If you know nothing else about cities, know this: City governments don’t really run them. They police, regulate, and plan cities; they facilitate their growth and tend their needs; they supply some services. But run cities? No more than the National Park Service “runs” national parks. The parks run themselves. Park rangers make sure humans don’t do anything so bad that it interferes with nature’s order.
So who runs cities? Well, they run themselves. But their direction is set by a multitude of interests working together, from neighborhood groups and nonprofits to local businesses and foundations—with governments playing an important but not exclusive role. This has always been true, but as I’ve written, it is growing even more so today. Some of the interests that have a say in a city’s direction are relatively new, like neighborhood groups and business improvement districts, but others have been around a long, long time.
One that has endured is the local chamber of commerce. Chambers have been so central to civic leadership for so long, it’s amazing that a serious history of these organizations hasn’t been written. Until now.
Chris Mead, senior vice president of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, is the author of “The Magicians of Main Street: America and its Chambers of Commerce, 1768-1945.” I found the book fascinating—and you may too. (Full disclosure: Chris sent me an early draft, and I made some small suggestions. He was wise enough not to follow all of them.)
Among the things I learned from reading “The Magicians of Main Street”:
- Where chambers of commerce came from and why they’re called chambers as opposed to, say, associations. Answer: The first chamber was organized in France in 1599, where it was called a chamber de commerce. The idea and name jumped the English Channel to Great Britain, then the Atlantic to North America, where chambers caught on almost immediately among the sociable, business-minded Americans.
- How far back in American history they go, and how resilient they are. By the time of the American Revolution, there were fully functioning chambers in cities like New York and Charleston. Alas, these two chose the wrong side in the war, which caused them to fold after independence—only to be revived almost immediately, this time with business people in charge whose loyalty was unquestioned.
- How the focus of chambers shifted in the mid-1800s. In the early years, chambers were focused on, well, commerce—specifically, international trade. But in time, they moved toward the things we associate with chambers today: improving and promoting their cities and regions.
And here’s where I found Chris’ book especially interesting: Turns out that nearly every important civic improvement of the 19th and early 20th centuries (canal-building, railroads, highway construction, air travel, industrial development, tourism, anti-corruption efforts, city planning) were either helped along by chambers or outright invented by them.
Along the way chambers did surprising things. Charles Lindbergh’s history-making flight across the Atlantic? St. Louis’ chamber of commerce raised money for it and got an early version of naming rights in return. (That’s why Lindbergh’s plane was called “The Spirit of St. Louis.”) Al Capone, the gangster who terrorized Chicago in the 1920s? The Chicago chamber played a role in putting him in prison. (That Eliot Ness guy got the credit, of course.) The Miss America Pageant? That was a chamber of commerce invention, along with a string of world’s fairs and college bowl games. Even Punxsutawney Phil, the star of Groundhog Day, was created by a chamber of commerce.
This is not to say chambers were always on the right side of history. Some were supportive of segregation and unconcerned about bigotry. Chris points these things out, too.
But there’s much to learn from studying these enduring civic organizations. One thing is how consistent they’ve been over the years. After the Civil War, chambers everywhere created a kind of civic agenda around transportation, education, good government (or, at least, a business person’s definition of good government), economic development, and community image. They’re still focused on these things.
Another is how effective they’ve been—sometimes spectacularly so. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was in the news not long ago for a bridge scandal. But all the attention made me wonder: Who thought up this government agency, which owns and operates airports, seaports, bridges, tunnels, and transit in the New York area, and then sold the idea to two governors, two state legislatures, and Congress? Chris’ book gave me the answer: A chamber did.
Finally, “The Magicians of Main Street” left me with an even deeper appreciation for civic volunteerism. You would think if there were a group that would be indifferent to civic work, it would be business owners and executives. After all, they celebrate competition and individual accomplishment, not collective action, and an executive’s time so valuable, why should you expect her to give it away? But, it turns out, business people are among the easiest to organize in most cities, as chambers have shown us time and again.
I’m not sure why that is so, but it is. And, as I learned from reading “The Magicians of Main Street,” it has been this way since businessmen wore tricorne hats.