July 1, 1985
Sunbelt Cities: Politics and Growth Since World War II. Edited by Richard M. Bernard and Bradley R. Rice. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983. Maps. Bibliographies. 346 Pages. $25.00 cloth. $9.95 Paper.
Reviewed by Dr. Michael F. Konig, Associate Planner/Urban Policy Specialist, MooneyLettieri and Associates; and Instructor of History, San Diego City College.
Post-World War II sunbelt urban development has grown to become an important component of urban historical scholarship. The recent spatial, population, and economic growth of cities such as Oklahoma City, Houston, and Phoenix offers an excellent means by which the relationship between urban sunbelt political and business leaders can be examined. This relationship, analyzed by many of the essays in Sunbelt Cities: Politics and Growth Since World War II has helped to shape urban sunbelt political attitudes. These attitudes have often been conservative, growth-oriented, and ambiguous with regard to social welfare.
Perhaps the most useful section of the book is the introductory overview provided by the editors. According to Richard M. Bernard and Bradley R. Rice, local Chambers of Commerce spread the “good word” of sunbelt economic opportunities to nation’s business leaders. By the late 1940’s, both political and economic power in most of the cities was held by cliques of “central city-oriented businessmen.” Either under the name of the Dallas Citizens Council, Houston’s 8-F Crowd, or Phoenix Charter Government, they dominated or circumvented the politicians in city hall and were unthreatened by local minority groups. Because surrounding communities had not yet formed opposing municipal governments, many of the sunbelt centers implemented ambitious annexation programs. Yet Bernard and Rice maintain that in recent years the fragmentation of the metropolitan sunbelt areas and the rising influence of minority and neighborhood politics have significantly eroded the power of the central city-oriented businessmen.
Two articles discuss the rise to political prominence of blacks and hispanics in Atlanta and Miami. Rice, in “If Dixie Were Atlanta,” demonstrates that by 1981 blacks had come to dominate the Atlanta City Council. In “Miami: The Ethnic Cauldron,” Raymond Mohl states that the arrival of Cuban and other Caribbean refugees “has permanently altered the ethnic composition and the political realities of the area” and has made Miami “as much a Latin American as an American city.” Such appraisals are exciting and should elicit strong responses from other participants in the field.
Anthony Corso’s interesting contribution, “San Diego: The Anti-City,” explores an area of study which has too often been neglected by urban historians — a thorough understanding of planning and the planning process. The application or lack of application of such planning in post-war sunbelt cities profoundly affected their physical structure. Their resultant physical form, which was often characterized by residential sprawl, reduced the opportunities for social interaction among their diverse racial and ethnic populations and thus, according to some scholars, diminished their quality of life. Corso argues that while political power rested in the hands of business-oriented elites, such as the self-proclaimed “San Diegans,” a genuine interest in controlling urban sprawl appeared within the City of San Diego’s political administration in the form of Residential Growth Management. Corso’s analysis of Residential Growth Management is shallow because no overall appraisal of the program had been made at the time of his writing. Recently, however, the City of San Diego thoroughly evaluated Residential Growth Management and found that it had been successful in increasing the percentage of housing and population in the older or urbanized area of the City, while decreasing the percentage of such growth in the City’s newer, planned urbanized area. Yet according to this evaluation, outside factors such as the severe 1981-1982 building industry depression, or legal obstacles such as in the case of the North City West development, could have been as much responsible for such increases and decreases as Residential Growth Management. In addition, the strength of the business community and its support for economic and residential growth is still very powerful in San Diego. The “correct” combination of technical industry and the influx of professional, white-collar residents, such as in the case of the City Council’s approval of the La Jolla Valley project, is often too alluring to be impeded by any type of growth management in San Diego.