In 1949, a reporter named Jean James was assigned to cover the then National Municipal League’s National Conference on Government in St. Paul, Minnesota. James approached league officers, including pollster George Gallup, and explained that she wanted to write a feature article about the best-governed cities in America. Gallup suggested that such a judgment was too complex, risky, and difficult to make.

“Well,” she replied, “it is football season. How about naming an All-American team of the eleven best-governed cities—a team that could be selected every year.”

Intrigued by the idea, league officers countered with a proposal, as Gallup later described it, “to name eleven cities in which they knew the citizens themselves had initiated and completed some action of major benefit to the entire community. And so the All-America Cities contest was born.”

The league formed a partnership with James’s employer, the Minneapolis Tribune, which sponsored the award for two years. The idea of the award program was simple. Each year cities would request a formal application from the program. The applications would be filled out, sent back to the league, and reviewed by a team of judges. From all the applications, up to twenty-two finalists would be selected. Each of the finalists would then send a representative to the annual National Conference on Government. At the conference, the finalists would make presentations to a jury made of leaders from civic, business, and labor organizations. The jury would select eleven winners of the award.

The award-winning community projects of the first All-America City winners were described by reporter James in a feisty, muckraking style. “Their stories,” she wrote, “are tales of real fighting, bitter battles against fat and placid political machines, against bosses with more power than men should have, against corruption and against genuine grassroots inefficiency.”

Reflecting the league’s focus on municipal reform, the first group of All-America City winners tended to be communities that made inroads against political corruption and incompetence. Boston, for example, received the award for not electing the political boss and felon, James Michael Curley, to a fifth term as mayor. San Antonio, Texas, had adopted a new charter with a city manager form of government. Grand Rapids, Michigan, had forced a mayor to resign after he had fired the city manager for not hiring a political crony. Philadelphia had broken the “hold of a corrupt political machine” that had ruled the city for half a century.

Fighting corruption and making local government more efficient continued to be a major theme of the award through the early 1950s, but other postwar concerns began to emerge in the stories of the All-America City winners. In 1953, then NCL President Gallup wrote: “This year the jury heard how citizens have met both natural and economic disaster, how improvements in governmental structure have been made against strong opposition from entrenched forces; how blight has been eliminated by urban redevelopment; how many improvements have been undertaken to bring physical facilities into line with the needs of a growing population which insists upon being motorized and airborne.”
The Developing Award

Glancing through the descriptions of All-America City winners in the National Civic Review, one is struck by how much the award reflected the central concerns of American communities. Municipal reform and anti-corruption efforts continued to play an important part of the community projects highlighted by the award, but concerns with infrastructure needs, poverty, racial justice, and environmental issues began to surface in subsequent decades. Here are a few examples:

Norfolk, Virginia, 1959. The end of World War II found this historic site of the largest East Coast naval base a disease-, crime-, and slum-ridden city, attracting unfavorable publicity from national publications. Citizens in medical societies, welfare and business organizations, labor unions, and civic clubs became concerned. In 1950 the community embarked on the largest urban renewal program in the country for cities in its population class. The city government and Norfolk Housing Authority, backed up by the press, radio, and others, effected outstanding accomplishments in slum clearance, public housing, urban renewal, and reduction of crime and disease.

Martinsville, Virginia, 1969. A heavily industrialized community in central Virginia, Martinsville was brought up short by demonstrations resulting from racial tension. Breaking the pattern of segregation began with minority group representation on the school board, and a new school plant whose opening followed months of planning sessions by representatives of the integrated student body. Other vestiges were done away with when the old recreation center was converted into an integrated YMCA and the local businessmen sought greater representation from the black community in its organizational activities. Other efforts to promote racial understanding include the formationof a Human Relations Council, a library-sponsored project on Afro-American studies, and the creation of a biracial recreational planning organization.

Phoenix, Arizona, 1978–1980. Concerned about an explosive growth rate and a continuous population influx, the Urban Form Directions Committee appointed by the planning commission and composed of two hundred citizen members, created the Phoenix Concept Plan 2000. Urban villages would be developed, each with its own land use plan and strong community identity. With high-intensity cores, they would offer a mixture of employment and commercial and residential uses. Long-term benefits would be reduced fuel consumption and air pollution.

Tampa, Florida, 1990. The arrival of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s created a new wave of problems for the city of Tampa. Suddenly residents in many inner-city neighborhoods were afraid to leave their houses at night as armed drug dealers took over the streets. Neighborhoods began to deteriorate and housing fell into disrepair. Open drug markets were popping up on street corners all over the city. Traditional police tactics such as sting operations and walking patrols had little effect. Then, in 1989, the Tampa Police formed the Quick Uniformed Attack on Drugs (QUAD), comprising forty officers working to eradicate street sales of drugs.