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Book Summary

Frug, Gerald E. 1999. City Making: Building Communities without Building Walls. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

In City Making: Building Communities without Building Walls, Gerald E. Frug identifies the power dynamics of cities within the legal structure as both a cause and a potential answer to social divisions. Local government laws awkwardly position the cities between the state and the individual in a way that deems them powerless. The way cities have sought to acquire power has relied on a centered sense of self contributing to fragmentation and issues of equity in crime, schools, and city services. When Frug reconceives the subjectivity of cities according to postmodern thought, he seeks to empower them for the purpose of greater democracy and heterogeneity in communities. Increased participation in decision-making and exposure to strange people and ideas will build strong, vibrant communities. This form of community building should be a city’s main function. He details the practical application of his theories through proposed regional structures and public services strategies.

To set the context for his framework, Frug examines the legal origin of the city as a governing body. Cities today are made powerless by the state because they are conceived as a coercive force from which individuals need protection. The original towns, or corporations, born out of the Middle Ages served the opposite purpose, and instead protected individual interests from the state. Through an overview of Western history, Frug demonstrates how this shift occurred. As sovereignty of the individual became distinct from state sovereignty, the dual role of the original towns as both economically driven corporations and politically representative associations was split into separate private and public entities. Private corporations, taken as individuals, were viewed as holding rights in need of protection from excessive government intervention that might come from public corporations – or cities. Thus cities became subordinates of the state under strict control. Cities have managed to keep what little power they now hold by developing a centered sense of self. By drawing distinct boundaries, cities can claim they represent a collective interest and secure greater autonomy. Cities are then discouraged from cooperation – which would blur the lines of their identity – and compete as individuals for state and federal funding. Frug encourages cities to give up this notion and see the potential in horizontal relationships based on other conceptions of self that do no require separateness.

Frug’s conception of city subjectivity is based in the rhetoric of postmodernism. He provides introductory overviews of the concepts of “situated self” and “postmodern self” to ground his discussion of the new role of cities. He argues that cities are not isolated individuals. According to situated sense of self, cities are embedded in and result from a network of relationships. Every decision made by or within a city has effects beyond its borders. From the postmodern lens which completely dissolves the self-other dichotomy, city boundaries are completely irrelevant. Cities are ageographical. A person’s residency or property is no longer an indicator of a connection to the locality. People live in places they do not reside, develop loyalty to or personal interest in several localities in one lifetime, and even traverse multiple jurisdictions on a daily basis.

With the status quo of cities challenged by these conceptions, Frug makes a plea for regionalization. He rejects public authorities over democracy concerns and fears that regional government would just add another intermediary sovereignty between individuals and the state, so instead he proposes a regional legislature. The function of this legislature would be less about governance and more about keeping the region in consideration in decision-making by bringing city representatives together. A strategy such as this he believes would empower cities in relation to the state, involve more people in the decisions that affect their lives, and furthermore force people to face opinions and people strange or disagreeable to them. This last piece is crucial to the community building resulting from regionalization. Frug strongly emphasizes that his definition of community building rejects those definitions centered on finding commonality. A focus on finding common identity causes people to withdraw into fragmented and divided clusters, the result of which is made especially evident by the suburban – central city disparities. Frug celebrates the heterogeneous community in which exposure to a variety of people fosters tolerance of difference, contributes to human development, diminishes fear, and invigorates political problem solving.

Throughout the book and especially in the last quarter, Frug demonstrates the practical application of his theories to city policies and services. Zoning and restrictions on rental unit landlords are examples of self-centered policies that inhibit mobility and create barriers between city and suburb. Frug also points to historical housing reform acts and urban renewal programs that have furthered fragmentation by encouraging the sorting of people into homogenous groups. A decentered city exercising the function of community building through its public service provision stands to reintegrate its neighborhoods. Public services though must also be unleashed from the centered identity. Cities have privatized their services simply by treating them as consumer products. Frug argues for their public nature. He furthermore rejects voluntary association as a justification of fragmentation, instead claiming that association is fortuitous. Pulling on the most apparent examples of fragmentation resulting from centered identity and voluntary association, Frug shows how the city can use community building with regards to education and crime. Schools, if they retain their public nature, expose students to differences from a young age and place them in an environment where they must come to negotiate and tolerate these differences. Cities can reshape their policing tactics to center on crime prevention rather than ‘get tough’ policies that exclude more people from society. It is the isolation of criminals that makes people fear the threat of crime and flee to suburbs or gated communities which only reinforces a crime cycle. Frug explores other potential possibilities for public services in the context of a decentered city. A regional legislature could empower a city to fill gaps with more creative public provision such as cooperative grocery stores or public cable televion. Frug argues that community building strategies such as these can reorganize services in ways that encourage greater democracy and heterogeneity.

Looking at the book as a whole, the main trouble is a consistency of framework and a failure to address issues of scale. Frug has difficulty staying true to his postmodern vision of the world. Regionalization does not seem an appropriate bridge from postmodern subjectivity to democracy and decentralization. For this to function, the region must shape an identity as well and thus recenters rather than decenters. Determining the size and borders of the region would just reinforce fragmentation at a higher level. Scaled to full size then, Frug is proposing a complete restructuring of state, national, and international governance systems, on which he does not offer a discussion of implications. When Frug scales his own theory in the other direction he creates a glaring inconsistency. In discussion of the interests of the elderly, he admits that segregation is permissible at the block level since the elderly might have a common desire for isolation.

Some additional concerns are a want of data to back some of his speculations and a less biased perspective towards dense central cities and their suburbs. He nods to more contemporary patterns of development – as one might find in the Sunbelt – by admitting a diversity of forms both inside and outside the city border. He ties this into the ageographical city, but this is the exception. Rather than offer a new way to talk about the urban form relationships, he builds on the clichéd suburban – central city dichotomy. Furthermore, he leaves rural completely out of the discussion. If he wants to think at regional level, rural areas become extremely important and he does not introduce a mechanism for representing parts of the region that are sparsely inhabited and less politically capable. Under his model, results of regional negotiations could potentially favor urban interests. 

Overall, Frug must be recognized for making his ideas accessible to a broader audience by taking the space to unpack and simplify the historical basis and dense theories that form the foundation of his arguments. He also puts himself out there in his proposal for a regional legislature. Concrete applications of theory are always susceptible to attack. Frug offers valuable contributions at the big ideas level, but the new potential for institutional innovations still needs work.