Activism wrapped in capitalism: Josh Clark Davis on Activist Entrepreneurs in the 20th Century

“We now know that, during the Cold War, consumerism came to be increasingly tied to American citizenship in a particularly gendered form of privatization that occasionally surfaced into public politics,” noted Elaine Lewinnek in her review essay on architecture and consumerism in the July 2017 issue of the Journal of Urban History.[1] As evidenced by Lewinnek’s statement, it would be hard to deny the power of consumerism in American culture. More recently in the twenty first century, Presidents have framed consumerism as a central aspect of citizenship and a means to happiness amidst tragedy. “Get down to Disney World in Florida,” President George W. Bush told the American public after the 9/11 attacks. “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Our current president arguably occupies the White House due in large part to his success hawking what he perceives as “the good life” whether through reality TV or the odd cable shopping network; he even included a random, tone deaf plug for his winery as his disastrous August 15th press conference concluded. On the left, consumerism has no shortage of critics; Naomi Klein and Michael Moore regularly assail Corporate America.

Unsurprisingly, academics have found in consumerism a rich cultural vein from which some profound revelations about post World War II America can be extracted. Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003) remains mandatory reading for anyone studying ideas, government policies, and ideologies related to post World War II twentieth century consumerism and citizenship. Numerous other historians have contributed significantly to the discussion. Robert Weems, Lawrence Glickman, Kathy Piess, and Susan Benson serve as just four very notable examples; collectively they address class, race, and gender in America through an exploration of consumer behavior and activism.[2] One could easily add Meg Jacobs and Tracey Deutsch, who each have shared their own insights relating to “economic citizenship” particularly in regard to the government’s promotion of this idea, and its connection to gender.[3]

The study of consumerism includes the spaces that postwar shoppers inhabited. William Leach examined how business, finance, industry, and government intersected to create the nation’s mass consumer culture in the early decades of the twentieth century United States.[4] Long the dean of vernacular retail architecture, Richard Longstreth documented and illustrated the processes by which suburban and urban retail were transformed by business leaders, consumers, and in many cases, cars, both in terms of geography and the new spatial relations that business created for shoppers and the shopping experience.[5]

Gabrielle Esperdy and Andrew M. Shanken have also contributed work that comments on consumerism in other ways.[6] Esperdy explores the Modernization Credit Plan, part of the National Housing Act of 1934 as well as two public relations programs run through the Federal Housing Association, “Modernize Main Street” and “Better Housing Program.” She argues that though ignored, these smaller aspects of the New Deal program cast a broad influence such as through the mobilization of $5 billion in a depression era attempt to improve store fronts while promoting the idea of retail “main streets” as a symbol of commercial uplift and solution to economic decline. In many ways, Shanken’s work picks up soon after Esperdy leaves off with architects and urban planners attempting to puzzle out a postwar economic program during World War II. In doing so, he traces the discourse that popularized modernism in the U.S., provided new urban planning models, and impacted the nation in ways that exceeded architecture.

I will not even mention studies on international cities or parallel transnational works. They are legion and for our purposes here, regrettably omitted.

Josh Davis

Yet while the force of consumerism has received domestic and transnational attention, among historians the focus most often remains on corporate entities (or large scale enterprises), government planning, and a consumerist public that sways from apathy to resistance. Many, though not all, of the historians above discussed consumerism amidst the expansion of mass consumer culture in the 1920s, the rise of the social welfare state during the New Deal, World War II era U.S. and even the postwar prosperity of “consensus liberalism”.

Fewer scholars have endeavored to study the small business side of the consumerist politics during the 1960s and 1970s. In his new book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, urban historian Josh Clark Davis explores the intersection of 1960s/1970s social movements and small business activism that promoted black power and civil rights, feminism, drug reform (ok, access to and legalization of marijuana), and natural food.

Focusing largely on bookstores, small presses, head shops, and organic food markets, Davis argues that “activist entrepreneurs” reimagined “the products, places, and processes of American business,” and by doing so, laid the groundwork for an admittedly “less radical” vision but one that “lives on—albeit fragmented and diluted—in the language, products, and goals of countless American companies today.”[7] Despite Davis’ less optimistic view of the business landscape, it remains difficult to deny that the idea of corporate citizenship, at the very least in terms of rhetoric, today bears some relation to the efforts of Davis’ activist entrepreneurs. The irony of politically radical entrepreneurs establishing the, or perhaps more modestly, a template for the corporate citizen of today will not be lost on readers.[8]

Whole Foods Head Shops.jpg

The book traverses the United States. Davis carries us to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Detroit, and elsewhere. Activist entrepreneurs believed small businesses to be “the backbone of democracy” as “community institutions.” For example, Washington D.C.’s Drum and Spear Bookstore, specializing in works by black authors and promoting black nationalism and civil rights, operated as an arm of a non-profit. The owners of the Psychedelic Shop in San Francisco transformed a part of their business into a meditation room, “The Calm Center”, in an attempt to make the store “a headquarters for hippies seeking community and enlightenment as well as a refuge from the increasingly rough streets in the Haight.”[9] In this way, though not focused on the physical architecture like Longstreth or Leach, Davis explores these businesses as spaces of ideology and political engagement.

Throughout Davis navigates a variety of causes and businesses, most struggle with the same multi-armed tension: maintaining a successful business while critiquing capitalism and all it’s evils, promoting a political cause, and embodying the values of the social movement—be it feminism, the counterculture, civil rights, black power, or natural food—that served as its foundation. In some cases, most notably natural foods, labor practices and policies conflicted with business.

Resistance to entrepreneur activism not only came from without, but also from within. Many activist entrepreneurs endured attacks from the social movements they hoped to advance; distrust of capitalism by civil rights leaders, particularly among the black power wing of the movement, often led to criticism. “The central contradiction in activist business was that entrepreneurs who objected to capitalism still had to make money to survive,” writes Davis. They weren’t exploiting idealism and politics for financial gain, however. Davis’s activist entrepreneurs were grinders who “wanted their enterprises to survive in the long term.” There was rarely the opportunity to sell out for wealth and fame. “[T]he greatest threat to activist entrepreneurs was not being co-opted but simply going out of business,” notes Davis.[10]

Though the tension between dedication to the movement and the ability to stay afloat as a business tested all activist entrepreneurs, it manifested itself the most vociferously in the feminist movement. Granted, black bookstores initially struggled to win over some black nationalists, especially those who viewed capitalist enterprises warily, but by the late 1960s, most had embraced it.

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“Women are happening”, Women’s Interart Center, NY, NY, 1967-1978, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Within feminism, the idea of activist businesses proved more divisive. Susan Sojourner, owner of The First Things Bookstore in Washington D.C., noted that most “movement non-businesswomen” believed that activist entrepreneur enterprises sought to rip off, exploit, leach and profit from feminism. In this way, From Head Shops to Whole Foods documents the fault lines and points of disagreement among various movements.

In the case of feminism, some activist entrepreneurs clearly felt that too many feminists promoted a mythical womanhood. Lorraine Allen, owner of a specialty toiletry company Equation Collective, explained the plight of her fellow female activist entrepreneurs by skewering such ideas. “Just when the movement tried to perpetuate the myth that some women are somehow intrinsically, i.e. unmaterialistic [sic] here we come along with our balance sheets and income statements.”[11] Davis explores this dynamic through a number of feminist business including credit associations, book stores, publishers, and others. Efforts to create umbrella organizations that thread various feminists businesses together for economic and political gain, often met with resistance from critics inside the movement.

 

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Malcolm X, half-length portrait, seated, facing right, during press conference in offices of the National Memorial African Book Store, New York City, 1964, New York World Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Whatever the political gains achieved by black nationalist and feminist book stores, both contributed to the critical growth of each community’s economic base. Black and feminist bookstores increased the numbers of businesses owned by women and minorities but also nurtured customers’ interest in feminism and civil rights. Each contributed to an expansion of the public sphere that included a more diverse set of voices; however, both fell victim to their success. By the 1990 and 2000s, chain stores snatched up black and feminist authors. With declining readership that eventually shuttered the physical locations of even Barnes and Noble, most black and feminist bookstores soon closed their doors, unable to compete. For feminist presses, those that persisted shed or downplayed their affiliation to the movement. Due to the focus on both black and feminist entrepreneurs, these chapters put Davis in dialogue with Weems, Cohen, Deutsch, Glickman and others.

Unlike bookstores and printing presses, head shops and organic food outlets exhibited a slightly different arc: ideologies mattered less, lifestyle mattered more. Each began as alternatives to “America’s dominant consumer culture.” In the case of head shops, many activist entrepreneurs believed consumerism to be “alienating, conformist, puritanical, and ‘plastic.’”[12] But head shops also did not operate as “ideological clearing house[s] for radical social movements” or serve as collectives or cooperatives.[13] That being said, politics did seep into the scene; anti-war activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s influenced both head shop entrepreneurs and their customers. In general, however, head shops grew out of the counterculture’s distrust of materialism, an interest in Eastern religions, and tendency toward self-exploration (chemical and otherwise).

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The modern day descendent of Davis’s 1960s head shop activist entrepreneurs; “Window of the Space Cowboy Smoke Shop, which calls itself ‘the highest head shop in the world,’ in Breckenridge, Colorado”, Carol M. Highsmith, August 8, 2015, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

When the 1980s arrived with Reagan’s War on Drugs and the efforts of parents groups like Dekalb Families in Action (see Michael Massing’s The Fix for a good composite of the anti-drug parent movement of the late 1970s and 1980s), head shops faced public criticism and legislative marginalization. Eventually, entrepreneurs allied with the marijuana legalization movement and free speech advocates. It was a narrower activism than the anti-materialism and anti-war politics of the 1960s and ‘70s, but activism nonetheless.[14]

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Photoprint used by the U.S. Treasury Department to document the increasing traffic in marijuana, 1943-1945, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What most head shop owners did not highlight in this fight was the racial inequality at the heart of the War on Drugs. Instead, they often adopted a “color blind analysis of drug laws” that failed to highlight the criminal justice systems implicit racial bias. NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) also stood guilty of such sins of omission, and Davis cynically describes how NORML found it “politically effective to celebrate marijuana and its young white users as innocent, everyday Americans instead of challenging the prevalent stereotypes of African American drug users as dangerous criminals.”[15]

 

Like head shops, natural or organic foods began without being tethered to a single ideology. Rather, the natural food movement operated as a Rorschach test—the cause you ascribed to it said much more about you than the enterprise itself. “Environmentalism, pacifism, animal rights, anarchism, and the counterculture—all contributed to natural foods’ ideological profile in the early 1970s,” argues Davis. The embrace of numerous movements rather than a single one enabled activist entrepreneurs in the industry to “recast their business as a form of political resistance against powerful corporations, environmental degradation, and even war and animal cruelty.” Still, while this gave activist entrepreneurs a broader appeal it also meant they lacked the kind of frenzied attachment to their business enjoyed by those counterparts wedded to a single cause.[16]

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A modern day non-Whole Foods natural food store, “Talal Cockar’s 2011 mural “Tierra y Libertad” fills much of a wall on the Big Hollow natural-foods store building, part of the Laramie Mural Project in downtown Laramie, Wyoming”, Carol M. Highsmith, June 6, 2015, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Considering the dominance of Whole Foods over the past decade and its recent buyout, it would not be surprising if Davis’ work on organic food draws the most attention from the media and general public. The natural foods movement did not begin with Whole Foods, but rather sprang from the ideas of Japanese writer and spiritual leader George Ohsawa. In his book Zen Macrobiotics, Ohsawa advised readers to eschew sugar, canned goods, produce grown with nonorganic pesticides and fertilizers, and almost all animal products. His followers established Erewhon in the mid-1960s in Boston while promoting the macrobiotic lifestyle. Despite running afoul of the FDA, Erewhon gained its economic footing and by 1971 reported annual sales of $1.8 million. With locations in Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Toronto, it laid the groundwork for a transformation of the grocery industry.[17]

Labor practices bedeviled many natural food stores. “Some of the most successful businesses resisted efforts by employees or activists to organize unions,” writes Davis, “rejecting the idea that organized labor should play a role in securing workplace democracy.”[18] Labor difficulties aside and in terms of economic growth and presence in the American marketplace, organic foods prove the most successful of Davis’ examples. However, whether in spite or because of their success, the industry endured the criticism from a variety of constituencies including accusations of “cliquish dogmatism,” excessive prices, and “hostility toward people of color, the poor, and organized labor.”[19]

Just as feminist businesses attempted to create umbrella organizations and associations that might bind them to each other more tightly, both politically and economically, similar efforts were made among natural food producers. The formation of the Organic Merchants (OM) “counterculture trade association” sought to create a network of activist entrepreneurs as a means to address distribution problems. Many of these entrepreneurs argued that corporations would never be effective in the natural food business. Paul Hawken, the co-founder of OM, disparaged efforts by corporate America as too opaque, too focused on profits, and too dependent on what and he others viewed as corrupted advertising. “If you are in a truly meaningful business, there is no need to promote yourself other than being open, honest and communicative to your customers,” he would tell journalists. “[T]here is nothing truthful in advertising.”[20]

Cooperatives also arose in the mid-1970s as a means to increase inclusivity and democratic organization. Having lived in NYC for nearly a decade I can’t even tell you how many oddball stories about the famed Park Slope Coop I heard from friends. Now a resident in one of the nations’ most liberal suburbs, Takoma Park, I’ve witnessed Coop politics first hand, sometimes rational and thought out, sometimes not. At the very least, cooperatives raised questions about just what made for the best, most just, business model: “the cooperative model of shared ownership, the spiritually informed and consensus driven management model of companies such as Erewhon, or labor unions?”[21]

Whole Foods emerged from this activist ether. After studying earlier natural food stores like Brookline, Massachusetts’s Bread and Circus and Los Angeles’s Mrs. Gooch’s Ranch Market, John Mackey opened the first Whole Foods market in Austin, Texas. Mackey aggressively expanded the business; unlike his counterparts, Mackey sought to acquire competitors and later sold large portions of the business to venture capitalists, hence facilitating this growth. Such decisions represented a clear break with the more democratic impulses of the movement.

Later Mackey adopted a libertarian politics that eschewed organized labor and government intervention. In retelling the company’s history, Mackey conveniently neglected to mention that Whole Foods once accepted a critical loan from the government following a damaging flood to its Austin store in the 1980s. The company’s environmentalism aligned with the libertarian ideal advocating for businesses to adopt a social consciousness rather than depend on government regulation of the environment.

“[U]nlike most activist businesses, Mackey emphasized individual fulfillment at the expense of social equality and workplace democracy,” notes Davis. In Mackey’s estimation, inequality was natural, struggles for equality were manifestations of national selfishness. While Mackey outwardly embraced social causes like environmentalism, he always kept his eye on the capitalist prize: “We must make sure that we do not become so involved in social/environmental/global issues that it negatively affects our ability to serve our stakeholders,” he noted in a 1988 handbook for Whole Foods.

Davis is right to lament the dissolution of entrepreneurial activism, but at the same time, the efforts of all his subjects also helped bring their movements and the issues that animated them into the mainstream. The decline of black and feminist bookstores, and independent bookstores generally, deserves to be mourned. However, the fact that both brought black and female authors to the broader culture such that big chains began to stock them also merits some level of celebration. What was lost, perhaps, was a sense of community and the store as a space for political debate, reform, and resolution.

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Our more traditional idea of 1960s activism, [Anti-Vietnam war protest and demonstration in front of the White House in support of singer Eartha Kitt], Thomas J. O’Holloran, January 1968, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
At least in some small way, what happened to black bookstores parallels the fate of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCUs spent decades educating black America, and doing it well, only to witness declining enrollments with desegregation as African American students chose schools that had previously denied them admission due to race. At the risk of sounding simplistic, both deserved better but in capitalism we often don’t get what we deserve—rather, we get what the market dictates. Such observations hardly count as revelatory, but since From Head Shops to Whole Foods is the newest addition to the History of Capitalism series from Columbia University Press, it seems appropriate.

Relatedly, the cooption of entrepreneurial activism by companies such as Whole Foods demonstrates capitalism’s consistency regarding commodification. For example, organized labor and workers pushed the idea of “industrial democracy” during World War I as a means to break up the autocratic control of big business over their labor. After the war, employers soon adopted the same phrase and attached it to mealy-mouthed company unions that failed to deliver anything like the gains workers made during, and then lost after, the Great War. Here too, the reader encounters similar processes at work. Yet, and this remains just one testament to the complexity of Davis’ work here, if this co-option resulted in better corporate citizenship and more activist consumers, then activist entrepreneurs undoubtedly contributed something vital to American capitalism.

 

If there are aspects of the book to critique, as there are with any work, one might point to the lack of any transnational perspective. Despite the fact black nationalists and feminists circulated ideas internationally, there is no real attention to this facet of any of the movements. Secondarily, in moments, it feels as if Davis jumps from example to example and that one unifying thread for each chapter does not always emerge. These are pretty minor quibbles.

In the end, Davis book makes a valuable contribution to the study of American capitalism and consumerism. It reveals some well-worn paths in American history but in new ways, while also establishing some of the ironic origins of today’s corporate citizens.

[1] Elaine Lewinnek, “Modern Architecture, Consumer Citizenship, and the Fate of American Downtowns”, Journal of Urban History 43. (July 2017): 526.

[2] Robert E. Weems, Desegregating the Dollar: African American Consumerism in the Twentieth Century, New York University Press, 1998; Lawrence Glickman, Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, University of Chicago Press, 2010;

[3] Meg Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America, Princeton University Press, 2006; Tracy Deutsch, Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the New Deal, University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[4] William R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, Vintage Books, 1993.

[5] Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950, M.I.T. Press, 1997; Richard Longstreth, The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Space in Los Angeles, M.I.T. Press, 1999; Richard Longstreth, The American Department Store Transformed, 1940-1960, Yale University Press, 2010.

[6] Gabrielle Esperdy, Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture During the New Deal, University of Chicago Press, 2008; Andrew M. Shanken, 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the Home Front, University of Minnesota Press, 2010; Kathy Piess, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, Temple University Press, 1986; Susan Bension, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890 – 1940, University of Illinois Press, 1987

[7] Josh Clark Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 4, 8.

[8] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 245.

[9] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 58,94

[10] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 31.

[11] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 149.

[12] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 84.

[13] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 85.

[14] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 120.

[15] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 121.

[16] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 191.

[17] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 171.

[18] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 179.

[19] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 180.

[20] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 195.

[21] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 203.

“Housing for All?”: Putting History to Work in Cambridge, MA

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Rep. Marjorie Decker (Moderator), Barry Bluestone, Charles Sullivan, and Corrine Espinoza. Courtesy of Cambridge Historical Society.

This post by Hope J. Shannon belongs to a series highlighting urban and suburban public history projects.

During the fall of 2016, the Cambridge Historical Society (CHS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts held a three-part symposium titled “Housing for All?” The symposium brought historical perspective to housing issues in both Cambridge and the Boston metropolitan area, and shows one of the many ways history can be put to work in conversations about contemporary problems. I spoke to Marieke Van Damme, CHS Executive Director, about the symposium, its outcomes, and what CHS hopes to achieve by organizing this kind of innovative programming. Read on for our interview and to learn more about how you can have these kinds of conversations in your communities and neighborhoods.

Hope J. Shannon (HJS): What was the symposium? What did it do?

Marieke Van Damme (MVD): Our 2016 fall symposium, “Housing for All?” was the culmination of our year thinking about housing in Cambridge.

In 2015, the Cambridge Historical Society, as a result of serious strategic planning, decided to further refine our community programming. We decided to theme our years, and have all of our programming, events, publications, etc. relate to that theme. It was important to us that the theme be an issue that Cambridge is facing today. We knew that to be relevant to our community, to truly serve as a resource, we had to contribute to the conversation. We believe historical perspective is often lacking in discussions about the present and future, and so we set out to fill that gap and provide much-needed background.

Our first year of themed programming was 2016, and we chose to talk about housing. It’s a serious issue in Cambridge, and one of the first topics people talk about when they get together. We decided to frame our year as a question (“Are We Home?”) because we think this is more inviting to our audience. Instead of the “all-knowing” historical society telling you what you should know about housing in our city, we are asking our neighbors to share their experiences, and to participate in the conversation. As we know, so many of us are not represented in our local historical narratives, and we hope small, subtle changes in how we speak and present information will help change that. We want to be welcoming to all. We can’t be a true historical society if we only collect and share some of the stories of our city, and leave so many out.

When coming up with our set series of annual programs (that change with the different annual themes), we decided that our culminating fall program would be a symposium for a more in-depth, traditional look at an issue. (Other events throughout the year include Open Archives, History Cafes, walking tours, and a fundraiser. More information on our programs is available on our website.)

The Fall Symposium is a two- or three-part event featuring panel speakers with a moderator. In this way, it is traditional. However, we tried a few new techniques to make it more engaging:

  • We place significant emphasis on our differences with other organizations. We make it known, repeatedly, that we are a humanities-based organization. We are not a city-funded or activist group. We bring people together in a slowed-down setting and talk about historical events, precedents, and perspective. We don’t lobby, and we don’t want our audience to mistake our event for a city council meeting. Yes, there is urgency around the issue we are discussing, but the event is meant to be a pause button, not a fast forward.
  • We let it be known, through our remarks and choice of speakers, that the average Cantabrigian’s viewpoint and experience has value. Yes, “experts” are important, but everyone has something to share.

    2016 symposia 3 photos (15)
    Courtesy of Cambridge Historical Society
  • We laid down ground rules at each event, expressed verbally by me in my opening remarks, but also in our handout. They were: listen well, ask questions based on genuine curiosity, and think and speak with empathy.
  • We held the events in three different public locations; two were public library branches and one was a community center. They set the right tone of inclusion and openness we were going for.

We were honored that we won a Leadership in History Award from AASLH for this event!

HJS: Who were the community stakeholders involved in the planning and in the symposium discussion? Did the CHS form new relationships? How did the various community interests shape the project?

MVD: It being our first year of new programming, we really pulled off the event with few resources and the dedication of a small group of people. We couldn’t have done the event without very generous funding from the Mass Foundation for the Humanities, and the Cambridge Savings Bank. Their support allowed us to, among other things, pay speakers, market the event, and pay for a programs consultant.

We planned an ambitious three-part series, with three speakers plus one moderator at each event (a total of 12 speakers). To find our speakers, we asked around our networks, reached out to housing activists, and researched experts on the internet. Everyone was so generous to give of their time and participate. Having three events allowed us to delve into the past, present, and future of affordable housing. Of course, we could have had a dozen events and still not adequately covered the topic (one of our attendees wrote on our follow up survey that we were “thirty years too late” discussing the topic).

This year, with more advance planning, we formed an advisory group to help us with the symposium (focusing on changes to Kendall Square in relation to this year’s theme, “What Does Cambridge Make?), and we are already forming a year-long advisory group for 2018’s theme “Where is Cambridge From?” You can never start too early. The good news is that the relationships we formed last year have carried into this year, and have many new friends and contacts to ask for help.

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Courtesy of Cambridge Historical Society

HJS: Did the symposium provide you with any new insights about the history of Boston’s metropolitan area, Cambridge, and/or urban history more broadly? If yes, what were they?

MD: Definitely. Our challenge when planning the event was always “Is it a regional issue, or a Cambridge issue?” The answer was usually “both.” While Cambridge and Boston are often inseparable, distinctions can be made. This is also why personal stories are so important and make all the difference in showing the humanity behind the data.

HJS: What’s next for CHS?

MD: We’ve had a great year so far with “What Does Cambridge Make,” and are looking forward to our final events of the year– 2 History Cafes, and the Fall Symposium. Planning is already underway for 2018!

More about our History Cafe series here.

More about the 2016 Housing for All series here.

Goodbye Honolulu, Hello August

Alas, it is time to hang up our leis and board our flight back to the mainland. Unlike most trips to Honolulu, this was no vacation. We challenged ourselves and our readers to travel beyond the resorts of Waikiki beach and explore the rich history of the Hawai’ian islands and its many peoples. The goal we set in the introduction to our Honolulu bibliography was to peel back the facade created by U.S. imperialism and capitalism to find the city’s indigenous history and culture, without minimizing the often brutal, sometimes fruitful, impact that American involvement had on the islands.

From behind a camera lens and atop a skateboard, our correspondents roamed the city’s streets in search of sites connecting Hawai’i’s present to its past. Both wrote about visiting the statue of King Kamehameha, who unified the Hawai’ian Islands in 1810 and became the kingdom’s first monarch, to learn about his reign and how celebrations of his legacy became a symbolic act of cultural reclamation during the Hawai’ian Renaissance that began in the 1970s. Indeed, our contributing expert on Honolulu’s historic preservation concluded his interview with us on an optimistic note, with his hope that the city “can revive the heritage area concept and begin interpreting through museums and information plaques and kiosks to make [Honolulu]’s history more meaningful for both visitors and residents.”

A figurative visit to Honolulu’s Metropolitan Community Church–made via the archives, through a close reading of an issue of the church’s newsletter–also brought past and present together in one site. The Supreme Court of Hawai’i was one of the first to rule in favor of gay marriage, and the history of Honolulu’s Metropolitan Community Church provides some insight into how the mainland struggle for LGBTQ+ rights transplanted to and flourished in Hawai’i.

The inextricability of U.S. imperialism from Hawai’ian history especially came through in our readings of William Finnegan and Joan Didion, two mainland writers who spent time in Hawai’i and vividly portrayed daily life in Honolulu. Both describe the prevalence of American imports, from the racial hierarchy to the military to consumerism. Yet, both also manage to capture something essentially Hawai’ian about the place, as a result of their outsiderness.

Although we are returning to the mainland U.S. in August, we will not be deplaning in a new Metropolis of the Month. We’re going to take the month to develop exciting content about the cities we will be featuring in the fall. In the meantime, we will be posting pieces on a wide range of topics that we hope you will enjoy.

Member of the Week: Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

joanna-merwood-salisburyProf. Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

Faculty of Architecture and Design

Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I began my career as an historian of late-nineteenth-century American architecture, in particular the culture of the early Chicago skyscraper (roughly 1880 to 1910). My research investigated the broader group of social actors involved in the creation of the skyscraper city, and asked how the appearance of the skyscraper changed ideas about the nature of cities and American society as a whole. From there I moved on to explore the types of public space available to Americans during this period: what was the dominant understanding of public space? How was it incorporated into strategies of urban design and how did different social groups make use of it? These interests lead to my current project on the history of Union Square in New York City.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

My current position as Associate Dean of Research and Innovation means I spend the majority of my time helping other scholars make the most of their own research. When I do teach it is courses in modern Architectural History. Throughout my career I have usually worked with students aiming for careers in architecture practice. I find that students enrolled in a professional program are principally focused on the contemporary issues at stake for design. For this reason I try to situate historical material in relation to those issues. For example, I connect the current concern with sustainability to the long-standing interest in “organicism” in architecture; in courses dealing with the formulation of the industrial city in the nineteenth-century, I relate historical processes of change to contemporary issues in urban design, in particular the impact of globalization and the environmental crisis.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am excited for the publication next year of Race and Modern Architecture, edited by Irene Cheng, Charles L. Davis II and Mabel O. Wilson. This is a series of essays on the critical role of racial theory in shaping architectural discourse. Redressing a longstanding neglect of racial discourses among architectural scholars, it reveals how the racial has been deployed to organize and conceptualize the spaces of modernity, from the individual building to the city to the nation to the planet. I have an essay in it about racial themes in Civil War-era New York City architecture. I’m also looking forward to the publication of my book-length project on Union Square, Design for the Crowd Patriotism and Protest in Union Square, which investigates the history of the Square since the early-nineteenth-century, understanding it as both a real public space and as the symbol of competing ideas about the operation of democracy in the United States.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Even if it seems unfashionable, obscure, or even over done, find a topic that you are deeply interested in, not just one that seems to tick the right boxes. The many hours you’ll spend in library basements and archival storage will seem even longer if you’re not passionate about what you’re looking at.

In this current moment of political protest, how would you design the optimal protest space? What would it look like and where would it be? Assume no obstacles!

Protest movements today no longer rely on gatherings in physical space to get their message across. Some of the most effective contemporary activism (the “Black Lives Matter” movement, for example) is geographically dispersed with a heavy reliance on social media. However I still believe that physical space has a role to play, principally in giving a visual image to protest movements, as in the Occupy Wall Street protest at Zuccotti Park. The most effective seem to combine occupation of dedicated public spaces (where proximity to symbols of power is key) with dynamic connections to larger groups not present on site, via mainstream and new media.

Finding Religion in Honolulu: The LGBTQ Metropolitan Community Church of Hawai’i

In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court issued a ruling that would prove prescient. Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, along with two other couples, had filed a lawsuit against the state in order to have a marriage license issued to them. At the time, Hawaii state law banned same sex nuptials. Surprisingly, while the court did not revoke the ban, it did issue a 3-1 majority opinion that would propel same sex marriage forward and spur the backlash against it. “Marriage is a basic civil right” and that “on its face and as applied,” the Hawaii law “denies same-sex couples access to the marital status and its concomitant rights and benefits,” wrote Justice Steven H. Levinson in the court’s majority opinion. When President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Congress cited the ruling as a compelling reason for the passage of the law. Mainland states feared having to honor same sex marriages from Hawaii–hence the reason for DOMA defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

At the time, the Baehr lawsuit appeared to be “quixotic”, noted the New York Times in 2013. Indeed, even within the LGBTQ community, the idea of gay marriage was controversial, sometimes even divisive. Literary critic Edmund White noted as much in his memoir City Boy: “Back then we had no notion of ‘gay marriage’, partly because many of us were equally opposed to marriage for straight people … As the [1970s] wore on, we became more and more convinced that monogamy – and even the concept of the couple – was outdated.”[1] White, of course, did not speak for the entire LGBT community, but he represented a powerful strain of thought among many within it at the time. Yet, two decades later, Hawaii became one of over two dozen states to sign same sex marriage into law; later Obergefell v. Hodges made same sex marriage the law of the land.

Normally when one thinks of LGBTQ history, New York or San Francisco dominate narratives, however, Honolulu clearly has its own history in this regard. A 1971 newsletter/pamphlet from the city’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a branch of the larger MCC evangelical LGBTQ movement started in 1968 Los Angeles, provides insight into Honolulu’s gay history and a window into the national connections beginning to emerge among the Gay Liberation of the 1970s.

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Flyer, Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit, 1971-1973, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In 1968, Troy Perry held the Metropolitan Community Church’s first service. It began in Perry’s Huntington Park living room, but by 2016, according to the MCC’s website, the Christian organization encompassed 300 congregations and 43,000 members in 22 countries across the globe. As Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons surmised in their 2006 work, Gay L.A., “it is probably the world’s largest employer of gays and lesbians.”[2] According to Heather Rachelle White, author of Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights, the founding of the MCC, “catalyzed a gay religious movement that quickly eclipsed predecessor efforts.”[3]

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Los Angeles Metropolitan Community Church, 1973-1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

A former Pentecostal clergyperson, Perry had been defrocked due to his homosexuality, but never let go of his belief in Christianity. Perry did, however, express a healthy skepticism regarding traditional churches potential for accepting gay Christians. “[M]ost organized religions have been no more helpful to us than an empty well,” he wrote in 1972.[4] Thus, he embarked on creating a network of affiliated churches open to gay and lesbian Christians. Perry’s “strong features, penetrating hazel eyes, and towering six feet” naturally drew listeners as did his penchant for pithy quotes refuting scripture-based homophobia: “I’m not saying Jesus was homosexual, but if he lived today, people would be suspicious, he never married, he ran around with 12 men all the time and was betrayed by a kiss.”[5]

Within only a few years, the MCC movement had spread to several other cities and states including Honolulu, Hawaii. One of the most prominent LGBTQ political activists of the 1960s and 1970s, Frank Kameny—whose papers are located in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress—followed the expansion of the MCC and collected newsletters from several of its churches. One such newsletter from the Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, located in Honolulu, provides insight into the city’s gay community and the issues most important to its the LGBT residents.

The MCC also provided a space for community beyond bars. Though gay bars had proliferated in the post WWII era and were undoubtedly important in forging a gay community, they often remained under surveillance by local law enforcement; police in Los Angeles and elsewhere frequently harassed, arrested, or outted patrons and owners. Moreover, in the search for identity and companionship, many gay men and women eschewed the bar scene more generally. “[I]t is difficult for [gay men and women] to get to know each other as people in the bars and other such meeting places,” noted the Honolulu MCC newsletter. “One of the valuable functions of the church is that it provides a place where people can relate to other peoples as individuals, rather than merely as sexual contacts.”[6] Institutions like the MCC provided both visibility and community.

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Cover, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, March 21, 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

The Honolulu church represents the power of this movement. Judging from its March 1971 newsletter, the Honolulu MCC engaged the public in a number of ways. Its pastor, Reverend Hanson, often addressed American Studies classes at the University of Hawaii; he attempted to convey to students the difficulty of gay life in 1970’s America. Due to the secrecy of gay life, promiscuity proved easier and safer “in some ways, since living with one person makes it necessary to decide what to tell other people, such as parents and co-workers.” “The strong pressures brought against such a relationship lead to the failure of many,” Hanson would tell the students, “which is why MCC requires a six months’ trial period for a couple before a marriage may be performed.” [7]The very fact that the church sanctified gay marriages demonstrates its prescience.

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“The Catalyst” newsletter, Metropolitan Community Church of Denver, June 4, 1972, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Even the church’s small numbers—according to the newsletter, its most recent service counted 43 attendees—were related to sexuality, since many gay men and women feared being unmasked to a then hostile public. Moreover, the church’s prominence would draw unwanted attention to homosexuality. Nonetheless, the church continued to engage the broader community. Additional efforts at outreach included meetings with local police to express parishioner anxieties regarding surveillance and harassment. [8]

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“Rapping with the Police”, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, March 21, 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Political concerns also drew the church’s attention. In 1971, the state legislature had begun to consider revoking Hawaii’s anti-sodomy law. State Rep. John Carroll (12th district) met with church members and assured the church that he was in favor of the revision, noting that he “strongly opposed . . . the hypocrisy of our current laws, and has supported changing them for several years. What people do in private should not be a matter for public concern, as long as the public is not harmed by it,” Carroll told listeners.

Mainland politics also drew the scrutiny of MCC newsletter editors Alan Chapman, Dick Roberts and Ned Will. Frank Kameny’s 1971 campaign for Washington D.C.’s non-voting seat in Congress received coverage, and the editors wrote of Kameny’s effort positively for forcing the media to acknowledge the LGBTQ community: “Kameny’s campaign has a major plank; the recognition of a Homosexual Citizen as a full member of society.”

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Campaign poster “Jack Baker for MSA President, 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress

Minnesota’s Jack Baker, who with his partner Michael McConnell attained the nation’s first gay marriage in 1971, also drew ink. Baker had been denied a position in the University Minnesota Library and had sued arguing this denial stemmed from discrimination. Baker had first gained national attention in his successful 1971 run for University of Minnesota Student Government President; now his victory in federal court added to his LGBT rights resume. Unfortunately, a Federal Appeals court reversed the decision later that same year.

Kuhio Day

While the newsletter tells us little about the ethnicity, race, or gender of church members, it did highlight native history in both its graphics and articles. One such example was this March 1971 piece on the 100th anniversary of the birth of “The Citizen Prince” Prince Kuhio Kalanianaole. “He was democratic in demeanor, dignified yet affable,” the editors wrote. “His chief contribution to constructive legislation was his work toward the enactment of Congress in 1921 of the measure creating the Hawaiian Homes Commission of which he was one of the first members.” While many date the Hawaiian Renaissance to the mid-1970s, when a series of events and protests signaled a new interest and political awakening of native Hawaiian culture, the newsletter suggests that at some small level this was occurring even earlier.

USA directory MCC

Though it might be a solitary newsletter, this single issue tells us a great deal about aspects of Honolulu’s LGBTQ culture. Perhaps congregation members were a minority among the larger gay population, but they were active not only in the church but in the surrounding community. Church congregants expressed an awareness and interest in politics, local and national, while highlighting aspects of the state’s native history.

 

[1] Edmund White, City Boy: My Life in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 99-100.

[2] Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 260.

[3] Heather Rachelle White, “Proclaiming Liberation: The Historical Roots of LGBT Religious Organizing, 1946-1976”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 11. 4 (May 2008): 103.

[4] Troy Perry, The Lord is My Shepard and He Knows I’m Gay: The Autobiography of the Rev. Troy D. Perry, (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1972), 5.

[5] Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.; “Life in Christ”, Metropolitan Community Churches Newsletter Volume I Issue II, Christ Church, Baltimore, Maryland, July 1972, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[6] Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, Vol 1 Issue 10, Honolulu, Hawaii, March 21, 1971

[7] Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, March 21, 1971

[8] Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, March 21, 1971.

Joan Didion’s Honolulu

Critics often assail Joan Didion with accusations of solipsism. At first glance, Didion’s writings regarding her time in Honolulu confirm such assertions. “I am a thirty four year old woman with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a Tidal Wave that will not come,” Didion wrote in 1969.[1] Yet travelogues often hinge on this sort of alien, even alienated in Didion’s case, viewpoint. The Atlantic’s Adrienne Lafrance recently summarized this reality: “Travel writing is traditionally concerned with the writer’s sense of belonging, or lack thereof—the spectacle of being somewhere new, the sense of displacement one feels.” With this premise agreed upon, revisiting essays from Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979) shows that Didion did reveal some profound truths about America—though admittedly to a far lesser extent about Hawaii.

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Before diving into her work on the city, we should discuss a couple of relevant points. No doubt, in some respects Didion falters; taken together her two essays – the first “Letter from Paradise, 21 19’ N., 157 52’ W.” and the second “In the Islands” – traverse more than a decade from 1966 to 1977. Throughout each, Didion failed to really illuminate native culture. While she does not completely ignore Hawaii’s racial and cultural complexity, it is only presented through the perceptions of whites. As we noted in our bibliography for the city, for mainland writers the islands function as means to discover who we are, rather than the archipelago’s own history. For better or worse, Didion perpetuates this tendency.

Some readers will argue her criticism of American consumerism feels rote. While it is true that reading critiques of mid century American consumerism from the twenty-first century feels more nostalgic than groundbreaking, this actually testifies to Didion’s power as a writer. Her dry but ruthless vision of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and its patrons defined the period so completely that watching the Season Six premiere of Mad Men, in which Don vacations at the Royal Hawaiian and pitches their director on a new ad campaign, feels cribbed from Didion’s account. In the end, two themes emerge: the power of tourism and the breadth of the military’s influence.

Tourist Trap

Unsurprisingly, Honolulu drew from Didion an almost ineffable response. “And so, now that it is on the line between us that I lack all temperament for paradise, real or facsimile, I am going to find it difficult to tell you precisely how and why Hawaii moves me, touches me, saddens and troubles and engages my imagination,” she confessed, “what it is in the air that will linger long after I have forgotten the smell of pikake and pineapple and the way the palms sound in the trade winds.”[2] For a writer who leaned toward skepticism and doubt for much of her life–as Eric Avila pointed out she rendered Los Angeles of the same period “the paranoid capital of the world”–this is no small feat.[3]

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The Royal Hawaiian, Ryan Reft, June 2017

Of course, even in such moments of appreciation, Didion clearly embodies the fish-out-of-water, stranger-in-the-land lens of the travelogue. For Didion, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel–a Waikiki landmark–is not just a place to lay one’s head, but “rather a social idea, one of the few extant clues to a certain kind of American life.” Of course, all great hotels, she concludes, operate as “flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service.”[4] The hotel’s opening in 1927 “made all things Hawaiian–leis, ukuleles, luaus, coconut leaf hats, and the singing of ‘I Wanna Learn to Speak Hawaiian’–a decade’s craze at country club dances across the United States,” she writes. The Royal, a haole creation, reflected Hawaii through an Anglo lens for an Anglo culture; a territorial influence cast across a continent an ocean away, but defined by American occupiers rather than native peoples.

From its establishment to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the hotel catered to a certain crowd. The kind of people who sunbathed behind the exclusive ropes of the hotel’s reserved beach space discovered that “their nieces roomed in Lungita at Stanford the same year, or that their best friends lunched together during the last Crosby.”[5] Midwestern newlyweds, Seattle Mayors, and San Diego magnates rub elbows with “Australian station owners, Ceylonese tea planters, [and] Cuban operators.”[6] This vision of Hawaii, more or less “a big rock candy mountain in the Pacific,” was conveyed to the mainland through newspaper photos of “well fed Lincoln Mercury dealers relaxing beside an outrigger….”[7] The tumult of the 1960s, according to Didion, never reached Honolulu shores: “the cataclysms of the larger society disturb it only as surface storms disturb the sea’s bottom, a long time later and in oblique ways.” This last statement rings false; the mid-1970s witnessed a resurgence of Hawaiian cultural pride and protest, which goes largely unmentioned in her work.

War and Peace

Though it remains unclear she would define it as such, Didion pushes out into the waters of American imperialism. Amidst the Vietnam War, the island’s ties to European and American imperial ambitions and global conflict seem overwhelming and obvious, but according to Didion, Hawaiians viewed war differently. WWII “cracked the spine” of the Big Five (a handful of families/companies that dominated Hawaiian business and social affairs), opened up a closed economy, and brought new people and new ideas from the mainland. “War is viewed with a curious ambivalence in Hawaii,” Didion noted, “because the largest part of its population interprets war, however unconsciously, as a force for good, an instrument of social progress.”[8]

The way Didion sees it, for Hawaiians the war released them from the bondage of sugar plantation feudalism and brought investment. It also opened up society in other ways. The elite Punahou School, once reserved for missionaries and their children’s children, now served a far broader swath of the population; nearly one third of its students came from Asian and Asian American homes. Chinn Ho, a local boy climbed his way up to millionaire status; he started at the bottom and worked his way into the power elite.

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Haoles prided themselves on the island’s cultural “melting pot”, though racism lay just beneath the surface. For example, when one woman informs Didion that some white Hawaiians did mingle with local Asians she framed it in less than noble terms. “The uncle of a friend of mine … has Chinn Ho to his house all the time,” the acquaintance confided; Didion characterized this as akin to saying “‘some of my best friends are Rothschilds.’” Even progressives used dodgy logic when one island teacher grabbed the arm of a pretty Chinese girl, exclaiming to Didion, “‘You wouldn’t have seen this here before the war. Look at those eyes.’” The truth is sugar cane brought diversity to the islands; the military brought a collision between Jim Crow America and its newly acquired territory, soon to become state.[9] “The Orientals are–well, discreet’s not really the word, but they aren’t like the Negroes and the Jews, they don’t push in where they’re not wanted,” another haole resident tells her.[10]

 

Decades after World War II, Didion returns to Schofield Barracks, the setting of James Jones’ classic novel From Here to Eternity, and records what has changed and what has persisted. For her, large parts of Honolulu belong to Jones, a sentiment that at first sounds inspiring but then condescending. For native Hawaiians, the idea that Jones, who spent time at Pearl Harbor during the war before shipping out to fight at Guadacanal, could ever “own” Hawaii must grate. Yet, Jones’s vision of Oahu’s various military installations – Pearl Harbor actually refers to a constellation of military bases – for boomers like Didion remains a somber, quasi-religious place. She visits the memorial and cries. “All I know about how other people respond is what I am told: that everyone is quiet at the Arizona.”

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Schofield Barracks Military Reservation, Wilikina Drive & Kunia Road, Wahiawa, Honolulu County, HI, circa 1938, photographer unknown created by David Franzen in 1996, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Honolulu’s Hotel Street had not changed, only the destination of its patrons. Young men barely out of their teens swarmed its bars and brothels: “And the sailors get drunk because they are no longer in Des Moines and not yet in Danang.”[11] Men in search of companionship, women in search of a dollar, and military police officers in search of infractions circle one another.

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Scene from film version of From Here to Eternity 

At the National Memorial Cemetery, a site more silent than the Arizona and home to over 19,000 dead from World War II through the Vietnam War, the dead from America’s engagement in Southeast Asia had begun to arrive. “The graves filled last week and the week before that and even last month do not yet have stones, only plastic identification cards, streaked by the mist and splattered with mud,” she wrote. “The earth is raw and trampled in that part of the crater, but the grass grows fast, up there in the rain cloud.” [12]

Graves devoted to Vietnam make up a fraction of the whole and are placed in the memorial’s outer rings, most often for “local boys.” However, many mainland families choose to bury their fallen in Honolulu. “A father or an uncle calls me from the Mainland and he says they’re bringing their boy here,” the superintendent of the memorial tells her. “I don’t ask why.” [13] She attends a burial service for one such soldier killed in action; a desultory event punctuated by the superintendent’s resigned admission: “Fill, cover, get the marker on. That’s the one thing I remember about my training.”[14]

Her opinions about war might have been better couched more specifically. She never really delves into Hawaiian attitudes toward Vietnam, her examples of war bringing change stem almost exclusively from the Second World War. She witnesses the military build up connected to Vietnam and related businesses dependent on such developments, but how natives and locals feel regarding American action in Southeast Asia never comes through. If one reads letters to Hawaii’s then congresswoman, Patsy Mink, residents opposing America’s involvement in Vietnam outnumber those in favor by large numbers. Later in the mid-1970s, Hawaiians protested the military’s use of the archipelago’s smallest island, Kaho’olawe as a bombing site. Though the military and U.S. aggression abroad continued to shape Hawaii – politically, economically, and even culturally – how it was viewed locally as the century progressed remains debatable.

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Representative Patsy Mink announces the formation of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus at a press conference, Laura Patterson, May 20, 1994, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Writing decades later and from a much different perspective, Lisa Lowe aptly describes the most glaring aspect of Honolulu, and broader Asian American life, that Didion missed. The collective memories of Asian American and Pacific Island culture demonstrates the fragmented nature of history and experience, as it is a past “always broken by war, occupation and displacement,” notes Lowe. “Asian American culture ‘re-members’ the past in and through the fragmentation, loss, and dispersal that constitutes the past.”[15]

When Didion notes that there is also a Hawaii that deals only with the “past and with loss,” she does so from the perspective of a missionary’s descendent; as someone from the kind of family that believed Hawaii had been in decline since economic development and tourism reached the islands, never mind the intrusion of the missionaries. To her credit, she seems aware of this, but she never fully breaks from its mindset.

Still, for all its failings, Didion’s reflections on Honolulu remain spellbinding, profound, fluid, and flawed all at once. Mid-century America, arguably the height of the middle class, drank deeply of consumerism, tourism, and war. The California writer captured this better than most.

 

[1] Joan Didion, “In the Islands,” The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Stroux, and Giroux, 1979), 135; See also Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise, 21 19’ N., 157 52’ W.”, in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, (New York: Farrar, Stroux, and Giroux, 1968), 187: “In an essay three years earlier also written from Honolulu, she traversed similar territory. “Because I had been tired too long and quarrelsome too much and too often frightened of migraine and failure and the days getting shorter, I was sent, a recalcitrant thirty one year old child, to Hawaii, where winter does not come and no one fails and the median age is twenty three.”

[2] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 188.

[3] Eric Avila, “Essaying Los Angeles” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin R. McNamara, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 184.

[4] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 137.

[5] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 137.

[6] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 138.

[7] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 189.

[8] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 198.

[9] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 209.

[10] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 202.

[11] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 194.

[12] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 193-194.

[13] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 141.

[14] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 144.

[15] Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 29.

 

Preserving Honolulu: An Interview with University of Hawaii’s William Chapman

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University of Hawai’i Professor William Chapman has spent a lifetime working in historic preservation. A former Fulbright scholar and two time Fulbright Senior Specialist, he knows a thing or two about preserving urban history and architecture for future generations. Chapman currently serves on three international committees dedicated to preserving historical sites: History and Theory, Historic Towns and Urban Areas, and Vernacular Architecture. Since 2000, he has been a member of the UNESCO committee for Heritage Awards in Asia and the Pacific.  The Metropole sat down with Dr. Chapman to pick his brain on Honolulu history, preservation policy, and the city’s present and future.

How did you find your way to Hawai’i? What do you do at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa?

I was recruited, in a sense. Former Keeper of the National Register and Vice-President of the National Trust Bill Murtagh had begun a historic preservation program at the University of Hawai‘i in 1986. He was here on a part-time, one term a year basis, and the Department of American Studies, where it was housed, wanted a full-time director. I was teaching then at the University of Georgia and was active in international historic preservation through the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (US/ICOMOS). I was encouraged to apply for the job. This was in 1992. I started in the summer of 1993. I am now chair of my department but still direct our Graduate Certificate Program in Historic Preservation.

How would you describe your experience in creating the National Register Report? How did you balance planning, history, and anthropology into a document that will influence Honolulu urban policy?

The report was for a National Heritage Area focused on downtown Honolulu and the immediately surrounding area. I expanded the report to include the whole of the ancient ahupua‘a (the Hawai’ian land division). I was asked by the initiative’s leadership to write the report, based on my past work with the National Register and my experience in the preservation field. I had great help from a special Graduate Assistant we hired for the job, Geoff Mowrer, now a National Park Service employee on the island of Hawai‘i. I approached the report as a historian, bringing in some archaeological studies to cover some of Honolulu’s early years. I had written some material on the Urban Renewal Period in Honolulu and then began with the early period. Much of my writing and research was not included in the report for the Hawai’i Capital District Proposal since it would have gotten too long. The overall aim was to rethink Honolulu as an urban site, rather than just part of the consolidated government of Honolulu and Oahu. I also wanted to provide an alternative to the usual colonial histories of both Hawai’i and the city—to better understand Honolulu as a Hawai’ian city (at least in terms of its population and workforce) not simply as the creation of Euro-Americans. There is no doubt Honolulu was a response to early globalization and the beginnings of world trade, but the labor and “personality” of the place prior to 1900 was almost entirely “Hawai’ian.”

To what extent has the report made an impact in Honolulu’s development or plans for development?

So far, very little. The proposal came up against opposition in a number of quarters. Some influential owners in Chinatown did not want to be part of a National Park Service special area even if there was no regulatory component. I think the project failed to get the word out on what this might mean and most people perceived it as “yet another level of federal government interference.” This was true of some Hawai’ian leaders as well, many of which saw the effort as an encroachment on traditionally managed homestead lands in the upper part of the proposal area.

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Aerial view of Honolulu, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 10, 2005, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I’ve read James L. Haley’s book on Hawai’i, Captive Paradise, in which he seems to suggest (and it’s possible I’m oversimplifying his argument) that Honolulu really didn’t become the true center of Hawai’i until after the whaling industry declined and sugar came on the scene in the latter part of the nineteenth century. How would you describe its development into Hawai’i’s urban/cultural/economic center?

The whaling industry kick-started the growth of the city largely through the marine chandler (supply) business. Parts of the city were devoted to the cultivation of sweet potatoes, a provision for many whaling ships. There were also ropeyards, blacksmiths, etc. The town was also a rest and relaxation area for visiting sailors and this poured quite a bit of money into the kingdom’s coffers. In 1809, King Kamehameha moved his court to Honolulu, to a site adjacent to old luakini heiau (sacrificial temple) of Pakaka from Waikiki, before returning to Hawai’i Island around 1812. By 1845, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i moved officially to Honolulu, where all functions of government operated.

This was obviously a response to the far greater economic importance of the harbor settlement over that of the old capital at Lahaina on Maui. Hawai’i continued to be an important site for the replenishment of ships’ stores and for refurbishment of ships into the 1850s and 1860s, when whaling began to decline. Sugar production, which expanded after the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 gave Hawai’i preferential tariff treatment, did in fact spark a minor boom in urban development—but this was still moderate. By the 1890s the Kingdom of Hawai’i was finding itself hard-pressed to meet its financial obligations and the Hawai’ian elite was over its head in debt. Even the overthrow in 1893 did not assure Western investors of the security of Hawai’i; only after the breakout of the Spanish American War in 1898 and the agreement to annex Hawai’i in 1900 did Hawai’i and Honolulu experience a surge in construction and urban development.

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Main St., Honolulu – Fancy goods, no date, Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One of my impressions of Honolulu, and some of this might be due to my own time in San Diego and Los Angeles, was that architecturally it felt like Southern California in many ways. From the report, prior to WWII there was some influence by California-based architects such as C.W. Dickey and Julia Morgan. How did this influence the city architecturally prior to 1945?

Honolulu indeed feels much like a Southern California town and has much in common with greater Los Angeles. The history of tract development is similar as are many of the architectural styles and the building types, notably one-story bungalows. Many of the architects working in Hawai’i moved back and forth to California, though the main cultural connection during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was San Francisco, not LA. C.W. Dickey is a case in point. He had local connections but spent much of his career in California, where he was born (Alameda) and educated (Oakland). He eventually got his architecture degree from MIT, but was very much a “westerner.”

Hart Wood, Dickey’s sometimes rival and sometimes collaborator, also spent time in both Denver and Oakland (though he was originally from Philadelphia) and had worked on the Stanford campus. He moved to Hawai’i in 1919. Probably the most similar thing about Hawai’i and California was the range of building styles. Craftsman, Spanish Colonial Revival and Mission, and Georgian Revival were all popular forms in Hawai’i as they were on the West Coast. The biggest difference was the relative quality of materials; everything had to be imported to Hawai’i so there were a number of materials economies practiced in the islands, notably single wall and double board construction. This technology, which has a parallel in California for farm buildings, especially, was widely employed in Hawai’i’s many planation camps. These types of simplified generic buildings found wide acceptance in the modest Honolulu suburbs as well. Hawai’i and LA shared a dependence on a streetcar system, which moved workers and clerks from their small houses to the central business district. The city also saw the emergence of separate satellite communities such as Kaimuki and Kapahulu, in response to the streetcar suburbs. As a cost savings, many areas did not have sidewalks and nearly all telephone and electrical wiring was strung above ground, as it is today outside of the very core of the urban district.

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Street looking towards hills, Honolulu, no date, Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I also wonder about Honolulu’s post World War II architecture. It seems to also share similarities with Southern California, but perhaps in a different way. For example, postwar California launched the ranch house, subdivisions, and an explosion in military spending and infrastructure, which in turn facilitated the expansion of housing, industry, and economic development. Did something similar occur in Honolulu because, at least superficially, there seem to be some parallels.

Actually, much of this was true for Hawai’i too in the postwar era. However, because of the scarcity of land Honolulu quickly accepted high-rise construction as an alternative to suburban sprawl. This occurred most noticeably in the resort area of Waikiki, but also downtown and in many former single-family home areas such as Makiki. The city applied zoning standards only in the mid 1960s, allowing for sporadic high-rise development in many former single-family areas as well. The first large apartment building was the Rosalei in Waikiki, built in 1956. Before that buildings were limited by the height of the longest fire truck ladder, to eight stories. There were postwar suburbs such as Hawai’i Kai, Aina Haina, and Waialai Iki, which—at least in Aina Haina—included houses by the New York-based Levitt Company and local companies such as Hicks Homes. Henry Kaiser applied the efficiencies learned in his industrial suburbs in Seattle during the war to his new development in East Honolulu. Finally, the construction of Hawai’i’s own “Interstate Highway,” the H-1, helped unify the various small commercial areas and encouraged the construction of large shopping centers. These included the Waialae Center (now Kahala Mall) built in the late 1950s, the Kaimuki Center (now Market City) and especially the megamall Ala Moana, built in 1959. The malls, in turn led to the decline of downtown Honolulu as a shopping and entertainment area, much as happened in LA.

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Aerial view of Honolulu, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 10, 2005, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Many American cities exhibit significant economic, racial, and ethnic diversity, but Honolulu must exceed most mainland metropolitan areas. How does this differentiate the city—politically, architecturally, socially—from its counterparts in North America?

As you know, Honolulu was the center of a great agricultural enterprise beginning in the 1870s but really taking off in the early twentieth century. The sugar and pineapple industries required labor. Immigrant contract labor began under the reign of King Kalākaua (reigned 1874-1891). The Chinese had been coming to Hawai’i since the mid 1850s, helping, in fact, to develop the incipient sugar industry. With passage of the Reciprocity Treaty in 1875, Kalakaua knew he needed a fresh source of labor. This would be Japan. Beginning in 1868 before Kalākaua’s reign but expanding after 1881 following an agreement with the Emperor of Japan, thousands of Japanese single men—and later families and single women—immigrated to Hawai‘i. Many planned to stay just through their contract, but then found themselves either unprepared economically or bound to responsibilities and attachments in Hawai‘i. Many of the Japanese came from the southern island, where they had eked out a living as farmers. Others came from the Japanese dependency of Okinawa. Koreans soon joined the mix, expedited by the fact Korea was under Japanese control at the time.

Soon, Europeans from places as far away as Sweden and Scotland joined the Japanese. Many of these came as technicians. Farmland on Hawai‘i Island was offered at favorable terms to entice settlers from places such as Portugal. In 1898, following a major storm in Puerto Rico, a large number of Puerto Rican families emigrated. With the defeat of the Spanish and new ties to the Philippines, there was a concurrent influx of Filipino workers after 1900. All of these ethnic groups began to occupy Honolulu as well. As a result there was a Chinatown, a Japan-town and eventually businesses operated by Filipinos. Never truly a “melting pot,” Honolulu and the rest of the Hawai’ian Islands enjoyed an ethnic balance that many sociologists saw as enviable. Army reports and the organization of sugar labor indicate strong racial “profiling.” “The Japanese were industrious but not inventive; the Chinese clever but were inscrutable; Hawai’ians were lazy,” and so on. The Hawai’i Guard, the territory’s version of a national guard, developed its units on the basis of racial “aptitudes.” Planation owners and operators created separate villages (camps) for different ethnicities. Nonetheless, the laboring classes eventually formed a sense of unity, as evidenced by intermarriage and by a growing labor movement. So by the 1930s Honolulu was indeed diverse, reflective of the diversity of the islands as a whole.

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“Kamehameha the Great” statue, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 6, 2005, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In many cities on the U.S. mainland, FHA housing policies and HOLC housing maps emerged in the 1930s and contributed greatly to institutionalizing housing segregation. I wonder if this history differs in Honolulu; for example, since it was a not a state until 1959 perhaps these policies did not affect it as acutely or at all? Also, since Honolulu is on the island of Oahu and due to the city’s demographic diversity, did anything along the lines of “white flight” occur?

Honolulu was probably far les segregated than any other US city in the 1930s. Older upper-end suburbs such as Manoa or Nu‘uanu had tacit agreements for white-only residents. Some of these expectations were written into covenants governing new land subdivisions during the early part of the twentieth century. Certainly by the 1930s these were effectively ended. By the late 1940s and 1950s they had ended even more certainly. There was no explicit segregation in Hawai’i and most neighborhoods had a mixture of different ethnicities. Hawai’ian-haole (white Euro-American) marriages were common as well, breaching the racial barrier at both the top and bottom of the social ladder. The Japanese, which comprised as much as 60 percent of the population in the 1930s, was the last group to let up on ethnic restrictions in marriage. But by the 1960s, Japanese young people were marrying out of their own ethic bounds. By the 1950s as well, former all-white enclaves, such as Manoa, had opened up to non-white ownership and residence.

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Chinatown, Ryan Reft, June 2017

As noted in the report, urban renewal policies nearly destroyed the Chinatown community in the 1960s. Similar policies in places like Chicago often removed minority and working class communities, replacing them with highways and “economic development projects” and ultimately reinforced racism while hollowing out cities. How did urban renewal unfold in the 1960s in Honolulu and what were the consequences?

The urban renewal project in Chinatown and what was then Japan-town (the Aala area) provided opportunities for many Chinese and Japanese families and individuals. There had been significant disinvestment in both areas in the post World War II era. Many owners welcomed the opportunity to sell under the Urban Renewal Program. (The program allowed for appraisals well above the market rate, a fact that benefitted many owners.) Both Japanese and Chinese residents had been migrating to the suburbs since the 1900, leaving largely landless people still within the community. Many of these residents did in fact lose their homes, notably the many wood houses along Vineyard Street and within the Aala area. But the more prosperous ownership class clearly profited from the program. None of this really affected the racial and ethnic makeup of the city. The public housing replacing Chinatown and Aala shops now houses mostly Pacific island and Filipino populations, along with Hawai’ians and other ethnic mixes. The sum total of housing probably increased in both areas through the public housing projects, which are still there.

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Chinatown Market, Ryan Reft, June 2017

When I visited Honolulu recently, I spent some time in the Chinatown neighborhood, which seems to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance. When I spoke with one proprietor she suggested that it was within last 12-18 months that more boutique stores and restaurants began popping up around the community, but judging from the report, it would seem that Chinatown’s development/“comeback” has been some time in the making. Can you provide some context for its current trajectory? Are there any drawbacks to these changes such as gentrification possibly forcing out long time residents—or this really a feel good story?

Chinatown’s “comeback” has been slow. In the postwar period, Chinatown had become the haunt of cheap bars and dance halls and pool halls. These evolved to be even cheaper bars and go-go bars. There was widespread drug use and prostitution in the area, a legacy of earlier times, during the 1960s and 1970s. National Register nomination and the creation of a special planning district in the 1970s and 1980s helped to reverse the downward trend, though major arteries such as Hotel Street remained seedy and dangerous. The fact that many community services, including housing for the homeless and drug treatment centers, were located in Chinatown worked against the “rebranding” of the 13-acre area as an upscale gallery and entertainment zone. “First Fridays,” beginning in the early 2000s, helped to change the area’s image. But the process has been slow. It is important to realize that what is now called Chinatown included at the east (Diamond Head) end several streets more associated with downtown Honolulu than with Chinatown proper; so it is perhaps wrong to think of Chinatown’s character being altered through gentrification. Nuuanu and Bethal Streets were always part of Honolulu’s nightlife and important site of many of the city’s movie theaters. Their revival, therefore—notably the refurbishment and reopening of the Hawai’i Theatre in the 1980s—was actually simply bringing some of the old life of the area back. The large number of Vietnamese and Laotian shopkeepers and sellers at farmers’ markets has had the effect of keeping the area predominantly “Chinese” in character; many of the Lao and Vietnamese are in fact ethnically Chinese.

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Waikiki at night, Honolulu, Hawaii, Ryan Reft, June 2017

Where do you see the future of Honolulu as a city going?

We seem to be becoming a new site of luxury high-rises, growing out of the old industrial area of Kakaako. Urban renewal and new construction destroyed many of the great buildings of the 1920s and 1930s downtown. Retail commerce is shifting nearly entirely to shopping malls, making it difficult for mom-and-pop stores to survive. The elevated train, if it is ever completed, could do much to stitch together the urban fabric of the city but how this will take place is not yet apparent. I am hopeful that special attention can be given to remnants of earlier commercial centers, such as Waialae Avenue and Kapahulu Avenue, both of which retain many buildings from the 1930s through 1950s and still have an “authentic” urban character. However, this would require investment from the city, which is not at all likely. I fear Honolulu will become a rather sterile place of shopping malls and luxury high-rises, oriented increasingly to the visitor industry. I am hoping that we can revive the heritage area concept and begin interpreting through museums and information plaques and kiosks to make the city’s history more meaningful for both visitors and residents.

William Chapman is Director of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Educated at Columbia (M.S. in Historic Preservation, 1978) and at Oxford University in England (D.Phil. in Anthropology, 1982), he specializes in architectural recording, the management of historic districts, and materials conservation. Dr. Chapman is widely recognized as a leading authority in recording historic architecture and in policies and procedures for historic preservation at both the local and national levels.

Member of the Week: Scarlett Rebman

ScarlettSquareCrop-2-thumbScarlett Rebman

PhD Candidate in History

Syracuse University

@scarlettrebman

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 
My dissertation, “Saving Salt City: Fighting Inequality through Policy and Activism in Syracuse, New York (1955-1975),” uses mid-twentieth-century Syracuse, New York, as a lens to explore the relationship between grassroots activism and federal, state, and local government policies. I aim to uncover the factors that fostered innovative efforts to address social problems in Syracuse–and why these efforts largely failed. Five specific issues dominated community conversations during this time: education, housing segregation, tenants’ rights in public housing projects, employment, and leadership. Examining them reveals that although activists achieved some tangible victories at the local level and even reshaped the realm of possibility in the national political landscape, they were unable to fundamentally alter systemic mechanisms that reproduced inequality and segregation.
I came to this topic in stages. Before starting graduate school, I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services. In this position, I worked with a geography professor to compile census data on the low-income neighborhoods that my organization served, including the one in which I lived at the time. The people with the lowest incomes lived in the areas with the oldest and poorest housing stock, which was expensive to maintain and potentially had lead paint hazards. Moreover, these neighborhoods were racially segregated. I wanted to understand the political, economic, and social forces that created this situation. My boss assigned me Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis to read, and it captivated me and inspired me to study urban history.
As I began to think about dissertation topics, my focus shifted to the ways in which these oppressive urban conditions had been challenged by citizens. Syracuse is a perfect entry point into a study of urban social movements. The city had both a robust civil rights movement and two controversial War on Poverty programs that were terminated by the federal government. Using the case study approach allows me to untangle complicated organizational and political relationships and trace individual careers across organizations, capturing nuances that would be lost in a regional or national narrative.
 
Describe your current work in the public humanities. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?
Last November, I joined the staff at Humanities New York as Grants Associate. This necessarily entailed a transition away from the classroom and has made carving out writing time a challenge, but it has been so rewarding. Humanities New York is a state-level, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our grants and programs allow organizations around the state to creatively engage their communities using the tools of the humanities. I get to interact with representatives of libraries, historical societies, and quite a few academic departments. It’s all about drawing connections–among organizations doing similar work, from the particular to the general, between historic and contemporary contexts. My academic training definitely helped prepare me for this type of work.
Additionally, through my position I’ve acquired a new perspective on how communities both urban and rural are discussing issues such as economic inequality, race, democracy, and immigration. This has informed how I think about the activists that I study. It helps me appreciate that this type of work is ongoing. The issues at the top of reform agendas in 1967 certainly resonate fifty years later. On the other hand, we need to understand the specific factors that inhibited groups from achieving their goals in the twentieth century in order to move forward in the twenty-first.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America and Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy are both incredible books that shine new light on the history of the criminal justice system.
What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies? 
Although it can be daunting when time is so precious, seize opportunities to share your work with community members outside of academia. Consider partnering with a community organization on a humanities project. The results will most likely be unexpected but exciting.
You have done a lot of public history and teaching in the community. Would you share one of your favorite memories of doing this work?
During the 2016-2016 academic year, I was a Public Humanities Fellow with Humanities New York. Each fellow proposes and implements a public-facing project. I worked with the Southwest Community Center in Syracuse to offer a camp on local human rights history last summer. I received a Humanities New York Action Grant through my history department to make the project happen. Eleven young women between the ages of ten and thirteen participated, and I had an amazing co-teacher and assistant. We went on a field trip every day. The best trip was to Harriet Tubman’s house and gravesite in Auburn, New York. The students were amazed that Tubman’s home had been preserved and was not a replica. Harriet was a role model and hero for them, and they were excited to learn more about her legacy. At her gravesite, they spontaneously gathered around the marker and bowed their heads in prayer. History can impact us in profoundly personal ways, and I was fortunate to share that experience with the campers.

Seeing Honolulu through A Surfing Life

Until I read Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of his life as a surfer, I had little desire to visit Hawai’i. Like Ryan, my impression of the islands was drawn largely from Hollywood films and television, and reinforced by friends’ honeymoon photo albums on Facebook. Seen through these lenses, Hawaii seemed like a Disneyland for grown-ups—a façade purposefully constructed to show vacationers the beaches, roasting pigs, and smoking volcanoes that tourism professionals believed they wanted to see.

Barbarian Days shattered my perception of Hawai’i. Finnegan’s description of his two years living in Honolulu, attending a public junior high school and surfing with locals, provides a glimpse into the quotidian lives of Honolulu residents in the late 1960s. Stories about surfing certain waves serve as a starting point to discuss the history and geography of the Hawaiian islands; other stories, of the friendships Finnegan forged through surfing, demonstrate the complex racial and ethnic hierarchies that Honolulu’s diverse residents navigated daily, the class divisions that organized social life, and youth culture.

I picked up Finnegan’s memoir having heard positive reviews and because, after finishing my dissertation, I needed to be transported to another time and place. I had no particular interest in surfing, be it sport, recreation, or aesthetic. Within the first twenty pages of Barbarian Days, I discovered that in fact I was very interested in surfing. Moreover, I had a newfound itch to visit Honolulu.

Unlike more traditional memoirs, Barbarian Days skips around through Finnegan’s life. Rather than beginning with his childhood in Southern California, Finnegan begins the memoir with the formative surfing he did in Honolulu between 1966 and 1967. The memoir then flashes back to his earlier years before returning to Hawai’i (albeit Lahaina, on Maui) and then follows his surfing adventures in the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa, San Francisco, and Madeira.

Surf Riders Honolulu
Surf Riders, Honolulu, Charles Bartlett, c. 1920-1921, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Although I found the entire book immensely enjoyable, I think the first chapter on Honolulu is my favorite and the one that stands out most clearly in my memory. In it, we follow the young Bill as he evolves from a naïve SoCal teen with a single-minded focus on surfing to a savvy, cosmopolitan young man awakened to the reality of racism and classism. An anecdote about being picked on as the new haole (white) kid in school begins the book, signaling the end of Finnegan’s innocent ignorance. “[M]y parents sent me to the nearest junior high, up in working-class Kaimuki, on the back side of Diamond Head crater,” Finnegan writes, “where they assumed I was getting on with the business of the eighth grade, but where in fact I was occupied almost entirely by the rigors of bullies, loneliness, fights, and finding my way, after a lifetime of unconscious whiteness in the segregated suburbs of California, in a racialized world.”[1]

Through the fistfights and brawls that he found himself in during his first weeks at Kaimuki Intermediate School, Finnegan (and the reader) become increasingly aware of the racial hierarchies operating within Honolulu. As one of the few haole kids in the public junior high—most white parents sent their children to private schools—Finnegan found himself a target for bullying by “the ‘mokes’—which seemed to mean anyone dark and tough.” Seeking protection, he joined “the In Crowd,” a haole gang from whom he “began to learn, first, the broad outlines, and then the minutiae, of the local racial setup.”[2] This alliance insulated Finnegan from further torture, but it was not long before surfing expanded his social circle to include Hawaiian friends.

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Honolulu, Diamond Head and palms, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Near the house his parents rented was a surf spot that the locals called Cliffs, where Finnegan became a regular. There he met a Hawaiian teen named Roddy Kaulukukui, who was his same age and at his same skill level at surfing. Both looked up to Roddy’s older brother, Glenn, a “superb surfer, with a style that was already flowing and beautiful.” It was from the Kaulukukui brothers and their friends that Finnegan learned the ins-and-outs of surfing Diamond Head, and it was with them that he learned local surfing culture. Unlike in Southern California, where surfing was a sport of youthful rebellion, in Hawaii surfing was and remains a family affair; a sport taught by fathers to sons. Roddy and Glenn’s father was accomplished enough to have surfed some of the most advanced waves on Oahu’s North Shore. “I had always assumed that only famous surfers rode Waimea,” Finnegan recalls, but during his year living in Honolulu he “saw that local fathers rode it too, and in time, perhaps, their sons would as well.” “These people never appeared in mainland [surfing] magazines,” and yet in time he realized “there were many families like the Kaulukukuis in Hawaii—multigenerational families, ohanas rich in talent and tradition, known only to one another.”[3]

Honolulu Hawaii, Diamond Head
Diamond Head, Honolulu, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 9, 2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Through the Kaulukukuis Finnegan also gained insight into Hawaiian life on the mainland, particularly how Hawaiians navigated the intersections of race and class. In an attempt to join the surfing club the Kaulukukui brothers belonged to, Finnegan found himself knocking on doors in a “posh looking subdivision high in the hills above Honolulu” trying to raise money by selling “a heavy sack of Portuguese sausage” to the affluent white residents. The organizer of the Southern Unit surfing club, Mr. Ching, gave the group “basic instruction in door-to-door salesmanship.” Explaining how the boys were to pitch the sale, Mr. Ching exaggeratedly code-switched from pidgin English: “Mr. Ching said ‘the Southern Unit,’ and the kids laughed, because he pronounced it haole-style, standard English, though it was usually said ‘da Soddun Unit.’”[4] When, a few weeks later, Roddy transferred into one of Finnegan’s classes at school, Finnegan realized his friend could similarly play both the role of Hawaiian surfer and “haole-style” student: “Like Mr. Ching in his fund-raising spiel, Roddy abandoned briefly, his normal pidgin and spoke standard English.”[5]

Boat and Palm tree outline at a Hawaii Beach.
Boat and Palm tree outline at a Hawaiian beach, Carol M. Highsmith, 1980-2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Through his parents, Finnegan gained an adult perspective on Honolulu society, particularly its class divisions. His father, a television producer, had moved the family to Oahu to make a TV show. This work regularly brought him into (contentious) contact with the state’s labor unions, and Finnegan observed that although workers—and particularly non-white workers—had benefitted from organized labor, “By the mid-‘60s… Hawaii’s labor movement, like much of its mainland counterpart, had grown complacent, top-heavy, and corrupt, and my father, although he came to personally like some of the union bosses he fought daily, never seemed much edified by the struggle.”[6] His mother, meanwhile, found “the provincialism of Honolulu … suffocating.” Although she hid her distaste from the family and “threw herself into making the most of life in an insular, reactionary town,” in retrospect Finnegan reflects that when she traveled to “the outer islands she found, I think, a Hawaii more to her liking—not the Babbitty boosters and country-club racists of Honolulu.”[7]

Although I can only assume that today Honolulu differs markedly from the city that Finnegan explored with his friends 50 years ago, Barbarian Days nonetheless invites readers to see Hawai’i, and Honolulu more specifically, as a place populated by residents. Tourists hardly appear, overshadowed by descriptions of riding city buses, babysitting siblings, and crushing on girls—indeed, without the social life that surfing provides Finnegan, little about his junior high experience would be remarkably Hawaiian. Yet, it’s this vision of Honolulu and Hawai’i that I appreciated and that opened my mind to a possible visit. My appreciation of surfing, however, will probably remain limited to YouTube videos.

Avigail Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University. More of her writing can be found here.

[1] William Finnegan, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 3. Big wave surfer Laird Hamilton also talks about being bullied as a haole in the documentary Riding Giants.

[2] Finnegan, Barbarian Days, 10.

[3] Finnegan, 16.

[4] Ibid., 30.

[5] Ibid., 31.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Ibid., 24-5.

Friday’s ICYMI

It’s been a big week for history (and counterfactual history) in the media and around the web!

Matt Guariglia, the editor of The Metropole‘s Disciplining the City series, published an historical look at surveillance data collection in the Washington Post’s new Made By History vertical. A notable anti-surveillance advocate re-tweeted.

The Global Urban History blog featured a conversation with UHA member Nancy Kwak on the increasingly intertwining fields of urban and global history.

Mae Ngai in the New York Times on the cruel history of how U.S. immigration law has manipulated the definitions of family.

Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi argue in History News Network that we should all be writing for a broader public.

The dates have been released for this year’s Chicago Urban History Seminar.

And for those of you who need a little pick-me-up:

The Official Blog of the Urban History Association