Cities and the Seeds of Change

If you are one of those who consider the city as an entity of the past, a relic of the industrial age left behind in a world full of cyber communication, automobile transportation, suburban lawns, and an ability to live independently of a larger society, consider the recent explosion of social movement that is centered in America’s cities.

It was the City of San Francisco that catapulted the issue of same-sex marriage into the national spotlight when it started to issue same-sex marriage licenses. That of course followed many other actions, nearly all taken by local governments, that will in the end have national implications.

Could this have happened at the state or national level? Except in the case of a court, a body not controlled by a geographic voting block, the social movement has been centered on cities. Protests can’t easily occur at the mall–it’s private property. They can’t happen on the streets of suburbia, where there’s no visible place to make your voice heard. The steps of San Francisco’s very visible City Hall, in the cultural center of the West Coast, however, provided the ideal soil for this movement.

Opposition to the Patriot Act has also recently burgeoned in cities. Not long ago the Pittsburgh City Council voted on whether to pass a resolution in opposition to the act. It was in the city where Pittsburghers started their opposition to the act. It was in the city where people felt responsible for change and instigated that change with a petition to get the city to oppose the federal law.

It is the city that has been the birthplace of both ideas and opposition to them. This is a direct result of their nature as places where people come together, live together, and exchange ideas with each other. That doesn’t happen so easily in a suburb or on a state level–the state is too diffuse and abstract, and people in suburbs don’t see much of each other.

Nationwide, 295 municipalities and counties have passed resolutions calling for changes to the Patriot Act. Those cities include Toledo, Ohio; Eugene, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Burlington, Vermont; and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A resolution can be more than a static piece of paper signifying opposition. The documents can mean local police refuse to cooperate with federal investigations using the powers granted by the act. (For a sample resolution in Syracuse, New York, click here.

Other cities have refused to cooperate on matters of immigration. The Portland Police Bureau, for example, citing Oregon state law, won’t help the Justice department to interview immigrants who might have information about terrorism. According to Oregon law, no one can be questioned by police unless suspected of being involved in a crime. A bit farther north, Seattle is one of several cities that prohibits police officers and city employees from asking any person about their immigration status. Other cities have made their borders a “safe zone” for illegal immigrants, who can apply for city services without fear of being reported to federal immigration authorities.

Whether you agree with these actions or not, the importance of cities in instigating movements for social change can not be underestimated. It is in our cities where changes have begun and will continue to bear fruit. The health and vitality of our cities and the significance of them to our culture will mirror the progress we can make as a thinking and just society.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at