Chapter 6: Phoenix – Shadow Government
DOROTHY KRUEGER, sixty-one, stood squarely amid the rust-golden grit of the Sonoran desert. She wore orange-red lipstick, bright yellow earrings, blue sweat pants, new white Reeboks, two gold chains, and a matte black semiautomatic Glock 17. There were seventeen bullets in the grip of the pistol. On the webbed black belt around Krueger's waist hung two more clips—for a total of fifty-one rounds—inside the tooled leather cases that matched her holster.
Krueger fired at a human silhouette target first with her strong hand, then her weak hand, then with both hands. She shot quickly, three rounds in four seconds, timed with a stop watch. From three yards, seven yards, fifteen yards, twenty-two, she blazed professionally. Five points for a chest shot. Only two for the head. On order, she reloaded from the belt. "You never want to holster an empty weapon" came the fierce scold of the instructor over the loudspeaker. Up and down the line, the thirteen senior citizens—most of them noticeably older than Krueger—quickly complied.
Jack Goodrich and Dick Schiefelbein wore the brown shirts of their uniforms crisply creased; their badges shone brightly in the Arizona sun. They watched Krueger, a candidate for promotion, critically. These two commanding officers of the Sun City Posse, seventy-one and fifty-eight respectively, had always preferred the .357 Magnums hanging on their belts. But as the cacophony of firepower erupted and slugs volleyed in bursts of dust into the backstop of a flood-control canal, they could see why Krueger liked her Glock. With plastic parts, it was lighter and easier to draw and aim than their enormous six-guns. It was also much quicker to reload. No wonder the "bad guys," as they put it, had come to favor that handgun—causing many police forces to switch to the new 9mm standard. And no way was the Posse going to be behind the times.
After all, the Posse had an image to uphold. The uniforms of its members—which included everyone on the Posse-owned firing range—were virtually identical with those of the county's deputy sheriffs, right down to the handcuffs and the Mace. The Posse's full-sized Chevrolets, with the flashing lights on the roof and the star painted on the doors, were also practically indistinguishable from the real police. The Posse's equipment, of course, tended to be newer than that of the police. And their headquarters featuring a color portrait of John Wayne was bigger than the nearby substation. Their big brown beaver Stetsons were more beautiful. For that matter, their shooting range Was nicer.
But then again, there were 183 members of the Sun City Posse—far more than there were police officers in the area. That was why this partnership between the privately funded, privately organized Posse and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department was formed, Goodrich explained.
"In the days of the Wild West, the sheriff would go into a bar and pick out four or five people and deputize them and go out and catch the bad guy," Commander Goodrich said. "Now bring it up to modern status, why, we are on a continuing posse status. They don't let us go when the job is done. we just keep doing it. We're a permanent crime-control posse."
Sun City, Arizona, on the west side of metropolitan Phoenix, bills itself as the largest "adult" community in the world. It has ten shopping centers and forty-six thousand residents. It is a privately owned development that has fervently resisted incorporation into any municipality in order to avoid a new level of taxation. But, though private, it has taken on many trappings of a city. It runs everything from libraries to parks to swimming pools to an art museum to a crisis-counseling hotline to a fire department to a symphony orchestra. The squad cars of its legally franchised, armed, unpaid private posse routinely patrol the public streets. Its innocuously named Recreation Association, meanwhile, has the power to assess fees that are functionally indistinguishable from taxes. If a homeowner does not pay the fees, the association has the legal right—so far unexercised—to slap a lien on that person's house and sell it at auction.
Sun City is by no means an aberration. It represents several forms of private-enterprise governments—shadow governments, if you will—of which there are more than 150,000 in the United States. These shadow governments have become the most numerous, ubiquitous, and largest form of local government in America today, studies show. In their various guises shadow governments levy taxes, adjudicate disputes, provide police protection, run fire departments, provide health care, channel development, plan regionally, enforce esthetic standards, run buses, run railroads, run airports, build roads, fill potholes, publish newspapers, pump water, generate electricity, clean streets, landscape grounds, pick up garbage, cut grass, rake leaves, remove snow, offer recreation, and provide the hottest social service in the United States today: day care. They are central to the Edge City society we are building, in which office parks are in the childrearing business, parking-lot officials run police forces, private enterprise builds public freeways, and sub-divisions have a say in who lives where.
These shadow governments have powers far beyond those ever granted rulers in this country before. Not only can they prohibit the organization of everything from a synagogue to a Boy Scout troop; they can regulate the color of a person's living room curtains. Nonetheless, the general public almost never gets the opportunity to vote its leaders out of office, and rarely is protected from them by the United States Constitution.
"The privatization of government in America is the most important thing that's happening, but we're not focused on it. We haven't thought of it as government yet," notes Gerald Frug, professor of local government law at Harvard.
These governments are highly original, locally invented attempts to bring some kind of order to Edge Cities in the absence of more conventional institutions. Edge Cities, after all, seldom match political boundaries. Sometimes they do not even appear on road maps. Few have mayors or city councils. They beg the question of who's in charge. Are these places exercises in anarchy? Or are they governed by other means?
The answer is—government by other means. Nowhere was that more clear than in Phoenix in the early 1990s.
Objectively, metropolitan Phoenix should have been writhing in anarchy by 1991. It seemed as if the entire leadership class had been decapitated. Arizona had been functionally without a governor since the mid-1980s, when the former Pontiac dealer Evan Mecham squeaked into office with a minority of the vote and then disgraced himself so badly that the ensuing impeachment proceedings were launched by his fellow Republicans. The relentlessly pro-growth old-boy elite called the Phoenix Forty had lost control of events when Terry Goddard, a political outsider who championed neighborhood power, became mayor. Then Goddard quit the mayor's job to run for governor—an election he lost. In Phoenix, his void was filled by a new mayor who meant well, but he was a thirty-one-year-old contractor who hadn't finished college.
Meanwhile, the majority and minority leadership of the state legislature had almost completely turned over. High-rolling developers who had overbuilt Phoenix's commercial real estate market by 30 percent dropped like citrus after a heavy frost. The region's most prominent bankers disappeared as their institutions were gobbled up by Los Angeles and New York giants like Security Pacific and Citibank. The area's savings and loans were devastated by the federal clean-up of the industry. The very symbol of that scandal nationwide became Charles H. Keating, Jr., once the most visible man in Phoenix. Keating's campaign contributions and influence peddling tarnished most of the state's congressional delegation, not to mention senators from California, Michigan, and Ohio.
Paradoxically, in the middle of all this the number of jobs in Phoenix continued to grow. So did the number of immigrants. Phoenix even became recognized as a national model for ways to bring life and civilization and esthetic appeal to downtown and Edge Cities.
How could this be?
At least partially, the answer was shadow governments. While highly visible institutions took a beating, thousands of low-profile, small—and sometimes not so small—regimes filled the vacuum, taking on power and the responsibility for running daily life. To the extent that means for getting things done became highly dispersed, localized, and privatized, they were shielded from the damage to public institutions.
Edge Cities nationwide display an ingenious array of' such shadow governments. These shadow governments are usually organized like corporations and given names that do not begin to hint at their power. But they can be broadly grouped into three categories:
- Shadow governments that are privately owned and operated, such as homeowners' associations that can rigidly control immense residential areas. Typical of those in the Phoenix area are the Arrowhead Ranch Homeowners Association in Glendale and Leisure World in Mesa.
- Shadow governments that are quasi-public institutions but have accrued power and influence far beyond their original charter. Typical of those in the Phoenix area is the Salt River Project.
- Shadow governments that occupy a murky area between these private and public sectors. They are often referred to as public-private partnerships. Typical is the Downtown Management Partnership of the Phoenix Community Alliance.
What makes these outfits like governments, scholars say, is the extent to which they have the following three attributes:
- They can assess mandatory fees to support themselves: the power to tax.
- They can create rules and regulations: the power to legislate.
- They have the power to coerce, to force people to change their behavior: the police power.
All governments have these powers. What sets shadow governments apart is that they have three additional attributes:
- The leaders of shadow governments are rarely if ever directly accountable to all the people in a general election.
- When and if these leaders are picked in a private election, the vote is rarely counted in the manner of Jeffersonian democracy, with each citizen having a voice. Instead, it is usually one dollar, one vote.
- These leaders are frequently not subject to the constraints on power that the Constitution imposes on conventional governments.
Take Don Smith, for example. In the press, he has been labeled The Enforcer. He rather fancies that designation. Smith was an FBI agent for twenty-five years. But now he is the "field supervisor" of Arrowhead Ranch, not far from Metro Center, the emerging Edge City in northwest Phoenix. Arrowhead Ranch is a subdivision of almost two thousand homes run by a homeowners' association. That shadow government reaches farther into the lives of its more than three thousand members than any ordinary government has ever been allowed to in America.
The Arrowhead Ranch homeowners' association, for example, passed a law that dictates what residents in its subdivision may or may not park in their own driveway—on their own land. This shadow government does not like the looks of campers, commercial vehicles, motorboats, motorcycles, buses, travel trailers, and motor homes. In fact, it will not put up with an unstacked pile of firewood. And what the Arrowhead Ranch homeowners' association says, goes.
Recently, Smith relates, a homeowner at Arrowhead Ranch parked a Winnebago-like motor home on his private property, beside his house. The shadow government sicced Smith on the perpetrator, and Smith sent the homeowner what he calls a "gig letter," pointing out the offense. When the homeowner did not shape up, the association responded with lawyers. They filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court—"the same court where you try a homicide case," Smith observes pointedly—demanding a permanent injunction against the offender. When the homeowner resisted, the judge not only backed the association, but demanded that the winnebago owner pay almost $2000 in the association's attorneys fees, in addition to his own. There is no reason to think the homeowner has not learned his lesson. But if he ever parks that Winnebago next to his house again, it could mean jail. Contempt of court. "You bought yourself a definitive ruling," the judge told him from the bench. In other words, this Maricopa County court may plop a citizen in a public jail if he fails to obey a privately owned and operated shadow government.
Another homeowners' association Smith works for is that of Pinnacle Peak Estates in swanky Scottsdale, the Edge City to the northeast. There, the average home is worth perhaps $400,000. Yet the shadow government has decided it will not permit anyone to grow a lawn on his own property. In fact, it has "plant police," who control what homeowners are allowed to grow in their ground, because this shadow government has decided that the only horticulture it chooses to allow is that native to the desert. One man with the silly idea that his home was his castle planted a hedgerow of eucalyptus trees in his back yard without the approval of the architectural committee. It ended up costing him over $20,000, Smith estimates. That would be the cost of the trees, plus the lawyers he had to hire to defend himself against the shadow government, plus—when he lost—the court costs of the shadow government's lawyers. Then, of course, he incurred the cost of cutting down the trees.
These are hardly isolated cases. "If you want a new home, it is increasingly difficult to get one that doesn't come with a homeowners' association," said Douglas Kleine, a consultant and former research director for the Community Associations Institute (CAI), the national trade group for private-enterprise shadow governments that includes condominium, co-op, and townhouse associations as well as planned urban developments. The CAI estimates there are at least 130,000 of these shadow governments nationwide.
The powers of the shadow governments derive from the idea that subjecting oneself to them is a voluntary act. When a family chooses to buy a particular home, it is legally presumed that. they fully understand what such an association really means to their lives.
However, once that house is chosen, membership in the community association is not voluntary. Neither is compliance with the association's rules. Embedded in the deed are "covenants, conditions, and restrictions"—invariably pronounced cee-cee-en-ares—that make obedience mandatory. And the enforcement powers are awesome. "Your peers, the community association, have the power to take your house away from you," Kleine explains. "They also have the power to go into small claims court and have the sheriff go after the TV set. And they have the power, usually, to suspend certain privileges—or rights, depending on your definition—including the right to vote. It's like the old poll tax. If you didn't pay your tax, you can't vote." They can regulate how many pets you may have, what size those pets can be, and where you may walk them. They can regulate whether or not you may live with your children. Charles Keating buried C C & Rs in the deeds of one of his most ambitious Phoenix developments, Estrella, that banned "pornographic" films, books, magazines, and devices from a homeowner's bedroom.
In Mesa, where another Edge City is growing southeast of central Phoenix, John Lafferty once found himself facing two problems. Lafferty is the administrator of the community association of Leisure World, a walled development with almost five thousand residents. He is a paid professional who reports to a board of directors elected by homeowners grouped in districts; he is in effect the city manager of a shadow government with a budget of over $5 million.
The first problem was an illegal immigrant—a physician, forty-two. The doctor had had a nervous breakdown and become incapable of working or taking care of himself, so his parents had brought him into their home.
The problem was that Leisure World has a law that no one may live there who is under forty-five. If the parents wished to continue to care for their broken son, they had to move. They were very understanding, Lafferty said. They were going quietly. But they were going. They were leaving their home. They understood the association would enforce its rules if it had to There was no doubt about that.
The second problem Lafferty faced was the newspaper. It seems that the developer of Leisure World, Western Savings and Loan, had long published one that was circulated for free, available for the taking from racks placed in the common areas. Western also made the paper widely available outside the walls, since a publication trumpeting all of Leisure World's activities was thought to boost real estate sales. Every supermarket and drugstore within sight of the Superstition Mountains carried copies, and Leisure World News became quite an institution, with a full-time editor and a circulation of fifteen thousand. Because it delivered an affluent market, it attracted a healthy ad base, which swelled the size of the paper to as many as ninety-six pages.
Then Western was taken over by the wrathful federales of the Resolution Trust Corporation, who could not imagine why they should be in the newspaper business. So they stopped paying for the publication. This created a void for the management of Leisure World, which had always used the publication as its house organ. It also created a void for Doris Mathews, the paper's editor, who was going to be without a job. Mathews, like a good Arizona capitalist, decided to take over the paper and keep it going as an independent voice.
But here was the hitch: the First Amendment does not force shadow governments to allow freedom of the press. Less than eager to encourage a Leisure World newspaper over which he had no control, Lafferty prohibited the distribution of Mathews' paper from its traditional racks in the common areas. Mathews retaliated by getting friends to distribute the paper. But Lafferty was holding the aces.
Lafferty's shadow government is a private corporation. The common grounds of Leisure World are private property that the shadow government controls. Therefore, Lafferty can start up his own newspaper and, with rare effectiveness, suppress competing voices. A conventional government would never be allowed to force all of a newspaper's vending machines off the public sidewalks. But Lafferty legally may pull the distribution boxes of any newspaper he doesn't like—even the Arizona Republic, the state's foremost daily—if he chooses. If his action squelches Mathews' paper—if she finds it prohibitively expensive to distribute her newspaper by mail, or if she loses advertisers because of her distribution problems and is run out of business—those are the breaks.
Mathews—who describes herself, accurately, as looking like Aunt Bee in The Andy Griffith Show—acknowledges Lafferty is completely within his rights. The Constitution says only that regular, aboveground governments "shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble."
But that is the key distinction about a shadow government. It is not a regular government, even if the association does hold elections for its board of directors. Private corporations have broad powers over private property.
"They are setting up internal courts," Kleine points out. "Due process may be desirable, but it is not required. The Fourteenth Amendment does not apply." The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection for all. "The application of the Fourteenth Amendment would cause all kinds of things. It would subject the board of directors to the Voting Rights Act. If you're elected by district, and you wanted to redraw those lines, you'd have to go to the Justice Department. You couldn't have one dollar, one vote, or one house, one vote.
"The First Amendment? The association newspaper is a house organ. It's just like a company newsletter. It's there for us to communicate with you, not for you to communicate with each other." That is why the Leisure World paper—on purpose—never had a letters-to-the-editor page.
Defenders point out that homeowners readily obey and encourage shadow governments. And indeed, such units are very successful at what they do They control nuisances and unpleasantness and keep the community swimming pool clean. Thus, property values rise. These disciples further observe that if the larger society finds the actions of these private governments objectionable, it is not without recourse. The power of homeowners' associations is based on the covenants written into the deeds. In decades past, offensive covenants—such as those prohibiting house sales to blacks and Jews—have been thrown out when challenged in court.
These supporters also point out that shadow governments devise new solutions to the new problems that Edge City faces every day. If conventional governments had been doing such a great job, people would not have felt obliged to invent new forms, taking governance into their own hands, this argument goes. Perhaps. But such opportunities as arise, these shadow governments certainly seize. Take the quasi-public shadow government called the Salt River Project.
The land around Phoenix is martini-dry. The only reason a city exists there at all is that as long ago as the time of Christ, humans of the Hohokam tribe recognized that by the standards of the Sonoran desert, the Valley of the Sun can be made water rich. These native Americans built a 250-mile canal system that permitted an advanced civilization to support twenty thousand people. For reasons that remain a mystery, the Hohokam disappeared from the valley just before Columbus sailed. A century and a half later, the Spanish showed up and gave the name Rio Salado—Salt River—to the broad gravel bed from which the canals radiated. A miner, scout, and Confederate cavalry veteran named Jack Swilling reintroduced canal building to the area in the late 1800s. Then, in 1902, President Teddy Roosevelt championed the National Reclamation Act, which provided government loans to "reclaim" western lands with irrigation projects. Metropolitan Phoenix rose around the bed of the Salt River because, in 1903, the shadow government called the Salt River Project was born.
Jack Pfister (pronounced Feester) is the general manager of the Salt River Project. His chaste reaction to my initial questions was "I would not describe the Salt River Project as a form of regional government—because of our limited functions, basically only delivering water,vith the power business being supplementary to that."
Nonetheless, this shadow government has vastly more influence over the lives of the people of Phoenix than do most conventional governments.
In the dry Southwest, water is the linchpin of the universe. With water you can create charming cities, fields of agricultural plenty, thriving industry, or wild rivers that charge the spirit. But there's not enough water to have all four. Who gets what is determined in a highly expensive, complex, and politicized fashion. And in central Arizona, that means the Salt River Project. An entity like the Salt River Project, which determines the price and availability of electricity, has the power of life and death. In Arizona in the summer, people without air conditioning die, just as surely as do people in Montana without winter heat. When the Salt River Project decides to encourage water conservation—or, conversely, subsidizes water use by making it artificially cheap—or decides to share the cost of a nuclear reactor forty miles upwind of Phoenix or builds a coal-fired generator whose pollution is accused of obscuring the Grand Canyon, it exercises more control over the Arizona environment than virtually any other player.
With powers like that, it seems but the tiniest and most inconsequential leap for a quasi-public shadow government like the Salt River Project to get involved with such social services as day care. Or with transforming central Arizona into a boating and fishing center by offering recreation on its reservoirs. Or with determining the quality of Edge City life by controlling development along urban canals in a fashion that might transform metropolitan Phoenix into a series of River walks echoing the one in San Antonio.
Nor are such quasi-public shadow governments with vast influence unusual in America. They range from airport authorities to regional transportation commands to water conservation districts. One reason they have been so eagerly seized on as the means to run Edge Cities is their abundant history. One such shadow government, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, had a movie made about it. It was called Chinatown. The potential of these quasi-public shadow governments was dramatized by Robert A. Caro in The Power Broker, his biography of Robert Moses.
Moses "had glimpsed in the institution called 'public authority' a potential for power . . . that was exciting and frightening and immense . . . adding a whole new layer to urban government in America," Caro wrote. Through the use of public authorities, Moses tore down vast swatches of old city to build bridges, roads, parks, and public housing, making him a person whose "influence on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person." Indeed, Moses changed the physical shape—the actual outline—of Manhattan Island.
No one I interviewed suggested that either the Salt River Project or its general manager, Jack Pfister, suffered from that kind of megalomania. In fact, Pfister's rule was so benevolent that as he approached retirement, even Phoenix's "alternative" tabloid, New Times, eulogized him. It is startling in what used to be called the underground press to find a headline about an Establishment figure that asks: IF THE HEAD OF THE SALT RIVER PROJECT DOESN'T KEEP PHOENIX SAFE FROM THE STORM, WHO WILL? Such power is typically grounded in how elusive a shadow government's authority can be. The Salt River Project presents itself to the public in any of four different guises, depending on what purpose suits the board of directors. Over the years it has taken on the rights and privileges of a private, for-profit, dividend-paying, stockholder-owned corporation; an unregulated investor-owned utility; an agent of the federal government; and a municipality-like political subdivision of the state—which is where it gets its right to issue tax-free bonds. It mixes, matches, and retains all these identities to its own ends. The closest it comes to public oversight is an election in which voting power goes to owners of irrigated land in a one-acre, one-vote fashion. Thus, the owner of a two-square-mile cotton operation has exactly 5120 times as many votes as someone with a home on a quarter-acre lot. As a result, although this shadow government is highly urban, with tremendous powers to shape Edge Cities, it is still run by a board of directors on which you see a lot of bolo ties.
As Pfister got talking, he acknowledged that he and his organization had more of an impact on metropolitan Phoenix than he initially had been willing to admit.
Yes, he did discourage people from having lawns in their own front yards. He did encourage desert landscaping called xeriscaping. Yes, he does have a tree specialist on his staff for that.
Yes, he does have five thousand employees and a financial intake of $1 billion a year, and a double-A bond rating, tax free, and a governmental-affairs staff of thirteen people (read lobbyists) with their own political action committee handing out campaign contributions. Yes, his real estate does spread out over hundreds of miles. Yes, he did first begin to get his shadow government involved in public affairs in 1979 when he discovered, during massive floods, that regular governments had no idea what they were doing. It was at that point he discovered, as he put it, that the Salt River Project had "resources and expertise they could contribute to water and environmental management. These are public resources. And we will contribute them."
This is how it always works. Edge City is a place where the game is not yet set up. Shadow governments "move into vacuums," one long-time observer says. "They get into one issue and they've got a professional here and a technician there. And then they'll give you an opinion on what you're ordering for lunch. And before you know it, they've named two of your children. They eat up power, like the science-fiction movies. They eat living things, derive power from what they've ingested, and develop an independent power base."
Pfister acknowledges that "because of the expertise of Salt River Project people, we have an impact disproportionate to other organizations." Indeed, before he finished his term, he or his outfit had helped shape the legal framework for groundwater management in Arizona, helped determine whether state projects should be required to make environmental impact statements, pushed for rail links to Phoenix's Edge Cities, and encouraged building at increased densities in those Edge Cities. Not only do dense nodes have social benefits, Pfister points out. But they are more efficiently supplied electricity.
"I'm a believer in filling vacuums," he admits. "Vacuums don't work well. That's a theory that I understand well. I look for vacuums to fill. Hopefully not in a mercurial way, but one that supports the overall community good. People would debate about that, I'm sure."
One well-connected local attorney says, "It is amazing that a lawyer-engineer as uncharismatic as Jack has risen to something of a cultural institution in Phoenix." Because of his role as head of the Salt River Project, Pfister was asked to help create a strategic plan for state economic development. He acknowledges that when water policies and energy policies are formed statewide, "We are always at the table." His outfit has taken an active role in dam safety, Indian affairs, regional planning, and strip-mining regulation. The SRP has its own security division. Because of his prominence with the Salt River Project, Pfister was asked to facilitate a business group charged with reforming the school system. He became chairman of the state board of regents just in time to defend the state college and university system against attacks from the governor. He helped raise $4 million for disadvantaged students in the Maricopa community college system. He chaired the Arizona Humanities Council. When asked whether he was ranging a little far afield, Pfister replied, "I have a belief that the arts and cultural amenities really add to the vitality of a community, so it is in the best interests of the Salt River Project to support the arts."
It was not enough that, because of the Salt River Project, Phoenix probably has the most carefully managed watershed in the world. Pfister decided that to "restore economic competitiveness," he had to start thinking about providing day care. "Without doubt that is in the cards for the future." Then he got involved with repackaging benefits to deal with "untraditional family environments." I asked him whether this meant medical care for gay couples and he said, "Again, it's only a matter of time. Ten years ago I probably did not know any for-sure gay people. Now I know a great number of gay people. That's just part of what's happening in Phoenix and we will have to adjust to that. The Hopi culture had a clan whose job it was literally to go out and meet with the outsiders, the conquistadors or whoever it was coming through, to try to understand what they were all about and try to bring that message back to the people to kind of alert them to what was going to happen. And essentially, I have tried to view my responsibilities as general manager to fill that role."
Pfister has been characterized as sounding like a New Age philosopher. I found him buttoned up a little tighter than that—but I understood the point. And thanked the stars. This is, after all, a man who ended up helping shape new industry safety standards after the Three Mile Island near-meltdown, and helped shape the electric industry's response to acid rain.
His successor will presumably have at least as much impact on Phoenix, the state of Arizona, and the United States. One hopes he is equally enlightened. After all, remember who will pick him: a corporate board of directors elected on the basis of who owns how many acres of irrigated land.
In addition to the way they fill vacuums, what's fascinating about these shadow governments is the way they operate in. the gray. They take on all manner of public responsibilities, but they retain their private prerogatives to do largely as they please. Take the form of shadow government called the public-private partnership.
Phoenix is the first municipality in America to recognize formally, for planning purposes, that it is made up of a constellation of Edge Cities, locally referred to as "urban villages." It is logical that Phoenix came to this conclusion early. The urban village referred to as "downtown" historically never amounted to much. As recently as World War II it was the trade and government center for a rural area that did not add up to more than 185,000 people. Even as the Phoenix area erupted to an urban population of two million, downtown did not become grand. Two other cores with better parking and fewer derelicts grew larger. One was the area north, along Central Avenue, called "uptown." The other was the posh area along Camelback Avenue near the Frank Lloyd Wright-styled Arizona Biltmore. In fact, compared with older, Eastern metros, there is no sharp distinction between downtown Phoenix and those other centers. They all look and function like Edge Cities. Downtown sealed that when it formed a shadow government to help it compete with the other urban villages.
The Phoenix Community Alliance was started by a group of developers and bankers to promote the development of the downtown area and, hence, their properties. Soon the Alliance members realized their private, voluntary organization didn't have the powers they needed. They couldn't tax, they couldn't run a police force, they couldn't keep the streets clean, they couldn't control the looks of the streets to make them attractive to pedestrians. So they cast about for a way to gain some real leverage in their Edge City. What they came up with was a public-private shadow government they modestly named The Management District.
The organization of The Management District is a prototypically hazy hybrid. It is a private, nonprofit corporation, but it levies its fees through the public sector. Its operating money comes from a special surcharge on the property tax collected by the municipality, yet the surcharge is made only on owners within the boundaries of the Edge City area. The money would appear, then, to come from the owners of private property. But since the municipality of Phoenix owns much land downtown, half of that money is actually public. The Management District has a board on which the mayor and the city manager are represented, as are ethnic minorities and the arts community. But the majority of the board members come from the private business side—the Alliance. The result is a thorough blurring of distinctions between public and private.
This private organization writes checks to the city to make sure that on public land the palm trees get trimmed, and the leaves raked, and the streets swept far more frequently than is the case in other parts of the city. It also writes checks to the police department to make sure that it gets more officers on the beat than in other parts of the city. These are genuine Phoenix policemen, deployed from headquarters, working their regular shifts, fully armed, and capable of making arrests, as usual. Hardly mall guards. But if the private Management District wants them to appear more tourist-friendly by wearing shorts or blazers or by patrolling on bicycles or horses rather than in their squad cars, something can be worked out. After all, the Management District is paying the freight. For that matter, if they wish an additional dozen cops, all they need do is write a bigger check. The shadow government also runs the wonderfully lurid purple-and-orange downtown shuttle bus system. It even has a marketing role, convincing the private sector to buy or lease property in its area. It is, in short, an institution that formalizes and justifies an ambiguous zone in which the public sector gets the private sector to pay for keeping a business area safe, clean, mobile, and prosperous. And the private sector gains unprecedented leverage over the public sector, especially for services not available to the mortal taxpayer. The power of the state, meanwhile, is brought to bear to enforce the will of businessmen.
There are many advantages to this kind of cooperation. One is markedly higher levels of efficiency. "There's no question that they're faster and cheaper. The incentives for prompt performance are stronger in the private sector," points out Robert C. Ellickson, a professor of law at Yale who has studied shadow governments. "People can coordinate with one another to their mutual advantage more than is generally recognized. Take the English language. The people living on the island of Great Britain came together and just created a language. Nobody was put in charge. People are now coordinating in a sophisticated way. I think it's terrific that property owners pay. This is not a calamity. This is a terrific thing."
Indeed, in Phoenix this form of shadow government has worked sufficiently well that the Edge City competing most directly with downtown, Phoenix's Central Avenue uptown, has created a similar but less ambitious body for itself. It is called The Improvement District. Ellickson views as a positive sign that there are many different kinds of shadow governments. This, he avers, reflects the wide and healthy range of choices people have. Shadow governments are solutions clever people have voluntarily cooked up, Ellickson argues. They will be onerous only if they become unavoidable. When he asked me if I lived in a place ruled by a shadow government, and I responded, "Hell, no," Ellickson offered that as triumphant evidence that liberty and choice were alive in the land.
He has a point. A very sensitive gauge of what people view as their biggest problem is whatever issue causes them to create a shadow government. Among the hottest such concerns today is traffic. And sure enough, a common form of shadow government is the transportation management authority. Initially, such a power draws movers and shakers together to get roads built, traffic lights synchronized, parking rationalized, and car pools organized. Then it is typical for such an organization to branch out, in the absence of any other appropriate authority, to grapple with problems from day care to garbage collection. But this leaves the question of whether shadow governments are of, by, and for the people. Their rights and obligations are almost always defined by property and ownership and money. They bow less to the notion that all men are created equal than to that equally venerable American aphorism, "Them that has, gits."
These shadow governments are democratic to a point. But they rarely have much use for the principle of one citizen, one vote. If you rent your home in a place with a community association, it is generally your landlord who gets the vote, not you. If you are a spouse or a son or a daughter whose name is not on the deed, you usually do not vote. In condominiums, the property principle can be fine-tuned to five digits to the right of the decimal place. In one such place, the owner of a one-bedroom apartment got 0.06883 of a vote, and the owner of a two-bedroom with den got 0.12350 of a vote.
This one-dollar, one-vote democracy harks back to the earliest days of the Colonies, when the vote was reserved for white male owners of property because they were viewed as having the biggest stake in how the society was run. Scholars who examine these shadow governments repeatedly note how strikingly similar shadow governments are to legal and governmental structures that date back before Thomas Jefferson. Historical comparisons are as easy to make to the feudalism of Renaissance Italy or the authoritarian efficiencies of Napoleonic France as they are to the dreams of a Lincoln, Wilson, or Roosevelt.
At the very least, says Gerald Frug, "it's a return to the nineteenth century, when there was no legal distinction between a city and a private corporation. All had the same powers and restrictions. Railroads could take your land and pay you for it without your consent. You could do anything privately that you could do publicly."
Because these shadow governments usually gain their authority from property rights instead of through the powers granted to the people by the Constitution, they are acutely class-conscious.
"If you go back and look at suburbs built in the 1940s and 1950s," says Douglas Kleine, "there are dog kennels and chain-link fences and four or five trucks, two of which are up on blocks. People want to be protected from the class below them. There's very much an anti-blue-collar bias in all the truck restrictions, and how many dogs and fences. That's the first restriction people put in—no chain-link fences at all. You might be able to put a little split rail in. Two rails high. But the front yards are supposed to remain this Victorian green pasture that you can afford not to put cows on."
"These are governments by the wealthy, for the wealthy," says Frug. "It is plutocracy, not democracy." Bruce McDowell of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Affairs points out that in times of tight public budgets, governments lose their independence. Transportation work is not necessarily done where the public most needs it. It is done where monied interests can have their priorities moved to the front of the line by putting up cash. With enough private money behind it, an inter-change can be built not where it would best move traffic for the citizenry, but where it would best funnel potential customers into a development.
Ellickson of Yale counters that shadow governments are not anywhere near as oppressive as conventional governments. Shadow governments, he points out, rarely if ever shoulder the heaviest of burdens: the attempt to redistribute people's incomes. Somehow, however, that is probably more comforting to those with incomes than to those without.
That is why I ended up questioning Thomas Espinoza closely on how he felt about the new Phoenix Management District. I suppose it should not be cause for note that Espinoza is now president of the Phoenix Community Alliance. After all, Arizona became a state in 1912, and Espinoza's grandparents became Americans before that. They helped settle the territory not long after America settled the border through the Sonoran desert between the United States and their native Mexico. Espinoza, a third-generation Arizonan, is now the head of his own development corporation. He took me for breakfast to Café la Tasca, an extraordinary Mexican place downtown that made its own tamales, fresh. His native dialect, however, turned out not to be Spanish, but that hybrid of dollars-per-square-foot arithmetic and the jargon of the Deal peculiar to American commercial English. It was with considerable relish that he explained the power plays that went into the creation of The Management District.
But the fact of the matter is that Mexican-Americans are still not what you'd call common in the halls of power in Phoenix, so I had to ask him: won't this district work great at keeping out "undesirables"?
"I don't think anybody would admit this," he acknowledges. "But what first started driving the Management District was people basically saying, 'City, you are not doing your job right. Therefore we are going to pay more money to do it the way we want it done.' And some of that has been the homeless issue. The private sector saying, Gee, we ought to make sure these areas are safe, secure, clean, da, da da, da da. Nobody's ever told me that. But my political instincts say that some of that is there."
Suppose, I ask, they decided they don't like people downtown with brown skin like yours?
"No, that doesn't concern me," replies Espinoza in a studied analysis of realpolitik. "The shit would hit the fan. We're too much of a power base. Now if it had been fifteen years ago? That would be the agenda. And I say that without any hesitation. But not anymore. We're part of the fabric of this power structure now. Within the next fifty years, we will be the power structure. I don't mean that in an arrogant manner. But in my lifetime, I will see our power base shift to the other direction. I will see the day where Anglos and blacks are complaining about Mexicans being discriminatory. I will. In my lifetime I will see that."
Is this a great country or what? I ask. We laugh.
"And I've got to tell you this one thing. When I came on, the Alliance had pissed off a lot of poor folks and community groups and neighborhoods in Phoenix. Luckily the board became sensitive after I told them a number of times: 'If you keep building high-rises and don't worry about surrounding neighborhoods, eventually those people are going to turn on you. The day will come when those neighborhoods will have a political power base, and they are going to come after the city council and the mayor's office and we are going to have some major problems here if the business community does not start addressing the homeless issue, neighborhood revitalization, and those kinds of things.' So we are putting together a Local Initiative Support Corporation—a pot of funds that will lend money to neighborhood groups to revitalize neighborhoods.
"I don't buy into the theory that we'll just have more police force and we'll just keep them out. I have been part of the receiving end of the Chicano community. I am part of' that generation, forty to forty-six—when the airport needed to expand? They bulldozed down all the Chicano neighborhoods. And we're saying that ain't gonna happen again. You may have done that one time, but you ain't gonna do it again."
Espinoza clearly feels he is helping forge new ways of uniting disparate people for the creation of a common good. He feels he is breaking down barriers to bring together business interests and the community, the public sector and the private. There is plenty of reason to applaud people seeking new avenues for cooperation, to be sure. Confrontation certainly doesn't have that great a track record.
Yet there is tremendous reason historically to think that. the cooperation inherent in shadow governments is akin to foxes telling chickens they should unite to pursue common goals. Not for nothing was the Constitution written to protect the isolated and the helpless from the authorities and even the majority. After all, these shadow governments are making open and clear-cut distinctions between the weak and the strong, between people with property and people without. To this day nobody has refuted Karl Marx's observation that the revolutionary basis of the great divide in power among humans is class. It is no small irony that as democracy flourishes in formerly communist worlds, in the United States it seems far less popular than corporatism.
It is hard to know, listening to Espinoza, whether he is a stirring example of the American Dream gone right, or a massively delusional pawn of monied interests. Nor is this a small matter. The central issue in the phenomenal rise of shadow governments is whether they are on an enlightened track. If such institutions become powerful and efficient enough to solve our abundant problems, will they also become strong enough to ignore our desires?
To be sure, if shadow governments are attempts to form a more perfect Union, there is a case to be made for that. "Two forms of government—democracy and socialism—grew directly from city life," James E. Vance, Jr., notes in This Scene of Man. "Democracy was devised while the tolerance of strangers, innovation, and change was greatly increased over the levels characteristic of the rural clan era. It was in the cities in the industrial districts of Britain, the United States, and northwestern Europe that socialism—the acceptance of the view that society had rights along with individuals and that social objectives stood above economic ones—was nurtured."
So perhaps it is only natural that our revolution in creating Edge Cities is also causing an upheaval in our forms of governance. Like all other collective works of man, Edge Cities can be seen as living organisms, fighting disorganization, willing order out of chaos. Traditional means of distributing power—from organizing labor to voting for president—are declining in popularity. Perhaps this depreciation should be viewed as sensible people telling us old ways are no longer working and new ones need to be born.
After all, this argument goes, this is not the 1960s, much less the 1930s. Nobody is naive anymore. Lots of people are educated enough to read zoning codes for themselves. Even the poor have access to organizing powers and the media, and a complex understanding of where the levers of power really are. In the last thirty years, United States citizens of Mexican ancestry have never voted in percentages anywhere near their representation in the population. Yet they have a track record of organizing in sufficient numbers in front of television cameras to get plenty of attention from powerful interests. So why shouldn't we applaud individuals coming together to create shadow governments? In this cosmology, if people feel they can defend their rights themselves, and at the same time view electing their representatives as a distasteful sideshow. What's the harm? Alexis de Tocqueville remarked, in Democracy in America in the 1830s, that we are an extravagantly creative people, we Americans, in the way we generate new social forms. When we push our homes and jobs out past our old-fashioned sense of what a city and its government should be, perhaps it is only natural that we not get hung up on the problems that causes. We go out there and we solve our new problems, filling power vacuums with whatever seems to do the job. Which, of course, always causes new problems, not that that stops us. If even the homeless now have a voice, this argument goes, it is not the death of liberty and the road to tyranny. It simply means we are replacing the old New Deal-era reliance on big government with a new "informed pragmatic idealism."
So this argument goes.
Linda Nadolski casts the idea differently. Nadolski originally was the proverbial housewife turned grass-roots activist. She parlayed her opposition to developers running roughshod over established neighborhoods into a regular election victory that gave her a seat on the Phoenix City Council. She now represents the district that includes the Edge City in the Camelback-Arizona-Biltmore area. But she is still a partisan of grass-roots involvement and participatory democracy. As a result, she champions the village planning committees. These were purposefully created by Phoenix's aboveground government as a kind of mini-town council in each urban village. Appointed by elected officials, the committees are charged with clarifying at the most local possible level the merits of proposed changes affecting the quality of life in each Edge City. They are an embryonic form of genuine, constitutional Edge City government. But even more important, they attempt to give some real level of control to that nebulous notion, the community.
Councilwoman and activist Nadolski has given considerable thought to where the concepts of "government" and "community" meet.
"Communities," Nadolski feels, "are exercises in doing the things that are important to people. Like getting in touch with each other. Where are you going to leave your kids when you go to work? Who's the person I can actually call to find out if my son went out drinking last night? Who do you talk to if your grandmother is getting older and you've got to find a place for her? The stuff that really counts. Let the government do the other stuff. These things don't sound important. But the whole sense of how you find the real information that counts is what drives the sense of community. Who do you invite around your table so that you're safe.
"Safety. Today, that's the operative word. You like to feel safe. I used the word 'control' for a while. I decided that control was the thing that everybody was looking for. But I've left that word behind. I decided that the reason they wanted or felt like they had control was so they could feel safe. As long as they felt safe, they would have been willing to give up their control.
"People feel abused. They feel raped. That's the kind of intensity they feel in terms of 'out of control' and 'violated.' By government, yeah—because those are the guys who are in the paper, those are the guys who are supposed to be in charge. But it comes down to economics, too. People's ability to protect their future. Economic power to provide safety. People are sensing that they are out of control—the stock market's in trouble, Charlie Keating, the S & Ls, and we're pretending it isn't happening. They're afraid we're going to run out of money. Our children will never have what we have.
"When people get backed against the wall, they get angry, and anger is not rational. They look around after their anger happens to figure out what excited it. And that's how you get those homeowners' groups that dictate where they will allow your dog to poop. The reason they feel anger in the first place is that they feel attacked—out of control—not safe. They translate their anger into control. They try to create their world so they can feel they are in control so they can feel safe. They go home to their back yard and they fence it in and they feel safe. And when you violate that, you're in trouble."
This gets her back to the Edge City pro to governments, the neighborhood advisory committees. One of their charges is to encourage density in the middle of their urban village so that the Edge City will be walkable and urbane and easily serviced by mass transit and all these other wonderful things that planners drool over. As a practical matter, though, Nadolski has found, the real communities in her district hate a lot of this stuff. They hate the idea of high-rises invading their space.
"It's instinctual. We don't have a tree that we can hug, and we don't see a river. The only thing we see day after day that reminds us that God and nature exist is the sky. We go everywhere and we do this," she says, saluting the spirit of the place by raising her arm in a sweep toward the cloud-flecked, Christmastime-warm, desert-blue heavens. "Every once in a while we see this short little stump we call a mountain and we think it's wonderful, because its against our sky. And those things [the office and hotel towers] intrude on our sky. They penetrate our sky. Even when I say it my blood boils. In theory, they are better, because they provide all this open space down here and all that other stuff. All that great theory. Right. Yeah.
"No. This is our world. These people in their back yards came here from somewhere else. We are creatures of our back yard. It's an extension of our living room. We've got the highest per capita number of swimming pools in the world. And then when this high-rise comes here and looks down in our back yard and pool and barbecue and takes away our piece of that, it's, it's—'If I wanted to live in New York, I wouldn't have left. '
" 'How dare you take this away from me. Again. And P.S., you can take your light-rail system and shove it.'
In short, the community deep in its guts knows what's important to the people in the neighborhoods.
So, increasingly, the committee that represents their values in the Edge City scheme of things is not parading in lock step with the city's elders and betters and the planners and the development interests. Instead, it is questioning density and height and mass transit. It is willing to hear from the individual. It is giving voice to the inarticulate, the amateur, the cranky, even the ill-informed. It is giving a focus and a sense of identity to its Edge City. And it is doing so out in the open, not in the gray, not surrounded by shadows.
In fact, this committee is ornery and recalcitrant. It is unpredictable, inefficient, time-consuming, and frustrating. It is stubborn and perverse—marching to the beat of its own drummer.
It is, in short, displaying every full-blown, time-honored, and fought-for safeguard of that standard of justice, domestic tranquillity, common defense, general welfare, and the blessings of liberty that we shaped in Philadelphia in 1788 and sealed with the words "We the people . . ."
It looks as if it might be becoming a democracy.