Ruhil to complete 115-year study of American cities during upcoming fellowship

Daniel Kington
October 18, 2016

Anirudh RuhilVoinovich School associate professor Anirudh Ruhil might spend the bulk of his time in the same office this spring and summer, but his job will look considerably different. Ruhil, who teaches courses in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program, will be taking a two-semester faculty fellowship in order to finish his book tracking the evolution of 309 of America’s oldest and largest cities between the years 1900 and 2015.

Ruhil began the project in 2005 but, due to project and teaching commitments at the Voinovich School, hasn’t had the chance to give the project the attention he would like. Now, more than a decade later, Ruhil will finally get the opportunity to return to the project that has captivated him for so long.

Ruhil said he is excited to plunge back into an in-depth data analysis of a level of government that he says often escapes careful, statistical examination.

“I love to gather and analyze data,” Ruhil said. “It’s almost like a Rubik’s cube. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, or how mashed up it is when you start; you can put it in order by reverse engineering it and tinkering and tinkering until you get it right. So I’ve always loved that part of my job. I’ve also always loved to write, so I’m also excited to return to some of the more free-floating kind of writing that one can do as an academic.”

In his book, Ruhil will evaluate how population size, racial/ethnic composition, fiscal and electoral development, residential wealth and governmental structures have developed in the cities he examines. He will also consider the consequences of different government arrangements on policy, minority representation and economic development.

Ruhil imagines that his book will be particularly relevant to contemporary conversations around racial relations, as he intends to delve into the linkages between the population make-up of cities, minority representation in governments and the actual policies that cities enact.

“Why is it that some cities, even though the African American population might be less than 10 percent, seem to be just a little more likely than other cities of similar demographic composition to actually elect a Black mayor or a Black counselor? Why is it that in other cities, even when you have 50 percent Black populations, the odds of electing Black city councilors or a Black mayor just don’t match up to what you would expect?” Ruhil said. “I also want to look at the consequences of minority representation – does it matter whether we have a Black mayor in, say, Savannah, Georgia? The story so far seems to be that it doesn’t matter. Much of the literature suggests that you could elect a Black mayor, you could elect a female mayor, and it wouldn’t change a thing. Maybe that’s the truth. But I don’t just want to just nod my head until I am able to look at that data and analyze it myself.”

The information Ruhil gathers will not come strictly out of census data and archival documents. Ruhil also intends to interview former minority mayors and representatives to get their take on things. Ruhil said this is motivated in large part by the fact that, when looking at hard data, minority mayors demonstrate little to no impact on many key issues.  

“Maybe they’ll say that they didn’t achieve much, that race relations didn’t improve, or maybe they can point to concrete things they did, things they tried to accomplish, and articulate why the fruits of their labor don’t show up in the hard data. Well, that’s an interesting part of the story.”

Ruhil would ultimately like to extend the book’s focus on diversity in local politics and policy to include other identity-based categories such as sexuality. However, Ruhil says this may have to be the subject of a future project due to time constraints. Luckily, for those interested in extending Ruhil’s research on their own, Ruhil intends to make all the data he collects and analyzes publicly available.

“Without doubt, the data will be unique,” Ruhil said. “Anyone will be able to use the data to consider whatever they are interested in: minorities, electoral outcomes, the makeup of the labor force, anything. Nowhere else could you look at these issues in as large a number of cities over so much time – over a 115-year time-span. There is just no source.”

As part of his fellowship, Ruhil will work to make his data not only available but also easily accessible through the creation of interactive data visualization. Ruhil hopes these interactive visualizations will shed light on the many different ways in which his data may be used.

“What I’m hoping is that the data visualizations will get people interested in what is possible, and why, looking at local elections, for instance, you can actually get some interesting information,” he said.

Ruhil has already written the first two chapters of his book, and will spend spring semester as well as the beginning of summer semester, writing five more chapters. Ruhil will then conclude his fellowship by engaging in an in-depth editing process before looking toward publication.

The ability to focus exclusively on his book came as a great opportunity to Ruhil.

 “Almost 80 percent of my time will be spent working on the book. Receiving the fellowship felt very gratifying, and it was a huge relief.”