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Municipal Progressivism Previous Next
Digital History ID 3137


Tom L. Johnson represented a model of Progressivism at the local level. He was a four-term mayor of Cleveland from 1901 to 1909. In office, he removed all the "Keep Off the Grass” signs from parks and embarked on an aggressive policy of municipal ownership of utilities. He fought the streetcar monopoly, reformed the police department, professionalized city services, and built sports fields and public bathhouses in poor sections of the city. He also coordinated the architecture and placement of public buildings downtown, set around a mall.

James Michael Curley, Boston's mayor, represented the kind of leader that many Progressives opposed. The Boston Evening Transcript called Curley "as clear an embodiment of civic evil as ever paraded before the electorate.” Twice sent to prison for fraud, he acquired a 21-room mansion (which had gold-plated bathroom fixtures) paid for by kickbacks from contractors.

The son of an Irish washerwoman, Curley won office by speaking the language of class and ethnic resentment. But Curley also built new schools for the children of working-class Bostonians, tore down slum dwellings, established beaches and parks for the poor, and added an obstetrics wing to the city hospital. He also helped the poor in very direct ways; he provided bail money, funeral expenses, and temporary shelter for those made homeless by fire or eviction. When he died, a million people lined Boston's streets to pay their last respects.

To weaken political machines, municipal Progressives sought to reduce the size of city councils and to eliminate the practice of electing officials by ward (or neighborhood). Instead, they proposed electing public officials on a city-wide (an at-large) basis. Candidates from poorer neighborhoods lacked funds to publicize their campaigns across an entire city. Urban Progressives also diminished the influence of machines by making municipal elections non-partisan, by prohibiting the use of party labels in local voting. A number of cities attempted to eliminate politics from city government by introducing city managers. Beginning with Staunton, Virginia, in 1908, a number of cities began to hire professional administrators to run city government.

Many Progressives wanted to improve the quality of urban life. The World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage of discovery, was an inspiration to many urban reformers. As a symbol of its recovery from the disastrous Great Fire of 1871, Chicago erected a massive "White City" to hold the event. Chicago's White City demonstrated the value of careful planning and beautification and provided the impetus for many Progressive efforts to introduce city planning, zoning regulations, housing reform, and slum clearance.

The most far-reaching progressive effort to transform the city was known as "municipal socialism." Many cities established municipal waterworks, gasworks, and electricity and public transportation systems.

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