Sam Bass Warner, The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of its Growth, 1968

Privatism as a system of government grew out of colonial Philadelphia, a city that spatially failed to segregate its population between classes and occupations. The prevalence of interactions between all classes and occupations developed a broader sense of community, “As a human settlement pattern the tradition suggested a city where the men would cooperate the most easily in the public tasks that promised mutual material benefit and where philanthropy would flourish among the wealthy.” (xii). As with Einhorn’s segmented system in Chicago (Property Rules), privatism remained a potent force for maintaining the status quo but it failed to help any group looking to alter the distribution of wealth or politics. In fact, its failures to mediate such conflicts by the mid 1800s led to violent anti-black, anti-Irish, anti-Catholic riots which led to the growth of a political culture that allowed for this hostility to be expressed in elections and campaigns reducing violence but also eluding democratic hopes. Moreover, this tradition “assumed that there would be no major conflict between private interest, honestly and liberally viewed , and the public welfare.” (4) The Revolution never severed relations but pushed them to the brink and illustrated growing problems with the system of municipal government established. One of privatism’s primary weaknesses lay in its inability to adjust the changing economic currents of urban America, “it … proved unable to accommodate changes in the structure of the society. In time, as industrialization and urbanization progressed, the average, middle class citizen would no longer present himself for election, nor would voters choose him. Indeed, even common sense knowledge would fail as in modern times few men would comprehend the city as a whole, or even know several of its wards”

Though the revolution tested the sense of community upon which privatism depended, ultimately it survived. Rather, the industrialization of Philadelphia from 1830-1860 changed work habits, routines, identities and locals. A variety of industries took shape dividing the formerly united artisan class [note- this is a subject Sean Wilentz pursues in greater depth but basically Warner acknowledges this meant some artisans moved up in society — Wilentz would call them the entrepreneurial artisan master — while others descended, thus rupturing the occupational identity and creating a growing division]. Industrialists and the upper classes receded from their previous obligations to civic welfare (though again one needs to consider that privatism was not about helping the city in terms of equality or aiding the poor, rather it meant that the city should supply “ordinary residents” the opportunity to earn great wealth) “Bigness and industrialization had already destroyed both the source of competent leadership and the informed community which would have been necessary for the city to have enjoyed a future of strong, efficient, and imaginative government. Instead, a century of weakness and corruption lay ahead.” (102) Specialization affected even merchants who no longer identified by such broad identities, now merchants specified which area of retail or commerce in which they participated.

As the sense of community declined, labor organizations, work groups, benefit associations, established ties between social groups. Much like Wilentz and Bridges, these organizations preceded the political machine but along with fire volunteer companies laid the groundwork for ward organizations while keeping alive some tradition of trade unionism (Bass does not mention or pursue this angle). Work groups provided this sense of community for various individuals and even led to some level of organization for unskilled workers (again Wilentz also discuses this), but also contributed to housing divisions. The “industrial metropolis’” organization of most of the population into work groups led to “widespread use of residential segregation.” By the early twentieth century, as numerous other historians have illustrated from Alan Spears to Douglass Massey, ethnic and racial spatialization further segregated the city such that it established pattern for the recession of middle and upper class residents from city politics (Bridges notes a similar development, identifying it as one reason for the rise of machine politics). As groups grew more isolated it bread a pariochialism which meant ward politicians in the future appealed to such interests at the expense of policies/issues that might benefit the entire populace. [note Massey and Denton, discuss this isolation as severely problematic for African Americans, Bass does not pursue this angle]

The city’s growth remained constrained by privatism, but also occurred without real management or purpose. The physical city failed to account for public areas that might encourage community, rather development unfolded as one aspect of business and real estate interests. “The traditions of privatism, however forbade the city to take the measures necessary to control its growth. According to the tradition of the private city the municipality could rehabilitate by transit, park, street and school investments what had already been built, but it could not become an entrepreneur in its own right …” (213-214) Like Einhorn’s Chicago, even widely acknowledged public health issues such as the pioneering water dept. and its school system suffered from privatism’s inadequacies. No language or impulse to pursue citywide initiatives emerged. Education followed a low budget “equalitarian” approach that benefited few and drove wealthier residents to establish a competing private system. The private system proved economically productive but socially and politically limiting, “The single generation family, the private company’s work group, and the income segregated neighborhood were the metropolis’ basic units, and they were the secret of its productivity and social peace. The same units, however, when they confronted the traditional forms of American municipal politics did not produce a creative competition.” (214)

Warner sees the rise of machine politics as ugly, uncreative and inefficient. Though nor does he necessarily embrace reformers. Bass acknowledges that they carefully “defined themselves as amateurs, helping out for a brief time, as if the municipal corporation were ordinarily someone elses affair, the governing institution of someone elses city.” (214) Amy Bridges raises some similar concerns about “reformers” focusing more on their nativism and limitations on the rights of certain groups (Philadelphians exhibited a nativism similar to its New York counterpart at the time). Ultimately, “The unwillingness and inability of Philadelphia’s citizens in all periods to conceive of democratic regulation of their private economic affairs prevented the political conflicts from defining the problems of the city in a way suitable for public action.” (223). [note – this hints at the importance of the public sphere and its interactions that Gregory/Sanjeck explore in 1990s NYC)

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