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The Urban Origins of Suburban Autonomy

Author(s):Dilworth, Richardson
Reviewer(s):Duggan, Ed

Published by EH.NET (January 2006)

Richardson Dilworth, The Urban Origins of Suburban Autonomy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. x + 267 pp. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-674-01531-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ed Duggan, Office of Institutional Research, Goucher College.

Why did some local governments in the late nineteenth century agree to annexation by large metropolitan areas while other local governments refused? The answer, according to political scientist Richardson Dilworth’s investigation of the area around New York City, was in how well voters were being served by their local government’s infrastructure, that is, by their sewers, water supply systems, lighting, and streets. Voters well served by their local infrastructures remained faithful to their local governments at the ballot box. Metropolises had to compete with their smaller cousins over who could provide the better underbelly of urbanizing life.

What influenced the decision to sacrifice political independence? First, voters in smaller communities feared corrupt suppliers in the larger communities. They fretted over whether the larger political entities would serve them as efficiently as they would tax them. Second, local governments had access to a corps of civil engineers whom they could hire to improve services to their voters. The growing engineering talent based in New York and Jersey City allowed smaller communities to remain politically distinct even as they became more entwined with the metropolitan economy.

Dilworth (Drexel University) studies relationships between the perceived quality of physical infrastructures and political consolidation in three metropolitan areas: New York City, Jersey City, and Newark. Yonkers, a prosperous suburb of New York City, illustrates the interplay of forces. Well infrastructured by the 1870s, especially with waterworks, Yonkers maintained control of its own economic development and successfully resisted the City’s efforts to annex it. In many ways, Dilworth avers, Yonkers maintained its autonomy by drawing on engineering talent in New York and by learning from the New York experience in paving its streets and in providing gas lighting, sewer, and water service. Thus, ironically, the very success of New York’s infrastructural development taught Yonkers how to remain politically independent of New York. The village of Yonkers became a city in 1872.

The New York state legislature authorized a Greater New York in 1896. In 1890 the legislature had created a Consolidation Inquiry Commission which arranged to include a referendum on political consolidation in general elections in 1894. Fifty-five percent of the voters supported consolidation — most heavily in Staten Island and Queens County, but also in Kings County (despite opposition in Brooklyn, which at 800,000 people in 1890 was still a suburb of New York City), and in a few small towns in Westchester County.

Consolidation in Jersey City mostly involved Bayonne, Greenville, and Hoboken. All three had voted against consolidation in 1869. Residents of Bayonne identified more with New York City than with Jersey City and perceived corruption in Jersey City. Not heavily invested in its infrastructure, Hoboken nonetheless had a good water supply and housed its own engineering school. Greenville reversed itself in 1872 because by then voters perceived Jersey City as less corrupt than Greenville itself.

Consolidation in Newark moved even more slowly than in New York or in Jersey City. Jersey City had become much better equipped with infrastructure much earlier than Newark. Jersey City started its waterworks when its population was 20,000; Newark waited until its population had reached 90,000. Newark did not become interested in annexation until the turn of the century, well after New York City and Jersey City. By 1860 Newark had become the sixth largest city in the country in terms of value of manufactured product, which added to its allure as a partner. Neighboring municipalities needed Newark more than Newark needed them. Indeed nearby governments, such as Irvington, Vailsburg, and Bloomfield often took the annexation initiative.

Thus, Newark did not readily expand geographically. Its water supply and sewerage systems were controlled by private and regional organizations and the city had no interest in supplying infrastructure to its neighbors.

Dilworth’s central question is intriguing: Under what conditions did voters cede the political autonomy of their local governments to join larger metropolitan areas? His answer — when the perceived costs of their existing infrastructure services exceeded their perceived benefits — could be bolstered by more economic evidence systematically analyzed. What were the costs of infrastructure services in household and municipal budgets before and after the decision to relinquish political autonomy, for example? How much better off were local governments and their voters as a result of voters’ decisions? That is, what measurable economic difference did it make whether voters chose to join or not to join the political metropolis?

Also, there are no figures or tables with economic data, such as tax rates, public revenues, and costs of infrastructure services. References to financial or budget circumstances, often from contemporary newspapers, are scattered throughout the narrative. Three figures show the geography of expanding metropolitan areas. Six figures are graphs of engineering data (miles of water pipe laid annually, for example). The other figures chart political relationships. One table lists the results of a referendum, the other table lists chief engineers in Jersey City.

This book is an investigation of local politics rather than an analysis of suburban economies.

Ed Duggan is a Research Analyst in the Office of Institutional Research at Goucher College. He is currently researching the economic history of physical disability.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century