Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/April 1915/American Municipal Problems and the European War

AMERICAN MUNICIPAL PROBLEMS AND THE EUROPEAN WAR
By CLINTON ROGERS WOODRUFF

NATIONAL MUNICIPAL LEAGUE, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

THERE was great uncertainty in August and September of the year 1914 as to the immediate and ultimate effect of the European cataclysm. No one was willing to hazard a guess as to what was going to be the outcome of those events following the outbreak of the war, which unsettled at least for the time the whole machinery of international life. There was a prevalent conviction that the old foundations had been swept away, and there was no assurance as to what were to take their place. The feeling extended to every sphere of life, and notably to municipal affairs. Attention was everywhere directed to the war, its progress and probable results. In the words of one commentator on the situation:

Already now civilization stops—stops dead. Religion, philosophy, literature, painting, and, chief of all perhaps, science, with its torch at the head of our human hosts, are suddenly flung backward; they become of no moment. Who wants to know about Immanence? Who cares to hear what Bergson and Eucken think? Who bothers about books and pictures? Who is ready to endow a laboratory or listen to the chemist and the biologist?

And who, a Unitarian clergyman (John Haynes Holmes) asks, in quoting the above, "cares a fig about the social movements"? Jane Addams, usually so calm and sane, declared

that all is out of joint, out of character. Human sensibilities were more acute when this war began than ever before. The comradeship, the friendliness between nations had been brought upon a basis of mutual understanding further than ever before. By mechanical means we had been brought closer together in communication and in sympathy. Either we ought not to have equipped ourselves with these fine sensibilities, or we ought not to have to face the horrors now confronting us. It is a too terrible inconsistency against which we should protest. All organized social welfare activities are put back for years. We have to work up public opinion anew.

When a million men are suffering in trenches wet and cold and wounded, what are a few children suffering under hard conditions in the factories? Take old-age pensions, upon which England, France and Germany have been working. With widows and fatherless children numbered by the thousands in each of these countries, what are a few old people more or less? It will be years before these things are taken up again. The whole social fabric is tortured and twisted.

Infant mortality is one of the things which we are just beginning to deal with.

But what are half a million new-born children in comparison with such a slaughter—the hideous, wholesale slaughter of thousands of men a day?

Social and civic workers in large numbers shared this lament and the feeling and conviction back of it. It really did seem in those first days as if all that had been gained through years of toil and painful effort had been lost; that the foundations, as well as the superstructure, of modern society, which is so largely urban in its character, had been undermined—but first a few, and then many more students began to ask questions, and make inquiries. What effect is the European war having' and likely to have upon the municipal situation, and especially in this country? Has it diverted interest? And if so, in what way? Has it interfered with the orderly functioning of the city? Has it stopped public improvements? Has it hurt municipal credit, and the development of sound municipal sentiment? Has the war diverted interest in city affairs?

From a Los Angeles editor (and I may say in passing that the great bulk of the testimony I shall offer will be from well-known editors of long experience as trained observers of public opinion in their respective localities) comes this message:

We have been unable to note any effect upon municipal activities in Los Angeles because of the European war. I do not anticipate any material diversion from municipal affairs nor does there seem to be any indication that the war will hurt public improvements, unless it be for those projects which depend upon the sale of bonds.

Pasadena, Cal., reports:

So far as we have been able to learn, the European war is not affecting municipal conditions in Pasadena. The development work of the city has not been retarded. To the contrary, several large projects are under consideration. It is expected that these will be carried to completion within the next few months.

From Santa Ana, a small California city of 12,000 people in the midst of a purely agricultural section of country, remote from the great industrial centers and with very little connection or relation with them, we hear this testimony:

We have no large municipal or private enterprises under way and so far as I can see the European war is not affecting municipal conditions here at all. However, judging from a general survey of public sentiment and expression, I should think that if, for instance, we undertook to vote bonds in any considerable amount for public improvements, it would be more difficult to carry them, than if a state of war did not exist; likewise I think if any large private enterprise were undertaken that sought subscription to its stock and purchasers for its bonds among the people at large, more difficulty would be encountered now than before the war broke out.

In San Francisco at first there was

a very pronounced diverting of interest and attention among the citizens, and business of all kinds suffered; the Exchange was for a time daily thronged with business men, but that soon became the usual old story and the normal attention to other duties was resumed.

Another editor in the same city writes that:

There is at present a good deal of municipal improvement work under way in this city, the funds for which are provided by the sale of bonds. These were authorized some time ago, and thus far there has been no impediment to carrying out the original plan, although there is a prospect in the near future that it may be difficult for the city to sell its bonds at the rate of interest which they bear. Up to this date, however, we have not put a stop to anything on account of the depression due to the war, which has extended itself to this city, as to other parts of the country.

A Portland, Oregon, editor writes:

that the people of Portland, like those in all other cities, are giving a good deal of attention to the stories that appear in the papers about the war. But I do not see that the war is retarding development. Development is retarded just now by hard times and the consequent fear that investment in new enterprises will not be safe.

Another declares:

The chief effect of the conflict appears to have been the depressing effect upon the sale of city bonds. Eighty per cent, of the street improvements in Portland are financed by bonds. The prices the city can get for them have dropped. This is the price received for the 6-per-cent. ten-year bonds. Longtime bonds, which are used to raise revenue for building public docks, constructing additions to the water system and other purposes, have no present market. No bids were received on a recent issue of $150,000, 25-year 4-per-cent. dock bonds. Ordinarily these bonds sell about 90 per cent. Whether or not the war is retarding the development interest of citizens by diverting attention can only be guessed. Entrenchment in municipal improvements of this kind has been noted, however, for a year or more past. It has been more pronounced since the war, but whether it is the outcome of the war or due to local or national financial conditions, or conditions purely local to the improvement districts affected, can not at this time be definitely ascertained. Apparently the war has no effect on partisan affiliations of citizens.

Seattle reports that the Eurpoean war "has not appreciably affected municipal conditions in Seattle, unless perhaps it may be in bringing more sober attention to matters of taxation and the like," certainly a most desirable result, and right here it may be pertinent to remark that increasing federal and state expenses are destined to have the same effect.

So far as the Pacific coast is concerned there is practically but one story. The same is true of the central sections. The report from Duluth, Minn., reads:

Apparently the war has had no effect here on municipal conditions. Street work and other improvements are going ahead as if nothing had happened, and the city is now having a very warm debate on the question of purchasing the electric lighting plant or building a new one.

That from South Bend, Indiana, is to the same effect:

The European war has produced little or no effect upon municipal conditions in South Bend. I do not believe it will interfere with any public improvements;

and Louisville, Ky., likewise:

We can note no effect whatever of the war conditions in Louisville.

A well-known editor of Kansas (William Allen White of The Emporia Gazette,

can not see that the European war is having any effect on the small cities of the West.

Another declares that

the war is making little difference with politics in Minneapolis. We have the
non-partisan city ballot and war and social issues are kept out of the campaigns.

The northwest generally, being near the wheat-fields, is not much affected by the war at present.

A Chicago editor in September felt that the war was likely most seriously to divert attention from local politics, and declared that the primary elections showed a distinct falling off, due to the absorption of interest in the war. The November elections, however, do not seem to have been any less hotly contested and their results can hardly be said to have reflected any war influence. In most places, the decisions reached were about the same as were anticipated before the war broke out.

From a Lexington, Ky., publicist comes the observation that

it would be difficult to say that the developing interest of our citizens is being retarded by reason of attention diverted on account of the war situation. The retardation certainly exists, but appears to be caused indirectly by money stringency and uncertainty of market conditions. This is especially true in regard to the tobacco market, activity in which is to a certain extent dependent upon the interests of foreign purchasers. The very extensive tobacco crop of this section is not marketed until December 1 and thereafter, but uneasiness as to the conditions when the market does open is having a quieting effect upon all local development as well as business activity. There is a very small foreign population here, and partisan affiliations are not worthy of consideration. This city is not at present undertaking any extensive new public improvements and there is no present demand for improvements which would require bond issues or similar obligations.

This letter brings up a question that has no doubt occurred in connection with the other testimony so far adduced. To what extent is the difficulty of marketing bonds and therefore of undertaking improvements, and to what extent is the demand for retrenchment and greater economy of administration, to be attributed to the war; and to what extent to the financial stringency and hard times that existed before the war? That the war has accentuated the difficulties of the situation rather than caused them is the opinion of many students of the drift of municipal conditions and opinion.

New England's testimony is remarkably like that which comes from the. Pacific coast and the central west. Only in the south does the war seem to have been directly responsible for a greater stringency—and that has been due to the fact that it has in the past so largely depended upon a few crops, mainly cotton and tobacco, rather than upon diversified industries.

I do not observe that the European war is retarding or developing the interest of citizens in our community,

writes a Portland, Maine, editor,

nor that it has had any material effect on their partisan affiliations. I should think it might hold up public improvement to some extent since, for the first time in the history of the city, so far as I am aware, Portland has found it necessary to sell its bonds at less than par, the figure received being $95.28. Otherwise there seems to have been no visible effect upon the city;

and Springfield, Mass., reports that

it does not appear that the European war is detracting from the interest of citizens in local improvements. It is, however, making our people conservative in undertaking new public enterprises. It looks now as if various proposed improvements might be temporarily postponed.

In New Haven, Conn.,

municipal conditions are not affected; and, if affected at all, they are improved slightly instead of being the other way around. Public improvements also are not affected by the war agitation.

And the same is said in Hartford, where there is no evidence that the foreign situation has diverted attention from public welfare.

In the Middle Atlantic states the same general situation may be said to prevail. Let me quote from just two letters: one from Harrisburg, Pa., and one from Wilmington, Del. From the former we learn that, so far as careful observation goes, while the war is undoubtedly attracting considerable attention,

it is not materially distracting the attention of our citizens from the business they have in hand. Whether it will cause the holding up of public improvements can hardly be determined before next spring, the time for starting new work in this direction, and I should think would depend upon intervening war developments and the conditions of the money market at that time.

A Wilmington editor

can not see any indications that the war in Europe is retarding the development of interest in municipal conditions to any appreciable extent. Certainly it is attracting interest in an extraordinary manner. At the primaries thus far held there has been about the average expression of popular interest in the size of the vote and the selection of candidates. I do not believe, therefore, it will have any detrimental effect upon the election by blinding the attention of interested citizens to the need of careful voting. Indeed, there has been a notable instance to this effect in the repudiation, by a county caucus of the Republican state convention, of a brawling ring politician who sought preferment by getting a place on the state committee.

There is not any probability of the war influence affecting public improvements adversely. Work on our greatest improvement—the joint city and county building—is progressing finely. Private building operations are going on as usual.

These views selected from a great mass of correspondence are typical, and unquestionably reflect the fact that the American municipal citizen, while profoundly interested in every phase of the greatest of modern wars, nevertheless is going about his municipal business just about the same as usual, but with somewhat more care and thoughtfulness than formerly, and, perhaps, with a greater concern about beginning improvements, and about their execution, when once determined upon.

Generally speaking, the influence by and large of the European war on these phases of American municipal life has been much less than had been reasonably anticipated.

Nor has the war interfered with the orderly functioning of the cities. While there has been a natural conservation in the undertaking of new work and the assumption of new functions, so far as reported, there has been no abandonment of those lines of activities previously assumed, and regularly carried on. It must be pointed out, however, that if it had not been for the war, the new year would have seen the greatest development of municipal activity the country has ever witnessed, along both physical and general lines, and I am not at all sure that the war will check the latter. That it has seriously interfered with the former, however, there can be no doubt. This condition is partly due to the unsettled financial condition of the country, and would have prevailed even had there been no war. Municipal credit, as such, however, does not seem to have been seriously hurt, or jeopardized.

There has been a natural disclination of capitalists to invest in municipal, or, for that matter, in any other issues, although this timidity and unwillingness is beginning to show signs of disappearing with the opening of the stock exchanges and the reestablishment of the financial machinery. This hesitancy to take municipal issues in large blocks has accelerated the tendency to market municipal bonds in a new and more democratic way, namely, in small denominations, over the counters of the city treasurer. In this way municipal undertakings will be brought more directly home to the attention of the voters and their interest in the construction and up-keep thereby stimulated. In addition municipal finances will be placed upon a more substantial basis in that cities will consider more carefully their expenditures for permanent capital account and for maintenance, and will eventually cease to borrow on the future for the expenses of to-day. Here again, however, the war has helped on a movement already well started. There seem? to be a great difference of opinion among social workers as to the effect of the war on social problems. Miss Addams's opinion has already been quoted. On the other hand, however, we have the opinion of another Chicagoan, who speaks out of a long experience, and a profound sympathy with every forward social movement. Dr. Graham Taylor declares as a result of his personal observations:

That first week in August, which threatened Europe with the greatest destruction which has ever overtaken its civilization, was signalized by the most constructive, or reconstructive, legislation ever enacted in any one week throughout the long history of the British Parliament. And it did so in the rush of its gigantic defensive and offensive preparations for war. Although all these measures are temporary provisions to meet the emergency demanding immediate relief from the present or possible disasters of war, yet they can not fail to affect profoundly the social legislation and administration which had already become the permanent policy of the British empire and of its county and municipal governments.

So far as my personal observation has gone, there has been no substantial falling off of interest in American constructive programs, and in many directions there has been an increased effort to offset any possible slackening of interest. The obvious reply to Miss Addams's lament (and we all deeply sympathize with the feeling which gives rise to it) is that the very greatness of the European cataclysm will emphasize the need for even greater social and civic effort. In the words of a Milwaukee student of the problem:

Those men and women who are engaged in municipal and social reform have the keenest realization of the terrible price to be paid by this war. And when it is all over and the awful price has been paid, they are going to demand that social reform instead of militarism shall have the right of way.

The significance of the present situation is that social and civic workers have redoubled their efforts, in the face of the natural depression incident to the war, and have shown no slightest evidence of intention to abandon any advantage secured, or position occupied. In addition they are looking further ahead than usual. There is an increasing conviction that social and civic problems of great magnitude will follow in the footsteps of the war. The commissioner general of immigration holds the opinion that the natural thing to expect after peace is declared again is a quickened flow of immigrants to the United States. If the war is serious and causes general business depression in the countries which it affects, increased numbers of the working classes will have to seek opportunities in this country.

The normal flow of immigrants to this country, according to The Survey, has been about 90,000 a month. Those who have already planned to come, but have been held back by the war, the commissioner general expects to sail as soon as they can get accommodations after peace is declared. Moreover, many of the foreign men who may leave this country to take part in the war, if they can obtain passage, he expects to return later to resume their work here. Adding together those whose trips have been postponed, those who have left the United States temporarily, and the normal yearly number would send immigration records up to a new high mark. This is but one of many situations our cities will have to face—for all our civic and social difficulties find their greatest manifestation in the cities; and the students and workers foreseeing this are preparing for it.

One effect of the war will be to compel Americans more largely than heretofore to solve their own problems. We have so freely availed ourselves of European experience that we have in some directions lost our initiative. European precedent has been dominating. Now we are thrown back on our own resources, and this in the long run will be a great gain, for we can not hope invariably to solve American problems solely by European methods. In fact, progress has sometimes been held back because of our underlying antipathy to the foreign label. We have studied other situations sufficiently long and carefully, to know the best they have to offer in the way of suggestion. Now we shall have an opportunity of showing what we can do when compelled to depend upon our own resources.

To sum up: The European war seems to have had far less influence upon our municipal life than was at first anticipated. It has not diverted, except temporarily, public interest in local affairs. Although the war has occupied an undue amount of space in the newspapers and magazines, this lack of perspective on their part does not seem to have affected that of their readers. The finances of our cities have been strengthened and accelerated. There has been no slackening or diversion of interest or effort on the part of social and civic workers. On the contrary, they have manifested a determination and persistence of the greatest significance and there has been a throwing back on our own resources that will develop a self-reliance and an American policy of social welfare and municipal administration that will constitute a worthy contribution to the advance of mankind.