When the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Historical Association (AHA) announced that they would both be hosting their 2019 conferences in the capital of the Midwest, Chicago, during always balmy January, it was not surprising. The two often overlap, particularly in the convention-friendly Windy City. However, what did create shouts of joy was the decision by both organizations to honor the other’s registration. In other words, historians attending the AHA could abscond to the MLA to hear their more literary-minded peers debate similar topics, themes, and historical moments and vice versa.
In celebration, some scholars referenced the obscure but deeply influential hip-hop group, Das Racist:
Coming in January 2019….
I'M AT THE AHA I'M AT THE MLA I'M AT THE COMBINATION AHA/MLA
The larger point here is that the two fields, though often siloed by academia and, perhaps, professionalization have long been in dialogue. As a young, impressionable undergrad I still remember eminent historian and literary scholar Rashid Khalidi incredulously asking our class (and I’m paraphrasing), “Wait, you people aren’t reading fiction? It’s one of the best ways to learn history.” That comment stuck. During my commute to work over nearly ten years teaching public high school in NYC, I devoured fiction on the subway on the regular. So it goes to say that historians and literary scholars have a lot to learn from one another, hence the reason for this blog’s “Fiction and the City” month, in which historians deployed their knowledge of fiction to explore urban history around the globe.
Though The Metropole published Fiction and the City in February 2018, it remains an ongoing pursuit. With the year coming to a close, The Metropole‘s editors have rounded up all those who provided contributions. Below you’ll discover links and descriptions for each.
“Spillane’s representation of a city in the throes of crisis may have been a stand-in for the atomic anxieties of the immediate postwar era,” writes Northland College professor Tochterman, “but it was also quite prophetic about the discourse of cities like New York in the not too distant future.” In many ways, Spillane’s problematic view of NYC served as a harbinger of things to come, a point which the writer explores through Spillane’s work, the history of domestic America during the Cold War, and New York City’s always unstable place in U.S. culture.
Outgoing UHA board member, University of Buffalo historian, and general Chinese literary enthusiast Kristin Stapleton takes readers through a tour of urbanity in Chinese literature. In particular, Stapleton notes fictional discourse about Chinese cities remains a relatively new development, yet serves as an indicator of great change underfoot in the East Asian power. “Much of the popular fiction of the last forty years reflects the fast-paced new culture of China’s megacities,” notes Stapleton.
The former editor of Pacific Historical Review and Portland State Professor knows more than a bit about history and popular culture. As discussed at this past year’s UHA conference in Columbia, the Rose City resident has been working for several years with artists and others producing comic books about Portland’s urban history. Therefore, this Mike Davis/Eric Avila-like piece on the suburbs in science fiction speaks to old and new depictions of suburbia all while adjusting for issues of race, gender, and class over recent decades. “If science fiction suburbs are usually troubled and dangerous places,” notes Abbott “it’s in part because popular discourse about suburbia has been equally negative—from aesthetic and moral censure in the 1950s to critiques of suburban isolation in the 1980s and the trope of ‘slumburbia’ in the present century.”
Boston University American Studies chair Carl Rotello opens one of The Metropole’s most literary posts rather simply: “The best spot for ectoplasmic people-watching in South Shore is the raised wooden platform of the Bryn Mawr Metra station at 71st and Jeffery.” From there he cleverly uses the Metra stop as a means for evaluating local histories, known and lost, and the people and communities who populated them. “From the platform you can catch glimpses of the converging ghosts, and the lost cities they represent, that move among the current-day hangers-out on the corners, commuters waiting for buses or trains, and local residents running errands at the neighborhood’s principal intersection.”
Few genres elicit the kind of responses that satire does. When Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal,” some people truly believed he advocated eating Irish babies. Yet even amidst such confusion, it remains hard to deny the power of satire as means for resistance to prevailing political, social, or economic trends. University of Pennsylvania PhD candidate Kelsey Rice explores the work of Uzeyir Hajibeyov, a writer who arrived in booming turn-of-the-century Baku, a city one historian describes thusly: “It was as if the industry of Pittsburgh and the frontier lawlessness of Dodge City had been superimposed on Baghdad.” According to Rice, Hajibevov created some of the first operettas to engage Baku urbanity, as the city’s demographics, economy, and politics shifted. The operetta If Not That One, Then This One, “one of Hajibeyov’s most popular, grappled with the social challenges and violence presented by urbanization through a combination of biting satire and catchy tunes.”
Today the works of Walter Mosely – Devil in a Blue Dress and Fearless Jones among several others – stand as testament to the power of noir fiction when retreating from the kind of mid-century tropes of the genre that regrettably equated blackness with dark corners of the changing postwar metropolis. However, the lesser-known Chester Himes contributed mightily to the Walter Mosely’s of the future when he penned If Hollers, Let Him Go in the 1940s. “Himes offers a dark vision of American racial relations in If He Hollers while also charging headlong into the fraught dynamics of interracial sexuality,” notes The Metropole, “all under a sun-drenched Southern California sky that casts brighter light on Black Los Angeles.”
Recipient of the Urban History Association’s Arnold Hirsch Award for Best Scholarly Article on Urban History, University of Wisconsin historian Emily Callaci explores the role of popular romance novels in the 1970s postcolonial city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Featuring male protagonists styled in the fashion of Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley and Bruce Lee, such characters and the stories they offer up function “as an unintended archive of the emotional lives of Dar es Salaam’s young men in the mid-1970s through 1980s, the final decade of Tanzania’s socialist experiment,” writes Callaci. Of course, the novels do more than simply chart the paths of fictional lotharios across the city; they also speak to the tensions at the heart of a city escaping colonialism while mapping its own course toward the future.
The Metropole co-editor Avigail Oren, Pittsburgh educator Kevin Seal, and University of Connecticut historian Melanie Newport present a compendium of children’s works that engage urban life, including Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, When the Beat was Born by Laban Carrick Hill, Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street, and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia among many, many others. Oren, Seal and Newport break down individual works and discuss the importance of “fiction and the city” for both young readers and adults.
Perhaps it’s no secret that at least of one of The Metropole’s editors has a possibly unhealthy obsession with the work of Joan Didion. Still, the famed California writer continues to produce interesting and compelling works well into her 80s. In this piece, The Metropole examines how her first work of fiction explores the state of burgeoning post-World War II Sacramento and Didion’s own blindspots in regard to race and class. Though part of our April Metro of the Month on Sacramento, it neatly fits into Fiction and the City as well.
On the song “All the Wine” from the 2005 album Alligator by The National, lead singer Matt Berninger croons, “I’m put together beautifully, big wet bottle in my fist, big wet rose in my teeth, I’m a perfect piece of ass like every Californian … I’m a festival, I’m a parade.” Hailing from Brooklyn and originating in Ohio, Berninger and the band exist, somewhat controversially, as an expression of middle class semi-bohemian white male anxiety, yet in “All the Wine” they capture a certain general impression of the Golden State—or perhaps more accurately, gently mock the idea of such an identity.
Should the band’s tone be mockery, native Sacramentan Joan Didion might agree. “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento,” she famously told interviewers in 1979. The quote proved so incisive that fellow Sacramento native Greta Gerwig made it the epigraph to her Oscar nominated film Lady Bird, a coming of age story that is equal parts adolescent angst, transformation, and loss. “Both Lady Bird and Gerwig cast themselves in junior Didion molds,” Vanity Fair’sYohana Desta observed, “artistic spirits who want to flee somewhere more famous—only to look back on the town they left with a warm, nostalgic lens.” In her own work, Didion also wrestles with these issues… minus the teen anxiety, and with more than a dollop of adult malaise. Whether discussing the heroic California “pioneer” narrative or the state’s image of sensuality and libertine enjoyments, the reality of California, notably Sacramento, remains both more mundane and problematic.
In two works separated by roughly four decades, the novel Run River and her 2003 memoir Where I Was From, Didion’s take on Sacramento explores tradition and loss. Never one to suffer fools, she critiques California mythology, particularly in regard to urban renewal, race, and suburbanization during the years after World War II.
The Early History
Famously, Didion’s own family travelled west with the Donner-Reed party, judiciously parting ways before tragedy befell the nation’s most notorious cannibalistic clan. Her family settled in Sacramento, thereby enabling her to trace her family’s roots to California and its nascent statehood.
The Didion family entered the state at a key moment in its history as its racial policies shifted from a discriminatory but somewhat porous racial stratification of society to a far starker Jim Crow reality. From Spanish colonization to American statehood, the settlement of California was always premised on imposed racial hierarchies, yet there remained fissures in its race based class system. Due to its distance from Spain and later Mexico City, the California population was smaller, more racially mixed, and less tied to the class system prevailing under Spanish and Mexican rule. For example of the 42 founders of Los Angeles in 1781, 26 claimed Afro-Mexican ancestry while many of the others descended from Native Americans, mestizoes, Spaniards, and other mixed castes. In some instances, an individual’s racial status could be circumvented by wealth, title, and cultural ties. When the U.S. government assumed control over the state after 1848, however, the racial loopholes that had existed were closed and a more rigid racial structure was established: one that supported immigration restrictions and openly marginalized non-whites.
Established as the California capitol in 1854, Sacramento served as the point of origin regarding state racial policies that disenfranchised minorities. Yet after 1945, when California was awash in federal spending, the state witnessed demographic booms that brought greater numbers of non-whites. Between 1940 and 1952, California grew by 53%; from 1950-1960, it grew another 49%.
Despite this population influx, a certain cognitive dissidence prevailed, argues Didion. During the 1950s, Sacramento, and the state more generally remained “hermetic … isolated by geography and history and also by inclination.” The expansion of the military industrial complex through the Korean and Vietnam Wars also brought greater diversity to California. In Sacramento, 25,000 newcomers arrived with 10 percent of them African Americans, notes River City native and sociologist, Jesus Hernandez. The Bracero program, closely aligned with these developments and furthered this trend as numerous Mexican laborers settled in the city, including Hernandez’s father. Due to strict fair employment practices, the expansion of the state government added to Sacramento’s mélange. Yet as they searched for homes, minorities encountered redlining and other forms of housing discrimination relegating them, as in many other American cities, to substandard homes and overcrowded neighborhoods. Redlining embodied the very outlook Didion critiques, as white Californians sought to hermetically seal off communities from one another.
Run River Redevelopment
Within the context of a transforming California, Didion wrote her 1963 novel Run River, which depicts the Faulknerian decline of the city’s (fictional) old line families, the Knights and the McClellans, as a “new” post-WWII Golden State took shape. Hardly a perfect work of fiction, New York Magazine called it “charmingly wrong headed” in 2003. It remains, however, a poetic, tragic, and yes, flawed, account of familial decline amid transformation in the state capital.
Lily Knight and her husband Everett McClellan trace their collective lineages back to the first families of the city, but the marriage of the two descendants cannot weather the birthing of a new California: “[Lily] and [Everett] would never seem to get it through their heads that things were changing in Sacramento, that Aerojet General and Douglas Aircraft and even the State College were bringing in a whole class of people, people who had lived back East, people who read things.” Not that Didion seems to think much of this history. Through their son, Knight McClellan, Didion acidly criticizes Lily and Everett and their generation’s attachment to the mythical “pioneer” California.“Not that he thought they would ever wake up. They’d just go right along dedicating their grubby goddamn camellia trees in Capitol Park to the memory of their grubby goddamn pioneers.”
Planted in Capitol Park facing the state capitol building, Camellia Grove was the product of the author’s grandmother (her father’s stepmother), Genevieve Didion. For years, Genevieve served as President of the Sacramento Board of Education. Even today the city continues to hold a Camellia Festival with over one million bushes of the alien species in bloom annually.
Didion practically sneers at the use of this history to sell the city. In the late 1950s the city engaged in an urban renewal project that reshaped the old West End district into a celebration of the city’ s “pioneer” history known today as “Old Sacramento”; a form of heritage tourism that placed the city in the vanguard of historic preservation. Knight’s mocking of Sacramento’s “pioneers” and the camellias left in their wake clearly represented some expression of Didion’s own feelings at the time. Reflecting upon her novel decades later, Didion notes the use of “‘[t]he pioneers’” as a prop for selling Sacramento to tourists; but she says much less about the residents of West End neighborhood, a community defined by ethnic and racial diversity. Urban renewal would erase their presence in the city, replacing it with a narrative that further excluded them.
Between 1957 and 1961, the 28-block development displaced 2,000 residents and ultimately destroyed a thriving Japantown and a smaller, but still distinct Chinatown. Adding insult to injury, many residents of Japantown, endured internment during World War II and had returned to rebuild their community only to have redevelopment wipe them away, again. Nearly 30 acres of riverfront property were dedicated to selling “trinkets and souvenirs and popcorn,” writes Didion. “There was something that got lost when those bulldozers came through,” historian Steven Avella noted in a recent documentary on the West End. Sacramento civil rights attorney Nathaniel Colley added simply that redevelopment bordered on immorality, since it cleared “out residents to face a closed housing market.”
Run River Race
In Run River, through various characters and their conversations, Didion makes over a dozen references to the city’s minority communities, often in the language deployed by white Californians of the day. Del Paso Heights, a local black community, operates as a repeated joke among white country club types. Everett’s father refers to Mexicans as “goddamn wetbacks” and all Asians as Filipinos: “There was no use telling him that somebody was Chinese, Malayan, or Madame Chiang Kai-shek; they were goddamn Filipinos to him.” He wasn’t too happy about his daughter, Sarah, moving to Philadelphia where “she picked up those goddamn Jew ideas.”
Lily’s father, Walter Knight, held similar prejudices, complaining about his ranch manager Gomez by accusing his employee of ingratitude and theft, even as Knight “sat in the familiar gloom of the Senator Hotel bar and called at the white frame house on Thirty Eighth Street” where his mistress, Miss Rita Blanchard resided. “Hegemony takes work,” as the kids (and Stuart Hall) say, though in this case it actually seems like sloth and access to an old timey bar and a mistress. Knight’s protestations functioned to lend an air of “noblesse oblige,” a perverse use of racism to justify what Knight believed to be progressive hiring practices.
Then again, while Lily criticizes both her father’s and McClellan’s racial beliefs, she too takes advantage of their presence in Sacramento for her own interests. Gomez picks her up from the train station when she returns home from college at UC Berkeley for her mother’s parties, but not before stopping in the West End at a place “where she could eat tacos with her fingers.” When her sister conveys a story regarding their father’s inability to determine another character’s place of origin, relating how he said “‘It’s all Del Paso Heights to me,’” Lily laughs and notes it is “a district north of Sacramento noted for its large Negro population and its high incidence of social disorders.” A serial adulterer, Lily carries on affairs with family friend Joe Templeton, meeting “in cars parked off the levee, bars frequented by Mexicans, and in an empty shack on the piece down river….” The proximity to minority populations among characters in Run River equates with a low rent existence.
Few minority characters are ever given a real voice, though perhaps in the context of 1963, the few examples offered here were more significant then than they seem today. Crystal, Gomez’s “common law wife by virtue of mutual endurance,” bemoans her marriage to the Knight’s ranch manager when she tells Lily that Gomez “latched on to her in Fresno,” insinuating that their bond did not emerge from hours spent in the fields but rather through what some describe as the world’s oldest profession. The McClellan family’s cook and domestic servant, the problematically named China Mary, comes closest to full agency and even garners a brief back story in a scene in which she upbraids Lily for questioning her use of wartime rationing stamps to procure sugar for four cakes to be raffled off at the local parish. In thirty years on the ranch no “one had ever tried to tell her how to run her kitchen, and there were some spoiled young ladies who were going to be punished by god if they didn’t start thinking about their Church once in a while,” she informs Lily.
While Mary’s name raised few eyebrows in 1963, it has aged poorly. A more generous reading suggests that Didion utilized the name as a means to display the sort of tone-deaf insularity that besieged Sacramento’s august families and, more generally, the city and state. Mary demonstrates a certain level of agency, but in the service of powerful white landholders. Still, she exhibits both competence and resoluteness in a family that increasingly displays neither.
None of this ensures Mary’s equality. When Everett’s sister Martha drowns, Mary, who had raised her from childhood and had been visiting “her sister in Courtland,” doesn’t even merit a phone call. “They should have called her after it happened,” writes Didion. “They should have called fifty people but above all they should have called China Mary.” To be fair, Everett’s sister Sarah did not receive a call either, but the point still remains.
What should one think of Didion’s views on race? First, it is worth noting that Didion remains, arguably, the frostiest of writers; do not go looking for emotional appeals in her work. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. A magnanimous reading of Didion argues that the dozen or so references to minorities in her novel represent her awareness and acknowledgement regarding the awfulness of Sacramento racial history. The racism at the heart of tossed-off comments like “drunken wetbacks,” “goddamn Filipinos,” and “the smartest Jew lawyer” are meant to reveal much more about the speaker than the subject.
Yet even in such a reading, there are problems. Having read over half a dozen of her works, Didion does exhibit empathy toward people of color, but her interactions are often more detached. In her review of Didion’s latest book, South and West, Lorraine Berry argues Didion travels South to explore racism filtered through the solitary prism of white people. “Didion continually treats the people of color in the South as objects,” Berry points out. “They are objects of observation and they are objects of discussion, but never once do they get to offer to Didion their views of the states they live in.” One sees symmetry between Run River and South and West, both of which were written around the same time (South and West is actually a collection of notes taken by Didion during a sojourn to the region in 1970 and, I must confess, it is a book I enjoyed despite such criticisms).
Run River Suburbanization
Didion also acknowledges the massive suburbanization transforming Sacramento, particularly through the character of Martha, Everett’s sister, who “almost every afternoon” tours new subdivisions, debates the merits of “redwood siding” versus “an imitation limestone veneer,” and discusses the advertising campaigns of newly built communities with names like “Robles de la Sierra, a tract north of town” and “Rancho Valley.” The former promised “a setting with the romance of An Old Spanish Land Grant plus No Sewer Bonds” while the latter’s “selling points included a leaded-glass window on the exterior of each three-car garage for ‘the same gracious finish throughout.’”
Sacramento was changing as its established customs receded to be replaced by a “more urban, or suburban life, in which children swam in clear water in backyard pools lined with gunite and bought Italian typewriters and ate pears bought in supermarkets rather than dropped off in lugs by the relatives who grew them.”
It goes without saying this burgeoning suburban existence that brought notoriety to California remained off limits to Sacramento’s minority populations, who as Hernandez notes found themselves squeezed into previously redlined communities like South Sacramento and Oak Park. The city’s “first suburb,” Oak Park, became an oasis for African Americans and other minorities who were displaced from the city’s West End through urban renewal,” writes KCET’s Kris Hooks. Even before urban renewal at the turn of the twentieth century, African and Mexican American homeowners, having been shut out of the city’s other suburbs by racial covenants, established a presence in the suburb.
Thankfully, racial covenants never gained a foothold there, but redlining did. It meant that home loans would be harder to come by in the neighborhood, thereby retarding housing renovations and upkeep while also preventing serious outside investment in Oak Park. Today, like many formerly predominantly minority urban communities, gentrification threatens those same residents who kept Oak Park alive in earlier, tougher decades. What has helped to drive this process? “In 1973, the city established the Oak Park Redevelopment Project Area to help bring a resurgence to the city’s first suburb,” Hooks points out. “In the 2000s, changes began to become more visible.”
To paraphrase official city historian, Marcia Eyman, who exactly gets to decide who belongs in a community and who doesn’t? Historically, government and capitalism don’t often make choices based on equity. Redevelopment in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and so forth picked winners and losers. Right now there are no guardrails to gentrification; ginning up the municipal growth machine only devours everything in its path.
For all its flaws, Didion’s work recognizes that without vigilance we all lose something, but our station in life often means this loss is not distributed fairly. Decades later, Didion admitted Run River had been the product of a young woman simultaneously nostalgic for the past and searching for a “protective distance between me and the place I was from.” Both things can be true, as is her larger point that “There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.” Her work is undoubtedly marked by privilege, and like many writers of her era she does not do enough to amplify marginalized voices, but if one looks and listens hard enough in Run River, you can see and feel the loss endured by all of Sacramento’s denizens.
Featured image (image at top): Park bench in Sacramento, the capital city of the U.S. state of California and the county seat of Sacramento County, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
 Carlos Manuel Salomon, Pio Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 12.
 Paul J.P. Sandul, “Both ‘Country Town’ and ‘Bustling Metropolis’: How Boosterism, Surburbs, and Narrative Helped Shape Sacramento’s Identity and Environmental Sensibilities” in River City and Valley Life: An Environmental History of the Sacramento Region, Eds. Christopher I. Castaneda and Lee M. A. Simpson, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013, 161.
By Avigail Oren, with contributions from Kevin Seal, Melanie Newport, and other #twitterstorians
I’m spending the month of February living in the bedroom I occupied as a teenager, in the house my parents have lived in for almost twenty years, which is mercifully located in the warm and sunny state of Florida. In the parlance of the internet, I just can’t with winter anymore. So here I am, surrounded by the books my parents bought me as a child, brought from Chicago and St. Paul to Gainesville, where I added more to the collection.
When we proposed the City in Fiction series on The Metropole, I did not anticipate that I would simultaneously be editing thoughtful analyses of novels set in the urban landscape and weeding through my own personal archive of fiction. But I have been, and in addition to the books by Judy Blume and Sharon Creech, the volumes of the Anastasia and Alice series, and the bevy of great historicalfiction for youngreaders, I found the seeds of my own personal interest in immigration, race and ethnicity, and the urban environment.
In amongst the Dr. Seuss I found a picture book that fascinated me as a child. In Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, Cassie’s parents take the family out onto the roof of their neighbor’s Harlem apartment building one evening. Cassie and her brother Be Be eat dinner with their parents and Mr. and Mrs. Honey and, as the adults begin playing cards and socializing, Cassie and Be Be lay down on a mattress and go to sleep. Except that Cassie does not go to sleep. The story begins with her recalling how, that night when “the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge,” she imagined flying above the city and taking ownership of all that she could see.
Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical. Lying on the roof in the night, with stars and skyscraper buildings all around me, made me feel rich, like I owned all that I could see. The bridge was my most prized possession. Daddy said that the George Washington Bridge is the longest and most beautiful bridge in the world and that it opened in 1931, on the very day I was born. Daddy worked on that bridge, hoisting cables. Since then, I’ve wanted that bridge to be mine. Now I have claimed it. All I had to do was fly over it for it to be mine forever. I can wear it like a giant diamond necklace, or just fly above it and marvel at its sparkling beauty.
Although the context was lost on me at the time, Cassie’s flight over the city and her repossession of the various infrastructure projects her father helped build was her response to the racism and exclusion her father experienced in the labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s. As a kid, I could understand and relate to Cassie’s worship of her father, a man who “can walk on steel girders high up in the sky and not fall,” earning him the nickname “the Cat.” I also admired my father, whose work as a political scientist was less risky but clearly intriguing enough to me that I followed him into academia. What I do not recall is what, if anything, I understood when my parents read me Cassie’s declaration that her “Daddy is going to own [the new union] building, ‘cause I’m gonna fly over it and give it to him. Then it won’t matter that he’s not in their old union, or whether he’s colored or a half-breed Indian, like they say.” I must have recognized that Cassie and her parents did not look like me, but did I register the unfairness that Cassie felt because of the discrimination her father faced? Did I intuit her need for reparation, and the reason why?
Regardless, I remember wanting to be Cassie and to have the ability to fly above the George Washington Bridge and wear it as a necklace. The idea of sleeping on the rooftop of an apartment building on a hot summer night in the big city was as fantastic to me as dragons and fairy princesses, but unlike dragons I knew that cities were real and that one day I too could move to the big city. And I did, and for two years I lived at the foot of the George Washington Bridge—though I never lay on my own tar beach.
As I became a stronger reader and began tackling chapter books, the American Girl books introduced me to historical fiction and made me fall in love with immigrant stories and American history. At the time, there was only Felicity, Kirsten, Ada, Samantha, and Molly, and I read and loved all of their stories. Molly, whose story was set on the home front during WWII, was my favorite. I eventually became a historian of post-1945 America.
When I moved on to more substantive historical stories, one of my favorites was Joan Lowery Nixon’s Land of Hope—which I just reread. It tells the story of Rebekah Levinsky, who we meet in 1902 as her family is in the woods at the border between Russia and Austria, attempting to sneak across en route to the port of Hamburg. As pogroms crept steadily towards their shtetl, her father decided that his family should join his brother Avram in New York City. Rebekah, at age 15, is brokenhearted to leave the life she knew—but that changes when, onboard the steamship to New York, she finds two spunky girlfriends who help her imagine the life she can have in America. The proto-feminists Kristen Swensen from Sweden and Rose Carney from Ireland encourage Rebekah to pursue her dream to get an education and become a teacher, despite that her parents have prioritized the education of her brothers and need Rebekah to work to support the family. As her family passes through the inspection at Ellis Island, their carefully-laid plans begin to go awry; with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the generous but pragmatic Avram, they begin to adapt to life on the Lower East Side.
The first time I read the book, I remember that I finished the final chapter, sprung out of the teal pleather beanbag chair I was sitting in, and ran to ask my mother when Grandma came over on a boat from Europe. I was crushed to learn that Grandma was born in the Bronx (as was her mother). This most recent re-reading, I had a more pleasant historical realization—the book is remarkably accurate on the facts of European immigration, down to the detail that inspectors at Ellis Island only denied entry to around 2% of migrants. And I say this having taught U.S. Immigration history last semester.
Land of Hope provided a backstory and context for another fictional Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family. I learned the terrain of New York City from Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie. The adventures of the five sisters took them from the local and familiar—school, their Poppa’s junk shop, the candy shop, and the public library—to the faraway and foreign, such as when they rode the train out to Coney Island on a hot summer day, and when eventually the family moved to a nicer apartment in the Bronx. I’m constantly reminded of tiny details from Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books. I can’t go into a candy store without thinking how marvelous it would be if you could buy four candies for a penny. Drinking black tea reminds me of when Henny spilled some on her sister’s white dress, so she dyed the dress in a bathtub filled with tea to match the stain. And when I dust the house I wish that someone had hidden buttons and pennies for me to find. These are the details that captivated me as a girl, that made me fall in love with this family and their lives, and that piqued my curiosity about their particular time and place. Years later, despite coming to graduate school to study something entirely different, I wrote a dissertation about Jews in New York.
I’ve gone through every bookshelf in my parent’s home and cannot find the last novel that made me fall in love with city life: Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game. Set in the 1960s in what I presume to be Berkeley, though it’s only named as “a large college town in California,” The Egypt Game follows April and Melanie and Marshall and Elizabeth as they build a shrine to Nefertiti in the overgrown yard behind a neighborhood curiosity shop. The devotion of this multiracial group of friends to the study and celebration of ancient Egypt spurred them to search throughout their neighborhood for objects to decorate the shrine and items needed to perform rituals. Their urban neighborhood was one of limitless opportunity, so long as you had imagination and elbow grease. And it’s this possibility and creativity that remains what I most love about cities today.
And some additional recommendations, for those in search of great books to read or gift to kids. This list comes from Kevin Seal, a 4th Grade teacher, native New Yorker, and–in the interest of full disclosure–my husband. These are listed in reverse chronological order.
Set in New York City (get used to that), this middle-grade novel follows blues-loving Clayton in the aftermath of a family tragedy. Seasoned New York subway riders will connect with Clayton’s underground journey. It’s showtime!
Defying the notion that community doesn’t exist in urban areas, this modern throwback follows the Vanderbeeker family in New York City’s Harlem. The Vanderbeekers, beloved members of their neighborhood and all-around lovely family, find out that their landlord will not renew their lease, and turn to community ties, activism, and old-fashioned acts of kindness to turn the tide.
Rita Williams-Garcia’s second entry on this list, One Crazy Summer is the story of three sisters moving from New York City to Oakland, California in 1968 to live with their estranged mother. The sisters discover mysterious depths to this seemingly heartless matriarch, and soon find themselves enrolled in and energized by a Black Panther day camp.
Set in Manhattan, this first-person narration features a unique mix of urban, cynical savvy and magical revelations. For a slightly older crowd than previous entries, this book demands to be re-read to fully appreciate what on earth just happened. Stead’s Liar & Spy could just as easily be on this list as well.
This novel is wonderfully confined in place and time: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s working class, immigrant-filled Strip District during the Great Depression. Main character Mike Costa balances working for the family business and dodging bullies with solving a mystery to save his failing grandfather. A great way to learn about an underappreciated neighborhood.
Set in Brooklyn, this novel examines the relationship between 13-year-old protagonist Melanin Sun and his single mother. Their bond is imperiled when the latter reveals that she is gay and dating a white woman. Tackling issues of race, sexuality, and masculinity, Woodson pulls no punches in showing Melanin’s once-simple world spiraling out of control towards a promising but uneasy conclusion. Woodson’s novel in verse Locomotion could also be on this list.
An immigrant story of struggles and triumphs, Lord sets Chinese protagonist Shirley in Brooklyn at the same time that Brooklyn Dodger and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. No real appreciation or knowledge of baseball is required for this one, but it does help a bit to round out the context. May inspire curious minds to learn more about Jackie Robinson or professional sports’ role in America’s racial history.
And finally, some crowd-sourced recommendations from UHA members, #twitterstorians, and enthusiastic readers.
I first read The House on Mango Street at Curtis High School in suburban western Washington. I loved how the book captured the energy of the city and the importance of taking in every detail. I was most excited by the fact that it centered how young women moved through the world. My favorite chapter, “Hips” starts out, “One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?” At a time when I thought my body was in revolt, that passage made me feel powerful. I can see now that The House on Mango Street was a book that made me appreciate that you can love where you came from and still leave.
I remember being totally blown away with details about how people moved in cities – walking to church, walking to stores, subways and taxis. I lived in the suburbs and I couldn’t imagine carrying a Christmas tree down the block, for example.
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In the late 1970s, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was one of the most rapidly growing cities in the world. Each year, thousands of young men and women left their rural homes and made their way to the city, expanding the squatter settlements and the ranks of the city’s youth population. The global economic recession of the 1970s, followed a decade later by structural adjustment policies and the gradual collapse of Tanzania’s socialist experiment, led to great hardship for most urban residents. Public buses ground to halt for lack of petrol, and Dar es Salaam residents queued for hours outside government cooperative stores to access basic necessities, such as soap, tea, flour and rice, only to find that the shelves were often empty. More gallingly, despite an official public rhetoric of egalitarianism, the city was a place of visibly dramatic inequalities, where the corrupt could prosper and those who followed the rules often found themselves living in dire poverty. Yet in this context of scarcity, at least one thing could be found in abundance: love stories.
Swahili romance novels proliferated in Dar es Salaam in the late 1970s. Every year, tens of thousands of novellas were produced and sold in the city’s informal economy. They were printed on thin, cheap paper, and had titillating cover artwork depicting voluptuous women, kung-fu fighters, guns, suitcases of cash, and motorcycles. The books circulated from person to person, traded along social networks of readers until they eventually began to fall apart from wear and tear. The back covers of the novellas helped amplify the reputation of the writer by displaying his picture and bio, alongside several blurbs of bombastic praise from other young writers. The authors were young migrant men from rural areas, newly arrived in Dar es Salaam, and they circulated throughout the city on foot, selling their books out of briefcases or displaying them at newspaper stands or religious bookshops. These romance stories offer up a kind of unintended archive of the emotional lives of Dar es Salaam’s young men in the mid-1970s through 1980s, the final decade of Tanzania’s socialist experiment.
The romance novellas are formulaic and share similar casts of characters. They feature young, handsome and athletic male protagonists, fashioned after international celebrities including Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali and Bob Marley. The heroes are well-versed in global black popular culture and radical political thought, and can quote James Brown songs and Julius Nyerere’s writings with equal ease, yet at the same time, they are rooted in the contemporary material realities of Dar es Salaam. Physically, they are lean from hunger and fit from playing soccer and practicing kung fu. They are often broke. Crammed into shabby apartments with their mates, the protagonists of these novellas nonetheless piece together their outfits from second hand clothes, tailored to the latest fashions on the sewing machines of street tailors. Their elegance in the face of scarcity attests to their taste and street-smarts. They are virtuous, cosmopolitan and frugal. And they are always in love.
A beautiful “girl” is always part of the story. Sometimes she is virtuous and pure, and sometimes conniving and greedy. In these male-authored romance novellas of 1970s Dar es Salaam—and despite the many Tanzanian women writers at the time, the authors of this particular popular genre were men—she is never complex, never has an inner life of her own. The story is not about her; rather her depiction furthers a story that is about young men. Attached to the girl are her conservative parents, who antagonize their daughters’ suitors and stand in the way of love. Take, for example, Juma Mkabarah’s Kizimbani (On the Witness Stand), in which the young Rosa is found dead in the bed of her boyfriend, Joseph Gapa. Rosa’s father comes after Joseph with a machete, publically berates him for stealing Rosa away from his household, calls him a hooligan, and accuses him of killing her. But in a dramatic final courtroom scene, a letter from the departed Rosa is presented in which she reveals that she killed herself out of despair when her parents refused to allow her to marry the boy she loved. Joseph Gapa is exonerated and carried out of the courtroom on the shoulders of a cheering crowd, a hero.
The great obsession of many of these romance writers was the figure of the sugar daddy. In Kassim Kassam’s Shuga Dedi, the titular character is Fabian Mwaluso, owner of a factory and seducer of the young and beautiful Fatuma: a schoolgirl from a poor family. Fabian is overweight and arrogant, and he seduces Fatuma with a meal of chicken and chips, rides to school in his Mercedes Benz and nights out dancing. In Kajubi’s Kitanda Cha Mauti (Bed of Death) it is Fadhil Magoma, a schoolteacher who sleeps with schoolgirls and impregnates at least one student: the protagonist Diana Kiboko. In the end, Diana kills him, herself and their child. In Mkufya’s The Wicked Walk, Magege is a manager in a factory, drives a Mercedes Benz, and ruthlessly exploits his employees. Outside the workplace, he seduces the young Anna away from her hip and politically righteous boyfriend, the protagonist Deo: a tall, thin, handsome man in bellbottoms and platform shoes, and a fan of Bruce Lee films. In contrast with the young male lovers like Deo, the sugar daddies are fat and old. They are wealthy and can wear expensive imported clothes, but they have no style. They drive around Dar es Salaam’s dilapidated roads in expensive imported cars while young men walk on foot or wait in lines for public buses that may never arrive. They leave their wives and children at home and steal young girls from their rightful partners—young men—by plying them with rides in cars, dinners of chicken and chips, and access to the city’s bars and nightclubs, with bottled alcohol and dinner and dancing. The relationships are always ruinous for the “girls,” who end up dying through botched abortions or suicides, or else destitute and shunned by their communities.
As an urban archive, these novellas take us into the intense generational tensions that structured experiences of the city. The young male migrants who came to the city in the 1970s had been to secondary school in the more optimistic years of decolonization, and as citizens of a newly independent nation, had expected to become a new generation of literate, salaried men supporting families in the city. Yet the economic decline of the second half of the seventies laid waste to those ambitions, and they encountered a city starkly different than the one they had envisioned, with skyrocketing unemployment rates and rapidly declining real wages. Marriage was increasingly out of reach as the cost of bridewealth—gifts offered from the family of the husband to family of the wife to solidify the bond between them—was increasingly high, making it impossible for many young couples to form socially recognized families. Forms of adulthood that had been available to their parents and grandparents’ generations, attained through land cultivation and marriage, were increasingly out of reach. In these circumstances, young men in the city found themselves stalled, unable to find public recognition as an adult. In these novellas about love, writers gave voice and pathos to their generation, placing blame at the feet of older generations, and creating a counter-narrative to the more dominant public narrative of degenerate urban youth.
The Swahili romance novellas of 1970s Dar es Salaam were whimsical, raucously imaginative, cheeky and sometimes absurdly far-fetched. They were also dead serious. They lured the reader in with fabulous cover images, bombastic prose and suspenseful plots, and grounded the reader in the emotional contours of urban life as experienced by young African men. At a time when the young and unemployed in cities were blamed for Tanzania’s ills, the writers of romance novellas wrote a new moral script of the city, recasting young transient men in the city as virtuous, emotionally authentic and heroic. The Swahili romance novel made room in the collective imagination for a new kind of urban resident.
Recently, UHA member, historian and social media personality extraordinaire Kevin Kruse tweeted out a thread of advice on writing in which the Princeton professor noted that historians, young and old alike, would do well to read outside of the field. Though the thread covered a great deal of territory, Kruse emphasized the need for historians to engage works of fiction as a means to improve their writing and that of the larger discipline.
1. READ AS MUCH AS YOU CAN
The best way to improve your own writing is to read as much as you can from other authors. Not just the great books, either. You can pick up good habits in reaction to bad writing, too.
While much of Kruse’s advice focused on style, pacing, and plot, one might add that works of fiction can provide emotional and contextual insights regarding various historical subjects, eras, geographies, and cities that sometimes elude traditional history.
Taking Professor Kruse’s advice, The Metropole sat down with a classic but arguably under-read work from the 1940s: Chester Hime’s If He Hollers Let Him Go. An admittedly imperfect novel, in If He Hollers Himes captures the existential tension of World War II-era Los Angeles for its black population while delving unflinchingly into the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. A contemporary of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Himes remains less familiar to the larger public than his two aforementioned peers. Though during his Los Angeles sojourn he only wrote two novels and several essays and short stories, Himes made an indelible mark. Literary critic John N. Swift places him in the company of Joan Didion, Nathaniel West, and Thomas Pychon as one of the “city’s great mythographers.”
Himes offers a dark vision of American racial relations in If He Hollers while also charging headlong into the fraught dynamics of interracial sexuality—all under a sun-drenched Southern California sky that casts brighter light on Black Los Angeles.
In his 1971 autobiography, Himes wrote that despite the city’s welcoming climate and racial and ethnic diversity, Los Angeles had harmed him: “Los Angeles hurt me racially as any city I have ever known – much more than any city in the South … The difference was that the white people of Los Angeles seemed to be saying, ‘Nigger ain’t we good to you?’” The protagonist of If He Hollers Let Him Go, Bob Jones, encapsulates the contradictions and tragedies of mid-century Los Angeles but also the nation’s grim history of sexual violence, or, perhaps more accurately in this discussion, violence related to sexuality. Jones shares Himes’ grim view of the city. “’Just between you and me,’” he confides to another character, “Los Angeles is the most overrated, lousiest, countriest, phoniest city I’ve ever been in.”
During World War II Los Angeles drew 70,000 African Americans to the metropolis, growing from a population of 63,774 in 1940 to 133,082 in 1947. “Most new arrivals found atrocious housing and poor jobs,” points out historian Daniel Widener. Many came for work in the war industry, including Jones, who had also migrated from the Midwest.
Though multicultural for decades, the city placed definite boundaries on its populations: Jews, Mexicans, Asians, African Americans and non- white immigrants (sometimes even European ones in certain cases) were relegated to specific neighborhoods. “Housing restrictions consigned nonwhites to less than a tenth of available housing stock, and the homes of recently interned Japanese and Japanese Americans often constituted the only residences open to African Americans,” writes Widener. While whites might visit minority neighborhoods, blacks and others found themselves less welcome in white communities.
Racism in Los Angeles depended more on custom than law. As evidenced by internment, the Zoot Suit Riots in the 1940s, and bombings and house burnings that occurred in some L.A. neighborhoods during the 1950s and 1960s, violence did occur. In comparison to the South or even Midwestern cities like Chicago, however, racism in the city of Angels was shrouded by a false veneer of respectability.
Economic segregation proved especially pervasive—so much so that in 1941 Los Angeles hosted the first hearings of the Fair Employment Act Commission to be held outside of the nation’s capital. However, due in part to the bonanza of military spending that cascaded over the state as a result of the war, federal scrutiny of employment discrimination increased. By 1945, one estimate suggested that 85 percent of the city’s black laborers worked in connection to the manufacture of military equipment.
Though the war had raged for two years before the U.S. entered following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Himes’ protagonist initially thinks little of the growing international conflict. “I’d never given a damn, one way or the other about the war excepting wanting to keep out of it; and at first when I wanted the Japanese to win,” Jones narrates. However, wartime employment provides opportunity and even briefly reshapes Jones’ conception of his place in America. “I was stirred as I had been when I was a little boy watching a parade watching the flag go by. That filled up feeling of my country. I felt included in it all. I had never felt included before. It was a wonderful feeling.”
Unfortunately, such emotions proved transitory. Jones had arrived in L.A with the mindset that while the color of his skin might be an obstacle, it was not wholly limiting. “Race was a handicap, sure, I’d reasoned. But hell, I didn’t have to marry it. I went where I wanted and felt good about it,” he tells the reader. For a moment or two, such beliefs even rang true. Jones ascends to the rank of Leaderman, a working class middle management position at an L.A. Navy Yard devoted to wartime production. He dates Alice, a social worker and the daughter of prominent Black Los Angeles elite. Things appear to be on the rise.
Events, unfortunately, conspire to disabuse Jones of such ideas. His optimism sours as Japanese internment unfolds, thereby wiping away any feeling of belonging: “It was taking a man up by the roots and locking him up without a chance. Without a trial. Without a charge. Without even giving him a chance to say one word.” Jones understood the same fate could befall him. “And since I’d begun earning enough money to live my own life, I hadn’t felt my life belonged to me. Any moment the white folks might ask me to check it in.”
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had unleashed something in L.A’s white population. “It was the look in the white people’s faces when I walk down the streets,” he notes. “It was that crazy wide-eyed, unleashed hatred … All that tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the street as gas fumes.” Throughout, Jones expresses unease at whites’ ability to demonize the other. “I was the same colour as the Japanese and I couldn’t tell the difference. ‘A yeller-bellied Jap’ coulda meant me too.” Himes’ awareness of this particular inequality may have been heightened by the fact he wrote the novel while living in a Boyle Heights home that had been abandoned by an interned Japanese American family.
As in any good L.A. novel, cars play a critical role. Jones drives a 1942 Buick Roadmaster; it “gives Bob the illusion of freedom and equality as he challenges even white drivers to race him on Los Angles streets” knowing that even the toniest resident of Beverly Hills could not get a Roadmaster amidst wartime rationing. Yet it also brands him “an arrogant, uppity Negro” argues literature professor Charles Scruggs.
Indeed, though it provides his mode of transportation throughout the novel, it hardly sets him free: “It was a bright June morning. The sun was already high. If I’d been a white boy I might have enjoyed the scramble in the early morning sun, the tight competition for a twenty-foot lead on a thirty mile highway. But to me it was racial.” Even the scenic “snowcapped mountains” fail to win his attention. “I didn’t even see them; all I wanted in the world was to push my Buick Roadmaster over some peckerwood’s face.” Revenge fantasies rather than escapism dominates his thoughts, notes Scruggs. Doom hangs over Jones, observes novelist, literary critic, and Himes expert Robert Skinner. His “relentless travel” throughout the novel “serves only to bring [Jones] closer” to his tragic end.
Between revenge fantasies, employment discrimination at the Navy Yard and housing segregation, Jones vibrates knowing the all-encompassing nature of American racism. Minorities stood subject to the racial law of L.A. Sure, Japanese Americans experienced the most blatant form of internment, but as Lynn M. Itagaki points out, in Los Angeles racial groups of all kinds were interned in some fashion: “the Japanese Americans in desert prisons, the African Americans in neighborhoods constrained by residential ordinances and segregation.”
The fate of Japanese American Angelenos struck an admitted fear into Jones that pervades much of the novel and drives him to act out in ways indicative of an individual living under a kafkaesque racial regime. “Do you ever wake up scared?” he asks his roommate and occasional paramour Ella Mae one morning.
When a white co-worker knocks Jones unconscious and robs him of his gambling winnings, Jones stalks and nearly kills the man. A desire to turn the tables on his antagonist and escape his feelings of confinement motivates his actions: “I wanted him to feel as scared and powerless and unprotected as I felt every goddamned morning I woke up.“ The idea of striking back mattered as much as the act itself. “As long as I knew I was going to kill him, nothing could bother me … they couldn’t hurt me no matter what they did. I had a peckerwood’s life in the palm of my hand and that made all the difference.”
Nonetheless Los Angeles’s structural racism, even amidst wartime emergencies, does damage Jones—be it in his troubled relationship with his girlfriend/fiancé, the distinctly upper middle class Alice, or in his interactions with his white co-workers at the Navy Yard. The former encourages accommodation while the latter reveals that the Midwestern and Southern whites that migrated to L.A. brought with them the racial beliefs that governed their hometowns. Even before penning If He Hollers, Himes acknowledged this reality in a 1943 article for The Crisis, concluding “the outcome is simply that the South has won Los Angeles.”
Himes was not without his own overdriven masculinity. Many of his characters, including Jones, drew upon noir traditions of the “unapologetic and testosterone driven” male. “Turned on by their own bravado, they claimed entitlement and viewed sex as a struggle for power – the only form of intimacy that engaged them,” wrote the New Yorker’s Hilton Als in 2002. Himes admitted as much. He treated his wife Jean Johnson in “the most casual of manner; sometimes I would leave her standing on a corner waiting for me for hours on end.” Moving to New York in 1944, he confessed to a philandering lifestyle that had wronged his wife, writing “I lost myself in sex and drunkenness … And I almost lost my wife too … and when I came to” If He Hollers had been published to general acclaim.
The black female characters in If He Hollers reflect this sort of ambivalence. Alice, his girlfriend and fiancé, is depicted as a middle-class accomodationist more interested in fading ideas of the “talented tenth” than general racial uplift or protest. “I’m ambitious and demanding. I want to be important in the world. I want a husband who is important and respected and wealthy enough so that I can avoid a major part of discriminatory practices which I am sensible enough to know I can’t change,” she tells Jones during one of their many arguments. “I don’t want to be pulled down by a person who can’t adjust himself to the limitations of his race.” Jones does not stick to only one woman; with Ella Mae’s husband off at war, she and Jones sometimes sleep together and he pursues Madge while dating Alice.
To be fair, the noir genre has long been riddled with misogyny apart from racism. As a result, recent work like the 2014 film “Man from Reno,” which features a Japanese female protagonist in the usual role of the hardboiled male detective, easily distinguishes itself as a result of breaking with genre traditions. Whatever his problematic stances on race and gender, in terms of sexuality, Himes writes squarely within this noir structure.
Still, with such caveats noted, Himes understood the deadly intersection of race and sexuality for minorities. In the aforementioned 1943 essay on the Zoot Riots, he argues that one of the precipitating factors of the violence hinged on white men’s perception that Mexican Americans had been harassing “their women.” Himes refuted the idea that black and Latino men pined for white women. “Mexicans do not desire” white women; “They do not even look at them.” Black men he argued will “crack at anyone of any race who is nice looking … But they will never go as far as white men toward a Negro woman in a white district.” Himes wades into a very problematic and patriarchal view of sexuality, but it’s one that, whatever we think of it today, defined sexual and racial relations at mid-century.
When involving white women, interracial sex led to violence or at the very least, the distinct threat of it. Americans “are strictly a gang minded people,” Himes argued, “we lynch Negroes, rob banks, kidnap babies, extort merchants, beat strikers, etc.” Jones himself is both titillated and horrified when his antagonistic co-worker, the relocated Texan Madge, tells him sex with her would “get him lynched” in her home state.
Himes depicts a white Los Angeles obsessed with interracial encounters; its black counterpart less so. When two white soldiers walk into a black bar with a young white woman interested in the male patrons, the tension builds. Though the two soldiers, apparently tired of her behavior, attempt to leave the girl behind, the black manager immediately intervenes “She came in with you, she’s got to go out with you,” he tells them. Jones conveys the dangers succinctly, “She could take those two black chumps flirting with her outside and get them thirty years a piece in San Quentin; in Alabama she could get them hung.”
Despite his own knowledge of these dangers, Jones pursues his white female co-worker, Madge. A recent arrival from Texas, Madge carries with her the kind of racist thoughts common to white Americans of the day. She refuses to take orders from Jones, freely throws racial epitaphs in his direction, and more or less gets him demoted.
Yet like Jones, she seems excited, arguably for different reasons, at the prospect of interracial sex. Even after his demotion, Jones pursues her. Madge proves a willing participant, though she throws around the word rape to remind Jones, and perhaps herself, the taboo nature of their potential coupling. Jones eventually decides against it, yet even his contemplation of sex with her proves worthy of punishment under the racial logic of Los Angeles. His decision to pursue Madge puts into motion a series of events that don’t quite end tragically but also do not result in anything remotely triumphant. “She pretends to be terrified of him, and he wants nothing to do with her, but as in a nightmare he lives out Freud’s repetition-compulsion cycle,” observes Scruggs.
To their credit historians like Josh Sides and Daniel Widener have acknowledged Himes’s contributions to L.A. culture and history. Sides describes his L.A. works, If He Hollers and The Lonely Crusade, as “searing indictments of racism, unemployment, and the emasculation of African American men in the 1940s.” Widener notes Himes’ “incisive and dystopian” outlook, and the two books as “exemplary examples of California noir, as pioneering examples of interethnic, cross-racial politics linking disaffected black, Asian American, and ethnic Mexican communities and as a challenging … effort to write seriously about the problematic boundary between race, sex, and violence in Jim Crow America.” Reading fiction serves many purposes, as Kevin Kruse aptly detailed in his tweet thread, but one of the more enjoyable and insightful is when it tells us a story about history with pathos, tragedy and emotion. Whatever his flaws, Chester Himes captured the despair and hurt of mid-century Black Los Angeles.
 Charles Scruggs, “Los Angeles and the African American Literary Imagination”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin McNamara, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 77.
 Robert E. Skinner, “Streets of Fear: The Los Angeles Novels of Chester Himes” in … 229.
 Lynn M. Itagaki, “Transgressing Race and Community in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, African American Review, Vol. 37 No. 1: 68.
 Charles Scruggs, “Los Angeles and the African American Literary Imagination”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin McNamara, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 76.
 Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, University of California Press, 2006, 54-55; Widener, Black Arts West, 30.
In 1806, the city of Baku was a sleepy port town of about 3,000-5,000 Turkic and Persian Muslims, governed by a local Khan who swore fealty to the Qajar state. Compared to the cities of Shamakha to the north and Shusha to the west, it was a relative cultural and political backwater, notable only as home to one of the few ports on the western coast of the Caspian Sea. That year Baku’s status would begin to change, however, as the Russian Empire continued its bid to conquer the South Caucasus by laying siege to Baku. The local leader, Huseyn Qoli Khan, responded by assassinating the Russian General Pavel Tsitsianov under the pretense of meeting to surrender. That brief victory met with swift reprisal, however, and Baku fell to the Russians four months later. With the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 and the Treaty of Turkmanchay in 1828, Baku and the other surrounding Khanates comprising the modern-day territories of Azerbaijan and Armenia came under Russian rule.
Now part of a vast multiethnic empire, the once homogenous city of Baku began to change. In the 1860s, Baku became the new capital of the governorate, leading to the population more than doubling to 13,000. Within a decade of Baku’s promotion to regional capital, the rich reserves of oil in the area, where oil literally seeped out of the ground and formed pools on the surface, suddenly became attractive to more than just local traders who scooped it from shallow wells and sold it as lubricant and ointment. Baku’s oil boom, which birthed the world’s first major petroleum industry, emerged in the 1870’s and continued apace until World War I. Diverse populations streamed into the city to seek their fortunes in oil. By 1897, when Russia conducted its first empire-wide census, the population of Baku was 111,904. By 1913 it had nearly doubled again, to 214,672. The formerly homogenous city of Turks and Persians had transformed into a cosmopolitan boomtown with a population of Russians, Azeris, Iranians (most of whom were also ethnic Azeris), Armenians, and smaller populations of Germans, Jews, and Georgians. Russians replaced Azeris as the largest group in the city, comprising 38 percent of the population, compared to the latter’s 33 percent. With the addition of a large Armenian population, Baku went from a majority-Muslim city to majority-Christian.
Such a massive population growth hardly occurred in an orderly fashion, and the majority of the population increase came from the arrival of unskilled workers from throughout the Caucasus and Iran. The role of labor migration in increasing the city’s population gave it a dramatically uneven gender ratio, and in 1913 Baku’s population was 55-60 percent male. Baku was a place where some men went to become millionaires, but many more were answering the rising demand for cheap labor and toiled in abject poverty. With a large population of single young men, a dramatically uneven distribution of wealth, and a new cosmopolitanism that stoked simmering ethnic tension, Baku was a dynamic city where violence constantly threatened to surface. In newspapers of the era, reviews of opera performances were published side-by-side with crime reports of bodies found in allies, stories of daring prison breaks by Bolshevik agitators, and descriptions of robberies by armed bandits. As historian Audrey Altstadt puts it, “It was as if the industry of Pittsburgh and the frontier lawlessness of Dodge City had been superimposed on Baghdad.”
Arriving in this chaotic city of opportunity in 1906, a young schoolteacher, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, sought his fortune. Hailing from a noble family from Shusha, Hajibeyov had grown up immersed in classical Azeri and Persian music and poetry. A graduate of the Gori Pedagogical Seminary, where he learned to play the violin, he was a member of a small but growing class of secularly educated young men who moved to Baku and began clamoring for social and cultural reform. The men extolled the values of the “progressive path,” a route of social and cultural progress along European lines that would uplift Muslim populations. Following the Russian Revolution of 1905, laws monitoring the press and associational life loosened, and they began organizing into voluntary associations, founding schools, publishing Azeri-language periodicals, and staging plays. Hajibeyov quickly became an integral figure in this community of reformists, sealing his place as one of their greatest artists at the age of twenty-three when he composed and staged the first opera ever produced in a Muslim culture, Leyli and Majnun, in 1908. Following the success of his debut, Hajibeyov went on to almost singlehandedly create Azeri opera culture. He wrote eight more operas and operettas that were staged regularly throughout the imperial and Soviet eras.
Like his contemporary playwrights, Hajibeyov tended to set his works either in the epic past or in generalized provincial settings. Although Azeri theater of the era was primarily both written and staged in Baku, urban life was rarely depicted. The exception to this trend is Hajibeyov’s four act comic operetta If Not That One, Then This One, written in 1910. This piece, one of Hajibeyov’s most popular, grappled with the social challenges and violence presented by urbanization through a combination of biting satire and catchy tunes. The operetta tells the tale of two young lovers, Sarvar and Gulnaz, whose desire to form a love match is threatened by Gulnaz’s father, who hopes to settle his gambling debts by selling her into marriage to a rich and much older bazaar merchant named Meshedi Ibad. The father, Rustam bey, is joined by four friends in celebrating the coming nuptials, who each represent a caricatured version of typical figures encountered in Baku society. As the mutually beneficial deal between Rustam bey and Meshedi Ibad begins to derail, these men manipulate the hapless merchant into giving them increasingly more money for services never rendered. Finally, the young lovers trick him into agreeing to marry the maid instead. Meshedi Ibad reasons, with women, “if not that one, then this one,” and everyone gets what they want in the end.
The plot hinges on Meshedi Ibad, a character that would become the great comic role of Baku theater. He and Rustam bey, a nobleman drowning in debt and uninterested in his daughter beyond her use in a financial transaction, represent the old elites of Azeri society whom Hajibeyov and his contemporaries saw as holding back progress. Rustam bey’s urbanite friends, however, are held up for even more scorn than the lord and the merchant, who are presented as pitiable relics trying to stay afloat as they confront a modernizing society. Indeed, Meshedi Ibad argues to Gulnaz that his age is a benefit, noting “I swear by you both, the existing world has changed so much that today’s elders are thousands of times better than the young ones.”
After Rustam bey and Meshsedi Ibad agree to a bride price of 1,500 rubles for Gulnaz, Rustam bey’s friends arrive at his home to celebrate, singing about the coming nuptials, and overwhelming Meshedi Ibad with their self-importance. Hasanqulu bey, a self-declared nationalist, ruminates on the immorality of society, though his actions reveal him to be utterly self-interested rather than a servant of the people. He is followed by Asgar, a qochu, a particular brand of Baku criminal who hailed from a tradition of tribal chieftains but was functionally a bandit. Asgar recalls once trying to shoot Meshedi Ibad down in the street when he mistook him for an enemy, declaring himself glad he had not killed him, a humorous reference to the very serious violence that plagued the streets of Baku. Rza bey, a journalist, then asks permission to give a toast, but employs so much Ottoman vocabulary and grammar in his speech that his Azeri peers do not understand him and do not answer. Offended, he threatens to use his paper to attack them all the next day. Only then do the other men admit they hadn’t understood a word he had said. The guests are not to be spared a perplexing toast, however; Hasan bey, a self-styled intellectual, follows Rza bey with a barely comprehensible speech in a garbled mixture of Russian and Azeri, with the occasional French word thrown in for good measure. Beyond his modest grasp of Russian and French, however, Hasan bey reveals himself to be less of an intellectual than a drunken windbag.
Meshedi Ibad discovers Gulnaz’s desire to marry Sarvar the next day when he peaks over her garden wall, using a poor porter as a human stepping stool, and and spies the lovers rendezvousing. Meshedi Ibad rages at Sarvar, who cheerfully mocks him, as the porter, representative of the unskilled laborers populating Baku who have become so abased that they will agree to literally let rich men step on them for a pittance, protests that his back is breaking. Meshedi Ibad proceeds to approach each of Rustam bey’s friends with his dilemma, and they gleefully take his money with promises to solve his problem. Asgar tries to attack Sarvar with his gang, but the sight of the police scatters them immediately, an episode that celebrates the potential for urban order through policing. With violence no longer an option, Meshedi Ibad turns to Rza bey, who promises to defame Rustam bey in his newspaper, and Hasanqulu bey, who offers no real solution but still demands Meshedi Ibad give him money so that he can work on the problem. The porter, meanwhile, tags along begging for a second coin to make up for the pain inflicted on him, which Meshedi Ibad refuses to pay, despite handing out hundreds of rubles to the other men.
The critiques Hajibeyov directs to the nationalist, the journalist, and the intellectual, echo those written by the most powerful satirical voice of the era, that of Jalil Mammadguluzade. Mammadguluzade was the editor of Molla Nasreddin, an illustrated literary journal that spared no sector of Azeri society its sharp pen. Hajibeyov and Mammadguluzade were frequent collaborators, and shared similar sentiments on the failure of many supposedly progressive men to actually contribute meaningfully to progress. Journalists engaged in petty feuds in the pages of their journals, and accepted payment for character assassinations. “Intellectuals” mimicked European speech without really understanding what they were saying, and nationalists used the title in entirely self-serving manners. If Not That One, Then This One demanded better of Baku’s new urban society.
The operetta did not disappear following Sovietization; indeed, Hajibeyov was a leading cultural figure of Soviet Azerbaijan until his death in 1948. In 1956, it was turned into a popular film by the director Huseyn Seyidzadeh. The film remains mostly faithful to the source material, but Seyidzade inserts the real historical figures of Mammadguluzade, the artist Azim Azimzadeh, and the satirical poet Mirza Alakbar Sabir, to offer an idealistic counterpoint to the corrupted older men of the operetta. Recognizable cultural artifacts of the era pepper the film; poles are decorated with posters advertising other Hajibeyov operas such as Leyli and Majnun, Azim Azimzadeh shows the students a caricature he drew for Molla Nasreddin, and Mirza Alakbar Sabir recites one of his famous poems for Sarvar, who then recites it to Gulnaz. In 1956, the urgency of Hajibeyov’s social satire is less immediate. The characters of Rustam bey’s friends are played for humor, while the insertion of celebrated historical figures conveys a nostalgia for late imperial Baku that still exists to this day in Azerbaijan. The period is considered one of Azeri cultural renaissance, and the writers, actors, and intellectuals that came out of it continue to shape Azeri culture today. Street names, parks, institutions, and monuments throughout Baku commemorate these years, including quite a few dedicated to Hajibeyov. The corruption, violence, and hypocrisy of the past lies largely forgotten, while its melodies, words, and imagery continue to animate Azerbaijan’s national memory.
Kelsey Rice is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania whose research is located at the intersection of Middle Eastern and Central Eurasian history. She is currently completing her dissertation, Forging the Progressive Path: Literary Assemblies and Enlightenment Societies in Azerbaijan, 1850-1928, which she will defend in April.
 Audrey Altstatd. “Baku: Transformation of a Muslim Town” in Hamm, Michael F., The City in Late Imperial Russia. Arts and Politics of the Every, 1986.
The best spot for ectoplasmic people-watching in South Shore is the raised wooden platform of the Bryn Mawr Metra station at 71st and Jeffery. This is the old Illinois Central station that formed the principal bud from which this neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago grew in the late nineteenth century, supplanting the Potawatomi camps and chipping stations that had previously dotted the lakeside landscape of sloughs and prairie. From the platform you can catch glimpses of the converging ghosts, and the lost cities they represent, that move among the current-day hangers-out on the corners, commuters waiting for buses or trains, and local residents running errands at the neighborhood’s principal intersection.
After the Potawatomi in South Shore’s parade of historical ghosts come the German truck farmers who settled the area beginning in the 1850s. Ferdinand Rohn drives the ox team with which he made the day-long round-trip to the hamlet of Chicago seven miles away, Christian Seip works his 25 acres on the southwest corner, and Charles and William Seigler leave their father’s farm to become policemen. Bessie Goodwin, Mrs. Downs, and Jessie Mann come and go from the German Settlement School on the southeast corner, where they taught local children on weekdays; Messrs. Wunderlich, Urlich, and Keller taught there on Sundays. Travelers to and from Chicago on the Michigan City stage, drawn by two Arabian horses, climb aboard after stopping at Goldhart’s Tavern, just southeast of the intersection, where the church of St. Philip Neri is now. Then, from the era when the city of Chicago expanded southward to engulf satellite communities like South Shore, come the English railway workers who built the station first called South Kenwood and then Bryn Mawr; and the pioneering developer Frank Bennett, who built a tract of houses on the prairie just west of the intersection; and George Bour, whose real estate office was at one time the only business establishment anywhere along 71st.
There are more recent ghosts, too, including officers and volunteers of the South Shore Commission, the once-powerful neighborhood organization that in the 1960s initially tried to prevent African Americans from moving into the immigrant-ethnic Jewish and Irish urban villages of South Shore and then, accepting the inevitable, tried to “manage” integration. The Commission’s office was at 7134 S. Jeffery, north of the train platform. Next door at 7124, once the headquarters of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, you can see the organization’s founders, the young Buzz Palmer and Renault Robinson (both very much alive at this writing, but their youth is long gone), coming and going. The AAPL style of checkerboard-strip police hat perched atop a modest afro signals the tricky confluence of Black Power and blue solidarity that they navigated in the late 1960s and 1970s.
And then there’s the literary contingent of ghosts, populating a body of writing that exploits the storytelling possibilities opened up by the succession of neighborhood orders in South Shore. From the platform you can look down Jeffery Boulevard to catch a glimpse of Studs Lonigan, the protagonist of James T. Farrell’s trilogy of novels published in the 1930s. Studs, a prewar incarnation of the suckerpunching corner guy who lives for the approval of the pack, lives on Jeffery just south of the intersection with 71st, if I read the novels’ imagined landscape right. Offering Studs as a scrappy, doomed exemplar of the South Side Irish, Farrell bends the naturally upward-tending arc of that tribe’s immigrant story into a downward slide toward failure. Studs collapses under the combined pressure of the capitalist disaster of the Great Depression and internal contradictions that divide him against himself–especially, as the Popular Front leftist Farrell saw it, the tension that comes of aspiring to individual success and refusing to recognize the communal ties inevitably attaching him to other members of the working class. Broke, broken, and mortally sick at the end of Judgment Day, the last of the trilogy, he staggers off the train at Bryn Mawr and drags himself down the block toward his deathbed. Like so many characters in Chicago neighborhood novels, Studs, and the way of life for which he stands, has been ground up by the relentless action of business as usual in the city.
In David Mamet’s play “The Old Neighborhood,” which I saw on Broadway in 1997, the immigrant-ethnic urban village personified by Studs Lonigan is a long-lost city, its ruins overgrown with myth and lamentation. From the platform of Bryn Mawr station you can see the ghostly forms of the play’s adult characters going in and out of Mr. White’s long-gone shoe store as children. In the play, a fortyish man named Bobby returns to Chicago and visits with family and friends. Their seemingly tangential talk about the usual Mamet subjects, like who was or wasn’t a fag or why their parents hated them so much, keeps circling back to the topography and meaning of an Old Neighborhood they and all their people left behind long ago: Jewish South Shore. Mamet, born in 1947, lived there, on the 6900 block of Euclid, in its late heyday. Looking back at South Shore over a widening gap of social distance and decades, Mamet’s characters see desolation: “Oh, Bobby, it’s all gone,” says one of them. “It’s all gone there. You knew that… .” This comes after an extended discussion of the thuddingly symbolic Mr. White’s shoe store. Bobby did know that “it’s all gone there,” just as everybody in the play knows certain mock-epic routines of nostalgia and recrimination that locate the inner city in their unquiet past. Running a series of satirical riffs on laments for the urban village, expertly pouring salt in the open wound of shame and regret inherent to them, Mamet has his characters take turns declaiming from atop that headstone-cum-soapbox called The Old Neighborhood. They keep picking at the scab of an idea that deeply marks the neighborhood’s literature: that an apparently passionate commitment to neighborhood masks a deeply felt right to disconnect from any sense of collective peoplehood except as a safely distanced nostalgic curio.
The specter of disconnection isn’t unique to white-flight stories. It haunts the literature of black South Shore as well. Turn to look down 71st to the east from the Bryn Mawr platform, and here comes the essayist Gayle Pemberton, picking her way through the ruins of another lost city, the Black Metropolis. In her essay “Waiting for Godot on Jeffery Boulevard” she describes a Saturday morning walk on 71st from the lakefront to Jeffery in the early 1980s, past heaped garbage, shuttered storefronts, and menacing male idlers. Reaching Jeffery, where there are more signs of life but also more young men “with plastic bags on their heads” messing with passersby, Pemberton enters a shoe repair shop. Inside, a group of middle-aged men are extolling the verities of the Book of Genesis. She wonders how they can talk so complacently about God’s creation when “just outside the door was desolation and death.” Pemberton wants the men in the shoe repair shop to “act in the face of the ironies of black American life, . . . to stop preaching to the converted and get out in the streets to do some small thing, like suggesting to young men that obsession with one’s genitals stunts one’s growth and that curls, though no doubt pleasing to their wearers, look like conked, greasy Afros to a whole lot of people—potential employers, for instance.” She makes 71st and Jeffery into ground zero of a Biblical devastation visited upon the black inner city (so, recalling Mamet, we’re back on shoes and epic desolation at 71st and Jeffery), the kind of plague that drives young men violently mad and turns old men into maundering weaklings. The essay proceeds to other matters, especially the death of her father and her mother’s near-death after being stabbed by someone who broke into her house. At the end of the essay, having returned through the annihilating landscape to her sister’s apartment on South Shore’s lakefront, Pemberton concludes that “something out there today is too much for me,” puts her head back, and cries herself to sleep.
I grew up in Pemberton’s South Shore rather than Mamet’s, and so I recognize her reaction to South Shore’s stark public spaces, which stand in such grim contrast to its trimly kept bungalow blocks, but I’m also aware that her essay makes a portrait of the neighborhood from an angle that consciously emphasizes isolation and despair. When Pemberton took her Sunday morning walk, South Shore was blessed not only with a coterie of active citizens coming off recent big wins in the exercise of collective efficacy–preventing the local bank from leaving, forcing the city to turn the defunct country club into a cultural center, shutting down a notorious tavern strip–but also with the results of one of those victories: the central presence, right at the corner of 71st and Jeffery, of the South Shore Bank, an institution famously committed to helping provide the material basis of a viable inner-city urbanism by reversing the effects of redlining. I’m not overly patient with readings that assign importance to what’s not there in a text (a critical move that usually seems like an excuse to beat up the author for the sin of not being the critic), but in this case any reader who knows that intersection will note that Pemberton walks right by the bank on the way to her encounter with desolation. Pemberton details the landscape with care in making 71st and Jeffery stand for what’s wrong with the black inner city, so it’s not trivial to leave out of this wasteland the central presence, right on that very corner, of what was by then arguably the neighborhood’s most important institution.
When I asked Pemberton during an interview about the bank’s invisibility in the landscape of “Waiting for Godot on Jeffery Boulevard,” she said it had not been the result of an oversight. “My sister worked there and she was not treated well,” she said. “The bank is a cold place, because money is cold. The bank maintains itself, whatever happens to the neighborhood.” In that sense, the South Shore Bank might have made the perfect centerpiece for her essay’s cold, class-divided South Shore. “I felt that South Shore is a neighborhood by territory, but it has no feel of a neighborhood,” she told me. “Where would you put the town green in South Shore? It’s split like a zipper by the tracks. I’ve lived in places where a street like 71st will have a set of players you recognize, but it just never felt that way to me. I never saw people. It was a place where life was lived indoors, where the curtains were heavily drawn. There was a fearfulness out of proportion with what felt scary in the street. The blinds were drawn to their own safe neighborhood.” That last image captured the essence of South Shore for her. She said, “My sense is that people don’t know their neighbors,” and perhaps they don’t want to know those neighbors, because “everybody makes different sorts of sacrifices to be there, and everybody’s reluctant to find out what the sacrifices are their neighbors made.” South Shore, she believed, was haunted by a question: “Can you go far enough? It may well have to do with having had a place to get to, and getting there, and that not being it, the reality of one’s kids still being black, no matter how nice the house you give them. I’ve felt that in every parlor I’ve sat in in South Shore, except my sister’s.” Summing up the neighborhood, she said, “It’s about holding on tenaciously to a class place,” as opposed, in her view, to a collective sense of community–which wasn’t that far from one of Farrell’s main themes in the Studs Lonigan novels. “Whatever people have in common,” she said, “they’re not willing to share.”
In Bayo Ojikutu’s novel Free Burning, it’s getting harder to hold onto that class place. Written in 2002-2004 and published in 2006 but reading like a primer on what would shortly be coming in 2008, it tells the story of a midlevel service worker who gets yanked out of his information-handling life in a downtown skyscraper and into the drug-dealing street life in South Shore. It’s “last hired, first fired” again–not only as a downtown office worker but as a member of the shrinking middle class. In a crucial scene played out at 71st and Jeffery, our hero pursues and confronts his mother, who used to work on the line in a Ford plant farther out on the South Side but has been reduced to a marginal state somewhere between barfly and bag lady. She’s on foot, he’s in a car; they come right past the Bryn Mawr station platform, eastbound along 71st, desperate in their separate but linked ways and unable to do much of anything for each other. In contrast to the Old Neighborhood narrative’s version of decline, which is really about the sorrows of making it in America, this is a story about not making it, about the fear—pervasive in South Shore these days, divided as it is between black haves and have-nots who have trouble seeing each other as neighbors across the gap left by the disappearing middle class—of being pushed back into second-class citizenship by institutional racism and pulled back to it by underclass neighbors.
The great fear expressed in stories like this, and more generally in contemporary South Shore’s version of the politics of respectability, is that the urban world made by the black middle class that expanded so promisingly in the New Deal and Great Society eras, and by the black working class that confidently believed it had a realistic shot at making it into the middle, will itself become a lost city, like the white-ethnic urban village and the Black Metropolis–or, for that matter, like the White City of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which rose and fell in Jackson Park just to the north of South Shore. This fear of falling complements the fear that white gentrification will impinge from above. Either way, whether the bungalows fall into prairie-grass-choked ruin like a chain of sacked frontier forts or get expensively renovated and fill up with white hipsters who ride fixies and keep organic chickens and cultivate an inauthentically acquired appreciation of Quiet Storm dusties, the worry is that in future people will say, “Can you believe Michelle Obama grew up in South Shore?”–just as they now express surprise when informed that Mamet, the Oracle zillionaire Larry Ellison, or the Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist James D. Watson grew up there.
All the stories upon which I’ve touched, whether they’re about the Old Neighborhood or the Black Metropolis or some other lost-city version of South Shore, imagine the meanings and consequences of the succession and persistence of urban orders, of the constant play between emergence and disappearance, rise and decline. You can see it all happen–and see how it shapes the lives and inner lives of the neighborhood’s residents–from the platform of Bryn Mawr Station, if you know how to look. And the literature of South Shore can teach you how to look.
Carlo Rotella is Director of American Studies at Boston College. His books include Playing in Time, Cut Time, Good With Their Hands, and October Cities. He contributes regularly to the New York Times Magazine, and his work has also appeared in The New Yorker and The Best American Essays. This essay is drawn from his book-in-progress about South Shore.
 James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy Comprising Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day (University of Illinois Press, 1993 [1932, 1934, 1935]. For scenes at 71st and Jeffery, see 687, 797.
 David Mamet, “The Old Neighborhood” (New York: Random House, 1999), 28.
 Gayle Pemberton, “Waiting for Godot on Jeffery Boulevard,” The Hottest Water in Chicago: On Family, Race, Time, and American Culture (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992), 176-193.
 Bayo Ojikutu, Free Burning (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006). See 303-305 for the scene at 71st and Jeffery.
The picture window in the modest suburban house in Belle Reve, New Jersey is marred by a long crack from top to bottom. Built for World War II veterans, its foundation is cracking after a dozen years and there’s no money to fix the fifteen-foot window that supposedly signaled upward mobility.
Forward another eighty years and the once hopeful community of Belle Reve has turned into the dangerous slum of Belly Rave, the setting for Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s 1955 novel Gladiator-at-Law, a story of corporate malfeasance in the socially divided society of twenty-first century America. Some of the houses are burnt out shells, others have turned into dens of vice. The house in which the Bligh family live may be the same that we’ve seen generations earlier. The roof leaks, the stairs are rotten, and the cracked window is now boarded over, with just a chink left for scoping out dangers in the front yard.
The year after Gladiator-at-Law, journalist John Keats titled his anti-suburb diatribe The Crack in the Picture Window. A signature feature of atomic age residential design, the picture window once cracked was a multiple metaphor, calling out the suburbs for failing as physical places and for betraying expectations as harmonious communities.
Pohl and Kornbluth’s depiction of Belly Rave extrapolated the disdain with which intellectuals in the 1950s treated the massive growth of middle class suburbs. It is also an early example of a recurring science fiction vision of feral suburbia. Science Fiction (SF) writers have offered a series of variations on the theme of crabgrass chaos. Their stories project aging suburbs as the new ghettos and slums, zones of danger and depopulation where it’s everyone for themselves and wilding gangs take the hindmost.
Extrapolating near-future suburbia, SF has developed in tacit dialog with critics of American urban planning, paying attention to the prevailing consensus from journalists and scholars. If science fiction suburbs are usually troubled and dangerous places, it’s in part because popular discourse about suburbia has been equally negative—from aesthetic and moral censure in the 1950s to critiques of suburban isolation in the 1980s and the trope of “slumburbia” in the present century.
Examples from three eras, the 1950s, the early 1990s, and the 2010s, illustrate these dyanmics.
Slamming the Slurbs
Gladiator-at-Law appeared in the midst of a national indictment of post-war suburbanization. David Riesman, author of the best-seller The Lonely Crowd (1950), penned an essay on “The Suburban Sadness,” writing, he said, as someone who loved both the city and the country, but not the suburbs. He was one of many American intellectuals after World War II who hammered suburbia for a litany of physical and social deficiencies. Suburbs were attacked as tacky, inauthentic, inefficient, and boring by academics, journalists, and, of course, Malvina Reynolds, whose catchy two-minute song “Little Houses” is an entry point for a closer look at Belly Rave.
With the severe housing shortage of the late 1940s a recent memory, Pohl and Kornbluth describe buyers in the new subdivision lining up to view model homes—a scene that mirrored real communities like Lakewood and Levittown. In the novel, things turn sour fast. The tiny houses are only partly finished. Unexpected fees and taxes for schools, fire protection, and sewers eat up money that might have gone to upkeep. The market for the houses dries up as newer neighborhoods are built, and bad elements move in, including moonshiners with a still in their living room [it would now be a meth house].
By 2040 Belly Rave has turned nasty and brutish. People huddle in their houses with guns at the ready. Thrill-seekers arrive for illicit sex, but the city police only come in armored cars. Gangs of preteens and teens roam the streets, protecting themselves to avoid being sold as pickpockets and child prostitutes.
1950s New Jersey and its counterparts, of course, was not half so bad. Behind Gladiator-at-Law was a suburban myth, as analyst Scott Donaldson called it, or even a suburban slander. The reality of new suburbs was not social disorder a la Belly Rave, but rather the reconstitution of community in new setting—as we know from the work of Herbert Gans and other sociologists.
California behind Walls
A generation after Gladiator-At-Law, suburban California attracted the same sort of science fiction critique. The anti-suburban indictment had moved beyond the moral and aesthetic posture of the 1950s to an explicitly political argument about how economic polarization plays out on the metroscape. Coming soon to southern California, or already arrived, said novelists and social scientists alike, is the deeply divided metropolis of global capitalism, explicated for us most memorably by feisty Mike Davis.
The polarized and decrepit Los Angeles in Cynthia Kadohata’s In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992) riffs on the Quartz City. Francie is nineteen years old in 2052. With her parents dead of a wasting disease that is a metaphor for cultural malaise and economic decline, she’s living in a run down Los Angeles bungalow and working for a financially marginal delivery service.
Francie’s city is leading the downward spiral of the American economy. A new highway system looms unfinished, started “before everything ran out of money, back at the beginning of the century.” The family house, bought by her great-great-grandmother, is now “in a section of town largely abandoned by anyone who mattered to the country’s economy.” Francie sometimes wakes to the smell of burning buildings not many blocks away. Meanwhile, the people of “richtown” (her term for places like Brentwood) are increasingly moving to “camps,” communities “enclosed by high metal fences and guarded by uniformed, armed men and women.” We can assume that Kadohata picked the term “camp” to recall the internment experience of 1942-45 and relishes the inversion of the image as the elite pull barbed wire around themselves rather than stringing it around others.
Parable of the Sower is perhaps the most wrenchingly realized of the gated suburb fictions. Fortress LA is now literal, and the extinction of the middle plays out in fire and blood. Octavia Butler’s novel centers on Lauren Olamina, who grows up in the 2020s on a collapsing Los Angeles. Her parents and the other homeowners have created the ultimate cul-de-sac, surrounding their street of eleven houses with a locked gate and wall that is “three meters high and topped off with pieces of broken glass as well as the usual barbed wire.” The internal combustion era is over, with three-car garages turned into rabbit hutches and chicken coops. Lauren’s walled street is in the San Fernando Valley near the 118 Expressway, a sad survivor of the Valley isolationism described by Mike Davis. The whole community learns to handle guns; the only safe respite from the tiny community is a group excursion for target practice in the surrounding ravines where they are likely to encounter homeless squatters, feral dogs, and human corpses.
In this quiet apocalypse, foreign corporations are buying up the United States and turning Americans into agricultural slaves or white collar debt peons in defended enclaves. It is the economically bifurcated society of the early twenty-first century made manifest, and Lauren muses about the new economy:
Cities controlled by big companies are old hat in science fiction. My grandmother left a whole bookcase of old science-fiction novels. The company-town subgenre always seemed to star a hero who outsmarted, overthrew, or escaped ‘the company.” I’ve never seen one where the hero fought like hell to get taken in and underpaid by the company. In real life, that’s the way . . . it is.
As the story unfolds, addicts and thieves grow bolder, scaling the wall and cutting the wire, first to strip the gardens, then to ransack houses for anything they can sell. Three years after the story opens–it’s now 2027 and Lauren is eighteen–the community dies in a night of riot and fire, murder and rape. She escapes by luck, salvages what she can and starts a long trek north on what will be the road to a new, hard-won, tentative, and very rural utopia.
The Everted Metropolis
In the nearly six decades since Gladiator-at-Law hit the shelves, Americans have continued to vote with their Chevys and Volkswagens. In 2000 the nation was officially suburban—146 million people or 52 percent of all Americans.
But the suburban triumph can also be read as a suburban crisis. As early as the 1980s, social scientists realized that the aging of the baby boom generation was bringing problems to inner tier suburbs. Moving beyond the cultural critique, they mined masses of data to see that demand for housing was stagnant or falling and that declining numbers of students were rattling around in schools built for Brady Bunch families. By the twenty-first century, it was clear that older suburbs often shared “central city problems” of declining tax base and crumbling infrastructure, while the number of poor people in suburban rings rose by a whopping 67 percent from 2000 to 2011.
The result is the everted—or perhaps reverted—metropolis that has begun to reverse 150 years of suburbanization. The center is again the favored location, attracting the upwardly mobile young, successful middle-aged, and comfortable retirees who have triggered an outpouring of celebratory writing about the “return to the city.” The flip side of celebration, however, has been a counter-explosion of newspaper opinion and blogging about the rise of “slumburbia,” stoked by an Atlantic article by Christopher Leinberger at the height of the housing crash of 2008. Older suburbs in the Rustbelt and brand new suburbs in the Sunbelt are both described as losing the middle class; falling into abandonment and disrepair; attracting vandals; becoming homes to drug gangs. The urban crisis rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s has thus been transferred part and parcel to the suburbs of the new century, with Escape from New York being reimagined as “Escape from Nassau County.”
This rhetorical trend is background for three long stories published in the original anthology Metatropolis (2009). John Scalzi set his story in St. Louis, Elizabeth Bear and Tobias Buckell set theirs in Detroit, but they share a common vision of the near future.
In each case, the central core has survived and prospered. In Scalzi’s story, New St. Louis is an independent and ecologically self-sufficient zero-footprint city that recycles everything. It shares “open borders” with the Portland Arcologies, Malibu Enclave, and Helsinki Collective but it is physically closed to the surrounding suburbs. Like a medieval European city it confers its own citizenship and uses walls and gates to control access and commerce. Bear and Buckell envision Detroit reduced to a highrise core of offices and apartments that still connects to global capitalism.
Danger lurks outside the center. In Scalzi’s story, Benji Washington is a slacker who borrows a lorry and ventures outside on a complicated errand for an ex-girlfriend. “That’s not a trip I’d want to take these days,” his boss says when passing over the keys. Out in the suburbs are angry locals who don’t like his looks and punch the daylights out of him. A security guard pulls him out and tells him as be regains consciousness:
You got beat on is what happened. You New Louies are dumb as hell, you know that? Go out to a rave in the middle of The Wilds, and then you’re surprised when the kids out there start taking a crowbar to your heads. Let me give you a little tip, townie: The kids our here in The Wilds, they don’t like you. If you give them achance to crack open your skull, they’re going to do it.
The Wilds surrounding Detroit are even more derelict. Tract houses slump into the earth like barns dragged down by blackberries or kudzu. The handful of people who are left claim abandoned lots and buildings for mini-farms in an extra-legal rearrangement of property. Bear’s heroine, on the run from the Russian mafia and a newcomer to Detroit, tries to avoid the feral suburbs: “There were gangs out here, packs of the disenfranchised, squatters, and petty warlords.”
This fictional Detroit reflects the real city of the early 21st century. Urban planner Margaret Dewar has analyzed the changing neighborhood of Brightmoor in Detroit’s northwestern corner. Once a fully populated neighborhood of blue collar workers, it was more than half empty by 2010. Residents have appropriated the vacant lots for gardens, car parks, and buffer zones, essentially re-ruralizing in the twenty-first century a landscape that was urbanized in the twentieth.
Both Bear and Buckell offer the depopulated Wilds as a setting for social experiment and reconstruction. In Buckell’s version, the suburbs are peppered with abandoned mid-rise apartment and office towers that were once Edge City nodes. Grassroots eco-revolutionaries liberate one of the buildings and turn it into a multi-story self-sustaining garden-greenhouse and prepare at the end to take their vision of radical social change to other cities. Bear’s eco-activists work on a smaller scale, mining trash piles and landfills for materials to turn abandoned houses into small farms and miniature factories as cooperative low-visibility communities in the interstices of dying global capitalism.
Although forty- and fifty-page novelettes are not the place for extended exposition of post-capitalism and post-petroleum economies, Metatropolis may suggest an end point for traditional crabgrass chaos stories and a new beginning that spans rhetoric and reality. Scalzi, Buckell, and Bear are a generation younger than Mike Davis and Octavia Butler, and two decades younger than Fred Pohl. In their hands, the future of middle class suburbia is neither disaster or nor an occasion for satirical glee. Theirs is not a complete vision by any means, with the multiple ethnicities and races of actual suburbs conspicuously absent, but it does suggest that we challenge rather than accept slumburb imagery. Instead, suburban collapse and abandonment is a necessary stage in social change, the winter that may open physical and institutional space for the spring of economic and environmental innovation.
Over the past thirty years, Chinese cities have boomed – more than 100 Chinese cities have populations of over a million, and the world’s newest skyscrapers are continuously reshaping their skylines. Fiction that can be characterized as “urban” is less common in China than in many other parts of the world, however. Cities and urban culture, per se, were not central to the identities of many Chinese writers until recently.
Before the twentieth-century, urban life played a minor role in Chinese literature. City building was recognized as an important function of the ruler, and so it features in some very ancient works. A poem from the famous Book of Odes (AKA Classic of Poetry, Book of Songs), revered by Confucius, describes how King Wen, the founder of the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 b.c.e.), and his son, King Wu, established Zhou rule by choosing the proper site for the capital:
He examined and divined, did the king,
About settling in the capital of Hao.
The tortoise-shell decided the site,
And king Wu completed the city.
A sovereign true was king Wu![i]
Over the centuries, thousands of poets have taken up their brush pens to commemorate the beauty of an urban garden or a bridge outside a city wall or a pavilion where literati gather to drink and enjoy each other’s verse. Princeton professor Frederick Mote pointed out that Chinese cities in the imperial era (221 b.c.e. – 1911 c.e.) had very few monumental buildings and few grand public spaces. Instead, the character of a particular city was constructed from layers upon layers of poetic representations – constituting what Mote called an “ideational tumulus.”[ii] Such poems, though, often dwell on such themes as the value of friendship, and the urban setting plays merely a supporting role.
Ordinary urban people began to make their way into popular fiction with the spread of printing technology, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the global trade in silver spurred Chinese commerce. Though often set in cities, the stories are morality tales or adventure stories that could happen anywhere along the expanding commercial networks. A translation of a collection of such stories, The Book of Swindles, is full of entertaining accounts of country bumpkins being fleeced by conmen in inns and marketplaces.[iii]
The great novels of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) sprawl across the landscape, describing cross-continental pilgrimage (Journey to the West), righteous bandits (Outlaws of the Marsh), and empire-spanning war (Three Kingdoms), or take place largely within the confines of the opulent compounds of their wealthy protagonists (Dream of the Red Chamber and Plum in a Golden Vase). Although glimpses of cities and city life can be seen in all these novels, most aspects of urban social life are peripheral to their narratives.
Chinese writers of all sorts began to be preoccupied with urban life in the early twentieth century, as colonial enclaves and foreign dominance challenged Chinese ideals and lifeways.[iv] Two famous trilogies published in the 1930s focus on life in the great inland capital of Sichuan province, Chengdu. Their respective authors, Ba Jin and Li Jieren, both studied literature in France in the 1920s, experiencing the Paris of Gertrude Stein and of the Lost Generation writers. The role of Chengdu in their fiction could not be more different, however.
Ba Jin is the more famous of the two. He was one of China’s leading anarchist figures who exchanged heartfelt letters with Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Emma Goldman. His Chengdu trilogy included the most popular novel of 1930s China – Family – a semi-autobiographical account of a wealthy extended family torn apart by the resistance of the younger generation to the autocracy of the older.[v] The novel continues to be the most influential literary account of the May Fourth movement, a nationwide nationalistic and iconoclastic uprising of the youth of China touched off by the humiliating treatment of China during the Versailles conference.
Although set in Chengdu, Ba Jin’s Family treats the city as representative of what might be called “Old China,” a dark, violent place where hypocritical Confucian patriarchs oppress the young and collude with warlords to stifle political change. As with Dream of the Red Chamber, most of the action in the novel takes place inside the family compound, amid squabbling, brooding, and pining away. Near the end, the young protagonist runs off to Shanghai, symbol of the future, in search of a community of likeminded people who share his desire for freedom and equality.
At the time, Shanghai had become the center of Chinese commerce and industry, including the publishing industry, so many ambitious writers moved there in the twentieth century. The city features in many stories, novels, and films of the 1920s and 1930s, but not usually as a symbol of hope, as in Ba Jin’s work. Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) set the short story that inspired the 2007 Ang Lee film Lust, Caution, in Shanghai in years of war with Japan, and in it we see elements of a more common representation of Shanghai life: earnest revolutionary students encounter a corrupt urban scene dominated by foreign powers and their degenerate Chinese collaborators, as the sordid streets are lined with starving refugees from the impoverished countryside. That image of Shanghai and other coastal cities continued to feature in Communist depictions of the old “semi-feudal, semi-colonial” Chinese urban life after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Ba Jin’s novels carried on a Chinese literary tradition that privileged social interactions within a family or network over place-based narratives of city street or public life. For him, Chengdu and Shanghai served primarily as symbols of different cultures rather than as interesting spaces. Li Jieren, on the other hand, dug deep into Chengdu history and social life to create a portrait of the city and city people in his work. The first novel of his Chengdu trilogy, Ripple on Stagnant Water, tells the story of a young country girl who yearns to move to the big city.[vi] Eventually, she finds her way there to experience the excitement of its festivals and crowds. Across the trilogy, Li Jieren offers up a Chengdu social survey, with memorable characters from all walks of life, as he chronicles the eventful years leading to the collapse of Qing rule in 1911.
Ba Jin’s narrative of revolution was more congenial to the Communist message after 1949, although he had to rewrite it to downplay its anarchist influences. Ba Jin himself took on prominent roles in the new literary order in Shanghai and Beijing, founding the journal Harvest (Shouhuo收获), where many new socialist writers published their work.
Li Jieren accepted a position as vice-mayor of Chengdu in 1950, hoping to contribute his knowledge of Chengdu’s long history to the effort to reconstruct it as a socialist city. Among his priorities: the preservation and refurbishing of the thousand-year-old “Thatched Hut of Du Fu,” a memorial to the Tang poet who had spent time in the city in the eighth century. Many of Chengdu’s old monuments survived the early years of Communist rule, but old cities were seen as a threat to socialism rather than as an asset. Particularly after the Chinese rejected the Soviet model of socialism in the late 1950s, little investment was made in urban public infrastructure. Literature and film tended to focus on the transformation of the countryside and commune life.
Li Jieren died in 1962, while Ba Jin lived to see his work banned, along with almost all pre-1949 fiction, during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The work of both authors reappeared in print by the 1980s, and China entered another period of urban-centered economic growth. Much of the popular fiction of the last forty years reflects the fast-paced new culture of China’s megacities.[vii] Ba Jin’s novels still have an emotional appeal to the young, however. And Li Jieren’s place-based fiction has been embraced in Chengdu and beyond for its rich evocation of the urban culture of Sichuan.
[i]The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Confucianism, James Legge, trans. Volume 3 of F. Max Müller, ed. The Sacred Books of the East (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879), p. 395.
[ii] Frederick Mote, “A Millennium of Chinese Urban History: Form, Time, and Space Concepts in Soochow,” Rice University Studies 59, no. 4 (Fall 1973): 53. See also Chuck Wooldridge, “What Literati Talked about When They Talked about Memory: Commemorating Resistance to the Taiping in Nanjing’s Yu Garden, 1900-1911,” Twentieth-Century China 40, no. 1 (January 2015): 3-24.
[iii] Zhang Yingyu, The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection, Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, trans. (Columbia University Press, 2017).
[iv] Yingjin Zhang, The City in Modern Chinese Literature & Film: Configurations of Space, Time, and Gender (Stanford University Press, 1996).
[v] Kristin Stapleton, Fact in Fiction: 1920s China and Ba Jin’s Family (Stanford University Press, 2016).
[vi] There are two English translations of Li Jieren’s first novel: one published by Panda Books in 1990 under the title Ripples across Stagnant Water (the translator is not named) and a newer translation by Bret Sparling and Yin Chi published under the title Ripple on Stagnant Water (Portland, ME: Merwin Asia, 2013). Kenny Kwok-kwan Ng translates the title as Ripples on Dead Water in his study of how Li Jieren represented Chengdu in fiction: The Lost Geopoetic Horizon of Li Jieren: The Crisis of Writing Chengdu in Revolutionary China (Brill, 2015).
[vii] Robin Visser, Cities Surround the Countryside: Urban Aesthetics in Postsocialist China (Duke University Press, 2010).
Across the banner of “The Metropole” as I write spans the George Washington Bridge, the majestic and modern steel link between the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan and the city of Fort Lee, New Jersey, although those that cross it typically seek points far beyond those two ends. The “GWB” serves as the mise-en-scene for the opening scene of Mickey Spillane’s cold war novel One Lonely Night (1951), a place where his protagonist alter-ego Mike Hammer seeks solace from a “soft little judge” who has spurned him Downtown. As Hammer narrates,
Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost fog-like, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.
The grand suspension bridge, then, becomes the setting for Spillane’s hard-boiled suspense. Hammer stands there considering a choice: his work as a New York City private investigator/vigilante or a move to the emergent suburbs somewhere on the other side of the bridge, perhaps with his loyal secretary Velda, “to start up in real estate in some small community where murder and guns and dames didn’t happen.” When a murder-suicide tied to a communist conspiracy within the city effectively falls at Hammer’s feet, the choice is easy.
Mickey Spillane understood both sides of the bridge. He was born in Brooklyn, but spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In the late-1930s he came back to New York to work in comics, working on a character and strip called “Mike Danger.” He spent World War II in the service but on the homefront, flying planes across the American south. With the war over Spillane migrated from the comics to pulp novels, an industry that took off during the paperback revolution of the era. Over the next decade and beyond, Spillane carefully crafted an image of a working-class cold warrior. He was quick to call himself a “writer” not an “author,” lest he be considered soft or effete. In photographs he wore flannel and denim, and via his alter-ego protagonist, Mike Hammer, he corrected any perceived personal faults. Hammer, for example, was a decorated war hero who epitomized Arthur Schlesinger’s “vital center” vision of cold war masculine virility, took no prisoners (spoiler: he shot and killed them), and found himself both the object and subject of graphic seduction (by the standards of the time).
The New York City of Spillane’s early Mike Hammer novels – the six he published between 1947-1952 were some of the bestselling books of the era – was the kind of place where crime, violence, and conspiracies often fell at one’s feet. Spillane’s representation of a city in the throes of crisis may have been a stand-in for the atomic anxieties of the immediate postwar era, but it was also quite prophetic about the discourse of cities like New York in the not too distant future. As I argue in my recent book, The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear, Spillane offered a template for a variety of commentators and cultural producers fearful of the changing face of New York in the post-World War II era.
Spillane was particularly adept at detailing the physical “blight” of so-called “slums,” not unlike the concurrent planners then making the case for urban renewal. He describes an area on Manhattan’s east side as “one of those shabby blocks a few years away from condemnation. The sidewalks were littered with ancient baby buggies, a horde of kids playing in the garbage on the sidewalks and people on the stoops who didn’t give a damn what the kids did so long as they could yap and slop beer.” Midtown Manhattan’s 33rd Street, which at the time of his writing housed or abutted the Empire State Building, Macy’s Department Store and Herald’s Square, and the soon to be demolished Pennsylvania Station, was from Spillane’s perspective a “cemetery of buildings.”
Yet as Spillane demonstrates, the city’s problem was not so much its declining physical state, but rather its entrenched racial enclaves and shifting racial and ethnic demographics. Hammer narrates a section on Harlem that labels the African American neighborhood “that strange no-man’s-land where the white mixed with the black and the languages overflowed into each other like that of the horde around the Tower of Babel,” with “strange, foreign smells of cooking and too many people in too few rooms.” In more than one novel Hammer notes his unease within the geography of the city he knows well, seeking to get back to “my kind of people.” Those that “didn’t have dough and they didn’t have flash, but behind their eyes was the knowledge of the city and the way it thought and ran.” With New York City’s growing population of southern African American and Puerto Rican migrants in this period, it requires a limited narrative leap to grasp the kind of people offering Hammer comfort: white working class ethnics then crossing the bridges en masse into the suburban hinterland of New Jersey and Long Island.
In Spillane’s world, the volatile combination of physical decline and social disorder wrought the city’s “monster,” a permanent underclass of criminals that terrorized the city and its inhabitants with abandon and at random. It is the monster that stages drive-by shootings in wealthy, crowded districts and desensitizes citizens to violence. “This is New York,” he writes in Kiss Me, Deadly (1952). “Something exciting happening every minute. After a while you get used to it and don’t pay any attention to it. A gunshot, a backfire, who can tell the difference and who cares. A drunk and a dead man, they both look the same.” There were a variety of neighborhoods where “murder isn’t uncommon,” and where “a killing…was neither important nor interesting enough to drag out the local citizenry in a downpour.” This was fiction in the 1950s, a period recently hailed as the relative low point for violent crime statistics in New York City.
Mike Hammer, of course, is Spillane’s fantasy of a final solution to urban violence and disorder. In the pages of Spillane’s novels he never operates as a private investigator for hire, but rather a tangential victim or good guy with a grudge seeking revenge. This is evident from the opening of I, the Jury, where Hammer appears on the scene “anxious to get some of the rats that make up the section of humanity that prey on people,” and avenge the killing of a military brother. He informs a friend in the NYPD: “I’m not letting the killer go through the tedious process of the law…this time I’m the law and I’m not going to be cold and impartial.” To Hammer, due process meant lawyers, judges, and juries finding ways to release pathological criminals back into the city.
Hammer’s heroic vigilantism has had considerable cultural power since, whether properly attributed to Spillane or not. From the law-and-order discourse of the 1960s emerged filmic imitators like Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan, who patrolled the streets of San Francisco killing crazed hippies and begging crooks to make his day. Rising crime rates and fears in New York made for a fertile climate of violent revenge fantasies. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) immediately comes to mind, but for me Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) of Death Wish (1974) is the quintessential 1970s analogue to Mike Hammer. A decade later fantasy would become reality through the act of Bernard Goetz, New York’s “Subway Vigilante,” who shot four young African American men alleged by Goetz to be armed and set to rob. It is not surprising that Spillane himself reemerged as a mainstream culture figure at this time, putting on his tough-guy act in beer commercials and commissioning a Mike Hammer television series.
As I have discussed elsewhere, the Spillane and Hammer worldview resonates today. It is found in the summoned fantasies of random violence met with gun-toting heroism propagated by the likes of the National Rifle Association and open/concealed carry advocates. This trend departs from Spillane, however, because the environment that necessitates a Mike Hammer is no longer urban. The great fears of the vigilante wannabe or “good guy with a gun” – the home invasion, the car-jacking, the mass shooting – conjure a decidedly suburban setting. If someone strutted around New York today like an extra from a John Ford movie, they would likely get laughed out of town, not unlike Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969). But for Mike Hammer to be a viable character within the context of the 1950s, Spillane needed a setting like New York City to give his fantasies verisimilitude. In his depictions New York was a hell of a town. But it was his town, and, as Spillane writes in One Lonely Night, “they gave it to me gladly and wondered why I wanted it so nice and all alone.”
Brian Tochterman is Assistant Professor of Sustainable Community Development in the Department of Social Responsibility at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, where he teaches courses in land use planning, community development, and history. His research interests lie primarily in post-World War II urban history, and, most recently, is the author of The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear (UNC Press, 2017).
 Mickey Spillane, “One Lonely Night,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 2 (New York, 1951). 5-9
 On cold war masculinity see: K.A. Cuordileone, Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War (New York, 2005).
 Mickey Spillane, “The Big Kill,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 2 (New York, 1951). 196
 Mickey Spillane, “Vengeance is Mine,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 1 (New York, 1950). 387