In "City Trenches," Ira Katznelson looks at an important phenomenon of the sixties--the resurgence of community activism--and explains its sources, challenges, and failure. Katznelson argues that the American working class perceives workplace politics and community politics as separate and distinct spheres, a perception that defeats attempts to address grievances or raise demands that break the rules of local politics or of bread-and-butter unionism. He supports his thesis with an absorbing case study of Washington Heights-Inwood, a multiethnic working-class community in Manhattan.
The temptation to make a case study into something more by surrounding it with a lot of oversized theory is not easily avoided. Katznelson, a Univ. of Chicago political scientist, falls into the trap in this assessment of the politics of Washington Heights - Inwood, a neighborhood in northern Manhattan. Katznelson's main point is a simple one; namely, that in America, more than anywhere else, there is a disjuncture between the class affiliations defined in the workplace and the ethnic and racial affiliations established at home. Urban political parties and the "machines" they administer are founded on the racial and ethnic identities, so a class-based politics has been almost impossible to establish. In discussing his chosen neighborhood, Katznelson notes that it's an entirely residential community, developed mostly in the 1920s, and originally comprised of mostly Jewish and Irish working-class families. While Irish and Jews fought it out within the strictures of urban politics to gain concessions and patronage from City Hall, the entry of blacks and Hispanics in the 1960s changed the picture; and Irish and Jews united, altering the divisions from ethnic to racial lines. He then describes the largely successful efforts by whites in the neighborhood to keep power in their hands, to thwart genuine decentralization, and to ride out the "crisis" of the Sixties. This case study, which doesn't seem to prove any real thesis, is preceded by a lengthy history of urban patterns in Europe and America, summarizing a lot of secondary work and arguing that it is under capitalism that the fatal separation of work and home takes on a special dimension. What Washington Heights - Inwood has to do with medieval cities is never firmly established. The conclusion is a pretentious summary in which Katznelson warns that class is a slippery category and that activists have to learn to take racial and ethnic identities seriously. Two parts that, disappointingly, add up to very little. (Kirkus Reviews)