New Life for Old Cities
GroundSwell, September-October 2006]
History ... is the biography of great men" - Carlyle.
Some cities have grown in spurts. Some of these cities were new;
others have revived after decaying. Cities' cells, like ours,
metabolize and can refresh themselves constantly. Cities need not
die like you and me, and can continue this cycle of renewal forever,
when people remodel buildings and clear and renew sites. This can
happen even after periods of sickness and senility. It takes a will,
plus some skill with public policy. We observe the skill in the
history of growing and reviving cities.
The dynamics are ruled by free will, not iron laws of history.
True, they deal with economics and numbers and tax policy, with
self-seeking employees and home-buyers and merchants and
manufacturers, with simple motives and narrow outlooks. Yet the
evidence keeps bringing us back to the impact of idealistic leaders,
and the power of their ideals to move others, prevailing over and
working with "destiny" and greed and myopia and technical
There was a telling episode in New York City, 1920-32. Its leaders
exempted new housing from the property tax, while maintaining the
tax on land values. There ensued a notable surge in building and
population, unmistakably linked to the tax policy. National
population data disclosed, however, that New York was not the only
city to have boomed or revived suddenly. What was remarkable about
New York, that we should be mindful of it?
Jane Jacobs has pointed out that cities grow "explosively"
during periods of special vigor. She brilliantly described the
private-sector process of import-substitution. However, she put such
an anarchist spin on it she blanked out the positive role of
political leaders, and tax and spending policy. When we find high
growth rates in the data, we also find, more often than not, a
pro-Georgist or fellow-traveling movement, Mayor, Council and
Governor. We also find ports, parks, public schools, low-fare mass
transit, social welfare, public plumbing, bridges and tunnels,
public health programs, and so on, making a city attractive for
people and profitable for business. We find public works and
services provided without heavy taxes on private commerce, labor,
and buildings, which also make a city livable and attractive. This
was the promise of Henry George, and it seems to have come true in
many places during 1890-1930, the Golden Age of American and
Canadian cities. Our proposal has been time-tested.
To the extent that historians have noted this phenomenon it has
been one city at a time. Robert Bremner's title, George and Ohio's
Civic Revival, might give the impression that the action focused on
Ohio; publicity about Pittsburgh, and more recently Harrisburg and
Allentown, would make Pennsylvania the focus; a study of Henry
George's origins leads us to San Francisco; and so on. But studies
of one place at a time localize what was a pandemic movement,
1890-1930. George and Georgists influenced tax policy in many other
cities than New York, and rural areas too. The signature of their
influence is the rate of population growth, reported in the U.S.
Census of Population.
Geography and "Historical Laws of Motion" play their
roles, and brute economic "forces", too; but political
leaders tip the balance. These may be inspirational, analytical, or
political. Italy's Risorgimento, recall, had many fathers: its poet,
Mazzini, its sword, Garibaldi, its composer, Verdi, and its brain,
Cavour. We find their counterparts who led growth spurts in New York
City, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, Milwaukee, San Francisco,
Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, Houston, Los Angeles, and
some smaller cities. These are human factors that "cookbook"
econometric modeling omits. Modern economics, with its mechanistic
tools and canned standard procedures, is the poorer for it.
Carlyle's history as the "biography of great men" (and
women) has something to teach us.
To compare one city's performance with others' requires a standard
measure, preferably simple and unitary. I chose population in part
because the measure is readily available. Census data on building,
on the other hand, do not go back to the 1920s.
Population growth is not the only goal and measure of civic
performance, it is understood. Population, however, is a sign of
city health, even from the particularistic local view: a thriving
city attracts people, and people, viewed as human resources, help
the city thrive. From a larger view, the aggregate effect of having
cities vie to attract people is not to raise the overall national or
world birthrate, but is to make jobs and homes, raise wages, and
lower living costs. The converse is also true, with grim results
like homelessness and hunger. It is noteworthy that most cities'
growth spurts accompanied provision of vast parks, superior
schooling, social services, mass transit, and other such public
Some cities' growth spurts are complicated by annexations. Chicago
in 1889 tripled its land area (Hoyt, p.153). Detroit quadrupled its
area in the 1920's. Columbus' steady growth is complicated by
mergers and annexations that I have not tried to unravel. Milwaukee
doubled its area around 1960, but lost population anyway. I have
adjusted for these changes where I could, or dropped the city from
This rise and fall of growth rates is remarkably independent of
external causes, and more responsive to internal reforms. Thus, the
bursts of Pacific Coast ports preceded the Panama Canal; the bursts
of Great Lakes cities preceded the St. Lawrence Seaway.
This inquiry began with New York City, under its Georgist-inspired
plan, led by Governor Alfred Smith, to exempt new residential
buildings (but not land) from its property tax, 1920-32. The ensuing
boom in buildings and population was overwhelming. To get a
perspective I tabulated growth rates of comparison cities. New York
raced ahead of the nearest comparables, but the data also disclose
several other cities with impressive growth spurts. What about them?
Aren't there many other causes of growth?
Inspection revealed the remarkable and telling fact that these
spurts occurred under Georgist leadership, too. Some of these cities
and periods are Cleveland, 1900-20, under mayors Tom L. Johnson and
Newton D. Baker; Detroit, 1890-1930, initially under Mayor, later
Governor Hazen S. Pingree; Toledo, 1890-1920, under Mayors Samuel "Golden
Rule" Jones and Brand Whitlock; Milwaukee, under "socialist"
Mayors Emil Seidel, 1910-12, and Daniel Hoan, 1916-40; San Francisco
under Georgist Mayor Edward Robeson Taylor, 1907-09, and consensual
"Sunny Jim" Rolph, 1911-30, spurred by activist James
Hartness Jeffes (aka "Luke North"); Los Angeles under
siege from socialist Job Harriman; Houston under single-tax Assessor
J.J. Pastoriza; San Diego under Assessor Harris Moody; and Chicago,
Chicago leadership was more complex, with its host of nationally
prominent Georgists and fellow-travelers (John Peter Altgeld, Louis
Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Burley Griffin, Clarence
Darrow, Jane Addams, Louis F. Post, Ida Tarbell, Brand Whitlock,
Henry D. Lloyd, Margaret Haley, Edward Dunne, and others).
Pittsburgh, known for its Georgist-oriented property tax policy, had
a building spurt, but no population spurt, making it an anomaly that
Insights has examined earlier (December 2003).
Jersey City had a Georgist Mayor, Democrat Mark Fagan, with a
redoubtable Georgist Republican mentor, George Record, off and on
from 1900-18. They never grew strong enough to beat the railroads or
dominate tax policy (Tobin, 1974). Yet it was after Fagan that
Jersey City stopped growing, under "Boss" Frank Hague, who
taxed employers out of town. In the 1920's, New Jersey specifically
rejected a copycat Smith plan (Pleydell, passim).
Vancouver under 8-time Mayor Louis Denison "Single-tax"
Taylor went further than any U.S. city in exempting buildings, and
grew much faster. It actually quintupled in population, 1895-1909,
after exempting first 1/2, and then 3/4, and then, for a few years,
all of building values from the property tax (Marsh, 1911, pp.33-37;
George, Jr., 1911; Rawson, 2000). That is the fastest growth rate on
record. Far from blighting Vancouver, it left it probably the most
beautiful and livable city in North America, perhaps in the world.
Emulation of Vancouver was a common theme in Seattle, Portland, and
There were strong statewide single-tax campaigns in Oregon, led by
W.S. U'Ren of Portland, father of the "Oregon System" of
Initiative and Referendum, which he pioneered in the hope it would
pave the way to the single tax. Losing at the polls statewide did
not dispose of the issue or dismiss the protagonists, especially in
Portland, where the pro-single-tax vote was always strongest -- up
to 49% at one point. The campaigns raised consciousness of the issue
and gave future politicians a well-defined constituency to "fish"
for by bending assessment practices in the Georgist direction. This
kind of shading is hard to document, but Professor William McKinley
of Reed College told this writer in 1947 that Multnomah County
(Portland) overassessed land relative to buildings up to 1941.
Politicians troll for the votes of any strong constituency; shading
assessments is one way.
In 1912 "the City Council of Seattle, several of whom were
single-taxers", submitted a single-tax amendment to the voters.
The Chamber of Commerce weighed in with a proposed 10-year exemption
for industry. The voters said no, but at the same time elected a
single-tax Mayor, George F. Cotterill (Young, p.189). We may
reasonably surmise that Seattle, with this kind of political and
business support, also shaded assessments as Portland did,
undervaluing new buildings relative to land.
Houston, under single-tax assessor J.J. Pastoriza, grew by some
25%, 1911-15, until a court ordered him to go back to the old ways
(Geiger, pp.434-35). Harris Moody, assessor in San Diego,
single-handedly used his administrative latitude to convert the
property tax to a land-value tax over several years, 1920-26, until
stopped abruptly by court order (Mahoney). At this point the city
skyline froze for the next 75 years (Andelson).
These were not isolated local events; the leaders networked. In
Dunne's Chicago, the principals "were very conscious of being
part of a national movement, and they were in close contact"
with Georgist powers in other cities, especially Tom Johnson of
Cleveland and Jones of Toledo (Morton, pp. ix, 8). Johnson had been
George's "field commander" (Barker). Mayor E.R. Taylor of
San Francisco had earlier helped Henry George write Progress and
Poverty. Pioneer land assessor William A. Somers traveled busily on
loan from Tom Johnson from city to city, instructing local assessors
in his Georgist techniques. Altgeld of Chicago knew and supported
George in 1897; Purdy of New York had campaigned for George. It is
not likely a coincidence that all four of these George disciples or
allies presided over cities that grew much faster than most others.
An evidence of early networking was action at the national level.
In 1892 there were six single-tax Congressmen: Tom Johnson and
Michael Harter of Ohio; Jerry Simpson, Kansas; John de Witt Warner
and Charles Tracy, New York; and James Maguire, California. They
managed to help keep land rents in the base of the 1894 Income Tax
Act. In 1896, John Peter Altgeld was the brains behind the fused
Democratic-Populist platforms. Charles Evans Hughes nearly became
U.S. President in 1916. Single-tax Congressmen Henry George, Jr.,
and Warren Worth Bailey dominated the drafting of the income-tax act
of 1916 which exempted most labor income and taxed a lot of land
rent. Woodrow Wilson appointed several Georgists to his cabinet,
elevating Newton Baker to national stature as his Secretary of War;
and Baker later came within a hair of being the Democratic
Presidential nominee in 1932. Al Smith, of course, was the nominee
in 1928, even as his New York City housing law was still working its
Networking extended to the fellow-traveling conservation and
national parks movements. Chicago, New York and San Francisco had
led in providing their people with generous lands for public parks,
the palettes for outstanding park designers like Daniel Burnham and
Frederic Law Olmstead. It was a logical extension when Chicago and
San Francisco supplied leaders for the National Park Service,
founded in 1916 when Interior Secretary Franklin Lane of San
Francisco, supported by former Chicagoan Congressman William Kent of
San Francisco, donor of Muir Woods, made Stephen T. Mather of
Chicago first head of the Service. Earlier President Roosevelt of
New York (had set aside land for Yellowstone National Park. Later,
Chicago progressive political junkie Harold L. Ickes, served FDR and
HST as Secretary of the Interior, 1933-46 -- the longest tenure of a
cabinet officer in U.S. history. Ickes' whole career was faithful to
the model of John Peter Altgeld, who had inspired him as a youth.
Ickes in power battled long and fiercely to protect the public
domain from predators, to strengthen the national parks, to open
public access to seashores, to save the "tidelands" from
control of states dominated by oil firms, to enforce the public
trust doctrine as Chicago had in 1892 ... all causes with a strong
Many stories remain untold or only briefly told here, of Victoria,
New Westminster, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Los Angeles, San Diego,
California farm towns like Modesto, Turlock, Fallbrook, Merced,
Manteca, Fresno, Lindsay, et al., and irrigated farming around them
under California's Irrigation District Acts (Henley; Gaffney, 1969;
Rhodes). One "farm town", San Jose, stimulated by its
tailor-made modified irrigation district *, morphed into a major
city and the capital of Silicon Valley. Populist farmers in the
upper Midwest, with their "Non-Partisan League" and strong
cooperatives, leaned toward single-tax. Farmers and farm towns in
Canada's Prairie Provinces with their CCF Party leaned the same.
George-like single-tax fervor bent, if it did not dominate, most of
the Pacific Coast and western Canada, rural and urban, during their
fastest growth periods.
An interesting sidelight is that "radical" and
labor-oriented cities seem to grow faster than cities with torpid
Tory and supposedly "pro-business" administrations.
Shrinking Cincinnati is an example. It was the power base of those
who fought Cleveland's Tom Johnson and everything he stood for. Its
leaders gave us Ohio's 1912 Constitution which allows the use of
Initiative and Referendum for any purpose except to implement the
single tax -- yes, really, read it! It elevated McKinley, Taft, and
Harding, three of our stodgiest Presidents, to the White House --
all the time bleeding population and business, while "radical"
New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and San Francisco grew and attracted
businesses. Think about it!
( * Its name is quite a mouthful: The Santa Clara Valley Water
Conservation District. It is modeled on a Wright Act Irrigation
District, under State Law, taxing land values and exempting
buildings. Attorneys Herbert Jones and Albert Henley modified it to
fit political conditions, as they saw them, around and including San
Jose. They exempted improvements outside the city, and taxed them
inside, to mollify the farmers. There followed what seemed at first
to be an awful example of urban sprawl, as the subdivision of farm
landholdings enabled developers to pick up farm lands here and
there; but the result today is Silicon Valley.)