Year of Award


Document Type

Thesis - Campus Access Only

Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name


Department or School/College

Department of History

Committee Chair

Michael S. Mayer


Great Society, Model Cities Program


University of Montana


A central component of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ambitious domestic agenda called the Great Society, the Model Cities Program sought to alleviate the physical deterioration, crime, and general poverty in inner-city neighborhoods throughout the United States. Espousing citizen participation as the linchpin of the program, legislative architects expected that the solutions for these social ills would come from the local residents with guidance from federal appointed technical advisers and locally elected administrative officials. According to most historians, however, citizen participation disappeared with the Johnson administration and his warriors in the crusade against poverty. Because the program was hardly off the ground when President Johnson left office, most cities executed the program under an administration with a different philosophical approach to the necessity of resident participation. While President Richard M. Nixon may have wanted to scale back some of the most sweeping Great Society programs, he lacked the political capital to eliminate programs like Model Cities entirely. Instead, he often shifted the focus of the program to reflect his policy of New Federalism, which emphasized the redirection of funds to state and local governments. Without the federal directives and mandates, cities were no longer required to include low-income residents on planning boards or to consult neighborhood organizations in making funding decisions. In southwest Denver, Colorado, however, the most meaningful participation of residents occurred two decades after Johnson left office – when it was no longer federally and legislatively required. This thesis illustrates that not only did the Southwest Improvement Council, a grassroots nonprofit organization, achieve successful citizen participation in southwest Denver, but did so long after the federal government stopped mandating its role in community development. By asserting control over the Model Cities project in their neighborhood, the Southwest Community Center, organizers from the Southwest Improvement Council represented the fulfillment of the original agenda of the Model Cities Program. From the standpoint of spurring local citizen participation, some of the most vital contributions of the Great Society may have been unintended and guided by leaders and citizens who acted without federal guidelines or sanctions. Indeed, in the case of the Southwest Improvement Council, it was the inability of local bureaucrats to create the kind of change that was promised that led ordinary citizens to act.

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© Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Mary Ryan