Kramer v. Ferman- a Critical Synthesis

In urban politics there are apparent winners and losers when it comes to how policy is debated and produced; in these past few readings for class, the authors have applied a variety of theoretical framework through which we can understand how and why power is exercised in the city. Through the analysis of the 1980s’ “war on graffiti” in New York City, Kramer demonstrates how a “growth machine” theory can account for the production of moral panic to deal with street art and its perceived threat to local business. By contrast, Ferman, in her historical research of politics in both Chicago and Pittsburgh, constructs a counter-narrative to the growth machine by analyzing how political regimes produce a specific civic arena for each city. In this thus named “regime theory,” Ferman challenges the prevailing framework of the political machine that Kramer and many of his scholarly peers support. In support of Ferman, I will analyze each author’s approach and show how regime theory, as a more particularizing framework for city politics, offers a more holistic and applicable method of understanding community power.

Ferman begins with an account of each of these cities by looking at the historical demographics and racial compositions of both Chicago and Pittsburgh. Further, she observes how city politics start out relative to each city during the early to mid-twentieth century; from there, she underlines how factions form and progress over time. What becomes glaringly obvious from this cross-analysis is that city politics are shaped by the unique historical changes in power and urban demographics.

For example, politics of race were shown to have a much larger impact on how political regimes existed in Chicago than in Pittsburgh. This is due largely to the disparity in black and latino populations between the two; while Chicago’s minority populations explode during the mid-twentieth century, Pittsburgh, a smaller city, maintains a larger amount of racial homogeneity. The upshot of this is a focus on schisms between blacks and white ethnics in Chicago politics whereas Pittsburgh’s regimes experience a less racialized political arena. Beyond demographics, Ferman shows how the historical growth of regimes affects the overall continuity of these factions.

Meanwhile, Kramer’s analysis invokes the growth machine theory Ferman’s book strives to debunk. In essence, his argument is that although street art flourished in New York City in the mid to late-twentieth century, a crackdown from public officials led to a thorough cleansing of graffiti in the 1980s. The reason for this crackdown, Kramer suggests, was the production of moral panic via anti-graffiti rhetoric and privatism by business elites in the area whose interests were put at risk by street art.

Growth machine theory posits that decisions like the one to eliminate street art from the infrastructure of New York City come from coalitions of business elites and their various allies to maintain quotas of economic growth within the city. By that same token, these coalitions would dictate the interests of other cities, significantly including even Pittsburgh and Chicago, as well. However, as Ferman has underlined in her study, this is simply not the case in either city. The political interests apparent in each city from Ferman’s research cannot be boiled down to economic progress; rather they expand into an eclectic of racial, socioeconomic, and sectional interests where urban political regimes are a product of historical factions delegating between these discursive matters.

By returning to Kramer’s example with this in mind, the explanation of the growth machine’s impact on the public’s opinion of graffiti becomes not only less empirically valid but also less helpful academically. Both of these faults is a result of the now apparent narrowness of his research: in focusing on how economic elites influenced and reshaped the public discourse on graffiti by inciting a narrative of moral panic, growth machine theory limits how we look at this example of how elites exert power in urban settings; by turning to Ferman’s approach, analysis could yield more insight beyond the way economics shape the results of the “war on graffiti.”

Indeed economics are only one component of the overall makeup of urban politics; while growth machine theorists would posit that it is by far the most important in driving decision-making processes in urban politics. However, this approach still takes for granted these varied phenomena that compose the regimes by which policy is made in the first place. Cities can produce economic growth in a plethora of ways, and so it is the manner in which regimes accommodate growth that matters; what ethnic groups are marginalized, which ones are protected in the decision-making process? Why are certain development strategies chosen over others in the first place? In order to answer these questions for the growth machine, this theory must move past itself and analyze the political regimes that exist within the machine in the first place.

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