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Cities of the Prairie


Federalism is an abstraction; hence, one of its most basic research questions is where to find it. The Center has searched for the meanings, workings, and implications of federalism not only nationally but locally and in the states, not only in constitutions but also in the local civil communities where the legal, intergovernmental, and political dimensions of federalism unfold on a daily basis. The Center’s first community research project was “Cities of the Prairie.”

Cities of the Prairie: Rounds I – III

The Cities of the Prairie project began in 1959. Back then, most studies of U.S. community politics were case studies of small towns or large cities in the Northeast. By contrast, the Cities of the Prairie project was a comparative, longitudinal study of ten medium-sized civil communities of 50,000 to 100,000 population in the American heartland from the Grand Prairie of central Illinois to the prairie-plains of eastern Colorado. Conducted over three fifteen-year periods, the project compared how cities and their civil communities responded over time to four decisive forces of American politics – the evolving frontier of human settlement and work, political culture and migration, sectionalism and the geohistoric settings of American politics, and federalism as the institutional framework and principle of American politics. The local focus is the civil community – a concept referring to the complete local political system including local political cultures and their values, the local legal constitution (charter, laws, and policies), governmental and nongovernmental institutions (not only local ones but state and federal institutions with a local presence), and politically important socioeconomic characteristics that together comprise the city and its surrounding jurisdictions.

The first round of research was conducted by Daniel J. Elazar between 1959 and 1962 under the auspices of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. This round covered the politics of the ten civil communities in the federal system over the fifteen-year half-generation from 1946 to 1961. The results of that research were published in Elazar’s Cities the Prairie: The Metropolitan Frontier and American Politics (Basic Books, 1970; republished by University Press of America, 1984); The Politics of Belleville: A Profile of the Civil Community (Temple University Press, 1971); and “Constitutional Change in a Long-Depressed Civil Community: Case Study of Duluth, Minnesota,” Journal of the Minnesota Academy of Sciences 33:1 (January 1965): 49 – 66.

The second round investigated the same ten civil communities over the next fifteen-year period (1962 – 1977). For this study, Elazar assembled a team of researchers including Thomas Drolesky, John Kincaid, Rozann Rothman, Heywood Saunders, Stephen Schechter, Benjamin Schuster, Maren Allen Stein, and Joseph Zikmund II. Among the important cross-cutting questions of this round were how cities responded to national developments, including Great Society programs, the growth of the federal government, the civil rights and women’s rights movements, the tumultuous 1960s, Watergate and the crisis of confidence in government, suburbanization, and the stagflation of the 1970s. Initial research findings were presented and discussed at a panel at the 1978 meeting of the American Political Science Association. Results were published in Cities of the Prairie Revisited: The Closing of the Metropolitan Frontier (University of Nebraska Press, 1986).

The third round concluded the comparative study by investigating the politics of the same ten civil communities during the third half-generation from 1977 to 1992. Results were published in Cities of the Prairie: Opening Cybernetic Frontiers by Daniel J. Elazar with Joseph Marbach, Stephen Schechter, Rozann Rothman, Karl Nollenberger, and Maren Allan Stein. The book was edited by Joseph Marbach and issued by Transaction Publishers (2004) after the passing of Daniel Elazar. The overarching theme of this round was the challenges of rebuilding civil communities in the wake of social, economic, and political transformations.

Rebuilding Civil Community was a series of three conferences (1994 – 1997) during the final research phase of the third round of Cities of the Prairie. Sponsored by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, this series brought together project researchers and community leaders from selected cities of the prairie to compare recent experiences in rebuilding their civil communities after the decline of their manufacturing bases since the early 1980s. The first conference “Improving Civil Community” was held in December 1994 in Pueblo, CO. It is summarized in The Federalism Report in 20:2 (Winter 1995): 8 – 13. The second conference “Mobilizing Public Leadership” was held August 19 – 21, 1995, in Duluth, MN, comparing leadership patterns and trends in selected cities of the prairie in terms of their recruitment, roles, and perspectives. Third in the series was “Implementing Local Constitutional Change” held in Rockford, IL, in June 1997.


“Regionalism in a New Key,” a one-day conference in September 1995 in Philadelphia bringing together local, national, and international experts to investigate the idea of regionalism in its various forms.

New York State Commission on the Capital Region (1995 – 1997). Center Fellow Stephen Schechter served as Research Director of this commission known as the Regionalization Commission. Utilizing federalist principles, the commission explored a wide range of regionalization initiatives focusing primarily on cooperative arrangements among local governments. The final report, Working Together in the Capital Region can be accessed at

“Federalism and Community,” a Liberty Fund Conference directed by Daniel J. Elazar, Philadelphia, PA, November 8-10, 1987.

Dialogue on “Cities without Citizens” with contributions by Norton Long, Theodore Lowi, and Robert Salisbury, as part of Dialogue Series commemorating the Center’s Tenth Anniversary

Conference on “The Sun Belt Metropolis: Outlook for the 1980s,” convened in 1978 at the University of Houston, exploring federal, state, and local roles and issues

Fourth Dialogue on Medium-Size Cities was held in May 1978 commemorating the Center’s Tenth Anniversary.

Conference on the Urban County, Fall 1978.

Dialogue on Medium-Size Civil Communities, Fall 1978, Philadelphia.

APSA Panel on the Center’s Medium-Size Civil Community Project at the 1977 meeting of the American Political Science Association.

Medium-Size Cities Project by Stephen Schechter funded by Earhart comparing political development of pairs of cities (one industrial, the other political/cultural) in Upper New England, the Hudson Valley, suburban New York City, North Carolina piedmont, central Illinois, and southern Colorado, 1976 – 1980.

Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). In the mid-1970s, the Center participated in the Brookings Institution’s field research project monitoring CDBG in selected cities. The Center then sponsored a panel on the Brookings Project at the 1978 meeting of the American Political Science Association.