Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I’m currently writing my dissertation on the history of the city of Ekaterinburg, Russia, during the Russian Revolution, Civil War, and first years of Soviet power (1917-1922). My research traces the experience and activities of institutions of municipal government during a time of state collapse and war, and how different regimes utilized local government to transform the urban landscape and shape the lives of its citizens. Essential components of urban life, such as general law and order, public works and construction, food provision, waste removal, and a multitude of others broke down, transformed, and were prioritized by different political factions seeking to build a new administrative state on the shattered foundations of the Russian Empire. I became interested in the topic of the Russian Civil War after I read Mikhail Sholokhov’s classic novel And Quiet Flows the Don. After spending time in the Urals cities of Cheliabinsk and Ekaterinburg for work and study, I decided I wanted to write a dissertation about this area, which is often neglected in the larger scholarship of the revolutionary time period.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
This spring I will be a teaching assistant for a course on how Russia became an empire, from pre-medieval times to the Crimean War of 1853-1856. As well, I am hoping to teach my own course this summer on world history since 1945, where I will emphasize the urban dimension of the time period by assigning books like Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums and Designing Tito’s Capital by Brigitte Le Normand. Cities have been a major driver of the economic, social, and political transformations of the second half of the twentieth century, and I plan to focus on the development of cities such as Shenzhen, Mumbai, Lagos, and many others to help tell the larger story of their countries and global history in general. Admittedly, until now I have been mostly engaged with the historiography of Russia and theoretical writings on the state and state building for my dissertation, but I am looking to expand both my research and teaching horizons by incorporating more concepts from urban history and theory.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
The centennial of the Russian Revolution last year led to an explosion of books, articles, special issues, and conferences, giving me plenty to read. However, most of all I have been looking forward to reading Yuri Slezkine’s 1,000-page epic The House of Government, a kind-of urban history of a major residential building in Moscow during Stalinism. The second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin is also at the top of my list, but I would recommend his earlier work Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, which is one of the finest urban histories of a Russian city. For the history of the Revolution it seems to me that Laura Engelstein’s Russia in Flames is the most interesting new survey/comprehensive account. Outside of Russian history, I’m intrigued by Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities and Alice Weinreb’s Modern Hungers: Food and Power in Twentieth-Century Germany.
What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?
For me, one of the most important aspects of researching my dissertation was spending time in the city I was writing about. Walking the streets of Ekaterinburg not only helped me choose my dissertation topic, but also allowed me to go to the exact location of the events I researched in the archives. My advice would be to select a city or space that you connect with and want to spend time in, as physical presence can help you understand people and events that would not be as clear from afar. Also, I would recommend thinking about cities comparatively and drawing on scholarship from other thematic fields and disciplines. While Russia has often been seen as the “other” compared to the Western world, reading histories of European cities demonstrated that there were nonetheless many universal components of the urban experience.
When you started working on your research topic, did you ever expect Russia would become so central to US political news? Has your approach to your topic shifted at all in the past year? And have noticed a change in how people react when you describe your topic?
This is a great question, and one I have been getting a lot lately since I returned from 16 months of dissertation research in Russia last month. When I first began studying Russia, one of my biggest complaints was that the country was largely ignored by the US media overall, and they were missing out on fascinating developments. However, in hindsight, it seems I got much more than I bargained for, and people are constantly asking me what I think of Vladimir Putin and the 2016 US elections. My approach to the dissertation hasn’t necessarily shifted since this newfound interest began, but I have begun following contemporary Russian politics more closely. I think studying local government and politics from 100 years ago in Russia allows me to better understand the complex inner workings of Russian politics and governance today, and highlights the often-superficial nature of US reporting on the topic. People have always been surprised or skeptical when I tell them I study Russia, but now when anyone asks the conversation immediately shifts to discussion of US politics, which I don’t always appreciate. All that being said, I’m cautiously glad that more people are becoming interested in Russia.
Editor’s note: Both as part of our continuing coverage of the January Metropolis of the Month Columbia, S.C. and as a nod to the Martin Luther King holiday, University of Minnesota Professor of Journalism, Sid Bedingfield provides an account of how the Black press in Columbia and the state more broadly, proved integral to the burgeoning civil rights movement in mid-century S.C.
By Sid Bedingfield
South Carolina’s rich history of African American journalism dates back to Reconstruction, when Rev. Richard Harvey Cain launched the Missionary Record and declared it to be “steeped in the spirit of black independence.” Cain had been sent to Charleston to revive the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, which had been banned in South Carolina since the Denmark Vesey slave rebellion of 1822. Cain added a second newspaper, the South Carolina Leader, in 1872, and he used the secular journal to propel his successful campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that year.
By the turn of the twentieth century, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman and his white supremacist allies had imposed the terror of Jim Crow rule in the state. The few black newspapers that survived tempered their voices and embraced the cautious strategy of Booker T. Washington. From his base at the Tuskegee Institute, Washington used his fundraising prowess with white philanthropists to develop a political network to empower his supporters in the black community and to punish those who dissented. As his biographer, Louis R. Harlan noted, Washington used his wellspring of white financial donations “to buy black newspapers and bend their editorials to his viewpoint, to control college professors and presidents . . . to infiltrate the leading church denominations and fraternal orders.”
In Columbia, Rev. Richard Carroll’s Plowman and J.A. Roach’s Southern Indicator received financial support from Washington’s so-called “Tuskegee Machine.” In return, the two South Carolina editors carried Washington’s message of racial uplift and political accommodation across the state. “When the white man uplifts himself,” Carroll wrote at the time, “he will be followed by the Negro at a respectful distance, but when he lowers himself to the plane of the Negro, the Negro will get out his place and trouble will be brewed.”
Yet both Carroll and Roach came to symbolize black ambivalence toward this accommodationist strategy. By World War I, when black activists launched the first NAACP branch in Columbia, both editors had dropped their obsequious tone and begun to challenge the white supremacist Democrats who ruled the state. It was time for blacks “to come into their own” and demand better schools, better wages, and better legal protection, Carroll said. Roach’s Indicator became a close ally of the NAACP in Columbia.
By the mid-1920s, that brief stirring of African American activism had been crushed by a white backlash that included mob violence and economic retribution. The NAACP branches grew mostly dormant, despite the best efforts of a few stalwart holdouts. One of those, attorney Nathaniel Frederick, launched the Palmetto Leader, and used it to expose lynching in the state and to call for a federal anti-lynching law.
When the Depression arrived, Frederick’s newspaper toned down its editorial voice to appease white supremacists and to preserve what little advertising it had from white businesses. By the time of Frederick’s death in 1938, the newspaper had devolved into a church and society paper that rarely mentioned civil rights or political concerns.
Angered by this turn of events, Columbia activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins looked for a new voice that could rally black support for the NAACP in South Carolina. Emboldened by Roosevelt’s New Deal, Simkins and a handful of activists searched for what she called a “fighting news organ” that would join forces with the civil rights organization.
At the time, John Henry McCray had launched the Carolina Lighthouse in Charleston and was stirring up trouble with his aggressive reporting on police brutality and misconduct. McCray was a young college graduate who had returned to the Lowcountry in 1935. He had “a knack for newspaper writing,” Simkins said, and McCray seemed to be fearless. In Charleston, city officials had detained him briefly for his coverage disputing rape allegations lodged against a black doctor in nearby McCellanville, and they had raised the fee for his business license an effort to shut down his newspaper.
Simkins and her NAACP allies persuaded McCray to merge his paper with the smaller Sumter Informer and move the operation to Columbia. In December 1941, the Lighthouse and Informer hit the streets for the first time.
In the early 1940s, McCray had a close working relationship with C.A. Scott, editor and publisher of the Atlanta Daily World, the only daily black newspaper in the country. But McCray’s strategy for confronting white supremacy differed markedly from Scott’s cautious approach. In 1942, for example, McCray published an exposé on the treatment of African American prisoners who worked on chain gangs in South Carolina. When angry white leaders in Columbia accused the newspaper of damaging race relations, a worried McCray wrote to Scott for advice on how to respond. The Atlanta publisher encouraged McCray “to take a more positive attitude rather than a challenging attitude” when dealing with “prejudiced white people.” McCray rejected Scott’s advice and delivered a defiant response to his white critics. The Lighthouse and Informer “is published by and for colored citizens,” McCray wrote. “They alone will determine what is good or bad for them.”
McCray’s newspaper lasted until 1954, and it helped nurture an extraordinary–and often overlooked–decade of African American political assertiveness in the South. NAACP membership in South Carolina increased from fewer than eight hundred in the mid-1930s to more than fourteen thousand in 1948, with a central state conference of branches coordinating activity across the organization’s eighty-six chapters. McCray used his newspaper to launch a political organization, the Progressive Democratic Party, and to challenge the legality of the state’s all-white Democratic Party. The PDP boosted black voter registration from fewer than four thousand in the early 1940s to more than seventy thousand by the end of the decade.
The new movement won a string of victories during the 1940s. Black South Carolinians overturned the state’s system of unequal pay for black teachers, won the right to participate in Democratic Party primaries, influenced the outcome of a U.S. Senate election, and filed a school desegregation suit in rural Clarendon County that would lead to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case outlawing segregation in public schools.
McCray’s newspaper stood at the center of this new black activism. The Lighthouse and Informer rallied support for a direct assault on white supremacy and demonized those in the black community who refused to join the fight. But the young editor paid a price for his success. His newspaper work cost him his marriage, sent him to jail for two months for criminal libel, and eventually forced him to leave South Carolina to look for work. His relationship with Simkins deteriorated into an ugly feud over political strategy and financial issues in the 1950s, and the two never reconciled.
McCray’s efforts at the Lighthouse and Informer and his work with Simkins and the NAACP would have a lasting impact on his adopted home of Columbia and on his home state. His newspaper helped revive and sustain black activism in South Carolina during a critical period, when the state’s black community was slowly shedding its accommodationist approach to white supremacy but remained uncertain about the merits of direct confrontation. . In the 1940s and early 50s, the newspaper rallied African Americans to support NAACP efforts to challenge Jim Crow rule in court, particularly in the teacher-pay and Clarendon County school desegregation cases, and it was instrumental in helping African Americans gain access to the Democratic Party – the only political party that mattered in what was functionally a one-party state. As one historian put it, the NAACP activists who led the fight in Columbia and across South Carolina in the 1940s served as the “vanguard” of the massive civil rights struggle that would emerge across the South in the following decade.
Sid Bedingfield is an assistant professor in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota and is the author of Newspaper Wars: Civil Rights and White Resistance in South Carolina, 1935-1965, published in 2017 by the University of Illinois Press.
The Metropole stormed into January with some great content, setting the tone for an exciting year. What were our New Years resolutions, you ask? We simply have one: to continue putting out the kind of great research and reflection that makes our blog the digital hub for urban history, read by experts and enthusiasts alike.
Last week we kicked off our first Metropolis of the Month for 2018 with John Sherrer’s bibliography of Columbia, South Carolina. This capitol city is hosting our upcoming Urban History Association Biennial Conference in October, and after reading Sherrer’s sweeping overview of the city’s history I have a better sense of Columbia’s early development, its role in the Civil War, and its evolution throughout the twentieth century. We also featured a post by Robert Greene II about Congaree Swamp (now Congaree National Park) and the role it played in sustaining Columbia’s black community from slavery through the end of the nineteenth century. As Greene writes:
Understanding the story of African American resilience in Congaree is key to knowing more about the history of African American freedom in South Carolina and across the United States. For African Americans, land was power. Self-sufficiency and free labor meant freedom. All of this was proven time and again in Congaree.
Stay tuned next week for more posts about Columbia, including a history of South Carolina’s black press and some insight into the difficulty of removing Confederate monuments.
Love seeing more on George and urban finance. Owner-occupancy deserves to drive the analysis here. It’s where property ownership and home ownership align that troubles each step in this political economy.
“I want buildings that will be exciting seventy-five years from now,” financier Howard Ahmanson told visual artist Millard Sheets, offering him complete control of design, subject, decoration, and budget for his Home Savings and Loan branch offices.
The partnership between Home Savings — for decades, the nation’s largest savings and loan — and the Millard Sheets Studio produced more than 160 buildings in California, Texas, Florida, New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri between 1953 and 1991. Adorned with murals, mosaics, stained glass, and sculptures, the Home Savings (and Savings of America) branches displayed a celebratory vision of community history and community values that garnered widespread acclaim.
Banking on Beauty presents the first history of this remarkable building program, . drawing extensively on archival materials, site visits, and more than seventy oral history interviews with artists, Home Savings executives, employees, community members, and preservationists. Arenson completed the first thorough examination of the Smithsonian’s Millard Sheets Papers at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and the sketches, installation slides, project files, correspondence, and other materials in the Denis O’Connor Collection at the Huntington Library.
Banking on Beauty begins with architectural and commercial precedents for such works, including California world fairs and Rockefeller Center, and continues past the sale of Home Savings to Washington Mutual in 1998, and the seizure of WaMu in 2008, to explore the preservation challenges for this work today. The book tells a fascinating story of how the architecture and art were created, the politics of where the branches were built, and why the Sheets Studio switched from portraying universal family scenes to celebrating local history amid the dramatic cultural and political changes of the 1960s.
Combining urban history, business history, and art and architectural history, Banking on Beauty reveals how these institutions shaped the corporate and cultural landscapes of Southern California, where many of the branches were located. Richly illustrated and beautifully written, Banking on Beauty builds a convincing case for preserving these outstanding examples of Midcentury Modern architecture, which currently face an uncertain future.
Banking on Beauty is available February 1, 2018, but is available for pre-order now.
California native Adam Arenson is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Urban Studies Program at Manhattan College. He has written or coedited three other books on the history of the American West and the politics and culture of U.S. cities: the award-winning The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War (Harvard, 2011; Missouri, 2015 paperback); Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States (California, 2015); and Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire (Penn, 2013). A graduate of Harvard and Yale, he has also written about history in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other venues. More information about this and other publications available at adamarenson.com.
The history of Columbia, and of South Carolina more generally, would look markedly different if it were not for the existence of the Congaree Swamp. Being a home for Native Americans, a place of mystery for Europeans, and a refuge for escaped slaves, Congaree Swamp—now a National Park—is a unique part of Columbia’s history. Working alongside colleagues at the University of South Carolina and Congaree National Park, we’ve chronicled the multiple stories of Congaree and related them to the history of Columbia for a Historic Resource Survey. Here, I shall tie in Congaree’s story with that of the African American population of South Carolina, a unique story with consequences for the state and the entire United States.
Slavery shaped South Carolina in incalculable ways, and Congaree was no exception. For example, Congaree National Park includes the cattle mounts, installed by enslaved Africans, used to herd cattle during moments of severe flooding. However, slaves in Congaree, like enslaved Africans across the Western Hemisphere, struggled to hold on to their culture and history from Africa. In addition, slaves often performed everyday acts of resistance in another form of defending some semblance of autonomy. However, the growth of Maroon communities in Congaree during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries demonstrates how some Africans desired not merely autonomy but freedom and a new community. South Carolina was rocked by a Maroon named Joe, who in 1821 became a wanted man by the South Carolina state government. He was unique in being recognized as a “leader” among the Maroon community in the region. The two-year manhunt for Joe and his band of escaped slaves—coinciding with aborted Denmark Vesey slave uprising centered in Charleston—made the government of South Carolina deeply concerned about how best to keep slaves from fomenting future revolts.
African American political and economic independence became the theme of black history in Congaree after the American Civil War. Once the war was over, the question of how best to get African Americans ready for post-emancipation life would dominate Congress and Southern legislatures. Despite the success of the 1862 Homestead Act, Congress’ 1866 Southern Homestead Act failed to do for African Americans what the Homestead Act did for thousands of white Americans and European immigrants: provide useful land with which to farm and be self-sufficient. By 1868, African Americans at South Carolina’s constitutional convention knew that the black citizens of the state desperately needed land to have a voice in state and national politics. To that end, the South Carolina Land Commission was proposed and came into effect in the spring of 1869. South Carolina was the only state in the South to undertake the audacious experiment of giving land to African Americans—a version of the “forty acres and a mule” once promised by General William T. Sherman’s Field Order Number 15.
The Land Commission’s mandate was simple: sell land that once belonged to the state’s powerful plantation owners to anyone willing to buy—and work—the land. Those who bought the land had to own it for a certain length of time and pay the debt accrued to purchase the parcel. Once the debt was fully paid off, the land belonged to the buyer. Although the program was open to all South Carolinians, most poorer whites in the state declined to enroll in the program, joining instead with members of the planter class to boycott the Republican state government. Congaree itself provided some of the land sold via the Land Commission, with the present-day Hunt Tract including parcels of land that were sold via the Commission in the late 1860s. It was an example of what state Republican leaders insisted on: that African American political power needed the solid foundation of land ownership.
Eventually, despite attempts by Secretary of State Francis Cardozo to salvage the program, the Land Commission would be continually savaged by white Democrats in the state. After Democrats returned to political power in Columbia in 1876, they would target fiscal wrongdoing in the Land Commission during the 1860s and 1870s in politically motivated hearings. While poor whites would also purchase parcels from the Land Commission by the late 1870s—owning 68,355 acres of land (compared to 44,579 acres owned by African Americans)—the Land Commission was dead by 1889 due to political decisions.
However, the African American political leaders of Reconstruction-era South Carolina were eventually proven right—land ownership would secure a class of black citizens who would remain politically active for decades to come. The relationship between African Americans and Congaree would come to be symbolized by the community of Lower Richland. Located within Richland County, the location of Columbia and also Congaree National Park, Lower Richland has long served as an example of strong African American familial, economic, political, and economic self-determination in South Carolina. For instance, most of the leadership of the Lower Richland chapter of the Colored Farmers Alliance, an organization born in the late 1880s as part of the broader Populist movement, were African Americans who purchased their land through the Land Commission. The stories of people such as Samuel and Harriet Barber are also important here. Owning land in Lower Richland, the Barbers would also create St. John Baptist Church in 1875 and continue to practice economic self-sufficiency for decades.
The experience in Lower Richland and the Congaree area for African Americans from 1865 until 1900 was unique in comparison with African Americans in other parts of the state. It would bear a strong comparison with African Americans living on the coast as part of the Gullah-Geechee culture. Both groups practiced self-sufficiency and held on to some modicum of independence during the era of Jim Crow segregation. However, what makes Lower Richland’s community unique compared to even Gullah’s community was their importance to African American political fortunes during the Reconstruction and Populist periods. While African Americans in the rest of South Carolina struggled to exercise power, the Lower Richland community practiced outsized influence in the Legislature and in black political groups.
Understanding the story of African American resilience in Congaree is key to knowing more about the history of African American freedom in South Carolina and across the United States. For African Americans, land was power. Self-sufficiency and free labor meant freedom. All of this was proven time and again in Congaree.
Robert Greene II is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of South Carolina. He is currently finishing a dissertation on African Americans and Southern political history, and is a graduate research assistant in the Institute for Southern Studies. He is also a blogger and book review editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians, and has been published at Politico, Dissent, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. (@robgreeneII)
 Tim Lockley and David Doddington. “Maroon and Slave Communities in South Carolina in 1865,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 113, No. 2, April 2012, pp. 125-145. See also, Ryan Quintana, “Planners, Planters, and Slaves: Producing the State in Early National South Carolina,” Journal of Southern History, Volume LXXXI, Number 1, February 2015.
 Almlie, Elizabeth, et. Al., “Prized Pieces of Land: The Impact of Reconstruction on African-American Land Ownership in Lower Richland County, South Carolina.” University of South Carolina, May 2009, pp. 14-15.
Following the tweets from this weekend’s #AHA18, it seems that a central topic of conversation was the ways that new(ish) mediums like podcasting and blogs are allowing historians to share great, well-research stories about the past with new audiences.
Fewer students in history classes & very few history prof jobs available, but history podcasts top the charts. The public wants (scholarly) history but maybe via a new presentation. #aha18#s35
That’s why we created The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest: to promote blogging amongst graduate students —as a way to teach beyond the classroom, market their scholarship, and promote the enduring value of the humanities.
We are proud to announce that our winner is Ryan Donovan Purcell, for his piece “Strange Times in New York,” which examines New York City Mayor John Lindsey’s creative attempts to reshape the public sector. The city, in the midst “of social, economic, and political distress” during the 1970s, presented an opportunity for a new season of “wild experimentation.” As the winner, Purcell will recieve a prize of $100 and a certificate of recognition.
Of “Strange Times in New York,” our judges wrote that in addition to most clearly fitting the contest theme of “A New Season,” Purcell’s piece was also a great example of how blogs can be used “to make history more immediately meaningful and accessible.” Purcell “bridges popular culture, politics, and place in the era of New York’s fiscal crisis (and beyond),” and in doing so manages to connect an obscure, wonky, local political story to visual and narrative evidence that anyone familiar with movies and media would find accessible and interesting. Moreover, the judges felt it was well written, with a “lively” style, and “enough documentation to make it persuasive.” Like the best blog posts, it was “a quick read”; like the best historical scholarship, it was also “well-researched.”
The land-value tax is coming back in vogue among municipal policy makers and scholars of urban studies. If real property consists of both structures and land, and if the value of land is determined by locational amenities produced by a community, then that community has a moral claim to this value– or so say advocates of the tax. Taxing this “unearned increment” would also, according to according toadvocates, encourage owners of vacant land to build upon their properties, or sell their parcels to those who would, and thus increase housing-stock and drive down rents. Eliminating speculative profits, lowering rent, intensifying development—what’s not to love?
Unfortunately, there has been little research into how such a policy might be implemented, or what its consequences might be. The reason for this is simple: it generally hasn’t been tried on a large enough scale or for a long enough time to answer such questions. There are precedents that we can learn from nonetheless, namely, New York City’s flirtation with the land-value tax in the turn of the last century.
The origins of the land-value tax movement in New York City can be traced to Henry George and his famous 1879 book Progress and Poverty. George saw urban land speculation as a driver of urban inequality; by reducing the supply of buildings it raised rents for tenants and made home-ownership prohibitively expensive to most New Yorkers.
Liberal reformers at the time advocated building roads and mass-transit lines to the city’s periphery, where land was more affordable, as a means of solving New York’s rent and congestion problem. For George, however, this measure was at best a stopgap. He believed land-values in the city’s peripheries would quickly escalate in the wake of these improvements, making them again unaffordable to the masses.
In George’s view, liberals who took the opposite tack of providing welfare provisions for tenants as a remedy for social inequality amenities directly to tenants were also mistaken, as their remedies would again translate into higher land values. “Suppose the very rich men of New York were to become suddenly imbued with that public spirit which shows itself in the Astor Library and the Cooper Institute,” George declared in 1883. “Mr. Vanderbilt, not to be outdone, were to assume the cost of putting down good pavements, and cleaning the streets, and running the horse-cars for nothing; while the Astors were to build libraries in every ward. The result would be that New York being so much more desirable a place to live in, more people would desire to live in it, and the landowners could charge so much the more for the privilege. All these benefactions would increase rent.”
Some of us are familiar with George’s remedy for the evils of speculation and rent-seeking; a “single-tax” that would confiscate all value attached to a parcel of land by virtue of neighboring improvements and which would, George claimed, force landowners to construct dwellings upon them or sell them to those willing to do so. Scholars of gilded age labor are also aware of how New York’s working-class artisans were greatly attracted to the anti-speculative nature of this policy’s producerist logic and the promise of home-ownership it offered laborers, and with how these workers came close to electing George Mayor of New York City in 1886. What most people do not know, however, is that George’s defeat marked the beginning of the land-value taxation movement in Gotham.
This movement was not so much spearheaded by grassroots social movements as we understand them today, but rather by a powerful lobbying organization and well-placed bureaucrats within New York’s municipal government. The former was the innocuously named New York Tax Reform Association, formed in the early 1890s by followers of Henry George. In terms of bureaucrats the land-value tax movement could count amongst its advocates New York’s tenement house commissioner, register of the Bronx, chief tax commissioner, and several other committee chairs and secretaries by the early 1910s.
While ultimately in favor of George’s single-tax proposal, most of these individuals and groups had the more subtle and immediate goal of enhancing the ratio of property taxation represented by land as opposed to buildings and ensuring that this land was being taxed to its full market value. At the time there was a “long and well-recognized custom” that city real estate should not be assessed at more than 65 percent of this market value, and land at only 30 percent of its value. Such policies rewarded speculators and penalized the small-home builder, Georgists charged.
Lawson Purdy, appointed head of New York’s department of taxes and assessments in 1905 and a closet Georgist, transformed this situation dramatically under the banner of “full assessment” of land. His policies had immediate fiscal consequences; “full assessment” yielded the city increased tax revenue from this source by an outstanding 42% in only a year. It also had equitable consequences by placing a heavier tax burden on wealthy Manhattan, where land was worth far more than buildings, than on the far less valuable landed property of small home-owners in the city’s periphery.
These important but behind-the-scene maneuvers by the Georgists received a shot in the arm in 1906 when a collection of some of New York’s premier reformers, dubbed the Committee on the Congestion of Population in New York, publicized the causes and consequences of congestion and the high rent they believed caused it in a public exhibition. The dramatic images and data they assembled, together with the seeming failure of the new-fangled subway to relieve the ills of congestion, galvanized public opinion and provided a brief window for alternative means of accessing the city’s periphery and lowering rent. The land-value tax was one such solution to both, and the Georgists jumped at the chance.
Between 1911 and 1915 Georgists led an effort to pass legislation halving the tax rate on buildings and correspondingly increasing taxation upon land. What other groups supported this measure? Several tenant organizations supported it because it would save the rent-payer at least a month’s worth of rent, at least according to advocates. Savings and Loan Associations (S&Ls) representing the prospective homeowner also signed on to the land-value tax. At the time large insurance companies and savings banks tended to invest their mortgage money in apartment houses and office buildings, leaving the small home seeker dependent upon S&Ls for aid. These organizations saw the land-increment tax, by cutting taxes on buildings and forcing speculators to sell to the small home-buyer, as encouraging homeownership among the city’s working-classes and therefore supported it heartedly.
Where did existing homeowners fall on the issue? An economist at Columbia, Robert Murray Haig, noted in 1915 that the land-increment tax would generally reduce the taxes of homes at the city’s periphery, which seemed to bode well for its support among homeowners. Haig warned, however, that home-owners seeking to profit by “flipping” their property would be harmed by the measure, as their “house will not sell for more because of its lowered tax while his land will sell for less because of its increased tax.” Whether a homeowner benefited from the tax would in the end “depend upon the relative importance of his gain as a tax-payer and his loss as a land-owner.”
On this ground, working-class homeowners largely stood to benefit from the tax as any hopes of speculative profit from landownership on their end was dwarfed by their immediate need for affordable and lightly-taxed homes. Historians have traced how such homeowners consistently resisted even seemingly innocuous public improvements in their neighborhoods, such as sewage systems and paved roads, that might lead to higher taxes upon their hard-earned homes. Any policy that served to reduce this tax won their approval. It was largely for this reason that artisanal labor-unions, whose members owned homes at even higher rates than many middle-class professionals in the early 20th century, heartedly supported the land-increment tax in New York City.
Conversely, for middle-class homeowners the value of property was only secondarily attached to the utility of buildings; they saw the land, specifically property values, as a source of income and upward mobility. Unlike working-class citizens they were willing to pay higher taxes on their buildings for public improvements that might enhance the value of their land, while being far more hostile to taxes that threatened said value – such as higher taxes on land. The opposition of the city’s growing suburban middle-class – together with the more obvious opposition of the city’s powerful developer and banking interests – was enough to ultimately defeat the land-increment tax campaign by the mid-1910s.
The story does not quite end here, however. Following World War One an enormous housing crisis hit New York City due to the growing costs of building materials and labor. With construction halted and overseas veterans returning, vacancy rates plummeted from around five and a half percent in 1916 to a third of one percent in 1920. Unable to move, tenants were vulnerable to dramatic rent increases from their landlords; between July of 1914 and 1919 wage-earners saw their rents increase more than 51 percent on average, and continued to rise.
Under these dramatic conditions desperate builders and banks, along with several tenant unions, seized upon tax cuts as a means of ending the housing crisis and lowering rent. This unlikely coalition succeeded; in 1921, an ordinance was passed exempting taxes on most new buildings or large apartments for 10 years. This was not strictly speaking a Georgist program, as it excluded already-built housing from the tax cuts and did nothing to further shift the property tax’s burden onto land in any way. Nonetheless, both Georgists and their opponents eagerly reported upon the effects of this legislation as a kind of referendum on their policies. Would the “invisible hand” of supply and demand respond to the prod of government incentives, and would that hand rescue New York’s most vulnerable?
The most immediate effects of the tax-exemption was a decade-long building boom that remains the largest in New York’s history; between 1921 and 1923 construction outlays were seven times that of the three years prior to the act, and throughout the 1920s New York would account for roughly 20 percent of national residential construction; a rate that was exceptional even in the context of the roaring 20s. Vacancy rates rose as a result, reaching its pre-war level of 5 percent in 1927. Furthermore, because land continued to be taxed as usual under the terms of the exemption, this building boom born of a tax cut wound up dramatically enhancing the city’s coffers. Even as overall tax rates were kept down, New York continued to expand its welfare and social services through the decade.
But now we come to the crux of the matter: did this building boom end the rent crises? A short answer would be no. There is, however, a longer answer. For most New Yorkers rents did indeed rise through the decade, but at a much slower pace than earlier. Whereas the average rent rose from $138.1 to $162.4 a year between 1920 and 1923, between 1923 and 1926 the number only rose to $170.2. Whereas rents had been increasing by nigh-catastrophic levels before the tax exemptions, ultimately the average citywide rate of increase was only 10 percent between 1919 and 1927.
And yet such aggregate numbers distort the picture. For African-Americans in Harlem segregated out of the housing market, rents increased by almost 100 percent during the exact same years. For poor New Yorkers more generally, the effects of the tax exemption seemed to make little visible, positive difference in their rent levels. While wealthy and middle-class New Yorkers could take advantage of the vacancies enabled by mass construction to negotiate lower rents, these vacancies did not “trickle-down” to poor neighborhoods to any degree so “noticeable as to demand consideration,” in the words of a 1926 report, The Cost of Living in New York City.
By the mid-1920s lower-income tenants and progressives tarred the tax exemptions as giveaways to the rich, and in 1925 successfully pressured the New York State legislature to allow the ordinance to lapse; henceforth no new buildings would be granted tax exemptions. Disabused of their faith in the invisible hand, a growing number of progressives would embrace rent control and (even more radically) public housing as more direct means of securing lower rents. Simultaneously, the fiscal benefits of full land assessments were forgotten as subsequent municipal administrations pledged to lower taxes for the city’s growing suburban middle-class. By the 1950s the promise and potential of land-value taxation was largely forgotten by both the right and the left. In fact, we’ve gonesignificantlybackwards; since 1983 New York has legally committed itself to taxing different classes of property at different rates, with Manhattan property owners benefitting at the expense of renters and small businesses at the city’s periphery. Purdy must be rolling in his grave.
What conclusions can we draw from this narrative? The first is that the passing of any land-value tax measure would have to occur under particularly dramatic and rare circumstances. While New York’s current vacancy rate of 3.8 percent is rather tight, it is not yet close to the even tighter market that confronted many New Yorkers in the early 1920s. Furthermore, the alliance between hard-pressed tenants and blue-collar homeowners that gave this measure whatever political momentum it had through the early 1910s seems unlikely to be repeated now.
Even if it were to be passed, its effects would not be a panacea for the rent crisis. For one, New York’s zoning laws would have to be confronted in order to intensify development so as to make substantive differences in vacancy rates; an issue that booming New York in the 1920s did not have to face as much given the amount of undeveloped land it still possessed. Furthermore, if the largest building boom in New York’s history was not enough to translate into lower rents for the city’s poorest, it suggests that other forms of housing subsidies or policies will be needed to safeguard this population even if and when land-value taxation is passed today. And we should ask whether the environmental damage wrought by reproducing such a boom would be a “consummation devoutly to be wished.”
All that being said, the land-value tax deserves to be passed for several reasons. New York’s middle classes and creative precariat deserve aid, and their predecessors’ experiences in the 1920s suggest that an exemption-driven building boom would indeed help lower, or at least stabilize, rents for them. The policy of fully taxing New York’s vacant residential land is also fiscally useful; currently New York taxes such land at a mere six percent of its market value, robbing the city of both structures and revenue. And more fundamentally, the moral critique of the “unearned increment” that siphons off society’s wealth to the rent-seeking Trumps and Ratners of the world remains as pressing as ever.
We must not forget that the “Golden Age” of income equality (at least among whites) during the 20th century, roughly from the years 1945 to the 1970s, cannot be attributed to any one universal policy. Minimum wage laws, full employment programs, and progressive taxation: these and other measures contributed differently in different places to a general tendency towards higher social mobility and class leveling across the western world. This applies to cities as well. We will need all the policy ammunition we can get if we are to arrest, much less reverse, the inequality that blossoms in our cities like cancer. The land-value tax is one such bullet—not silver, but deadly if aimed right.
Daniel Wortel-London is a Ph.D. candidate in history at New York University, Jersey-born and Gotham-based, interested in urbanization, the political economy of solidarity, and public policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century North Atlantic. He has written about the class politics of bicycles, the political economy of post-war urban tourism, labor politics in the 1939 New York World’s Fair, notions of “public space” in the works of John Dewey, and the political effects of urban decentralization on Tammany Hall. He also serves as the graduate student editorial board member of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. (@dlondonnyu)
Columbia, South Carolina was intentionally designed to be a very livable city from its inception. Founded in 1786 as the Palmetto State’s second capital, its location holds both geographic and symbolic meanings. The city’s original two-mile-by-two-mile footprint was set atop a plain overlooking the Congaree River at the state’s fall line, where the waterway ceased to be navigable from the coast. Conveniently, this natural crossroads rested in the middle of the state, a benefit to lawmakers interested in achieving political parity between Lowcounty elites and growing numbers of backcountry citizens.
As with most fledgling towns or cities, Columbia developed at its own pace and in its own style. Early impressions of this upstart capital, as can be imagined, differed. During his May 1791 visit, George Washington recorded it as “. . . an uncleared wood, with very few houses in it, and those all wooden ones . . ..” A few years later, in 1805, Connecticut native Edward Hooker opined, “There is very little verdure in the town; the soil being too dry and sandy to produce grass. Consequently, the streets are very deficient in that life and freshness of appearance which usually prevails in the towns of New England.”
Further commentators offered their perspectives on the city’s climate . . .
We thought the heat of Philadelphia, New York, and Albany, about this time last year, excessive; but at Columbia its effects in prostrating the strength, and destroying all energy and all capacity for action, was even still greater . . . . I never have suffered so much inconvenience from the heat in Bengal, or any part of India. The soil is extremely sandy, but this contributes much to the healthiness of this place . . .” James Silk Buckingham, 1841
By the time the well-traveled English author rendered his assessment of the capital city, Columbia had evolved for two generations. Its physical growth included the founding of South Carolina College (1801), the construction of notable public and private buildings and the accumulation of great wealth made possible by the slave-based, agricultural economy that permeated all aspects of life in the city, state and region. By the 1830s, Columbia had matured into what its planners had envisioned: a seat of state government and a center of commerce, transportation and education. By the middle of the 19th century, in 1851, Daniel Webster found Columbia to be “one of the handsomest and nicest looking of our little inland cities.”
Shortly thereafter, amid this antebellum grandeur, representatives throughout the state gathered at what is today First Baptist Church, not with worship in their hearts but with secession on their minds. While the Union was dissolved slightly later and farther southeast, in Charleston in December 1860, Columbia’s reputation as the birthplace of secession left an indelible impression upon locals and people from away. A little more than four years later, 1/3 of the city lay in fiery ruins, as the Civil War Columbians helped start had returned to its place of origin. (The blame behind the conflagrations remains a hotly debated topic in some circles.)
While physical recovery from the war came in fits and starts, a sea change in the social and racial order that had defined the city for its existence arguably brought greater change more rapidly. As the state capital, Columbia was ground zero for many of the opportunities Reconstruction offered people of color, newly enfranchised and freed, and white citizens who had formerly ceded power to planter elites. Visitor Richard M’Ilwaine penned in 1870, “Columbia was a most agreeable place of residence . . . Its broad avenues, lined with two, three, or four rows of stately oaks, gave it an air of delightful repose. Its fine mansions, sometimes occupying a whole square, surrounded by roses, evergreens and other shrubs and trees, added dignity to the scene, while its less pretentious cottages with their broad verandas were pleasing and attractive . . . .”
This flirtation with a new order proved brief, as Columbia and the remainder of the state slipped back into the antebellum racial status quo with the end of Federal support for Reconstruction’s policies and a re-affirmation of power by former Confederates powerbrokers. “Old South” values underpinned an evolving New South city, an odd coexistence that lasted for the better part of the next century. Paying homage to old traditions, leaders erected monuments to fallen soldiers, aging or dead politicians and to past events for whom meaning was billed as universal, all the while championing the city’s temperate climate, cultural attraction and capable workforce. With these assets in hand, Columbians were poised to build their hometown into a New South city with all the hallmarks of modernity one would expect of such a distinction – large mills, skyscrapers, public transit and fashionable homes.
International conflict brought opportunity as Columbians, who once looked askance at Washington leaders, embraced Federal funds that came with the founding in 1917 of Camp Jackson. One of the many World War I cantonment centers established throughout the state, today Fort Jackson ranks as the nation’s largest Army basic training facility. Within the shadows of success lurked deeper issues—educational and health disparities, racial strife and urban decay, all of which were both predicated on and prolonged by Jim Crow laws. In the aftermath of the War to End All Wars, some progressives lobbied for and, to an extent, enjoyed partial improvements to these conditions, but it would not be until the decades following World War II, a period in which Columbia saw extensive growth and redevelopment, that greater change would be realized.
Like cities throughout the United States, Columbia in the 1950s through early 1970s was forever altered by Urban Renewal, which reduced generations-old inner-city neighborhoods to either memories or a shell of their former selves. In their place came the University of South Carolina, state, local and federal government and new development that paved the way for a new vision of a city enjoying the prosperity longed for during the lean times of the 1930s and war years. Mid-century architecture reshaped how people interacted—how they worked, recreated and lived—in the city and in its second-generation suburbs, which bloated as upper- and middle-income residents sought larger houses on more land. The stakes were high for those whose commute went from a reasonable walk or a short car ride to a prolonged trip downtown. Widening of main thoroughfares and the building of interstates offered some respite while further stimulating sprawl, a story played out elsewhere throughout the country time and time again. Columbia’s commercial vitality migrated from downtown to the ever-increasing number of suburban malls floating in seas of pavement, a trend that would be repeated every decade into the early 21st century.
Concurrent with these larger trends was an appreciation for downtown amenities and a rebirth in interest for older buildings, which had, by the later 1980s, enjoyed a tenuous following. A redefinition of what defined a livable city offered surer footing by the later 1990s and early 2000s, as entrepreneurs, historic preservationists and city planners met success in adapting old buildings to new uses through various incentives. Old department stores, office buildings and textile mills found new life as condominiums or apartments for new urban dwellers—college age through empty nesters—who flock to unique living arrangements. Nearly a generation old, this reinvestment in Columbia has placed the capital city at an interesting crossroad, but one whose paths have been trod, to an extent, by earlier citizens. Revitalization pays great dividends to many while running the risk of displacing long-time owners or tenants. Finding new uses for old places and filling in blank tracts can make for an aesthetically stunning skyline. Meanwhile, such improvement and growth can encourage homogeneity resulting in a monolithic character not in tune with contemporary aspirations for a truly modern city.
With developers and entrepreneurs adapting 19th and early 20th-century buildings to new uses, Columbia’s Main Street has enjoyed a renaissance during the past decade. Today, Columbia is known as “the real southern hotspot,” which speaks to both its storied climate, as well as its burgeoning attractions.
To learn more about how South Carolina’s capital city got to where it is today, consider exploring the following resources that speak to the history of Columbia, either in a general or detailed sense: Print Resources
Deas-Moore, Vennie. Columbia, South Carolina. Black America Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.
Edgar, Walter B. and Deborah K. Woolley. Columbia: Portrait of a City. Norfolk, VA: The Donning Company, Publishers, 1986.
Nell S. Graydon. Tales of Columbia. Columbia, SC: The R. L. Bryan Company, 1964.
Helsley, Alexia. Lost Columbia: Bygone Images from South Carolina’s Capital. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008.
Hennig, Helen Kohn ed., Columbia: Capital City of South Carolina, 1786-1936. Columbia, SC: The R.L. Bryan Company, 1936.
Israel, Charles and Elizabeth Durant. Columbia College. The College History Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001.
Jansen, John. Going to Blazes: A 200-Year Illustrated History of the Columbia, South Carolina Fire & Rescue Service, 1804-2004. Evansville, IN: M.T. Publishing Company, Inc., 2005.
Lumpkin, Alva M. Vignettes of Early Columbia and Surroundings. Columbia, SC: The R.L. Bryan Company, 2000.
Maxey, Russell. South Carolina’s Historic Columbia: Yesterday and Today in Photographs. Columbia, SC: The R.L Bryan Company, 1980.
Montgomery, John A. Columbia, SC: History of a City. Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1979.
Montgomery, Warner M. Eau Claire Memories: A Pictorial History of the Eau Claire Neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina, 1890-2000. Columbia, SC: The Columbia Star, 2000.
Montgomery, Warner M. Shandon Memories: A Pictorial History of Shandon, a Neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia, SC: The Columbia Star, 2000.
Moore, John Hammond. Columbia and Richland County: A South Carolina Community, 1740-1990. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Salsi, Lynn Sims. Columbia: History of a Southern Capital. The Making of America Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003.
Scott, J. Edwin. Random Recollections of a Long Life, 1806-1876. Columbia, SC: Charles A. Calvo, 1884.
Selby, Julian A. Memorabilia and Anecdotal Reminisces of Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia, SC: The R. L. Bryan Company, 1905. (REPRINTED 1970)
Sennema, David C. and Martha D. Columbia, South Carolina: A Postcard History. Postcard History Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1997.
Sherrer III, John M. Remembering Columbia. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2015.
Williams, J. F. Old and New Columbia. Columbia, SC: Epworth Orphanage Press, 1929.
West, Elizabeth Cassidy and Katharine Thompson Allen. On the Horseshoe: A Guide to the Historic Campus of the University of South Carolina. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2015.
Woody, Howard. South Carolina Postcards, Volume V: Richland County. Postcard History Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.
Allison Baker, Jennifer Betsworth, Rebecca Bush, Sarah Conlon, Evan Kutzler, Justin McIntyre, Elizabeth Oswald, Jamie Wilson, and JoAnn Zeise, Slavery at South Carolina College, 1801–1865. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Libraries, 2011).
South Caroliniana Library, View of Columbia, S.C. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Libraries, 2007).
Columbia SC 63. Our Story Matters. (Columbia, SC: Historic Columbia Foundation, 2017).
A Columbia native, John has served Historic Columbia in a variety of curatorial and administrative capacities since 1996. In his current position as Director of Cultural Resources, he recently authored Remembering Columbia, which chronicles South Carolina’s capital city from its earliest years through the late 1970s. Previous museum experience includes stints at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, the National Trust’s Drayton Hall Plantation, Old York Historical Society in York, Maine and Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
He holds a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in English and history and a Masters of Arts in English from Clemson University, a Masters in Public History from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in museum management from McKissick Museum. Continuing education has involved a summer program with the Museum of Southern Decorative Arts and a certificate from the Southeastern Museum Conference’s Jekyll Island Management Institute.
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