concept through the 1970s.

Clevelanders may not have seen the immediate coalescence of a leisure-driven downtown transformation, but they certainly learned to see their city as having the potential to move in that direction. Indeed, it was at this time that Herbert Strawbridge, the chairman of the Higbee Company, a leading local department store, having recently visited Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, began seriously thinking about making a bold move to use his store as a developer of a similar complex in the Flats. He thought of it as a way of making Higbee’s future less dependent on office workers by creating a powerful magnet for suburbanites and tourists. Strawbridge would take the plunge in 1972 when, after he read in the newspaper that a junkyard was planned on the site of Moses Cleaveland’s river landing nearly two centuries before, he resolved that Higbee’s could not stand by and watch the desecration of “Cleveland’s Plymouth Rock.”

The Stokes era, now being celebrated in the golden anniversary year of his historic election, was a might-have-been watershed in Clevelanders’ efforts to jar their city onto a new course of revitalization. We now know very well that, not only in Stokes’s time but also throughout the half century since, decline and revitalization are not sequential but coexist in perpetual tension. Many times we have seen mayors, business leaders, and other urban prognosticators declare that revitalization is at hand—that a city has “turned the corner” or embarked on a “comeback.” History tells us that it’s rarely so simple. Revitalization is something that must be forever cultivated. That is exactly what Carl Stokes understood. He knew and often admitted that Cleveland’s problems were real and should not be swept under the rug. Yet, as he worked to steel the public for a long, expensive, and sometimes controversial struggle for a better city, the mayor also understood and deployed the symbolic rhetoric and actions that he knew might help manage people’s response to the challenges ahead.

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Mark Souther is a Professor of History at Cleveland State University. Souther will be speaking on October 27 in the “Alternative Visions for Cleveland” roundtable at this year’s SACRPH conference. This essay was adapted from Souther’s new book Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation” (Temple University Press, 2017). Souther is also the author of New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City (LSU Press, 2006).