Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: John Strausbaugh’s Victory City

Strausbaugh, John. Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers during World War II. (New York: Twelve, 2018). 497pp. $30. ISBN 1455567485

Reviewed by Michael L. Levine

Victory City tells what it was like to live in New York during the Great Depression and World War II. The book may not break new scholarly ground, but it succeeds admirably in bringing a time and place to life and as such can serve as an inviting introduction to students for whom the New Deal and World War II may seem quite remote. Students today are as far removed from the New Deal as those in the thirties were from the Mexican War.

Reading Victory City is a bit like coming across a yellowing newspaper in an old trunk. In that regard John Strausbaugh exercises a deft touch in selecting compelling details. Consider:   During the Depression three out of ten Brooklyn doctors lost phone service for nonpayment of bills. Doctors, mind you! How did ordinary families get by? Meanwhile some of New York’s largest corporations and banks got by– hedging their bets by investing in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy

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New York, New York. Sidewalk merchant in the Jewish section, Marjory Collins, August 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

We are reminded that during the thirties and forties New York was home as almost no place else to tremendous concentrations of a wide range of ethnic groups. Of particular interest is Strausbaugh’s take on the world’s largest Jewish city. When it came to political confidence in the thirties and forties, the Jewish population in New York seemed less assertive and more uncertain than we might imagine. To retaliate for Hitler’s boycott of Jewish shops in Germany, Jewish New Yorkers called for a boycott of German-owned stores, including Macy’s. Although Macy’s was owned by the Strauses, a Jewish family, it had emigrated from Germany.

Along these lines consider that Arthur Sulzberger, an assimilated Jew, didn’t want his family’s paper, The New York Times, to be seen as Jewish. So, in the thirties, the paper “methodically,” to use Strausbaugh’s words, downplayed news about the persecution of Jews in Europe. Other American Jewish leaders also hesitated to speak out in favor of admitting Jewish refugees for fear of rousing the country’s many anti-Semites. During World War II Washington’s policy toward European Jews was based on the idea that a more aggressive effort to save the Jews from the Nazis would make it appear that the conflict was “a war for the Jews,” in which case Americans would be less willing to make sacrifices.

Hitler Street in Long Island
From The Atlantic: This “Adolf Hitler Strasse” is a street running through “Camp Siegfried,” a summer camp of the German American Bund in Yaphank, Long Island, New York, Bettman Archive, Getty

Strausbaugh also reminds us that while New York was a center of Jewry, it was also very much a German city. New Yorkers of German ancestry (numbering three quarters of million) may not have mostly been pro-Hitler, but Nazism unashamedly maintained a conspicuous presence throughout the metropolitan area. In the thirties, Fritz Kuhn’s German American Bund ran a summer camp on Long Island where youngsters uniformed like Hitler youth marched up and down streets named for Hitler, Goring and Goebbels. On German Day in 1938, the camp drew 40,000 visitors along with 2,000 Storm Trooper guards. The Long Island Railroad thoughtfully obliged by running a Camp Siegfried Special. In 1939 the Bund drew 22,000 to a rally at Madison Square Garden.

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World War II Era Harlem courtesy of Cole Phelps at https://www.thecoli.com/threads/ww2-era-harlem-pics.209216/

Strausbaugh points out that FDR drew the best and brightest—disproportionately New Yorkers—to Washington. If FDR was less concerned with an employee’s religion, gender and race than previous presidents, then some measure of credit must be given to his enlightened First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. These were the years when appreciative African Americans abandoned Lincoln’s GOP for the New Deal. But Strausbaugh points out that all was not well in the matter of race relations even in progressive Gotham. The 1943 Harlem Riots reflected the city’s oppressive and discriminatory housing and employment practices which made life for Africans Americans so difficult to endure.

A caution: Victory City may prove disconcerting at a time when “enemy of the people,” a vicious slogan calling to mind the brutal authoritarianism of the thirties, now finds renewed currency. When it comes to protecting civil rights and civil liberties—on guard!

Michael L. Levine holds a doctorate in American history from Rutgers. A long-time freelance editor and writer, he has staffed the A. Philip Randolph Institute and has served as editor-in-chief of National Productivity Review and as Associate Editor of Political Profiles, a multi-volume series featuring biographies of contemporary political leaders.

 Featured image (a top): World War II Era Harlem courtesy of Cole Phelps at https://www.thecoli.com/threads/ww2-era-harlem-pics.209216/.

 

 

Exhibit Review: Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis at the Museum of the City of New York

By Robert B. Carey, Ph.D.

Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis.
Museum of the City of New York until April 28th
https://www.mcny.org/exhibition/germ-city

Review of Germ City and Related Podcasts
Radio Station WYNC
https://www.wnyc.org/story/germ-city/

We live in a time of New York Triumphalism—it is hard to avoid the celebratory tone and the accompanying music that rehearses New York’s being the World City that dazzles and amazes. It was not always thus. Cities like New York in the 18th and 19th century were places where people died with alarming regularity as outbreaks of cholera, influenza, small pox, yellow fever and diphtheria killed thousands in seemingly unstoppable waves. Doctors, scientists, reformers and of course the clergy struggled to understand such devastation.

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Jacob A. Riis, An Italian Home under a Dump, c. 1890. Museum of the City of New York, Jacob A. Riis Collection, 90.13.1.208

Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis at the Museum of The City of New York walks the viewer into an ever-widening glade of understanding and an appreciation of the eventual success which came as scientists began to grapple with the fact that the microscopic could be deadly. Practitioners and city public health offices were forced to abandon their inherited theory of disease—bodily humors balanced by bleeding and emetics—as the appropriate approach. Instead they began to learn how to deal with the specifics of various afflictions. Disease was no longer a matter of puckish humor; it was a specific ailment that happened in specific ways.

Early notions of public health, such as quarantining infected patients, gave way to more informed treatments. Some of the great breakthroughs introduced even before Pasteur’s germ theory of disease resulted from improved sanitation—a clean water supply and a dedicated system for the removal of waste meant that cholera would no longer ravage poor communities where water was drawn from shallow contaminated wells. Germ City does particularly well in giving the viewer a lively sense of the degree to which the city’s growth ultimately depended on the development of an improved water/sewer infrastructure along with health-related research and educational activities.

What the exhibit does not do, except tangentially, is to invite the viewer to come to grips with the moralization of disease—the blame-the-victim attitude in which the affliction was seen as rooted in the patient’s sinfulness. Why were the poor more likely to succumb to tuberculosis or cholera or yellow fever? They were dirty, drunk and lascivious. The film by Mariam Ghani which uses Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor raises some of those questions on the way into the exhibit, as does the AIDS material in one of the displays.

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D. Appleton and Company, Sanitary and Social Chart of the Fourth Ward of the City of New York …, c. 1865. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the University of Western Ontario, 37.152.8

More detail about early forms of hospitalization would have provided a fuller reading of how the city responded to epidemics. It is however the display of the artifacts that practitioners developed for treatments that gives this show a very useful tactile quality. This material approach to depicting medical history calls to mind the work of the writer/physician Sherwin Nuland. Though Dr. Nuland is not directly referenced here, we see his influence as he underscored in his work on medicine, doctors and how we live and die, the centrality of “seeing.” Nuland argued that we have to see what is happening and why. We do not need an “idea” only of what ails us; we need granular specificity. That essential insight informs Germ City. Through this deeply informative exhibition you begin to understand the uncertainty, confusion and insights regarding the effects of what van Leeuwenhook called “the cavorting wee beasties” that both sustain and end your life.

Robert B. Carey, Ph.D. is Professor of History at Empire State College/SUNY Emeritus

Featured Image (at top): Dr, John C. Peters, “Routes of Asiatic Cholera” map from Harper’s Weekly, April 25, 1885. Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Write a Book Review for The Metropole!

Dear Metropolers,

What recent or forthcoming books would you be interested in reviewing for The Metropole? Reviews generally run 500 to 750 words, and they should be completed for posting during the spring or summer. Here are some examples of past reviews.

This spring we will be posting:

Llana Barber on City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion and the Rise of Human Caging in LA, 1771- 1965 by Kelly Lytle Hernandez

Alan Lesoff on Escaping The Dark, Gray City: Fear and Hope in Progressive Era Conservation by Benjamin Heber Johnson

Thai Jones on Greater Gotham: A History of NYC from 1898 to 1919 by Mike Wallace

John  W. Steinberg on The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Slezkine

Michael Glass on Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics by Kim Phillips-Fein

Sam Wetherwell on Practicing Utopia: An Intellectual History of the New Town Movement by Rosemary Wakeman

Walter Stern on Making The Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits by Ansley T. Erickson

David Yee on A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City by Matthew Vitz

Taoyu Yang on Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City by Isabella Jackson.

Sun-Young Park on Paris and The Cliche of History by Catherine Clark

E-mail the editors (by clicking on their names below) detailing your interest and when you would be able to complete the review.

Thanks for your time and consideration.

Jim Wunsch

Jacob Bruggeman

Book Review Editors

Hyping Social Infrastructure: A Review of Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People

Klinenberg, Eric. Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. (New York, New York: Crown, 2018). 336 pp. $28. ISBN 978-1-5247-6116-5

By Jacob Bruggeman 

Americans today consistently hear about the differences in wealth, geography, identity and politics that divide us, but they hear rather less about the forces of community and commonality which bring us together. Most welcome then is sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s new study of what he calls “social infrastructure,” which refers to “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact” and that counter fragmentation. Palaces for the People does not imply that social infrastructure is a suitable substitute for “well-designed hard infrastructure”—the bones upon which communities are built—but it is a clear, forceful argument for social infrastructure as the lifeblood that keeps communities healthy.

Klinenberg takes off from, of all people, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, whose brutal anti-labor policies did so much to fracture the body politic. But once retired, Carnegie came to understand that free libraries served as places in which diverse populations could converge and where community could be formed and strengthened. Carnegie called libraries “palaces for the people,” and thanks to his immense wealth and progressive philanthropic agenda, he built twenty-eight hundred palaces all over the world. In Palaces for the People sociologist Klinenberg begets a new defense of old-fashioned libraries and other public and private institutions which he believes are essential if a community is to flourish.

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The Phoenix Carnegie Library, now known as the Carnegie Center, is a historic site in Phoenix, Arizona’s Library Park, Carol M. Highsmith, March 3, 2018, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Though libraries take up a prominent place in Palaces for the People, social infrastructure is not just constituted by and in branch libraries: it is cultivated in community gardens, schools and universities, and the wide assortment of voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of in the 1800s. One could even argue that communities’ police forces, if they are dedicated to building ties to a place and its people rather sending them to prison, can be an essential element of social infrastructure. Klinenberg’s idea of social infrastructure, however, is generally limited to public institutions and places. Palaces for the People is not problematic for this focus, but readers may well put down the book wanting to better understand the role of businesses in bolstering social infrastructure. But in regard to the popular twenty-first century argument that humans are only socializing with their iPhones, Klinenberg asserts that despite the apparent dominance of all things digital, face-to-face interactions will remain “… the building blocks of all public life” and that physical interactions between people will necessarily define social interaction for generations to come.

When a community’s social infrastructure is deficient or missing, we see the emergence of inequities, declining civic life and polarized politics. To address these problems solutions are inevitably put forth: Economic solutions (which often take the form of development at the local or national level), technocratic solutions (such as those engineered by planners and policy makers), and civic solutions (including the rather artificial efforts to establish community groups and voluntary associations). We can properly and forcefully demand additional funding for schools, for low cost housing and health care, but we may be overlooking the need to address a deficient social infrastructure, the “missing piece of the puzzle” that pulls together and makes workable economic, technocratic, and civic proposals.

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The Carnegie Library, erected in 1904 in in Trinidad, Colorado, on the Purgatoire River on the northern end of the Raton Pass leading into New Mexico, Carol M. Highsmith, June 8, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division

Klinenberg argues that social infrastructure, when robust, “fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves.” No one showed this better than Klinenberg himself in his study of Chicago’s weeklong heat wave in July 1995, which was among the deadliest in American history. Survival rates in the city’s poor Hispanic neighborhoods were often far better than other neighborhoods precisely because of a superior Hispanic social infrastructure emphasizing visitation, self-help and care for the elderly. Social isolation killed all too many—more than 700—who died at home alone.

Klinenberg places his book in the context of the polarized politics of a nation’s   “…splintered social and cultural geography.” But what makes the book so useful is that it is neither strident nor pontifical. Palaces serves as an entry point for readers interested in learning more about inequality, civil society, and polarization in America and how to deal with those concerns. Indeed, it gains force and traction from the fact that it is grounded on a strong and growing body of literature on civil society and urban design, including classic works by Jane Jacobs, Robert Putnam, Elijah Anderson, and Ray Oldenburg. Just as important, Palaces is a work of scholarship that stakes a middle ground between market-based and state-based approaches to contemporary problems, and as such, it invites support from a broad spectrum of groups and leaders.

Finally, though Klinenberg is no Luddite, he does invite historians and social scientists to put aside our spreadsheets and Power Point presentations, instead asking us to renew and deepen an appreciation for specific places in our research. Furthermore, Klinenberg guides his readers—many of whom are not academics, but members of the general public—to the realization that each community and city is unique and that we should be wary of using quantitative data alone to generalize about their social conditions. Ultimately, if Palaces convinces readers of anything, it is that the goings-on of a community, and the places in which the things go on, must be grounded in local institutions—in palaces made by and for the people.

Jacob Bruggeman is an honors student in his fourth year at Miami University with majors in history and political science, and a combined BA–MA program in political science. Jacob was recently honored for his research as one of fifteen national recipients of the Gilder Lehrman History Scholar award, and he is one of two Joanna Jackson Goldman Scholars at Miami. Next fall he will begin coursework for a MPhil in Economic and Social History at Cambridge University. 

Featured image (at top): The Carnegie Public Library in Bryan, the oldest existing Carnegie Library in Texas, Carol M. Highsmith, June 12, 2014, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The One-Way Street of Integration: Edward Goetz Responds

By Edward G. Goetz

I want to thank Eric Michael Rhodes for his thoughtful read of my book, The One-Way Street of Integration. The great challenge of writing the book, which Mr. Rhodes seems to have sensed in his remarks at the end of his review, was in articulating a vision for how to use housing policy in the pursuit of racial justice and regional equity without reducing that effort to a series of variations on the single theme of shifting lower-income people of color across the metropolitan landscape. The policy debate, about which Mr. Rhodes makes fair observations, will go on – my book is quite unlikely to resolve that disagreement. His engaging review, however, provides me with the opportunity to elaborate my argument.

First, practical matters: We need to reclaim the notion of “fair housing” from those who reduce it to merely an integration objective. The lack of good, decent, affordable housing in communities of color is also a fair housing issue and one that would be addressed by an aggressive housing improvement initiative across the country. The disproportionate occupancy of substandard housing by people of color is part of that fair housing issue. Perhaps more to the point given the housing trends in major U.S. cities, the forced relocation of lower-income people of color from neighborhoods that have for decades experienced disinvestment and neglect but that are now receiving renewed investment, either through processes of gentrification or large scale public housing redevelopment, is a fair housing issue. And yet fair housing lawyers oppose efforts by local governments and activists to provide preferences to neighborhood residents for affordable housing that might insulate those families from forced displacement. It is a myopic vision of fair housing at best.

Second, we flatter ourselves and slide into paternalism when we act on the idea that we know best about where lower income POC should live. Third, we rob communities of color and their leadership of agency if we do not acknowledge and attempt to facilitate a stay-in-place option. Fourth, we take our eyes off of the real objectives; the enhancement of housing choices for low-income POC, if we pretend to know which is the best choice for them, and when we fashion our policies to incentivize or require that choice. Fifth, we need to refocus on breaking down barriers to choice, including building subsidized housing in exclusive white enclaves.

But beyond practical policy matters, defining the disadvantages faced by people of color in our metropolitan areas solely, or even chiefly in terms of segregation, obscures the deeply embedded racism and the structures of public and private racial subordination that operate in this country. Integrationism imagines that the rearrangement of people in space is a substitute for the hard work of dismantling structural racism. Further, it underappreciates the subtle and not so subtle ways in which it legitimates and ratifies that racism. By positing integration into predominantly white neighborhoods as the means of uplift for lower income people of color we incorporate white racism into our public policy approaches. We define the ideal neighborhood as one that is mostly white. We incorporate and ratify the white racism that would lead to white flight if ‘too many’ people of color entered a community. As Cheryl Harris wrote in 1993, we, in fact, define our goals in ways to avoid disturbing “the settled expectations of whites that their interests – particularly the relative privilege accorded by their whiteness – would not be violated.”

Cheryl I. Harris, 1993. “Whiteness as property.” Harvard Law Review, 106, 8, June.

Edward G. Goetz is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning and the Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He has served as Associate Dean and as Director of the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning program at the Humphrey School. He specializes in housing and local community development planning and policy. His research focuses on issues of race and poverty and how they affect housing policy planning and implementation.

Book Review: The One Way Street of Integration: Fair Housing and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in American Cities by Edward G. Goetz

Edward G. Goetz, The One-Way Street of Integration: Fair Housing and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in American Cities. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017. 224 pp. notes, index. ISBN 9781501707599

Reviewed by Eric Michael Rhodes

Should those concerned about racial inequality in the American metropolis bring opportunity to people or help people move to opportunity? This question has wrankled policymakers and community organizers alike for nearly 50 years. Community development advocates have generally promoted the “opportunity to people” approach, while fair housing proponents have tried to “move people to opportunity.”

In One-Way Street of Integration: Fair Housing and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in American Cities, Edward Goetz argues that the “fair housing” movement, a well-intentioned effort to integrate the suburbs, grew into a myopic, integration-at-any-cost crusade in which people of color paid the price. This effort to increase affordable housing opportunities ultimately diminished such possibilities in city and suburb alike.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, “integrationist” fair housers obsessed with increasing suburban housing opportunity actually began suing community developers trying to build subsidized housing in the inner city. At the root of this controversy was decreasing federal funding for new subsidized housing construction: a “climate of scarcity” pitted the camps against one another. Professor Goetz’s sweeping indictment of the well-intentioned effort to advance racial integration deserves thoughtful consideration; it should inspire wide-ranging debate.

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Goetz argues that HUD’s HOPE VI initiative represents the worst excesses of the fair housing movement’s “integrationist” impulse: the destruction of extant low-income communities of color in the name of racial integration. Here, the demolition of the Cabrini-Green Homes in Chicago begins under HOPE VI in September of 1995.

Following adoption of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the fair housing movement attempted to build low-income housing in the suburbs to increase housing opportunity for poor Americans. Such efforts, exemplified by Housing and Urban Development Secretary George Romney’s Open Communities initiative, promised to increase opportunity for those wishing to move to the suburbs or remain in the city. Fair housing advocates at this early stage promoted building low-income housing in the inner city as well. Thus, this initial iteration of the fair housing movement, even with its suburban focus, presented no real obstacle to continuing inner city housing and redevelopment programs. Community development and fair housing were not yet at odds.

It was only after the ostensible victories in Gautreaux et al. v. Chicago Housing Authority (1969) and Hills v. Gautreaux (1976) that a rift developed between the suburban integrationists and city re-constructionists. Following Gautreaux, the NAACP and other civil rights groups could fairly celebrate orders to demolish Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green and other highly segregated public housing projects. But Gautreaux also presumed that concentrating poor families, whether in tall towers or single-family homes, might create inherently dysfunctional living conditions or threaten largely-white communities. So, the new Section 8 housing voucher impaction rules, seeking to avoid intensifying segregation, discouraged the award of vouchers in inner-city neighborhoods; as for poor families moving to the suburbs, the goal was to ensure that they would be sufficiently dispersed to mitigate social disruption or alarm. According to Goetz, as a result of the acceptance of rigid constraints to prevent the “tipping” of communities from white to black, the number of low-income families that could move to majority white areas within or outside the city actually diminished. The worst of the integrationists’ impulses surfaced in the form of HOPE VI, amounting to the destruction of extant black, low-income communities.

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Broken Promises“, photograph by John Fekner; One of the most important takeaways of Goetz’s book is that growing austerity for federally-subsidized housing significantly deepened the divide between the community development and fair housing movements over the last fifty-odd years. There is little hope of reconciliation unless the federal government increases funding for new construction and rehabilitation of low- and moderate-income housing. Austerity grew after President Nixon called for a moratorium on subsidized housing in 1973.

Goetz points out that fair housing advocates underestimated the deep-seated white resistance to integration that, even now, after decades of litigation, still severely limits the number of affordable units that can be built or rented in white neighborhoods; at the same time, reformers overestimated the equity outcomes of integration. How much better off were black and Hispanic families in the suburbs than those who remained in the city? The matter has been debated and studied for the past forty years. Instead of attempting to measure and predict with mathematical precision the spatial makeup of each community, Goetz suggests it would have been more effective simply to increase resources to provide for additional low and moderate-income housing in historically disinvested neighborhoods, even if they were segregated.

But this point is hard to prove. In the first place we should not forget that beyond the basic goal of generating more housing units, there were legal and moral reasons for battling suburban exclusionary zoning and discriminatory real estate practices, and if, to give Goetz his due, the integrationist impulse had been more restrained and less rigid would we have generated more housing? After all, funding for low and moderate-income housing has, for all sorts of reasons, been so dismal since Nixon’s 1973 moratorium on subsidized housing that it is difficult to blame the problem simply on the myopia of suburban integrationists.

Looking ahead, when the funding for affordable housing (through new construction, increased subsidies and constraints on gentrification) finally returns to some decent level, city builders and suburban integrationists may yet find themselves moving back and forth from city to suburb along a two-way street.

unnamedEric Michael Rhodes is a graduate student of urban and planning history at Miami University of Ohio. Eric studies how U.S. subsidized housing policy played out in the rusting Steel Belt of the 1970s, with a particular eye to the nation’s first operable metropolitan fair housing plan: Dayton’s Fair Share Housing Plan. He is an associate editor of Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective (a joint publication of Miami and Ohio State universities) and is co-host of the podcast History Talk. Email: rhodesem@miamioh.edu; Twitter: @EricMichaRhodes

 

 

Slums: Alan Mayne Responds

The Metropole‘s recently launched a new series of book reviews, edited by Jim Wunsch. UHA President Richard Harris inaugurated the series in May with a review of Alan Mayne’s Slums: The History of a Global Injustice. Wunsch contacted Professor Mayne regarding his response to Harris’ review, which Mayne generously wrote and shared:

9781780238098I thank Richard Harris for his searching review of my Slums: The History of a Global Injustice. I especially appreciate his concluding assessment that “it makes principled connections across time and space”: this book draws upon a long and now (largely) concluded career as an urban historian, and I would very much like to be remembered with those words!

Allow me to respond to four of Richard’s criticisms.

Firstly, that I obscure the fact that clearance and upgrading schemes have “done some good.” Yes, I am guilty of that, because I wanted to emphasize the appalling social costs overall of ‘slum’ programs from the nineteenth century to the present day.

Secondly, that there are gaps and imbalances in my analysis of global trends and events. Yes, the book inevitably reflects my research years spent in Britain, the US, India, and — quirkily — my homeland Australia. I spent a lot of library hours attempting to smooth out the imbalances, and in so doing learnt a great deal about Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Richard is right about the gaps, but I think my general historical arguments are nonetheless unassailable.

Thirdly, that “Mostly, Mayne focuses on how areas have been (mis)represented, rather than the places and people themselves.” Again, Richard is right, although as he acknowledges there are substantial parts of this book in which I move beyond the misrepresentations that I highlighted in my 1993 book The Imagined Slum: In doing so I draw upon anthropology, cultural geography and sociology. I also harness my collaborations with historical archaeologists over the past 30 years.

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Better housing The solution to infant mortality in the slums” produced by Benj. Sheer as part of the Federal Art Project, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Which brings me to a fourth and final point. Richard and I fundamentally disagree — albeit, I think, in a constructive sense — about ‘slums’: he thinks of them as a socio-spatial reality whereas I think ‘slum’ is an imposed and caricatured denial of those realities. Richard writes, “by whatever name, slums have been a significant element in the modern urban experience.” I would argue instead that whereas social disadvantage has indeed always been an element in urbanization, the linguistic construction of ‘slum’ — dating from the ‘urban revolution’ of the early nineteenth century, and unfortunately reasserted in the ‘developing world’ by well-intentioned reformers since the middle of the twentieth century — has sought to deny or trivialize that connection.

Jim Wunsch’s insertion of Charles Abrams’ thoughts about ‘slums’ in his The Language of Cities (1971) highlights this juxtaposition of viewpoints. Yet as Abrams concludes, “The word ‘slum’ is a piece of cant of uncertain origin, little more than a century old. Slum reveals its meaning the moment it is uttered. Abhorrence of slums has often led to reckless destruction and more than once contributed to severe housing shortages.”

Featured image (at top): “Eliminate crime in the slums through housing,” Federal Art Project, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Book Review: Slums by Alan Mayne

In this, our first book review in a new series edited by Jim Wunsch, UHA President Richard Harris tackles an epic historiograpical effort by Alan Mayne.

Alan Mayne, Slums. The History of a Global Injustice. London: Reaktion, 2017. 360 pp. notes, index. ISBN 978 1 78023 809 8

9781780238098More than ever, we need broad syntheses that bridge the specialized literatures in which most of us spend our time. That is one reason why Alan Mayne’s Slums. The History of a Global Injustice is so welcome. Another is that, by whatever name, slums have been a significant element in the modern urban experience, the object of much planning, policy, and writing.

Mayne builds two big bridges. The first connects the extensive body of work on slums in Anglo-America with the even more abundant literature on those in the global South. The second links past and present, in a survey that extends from the 1810s to the 2010s.

He moves between thematic and chronological treatments. Early chapters dissect the definition, connotations, and uses of ‘slum’. He then considers its influence on policy in Anglo-America through the 1960s, before turning South, where ‘slum’ has been “orientalized”, in the colonial, early postcolonial (1940s-1970s) and more recent periods. Since the 1970s, U.N. and World Bank policy has globalized thinking, whether for slum clearance, upgrading, or neoliberal market reform. His strongest criticism is of clearance programs but, although he prefers upgrading, he argues that even these usually fall short because they fail to “partner” with local residents (287).

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New York, New York. Demolition for slum clearance. Blocks of slum area are torn down for housing project“, photography by Edwin Rosskam, December 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mostly, Mayne focuses on how areas have been (mis)represented, rather than the places and people themselves. The exception is a late chapter where he considers how residents have lived, made a living, and built community. His theme is the “slum deceit”: how the stereotype oversimplifies, implies that residents are deficient, overlooks their contribution to the urban economy, and justifies “coercive intervention” (10). Yes, he says, ‘slum people’ are poor, live in deficient housing, lack municipal services, and feel ambivalent about their neighbourhoods and also the ‘slum’ label; and yes, some policies have been well-intentioned (196-199). But, he argues, none of this justifies the use of ‘slum’, and the “warped ‘reform’ agendas” that it encourages (199).

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“Cross out slums. USHA”, by Lester Beall, 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

His critique of ‘slum’ could use more nuance. Not all substandard areas can be saved. Upgrading projects have usually, and even clearance has occasionally, done some good. Although clearance has had a higher profile, unobtrusive improvement (including basic servicing) has surely been more common than Mayne suggests, and certainly more than the index indicates. Overall, his dissection of the rhetoric could usefully have been judged with closer reference to the reality.

Those who know London in the 1880s or Delhi in the 1950s will inevitably find something to quibble about. There are geographical biases. In the South, we hear a lot about India, something about Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, but little elsewhere. And Mayne overlooks early bustee and kampong improvement programs in Calcutta (1880s) and the Dutch Indies (1920s). But, given the available historiography, gaps are inevitable. This survey and sustained critique, a life’s work, is the first of its kind. A complement to Carl Nightingale’s Segregation, it makes principled connections across time and space. Anyone interested in slums should check it out.

Richard Harris, McMaster University

harrisr@mcmaster.ca


Slum: A building or area that is deteriorated, hazardous, unsanitary, or lacking in standard conveniences; also, the squalid, crowded, or unsanitary conditions under which people live irrespective of the physical state of the building or area. The latter definition is a deviation from the standard meaning, which puts emphasis on physical conditions. At three persons per room, however, even sound housing is a slum. A neighborhood may be physically sturdy, but if it is devoid of good transportation (as in Watts, Los Angeles) it could be classified as a slum. If the neighborhood school is a disgrace, the best cosmetic treatment of the housing will not eliminate its slum aspect.

The word ‘slum’ is a piece of cant of uncertain origin, little more than a century old. Slum reveals its meaning the moment it is uttered. Abhorrence of slums has often led to reckless destruction and more than once contributed to severe housing shortages. (See BLIGHT; GRAY AREA.)

Charles Abrams. The Language of Cities (New York: Avon Books, 1971) 285-86

Featured image (at top): “Children in slum area, Washington, D.C. Children in their backyard in a slum area near the Capitol. This area inhabited by both black and white”, photograph by Carl Mydans, November 1935, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress