Georgist1 Policies and Population Growth in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago,
Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Other Cities, 1890-1930
Mason Gaffney, emended 10-22-06
2

In the period 1890 to 1930, the Georgist movement inspired a large number of civic leaders—
mayors, assessors, governors, congressmen and others—to implement Georgist policies in a
number of US and Canadian cities. That is, in order to encourage development, they reduced or
eliminated assessments on buildings and increased assessments on land. They used land
revenues to provide low-cost, high-quality public services. Where implemented, these policies
resulted in rapid population growth.

Contents
INTRODUCTION…………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 2

I. New York City Reborn, 1920-31 …………………………………………………………………………………. 6
A. Al Smith’s 1920 Tax Reform Act and its Apparent Effects ………………………………………….. 6
B. NYC’s Success, and its Meaning ……………………………………………………………………………… 7

II. NYC Under the Al Smith Act ……………………………………………………………………………………. 7
A. Sources on the Smith Act ………………………………………………………………………………………… 7
B. Political History: The Georgist Factor ………………………………………………………………………. 9
C. Assessment Reform, Silent Senior Partner of Tax Reform…………………………………………. 10
D. The Plenty in Land as a Tax Base …………………………………………………………………………… 11
E. Features of the Law as Applied, Summarized …………………………………………………………… 12
F. NYC Outstripping Comparison Cities, 1920-40………………………………………………………… 13
G. Summary: Effectiveness of the Smith Act ……………………………………………………………….. 15
H. Aftermath ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 16

III. Growth Spurts in some Other Cities ………………………………………………………………………. 16
A. Cleveland, 1900-20 ………………………………………………………………………………………………. 16
B. Detroit, 1890-1930 ……………………………………………………………………………………………….. 17
C. Toledo, 1890-1920 ……………………………………………………………………………………………….. 18
D. Milwaukee, 1916-40 …………………………………………………………………………………………….. 18
E. Chicago, 1890-1930………………………………………………………………………………………………. 19
F. San Francisco, 1906-30………………………………………………………………………………………….. 24
G. Cincinnati, Ohio politics, and Decadence, 1890-2000……………………………………………….. 26
H. Are Pro-labor Mayors Bad for Business? ………………………………………………………………… 28
I. The Puzzle of Pittsburgh…………………………………………………………………………………………. 29

IV. L’Envoi …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 30

TABLE I: Populations, NYC and Comparison Cities, 1890-2000, Ranked by 1900
populations………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 31

APPENDIX I: Hauser on Methods of Social Ostracism…………………………………………………. 36
APPENDIX II: Questions wanting further research. ……………………………………………………… 37

Bibliography ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 38

1 Henry George (1839-1897) is best known today for Progress and Poverty (1879). For a brief history of Henry
George and the Georgist movement, see “Henry George 100 Years Later: the Great Reconciler” at
http://www.masongaffney.org/essays/Henry_George_100_Years_Later.pdf.

2 Yisroel Pensack gave lavishly of his time and talent and editorial experience to upgrade and clarify my prose in
Parts I and II. I am also indebted to the late Robert Andelson, Clifford Cobb, Richard Biddle, Dick Netzer, Jeffrey
Smith, Heather Remoff, Daniel Sullivan, Herbert Barry, William Batt, Nicolaus Tideman, Robert Piper, Robert
Fitch, Wyneth Achenbaum, Michael Hudson, Joshua Vincent and Ed O’Donnell for editorial and substantive
corrections and additions, most of which I have used. My greatest debt is to Mary M. Cleveland, whose holistic
mind, encyclopedic knowledge, and conscientious prodding, reaching across a continent, have guided me to
integrate the parts into a coherent whole. I bear sole responsibility for the final product.

INTRODUCTION
“History … is the biography of great men” – Carlyle


Some cities have grown in notable spurts. Some of these cities were new; others have revived
after decaying. Cities’ cells, like ours, metabolize and can refresh themselves constantly. Cities
need not die like us. They can continue this cycle of renewal forever, when people remodel
buildings and clear and renew sites. This can happen even after periods of sickness and senility.
Given the will, it also takes some skill with public policy. We can learn the skill from the history
of growing and reviving cities.

The dynamics are bent by free will, not just iron laws of geography and history. True, they
deal with economics and numbers and tax policy, with self-seeking employees and home-buyers
and merchants and manufacturers, with simple motives and narrow outlooks. Yet the evidence
keeps bringing us back to the impact of idealistic leaders, and the power of their ideals to move
others, prevailing over and working with “destiny” and greed and myopia and technical details.

There was a telling episode in New York City, 1920-32. Its leaders exempted new residential
buildings from the property tax, while maintaining the tax on land values. As current land prices
rose, which they swiftly did, the land taxes rose in step. There ensued a notable surge in building
and population, unmistakably linked to the tax policy. National population data disclose,
however, that New York was not the only city to have boomed or revived suddenly. What was
remarkable about New York, that we should be mindful of it?

Jane Jacobs has pointed out that cities grow “explosively” during periods of special vigor.
She brilliantly described the private-sector process of import-substitution. However, she put such
an anarchist spin on it she overlooked the positive role of political leaders, and tax and spending
policy. When we find high growth rates in the data, we also find, more often than not, a pro-
Georgist or fellow-traveling movement, Mayor, Council and Governor. We also find ports,
parks, public schools, low-fare mass transit, social welfare, public plumbing, bridges and tunnels,
public health programs, and so on, making a city attractive for people and profitable for business.
We find public works and services provided without heavy taxes on private commerce, labor,
and buildings, which also make a city livable and attractive. This was the promise of Henry
George, and it seems to have come true in many places during this, the Golden Age of American
and Canadian cities.

To the extent that historians have noted this phenomenon it has been one city at a time.
Robert Bremner’s title, George and Ohio’s Civic Revival, might give the impression that the
action focused on Ohio; publicity about Pittsburgh, and more recently Harrisburg and Allentown,
would make Pennsylvania the focus; a study of Henry George’s origins leads us to San
Francisco; and so on. But studies of one place at a time mistakenly localize what was a pandemic
movement, 1890-1930. George and Georgists influenced tax policy in many other cities than
New York, and rural areas too. The signature of their influence is the rate of population growth,
reported in the U.S. Census of Population.

Geography and “Historical Laws of Motion” play their roles, and brute economic “forces”,
too; but political leaders tip the balance. These may be inspirational, analytical, or political.
Italy’s Risorgimento, recall, had its poet, Mazzini, its sword, Garibaldi, its composer, Verdi, and
its brain, Cavour. We find their counterparts who led growth spurts in New York City, Chicago,
Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, San Diego,
Houston, Los Angeles, and some smaller cities. These are human factors that “cookbook”
econometric modeling omits. Modern economics, with its mechanistic tools and canned standard
procedures, is the poorer for it. Carlyle’s history as the “biography of great men” (and women)
has something to teach us.

To compare one city’s performance with others’ requires a standard measure, preferably
simple and unitary. I chose population in part because the measure is readily available. Census
data on building, on the other hand, do not go back to the 1920s. Gathering and verifying
building records, city by city, would be a major project, not attempted here. Cord, Tideman and
Plassmann, and Oates and Schwab, have searched building permit records for various
Pennsylvania cities, but the records are non-uniform, hard to interpret, and often inconsistent
with population data.

Population growth is not the only goal and measure of civic performance, it is understood.
Population, however, is a sign of city health, even from the particularistic local view: a thriving
city attracts people, and people, viewed as human resources, help the city thrive. From a larger
view, macro-economists understand that the aggregate effect of having cities vie to attract people
is not to raise the overall national or world birthrate, but is to make jobs and homes, raise wages,
and lower living costs. The converse is also true, with grim results like homelessness and hunger.
It is noteworthy that most cities’ growth spurts accompanied provision of vast parks, superior
schooling, mass transit, and other such public goods.

(You may read the rest of the article here: https://www.masongaffney.org/publications/2006_New_Life_in_Old_Cities.pdf and purchase the original book here: https://www.amazon.com/Life-Cities-Mason-Gaffney-2014-06-01/dp/B01HCAHM88)