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The Tricky Challenge of Trying to Be a ‘Neighborhood Mayor’

It’s easy to run against the downtown establishment, but neighborhood revival is a difficult process. Only a few mayors have been able to achieve success as both downtown promoters and neighborhood advocates.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a re-election petition launch party at a plumbers’ union local on Aug. 30, 2022. She ran for office vowing to be a mayor for the city’s poorest neighborhoods. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Late this month, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot will be competing for renomination to the mayoral job she won four years ago. Predictions are treacherous in a multi-candidate primary, but right now her prospects aren’t looking very good. She has trailed in the polls ever since the campaign began.

There’s a long list of reasons why Lightfoot is in trouble before finishing one term. Critics complain about the city’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Crime rates are alarmingly high. Lightfoot has fought bitterly with the city’s teachers’ unions, and she has been abrasive in some of her dealings with the City Council.

But many of Lightfoot’s problems are intertwined with an issue that, while more subtle, is no less potent: She ran for office vowing to be a mayor for the city’s neighborhoods, specifically the poorest ones on the South and West Sides. After four years, there hasn’t been great progress on this front. The Lightfoot administration has poured $750 million into a comprehensive program it calls INVEST South/West that focuses on a dozen depressed communities. There have been some developmental successes, but by and large the targeted neighborhoods remain as crime-ridden, dilapidated and underserved as they have been for decades.

This is not just a story about Chicago. It is about the common strategy of big-city mayoral challengers who complain that their predecessors have concentrated their efforts on downtown and its affluent surrounding territory while neglecting the parts of the city that need help the most. Lightfoot certainly did that in 2019. She painted former mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel as apostles of downtown development and gentrification, and promised that the city would at long last be getting a neighborhood mayor. She continues to stress that theme. “Many of these areas have seen no investment in decades,” she explained to a reporter recently. “That disinvestment absolutely had to be addressed.”

Neighborhoodism is a familiar tactic in mayoral campaigns, and sometimes it yields electoral success. Maynard Jackson perfected it in Atlanta in the early 1970s, charging that the previous administration had been in the pocket of downtown developers, and he continued to attract support on neighborhood issues through three terms in City Hall. Some of the most sophisticated urban politicians of recent decades, such as Stephen Goldsmith in Indianapolis, have not hesitated to run for mayor tagging their predecessors as tools of downtown development.

Recent history suggests that the downtown vs. neighborhood debate tends to proceed in cycles. A mayor whose most visible accomplishments are in the city center is followed by one whose campaigns are based on the assertion that neighborhoods have been neglected. After a brief interval — sometimes just one term — the downtown stigma fades and the city elects a mayor who wants to return to building hotels, stadiums and convention centers.

THIS BACK-AND-FORTH CAN GO ON FOR DECADES. The best example may be New York, where mayors have confronted center vs. periphery issues for more than a half-century. In a way, it started with John Lindsay, who won the mayoralty in 1965 campaigning as a fresh, clean face in a city that badly needed one. Lindsay was not oblivious to the concerns of New York’s outer boroughs and neighborhoods, but everything about him suggested Manhattan’s affluent Upper East Side. By the time he ran for re-election in 1969, it was Manhattan vs. the working-class periphery, and while Lindsay did manage to win a second term, that election created a template that has persisted ever since.

Michael Bloomberg was a successful mayor of New York from 2002 to 2013, but he gradually accumulated outer-borough and minority complaints that he subsidized expensive central-city development and didn’t especially care what was happening outside the island of Manhattan. Bill de Blasio won election in 2013 as the candidate of the neighborhoods he claimed Bloomberg was neglecting. And so the tug-of-war and the resultant alternation continues, not just in New York but in many large metros around the country.

Seth D. Kaplan, a fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, explores some of these issues in a recent paper called Strong Neighborhoods. Kaplan concedes that neighborhood mayors and their administrations tend to fall short of their promises, and offers some ideas about why this is so.

One of them is very simple. Neighborhood mayors, he says, tend to underappreciate the differences between short-term and long-term goals. Downtown development, given sufficient resources and political will, can often be accomplished relatively quickly. Neighborhood revival is a much more difficult and time-consuming process. A neighborhood advocate in City Hall can build a health clinic in a poor community and get it done in decent time, but that tells us little about the burden of creating moderately priced housing or fixing poorly performing schools. In other words, Kaplan warns, neighborhood mayors must “pay attention to the amount of time required for different amounts of change.”

Equally important, Kaplan believes, is the tendency of neighborhood-focused administrations to bring in outside experts with little understanding of what the needs of the neighborhoods actually are. This leads not only to unrealistic commitments but to resentment on the part of local residents who feel they are not being adequately consulted. “Building on neighborhood strengths,” he writes, “rather than trying to overcome perceived weaknesses as outsiders tend to do, makes success more likely and lifts the dignity of local citizens.”

But most of the time, neighborhood mayors don’t do this, and their projects suffer as a result. This appears to be part of the problem Lightfoot has encountered in seeking to foster the renewal of Chicago’s poorer communities. “Invest South/West is a facade, it’s a veneer,” one local leader told a reporter recently. “The city talks about engaging communities, but they drag you along and then do what they want in the end.” That could be an exaggeration, but the fact that it is believed by neighborhood activists is a stain that is difficult to erase.

REGARDLESS OF ALL THE OBSTACLES, the fact remains that a few recent mayors have been able to achieve success as downtown promoters and neighborhood advocates at the same time.

Woody Allen famously declared that 80 percent of success in life was a result of just showing up. That may or may not be true, but it seems indisputable that much of William Donald Schaefer’s success as mayor of Baltimore, from 1971 to 1987, came from his commitment to showing up just about everywhere in the city — at church events, parades, store openings, anything that happened to be going on at a given time. It wasn’t merely his physical presence, it was his persona: He spoke the language and exuded the values of Baltimore’s working-class neighborhoods, walking the streets in the same battered gray raincoat every time. A local columnist remarked that he “seemed to show up at every church basement sour beef or oyster dinner, bazaar or rummage sale I knew.”
Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer
Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer helps Girl Scouts sell cookies. Schaefer was one of the few who managed to pull off being both a downtown mayor and a neighborhood advocate.
(Richard Childress/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Schaefer was a downtown mayor as well, promoting the city’s tourist-oriented Inner Harbor and other large projects, but his political successes were built largely on his ability to identify with the neighborhoods, and their support was crucial to lifting him to the governorship of Maryland after four terms in City Hall.

An equally strong case can be made for Thomas Menino, whose two decades as Boston mayor (1993-2014) were punctuated by a near-obsession with virtually every detail of neighborhood life all over the city. Menino cruised the Boston streets in his mayoral car, pointing out commercial signs that needed repair and playgrounds that had too much litter. When I spent a day with him toward the end of his tenure, one of the first things he said to me was that “in the years I’ve been mayor, we’ve built 12 supermarkets.” That’s something a Michael Bloomberg or a Rahm Emanuel wouldn’t have been likely to say. Menino benefited enormously from the boom in private city-center development that probably would have taken place with or without him, but it’s his neighborhood loyalties and commitments for which he remains best known and admired nearly a decade after his death.

IN HIS PAPER, KAPLAN MENTIONS a few long-struggling neighborhoods around the country that, with some help from city hall, have managed to lift themselves up significantly over the past few years. He finds that they took advantage of a common strategy: They formed alliances with the affluent neighborhoods closest to them and built on those relationships. “Attempting to link up or partner with the closest success pockets,” he writes, “may be the only way forward.”

It’s not easy being a neighborhood mayor, as Lori Lightfoot or Bill de Blasio and quite a few of their peers will probably tell you. But it may be increasingly important in the coming years, as downtowns struggle with pandemic-generated vacancies and commerce moves more and more to neighborhood streets.

Mayors who can keep those priorities in balance will have new opportunities to prosper. That will mean more than creating programs and spending public money. It may mean showing up in the neighborhoods more often and demonstrating concerns about what is going on there. Not every mayor can be a Schaefer or a Menino. But borrowing from their playbook is a good way to get started.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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