look upon the size of certain American cities, and especially on the
nature of their population, as a real danger which threatens the
future security of democratic republics of the New World; and I
venture to predict that they will perish from this circumstance,
unless the Government succeeds in creating an armed force, which,
while it remains under the control of the majority of the nation,
will be independent of town population, and able to repress its
excesses (Alexis de Tocqueville 1839: 289).
“If my worst enemy was given the job of writin’ my epitaph when I’m
gone, he couldn’t do more than write: ‘George W. Plunkitt. He has
seen His Opportunities and He Took ‘Em.’”
This quotation is from the unusual reminiscences of George
Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall boss of the late nineteenth
century. Plunkitt delivered a series of lectures on his peculiar
views of practical urban politics to a reporter, William Riordan,
who later collected the interviews into a book. Plunkitt was only
one of the bosses who earned reputation and money from the returns
of political machine. The power of the bosses and the political
machine has been a dominant characteristic feature of the American
urban milieu from the second half of the nineteenth century. The
interconnection of the logic of business and politics was apparent
in the mechanics of the machine politics. The bosses’ power was
partly a result of their professionalism, as Glaab argues; they made
the study of politics and political organization a full-time job.
Plunkitt, who made a fortune in real estate business as a Tammamy
official described politics as a regular business almost the same as
the grocery or dry goods business and, as he declared, one only has
to be trained up to it just like in other professions.
This statement, however, is only one side of the overall picture. In
the complicated and often badly designed formal structures of the
city governments with mayors, councils and special commissions in
the background - supposed ideally to check and balance one another –
there was not only opportunity but also need for
effective control in an informal and quasi public way.
This informal control was provided by the bosses and their machines.
The play with jobs and contracts enabled the political machine to
become a vehicle for business to keep its power even in the
Industrial Age and at the same time to take the role of an informal
government which gets the streets paved, provides the lightening,
heat, telephone and transportation services and sustains the fire
and police forces. The political machine, which ruled the
nineteenth-century big cities of the U.S. and had the hegemonic
position of a one party system, created a certain kind of urban
milieu and built environment shaped by party politics which had
distinct strategies for finding the delicate balance between
economic wealth and social welfare.
This paper focuses on the institution of the political machine and
its impact on the urban development and the physical character of
the American city in the second half of the nineteenth century. The
underlying assumption of the paper is to provide, firstly, a
historical perspective of the boss system and the political machine
then, secondly, analyzing the way how this centralized regime
politics affected the city as a planned environment with political
implications. The ambition of this study is also to compare the
American urban model during the Industrial Age shaped by the
political machine to the Hungarian socialist urban development
during the postwar period of reconstruction with the comprehension
that a deeper investigation of this complicated and unconventional
comparison would be the next step of a further study. Despite the
great differences between the two radically distinct party politics
and eras of urban development in different contexts; the present
study aims to highlight that there is a visible connection between
the one-party politics and partisan organization of the physical
aspects of urban development. Thus, in general, the dominant forms
of political party government actually influence crucial aspects of
the city’s physical layout, residence patterns, neighborhood
development and other dimensions in an effort to reinforce the mass
political base and governing ideology of the party system.
Generally speaking, during times of urban transition followed by
intensive city building process, the physical development of cities
is greatly influenced by the dominant form of political
organization. This is especially likely when the dominant political
institutions are one-party mass-based organizations that need to
find ways of reinforcing their control over voters. Lack of
political competition and the constant search for low cost ways of
strengthening voter loyalties are pursued as means of maintaining
the organization. Thus, the U.S. boss system demanded payoffs from
business as well as the need to control immigrant voters through
petty rewards and by exploiting ethnic rivalries. The present study
aims to show that machine bosses favored three major practices in
their urban development.
Firstly, the boss system tended to finance huge public projects that
would create lots of opportunities for bribes and kick-backs from
contractors looking for public work. Ironically, therefore, the
machine politics is associated with the assumption that these grand
projects helped the urban development by forgetting the
self-interests of the machine. Secondly, there was a bias for market
centered development in which the private sector had a lot of impact
on how, when and where to build. Giving the private sector these
privileges enabled the bosses to maximize bribes and other payoffs.
This, in turn, led to the fact that private sector commercialism had
a great impact upon the industrial city, especially in the form of
the later discussed checkerboard pattern. Thirdly, the interest of
the boss system was to encourage dense concentrations of immigrants
in compact neighborhoods. This was to facilitate the control of
their political loyalties easily by segregating them into distinct
ethnic enclaves and it made way for easier contact by ward bosses
and precinct captains who could answer to the needs of immigrant
families and satisfy them directly via distributing petty rewards
such as jobs. In contrast, the Hungarian one-party system was
explicitly socialist and was driven more by ideology than the need
to reinforce voter loyalties through distributing petty rewards.
Instead, the socialist regime diffused the working class in
residential areas situated mostly on the periphery of the city in
the newly built big housing estates where everybody seemed to be
treated similarly. In contrast to the U.S. political machine, not
the loyalties rather the class ideology was to reinforce the
political position of the party.
1. The American Industrial City in the Second Half of the
The nineteenth-century city made its mark on the American urban
development as an enterprise of industrial capitalism with land
speculation shaped by market economy. The urbanization of the U.S.
entered a new stage in the 1860s, as Blake McKelvey argues, one in
which the reorganization and reconstruction of old cities
overshadowed the continued development of new towns.
What were, however, the prominent characteristic features of the
industrial cities in the U.S.?
In the post-Civil War period, most American cities increased
dramatically in size and in the number of their population. In every
town, enterprising promoters and business leaders took the role of
promoting the rapid extension of rail lines and the equally rapid
settlement of the Great West that gave impetus for mushrooming
cities with their new industrial functions and ethnically mixed
character of their population.
The transformation in the American economy wrought by this urban
industrial growth, as McKelvey argues, was matched by an equally
dramatic transformation in the physical character of the cities. Old
European patterns, as embodied in the colonial ports, with the
invention of the horse cars or steam railroads changed pedestrian
towns into cities with clearly distinguished commercial and
industrial districts. The successive waves of immigrants with their
need for cohesive settlements further segmented the larger cities
into distinct ethnic neighborhoods.
As cities grew, their natures and functions changed in many ways. At
the beginning of the nineteenth century the greater cities were
ports reflecting the commercial character of the American economy at
that time. By the time of the Civil War, however, the situation
transformed the character and function of the urban milieu. Maritime
trade, as Glaab argues, was still a crucial part of city economics;
but new cities had appeared deep in the continental interior which
adjusted them to the condition of capitalism. This resulted in the
geographical and socio-economic division of the core and the
periphery both in the country and in the cities. Manufacturing had
begun to influence the shape of the cities which manifested itself
either in the form of urban rivalry or in the spatial form of the
These new cities in the continental interior, like Chicago, were no
longer handled as public institutions but private enterprises with
new infrastructures of road construction and transportation
Until about the mid-nineteenth century, the population of the great
American cities were still compact; one could walk through all the
neighborhoods even in a day. With the advents of the technological
advancement in the urban transportation services, the working place
and the residential districts became separated, thus, the walking
city ceased to be existed and gave its place to the modern
American city with its railroads, horse-car railways and later the
cable cars. This new urban way of life entailed the appearance of
the downtown which became the financial and commercial
district where people came from some distance to work or to shop.
Within the period of 1860 and 1890, the cityscape of most American
cities changed with the images of the factory, railroad,
or the appearance of the slum. The expanded population
absorbed in a more concentrated use of residential space near the
sites of work which caused a significant increase in population
In accordance with the claims of the laissez faire policy,
the city government became a private infrastructure with less
power to the municipal authority.
In the post Civil War period, the federalist system of divided power
between the national government and the states made the American
cities dependent upon the state governments as their corporations
with only a limited power over the market place and the capital.
The industrial period, as Kantor argues, differs sharply from the
mercantile era in respect to market and popular control systems. A
peculiar form of popular control structure in mediating business
developed in the form of machine politics. This meant that after the
Civil War, the political machine as “dominant business interests
capitalized on the disorganized character of urban popular control
systems to secure political influence over development.”
Consequently, this regime politics played an important mediating
role in governing the cities because a regime, as Kantor quotes C.
Stone, was not only an informal group that came together to make
decision but “an informal yet relatively stable group with access
to institutional resources that enable it to have a sustained
role in making governing decisions.”
This means that every political machine had a well-established
economic basis which was used for economic reasons, too. The next
subchapter aims to highlight the logic and functional character of
the machine politics.
2. The Historical Perspective of
the Machine Politics in the Industrial Age
The machine style politics to a certain degree is present in every
political system in the forms of political cliques or material
incentives. A machine is a hierarchical organization controlled by a
single leader or boss. Between 1870 and 1945, the political machine
governed the majority of the big American cities. The boss rule
reached its peak in the 1920s, before that the reform movements of
the progressives wanted to diminish its power. In reality, the
municipal government and the machine politics existed side by side
and overlapped each other in many ways. Even today it exist in an
alternative form in the U.S., though with the death of Chicago boss
Richard J. Daley in 1976 “marked the end of the era of the classic
machines, which relied on patronage and material incentives to keep
their organizations intact.”
As for the origins of the machine politics it is connected to the
changing electoral politics of the U.S. The second half of the
nineteenth century was also the period when the electoral politics
of the U.S. cities changed significantly. The white male franchise
had been extended prior to the first heavy waves of immigration from
the British Isles in the late 1840s. Successive waves of immigrants
quickly transformed the ethnic base of voters from native-born
whites to a complex ethnic mix. This meant that many cities, as Eric
H. Monkkonen argues, were overwhelmed by immigrant populations of
poor, mainly Irish Catholics and a broad range of Germans by
mid-century. This process resulted in the intense and active
hostility of the native-born and immigrant Protestants toward the
Irish. This was also the same case with the Germans; though they
were Protestant by religion, their linguistic separation and
national identity resulted in their distinct, appositional voting.
Many voting studies, as Monkkonen relies on them, have documented
the power of this "ethno-cultural" voting throughout the nineteenth
century. Surprisingly, though the local commercial and new
industrial elite had its well-established economic basis, refused to
yield political power and city politics remained factional and gave
place to the boss system.
According to Monkkonen
the relatively small stakes involved in municipal elections only
partially explains this apparent lack of elite resistance to the
immigrant accession to political power. Until about the 1890s, all
city voters could agree on one thing, that the role of government
had to be fiscally limited. Working-class voters in particular
wanted a limited and inexpensive government, often opposing such
things as city-run employment bureaus (Monkkonen 1988, 116-117).
A political scientist, Robert A. Dahl established a schematic,
four-period model of American urban political change of regimes,
which includes policy, politicians, and changing political
constituencies and structure.
The Dahl-model can provide a historical perspective to regime theory
and serve as an impetus and starting point to other theoretical
models. In Dahl's model city, governments evolved from early
domination by (1) "patrician elites" to (2) ones run by immigrants
and bosses, who in turn were followed by (3) reformers, and finally
by (4) modern professional politicians, often "explebes,"
that is, of working class origins.
The Dahl model describes that after the Civil War, with large
influxes of immigrants into the city, there was a shift to
government by the political machines which was indeed an era of
mass-based politics. These machines were run by bosses who were
immigrants themselves, or who catered to the immigrants who gained
power from the old elite. William M. Tweedis
an example for the boss. He was born in 1823 and joined Tammany Hall
in 1859. Finally he became a major power broker in New York City's
Democratic machine until his criminal trial in 1873. Tweed never
actually held the mayor's office though he was probably one of the
best known bosses. Surprisingly, he was not an immigrant, having
been born in New York City. Recent studies discovered that he did
not even have clearly ethnic origins, though he was probably of
Scottish descent. Nor was he from the impoverished working class; he
came from a family of relatively prosperous craftsmen and he was a
carpenter by profession. This is another bias that is connected to the boss
system that the immigrant origin was a prerequisite for the boss
status. Rather the boss was the man who knew how to get results; he
provided an alternative to the decentralized municipal authority. He
could be poor or wealthy when he seized the power; the fact is that
mayors and managers came and went, but the boss maintained a
permanent hold on power.
As Boss Plunkitt defines his job with his own words:
There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might
sum up the whole thing by sayin’: “I seen my opportunities and took
‘em.” Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the
city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements.
Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park
at a certain place. I see my opportunity and take it. I go to the
place and I buy up all the land I can get in the neighborhood. Then
the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush
to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before. Ain’t
it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my
investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that’s honest
graft. (…) I’ve told you how I got rich by honest graft. Now, let me
tell you that most politicians who are accused of robbin’ the city
get rich the same way. They didn’t steal a dollar from the city
treasury. They have just seen there opportunities and took them.
That is why, when a reform administration comes in and spends a half
million dollars in tryin’ to find the public robberies they talked
about in the campaign, they don’t find them. The books are
always right. (…) All they can show is that the Tammany heads of
departments looked after their friends, within the law, and gave
them opportunities they could make honest graft. (…) If I have a
good thing to hand out in private life, I give it to a friend. Why
shouldn’t I do the same in public life? (Glaab 1963, 378- 380),
Well, this is only one side of the overall picture. Boss system or
the political machine, as Robert K. Merton argues, violates the
moral codes that votes should be based on individual appraisal of
the qualifications of candidates and of political matters. Bribery
and “honest graft” obviously offended the proprieties of property.
The boss must be known as the people’s friend but he was not a Good
Samaritan, at all. He got his votes from the immigrant workers in
the neighborhoods often by bribes or by his own virtue which
strengthened his monopole position in the machine. Usually, he
started his career as an ordinary precinct worker and if he could
get enough voters to the polls, he could become a precinct captain.
Then if he demonstrated his ability to swing his precinct at every
election by a substantial majority, he could soon become a ward
leader, the boss.
By the early 1840’s the Tammany organization was already a
considerable power in the governance of New York City which offers a
clear example to machine politics. It traced its origin to a
Jeffersonian political club established in the 1790s as the Society
of St. Tammany. The name of Tammany can be traced back to that of a
Delaware Indian chief. Many such clubs appeared in the U.S. during
this period and intended to gain the power of the Federalist elite.
The club continued to play a popular political role from the 1820’s
and 1830’s by supporting proposals like the abolition of
imprisonment for debt. During the depression era of 1837-42, the
club distributed fuel, clothing and food in the poorer districts of
the city. With the heyday of the modern national party system, the
Tammany grew into the main agency in New York City for the
Democratic Party which gave it increasing popularity; its charitable
activities and patronage system among the poor and the newly arrived
Irish immigrant also contributed to its power. Thus, Tweed did not
invent the boss system; the system was just one consequence of the
rapid urbanization and industrialization.
In short, by cooperating with one another, each of these bosses, as
Kantor argues, could act as brokers in ethnic, economic, social, and
political relations of the cities. Therefore, the boss was not only a politician
and a party-leader; he had to perform many duties to “his people”
for sustaining the machine system.
2.1. The Boss and the Machine Politics
There are many definitive positions about the structure, work and
impact of the machine politics on the American urban development.
One of the definitions is provided by Alexander B. Callow who
describes the “city machine” as an organization “involved in
politics as business, the business of gaining political power by
offering services to a number of diverse groups and inducements of
power prestige, and profit to its followers.”
Raymond E. Wolfinger, however, makes difference between the terms of
machine politics and political machine by arguing that
“Machine politics” is the manipulation of certain incentives
to partisan political participation:
favoritism based on political criteria in personnel decisions,
contracting, and administration of the laws. A “political
machine” is an organization that practices machine politics,
i.e., that attracts and directs its members primarily by means of
these incentives. Unfortunately, the term “machine” is also used in
a quite different and less useful sense to refer to the
centralization of power in a party in a major political
jurisdiction: a “machine” is a united and hierarchical party
organization in a state, city, or county. Now there is no necessary
relation between the two dimensions of incentives and
centralization: machine politics (patronage incentives) need not
produce centralized organization at the city level or higher.
(Wolfinger 1972, 374-375), (emphasis mine).
Joseph L. Bernd criticizes Wolfinger’s definition in three points
that is worth to mention. Firstly, Bernd contradicts Wolfinger’s
last statement which declares that machine politics does not have
centralizing function. As Bernd says “I think it would be preferable
to regard centralization of power as a measure of a political
machine rather than to consider it ‘unfortunate.’”
Secondly, Bernd argues that one cannot think of the incentives of
the machines as purely economic with no taint of policy interest.
Thirdly, he comments that Wolfinger speaks only about city machines,
while there are examples for numerous small county political rings.
Robert K. Merton demonstrates that the machine is an alternative
form or response to formal government and it is disciplined and
centralized in itself, thus it was an alternative to the
decentralized, dispersed, overlapping pattern of municipal
government. Consequently, the boss and his organization served to
fulfill neglected social functions that society would not or could
not satisfy. According to Merton, the machine emerged and responded
to the needs of three groups: (1) the deprived classes, (2) the
businessman, (3) the racketeer. Merton provides the classic model
for the manifest and latent functions of the machine. Thus, the
machine (1) gave personal and humanized help and assistance to the
poor, particularly to immigrants, (2) provided businesses including
also illegitimate ones to survive and prosper, and (3) offered the
opportunity for upward mobility to the immigrant groups. This
functionalist explanation of the machine has been challenged in many
points by many urban scholars. Steven Erie, for instance, argues
against the idea that the machine gave way to social mobility to the
masses of immigrants. According to him, patronage system functioned
only to freeze the opportunities of the immigrants and held them in
poorly paid public jobs and badly constructed neighborhoods by
serving it as the maximum of their electoral coalition.
As I view it, the interest of the boss was not to provide the
immigrants and his clients proper living conditions but to maintain
their bad circumstances and to ease their needs only on the surface level
especially during election times.
The political machine as an organization had two main characteristic
features that were seemingly incompatible; they, however, run the
machine. One was the absence of formal rules; the other was a
disciplined system. The political machine functions in a parallel
way with the municipal government; moreover, it had almost the same
structural organization and many times overlapped each other. I
would argue that it became also a cohesive force for the local
community. Machine politicians, as I mentioned earlier, started
their career as precinct workers. Then the next step was the
position of the precinct captain who was responsible for the votes
and the life of the smallest and most basic political unit of the
city. The precincts and the precinct captains were the foundations
of the political machine as an organization. A typical precinct (or
election district) had about 400 to 600 voters and thirty to forty
precincts created a ward. The precinct captains had to be both
involved in politics and participated in the local community life;
they were expected to know most of the voters by name. The next rung
on the political ladder was the status of the alderman. The captains
of the precinct were elected by and worked for the ward’s alderman
who served as the chair of the ward’s party committee. Finally, the
aldermen were under the control of the machine boss who was the head
of the political machine.
As for the function of the boss, Oscar Handlin speaks about
generalizations; he argues that the immigrant skilled workers worked
their way into the “vacant” places of society which resulted in the
Irish triumvirate of priesthood, police and politics.
It was true, however, that later-arriving immigrants were shut
out of the “benefits” of the political machine. In New York City,
for instance, the Tammany Hall was run by and for the Irish.
Although Jews and Italians represented 43 percent of New York’s
population by 1920, as Judd and Swanstrom argue, only 15 percent of
the city’s aldermen were Jewish and 3 percent were Italian in 1921.
The black population was excluded from virtually all urban machines.
In some city like Chicago, there were “sub-machines” run by black
bosses, but they were subordinated totally to the white machine
The first scholar who challenged Handlin’s arguments about the
immigrant life-style was Rudolph J. Vecoli who studied the milieu of
the Italian immigrant families. According to Vecoli, the new urban
environment did not pull apart the social and family relations of
the immigrants from the Old World in the way and degree as Handlin
stated and there were more really influential Italian bosses as it
was stated in previous studies.
These relations like the patronage system with the padrone
(boss) provided protection for the immigrants in the American urban
milieu, though; they had to pay some money (bossatura) for his
Thus, in the process whereby a political party became a
“coordinating agency,” jobs in the city government became patronage,
and contracts or franchises for public constructions became graft.
Those men in the political organizations who could provide a
cohesive force and allocate the patronage and the graft most
professionally, with a view to winning elections, reached positions
of power. They were called bosses and their function was to provide
the city governments with at least the minimum of regularity and
In more general sense, “the functional deficiencies of the official
structure generate an alternative (unofficial) structure to
fulfill existing needs somewhat more effectively.”
Thus the strength of the political machine comes from its roots in
the local community and the neighborhood by recognizing that the
voter is a person living in a peculiar neighborhood with specific
personal problems and needs that are ignored by the municipal
government or “not adequately fulfilled by culturally approved or
more conventional structures.”
As I view it, the machine occasionally answered to the needs of the
immigrant workers such as widows’ pension, better working
conditions, laws regulating hours and wages especially for women and
children. The machine politicians supported these reforms or the
legal recognition of labor unions not surprisingly mainly during
The political machine, however, lacked the socialist ideological
background and it was definitely not a humanitarian organization. It
served its own purposes either political or financial and it never
became active advocates of reform. The political machine always took
precedence over principle for the sake of political success.
These different and challenging opinions about the origin, history
and function of the boss and the machine politics reflect both the
development in theory and the several biases about its existence in
light of their organizational needs. One theory assumes that the
boss and the political machine appeared as a response to overcome
those problems that the official city government was unable to solve
because of the federalist fragmentation of power. Other theory
argues that the political machine offered the means of social
mobility for the immigrant masses and, in spite of the
self-interests of the bosses, the machine helped the modernization
of the American city. Recent studies, like Steven Eries’s one
reevaluated the role of the boss and the political machine by
arguing that the machine did not provide social mobility for the
immigrants not even to the Irish ones. In my opinion, the boss had a
stake in sustaining the overcrowded immigrant ghettos in order to
monitor and handle easily the compact pattern of immigrant
residences that I intend to outline in the next subchapter.
3. The Impact of the Machine Politics on the American Urban Development
The built environment of a city and its architecture is a phenomenon
of political economy. The flow of money makes building and
construction possible and desirable and political economy leaves its
imprint upon the architectural layout of the city.
The present study aims to show three major biases connected to the
impact of the political machine on the urban development. Firstly,
the boss system favored the market centered development and led to
the enormous stamp of private sector commercialism in the industrial
city, for instance, via the gridiron layout of streets. Secondly,
the bias for huge public projects cemented the market centered
development. Thirdly, the political machine was in favor of the
compact neighborhoods with dense concentrations of immigrants to
reinforce its political position.
3.1. The Market Centered Development in the Age of the Machine
The pattern of the Cartesian grid and public square was general
throughout the new towns of the south and the Midwest in the
Industrial Age. The gridiron pattern
spread across the country as an effective tool of land speculation
since with each succeeding addition to the town new streets were
laid out easily and the expansion of the city was not difficult to
survey by the officials.
According to Lewis Mumford, the gridiron pattern successfully
connected the social demands of the city with the spatial form.
Moreover, the grid corresponded to the needs of capitalism in the
forms of land speculation and city promotion. It gave impetus also
to the westward expansion and provided space to the increasing
population of the cities.
The perfect regularity, simplicity and geometric order of the grid,
however, had many disadvantages. Firstly, it lacked imagination in
planning having been different from the European pattern. It had
both aesthetic and functional shortcomings without any regard to the
situation and geography of the ground, the features of the
surrounding country or the wind direction that became especially
offensive if the city was on the bad side of a stinking factory.
Secondly, it ignored the needs of the spatial utility; the roads
were too wide while the streets of the residential districts were
too narrow. The houses in the residential districts did not get
enough sunshine and air which was a characteristic feature
especially of the tenement houses in the immigrant districts.
Thirdly, the expansion of the grid gave impetus to land speculation
and corruption at the municipal level.
Land prices increased day by day which was in close connection with
the township system, thus, with every sold succeeding
addition to the city new streets were made on the line of the
gridiron pattern. The grid was an ideal tool for the “mania” for
buying, selling town lots and creating new cities in the middle of
nowhere. As Reps quotes one of the contemporary female visitors to
the vast new Chicago:
never saw a busier place than Chicago was at the time of our
arrival. The streets were overcrowded with land speculators,
hurrying from one sale to another. A negro dressed up in scarlet
bearing a scarlet flag and riding a white horse with housings of
scarlet announced the time of the sale. At every corner where he
stopped the crowd gathered around him; and it seemed as if some
prevalent mania infected the whole people. As the gentlemen of our
party walked the streets, storekeepers hailed them from their doors
with offers of farms and all manner of land lots, advising them
to speculate before the price of land rose higher (Reps 1965,
301-2), (emphasis mine).
Land speculation caused that some lots changed hands even ten times
in a single day with an ever increasing price. One has to take into
consideration, however, that “most of this value was fictitious
since it was not based on cash sales but purchases with extremely
The gridiron pattern of the newly built cities and the new forms of
housing became the visible symbols of the machine era.
This cultural construction of economic life is present in the form
of housing. Since the early nineteenth century, the economic
principle reinforced that only those who can pay should have
pleasant physical surroundings. Symbolically, the machine was
represented at every level of society; in the forms of architecture,
industry or politics and the machine process has created a
standardized conception of lifestyle. Lewis Mumford gives a graphic
account of the impact of the machine both symbolically and
literary on the urban environment:
Yet in the very crassness and ugliness of industrialism after the
Civil War, there was an element of health. The new captains of
industry had faith in themselves and in the cause that they
served: if they were brutal, they were nevertheless, according to
their own lights honest, or at the very least forthright: proud
of their ability to master the new energies that swiftly opening
up the continent. In the raw new town of Chicago, that
transcontinental railroad junction, once a wilderness of railroad
yards, they encouraged their architects and engineers to fashion
new warehouses and skyscrapers out of materials of the day,
in forms appropriate to the plain utilitarian functions they served
(Mumford 1995, 42), (emphasis mine).
Mumford established a periodical model of American urban
architecture in his book entitled as Sticks and Stones. A Study
of American Architecture and Civilization, which describes
American architectural styles even from the medieval period,
and he comments the works of many American architects and illustrates the
altering impact of the architecture upon American civilization. Mumford periodical model is important to this study with regard to
the temporal scope of this research. According to him, the period
between 1860 and 1890 can be regarded as (1) the Defeat of
Romanticism, and then the period between 1890 and 1910 saw the
rise of a new period in American architecture entitled by him as (2)
the Imperial Facade. Since 1910 the (3) Age of the Machine
In the period between 1860 and 1890, according to Mumford, the Iron
Age reached its peak of achievement in the construction of great
bridges and tenement houses; and Romanticism made a last stand. The
American Romantic movement with the architect Henry Hobson
Richardson, for instance, lacked the social and economic
implications of the English counterpart.
According to Mumford, the political rings, as he calls the political
machine, destroyed many old buildings such was the case with State
Capitol at Albany and a “new feudalism” started with the mode of
building, solid, formidable, at times almost brutal.
He considers especially the multiple-family tenement as a brutal
invention of the modern industrial community as an answer to the
acute housing shortage. The features of the tenement house
construction were standardized in the so-called dumb-bell
tenement which won the first prize in the model tenement house
competition of 1879. The tenements which were designed after this
pattern in the succeeding years were adjusted to the gridiron
street-design with the narrow frontage, the deep lot and the maximum
use of the space.
Thus, housing for the poor, whether in cheap lodging houses
or public housing, should involved no excess expenditures or
gratuitous physical amenities and, as it was emphasized by the
contemporary official reports; it had to be disciplinary, instilling
identity through enforcing desirable behavior.
What did these tenements as the imprints of the architecture of
the machine defined by Lewis Mumford look like?
The condition of the poor immigrant housing was designed as a
market-based accommodation and resulted that every tenement house
with narrow alleys was uniformed with of the same form and shape in
the tedious immigrant neighborhood districts. The tenement house
lacked the elements of individual identity that would constitute
proper housing such as the separation of domestic functions,
restriction of residence to family members, privacy for residents of
different ages and sexes and the inability to pay for such
facilities was the source of the problem in the first place.
The majority of the immigrants were unable to follow the suburban
pattern of way of life because of economic reasons which resulted in
the spatial segregation of social classes within the cities. The
poorer districts of the bigger cities demonstrated an increase in
density of population even after the general introduction of public
transportation. By the turn of the century, the overcrowded
immigrant ghettos with tedious tenements, dirty streets and littered
alleys were usually near the waterfronts and factories around the
downtown districts where the work and shopping places were located,
while the middle- and upper-class neighborhoods situated farther
from the urban center.
The accommodation of the increasing influx of the immigrant people
required new methods of housing and stimulated innovations in
construction. In the 1850’s and 1860’s, for instance, the older
converted structures of New York City’s housing were torn down and
rebuilt as tenements.
According to Glaab and Brown, the word tenement was used to apply to
multiple family rental building, and New York law defined the
tenement house as a unit occupied by more than three families. Later
the word was generally used for any residential building in a slum.
Within few years, badly constructed, three- or four-storey
buildings, with closet like rooms and dark interior bedrooms had
mushroomed throughout the lower part of the city. One example to
imagine the bad living condition of these tenement houses is enough
to prove their unbearable conditions; one of these barracks-like
structures was located at Number 36 Cherry Street and was called
Gotham Court. The building was five - storey high and thirty-four
feet wide. The structure housed 500 people without provision for
plumbing or heat.
The first law concerning the housing reform defined the minimum
standard for tenement construction in 1867. This law was, however,
practically ineffective, and an amendment in 1879 which required a
window in each bedroom just increased the proliferation of the
dumb-bell tenements in the poor immigrant districts. The dumb-bell
tenement structure, which was enacted by the Tenement House Law of
1879, got its name from the “indentation at its middle which,
combined with indentation of the tenement built up against it on the
adjoining lot, formed an air-shaft usually about five feet wide.”
The air-shaft provided a small measure of light and ventilation for
interior rooms, and gave the plan of an individual tenement the
appearance of a dumb-bell.
Reform movements inspired the New York’s Tenement Law of 1901 which
banned the construction of dumb-bell tenements in the future and
required certain improvements such as courtyards varying in width
with the heights of buildings, stricter fireproof buildings and
ordained a separate bathroom for every family dwelling unit.
The housing reforms, however, entailed only changing the type of
building and not addressing the problem of density of residence and
providing greater space. All these facts correspond to the interests
of the boss system to keep its voters in compact neighborhoods.
3.2. The Grand Public Projects of the Machine
Mumford compares the period between 1890 and 1910 - with a bit
exaggeration and irony - to the imperial Rome whose rule was
reflected in the architecture. He describes this period in American
architecture as compensation; a transitory period from republic to
imperialism by providing “grandiloquent stones for people who have
been deprived of bread and sunlight and all that keeps man from
The main effort in architecture, as Mumford argues, was to give an
effect of dignity to imperial enterprise, thus, the public buildings
dominated the compositions, avenues and boulevards concentrated the
traffic at certain points and the avenues were cut through the
gridiron pattern of block in order to achieve this effect.
Ironically, he calls the City Beautiful movement as a sort of
municipal cosmetic that reduced the work of the architect to an
engineer as a city planner of the grid who can only hide with a
pleasing front the ugly tenement houses, the monotonous streets and
slums by believing in the civic reform enthusiasm that every city
can be a fair.
This statement of Mumford alludes to the classic style of the
Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition (1893) and to Daniel Burnham’s
for the reconstruction of the Chicago downtown district (1909).
Since 1910, in the Age of the Machine, city planning and
architecture became a business enterprise and introduced the
mechanical methods of production and mechanical forms into the
fields of work that were done by handicraft previously.
The political machine did not care about city planning in the way as
the so-called reformers wanted; the machine took advantage of the
fact that the mass electorate could be mobilized on the feeling of
ethnic solidarity and the promise of some material rewards. As I
view it, machine politics answered to needs of the rapid
industrialization and urbanization and created a framework for urban
development with huge public constructions of road buildings or
sewer and water system which urban landscape was later corrected
aesthetically with the more organized city planning. The old
Boulevard in New York, for instance, which was built by the Tweed
ring long before the land on either side of it was used for anything
but squatters’ farms, was almost totally destroyed by the
construction of the first subways.
The bosses, who managed to gain control of local government, get
into the position to command resources that could be distributed to
their loyal supporters.
Machine bosses built and maintained their organization on corruption
and they frequently used their power to award multiyear contracts
for streetcar operations and other utility services such as
electricity, gas or road constructions, moreover, they controlled
gambling and prostitution. They were engaged in public work projects
including building of public buildings, sewer and water systems,
streetlights or parks.
The bosses had at their disposal patronage jobs in fire, sanitation,
and streets departments and even in private industry. Construction
projects such as levee construction or road building could give the
boss control over jobs in the city. Precinct captains served as
supervisors on street crews. Ward committeemen generally hold
administrative positions in the municipal government. Aldermen often
owned insurance companies, saloons, pubs or run their own
Street railways, lightening systems and other public utilities were
run by private companies which carried on their work under franchise
granted by city councils. These franchises were special contracts
with privileges that conferred a monopolistic position upon the
The franchise system of public utilities was driven by a system of
broker politics. Thus, graft and corruption prospered for the sake
of the contest over valuable contracts and the machine bosses was in
a powerful bargaining position by virtue of their political roles as
This market system, as Kantor argues, “shifted urban politics from
its formal democratic foundation to an informal one based on the
buying and selling of political power.”
This process resulted in the creation of a regime that had control
over the American urban development with new rules of the game by
playing upon ethnic, racial and neighborhood rivalries. As Kantor
emphasizes the machine represented the individual demands of the
immigrants, but not their demands as a class.
The Impact of the Machine on the Immigrant Neighborhoods
One of the latent functions of this regime politics is that the
machine provided assistance in the diverse forms of settlement
houses, cheap lodging houses or “immigrant banks” in a way that was
not just an aid but a manner so different from the professional
techniques of bureaucratic institutions. The precinct captain, as
Merton argues, was “just one of us,” who asked no questions
and did not interfere into private affairs with the detailed
investigation of legal claims of the client. Merton recalls the
Boston ward leader, Martin Lomasny who described this peculiar
function of assistance as the following:
I think, said Lomasny, that there’s got to be in every ward somebody
that any bloke can come to – no matter what he’s done – and got
help. Help, you understand, none of your justice, but help
(Merton 1973, 223).
This help, however, did not cease the origin of the problem which
was the increasing poverty and the crowded urban space. What was,
however, the impact of machine politics on the physical character of
the immigrant neighborhoods?
The first tenement houses, as Jacob Riis
recalls, intended to provide a cheap shelter to the poor immigrants
whose small wages limited their expenses. As industrialization went
on with the expanding market economy and the city grew with the
waves of immigration, the condition of the tenement house also
changed as Riis quotes from a report on the condition of tenant
houses in New York:
Their “large rooms were portioned into several smaller
ones, without regard to light or ventilation, the rate of rent
being lower in proportion to space or height from the street; and
they soon became filled from cellar to garret with a class of
tenantry living from hand to mouth, loose in morals, improvident in
habits, degraded, and squalid as beggary itself (Riis 1970, 8).
Actually, as Riis argues, the police and the political bosses
segregated the criminals in order to keep them out of the “better”
neighborhoods and to concentrate them in certain quarters where they
could be under some control and “milked for revenue.”
Riis’s work entitled as How the Other Half Lives? focuses on
one of the serious problems of American society which was urban
poverty represented by a core city slum in the Lower East Side of
New York City where criminals lived in large numbers among the poor.
In the period when Riis wrote his work on the slum, it led to
Progressive campaigns against crime, vice and the political machine
and corruption as an answer to the neglect of remedies for poverty.
According to Warner, this misuse of Riis’s criminal slum resulted
“on the demeaning philanthropic task of distinguishing between the
deserving and undeserving poor.”
Nevertheless, the lodging houses, as Riis argues, were the favorite
recruiting grounds for collecting votes in election times by coming
out strong on the side of the political boss who had the biggest
“barrel.” As Riis witnessed, the machines rivaled with each other
for the votes of the poor with bribery and offering material rewards
for their votes. Sometimes, the political boss was the owner of the
lodging house but more often the lodging house was under the
protection of the local boss who stood by the proprietor of the
lodging house at election times, in case the latter got into trouble
when the fraud at the polls was discovered.
The political machine contributed to the bad housing condition of
the poor since it only eased the increasing needs of the immigrants
but it did not really solve their social problems. It even froze and
standardized their chances for social uplifting and mobility which
was reflected in its impact on the urban development.
3.4. The Consequences of the Machine Politics
In the period between 1867 and 1897, which is considered to be the
heyday of the political machine, the indebtedness of the major
American cities increased. It was caused by several reasons such as
the market deflation in the general level of prices, the great
expenditures of the public construction projects and the period was
accompanied with two major economic depressions, 1873-78 and
1893-97. In the period after the Civil War, the debts of the fifteen
largest American cities rose by 271 per cent which meant a growing
burden on the city budget. The expenses of the local governments
were accompanied with inefficiency and corruption.
This resulted to progressive reform movements in many cities against
the corruption and high tax rates in the form of a general municipal
reform. These reform aspirations were weak at first and machine
politicians often referred ironically to the reformers as
“goody-goodies” or “goo-goos” which words were derived from the
notion of “good government” that the reformers wanted to achieve.
The need for a civil service reform and a municipal home rule
increased in the cities in order to simplify and centralize the
organization of the local government and strengthen the power of the
mayor by extending his veto power.
The decline of the boss system was connected to this transitory
period from the creative government to the good government. Though,
machine politics still exists in the American urban development in
an alternative form. The centralized machine system created a
certain kind of city that can be compared, apart from the
ideological implications, to the Socialist city on the basis of the
fact how a centralized political system can affect the physical
character of a city and make it as a built environment with a
politically determined form. Can one compare, however, the
capitalist urban development to a socialist one? The next chapter
touches upon this problem with the comprehension that a deeper
analysis of the topic would be a next step of a further research.
4. The Hungarian Socialist Urban Model
In 1972 the leaders of urban government from twenty-four European
capital cities met in Budapest for a conference on contemporary
urbanism and its discontents. One of the key issues in this
symposium was the question of whether or not the socialist city is
fundamentally different from the cities in the capitalist societies.
Some Western experts saw a convergence of the two forms and argued
that the differences reflect different stages of urbanization and
that the socialist city is now becoming more and more like its
capitalist counterpart. Special emphasis was laid on the fact that
from the 1960s the socialist economic management made some planning
decisions that resemble to those of the capitalist enterprise such
as the realization that it is more effective to locate new
industries in existing cities than to go on creating new town.
This assumption seems to be rather a theoretical question but it
provided a springboard for the unconventional comparison of the
capitalist and socialist cities in later studies.
These observations, however, cannot avoid one of the main
differences between these two urban models which is the ideological
implication in planning. Thus, the socialist urban models intended
to be “blueprints” for a planned future and they were the product of
the political will, that of the state and the party. Moreover,
according to Bodnár Judit, the primacy of the political and its
independence from the economic determine the distinctive logic of
the socialist urban model, whose specific content may vary according
to the party line, that is, the ideology of individual socialist
Bodnár argues for the method of mirrored comparison based on
Karl Polanyi’s forms of integration that can be the basis of a
comparative study of the socialist and capitalist urban
developments. Polanyi’s model defines three basic types of social
relations such as the reciprocity, redistribution and exchange which
are the parts of any concrete arrangement of economic integration
and different regimes display various configurations of the three.
Harvey relies on Polanyi’s model to construct a theory of urbanism
which provides space for temporal comparisons by arguing, as Bodnár
“Urbanism as a way of life comprises all three modes of economic
integration as well as the societal forms with which each is
associated.” This interpretative mechanism – although not applied
explicitly to the comparison of capitalist and state socialist
cities – provides a key link to an analysis of state socialist and
post-state socialist cities (Bodnár 2001, 33).
Harvey’s urban theory provided the stimulus for Szelényi Iván’s
model of socialist city. Szelényi built on Polányi’s original
suggestion that “state socialism is a social formation in which
elements of redistribution and market exchange are integrated under
the overwhelming logic of state redistribution.”
This is different from capitalism where market exchange is the
dominant cohesive force and redistribution plays a subordinate role.
According to Bodnár, with these definitions of the two systems
“mirrored comparison” becomes possible with the comprehension that a
comparative study of the two systems could not help being influenced
by the generalized dichotomy of capitalism vs. socialism and the
ideological overtones of the urban model.
The housing estate became the symbolic image of the new socialist
urban development and uniformity both in its physical character and
in its sociological implications. It represents, as Bodnár argues,
the purest form of socialist town planning, architecture and social
These projects are not unique architectural markers of state
socialism, as Szelényi argues; they followed the example of Le
Corbusier’s housing model such as the Unité d’Habitation de
Another characteristic feature of the housing estate comes from
the principles of socialism that is the homogeneity and uniformity
of the residential areas and the lack, or at least the smallest
degree of social segregation. This was also caused by the fact that
the standardized flats in the housing estates did not increase the
chances of random distribution of dwellers by social class, thus,
prevented social segregation.
Probably it is not well-known that the average class position of the
dwellers did not come from the urban underclass or the poor during
the Socialist Era. The average class position of their dwellers was
higher than in similar projects in non-socialist countries. Most of
the young families with small children, the intelligentsia and the
middle and even upper-income people lived in the housing estates
because of the limited housing construction, the lack or the
deterioration of the old houses after the World War II, the
modernity and newness of the newly built housing estates and the
socialist housing policy.
They were even happy to have a place to live which was defined by
Szelényi as the “flat-joy” (lakásöröm) of the state
The flats were either the property of the state and the dweller had
to pay rent for it, or they belonged to the co-operative society (szövetkezet)
from which the dweller could buy the flat on credit.
The flats were distributed by the state on the basis of the
applicants’ social status, working positions and for their services
and merits to the state.
According to Szelényi, the construction and improvement projects of
the housing estates resulted from the fact that only a little money
was spent by the state to the reconstruction, preservation and
development of the old downtown districts. This was accompanied with
the ideology of creating new town centers instead of the old
Szelényi argues that the new housing estates were not at all slums;
he compares the Hungarian housing estates to the Western suburbia on
the basis of the uniformity, monotony of the urban built environment
and the social status of their residents.
This assumption illustrates a main difference between the tenement
houses of the American immigrant neighborhoods and the Hungarian
housing estates, that is, in the U.S. the immigrant districts around
the downtown became slums while in the socialist Hungary, the
so-called transitory zone in between the downtown and the
“suburbia-housing estate,” as Szelényi argues, set out for becoming
similar to a slum.
The similar physical character of the American neighborhoods with
the monotonous tenement-houses under the control of the political
machine and Hungarian housing estate (lakótelep)
in the state socialism led me to outline a comparative framework for
these two urban developments. Both forms of housing were an urgent
answer to the shortage of adequate housing for masses and the
indebtedness due to the major public constructions was also a common
feature. In both cases the centralized form of one-party government
created a uniformed and standardized space of living for their
The Hungarian socialist urban development, however, was driven more
by ideology than the need to reinforce the compact pattern of living
to control the voters as it was common under the U.S. political
machine. Moreover, the neglect of downtown central business
districts was also part of this pattern in the postwar Hungary.
The present study focused on the institution of the political
machine and its impact on the urban development and the physical
character of the American city in the second half of the nineteenth
century. The underlying assumption of the paper was to provide,
firstly, a historical perspective of the boss system and the
political machine then, secondly, analyzing the way how this
centralized regime politics made its imprint upon the city as a
planned environment with political implications. Another aim of this
study was also to compare the American urban model shaped by the
political machine to the Hungarian socialist urban development with
the comprehension that a deeper investigation of this complicated
and unconventional comparison would be the next step of a further
The post-Civil War period in the U.S. was the historical term when
the ethnic composition of the population and the electoral basis of
politics changed significantly with the succeeding waves of
immigration. The altered political economy of the U.S. created an
alternative offspring of the government in the form of the
centralized machine politics. The organization of the political
machine ruled the major bigger cities of the U.S. at that time, in
parallel with the municipal government, by overlapping each other
and “correcting” the governmental system. The origin and foundation
of the boss system or machine politics was the immigrant enclaves in
the city neighborhoods who lived mainly in the tedious and poor
tenement houses and districts of the cities. The political machine
fostered the cohesion of the immigrants by relying on their loyalty
to the system that “protected” them in the new urban milieu, while,
at the same time, it froze their opportunities for social mobility
since the machine treated its voters not as a class but as its
“neighbor friends.” Many machine bosses owned saloon, pubs or
lodging houses in the immigrant districts which became the centers
for recruiting voters even with bribery and fraud. As I view it, the
centralized machine politics with its huge construction projects
created the rough shell or framework for the American urban
development on the Cartesian gridiron pattern which was modified by
the town beautification movements and the plans of the progressive
reformers. The monotonous and tedious urban space and tenement
houses of the bigger cities led me to compare the so-called
capitalist urban development of the U.S. with the Hungarian
Socialist urban model of the housing estates and to search for a
comparative framework of method. This happened with the
comprehension that a deeper investigation of the topic would be the
next step of a further study. Summing up what has been said;
both in the U.S. and Hungary the
centralized one-party rules - without comparing the distinct
ideological implications - played a crucial role and were
significant forces in forming and developing the urban development
with a politically determined form. The one-party system in both
cases provided a monopole position with no competition to the ruling
party in shaping the physical character of the residential districts
of their voters.
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is a bold comparison but one has to mention that frauds at
the elections on both sides were also a common feature,
though, only before the advent of the actual one-party
system in the postwar Hungary. The disreputable “blue-card
elections” of 1947 (kék-cédulás választások)
in Hungary was among the last “democratic” elections in the
postwar Hungary when the Communist Party with a secret
agreement of the government intended to multiply its votes
with forged voting cards. László Rajk, the Minister of the
Interior ordered the issue of the so-called blue voting
cards for those who did not live in their permanent home so
that they can vote with the means of this license everywhere
in the country. The Communist Party, however, under the
guidance of Mihály Farkas published around 80,000 illegal
blue cards and distributed them among the members of the
Communist Party who were carried by cars and vans to other
parts of the country and voted more than one time to the