City Making: Building Communities Without Building Walls.

AuthorCashin, Sheryll D.

CITY MAKING: BUILDING COMMUNITIES WITHOUT BUILDING WALLS. By Gerald E. Frug. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1999. Pp. ix, 223. $35.

"[T]he problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line."(1)

When W.E.B. DuBois wrote this prophetic statement at the dawn of the twentieth century, the American metropolis did not yet exist. Perhaps DuBois could not have predicted the sprawled, socioeconomically fragmented landscape that is so familiar to the majority of Americans who now live and work in metropolitan regions. But his prediction of a "color line" that would sear our consciousness and present the chief social struggle for the new century proved all too correct. As we contemplate the twenty-first century, Gerald Frug'(s)(2) book, City Making, makes clear that the problem of the color line continues in the form of local political borders. Local government borders define who gets what public benefits. They demarcate communities by race and income. They separate good school districts from bad. And, most importantly, they form the geographic boundary for local powers that can be wielded by those living within in ways that can harm those living without.

City Making attacks this problem of borders at its roots. It is an important book that deserves serious consideration by all who care about democracy and race relations in America. Frug analyzes our system of local government law, identifying clearly how the current structure of city power has "segregated metropolitan areas into `two nations,' rich and poor, white and black, expanding and contracting" (p. 4). Undoubtedly, Frug's analysis will be familiar to those well-acquainted with the legal literature on local governance.(3) But in the book, he offers fresh insights in a highly readable format that should be accessible to those unfamiliar with such scholarship.

The problem, as Frug sees it, is that our current legal conception of the city creates a duality of city power and city powerlessness, both of which "undermine the fundamental democratic experience of working with different kinds of people to find solutions to common problems" (p. 8). Affluent suburban localities benefit from a privatized conception of local autonomy because the legal system equates suburban local powers with "the protection of home and family and of private property" (p. 7). By contrast, central cities and older suburbs, saddled with increasing populations of poor people and attendant demands on their tax base, are incapable of using local powers in ways that wall out "undesirables." Thus, as Richard Briffault has argued, only affluent suburbs are truly free to use local powers in ways that shape their economic destinies.(4)

On the other hand, Frug chafes at the limits states place on city power. Cities, unlike corporations, are powerless to pursue fully the collective vision of their citizen-members. They must rely on enumerated powers conferred by the state, rather than on any inherent authority to define their goals and powers from within (pp. 8-9). It is ironic that Frug is troubled by this subservience of cities to state laws and policies, given the invitation to self-interest wrought by suburban local autonomy. But he believes that only by reconceiving cities in a manner that frees them to negotiate the scope of their powers can the fundamental democratic enterprise for which cities were created be recaptured.

Frug aims to solve the twinfold problems of local selfishness (city power) and local subservience (city powerlessness). Proposing "a local government law for the twenty-first century" (p. 5), he seeks "to defend a version of city power that does not rely on the notion of local autonomy" (p. 9). He would reject the vision of cities as something akin to autonomous individuals or sovereign nation-states -- "centered subjects" in the vocabulary of the theoretical literature.(5) Instead, Frug would revolutionize local government law by premising cities on the image of the "situated" or "postmodern" self (pp. 73-89, 92-109). In other words, he would transform the legal definition of a city from one that equates city power with the ability to act like a self-interested individual, in order to account for the fact that no individual locality within a metropolitan region is an island. It is necessarily interconnected, in ways profound and minor, to the myriad of other localities, races, and socio-economic classes that make up the metropolis. By embracing these interlocal connections as part of the definition of what a city is, Frug reasons that local government law would be transformed so as to promote rather than frustrate regional collaboration on metropolitan problems (p. 10).

In transforming the legal definition of the city, Frug argues for "a new role for cities in American life," namely "community building" (p. 10). By "community building" he means "increasing the capacity of all metropolitan residents -- African American as well as white, gay as well as fundamentalist, rich as well as poor -- to live in a world filled with those they find unfamiliar, strange, even offensive" (p. 11). He offers a number of practical suggestions to facilitate this "being together of strangers" (p. 11). First and foremost, he would create "a wider public ... that would produce a more meaningful experience of public freedom than is now available in many contemporary suburbs and city neighborhoods" (p. 22). The chief vehicle for realizing this aspiration would be a regional legislature through which representatives from disparate communities would negotiate how power would be exercised by the localities in a given metropolitan region (pp. 86-87, 162-63). Thus, Frug imagines that intercity negotiation and compromise, rather than state control, would best curb local selfishness (p. 63). This reliance on democratic participation and negotiation, rather than on state-level mandates, is crucial, Frug believes, to achieving long-term sustainable change. For only if citizens experience the exercise of city power and the resolution of intercity conflict will they begin to eschew selfishness (pp. 80-81). Thus, for Frug, the route to a more capacious metropolitanism(6) is more public freedom at the local level, not less.

In addition to these central ideas, Frug offers an extended legal history of cities, underscoring that "a complex transformation occurred over a period of hundreds of years ... that increasingly narrowed the definition of the city's nature to that of a state subdivision authorized to solve purely local political problems" (p. 52). Frug also offers a number of practical suggestions for how city powers and functions might be reconstructed in light of his reformulated definition of the city.(7) In this review, however, I will focus only on Frug's struggle with the conundrum of city power and powerlessness. In my view, this struggle is critical because it mirrors the real-world tensions that metropolitan America must come to terms with if we are to achieve an equilibrium that bodes well for democracy and race relations in the twenty-first century.

There is much that Frug gets right in this book, particularly his insightful analysis of the impact of our local governance regime in encouraging and rewarding selfish or self-maximizing behavior on the part of localities and neighborhoods. I believe he also is correct to adopt a realistic approach to community building which accepts that the romantic ideal of community or full integration is not likely to be achievable. Finally, Frug is also quite right to acknowledge the sheer difficulty of bringing his vision of a "`being together of strangers'" to fruition.(8)

That said, I believe Frug's proposed solutions are misguided because they do not account sufficiently for the real-world realities of metropolitan politics. In short, enacting the structural changes he suggests, ab initio, would require the type of coalition politics that his proposals are designed to foster. Thus, it is unclear how his proposed reforms would ever come into being. More fundamentally, I believe effective metropolitanism will require strong regional institutions that wield some of the power now vested in cities. We may need to reduce the power of individual cities in order expand the capacity of metropolitan regions to solve serious problems that transcend local borders.(9) Finally, although Frug is unclear about the degree of consensus he would require in order for a regional legislature to effect a change in local governance, I believe affluent suburbs will never be willing to negotiate away the degree of power and influence that they currently wield in metropolitan and state politics.

But the chief value of Frug's book is not in his ultimate proposals. Rather, by struggling mightily to imagine a different legal order from the one so well-entrenched in the American psyche, he illuminates the possibilities. He persuades the reader that the existing fragmented metropolitan landscape is not a pure market phenomenon dictated merely by popular preferences for suburban living. More importantly, he should convince most readers that a change in legal paradigms is necessary if we truly value social cohesion and the long-term stability of metropolitan regions. In my view, there is no more pressing issue for the new millennium. Under the current system, as the United States becomes more diverse, we are likely to see an acceleration of existing trends. Gated communities and homogeneous suburban enclaves that give residents a sense of comfort and control over their social and economic destinies will continue to proliferate. In turn, such balkanization of the metropolitan polity is likely to harden attitudes, entrenching an unfamiliarity and discomfort on the part of all citizens with anyone who can be described as "other." As our collective capacity for empathy with persons who are different subsides, it will become much more difficult to forge...

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