The Politics of Urban Snow Removal

The Politics of Urban Snow Removal

In the thick of a political season where we’re hearing a lot about “bringing people together,” ten mayors from across the United States, in an excellent collection of interviews with big city mayors on the presidential election, say the next president should function as the “mayor of America,” since it is in cities where the most pressing concerns facing real Americans are to be found, and where pragmatic solutions are favored over ideology and rhetoric.

This is true, of course. It is in the arena of urban politics that one can see the great potential in bringing together people of different persuasions and backgrounds to address common problems. But it is in our cities that we see most clearly that despite the rhetoric of “bridging the divide,” what really motivates most people is immediate self interest.

Those of you who have lived your whole lives in softer, warmer climates will never know the challenges and joys of major snowfalls. Heavy snow is damn hard on your house, your car and your back. But there’s nothing like the sense of community following a major snowfall. For instance, last week the usually sullen and stand-offish teenage boys who live in the house nextdoor shoveled my sidewalk for me; I followed up by shoveling their sidewalk the next time it snowed. My neighborhood, Sherman Park, is a mix of different incomes and cultures. We’re not always as neighborly as we should be, but when it snows, everyone realizes that black or white, rich or poor, we’re all in the same boat. Kumbaya.

Snow affects people in an immediate way, so I guess it’s no surprise that its removal is a highly charged political issue. Careers of politicians in northern cities have been made or broken on the effectiveness of municipal response to snow. My city’s snow removal has long been known for its ruthless efficiency. But when this season’s flakes first hit Milwaukee three weeks ago, the Public Works Department at first stumbled in their response. The City’s weaker-than-usual response was promptly responded to by hundreds of angry phone calls to common council members, a full blown public hearing and strong denunciations from the city’s mayor.

Of all the pressing issues facing Milwaukee and every other major American city today, it’s telling that what really motivates the average voter to pick up their phone and call their elected representative is snow removal. Economics, crime, health care, education, race relations … pragmatic solutions to these issues remain elusive. But when you can’t get out of your driveway because the city snowplows plowed you in, now that is something to get worked up about.

Mayors understand that beyond the flowery rhetoric, government is about service. Do our presidential candidates?

Tags: weather

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