Fear and freedom: how communities cope with being left on their own

A summary of Michelle Wilde Anderson's The Fight to Save the Town with particular focus on the minimum viable size of local government/financial services, as well as the character of communities facing historic divestment.


This book is an excellent exploration of the conditions that lead to government breakdowns, and the societal efforts that can bring it back. It's useful for anyone wondering why a centralized service is failing in a particular market, how they might arrest the decline, or create new structures. The Fight to Save the Town explores Stockton, CA, Lawrence, MA, Detroit MI, and Josephine County, OR over the last several decades as they faced significant health, safety, and financial challenges. I've been exploring community capitalism and civic investment structures, and this book proved a wonderful discussion of those themes and the conditions that have created such a need for them.

Points I appreciated:

  • Anderson addresses directly that many in these communities espouse libertarian values, regardless of how they express that preference in the voting booth. The folks she describes don't believe that government contributes to their thriving, and government may actively suppress it. I have not seen a book address this reality so clearly since "Strangers in their Own Land".
  • There is a recognition of the durability and the quality of the civic temper in these cities. Often they are looked down upon, but many of these communities have achieved a sort of solidarity that can only be dreamed of in more affluent communities.
  • Anderson also clarifies the types of programs that will move the needle in these communities. Often, it has less to do with investment in real estate and much more to do with fixing market failures, primarily those stemming from a lack of access to financial markets, job opportunities, and healthcare.

Points I'm still exploring:

  • This book has me wondering about the cost and structure of government services. In some conversations in this book, local government seems to be treated as a relatively a la carte commodity. There is a cost for a library, and public safety, etc. at least one that is run sustainably (without substantial volunteer requirements). I'm thinking a lot about the ways that high quality civic institutions could exist in a lower cost, sustainable structure.
  • Two intuitive distinctions exist in this book that I'm continuing to wonder about: 1) The delineation between a city service and a civic institution: many of the solutions in this book start out with people doing something for free that they want to exist in their cities. Which of these things are ripe for long term citizen participation, and which should be more fully professionalized as city services, with the citizen occupying an end user role? This has important implications for structure and unit economics of these activities. 2) The hierarchy of civic needs: Most of the needs that Anderson highlights -- public safety, housing, mental health -- require little to no hierarchy. There are a whole host of other things that occur inside of a city that might be more open to experimentation in form. Where is the line?


  • Anderson's explorations deal with "citywide poverty": municipality or unincorporated area with 20% of residents under the poverty line and median income 33%+ below state average
  • local governments in these localities defer investment and degrade services: "Containment, rather than betterment, defines the character of public services." a dynamic has long been recognized, but the cause and effect relationship has not been fully analyzed
  • the popular narrative assumes that some cities are better run than others, and those, broadly speaking, win. But in the wake of the GFC: "local governments [in state programs for fiscal crisis] were not just broke, they governed poor people. They were broke mostly because their people were poor. And their people stayed poor in part because they were broke." often times, the argument goes that a thinner state would enable prosperity to grow at the top and trickle down. In these places however, a private poverty PRECEDES a public poverty.
  • So we have to ask ourselves what creates these death spirals, what are the atomic units of reversing them, and what differentiates an over-governed community from an under-goverened one? A better governed community for a poorly governed one?
  • deep cuts to local government + serious hardship = "a certain kind of faithlessness" in government as a positive force in community life…"Our smallest governments are at the frontlines of both the perception and the reality of American government."... Residents agree that something needs to change. "What residents did not agree on was whether new funds for government would help."... "The far left and the far right, the poorest urban and the poorest rural communities, rarely agree about government's potential to improve. But they often share a deep cynicism that, as currently run, their governments have the public interest at heart."..."the state is dominant in our poorest places. but it is not necessarily there to help."
  • [Josephine County, OR] a logging community that lost most of its industry and population
  • attitude towards legality: "people tend to solve their own problems and not only by legal means"...malum in se (moral offenses like murder, etc.) are matters for the sheriff and are rules that should be followed, essentially "informal social control"...malum prohibitum or more procedural rulings such as drunk driving or business certification, theft, drug abuse tend not to be reported, and are solved amongst folks…increase in concealed carry permits in the wake of crimes
  • most people don't feel these rules are in their interest
  • for example, Josephine County was home to a lot of early, illegal pot growing. Growers supported legalization, but then resented implementation as all the early participants were put out of business by certification costs.
  • [Detroit, MI] an industrial community that lost jobs and population for much of the 20th century, before facing a financial crisis at the start of the 21st…in the wake of the GFC, huge percentages of middle class home owners were evicted. over the past 50 years, homeowners declined from 900k - 171k…50k of that decline and a huge drop in prices came from the GFC…most black neighborhoods had only just gotten access to credit markets after generations of redlining
  • prices are so low that there's no bank financing, and even if they're higher, there's no financing availability to someone with a foreclosure for 7 years. Homes go to those that can pay cash, not existing community members…"value gap" -- property is worth less than the cost of repairs to make it habitable
  • city making some improvements -- cleans up tax collection technology and process, but enforcing unjust tax codes, and is delivering huge bills to folks that can't pay them. An estimated 84% of Detroit homes face tax assessments that violate their rights under that state constitution
  • programs are available to help homeowners facing foreclosure, but they're really hard to qualify for. For instance, Detroit allocated $52M to help solve housing issues, can't find enough people that meet the standardization criteria, try to use it to demolish houses instead…
  • people in Detroit know the hard edges of government…default judgements, foreclosures, etc. The lowest levels of trust in government outside of Josephine County are seen in Detroit…this is not a red vs. blue issue, it's a question of those who believe the system is broken vs. those that think it's broadly fine. not only that, but the communities that feel gov’t is broken have not known investment (material, real, effective investment from outside government entities)
  • Why do city services degrade? The loss of revenue: job losses lead to lower property values lead to lower tax rolls for the city…Josephine County, OR lost the timber industry…Lawrence, MA lost the textile industry…Stockton, CA went bankrupt in the financial crisis and housing values plummeted by more than 70%...median home value post crisis was $110k -- barely bank financeable…Detroit, MI experienced a massive population exodus, and then went bankrupt in the Great Financial Crisis
  • static cost of maintaining a jurisdiction: often, though population declines and revenues take a hit, the geographic area remains the same. Cost to enforce certain types of laws (evictions, etc.) also remain relatively the same…[Detroit] "losing people did not alter the city's territory for public services. Many neighborhoods were emptier but none were empty."...[Josephine County] static territory, less people, less money
  • public safety response times balloon to hours…residents figure out ways to speed it up (a gunshot wound becomes "chest pain" so that EMS comes from fire, not police e.g.)...famous call to dispatch of an assault occurring -- dispatcher can't send cops, asks caller to see if the assailant will "go away"
  • the apparatus to enforce the law is too big…volunteer watches emerge…mantra similar to Navy SEALs: actively participate in saving your own life…"what do you need to do for your safety?" technically have no rights to public safety under the constitution…only guaranteed service is mail
  • austerity measures typically target proactive services first, the ones that make cities good places to live -- the library in Stockton, CA for example…seeing less value for their tax dollar, communities then tend to vote for lower taxes, furthering the spiral…all of these follow the form of private poverty preceding public poverty…they also all contain some flavor of losing access to markets which left these communities facing investment cliffs…Josephine County had state funding for their labor market to make their timber competitive, and then lost it…Stockton and Detroit lost access to capital markets through bankruptcy, and many homeowners lost access to bank financing for mortgages. Bailouts didn't trickle down to them…Lawrence lost the labor battle with southern states, and then countries beyond the US as it sought to produce textiles.
  • The crux of the argument -- it takes money to make money…underinvested city services make places undesirable to live and inconsistent with thriving communities…you have to invest in these services, with whatever you have, cash or non-cash resources, until they're strong enough to support real growth and development
  • counterargument: unless your investments in local government enable a structurally lower cost of delivery or a sustained higher revenue, you're going to be in the same position again…is it possible to deliver the same level of performance as other jurisdictions, but at lower cost?
  • How are communities reshaping themselves to face these crises?
  • Hyperlocal public-private partnerships across the board
  • [Stockton, CA] trauma informed care procedures were rolled out through non-profit partners and the city began using trauma-informed methodologies (ACE scores, etc.)...moving beyond simple police response as well and reimagining public safety with community partners…additionally, much of the information needed to reduce gang violence came through community partnerships that respected distrust of formal authority
  • organizing principles in Stockton…build relationships, give residents agency…have government follow what works
  • [Lawrence, MA] the city has built everything from neighborhood associations to workforce development via partnerships with non-profits…people start feeling like they can't trust their neighbor and they can't improve their city…resolution: in community, help residents identify problems, brainstorm solutions,actively implement them…mill redevelopment, Spicket River Cleanup, diversity in hiring initiatives, all run through the non-profit center with city support…"mercados" -- a practice of community gathering to share needs and find non-monetary ways to help each other
  • [Detroit] houses facing a value gap, or habitability repairs that exceed the current price of the home were being forclosed upon at a tremendous rate…non-profit helps residents with paperwork, and understands whether they'll be able to stay in the home once they own it…city extends authority to ensure that the price of purchase is reasonable and within reach of the resident and philanthropic dollars create a 0% interest loan pool
  • [Josephine County] public safety crisis leads to neighborhood watches, increase in concealed carry permits. Eventually becomes a public-private partnership because it connects to county jailing systems
  • As communities are trying to roll out their own solutions to these problems, you realize how difficult it is to productize any of these services…there's not a sheriff, there's just a guy named Ken Selig. It's best to start with relationships and trust, and then scale/monetize from there…there's something about behavior that exists before there's money that's better than behavior incentivized by money. There are a lot of private market solutions to these problems (private fire, etc.) but they're notoriously frigid and at times exploitative
  • The flip side is that Good Samaritans may get in over their head quite quickly and will have relatively few legal (or physical) protections…unfunded activities lead you to things that should be funded though…Josephine County approved its first tax levy to fund jail operations. Crux of the argument again is "that their government was capable of making the problem better. Or that more taxes would help the government do better."..."urgency is not enough. You've got to prove that government can help."..."police are hired on behalf of people that don't want to defend themselves" maybe the people will handle some of the policing, but they can't handle the jailing. This is participatory citizenship
  • scale of these efforts can be limited by their design…only $2-5M has gone through the housing initiative in Detroit…a scheme to buy vacant land for urban farming netted $60k, when Detroit currently has 20 square miles of vacant land, about the size of Manhattan…limited by trust, and a lack of visibility into selection criteria…when governments rely on non-profits or others to handle intake and program qualification, there is often a limit on how much money will be entrusted to that judgment.
  • These communities are recovering agency, and typically doing so in the face of scorn from more affluent communities. 
  • [Stockton, CA] reporters from outside of the city treated the residents, business owners and leaders like bumpkins "you could feel it in the air, it just got thicker"
  • [Josephine County, OR] when jobs disappear, there's a silent expectation that everyone will leave and go to a city, but the people who stay are the ones that can't or won't leave. Loss of identity accompanies loss of vocation…"when the sun comes out, you find yourself sizing up the trees and thinking about which way they'd fall. It haunts you because you loved it so damn much."
  • [Lawrence, MA] Boston mag declared Lawrence the city of the Damned in 2005…"Lawrence is the sinkhole in the lawn that must stay wet, so the rest of the region can stay dry."...Governor Chris Sununu estimated, without hard data that 85% of all the opioids in Massachusetts came from Lawrence

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