Yes, local government matters. The author ranks the results in Stockton, Detroit, Oregon and Massachusetts

Michelle Wilde Anderson is the author of “The Fight to Save the City: Reinventing America’s Forsaken”. Photo: Stanford Law

“The Fight to Save the City: Reinventing Abandoned America” ​​tackles a topic that probably doesn’t interest you. Because when you hear the words “local government”, where does your mind go? Likely to have negative descriptors — slow, inefficient, bureaucratic. It’s easy to offload onto local government: it’s often indeed slow, inefficient, bureaucratic. Fill in the clichés it generates. Make the show “Parks and Recreation” feel like an actual (albeit much funnier) documentary rather than a sitcom.

Basically, “local government” seems abstract until you consider your own local government.

Local governments have an impact far beyond their borders. Political decisions can impact state politics and, indeed, federal politics. And what counts as a political achievement in one locality may be considered a huge defeat in another – just look at what hyperlocal abortion legislation has brought. It will be the United States Supreme Court that will put an end to Roe, but it was local activists and smaller government entities that got the relevant case to rule.

Thus, we can see local government as both a conduit and a hindrance. Something to trust or not. Something to invest or cut. Michelle Wilde Anderson, professor of property, local government and environmental justice at Stanford Law School, points out how often cities and towns have opted for the latter. When the economy is in recession, governments make cuts. The deeper these reductions, the fewer the services offered. These services worsen or become non-existent. Citizens become frustrated, then alienated, then often rebellious. If the government won’t help them, some think, why do we have it?

And so here we are: America 2022.

“The Fight to Save the City: Reinventing Abandoned America”, by Michelle Wilde Anderson. Photo: avid reader

Anderson did not lose faith in local government to do good. “The Fight to Save the City” presents four case studies chosen for their collective ability to show how cities are emerging from chronic poverty. It highlights the reduction in violence in Stockton; supporting basic services in a staunchly anti-government Josephine County, Oregon; improving job access and safety in Lawrence, Mass. ; and the stabilization of public housing in Detroit after a wave of foreclosures and housing losses. These are four places where, as she points out, leaders “have taken advantage of post-recession growth to stabilize their finances. The new leadership improved the reputation of their government. Community groups sought new strategies to stop the violence and repair its damage.

It’s not a controversy. Anderson has conducted more than 250 interviews to elucidate the difficulties people face, and from those conversations she has become increasingly convinced that these are the very people who know best how to solve them. But not by themselves. She knows not to celebrate individual victories too much and continues to stress the importance of people and governments working together on solutions, independently or in opposition. She quotes former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, who is the focus of Chapter 35: “Change won’t happen because one person gets elected. This is going to happen because one person is elected as a catalyst to bring large numbers of people into the process of creating change.

Much of the government, whether federal, state or local, feels intractable. Anderson’s book won’t change the minds of anti-government people (nor does it try to). But it is a welcome reminder of what government can achieve given the chance.

The Fight to Save the City: Reimagining Abandoned America
By Michelle Wilde Anderson
(Avid Reader Press; 368 pages; $30)

Manny’s presents Michelle Wilde Anderson: 6:30 p.m. July 13. In person and virtual. $12, general admission; $5 for Zoom access. 3092 16th St., SF

  • Allison Arieff

    Allison Arieff is a writer and editor from San Francisco whose work has appeared in The New York Times, City Lab, Wired, Metropolis and Dwell.