It’s also last call to submit an abstract for the a 2018-19 symposium sponsored by New York University and the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University on the Histories of Indigenous Urbanism.
Writing, along with fire-making and the invention of the wheel, is widely held to be a milestone of human progress. This view will seem naïve to anybody who has read much human writing. In its feral form, prose is unhinged, mystifying, and repetitive. Writers feel moved to “get things down on paper,” usually incoherently, and even in guarded moods say alarming stuff because they don’t know where to put their commas. (“Time to eat children!”) The true wellspring of civilization isn’t writing; it is editing.
And, of course, the money line and a truism of which I am so, so guilty:
(Who among us has not stood atop millennia of human language and, after a moment of reflection, signed an e-mail “Best”?)
And why not conclude with some who really nailed it with his correspondence?
Of all the letters I’ve unearthed in archives, this is by far the best. It’s a model of how to say no to someone you loathe. pic.twitter.com/cTQQ01fV5A
“That flag is the symbol of the spirit of the refugee,” Springfield resident and Vietnamese American talk show host Liem D Bui told journalists in 2012. The flag to which Bui referred is that of the fallen South Vietnam government and it along with an American flag fly over Eden Center shopping plaza in Falls Church, VA, a symbolic embodiment of Vietnamese American culture and Ho Chi Minh City that some call “a capital within a capital,” for D.C.’s 80,000 residents of Vietnamese descent. 
Eden Center was established over 30 years ago, and it still retains a cultural resonance today–albeit one that remains subject to popular perceptions. “[M]erchants and community leaders worry that, outside their circle, their home away from home is increasingly viewed as a place for gambling and gang activity,” noted Washington Post journalist Luz Lazo, “a perception that some business leaders say hurts business and threatens the vibrant social hub.” Undoubtedly, many residents remember their own difficult arrival in the U.S. Though few recall now, the majority of Americans opposed President’s Ford’s approval of refugee acts enabling Vietnamese passage to the U.S. and in many places they faced discrimination and resentment.
In his 2014 book Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia, Haverford College professor Andrew Friedman demonstrates how the refugee populations that followed CIA efforts in El Salvador, Iran, and Vietnam reshaped Northern Virginia’s built environment and demographics. Eden Center shopping plaza is a symbol of this change, a piece of Ho Chi Minh City on the edge of the American South. While an obvious result of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, the relationships or intimacies that led to the settlement of Vietnamese Americans in Northern Virginia were forged through not just the war but decades of covert action abroad.
Occupation, War, and Covert Action
For much of the twentieth century, American legislators severely limited immigration from Asia and refused the right to naturalized citizenship to those that did come. Of course, this is not to say that migration in the nineteenth or even early twentieth centuries evolved only from military conflict. As Yale scholar Laura Barraclough has demonstrated, Japanese farmers and labors migrated to places like California’s Imperial County and San Fernando Valley to work the land even in the face of discrimination.
U.S. involvement in wars in Asia and its occupation of Hawaii and the Philippines helped to create various transnational connections related to economics, politics, and intimacies (referring to friendships, sexual affairs, and collaborations that occurred as part of covert activities) that later contributed to shifts in immigration policies in the early 1950s. The 1952 McCarran Act removed the ban on naturalization, but maintained quotas for certain groups, notably Asians. Not until 13 years later did the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act redefine the rules for immigration, making family unification a priority and replacing racial quotas with hemispheric ones, thereby facilitating greater numbers of newcomers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
During this same period and afterward, covert action abroad in places like Vietnam constructed refugee and immigration flows to the United States. However, where these new populations settled in the U.S. often depended on the quality of contacts developed between American actors abroad and the nations subject to intervention, in this case the Vietnamese. American empire propped up and then negated South Vietnam but also enabled many South Vietnamese allies to gain footholds in the U.S. as residents and later citizens.
The U.S. had an interest in developing capitalist markets in Asia while also building political bridges to defeat communism. U.S. occupation and reconstruction of Japan provides a prime example of this, as was its defense of what became South Korea in the 1950s. In each case, many soldiers stationed abroad developed relationships with Asian women—love, at least for a moment, ensued. Initially, the War Brides Act of 1945 allowed for only non-Asian spouses to enter the U.S. Not until an amendment was added to 1950 legislation were Japanese and other Asian spouses allowed to consistently migrate to U.S. shores. In this way, family bonds, friendships, marriage, and the like influenced government action and policy.
Immigration policy did not dictate the level of migration unilaterally. The relationship between American interventions in Asia and immigration or refugee flows that followed hinged mightily on political realities in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam respectively. During both the postwar occupation of Japan and the Korean War, the nation allied with the U.S. remained, more or less, physically and geopolitically intact. Korea might have been split into two nations but the Korean War, even though it did lead to Korean immigration stateside, did not set off a wave of refugee immigration to the U.S.
In contrast, American actions in Vietnam did not result in victory for its allies; rather, those Vietnamese allied with the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government found themselves targeted by the victorious Communist North Vietnam for imprisonment, torture, and execution. This created a larger flow of refugees to the U.S. and the passage of the 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act by the Ford administration, despite public opposition. The 1980 Refugee Act subsequently resulted in directed flows of Vietnamese to places like Orange County, California and Northern Virginia. From 1980 to 2000, 531,00 Vietnamese sought and received refuge or asylum in the U.S. Today 40% of all Vietnamese Americans live in Orange County.
While much has been said about how American adventures abroad and the region’s own anti-communist conservatism helped to reshape Orange County demographics, less has been written about a similar process in Northern Virginia or how covert action rather than direct military intervention played a role in facilitating refugee flows. For example, many credit the Marshall Plan for helping to rebuild European economies. It stands as an open symbol of U.S. postwar beneficence. However, as Friedman points out, the same Marshall Plan led to US involvement in Vietnam in the late 1940s, nearly twenty years earlier than the Vietnam War. Indeed the Marshall Plan, established as one expert noted “to help rebuild civilization with an American blueprint,” also approved $685 million in foreign currency for CIA covert political action. By the time the Vietnamese crushed French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the U.S. was paying nearly 80 percent of France’s war costs.
The U.S. agency charged with Vietnamese economic and infrastructural development Special Technical and Economic Mission (STEM), led by individuals like Mark Merrell attempted to “modernize” the Southeast Asian nation and unwittingly contributed to CIA efforts. In his capacity as STEM leader in Vietnam, Merrell’s activities – road building, economic development, housing complexes – reconstructed the shape of Vietnam’s built environment. “[Y]ears before Americans are seen has having significant spatial impact on the country, [Merrell’s] work … entered, altered, and established crucial aspects of the built environment and material life of Vietnam that became incorporated into its physical expression as a place, that defined how it was experienced by local residents and later observers,” reflects Friedman. Rufus Phillips performed similar duties after Merrell. “He dug wells. He brought fertilizer. He handed out medical kits. He rebuilt markets, roofs, roads, and bridges,” points out Friedman. “[H]e sculpted American aid, American material, and American building techniques into the landscape of Vietnam.” One hears the enthusiastic, Kool-Aid drinking voice of The Quiet American’s Alden Pyle whispering in the ears of men like Merrell and Phillips as they promoted U.S. stewardship of their Southeast Asian allies.
If Merrell and Phillips constructed the built environment with materials and U.S. money, others worked relationships. Take Edward Lansdale, who was sent with the “Saigon Military Mission” to ensure that Vietnam did not reunify even as the U.S. agreed at the 1954 Geneva Conference to do just that. Lansdale used his charisma, inquisitive nature, and aptitude for political calculations to build personal relationships with Vietnamese collaborators that forwarded U.S. interests. “Lansdale prided himself on understanding not only the politics, but the cultures of places he entered … He claimed to communicate on good humor alone,” Friedman writes. “And he almost always acquired his cultural knowledge through one on one experiences of extreme intimacy with people he knew for political reasons.” Lansdale supported the efforts of Merrell and Phillips, seeing in medical aid, for example, a way into Vietnamese hearts and minds while also providing U.S. companies an inside track into emerging markets where businesses could demonstrate the superiority of American wares to a people “hungry for technological improvement.” The Saigon Military Mission disbanded once Vietnam formally split, and the agents returned to NOVA.
Soon after, however, in 1965, Lansdale returned to Vietnam as a special assistant to the US Ambassador to “organize and carry out what was now called a ‘rural construction’ program.” Lansdale held frequent parties in his Saigon home, welcoming US dignitaries, Vietnamese elites, and others in a heady mix of politics, camaraderie, and intrigue. Luminaries like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sometimes attended, mingling with Southeast Asian counterparts, developing intelligence, and drawing conclusions about U.S. actions. Creating this “cultural corridor” between NOVA and Vietnam did not ensure real equality between actors. Race and U.S. power always remained a dissident murmur preventing equal relations between individuals. Even those agents who came to treasure Vietnamese culture sometimes expressed their view of the nation’s people in racist terms. One writer noted surprise at the opinions offered by members of Rufus Phillips’ team regarding the Vietnamese. Greeted by the particular team member’s part-Vietnamese and part-French wife in a home filled with Asian artifacts, the biographer encountered a man who seemed less than impressed by Vietnam. “I then proceeded to interview a man who in the course of an hour used such racist epithets as ‘goddam slopes’ innumerable times as I asked for his thoughts and recollections about his time in Vietnam.” Admittedly, Lansdale would do much to help collaborators settle in NOVA in the years after the Vietnam War, but these relationships always rested on unequal partnerships.
Coming to America
By April of 1975, South Vietnam’s fall seemed imminent, but despite clear indications of American failure, no real evacuation plans for Vietnamese allies emerged. While the aforementioned legislation of the mid 1970s and early 1980s facilitated waves of Vietnamese immigrants to U.S. shores, the initial 1975 evacuation symbolically represented their fates. The image of a bedraggled U.S. helicopter taking off from Saigon as thousands of Vietnamese living in “apocalyptic fear” of the incoming regime sat below forced American policymakers to answer a simple question: What had the South Vietnamese earned by allying with the United States? “The evacuation degenerated quickly into an improvised experiment in racism,” one official remembered. “Only those with white skin were assured a way out.” In eighteen hours of emergency evacuation, 5,595 Vietnamese joined their American counterparts in departing Saigon. By the end of April, a total of 42,123 Vietnamese and others found their way out via “black flights.”
Many ended up in refugee camps run by the Pentagon in one of four places: Camp Pendleton, CA, Fort Chafee, Arkansas, Elgin Air Force Base, FL, and Fort Indiantown, PA. The refugee camps ran civics classes to instruct the Vietnamese on US customs and ways to redefine themselves in this new environment. “In lessons about work, when a woman made the motion of casting a fishing net, the teacher would correct, ‘I am a housewife,’” notes Friedman. “When a man made a gun with his hands and said, ‘I rat-a-tat-tat,’ the teacher would recommend, ‘I work with my hands.”Their pasts would have to be wiped clean, though as will be seen, this process contained greater complexity than any camp instruction could hope to solve.
Needing a sponsor to escape the camps and get established on U.S. soil, many refugees fell back on the intimacies established before and during the Vietnam War. As a result, many found their way to NOVA and specifically, the Dulles Corridor, a twenty five mile stretch from D.C. city limits near the Pentagon to Dulles International Airport inhabited by large concentrations of American covert actors often in the employ of the CIA or Pentagon. “Identification by empire,” reflects Friedman, “may have voided the landscape of South Vietnam as their homeland, but it allowed them to settle and claim the CIA’s and Pentagon’s suburban landscape as their own.” By June 19, 1975, 3,733 Vietnamese had settled in Northern Virginia, and within five years 9,541 resided in the area. Many refugees settled in proximity to their refugee camps, hence Orange County’s proliferation of Vietnamese residents. Some migrated to Washington state, New York, and Minnesota, where established Asian American communities resided. Northern Virginia differed in that it was neither proximate to any camp nor could claim an established Asian American population. Intimate connections to CIA covert actors led Vietnamese to NOVA where they settled largely in Arlington County, not coincidently home to many of their military and government sponsors. Many key Vietnamese actors active in U.S. counterinsurgency programs there appealed to and even visited Lansdale; he even hosted gatherings at his McLean home, “where newly arrived refugees could organize some self help groups.”
Not that average Virginians welcomed their arrival. At best, many white residents of Northern Virginia, a region at the time still pockmarked by the legacy of Jim Crow segregation, resented the newcomers and demanded they integrate into local economies and cultures as quickly as possible. Others more maliciously wondered aloud if NOVA would be able to remain truly “American.” Vietnamese newcomers might have used their intimacies to secure a new home in the burgeoning Northern Virginia suburbs but they did so unevenly as their white counterparts, some guilty of subterfuge, torture, and assassination, settled into cushy office jobs in government and private business. For example, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the man photographed famously executing an alleged VC collaborator during the war, settled in NOVA, even opening a pizza parlor named Les Tres Continents, but remained subject to the occasional ominous threats for his actions during the war.
Whatever his complicity or guilt (the story behind the shooting remains as murky as during the war), some came to his defense. “Everybody did it, it’s not only him,” the Vietnamese wife of an American State Department official commented. “The past in Vietnam is not in the United States.” The physical and conceptual newness of Northern Virginia helped in this regard. “Violence rests in the past, and the past is geographic, distant in very sense, relegated to the lost Vietnam that can’t penetrate the resilient visual immediacy of Virginia’s suburbs,” Friedman explains.
Even in the face of racism and the difficult process of establishing new identities and careers, Vietnamese refugees first settled in Arlington, Falls Church, Annandale, Vienna, and Clarendon and along the thoroughfares that connected them, like Wilson Boulevard and Columbia Pike. They did not settle en mass in one large “immigrant ghetto” but rather dispersed though a “wide swath of the Dulles Corridor landscape.” They established businesses and worked jobs that radically differed from their occupations in Vietnam. A navy commander worked as a bag boy at a local Giant supermarket on Leesburg Pike; women who worked for large American companies now clerked at the Fairfax Quality Inn.
Soon, cultural and business institutions took form. In 1975, Rev. Nhi Tran established the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Catholic Church in Arlington. In these early years of settlement, Clarendon formed the heart of this new Vietnamese community with its Little Saigon. Even before 1975, in 1972, the first real Vietnamese presence in the county bulged with the establishment of a restaurant, followed by other restaurants like the Queen Bee, and grocery stores. Vietnamese immigrants lived in old government housing, new garden apartment developments, and some of the nation’s first FHA insured demonstration projects. Indeed, the very architecture of the state sheltered refugees from the country’s foreign policies. When the metro line to the area was completed, bringing government offices, Vietnamese businesses migrated further out to Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners in the Falls Church area.  In fact, 60 percent of Vietnamese resided within three miles of Seven Corners.
It would be here in the early 1980s, where Vietnamese refuges would take an old run down shopping plaza and refurbish it into an economic hub and a visual representation of their community. Jefferson Village, a 500 unit, 70 building project, and the Willston “garden apartment complex” more or less bookended Eden Center and both came to house large numbers of Vietnamese Americans. Ironically, these apartments also provided accommodations to CIA agents and military officers who had worked for men like Mark Merrell in Vietnam decades earlier.
Named after the Eden Arcade in Ho Chi Minh City, Eden Center soon emerged as not only a hub for the NOVA Vietnamese community and a physical reminder of U.S. foreign policy, but also as a sort of capital for the Vietnamese diaspora. “All Vietnamese communities around the world look up to this one as the crown of the anti-Communist government and its sense of duty,” one Vietnamese immigrant told interviewers. Ethnographers found that for many Vietnamese transplants going from the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, to the capital of the U.S. seemed fitting, hence Eden Center’s status as “capital within a capital.” The “Little Saigon of the East Coast,” noted one Vietnamese American and Maryland resident.
Today, Eden Center continues to fly two flags in the center of its parking lot: an American one and the flag of the fallen South Vietnam. The practice began in the 1980s and while it testifies to the influence of local Vietnamese Americans it also bears witness to American actions abroad. Even local governments have taken formal notice, such as in 2003 when the local Board of Supervisors granted recognition to the South Vietnamese flag as the “heritage flag” of NOVA’s Vietnamese American community. Residents themselves fought for this distinction, arguing that Fairfax County did not have to abide by U.N. regulations and could ignore “international protocol” in regard to Vietnam’s “actual flag.” “It is a wonderful, unique environment,” Falls Church City Council member David Snyder told journalists in 2012. “I often say to people, ‘If you want to get a great, wonderful taste of Vietnam without going, taking your passport and spending a couple of thousand dollars on flying . . . just pop in your car and go to the Eden Center.’ ”
Nor do the mechanics of U.S. covert action simply stop, but rather continue in surprising ways. Successful refugees like developer Vietnamese American Tien Hoang, himself a 1975 arrival to NOVA, returned to Ho Chi Minh City in the 1990s, building housing complexes in Vietnam and selling units through a sales office in Falls Church. He even planned a strip mall in Vietnam based on American models and hoped to name it “Little Fairfax,” telling interviewers “It’s like Reston [VA] was back then.” In the end, Vietnamese Americans like Hoang and others who collaborated directly with U.S. actors returned to Ho Chi Minh City in search of development opportunities not as “conquering South Vietnamese Republicans but as American capitalist emissaries looking to develop its land,” Friedman argues.
Unlike other recipients of covert aid such as Salvadorians, the Vietnamese refugees had the “benefit” of a very visible war that flickered across American television screens and polarized popular debate. Facilitated by intimate connections to U.S. officials, a result of their alliances during American occupation of South Vietnam, the Vietnamese carved out conceptual and physical space in Northern Virginia through their own sweat and toil, a capital within a capital.
 June Q. Wu, “Police Raid Falls Church Cafes,” Washington Post, August 12, 2011; Tom Jackman, “Two Dead in Eden Center Shootings in Falls Church,” Washington Post, July 15, 2012; Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.
 Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.
 Laura Barraclough, Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development and White Privilege, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011).
 Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of the U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 128.
Late in 2016, the seminal hip-hop collective A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) was still reeling from the death of founding member Phife Dawg when the group released its final album, We Got it from Here Thank You for Your Service. Though completed well before the election that year, one could not help but listen to group’s final opus, which dropped after November 3, without thinking about the current straights of Trumpian America: a nation awash in racial mistrust and populist demagoguery. “There ain’t no space program for” black people, Q-Tip raps in the chorus on the opening track, “you stuck here.” On the second track, “We the People“, A Tribe Called Quest didn’t back down, sarcastically telling listeners, “All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, You must go / All you poor people, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways / All you bad folks, you must go.”
In our current environment, everything feels relevant and political. For many Americans, particularly historians, the past eighteen months have only confirmed the belief that the nation needs to better grasp its past. The Washington Post‘s “Retropolis” and “Made by History” columns, the latter of which has featured more than a few UHA members, attest to this broad yearning for, dare we say, historical facts. So it follows that the UHA would like to draw your attention to some of the best work in urban history published this past year. To borrow from an ATCQ classic, “We on award tour with Muhammad my man/Going each and every place with a mic in their hand.” Get on the tour bus with The Metropole and be sure to get your mics out because everyone needs to hear the history therein; after all, as ACTQ comrades De La Soul once noted, “Stakes is high“.
UHA Kenneth Jackson Award for Best Book (North American), 2016
At first glance, Tyina L. Steptoe’s book, Houston Bound, is an unassuming book – ostensibly about one city and one moment at the turn of the century. Upon close reading, however, it becomes obvious the book is so much more: Steptoe offers richly hued depictions of everyday life for diverse communities of migrants, Creoles, Mexicans, African Americans, and more. She uncovers volatile processes of racial formation but always through the experiences of everyday folk living in specific places. And she brings together surprisingly eclectic topics into a riveting story of Houston spanning over a century: starting with a spatial history of slavery, Steptoe moves through Jim Crow urbanism, environmental changes and migrations, the evolution of racialized police practices, and mid- to late-twentieth century politics – all while emphasizing the music that gave voice to community and culture. The result is phenomenal: Houston Bound is at once intellectually rigorous and accessible, provocative and a pure pleasure to read.
Slave economies fueled urban growth and the evolution of most – perhaps all – American cities in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Rashauna Johnson’s book, Slavery’s Metropolis, carefully maps this history for New Orleans from 1791 to 1825, and in the process offers insights into the urban geographies of empire, race, and power. Johnson persuasively argues that enslaved peoples moved through transnational and global spaces while also being profoundly unfree. This “confined cosmopolitanism” is at the core of the book’s explanation of urban racial order, and it is a weighty contribution to our collective understanding of slavery and cities. Johnson’s impressive archival work and solid grounding in theory make this a masterful book on all counts.
UHA Awardfor Best Book (Non-North American), 2015-2016
With Cities in Motion, Su Lin Lewis captures a transformative historical moment of international cosmopolitan culture through close examinations of Rangoon (Myanmar), Penang (Malaysia) and Bangkok (Thailand) in the 1920s and 1930s. The cosmopolitanism of the book’s subtitle is both European and a continuation of a millennium of exchange between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Lewis examines cosmopolitan cultural exchanges as vehicles for intricate and multifaceted negotiations of power within and between communities that are anything but insular or homogenous. In this, she builds upon and respectfully corrects the foundational work of J.S. Furnivall and Benedict Anderson, adding a richness to the struggles of class, gender and religion. She manages to better capture the complexity surrounding questions prematurely settled in histories driven by postcolonial and national framings. The sudden proliferation of print and other new media provides a thrilling set of important vehicles for examining negotiations of power between a Babel of linguistic communities. Throughout, some of the clearest evidence of modernity comes in the form of the new roles, public expressions, and vocal presence of women. Lewis is most impressive in her capacity to pursue the evidentiary trails within and between these three cities along the centrifugal trajectories that they shared with Singapore, Batavia (Indonesia), Manila (Philippines), British India, Shanghai, and beyond to Cairo, London, and Paris. Perhaps the most striking episode of the book takes place in adjacent neighborhoods of 1920s Paris, where the founding fathers of Republican China, Vietnam, Burma, and Thailand debated the futures of the region, even entertaining a pan-Southeast Asian state. Cities in Motion is an exemplary demonstration of how we might move toward more inclusive global histories while remaining grounded in local historical evidence.
Arnold Hirsch Award for Best Article in a Scholarly Journal, 2016
Kathryn Sloan deftly illuminates the relationship between urban space and public suicide in the rapidly urbanizing environment of 19th-century Mexico City. Her analysis of newspaper accounts reveals how spectacular narratives surrounding suicide enabled reporters to regale the public with “lessons on honor, proper education, the roots of insanity, and gender ideology” (412). Editors trafficked discourse that refracted bourgeois anxieties about urbanization to the benefit of the autocratic Porfirian government. Public suicides, especially when in the name of nationalist love, honor, or passion, visibly empowered victims who had been largely disenfranchised in life. The symbolic associations these narratives took in urban spaces helped encourage popular placemaking while Mexico City incurred significant migration from rural communities. This article reflects the power of mass media to formulate popular understandings of public space—even concerning the most tragic of personal events.
Michael D. Pante, “The Politics of Flood Control and the Making of Metro Manila,” Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 64.3-4 (September-December, 2016): 555-592.
Michael D. Pante’s article on flood control in Manila provides a detailed account on how the modernization of water management infrastructure was wielded to further the authoritarian goals of the Philippine government. The continual inadequacy of water management infrastructure resulted in repeated flooding that most seriously impacted marginalized communities within metropolitan Manila. Furthermore, members of these communities were continually relocated to make way for new infrastructure to replace the previously inadequate installations. Pante clearly elucidates how flood policy has exacerbated spatial and social inequalities when exercised by authoritarian forces.
Michael Katz Award for Best Dissertation in Urban History, 2016
Josiah Rector, Accumulating Risk: Environmental Justice and the History of Capitalism in Detroit, 1880-2015, Ph.D. Dissertation, History, Wayne State University, 2016.
Accumulating Risk by Josiah Rector brings together environmental history, the history of capitalism, and the history of race, class, and gender inequalities to show how Detroit’s economic transformation has concentrated environmental risk in poor urban neighborhoods. Rector expertly investigates large structures like capitalism, deindustrialization, and neoliberalism while also focusing the lens on human actors like regulators, business leaders, public officials, workers, union leaders, and city residents. His extensive research blends materials from the national archives with local collections in Michigan, oral history interviews and government reports, to create a rich and compelling narrative.
While many urban histories of Detroit focus on the post war period, this dissertation extends the traditional periodization by locating the origins of Detroit’s environmental crisis in the late nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the work is of current relevance, with immediate implications for our contemporary crises in the wake of the subprime mortgage meltdown, the lingering economic emergency in Detroit, and the poisoned water in Detroit and Flint. Rector doesn’t shy away from weighing in, using historical perspective, on current proposals for how to solve these crises in Detroit. This dissertation shows the importance of historical research and historical imagination when trying to understand our current economic and environmental problems.
Theresa McCulla, Consumable City: Race, Ethnicity, and Food in Modern New Orleans, Ph.D. Dissertation, American Studies, Harvard University, 2016.
Consumable City by Theresa McCulla offers a refreshing approach to the hybrid racial culture of New Orleans, examining the experience of race and ethnicity through food. Tracing a long history from the nineteenth century to the present day, the project explores the contested meaning of ‘creole,’ showing how African American workers were exploited to produce the celebrated food culture of New Orleans even as the tourism and food industries worked to exclude or deny their presence and their cultural knowledge. McCulla effectively deploys a mixed methodological approach, using a unique blend of sources such as cook books, souvenirs, and market stalls as embodiments of social structures. Her creative interpretive approach takes risks to speculate on the meaning of cultural phenomena around food and to understand the often unspoken and invisible assumptions of racial hierarchy.
George Washington University, PhD, American Studies, May 2016
Emory University, Fellow, James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, 2016-2017
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
In my current research, I explore the relationship between architecture, housing policy, race, and visual culture to study the history of Atlanta’s public housing program. The “rise and fall” narrative, which frequently relies on critiques of design, policy, and funding, has dominated public housing history, and I hope to demonstrate the ways in which visual representations and public relations had an equally vital and largely untold role of influence on this major municipal program. My research focuses on demonstrating that neither the early success nor the later failure of public housing was inevitable but both were the result of considerable rhetorical work dependent upon representations of modernist architecture, the social program, and residents. I also explore the unique, symbiotic relationship that existed between Atlanta – a city obsessed with image and self-promotion – and public housing. While focused on Atlanta, my research looks at larger questions about the ways that images and visual rhetoric operate as agents in urban politics, policy, and understandings of race.
I lived and worked in Atlanta for five years before moving to Washington, DC to start graduate school. It was unlike any other city I had lived in, and while it took a while to grow on me, I became fascinated with it. While I was working on a paper for a research seminar, I stumbled on a catalogue entry for a collection of papers at Emory University of an Atlanta real estate developer turned amateur documentary photographer, filmmaker, and public housing advocate. A year later, happy to have a reason to visit Atlanta, I took a research trip to view that collection. Within the first day of research, I had a feeling that I might have discovered my dissertation topic. This topic perfectly brings together my interests in the built environment, urban history, and visual culture. Now, as I’m taking my dissertation and revising it to become a book manuscript, I am still just as excited about this topic as I was when I started my research almost seven years ago.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
Last semester I taught a course at Emory University called “20th Century African American Urban History and Visual Culture.” We examined twentieth-century African American urban history through the lens of visual culture. As a class, we worked to develop a clear understanding of the historical and interdisciplinary frameworks that are available to analyze and “read” both documentary and popular visual materials such as photographs, television, and film. The class drew directly from the methodology that I use in my own work, and while we did study other cities, Atlanta was the main focus of the class. It was rewarding to see students develop the critical skills necessary to look at visual materials and begin to realize that photographs and films are not innocuous materials but serve an agenda to shape perceptions about race and the city.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
While it is not a publication, I am also looking forward to the 2018 release of documentary about the East Lake Meadows housing project in Atlanta by Ken Burns and his team. They seem to be taking a very balanced approach in telling the history of the program and the story of East Lake’s redevelopment. I know that they have gone to great lengths to find and interview former residents. I also had the honor of being interviewed for the film, so that certainly adds to my excitement about its release!
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
I would encourage them to attend the Urban History Association Conference! The conference draws scholars who are doing such interesting and important work. It is a great way to get a sense for all of the possibilities that exist in the field. Not only should they attend the conference, attend paper sessions, and present their own work, but I would urge them to make an effort to meet people – both senior scholars and their peers from other universities. As a grad student, I was admittedly nervous and hesitant to approach scholars whose work I had read and admired. Yet, once I began to talk with people, I found them to be very approachable and genuinely interested in talking to me about their work and my work. Since my first urban history conference five years ago, I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of people in the organization. They have provided me with great advice and support in terms of my research and career, and I now look to them as mentors. I also look forward to seeing my “conference friends” – people I’ve gotten to know who are at similar stages of their careers to me. It’s always great to have a chance to catch up and encourage one another. Because I hope to have a career in this field, these are people that I will see and work with for years to come.
What is one of the most unique or unusual visual representations of public housing that you have used as a source in your study?
I would have to say that the music video for Outkast’s “B.O.B (Bombs Over Baghdad)” is one of the most unique visual representation I have used in my work. In the video, Outkast’s Andre 3000 stumbles out of an apartment in the now-demolished Bowen Homes housing project in Atlanta. Instead of the drab brick buildings and poorly landscaped grounds that existed when the video was filmed, he’s surrounded by psychedelic purple grass and trees, bright yellow sidewalks, and neon green roads. Whereas so many images from this time period are focused on despair and the failure of the program, the vivid colors of the video combined with the fast tempo of the hip hop music offer an image of Atlanta’s public housing that was very different from the dominant narrative being circulated when the album was released in 2000. The music video offers the view of an alternate future and different possibilities for public housing residents by invoking Afrofuturism. It was a valuable perspective and important message that was not coming from anywhere else during this time period. I love that my interdisciplinary approach to urban history means that hip-hop videos and traditional archival sources each have a place in my work.
One of the things that UHA members do is to read books, and another thing is to write them. We thought that, to complement the bibliographies that we publish in the newsletter, we would provide members with the opportunity to share information from, and about, their own recently-published books. By ‘recently-published’ we mean ‘within the past year, or appearing within the next three months’.
Part of the purpose is to give members the opportunity to spread the word about their book. If you insist, call it marketing. That is why it’s ‘members only’. But more importantly we see it as an opportunity to share ideas, and perhaps stimulate discussion. That’s why we publish, right?
It’s up to you whether you use this opportunity primarily in order to summarize the book in some detail, or whether you prefer to emphasize and briefly explore a major theme or argument from the work, presumably because you think it is important, neglected, and/or provocative. We assume that many of you will want to do a bit of both. Either way, we suggest that you follow these guidelines: 500-650 words; include a short title; immediately below the title, provide basic bibliographic information according to the following model format; and put your name and affiliation at the end. Reference to other works should be kept to a bare minimum – in most cases, one or two at most. By all means provide a link to a publisher’s (or other) website where additional information may be obtained.
Model for biblio format: Peregrine Scholar. 2017. The Meaning of Cities. Minot, ND: Obscure University Press, xi and 342 pp. ISBN Paper: 911911911911. $58. Cloth: 811811811811. Ebook: 711711711711.
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It goes without saying that in today’s world, many talented historians are underemployed, between jobs, working independently of universities, or working at smaller institutions incapable of paying for top level resources and databases required of scholarship. Whether one has a PhD, an MA, a BA, or as Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting” opined, a Harvard level education “for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library,” historians come from all backgrounds and walks of life and deserve to have access to the tools necessary to really engage the subject. With that in mind, the American Historical Association is conducting a survey to gauge how broadly accessible such resources are for scholars, particularly those at smaller, financially strapped schools, and independent and unaffiliated historians. More details are provided below, but take a few moments to fill out the survey and perhaps help broaden access to resources for all your fellow historians.
The AHA is investigating access to research databases and other resources used by historians. Independent and unaffiliated scholars, as well as historians at smaller institutions often do not have access to subscription materials necessary for their work. We would like you to answer a few questions that will help us determine what we can do to help scholars with this problem. We are looking for responses from anyone who considers themselves a historian, regardless of AHA membership status, so please pass this survey on to your colleagues. Your responses will be extremely helpful to the AHA’s efforts to promote historical education and research, and we thank you for taking the time to help us gather this important information.
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Tourism matters in ways we don’t always consider, often functioning as a “transnational practice imbued with meaning,” as historian Scott Laderman argues. For example, in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the U.S. government took an interest in promoting tourism in Southeast Asia, specifically in Ho Chi Min City (then referred to as Saigon and Cholon). Writers extolled Saigon’s mix of “French modernity” and Southeast Asian tradition. American policy makers believed U.S. travelers to Vietnam would strengthen ties between the two nations and publicize the efforts of South Vietnam to remain independent in the face of the alleged communist threat from the North. Searching for international legitimacy—particularly since its creation negated the agreed upon reunifying general elections prescribed by the 1954 Geneva Conference—the South Vietnamese government also saw in tourism a means to secure its status. “Visitors will be amazed by [Saigon’s] physiognomy, a happy combination of old Oriental civilization and blooming modernization,” noted a guide to HCMC produced by the South Vietnamese government’s National Travel Office.
Growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s, films like Rambo, Platoon, and countless other Vietnam War movies portrayed a nation besieged by violence and an enemy obsessed with American invaders. Even films that were arguably more critical of the U.S. intervention, like Stanley Kubrick’s very dark Full Metal Jacket,conveyed the idea that the Vietnamese sought to eradicate their American counterparts at all costs; any attempt to explain or describe motivations other than those of Americans was largely eschewed.
Even in seemingly sympathetic moments, many U.S. observers never seem to question the general morality of the war or the fact that when Americans discuss Vietnam, they are most often discussing the U.S. “Many Americans travel to Vietnam to learn not about Vietnam but about the United States,” Laderman notes in his 2009 work, Tours of Vietnam: Travel Guides, War, and Memory. It always seems lost on many Americans that whatever lengths the Vietnamese went to repel invaders, they were always fighting in defense of their country, a very important but often ignored point.
The most recent 10-part Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary series on the war serves as only the most recent and accomplished example of this self-referential obsession, coming on the heels of 2014’s The Last Days of Vietnam. To their credit, Burns and Novick do more than anyone else before them to present a broader context to the war and draw out the most ignored experiences of the conflict, at least in the West: that of the millions of Vietnamese civilians who perished and North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers who fought off American interlopers.
Still, even in its brilliance, the documentary sometimes falters. It fails to fully explicate the history of Chinese interference in Vietnamese affairs and sometimes sets up false equivalencies between the behavior of the French and Americans with that of North Vietnamese and guerilla fighters in the South, the Viet Minh and Viet Cong.
Equally troubling, notes Christian G. Appy in his review of the first episode in the series, U.S. policy is too often depicted as based on mistaken impressions, tragic communications failures, or misunderstandings rather than on the expansion of power in the face of what the nation’s intelligence community believed to be a reputable “policy of global counterrevolution,” argues Appy. “The United States did not stumble unwittingly into Vietnam.”
Beyond War in HCMC
If you watch the aforementioned Full Metal Jacket, the film’s first half focuses on the psychological wringer that is and was Marine boot camp; the second half of the movie unfolds in the troop’s deployment to Vietnam, specifically the travels of Private Joker (Matthew Modine). This latter portion of Full Metal Jacket opens up in HCMC with Joker, a journalist for the Army, being robbed of his camera by Vietnamese thieves who speed off on a motorbike. Needless to say, while this might have been an accurate portrayal of the city’s nightlife amid war in the late 1960s, it underscores the very dynamic described above. More importantly for our purposes, HCMC today is a very different metropolitan animal.
I spent three days in HCMC around Christmas of 2013. What you find in this South Vietnam metropolis isn’t tired communist architecture, hostile residents bent on robbing G.I.s or drab “comrade”-inspired clothing and pop culture, but a nation awash in youth and motor scooters. Traffic flows like a giant school of fish along the wide boulevards constructed during French occupation; the immensity and collective nature of the traffic oddly matches the grandiosity of the boulevards. One steps out gingerly into a busy Haussmanesque thoroughfare as motorbikes swarm around you, yet they always seem to avoid collision with pedestrians and each other. Admittedly, upon the first couple of attempts, the process feels more than a little disconcerting, but by the end of your second day it feels natural.
Quaint boutique coffee shops, small businesses, street food, restaurants, and sidewalk commerce abounds. The bustling walkways of the city animate HCMC in countless ways; they communicate “a tale of human condition … something both gritty and humanizing,” A.M. Kim notes in her study of the metropolis. Nearly one third of the city generates a living from sidewalk commerce, and low cost food, household sundries, and services all can be found simply by strolling along city paths. The government may be communist politically, but what you see all around is pure capitalism.
Much of the nation and certainly much of HCMC’s population is under 40. In two decades, the city has doubled its size; in even less time, the average income of its citizens has tripled. Most residents vaguely remember the conflict with the US, if at all. The fact is the U.S was last in a long line of occupiers: the Chinese, French, Japanese, and French (again) all came before America’s benighted intervention. France’s footprint exceeds that of its American counterpart. The former Francophone presence simply can’t be ignored as the city’s urban design and distinctly French architecture exerts itself upon visitors and residents alike.
Take, for example, Independence Palace. Built originally by the French in the nineteenth century and formerly known as Reunification Palace, it was once home to the South Vietnamese government and, before it, Japanese occupiers during World War II. It stands simultaneously as a reminder of imperial rule and the Vietnamese people’s rejection of occupation, be it French, Japanese, or American.
Then again, despite its burgeoning reputation as one of Southeast Asia’s cosmopolitan metropoles of the modern era, the city cannot be fully divorced from the U.S. intervention. Some of its most popular tourist destinations, like the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum, have everything to do with the war. In fact, according to Laderman, by the early 21st century, the War Remnants Museum emerged as the city’s most popular tourist trap.
Cu Chi Tunnel
The Cu Chi Tunnel tour on the outskirts of HCMC serves as great example of the post-war tourism. Where else can you spend the day with giddy Australians, Japanese, Malay, Kiwis, and countless other citizens of the world as you crawl though old VC tunnels or witness displays of military ingenuity, while a tour guide points out the various booby traps used against American forces.
“The man in the black pajamas,” Walter Sobchak mutters in TheBigLebowski, “a worthy adversary”. Indeed, some workers on the tour don the very outfit to which Sobchak refers and in a way the uniform serves as the centerpiece. At one point, you sit in wooden huts drinking hot tea as guides tell you about the black uniforms worn by insurgents. You can even pay 10 dollars to shoot old VC rifles on the facility’s target range, an opportunity this writer passed up but several others quickly took advantage of. As our guide noted, “Today we welcome Americans as our friends.”
Granted, the Cu Chi Tunnel tour seemed surreal to this American observer, most notably as a contingent of Malaysians tourists stood for a group photograph in front of a confiscated American tank. Yet, for the Vietnamese, the Cu Chi tunnels represent a sort of Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, and Battle of Yorktown all in one; centuries of conflict with foreign invaders bested through a combination of grit, will, and innovation. Neil Sheehan, a journalist who covered the war and author of one the conflict’s defining books, A Bright Shining Lie, pointed out in a 1988 interview, “The Vietnamese simply will not tolerate foreign domination; their whole history has been one of repelling invaders.” With the American defeat, it had shrugged off Western occupiers, one a traditional colonial imperial force and the other a modern superpower, through no small amount of sacrifice. Tourists, and perhaps the Vietnamese themselves, don’t visit the tunnels out of bitterness; they visit to celebrate a hard won victory for independence.
To put the tunnels in perspective consider Michael Moore’s short-lived TV Nation, a show which once asked how we should think about war reenactments. Reliving Civil War battles might seem harmless, but what if we reenacted the 1975 “Fall of Saigon”? Our tour guide referred to the American retreat from the city as liberation but graciously acknowledged for Americans it earned the “Fall” moniker. When Moore reenacted the event in one episode he was met with bewilderment and sometimes hostility and anger, yet how different is it? Moreover, would Americans be so gracious with a nation that essentially invaded, occupied, and forcefully prevented unification for seven years? I doubt it. I’ve encountered countless numbers of students who get riled up about the Japanese and Pearl Harbor, and that was a military target.
The War Remnants Museum
“This Museum may be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow … but [the] truths underlying these exhibits [are] as important to our history as [they are] to that of the Vietnamese people.” – American Veteran circa 1994 as recorded in the War Remnants Museum comment book.
Between indiscriminate bombings, American-backed coups, and Agent Orange, the conflict collectively resulted in over 2 million civilian deaths. One could argue that the U.S. has a lot for which to atone in Vietnam. We visited the tunnels before going to the War Remnants Museum—formerly named the “American War Crimes Museum” and later changed to simply the “War Crimes Museum,” before settling on the aforementioned title today.
A visit to the second floor of the museum forces observers to witness the atrocities that occurred toward civilians, notably women, children, and, yes, infants. One doesn’t walk away confident about American motives or interests. Human rights abuses appear to have been legion in the war and obviously not limited to civilians. Did the North Vietnamese regime torture POW? Yes, but unfortunately so did the US.
To be clear, while soldiers are responsible for their behavior and some committed horrible atrocities, as an American tourist the museum elicits contempt for the United States’ political leaders – Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, and Nixon. As documented by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest, the nation’s political leaders put soldiers in an untenable, morally ambiguous position. David Marinas captured the tragedy of the war for American soldiers in heart-wrenching detail in his 2004 work They Marched into Sunlight. American veterans who walked away from the war were left with real questions over what exactly their purpose was; in contrast, Vietnamese veterans of the conflict can look back assured their sacrifices not only meant something, but contributed to their nation’s independence.
Over 50,000 American soldiers tragically lost their lives, but nearly 3 million Vietnamese, the lion’s share of that number civilians, died in the process. When you see pictures of Agent Orange’s long-term impact, such as indescribable birth defects and the like, the carnage of Cold War containment forces one to readjust their perspective. Tony Judt and others have suggested the problematic nature of historical tropes about America’s Cold War “victory” and the righteousness of containment as a foreign policy. The museum drives this point home in brutal fashion. Yet, when you go the museum, it’s not dominated by nationalistic Vietnamese but Western tourists.
Is it one sided? Yes, it never really interrogates the abuses of the Communist regime after reunification. Of course, that being said, whatever one thinks of the North Vietnamese government and its abuses, Vietnam was its country. In an age of false equivalencies, this seems to be worthy of consideration and a point that non-Americans certainly take into account. As Laderman explores in his book, the museum offers visitors a space to express their reactions to its curatorial efforts. One Malaysian tourist heralded the Vietnamese as “freedom fighters” battling for liberty and unification. A Singaporean immigrant from Canada added, “To say no more war is naïve. . . You have to fight for your rights and freedom. I admire the Vietnamese people for defeating foreign powers to regain their dignity and stand proudly as an independent nation.”
American responses run the gamut from shame over our involvement to anger over what some visitors view as a biased account. The response by the daughter of one veteran sums up this dichotomy. She acknowledged the U.S. had made mistakes that “cost lives, future, and security,” asked that forgiveness be given but then qualified with this plea: “The side that isn’t displayed in this museum is what the Vietcong did to our boys. They made mistakes too.” As Laderman points out, the Vietnamese probably aren’t searching for forgiveness since they didn’t invade America. The idea of national liberation never entered her mind.
Over the past two decades, HCMC has reinvented itself and reemerged as a city on the make, yet, for many American visitors all that is new remains tied to events over half a century old. Natives of the city might feel equally tied to the past, but its meaning and effect prove far different and HCMC’s future, though always impacted by China’s regional influence, appears to be, finally, fully its own.
On February 7, 2017, the Los Angeles City Council ruled against colleagues on the Cultural Heritage Commission. After a lengthy and emotional public comment period, the Council decided not to designate Parker Center, the longtime headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, a local historic monument. The following month, the Council approved a new master plan for the Civic Center that included a 27-story tower on the Parker Center site. These decisions ended years of wrangling by preservationists, neighbors and city leaders about the future of the building.
Built in 1955, the police department abandoned Parker Center 54 years later when a new headquarters was constructed a few blocks away. The site’s large size and proximity to City Hall made it a target for redevelopment and many city leaders supported demolition of the “outdated” and “inefficient” building. The city’s goal for the site was to consolidate departments scattered around the downtown area and to reduce the amount spent on leased space.
Parker Center may have been bright and shiny when originally built, but its construction and the legacy of its namesake cast a long shadow over the preservation debate. The building was a complicated symbol for Los Angeles; representing the problematic history of the LAPD and the loss of a significant portion of the Japanese neighborhood of Little Tokyo. The fight to preserve it had divided allies and pitted communities that usually worked together against each other.
Parker Center as Scar
Preservation documents prepared for the Cultural Heritage Commission briefly mention the buildings that occupied the Parker Center site before its construction. The reports described the area simply as “residential with small clusters of commercial and industrial enterprises.” Newspapers from the period gave a slightly fuller view, suggesting that the number of buildings removed to accommodate Parker Center was “enough to meet the business needs of a good-sized city, among them landmark structures that were notable in Los Angeles’ pre-metropolitan days.”
Parker Center occupies some of the oldest blocks in Los Angeles. In the 19th century, the land was used for cattle and planted with grape vines. As the city urbanized, the neighborhood was settled by a racially and ethnically diverse mix of African American, Jewish, Irish, German and Chinese newcomers. After 1900, Japanese families established businesses along First Street and by 1920, the area was the “undisputed center” of Southern California’s Japanese community. Twenty years later, on the eve of World War II, approximately 35,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans lived and worked in what had become known as Little Tokyo.
In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and the Japanese community of Los Angeles was forcibly removed. They were released from the internment camps three years later and returned to the city. In the years they were gone, Little Tokyo had become home to thousands of African American migrants who were drawn to Los Angeles’ industrial jobs. After the war, Japanese Americans began to re-establish businesses in the area. However, in 1948 the city council identified the heart of Little Tokyo as the location for the new police headquarters. The area bounded by First Street, San Pedro, Market Street and Los Angeles Street was designated part of the Los Angeles Civic Center and the City Attorney’s office began to acquire property through eminent domain proceedings. Forty-three individual parcels were condemned and the site was cleared.
Designed by Welton Becket and Associates, in collaboration with architect J.E. Stanton and landscape architect Ralph E. Cornell, the new “Police Facilities Building” was nationally recognized when it opened in 1955. Like many of his other projects, the building represented the architect’s commitment to the idea of Los Angeles as a “city of tomorrow.” For the LAPD, Becket created an 8-story International style building with crisp right angles and spare detailing. Sitting away from the street, the landscape that initially surrounded the building occupied an entire city block with sprawling lawns, decorative river rock and gardens inspired by a Japanese Zen aesthetic. The design received an Award of Merit from the AIA in 1956 and a contemporary review suggested that the building represented a “brand-new design category” of centralized public facilities. Drawings were displayed by the Architectural League of New York and the building was entered in the League’s 61st National Gold Medal Exhibition of the Building Arts in 1960. Becket’s success with the Police Facilities Building earned the firm additional commissions in the Los Angeles Civic Center, including the Federal Building next door and the various buildings for the Music Center on the top of Bunker Hill completed in the 1960s.
While acknowledged as an architectural icon, city staffers received numerous letters against preserving Parker Center. More than 3,000 African Americans had been displaced by the condemnation proceedings of the 1940s, and yet most letters recalled the losses of the Japanese American community. Letter writers described a pre-war world of rich familial and social connections. They talked about shopping in stores now demolished and included family photos with smiling siblings and relations in front of restaurants and small businesses. The letters also told stories of grandfathers who participated in sumo wrestling at a dohyo on the block and uncles who founded the still extant Rafu Shimpo Newspaper in a building on the corner of First and Los Angeles Street.
For many Japanese Americans, saving Parker Center meant preserving a scar. It was a reminder of years of disconnection and “mass displacement.” The building’s presence in the neighborhood inspired anger. In his comments before the Planning and Land Use Commission, Chris Komai of the Little Tokyo Community Council suggested that the building represented an “unfair seizure.” He went on to say that while its architecture might be admired, the LAPD building had cut Little Tokyo off from the Civic Center and the rest of the city, “Look at it. All we see is its back.” Kanji Sahara, another opponent of preservation, spoke for many when he told the commission, “the city said they needed the land for a ‘public purpose’ – to build Parker Center. Now that the public purpose has gone away, the Japanese people want that land back”.
In arguing against preservation, some letter writers found themselves in an uncomfortable position, noting that they would normally be on the side of those trying to save a building. The break with the Los Angeles Conservancy was particularly difficult. The Conservancy was a strong and vocal supporter of the Little Tokyo National Register District that protected several blocks of the neighborhood’s early commercial core. More strategically, the Conservancy was an essential and necessary ally. Due to gentrification pressures, local landowners had begun to sell older properties to developers and there were concerns that Little Tokyo would not “survive”. While Parker Center was an issue, local leaders still considered preservation to be an important tool to control growth.
The Historic American Landscape Survey for Parker Center prepared by the city’s Department of Public Works emphasized the building’s architectural legacy and defended the structure using the technical language of preservation. The report had not addressed the site’s previous Japanese and Japanese American users. The documents also failed to acknowledge issues important to other communities of color in Los Angeles. While innovation described the structure, social conservatism defined the LAPD that filled the offices.
Chief Parker Divides the City
Early Parker Center preservation documents described the Los Angeles Police Department in glowing terms. Later comments by staff of the Cultural Heritage Commission suggested that the department’s legacy among Los Angeles’ non-white communities was “complicated.” The Los Angeles Conservancy acknowledged that the building was named for the “controversial” Chief William H. Parker. All three sources credit Chief Parker for professionalizing the department, however the abuses of power that accompanied this professionalization are hard to ignore.
William Parker joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1927. He became its leader in August 1950 and served in this capacity until his death in 1966. During his tenure, Parker established strict new standards for the recruitment and training of officers. According to the Historic American Landscape Survey, Parker was a “policeman’s policeman.” He “inspired in all who served the department the higher ideals of service and justice, as well as a new sense of pride, professionalism and self-discipline.” The Chief’s efforts in this area earned him a national reputation that he capitalized on through his friendship with the actor Jack Webb, who played Sgt. Joe Friday in the 1960s television show, Dragnet.
While he may have inspired the department’s rank and file, in private Chief Parker was an impatient and ambitious man. He was also quick to attack. Like a “horse charging toward the apocalypse of our times”, Parker was critical of anyone who disagreed with his strict law and order prescription for society.  He resisted political oversight of the LAPD and attempted to undermine the credibility of his detractors. According to Parker, only the “criminal, the Communist and the self-appointed defender of civil liberties” called for restrictions on police authority. Parker’s impatience was accompanied by a sustained and irrational paranoia. He attributed his failures to local democrats, the Truman administration and to communist sympathizers who he imagined had personal vendettas against him. To balance the scales, Parker created a “mysterious and highly secret” intelligence gathering unit within the LAPD that reported directly to him. The group served as his personal “Pretorian guard” and, before it was disbanded by court order, the unit had amassed thousands of records on 5×8 note cards. The files contained data on known criminals, as well as political and public figures.
Parker coined the term, the “thin blue line” to describe the police as an institution that stood between “civilization and barbarism”. However, Parker’s LAPD was capable of its own brand of barbarity. Records from the department’s Internal Affairs Division show that in 1951 alone, the police received 848 complaints of brutality. Internal investigations substantiated 298 of these complaints and yet just 10 officers faced disciplinary action. Only two officers were removed from the force due to the complaints.
Newspapers frequently reported incidences of police violence while Parker was in command. Patrolmen fired their weapons at a doctor in East Los Angeles who had apparently failed to yield because he was rushing to the bedside of a sick child. A local bus driver was hospitalized after officers attempted to “subdue” him during an arrest. Among other injuries, the driver sustained a blow that ruptured his bladder. A shoemaker was approached in his car by two plain clothed officers with their weapons drawn. The officers pulled the man from the car, threw him to the ground and repeatedly kicked his head. The man was taken to the hospital and later informed that the officers had mistaken him for a suspect.
On Christmas Day 1951, seven young men were arrested on misdemeanor charges and taken to the city jail where they were savagely beaten for hours by somewhere between 15 and 50 police officers. When the incident came to light, Parker claimed to be “vigorously” pursuing an internal investigation. However, the allegations against officers were so appalling that they could not be contained. A judge ordered a grand jury and public inquest. During the hearings, police officials were asked to describe the night. According to the judge, their testimony stunk, “to high heaven and all of the perfumery in Arabia cannot obliterate its stench.” Thirty-six officers were disciplined by the LAPD, while 8 others were indicted for assault with a deadly weapon. Of the eight, five officers were found guilty and sentenced to either one or two years in the Los Angeles County Jail.
Despite public commitments to reform, the brutality continued. In 1959, Herbert Greenwood, the only African American Police Commissioner, resigned citing the “unhealthy attitudes” of the LAPD leadership regarding race. Then, on a hot August night in 1965, Marquette Frye was arrested in Watts for suspicion of driving drunk. During his arrest, Frye, his mother and brother fought with an officer of the California Highway Patrol. Hundreds of residents were drawn to the scene and anger spread through the crowd. Frye’s arrest sparked six days of fighting, looting and rebellion during which thirty-four people were killed. Chief Parker saw this and other protests against the police as a personal attack. To Parker, it was the complaints, rather than the police, that were “wrecking” the LAPD. Over time, his lack of transparency and repugnant comments in the aftermath of Watts worsened relations with Los Angeles’ communities of color.
However, while Parker was unpopular for some, his strongman rhetoric was lionized by others. After his death, members of the City Council unanimously recommended that Becket’s Police Facilities Building and the ground on which it stands be named in his honor. The name change was enthusiastically supported by the city’s business elite and residents who described Parker as a “great American” and “champion of law and order.” The Sentinel, the city’s largest African-American newspaper, reported the Chief’s death, but remained silent on the issue of renaming police headquarters in his honor.
Parker was succeeded by new chiefs. However, relations between the police and Los Angeles’ communities of color did not improve and the lawn in front of Parker Center was the location of countless demonstrations against police misconduct. The issue became especially charged when Parker’s prodigy, Daryl Gates assumed the position of Chief. Gates, perhaps even more than Parker, became a symbol of the racism and prejudice that permeated the LAPD. Over the years, Parker’s thin blue line had become thicker. By 1992, it was an impassable chasm, so that when four LAPD officers were acquitted in the nighttime beating of an African American motorist on a lonely highway, the city exploded. Again.
The Police Department’s relationship with Los Angeles’ citizens of color was a quiet bass note that sounded throughout discussions about whether to save the building. Most African American leaders were silent on the issue, however a few voices sought to use and reinterpret this history by adaptively re-using Parker Center. Gail Kennard, an African American member of the city’s cultural heritage commission acknowledged that, “preserving Parker Center won’t resolve L.A.’s troubled policing history. But restored and reopened, it can remind us how far we’ve come and how much more there is to do.”
Future of the Parker Center Site
In retrospect, it is not surprising that the effort to preserve Parker Center failed. The Cultural Heritage Commission received a handful of lukewarm letters in support of preservation, but the fame of its architect could not overcome the building’s legacy of division. Parker Center sliced through the neighborhood that surrounded it, its namesake divided the city along racial and ethnic lines and the effort to save the building created rifts between the city’s preservation community.
Documents prepared by preservation planners articulated the building’s architectural value. They acknowledged Chief Parker’s problematic leadership but did not address the community that had been destroyed for Parker Center to be built. Yet, it was this origin story that ultimately persuaded members of the city council to reject cultural monument status.
City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents the Little Tokyo district spoke during the final preservation hearing. He suggested that to save Parker Center “dismisses the injustices done to many communities.” Huizar, who as a young man had delivered papers for the Rafu Shimpo Newspaper, specifically connected the history of the Japanese in Los Angeles to his experiences of prejudice as an immigrant, “I did get a bit emotional in the committee when I was talking about the injustices to the Japanese-American community…It just kind of hit me what that would have been like for those residents. And I put that into the context of what is happening today.” The councilman’s testimony was persuasive and his colleagues unanimously denied the motion to designate Parker Center.
With demolition imminent, plans have been made to save a large sculpture that was attached to Parker Center’s exterior façade and to reuse a tile mosaic that decorated the building’s foyer. No plans have yet emerged to memorialize the Chief. As Richard Barron, President of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission suggested, Parker Center is simply “not an easy building to love.”
Meredith Drake Reitan is an Associate Dean in the Graduate School and Lecturer in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. Her work has been published in the Journal of Planning History, the Journal of Urban Design, the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research and in Planning Los Angeles, an edited volume for Planners Press. She writes for KCET’s Lost LA and has a blog, called the LAvenuesProject, that uses the thousands of mundane decisions that define the look and feel of LA streets to talk about the long history of the city as a planned environment.
Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Emily Gersema and Hillary Jenks for their comments and feedback on early drafts of this post.
 City of Los Angeles Council. Information Technology and General Services Commission. Motion 2/17/2006
 Foote, Kenneth Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. University of Texas Press 1997, Austin
 Cohan, Charles “City to Erect Two Modern Structures: Large Area East of the City Hall Being Cleared for Projects” Los Angeles Times Sep 3, 1950; pg. E1
 Wild, Mark. Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth Century Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2005, Berkeley; Jenks, Hillary. Home Is Little Tokyo”: Race, Community, and Memory in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. Dissertation. University of Southern California, Los Angeles. ProQuest/UMI, 2008.
 __________ “Council Fixes Sites of Two New Buildings”, Los Angeles Times. Sep 21, 1948; pg. A7
 __________ “Police Building Wins Place at N.Y. Exhibit” Los Angeles Times. Sep 27, 1959, pg. F10
 City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Committee. Correspondence from Alan Kumamoto 2/17/2017, Chris Komai, 2/7/2017, Nancy Kyoko Oda 2/6/2017, Yukio Kawaratani no date, Joanne Kumamoto 11/28/2016 and Jonathan Takeo Tanaka, 2/7/2017.
 Komai, Chris. Statement before the City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee Meeting. February 7, 2017
 Sahara, Kanji Emailed communication to City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee. February 17, 2017
 Tsukada Simonian, Irene. Letter to City of Los Angeles, Cultural Heritage Commission. January 10, 2017
 A light rail station has recently been erected in Little Tokyo and another is in the works. Several buildings were demolished to make way for these stations and the area is seeing increased land speculation. See Lue, Ryan. “Can Little Tokyo Survive the Growth of Downtown LA?” Planetizen. April 12, 2012. https://www.planetizen.com/node/56145
 Hertel, Howard and Berman, Art. “Thousands Mourn at Funeral Rites for Chief Parker” Los Angeles Times; Jul 21, 1966. pg. 1
 Webb, Jack. The Badge. Prentice Hall Engelwood Cliffs NJ. 1958
 Blanchard, Robert “Democratic Leader Raps Chief Parker” Los Angeles Times May 23, 1956; pg. 1
 Buntin, John. “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” Three Rivers Press 2009, New York
 Fogelson, Robert. “Big City Police: An Urban Institute Study” Harvard University Press 1977. Boston, MA;
 __________ “FBI Probing L.A. Police Brutality: Grand Jury Attention Indicated; Department Pushes Own Inquiry” Los Angeles Times, Mar 14, 1952; pg. 2
 __________ “Chief Parker Hits Brutality Stories: Unsubstantiated Complaints” Los Angeles Times. Feb 28, 1952, pg. 7
 __________ “Parker Hits at Charge of Brutality: Prisoner’s Claim Unfounded, Says Chief of Police” Los Angeles Times Jun 24, 1952; pg. 2
 __________ “$125,000 Suit Accuses Police of Brutality” Los Angeles Times Jan 28, 1958; pg. 5
 __________ “Judge Urges Jury Inquiry on Brutality” Los Angeles Times Mar 13, 1952, pg. 1
 __________ “Judge Urges Jury Inquiry on Brutality” Los Angeles Times Mar 13, 1952, pg. 1
 __________ “36 L.A. Policemen to Face Discipline for Brutality” Los Angeles Times, Jun 17, 1952; pg. 1
 __________ “Police Board Member Flays Parker, Quits” Los Angeles Times Jun 19, 1959, pg. 1
 __________ “Chief Parker Hits Brutality Stories: Unsubstantiated Complaints” Los Angeles Times. Feb 28, 1952, pg. 7
 Fogelson, Robert. “Big City Police: An Urban Institute Study” Harvard University Press 1977. Boston, MA; Buntin, John. “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” Three Rivers Press 2009, New York; Shaw, David. “Chief Parker Molded LAPD Image–Then Came the ’60s” Los Angeles Times May 25, 1992
 Mrs. Luther Liebenow. Letter to Mayor Yorty, August 16, 1966; Calvin E. Orr. Letter to Mayor Yorty. July 17, 1965. Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center. Box CC-01-1989, A-1989
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I am currently finishing a book about transformations in Black politics, shifts in modes of education organizing, and the racial politics of education reform in Chicago from the 1960s to the present. I’ve always been personally and professionally interested in African American history. I also spent time working with Chicago Public Schools students in schools and afterschool and summer enrichment programs. This project has uniquely allowed me to merge my training as a historian with my commitment to racial justice and educational equity.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
Two of my favorite undergraduate courses to teach are Race and Education Since Brown v. Board and The History of Chicago. I’ve been able to draw on my research to inform the content and assignments for these classes. In these courses I require that students leave the confines of the classroom to attend local school and community meetings, conduct community research projects, and/or visit Chicago’s museums and neighborhood-based cultural institutions. The students analyze these experiences within a broader historical context informed by course readings and other materials. While I want my students to learn new content and develop a critical analysis of history and the city, I’m also always excited for them to visit and engage intellectually with parts of the city to which they might not otherwise venture.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I’m excited to finally be finishing my book, A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming 2018). The last book I read was Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. It is a beautiful and thrilling novel that challenged me to be more imaginative in thinking about the space and genre of the city in the particular way that good fiction can. I’m also looking forward to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s forthcoming book Race for Profit on Black housing and the relationship between the private sector and public policy during the 1970s.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
You will be with your research projects for a long time. So, it is important that you are passionate about the topics of study that you choose. Keep asking questions. Take the time to build relationships with people in the communities where you conduct your research. Be prepared to learn more from these collective experiences than you will ever teach others.
What was the most memorable oral history you completed as research for your book project?
I’ve had the privilege of conducting some amazing oral histories for my book. One of my most memorable was with a woman named Lillie Peoples. She taught in Chicago schools for more than forty years, organized Black teachers as a leader in Operation Breadbasket’s Teachers Division, and impacted many people along the way. Over the course of several phone calls and in-person interviews, she shared her personal and professional journey with me and allowed me look through her private collection of pamphlets, newsletters, obituaries, meeting minutes, and photographs. She is a dynamic storyteller with a quick wit, speaks her mind boldly, and remains a passionate advocate for Black children and public education. Like many of the Black women educators who I interviewed, Lillie Peoples’ story has not been adequately documented in an official historical record. Nonetheless, these Black women transformed city politics and education efforts as education practitioners, theorists, community organizers, and anchors of blocks and neighborhoods. There is an added urgency to this history given recent political attacks on public school teachers and public sector employees nationally, which have had a disproportionately negative impact on Black workers and Black communities.
Blogging is an increasingly necessary skillset for scholars. Blog posts are a useful format for sharing knowledge with a wide audience, from the general public to researchers within the field. Scholars are now placing greater emphasis on publication beyond academic journals and monographs—the Washington Post’s new “Made by History” vertical is a prime example—as a way to teach beyond the classroom, market their scholarship, and promote the enduring value of the humanities.
To promote blogging amongst graduate students and provide an opportunity for emerging scholars to gain experience working through the editorial process, The Metropole is holding a blog contest for the UHA’s graduate student members!
The contest theme is “A New Season.” Posts should take the form of essays that focus on historical narratives or events that signify transformation, evolution, or rupture.
All submissions that meet the guidelines outlined below will be accepted.The Metropole’s editors will work with contest contributors to refine their submissions and prepare them for publication.
A panel of senior scholars will serve as contest judges. Judges will be announced in November on The Metropole.
In addition to getting great practice writing for the web and experience working with editors, winners will receive a certificate and a small prize!
The contest will open on October 1 and will close on November 26. Entries must be submitted to email@example.com. Posts will run on the blog in November and December, and we will announce the winners in January. Finalists will have their papers reviewed by award winning historians Heather Ann Thompson, Tom Sugrue, and Richard Harris. The winning blog post will receive $100.
Contest entrants must be enrolled in a graduate program.
Contest entrants must be members of the UHA. A one-year membership for graduate students costs only $25 and includes free online access to the Journal of Urban History.
Contest submissions must be original posts not published elsewhere on the web.
Contest submissions must be in the form of an essay related to the theme, “A New Season.” Essays can be about current research, historiography, or traveling as a historian.
Posts must be received by the editors (firstname.lastname@example.org) by November 26 at 11:59 PM EST to be eligible for the contest.
Posts should be at least 700 words, but not exceed 2000 words.
Links or Chicago Style footnotes must be used to properly attribute others’ scholarship and reporting.
The Official Blog of the Urban History Association