The American and the British City


The American and the British City


As a people we have ever been sensitive to foreign critics. We have never taken kindly to the idea that we were not the greatest people on the earth. We resented the suggestion that the Federal Constitution was not the most sublime political achievement of history, an achievement only short of the tables of stone handed down from Mount Sinai to the people of Israel.

More recently a reaction has come over us. There is a note of depression, of pessimism, in our talk. The condition of our cities, the corruption of our States, the decadence of Congress, the ascendency of privileged interests in the Senate, has destroyed our complacency. A very large number of people see only failure in our institutions. They are oppressed by the apparent impotence of popular government to find a way out.

Rightly seen, however, the disclosures of the past few years are an evidence of our intolerance. The spirit of revolt that is now on is a tribute to the vitality of democracy. And if the truth were fully known of other countries, we would see that America, almost alone among the nations of the earth, is courageous enough and rebellious enough to insist upon knowing the whole truth about herself. And the one thing that the disclosures have shown is that democracy in America is at war with a class that is seeking to control the agencies of government for the sake of its privileges. But this is no new thing, It is as old as the world.

What is true of America is much more true of Great Britain, only the mother country is so prostrate before the privileged classes in control of Parliament, the Church, and the avenues of advancement, that no one ventures to remonstrate. Privilege and caste are so inwoven with everything that men most want in England that the voice of criticism has no sting. It does not ring with “Shame” and “Treason.” It is always respectful, always obeisant. England does not know the invigorating power of a democracy that is free in its spirit and instinct with a sense of equality. And the privileged classes have enjoyed such unchallenged dominion for so many centuries that their ascendency seems sanctioned by the divinity that doth hedge a king. In consequence, all classes accept as natural that which America protests against as corrupt. Democracy, therefore, in America is hopeful—at least it is rebellious. In Great Britain it has not yet found its voice.

And one of the most hopeful things about America is a willingness to be taught. We are ready to believe that Great Britain and Germany have achieved some things where we have failed. This is especially true in city administration.

This makes the present an opportune time to appraise our municipal institutions. This is our first task. For all agree that the cities must be reformed before much can be hoped for from the commonwealths. The cities contain an increasing percentage of the population. They have become the controlling factors in our political life. They are coming to dominate the state and the nation. It is true here corruption seems at its worst. But it is also true that it is in the cities that reform is making its most aggressive stand.

For years the English city has been held up to us as a model. It is certainly the chief contribution of the United Kingdon a democracy. Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester are heralded as the model cities of the world. It is worth our while to know if this is true and why it is true. From their experiences we should be able to extract some plan of relief.

Before examining the contribution of the English city to our own problems, let us take stock of our limitations, of the burdens under which we labor. And, first of all, it is necessary to remember that away from the seaboard our cities are new things. They are business centres, industrial accidents. Their location has been determined by natural or transportation advantages. Their bigness is a matter of comparatively few years. In consequence of this newness, our officials are swamped with the most elemental municipal needs. Their energy is devoted to the opening up and the paving of streets; to the building of sewers and the development of means for relieving the city of its refuse. The imperative necessities of a water-supply, of purification plants, of means for the disposal of garbage and other health demands have pretty fully engaged our attention. School-houses had to be built. And they had to be adequate for a rapidly growing population and satisfy a people who were rather intolerant of basements or attics, or bad sanitary conditions. There were parks to be purchased and laid out, constant additions and annexations of new territory to be made. These exacting demands have crowded out those phases of municipal life that are spectacular, that delight the eye. It is the beauty and cleanliness of the continental city quite as much as its efficiency that makes the casual American traveler dissatisfied with his own.

Further than this, our cities are untrained to political organization. We have no traditions of what a city should be. There is not that love and veneration which long years of associated life give to the European citizen. In consequence, we have no municipal experience, no social sense, to fall back upon. Our people have not yet learned how to work together. Added to this is a large foreign population which, in the larger cities, frequently exceeds the native born. They come from all quarters of the earth, and are unused to the Anglo-Saxon conception of things. They have to be assimilated, and worked into our institutions. From this burden the British city is free. Its population is homogeneous. It is attached to the soil and has been for generations.

These are some of the limitations under which the American city labors. Then, too, our cities have franchises to grant. In Great Britain they are bestowed by Parliament. The cities have no power of control or regulation. This removes the chief source of corruption from the town hall. It lodges it at Westminster. There is not that temptation for dishonest men to enter the council that there is in America. There is, however, every temptation for promoters and big business men to enter Parliament. And such men make use of their position to grant franchises to themselves and their friends. We would not tolerate the sort of class legislation that passes without protest in England. For the railway and mine owners, franchise barons and landlords, apparently see no harm in relieving themselves from taxation, in protecting their interests from regulation and in securing to themselves monopolies that only escape being “graft” by the eminently respectable standing of those who participate in the transaction.

In consequence of the removal of these tempting privileges from the council chamber to Parliament, the English city has no such burden as the , American municipality bears. It has little control over taxation, no control over franchises, and does most of its work by direct labor. There are no franchise hunters, and comparatively few contractors about the town hall whose interest warrants their participation in local politics. All these limitations must be borne in mind in any comparison of the British city with our own.

The advantages of the English city are largely psychical; those of the American city are physical. England excels in her political institutions and the personnel of her officials. America excels in her economic foundations and the absence of a powerful class interest entrenched behind age-long tradition and respectability and strengthened by great wealth. The town councils of England are filled with men of high character, imbued with a serious sense of responsibility. Her best citizens are willing to devote their lives to unremunerated service for the city. The town council commands not the leisure class so much as the successful business man. He is proud to serve his city, and his constituents are willing to keep him in office as long as he will stay. His returns are not of a pecuniary sort. For none of’ the elective officials in Great Britain are salaried. His returns are rather those of service, of honor and respect, from a people which has a sort of veneration for officialdom. All of the traditions of English life are those of service to the state in some form or other. Even the scientist, the litterateur, the poet, the prelate, and the scholar are constituent parts of the state. For they are frequently knighted. And the struggling shopkeeper of an industrial town enjoys some of this reflected distinction when elected to the town council.

The mayor, or the lord mayor, as he is called in some cities, is the community’s most distinguished citizen. He is a kind of municipal king whose robes of ermine and emblems, whose dinners and official functions, make him the titular dignitary of a little republic which proudly retains all of the traditions of the days when the towns were governed by the trade guilds with their mediaeval class distinctions. The mayoralty reflects in a small way the attitude of the country toward the King, and the English business man looks upon its acquisition as the highest evidence of an honorable career he can secure. For this distinction he is willing to pay handsomely. Not in political assessments or campaign contributions, but in maintaining the dignity of the office, which in the larger cities involves an outlay of many thousands of dollars a year.

And the election machinery of the English city is admirably designed to get this type of man into office. The method of nomination to the council is simple in the extreme. It is not necessary to obtain permission from the ward boss, who has his headquarters over a saloon, or to be a contributor to the campaign fund of the party. It is not necessary to have views on questions of imperial moment. The English city tries, not always successfully it is true, but it tries to keep partisan questions in the background. The test is rather the standing of a man with his neighbors, any ten of whom can put him in nomination by signing a petition.

The election is as simple as the nomination, and is equally well designed to bring out the best men in the city. The local election is not lost in some national contest over protection or free trade; over home rule or some colonial policy. The councilmanic nominee is not placed at the tail of a ticket containing half a hundred offices to be filled. When the Englishman goes to the polls on November 1st, he goes to a city election. On that day he votes for one official only, the councilman from his ward. Even the mayor is chosen by the council, and not by the people directly. In consequence, the voter is able to keep his eye fixed upon the city. He is not confused by national, state, and local issues, by party platforms and personal interests. He does not face a blanket ballot containing a hundred names or more, all to be voted for in a few minutes’ time. It is easy to imagine the change which would come over our elections if the voter had but one, or at most two, officials to vote for when he went to the polls.

Further than this, the English councilman need not live in the ward which he represents. And as a matter of practice, a considerable percentage of them do not. A councilman defeated in one district may stand for election elsewhere, just as can a candidate for Parliament. This is a great advantage. It enables a man of pronounced opinions to choose his constituency. An instance of this kind may be cited from Glasgow. One of the labor members, Scott Gibson, who found himself in opposition to the Lord Mayor on many questions, resigned his seat in the midst of his term and entered the race in the Lord Mayor’s ward when the latter’s term expired. The issues were clearly made, and the contest was a spirited one. To the amazement of all, the Lord Mayor was defeated by the labor candidate. And this was in a conservative part of the city.

In the nomination and election of councilmen, in the subordination of the party to the city, in the adjustment of the machinery to simple democracy, responsive and responsible to the people, there is much that could be learned by us with profit. Then, too, the English city is free from corruption. The town councils are uniformly honest. The cities have lured into the service a class of self-sacrificing men.

And the English city does the things it undertakes amazingly well. This is true of all of its undertakings, of its police, health, sanitary, lighting, and similar activities. It seems to conduct its purely business enterprises more efficiently, more cheaply, in fact, than do the private companies. The street railways have been all but universally municipalized in Great Britain. In the larger cities the percentage of operating expenses to gross receipts ranges from fifty to seventy per cent. The cities have reduced the rates of fare from thirty to fifty per cent, below the average fares charged by the private companies which previously occupied the field. In Glasgow thirty per cent, of the passengers are now carried for one-cent fare. On the London County Council lines the one-cent fares form thirty-six per cent, of the total. The average fare paid per passenger, irrespective of distance, is 1.85 cents in Glasgow, 2.44 cents in Manchester, and 2.25 cents in Liverpool. In Sheffield there are no fares in excess of two cents. And on these fares the cities earn large sums. In 1905 the net receipts in Manchester exceeded a million dollars. In Glasgow they amounted to $1,853,000 and in Liverpool to $925,000. These were the earnings in excess of operating expenses. In Liverpool it is claimed that the reduction of fares has Resulted in an annual saving to passengers of $1,600,000 and in London to $500,000. The city of Glasgow claims an annual saving to the people in fares and profits of $2,500,000. All over England the municipal street-car service is highly satisfactory. The cars are run on frequent schedules, operation is free from accident, the cars are cleaned and disinfected, and you get a seat for a fare. The type of car is the double-decker pattern. Certainly the service is greatly superior to that which preceded it, for the comfort and convenience of the people is safeguarded at every turn.

The British city has outdistanced the world in its business undertakings. It has made municipal trading pay, and pay big. Through ownership it has taken the big privileged interests, that form the chief burden on reform in America, out of politics. The cities are now able to look after the people better; to give them cheap transportation, cheap light, fuel, and water; to encourage industry and promote comfort in countless ways. There is no conflict of interest in the community. There is no class, no interest, no large number of persons who are alien to the city’s well-being. With the same policy in view, the city is ridding itself of the private contractor. It has gone in for direct labor and the doing of its construction work through its own employes. The contractor is being abolished. His profits now remain in the city treasury or go into better work or into living wages to the employes. It is this sort of thrift that has brought to the English city the approval of its business men. Big business does not enter city politics because there are no prizes for it to gain in the political arena. And along these lines there is much for us to learn.

The English city, too, is free from the spoils system. Jobs are filled for efficiency and not for pull, and the employe is retained during good behavior. This is a real democracy of merit. An alderman would think of demanding a city contract for himself as soon as he would the creation of an unnecessary job for a friend or relative. Public opinion, too, would tolerate the one about as quickly as it would the other. Not that the English city has any civil service laws. It doesn’t need them. Public opinion regulates the service just as it does official conduct in other regards. This is the only kind of a merit system that protects the public from a bureaucratic administration.

It is along these lines that the English city is supreme. It has a fine sense of itself. It has an intolerant conscience. It commands the service of a high grade of citizenship. It has never known the ward-heeler, and is exacting in its demands on its councilmen. And the people delight in the city’s successes. They are proud of a fine tramway balance sheet. They applaud an efficient manager. They are glad when the city makes a profit. Not for the sake of the profit alone, but because of the success of it all. The people care for the city and talk city in a way that we do not and cannot comprehend.

This is one of the things we lack, this sense of a city. We have not yet aroused an organized public opinion that is jealous of the city’s well-being. We expect inefficiency as a matter of course, and shrug our shoulders when an official goes wrong. And we do not expect the police and health departments, the civil service laws, or the purely personal side of our political life to be above reproach. It is in its thrifty, commercial side that the English city excels. This is largely due to the fact that only tax or ratepayers vote. The council represents property, not persons. This gives a rather sordid, ungenerous tone to all discussion. For the taxes are assessed against the rental value rather than upon the capitalized value of the property. And the taxes are paid by the tenant and not by the owner. In consequence, the English councilman is always in terror of the taxpayer. And the people get a taxpayer’s administration, and an administration that is very timorous of anything which increases the rates.

This has a bad side as well as a good side. Most critics see only the good side. But as a matter of fact, it is probable that this making of government a commercial thing, this making the payment of rent or the ownership of property a prerequisite to the suffrage, this throwing the taxes upon the tenants rather than the property is one of the worst things in English political life. I appreciate that it satisfies that class of American critics who feel that we have extended the suffrage too far. But in the long run the evil effects are greater than the good ones. With us, democracy is more generous, more hospitable to new ideas, more ready to be liberal with its parks, its schools, its libraries, its poor. For these are,costly luxuries. Then, too, they are not needed by the well-to-do. This in part explains the fact that the American school system is far in advance of that of England. For our school administration, as a rule, is good. In some cities it is brilliant. Its very general goodness certainly relieves the wholesale condemnation of our cities. And in many cities we collect almost as much for school purposes from direct taxes as we do for municipal administration.

The same is true of our libraries. They are the best in the world. Aside from private endowments, our cities generously maintain these popular universities, with branches and distributing agencies which bring an opportunity of culture and refinement to all classes. The English city is far behind us in this respect. We have also been more generous in our parks. W'e have been lavish, and, in most instances, wise in the beautification of our cities. We have likewise gone in for playgrounds and are now going in for public baths, wash houses, kindergartens, and enterprises of a similar sort for the relief of the very poor. There is a big generosity about our democracy that is not found in England. Our politics are not so cheese-paring. We are even willing to be wasteful in order to get the things we want. Then, too, we have a more humane spirit in our attitude toward the dependent and criminal classes. The English penal code is barbarous.

It does not temper the wind to the shorn lamb, but enforces the rigor of the law against those who do not catch on. Such institutions as the juvenile court, children’s farm schools, humane reformatories have not yet found a place in English administration. For English poor administration still confounds poverty with crime. In America we are coming to discriminate and to appreciate that the poor of our cities are not wholly responsible for their poverty, and that vice and crime are more often the result of industrial environment than of vicious character.

There is an open-mindedness about the best American cities that is not found in England. We are ready to take up new ideas, to experiment with ourselves, for we have no age-long traditions that restrain and chain us to the past. Chicago willingly expended millions for children’s parks, play-grounds and gymnasiums. Boston did the same thing. The city of Cleveland has bought a 1,500-acre farm upon which it is endeavoring to reclaim its workhouse prisoners and bring back the poor and destitute flotsam of the city to its proper adjustment with life. New York, commercialized to the core, has spent millions on playgrounds and recreation piers.

All this is part of a generous democratic sense that England lacks. It is a sense which a city that measures its life from the ratepayer’s standpoint never can have. For the American ideal, in so far as it has ideals, is to make the city helpful. The English ideal is to make its helpfulness pay its way by some means, or at least to be very careful of the tax rate. The one is democracy, the other is democracy subject to the curb of the tax-paying class. And it is a far easier task for America to improve the personnel of the official class than it is for England to break away from this ratepayer’s conception of government, which, in many instances, seems very sordid and mean.

The same thing is true in the growing demand for municipal beauty in America. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and notably Cleveland, are going in for the things that make the German city so attractive. Our cities are embodying their ideals in fine monuments, just as the people of the middle ages embodied their religious aspirations in splendid gothic cathedrals. We are showing a willingness to pay for fine architecture, for beauty in the concrete. The English city, on the other hand, is the ugliest city in Europe. There are a few exceptions—such as Edinburgh and Dublin—but they are not in England. Within the past few years, the London County Council has done some big things, and gives promise of making London a more beautiful city. But it is the most democratic body in Great Britain and London cared little for beauty until it became democratic. As a rule, the cities of Great Britain have been very indifferent to adornment. They reflect the fear of the ratepayer. The city is unwilling to commemorate itself in a beautiful way. It is tyrannized over by the tax-payers. It dares not incur expenditure for the superfluous luxuries of city life. The American city, however, gives promise of being beautified in the next generation far beyond present indications. It is along these lines that our cities will first attain municipal consciousness. This is partly due to the fact that there is no strong commercial class; among us ready to resist such a movement. But the main reason—a reason usually ignored by critics—is the aspiration of democracy for a big communal life. In addition to this, our streets are broader and finer, our business architecture more promising, in spite of the skyscraper. The time is not far distant when our cities will study beauty just as do the German cities, which compete in attractiveness for the travelers of Europe.

These are some of the things usually overlooked in the comparison of our cities with those of England. They are some of our advantages, And, however gloomy the outlook may appear to be, the American city can correct its evils much more easily than the English city can change the physical limitations and age-long traditions that cramp and confine it in a physical way. For the English city can only cure its economic diseases through the most radical departure in its land system and the method of assessing local revenues.

It is not possible to make a comparison of the taxing machinery of the two countries. But, remote as the question of taxation may seem to an understanding of municipal conditions, it lies at the root of the ideals and character of the English city. A comparison of London and New York will indicate this fact. The land of Great Britain has not been valued for the purposes of taxation since the year 1692. Two centuries ago her great cities had not yet appeared. London was little more than a village in comparison with its present proportions. Thousands of acres of land, now occupied by stately structures, were then farming land. In two centuries the valuation of the land underlying the metropolis has not been increased for purposes of taxation. The local taxes paid by the London land-oweners directly are about the same to-day that they were in the seventeenth century. The city of New York, on the other hand, revalues its land every year. In 1904 the naked land was appraised at $3,697,686,935. On this valuation taxes in excess of $50,000,000 were collected for city purposes. This is probably fifty times the amount collected from the land of London, whose population is twice that of New York and whose values are probably not far from six billion dollars. The explanation of such an anomaly? Those who own the land in Great Britain also control Parliament. They form, the House of Lords. They pass all laws relating to taxation. Through this control they legislate into their own pockets an enormous sum, which, if land were taxed as is done in New York, would amount in London alone to a hundred million dollars a year. This is a hundred times the amount now collected from the land-owners. When we find such a control of legislation by a class in America, we call it “graft.” It is against such misuse of government that President Roosevelt, Senator La Follette, Governor Pingree and Senator Colby directed their energies in their struggle for equitable taxation. But England accepts this condition without protest, or at most complains of it as class legislation. But this is not all. Local taxes are collected from the tenants directly. They are paid on the rental value. The landlords pay practically nothing. Thus the poor of London are made poorer by a hundred million dollars a year than they would be if taxed as is the city of New York. This explains in part the unparalleled poverty, misery, and degradation of the English city.

It is impossible to set forth in an article of this length the attitude of Great Britain toward its aristocracy and the land which it owns. There are some Englishmen who appreciate this condition, but not many. For land as land is sacrosanct in Great Britain. It enjoys a distinction not unlike that of the Federal Constitution in America. It is too sacred to be touched except by the permission of those who own it. Land is really the controlling factor in England’s political, social, and industrial life. The Mother Country is afflicted with a land worship, which centuries of feudal ownership has cast about it. This sacredness affects the English city in countless ways. The towns have no general power of eminent domain or compulsory purchase. The city can only acquire land for public purposes by agreement with the landlord or by special act. And the landlords will not sell to the people. They lease and only lease when the price has reached a point where the people must have the land at any cost. The owners can hold on to the land indefinitely because the land, as land, pays no taxes. It may be a vacant lot in the heart of London. If it has no improvements upon it, it pays no taxes. It may be a thousand-acre tract about the city badly needed for homes. It still pays no taxes. It may be used as grazing land. It is taxed on its annual rental as grazing land, although it may be worth tens of thousands of dollars an acre. But even this tax is not paid by the owner. It is paid by the tenant..

It is this fact that explains the slums of the English city. The city cannot grow until the lord of the manor lets go of his untaxed land. And he waits until he gets the last penny out of it. Herein lies the explanation of the irregular architecture of the English city, the fearful tenements and the acres of unimproved land. For so long as it is vacant it pays no taxes at all. If it is badly improved, it pays but little.

In America, land is taxed, or supposed to be taxed, at its capital value. City taxes are so high that the owner must improve the land or sell. He cannot leave a shack where an office building should be erected. In consequence, our cities are constantly being rebuilt; the two-storey building gives way to a six-story. As the town grows, this gives place to a sky-scraper. Not so in England: for the shack pays taxes only on its rental as a shack. In consequence, the land-owner is under no stimulus to sell. He need not worry about his rentals, for the growth of the city is enough in itself to compensate him for any loss in this regard. All of the corruption of our councils, all of the losses to the public service corporations, all of the millions which go to excessive street railway fares, gas and telephone and electricity charges are insignificant in comparison with the cost of the dead hand of feudalism which casts a blight on the English city and throws all of the burdens of taxation upon the tenant and the poor.

From such an affliction we are largely free. There is some sanctity of respectability about, the abuses of privilege in America. But it is not age-long. There is no tradition of feudalism, no respect bordering on veneration for a class that strangles the free expression of the people. True, our cities are more or less prostrate before the big business interests desiring franchises and privileges in the streets. But we are awakening to these conditions and have no hesitancy about their destruction. They enjoy no sanctity such as attaches to the privileged classes in England. And all over America the forces of reform are coming to appreciate that good government is only possible when privilege is exiled from its counsels. We are coming to realize that the efficiency and corruption of municipal administration is economic no less than personal, and that both must be corrected together. In this larger perspective the American city is much more hopeful than the British city. It will be a far easier task to lure good men into our councils than it is for Great Britain to overcome the mediaeval burdens which cramp, cabin and confine her cities through centuries of class control of Parliament. Long before another generation passes, the American city will have called to its aid the type of men who have given the English city its present proud distinction. But back of all this, our superior physical endowment, our comparative freedom from a land monopoly in control of legislation, our open-minded democracy, assures us a city far more beautiful, vastly more helpful, and infinitely more generous in its ideals than the English city now is. It is this freedom from feudal abuses and the tyranny of worn-out ideas of an earlier civilization that gives promise that the American city of the next generation will not be the worst, but rather the best governed city in the world.


You can not hope to accomplish much in the world without that compelling enthusiasm which stirs your whole being into action.

Have you an idea in your mind for improving your work? Have you an invention simmering in your gray matter? Do you think you have a special aptitude for some vocation? If you have, then remember that if you don’t act you likely will see some other fellow with a little more nerve than you get ahead, and leave you wishing you had paid more attention to the promptings of your mind.