A veteran of municipal government highlights dynamic pioneers of the Progressive Era.
In this history book, Dykstra (co-author: Pinery Boys, 2017, etc.) draws inspiration from her years of work in New York City government agencies and traces the modern concept of public service to its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The volume profiles 13 aspects of good governance, from a newly formed state’s duty to care for children to the battles involved in developing an efficient system of public transportation, and focuses on the civic leaders who shaped each cause. Few of the individuals featured are household names, though many are famous within their fields—William Mulholland established the Los Angeles water system; Charles Horace Mayo and his brother, William James Mayo, founded the Mayo Clinic and led public health efforts—while others are less well-known, like sanitation czar George Waring and school superintendent Ella Flagg Young. In occasionally vivid prose (“At 46th Street and the East River, one notorious pile of horseshit, 30 feet high and 200 feet long, sat in an empty lot and poisoned the air for 30 blocks”), the author transports readers to the unhealthy, unsafe, and frequently corrupt environments that the reform-minded bureaucrats of the period confronted and makes a compelling case for the lasting value of their work. A useful chapter summarizes the conclusions drawn from this study of reformers—they share curiosity, perseverance, and communication skills, among other traits. Dykstra acknowledges the lack of racial diversity in her subjects and points out some of their misdeeds, like Melvil Dewey’s (“a complicated, unlikeable genius”) harassment of women. But on the whole, the book’s innovators are applauded (though the author finds it necessary to write of social investigator Frances Kellor’s relationship with her female partner of many decades “it is not known if their relationship was sexual”). Despite its limitations, the volume is a solid examination of civic engagement in a foundational era that presents an informative and engrossing introduction to key individuals.
An engaging celebration of public service through the stories of groundbreaking civic leaders.