Category Archives: Metropolis of the Month

Decision Making and Future Thinking in Lagos

By Olamide Udoma-Ejorh, Lagos Urban Development Initiative

But I think this election was decided, dominated and directed by social media. The power of social media came out for this country. Social media played a central role as a watchdog in keeping the integrity of the process. Within minutes of votes being counted at a polling unit, the results were all over social media. Ordinary people with Excel sheets were doing tallies. At the end of the day when it was announced officially, the results matched.

 Sunday Dare, Executive Commissioner (Stakeholder Management) of the Nigerian Communications Commission, discussion on the 2015 presidential election[1]

All over the world social media has made a significant impact in how citizens engage with their governments and vice versa. Engagement through social media can positively affect governance if used efficiently and this is no different in Lagos. However there is still a long way to go to ensure social media is used effectively towards good governance.

Governance in Lagos can be described as top down, where the Lagos State Government creates rules and regulations without involving citizens in the decision-making process. This therefore does not make for good governance.

Sunday Dare on the 2015 campaign trail courtesy of The News

For decision-making to happen successfully, multiple stakeholders, including those that will be affected, need to be involved. Social media can act as a means for engagement for those who are willing and have the capacity to voice their opinions, needs, and wants. However, the majority of citizens do not actively participate; this may be for a number of reasons including lack of access to the internet, loss of hope in governance, or general disenfranchisement.

There are many reasons why Lagos citizens are unable to participate in governance. Lagos Urban Development Initiative (previously Lagos Urban Network) has highlighted many of these issues, specifically the inability of residents to articulate needs and wants as well as identify their role as active citizens. Lagos Urban Development Initiative, through partner projects, has used scenario thinking as an experimental means to remove these governance road blocks from and between citizens of Lagos.

Both scenario thinking and social media can be used as tools to improve the engagement between Lagos State Government and residents to positively impact governance, decision-making, and how people experience the city.


Governance & The Use of Social Media

 The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) describes governance as:

The exercise of economic, political, and administrative authority to manage a country’s affairs at all levels. It comprises mechanisms, processes, and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations, and mediate their differences.[2]

The UN’s definition asserts that an administrative authority usually manages the affairs of a country, city, or community. Therefore when thinking about governance it is important to note who the administrative authority is, the rules or policies they use to ‘manage’ the country’s affairs, and the processes by which these policies are selected and defined.

The definition of good governance goes further in that it is equated with specific outcomes. These outcomes hinge on principles such as accountability, transparency, responsiveness, inclusiveness, effectiveness, efficiency, participation, equitability and the rule of law.[3] Political, social and economic priorities should be based on a broad consensus within society and at all levels of society; the poorest and most vulnerable should be included in the process of deciding how to manage a ‘country’s affairs.’

Good decisions often need to balance the interests of multiple stakeholders. Additionally, expert knowledge needs to be added to the mix; decisions must align with an overall strategy while still making sense to people who will be directly affected by the decision.

Stakeholders involved in decision-making can be placed within four categories:

  • those who will implement the plan (e.g. ministries and parastatals, private sector)
  • those who will be affected (e.g. the population of Lagos)
  • those who will monitor its implementation (e.g. government, management committees, private companies)
  • those who can contribute (e.g. private sector, NGOs, and experts/consultants).

Governance in Lagos is top down and the administrative authority is the Lagos State Government. The state government consists of the executive, legislative and judiciary branches. The executive is responsible for implementation of bills and the daily administration of the state. The legislature is the state house of assembly and they are concerned with law making. The judiciary is concerned with ensuring the law is upheld. Decision makers sit within the executive and the legislative branches; they are also the two arms that interact with citizens most often.

Lewis Map of Lagos I

Lewis Map of Lagos II
Map of Lagos from the 1970s from the Anthony Lewis papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In Lagos it is hard to see where the population actively contributes to decision-making. Those who implement the decisions and monitor the decisions actively participate in decision-making and therefore governance. At times those who can contribute are brought in to support these outcomes, however it is very unlikely [4] that those who will be affected actively participate in decision-making. If they are brought in at all, it is once the decision has already been made.

It is therefore no surprise that the populace has avoided politics and governance, demanding less and less from their leaders. The research on why this may be is scant but from conversations and observations, such civic passiveness may come from Lagos’s history of military rule or continued failure in leadership and government.

Worldwide, social media is increasingly being used as a way to bring leaders closer to their constituents and allowing for a more transparent relationship. In the United States of America social media has “changed the way campaigns are run and how Americans interact with their elected officials.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, has been described as a social media titan. Her twitter account (@AOC) has more than 3.9 million followers and on Instagram she has 3.2 million followers. She uses these two social media platforms and Facebook to reach her constituency and share her political agenda, progress, and the realities of working in congress. Her interaction rate is also very impressive, which means that dialogue is happening; discussions are not just one way. Personally, she has experienced both the positive and negative impacts of social media, which resulted in her quitting social media on weekends. Similarly the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, used social media during his campaign and has continued to do so. He calls this engagement ‘MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.’[5] With a constant and active presence on Twitter and Facebook, Trump used trending topics to tailor campaign messaging and win over voters. However, since becoming president Donald Trump has not used these tools effectively. Instead, Joanne Weiss describes his feed as ‘weirdly turgid, loaded with ponderous attacks on his perceived enemies and obscure multipart arguments about his legal situation’[6].

For Governments, despite limited resources and tight budgets, when used efficiently social media can drive citizen engagement. Research done by the American Congressional Management Foundation reported that 76% of policymakers reported social media enabled them to have more meaningful interactions with their constituents[7]. Being borderless, social media can reach audiences across continents at all times. Social media also allows for real-time data collection and instant feedback. This could lead to improved services within cities and communities. Social media can also be used as a tool to transform public perception, maximize awareness of agency goals and gain the trust of citizens by becoming more authentic and transparent. During elections or when implementing a project, social media can help test messaging and ideas.

Social media can also have devastating effects when used negatively. In 2018 it was discovered that Myanmar’s Military used online channels like Facebook and blogs to incite genocide. For over five years, using fake accounts, posing as pop stars and national heroes, members of the Myanmar military posted anti-Rohingya propaganda inciting murders, rapes and forced human migration. This emphasizes the need for governance in regard to how social media is used and received.
Social media can play a beneficial role in Lagos. Already it has been used in Nigeria as a tool to mobilize groups and ensure transparency during elections.

Protests over President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to end oil subsidies.

Nigeria is an oil producing country, but with inefficient refineries the majority of the raw crude is exported and petrol is imported, making the refined product expensive for half the citizens. With this in mind, a fuel subsidy policy was introduced in 2006. It was supposed to last six months while the refineries were rehabilitated but instead it has lasted years, putting a strain on the country’s economy. There were debates and discussions at all levels of government about the removal of subsidies (as well as several attempts to do so). In 2012, protests ensued when then-President Goodluck Jonathan removed the fuel subsidy. Facebook and Twitter were used to connect and unite people. Protests took place across the country, including in the cities of Kano, Lagos, Abuja, and at the Nigerian High Commission in London. The Facebook group called Nationwide Anti-Fuel Subsidy Removal: Strategies & Protests was created on 2 January 2012, and within seven days it had grown to over 20,000 members. The mobilization of people standing together with one message led to closed-door-meetings with government officials, and part of the subsidy was restored. Though not fully successful, Occupy Nigeria showed how cyber interactions can move to offline mobilization and more inclusive decision-making.

Another example of how social media has played a role in governance in Nigeria is the 2015 presidential elections. Social media was used as a tool for transparency. Sunday Dare’s quote at the article’s outset aptly expresses how social media was used

7b23c9bcdaee8c657d6da58cf814cf0b_400x400.pngDespite the growth of social media and its potential for more inclusive and transparent governance, the number of people online and engaged is still limited. The digital divide is vast in Nigeria and this was clearly demonstrated during the TweetChat held by Future Lagos in 2015 as part of Open City Lagos.[8] The TweetChat happened on Twitter. Six questions, on Lagos as an online city, were asked and answers came from all over the globe with opinions and examples of technology, citizenship, and urban development in Lagos.

The one-hour TweetChat lead to break-away discussions on technology being an enhancer and not a solution. Therefore the emphasis should be on creating sustainable, people-centered governance and administrative systems that are supplemented by technology. Other strands of the conversation focused on online governance and if decisions should really be made within 140 characters.

@nsibidi: Real time governance sounds like a disaster. maybe faster decision making, but real time decisions can’t be made in 140 characters

@victoria_okoyeIf governments are not interested in listening to citizens in 1st place, internet, open data won’t change this

One of the highlights of the chat was the realization that a large percentage of Nigerians are not online. Nigeria has 51% Internet penetration and 10% of the population actively uses social media.[9] Therefore, despite technological advances and the growth of affordable smartphones, the majority of the population is offline and therefore cannot engage in discussions online.

The two examples in this essay of how social media in Nigeria has been used for better governance have been publically led. The public sector has accepted the application of social media, however it has been used as an unsophisticated tool for education and information only. True engagement, which can lead to some of the benefits stated earlier — such as real time data collection and improved services — is still in its infancy.

Rush hour traffic in Lagos courtesy of Future Lagos via

Scenario Planning & Active Citizenship

To make the decision-making process more inclusive, more voices from all socio-economic levels of society need to be heard. This means that the populace needs to be active as citizens, able to participate in discussions that will change their environment. At Lagos Urban Development Initiative, when performing street interviews for research projects it has been difficult to garner opinions on the changes people would like to see in Lagos. Interviewees are able to tell us what they do not want but it can be quite hard to articulate what one needs or wants. Our conclusion was that imagining a different reality was not the problem but providing a solution without ever seeing alternative possibilities was.

Knowing that the inability to articulate the changes one envisions in Lagos removes many people from decision-making has led Lagos Urban Development Initiative to embark on some projects where scenario planning has been deployed to stimulate ideas and open up discussions about the issues and needs of Lagosians.

The Economist describes scenario planning as “a structured way for organizations to think about the future. A group of executives sets out to develop a small number of scenarios—stories about how the future might unfold and how this might affect an issue that confronts them.”[10] Scenarios are created to help understand the changing aspects of our present environment, how that will effect the future and how we can adapt to ensure it happens or to change the outcome.

Lagos 2060 was a project that used scenario planning to encourage radical thinking that involved a wide cross-section of society beyond the formal means of city-making and social commentary. The aim was to not leave the future of cities solely in the hands of policy makers but to engage citizens in policy and change-making discourse. By hinting at ideas of what the future of Lagos could be, this enabled every day citizens to take a step back to understand how Lagosians could create a different future. It also helped to open up minds and expand their knowledge of the present-day city.

Lagos 2060 was presented in various ways, including videos, talks, a book, and feedback forms at exhibitions in Lagos, South Africa, and London. Some of the questions we asked exhibition attendees were:

You came here today in your flying car, but your Local Government is online debating if flying cars should be banned from Lagos skies. What do you think? Do you agree?

 3D laser printing is now available commercially for those wanting to print instant houses, furniture and even temporary girlfriends. What was the last thing you printed?

 Now that Lagos is no longer part of Nigeria, what regional network of global cities do you think we should join?


When projects and policies are created by the executive branch and legislature, public participation is usually seen as a box that needs to be ticked. Therefore it is done in the simplest of manners without real engagement. Scenario planning is a tool that can be used to stimulate ideas and open up discussions about the issues and needs of Lagosians. It can build individual capacity to participate in discussions about the future of Lagos. With this potential it should be used more often in policy making and public participation workshops and meetings.

Within the four main categories of stakeholders that should participate in governance, the two largest groups are the government and its citizens. Both parties need to play their part to ensure good governance takes place. With more active citizens it is likely more voices will be heard.

Social media has the potential to foster engagement between citizens and the different arms of government. However there is some way to go to ensure that social media as a tool is used more efficiently in Lagos when dealing with governance and decision-making. In addition, the digital divide in Lagos is still apparent, though decreasing.

The push on social media comes mainly from citizens. Government officials, both elected and non-elected, need to have a presence and use the tools available to them to drive citizen engagement, collect real time feedback, test ideas, gain trust, and therefore be more transparent. As the digital divide continues to decrease and social media is seen as a means for more ‘real’ participation in decision-making, it is likely that more citizens will engage online.

IMG_9352ed.jpgOlamide Udoma-Ejorh is a researcher, writer and filmmaker holding degrees in BSc Architecture, MA Design and MPhil Infrastructure Management. Olamide started her career in PR, giving her a business and marketing foundation. Olamide has worked in London, South Africa and Nigeria with various organizations focusing on transport management, slum upgrading, and housing rights in urbanizing African cities.

 Currently based in Lagos, Olamide is engaged in bridging the gap between communities and their environment as the Director at Lagos Urban Development Initiative. She is also a trustee at Open House Lagos and the Editor-in-Chief of the Lost in Lagos magazine.

Featured image (at top): Lagos Island, Pride of a State, photograph by Ademola Akinlabi, September 23, 2015

[1] Eddings, J. (2015, April 20) How social media ‘decided, dominated and directed’ the Nigerian elections, Retrieved from

[2] World Bank, What is Governance? Retrieved from,,contentMDK:20513159~menuPK:1163245~pagePK:34004173~piPK:34003707~theSitePK:497024,00.html


[4] Murse, T. (2017, August 16). How Social Media Has Changed Politics, Retrieved from

[5]Twitter, @realDonaldTrump, July 2, 2017

Joanne Weiss (2019, January 3) How Trump got bad at Twitter

[7] Congressional Management Foundation. (2015, October 14) New Report Outlines How Congress and Citizens Interact on Social Media,

[8] Future Lagos is a Lagos-based organization promoting democracy about the future of cities. It is part of Our Future Cities NPO. The publication “Open City Lagos,” a cooperation with Nsibidi Institute Lagos and Fabulous Urban Zurich, intends to initiate a public reflection and discourse on the characteristics of an “open city” where the co-existence of different social groups and the richness of cultural diversity come together to foster growth that is diverse, equitable, creative, sustainable and inclusive.

[9] Hootsuite, 2017,

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Retrieved from

[10] Scenario planning, (2008, September 1), Retrieved from

Transnational Boundary Crossing in Fictional Lagos

 In 2018, the website Ozy famously crowned Nigerian Americans as the most successful ethnic group in the United States. Nearly 30 percent of Nigerian Americans over the age of 25 held graduate degrees—almost three times the overall average within the general U.S. population. “Among Nigerian-American professionals, 45 percent work in education services … many are professors at top universities,” the online publication asserted. Admittedly, some questioned these numbers and how Ozy attributed success, but the larger point remains true: the Nigerian diaspora reaches far and wide and while many have struggled, many members of this group have excelled. Moreover, not all have chosen to remain abroad. Some have returned from brief sojourns for college or graduate school in the U.S., Europe, and U.K. to start careers in Nigeria. Others have established themselves in America or elsewhere and make the occasional pilgrimage home, and finally another segment, living as ex-pats for years, have discovered a desire to resettle permanently in their homeland.

Such are the transnational stories at the heart of three novels by Nigerian authors: No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe, Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole, and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Each novel features a protagonist returning to Nigeria with Lagos as his or her port of call. Each of these characters witnesses the city’s transformation while undergoing their own self-realization and navigating Lagos in ways that had previously been foreign—transnational lives crossing national, societal, and personal boundaries in a metropolis that abounds with new frontiers hemmed in by old, traditional borders.

Sunset at the beach in Lagos, February 3, 2019, photograph by CE Blueclouds

Returns, 1960 – 2000s

In 1960, Chinua Achebe published No Longer at Ease, in which the author follows the travails of Obi Okonkwo, a rural Nigerian returning from London after completing four years of study to take a position in the Nigerian government. Published on the cusp of independence, the novel reflects a nation attempting to modernize as it sheds its colonial traditions and European prejudices.

Stationed in Lagos, Okonkwo admits that even in his four years abroad, the city had changed: “There were many things he could no longer recognize, and others – like the slums of Lagos – which he was seeing for the first time.”[1] Though less renowned than his towering work, Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease carries with it a similar simmering discomfort that critiques both European imperialism and the customs and traditions of Nigeria.

NoLongerAtEase.jpgNever one for simplistic truths or platitudes, Achebe presents the reader with a Lagos filled with opportunity, but also wretched poverty. “His car was parked close to a wide open storm drain from which came a very strong smell of rotting flesh,” Okonkwo observes. “It was the remains of a dog which had no doubt been run over by a taxi.” Even small tragedies such as this have been transformed into a talisman of greater things as one driver tells him to that to strike a dog with a newly purchased car brought good luck; a duck, however, brought darker realities. “If you kill duck, you go get accident or kill man,” he confides.[2]

As in many a metropolis, Lagos streets on a Saturday night “were … quite noisy and crowded.” Walking its avenues, one encountered “bands of dancers” every few steps. “Gay temporary sheds were erected in front of derelict houses and lit with brilliant fluorescent tubes for celebration,” be it for engagement, marriage, birth, promotion, business success or death of an elderly relative.[3] The “hustle” frequently attributed to and exhibited by Lagosians was clearly a long-term character trait of the city. Yet whatever its collective resiliency, Achebe refused to soft pedal Lagos, and by extension the city’s complexities. Okonkwo eventually discovers his youthful potential quickly fades as, between his living expenses, debts, and family obligations, getting by on an honest paycheck alone remains a difficult path to navigate: “If one did not laugh, one would have to cry. It seemed that was the way Nigeria was built.”[4]

81fZ4WCGt7LOver 50 years later, Lagos’ tumultuous energy persisted. “Combined with traffic congestion … and considering the thousand natural shocks to which the average Nigerian is subject – the police, armed robbers, the public officials, the government, the total absence of social services, the poor distribution of amenities – the environment is anything but tranquil,” Teju Cole’s nameless Nigerian ex-pat narrates in his vaguely existentialist novel Everyday is for the Thief, in which he documents his return to Lagos after a decade in America.[5]

Ifemelu, the protagonist propelling Americanah forward, admits a similar shock upon return: “At first Lagos assaulted her; the sun-dazed haste, the yellow buses full of squashed limbs, the sweating hawkers racing after cars, the advertisements on hulking billboards … and the heaps of rubbish that rose on the roadsides like a taunt.” Lagos proved predictable in its unpredictability. “One morning a man’s body lay on Awolowo Road. Another morning, The Island flooded and cars became gaping boats,” she observes. “Here, she felt, anything could happen, a ripe tomato could burst out of solid stone.”[6] Planning to re-establish roots in the city she left many years earlier, Ifemelu views the city with greater aplomb and joy than Cole’s narrator, who remains fairly sullen throughout, announcing, “I have returned a stranger.”[7]

Street in Lagos, photograph by Harry Porwanto, December 10, 2018

Trying to Tell Tales of the City

Conflict and disorder make for great stories. Lagos exists as a cauldron of drama, an entrepot of narrative. Yet while the city might contain a million stories, for writers wanting to document them, Cole’s nameless protagonist comments that in the metropolis there is a “rarity of creative refuge.”[8] Though filled with tales, Lagos contains a dearth of solitude in which to spin them. “Lagos is not regarded as a writer-friendly city. Let me concede this point straight away: that Lagos is not a city where you may read a book in the comfort of a bus or train or recollect emotion in Wordsworthian tranquility,” writes Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun.[9]

The solution to such an unabated lived reality of sensory overload? More overload: “I have no right to Coltrane here, not with everything else going on,” Cole’s narrator reflects. “This is Lagos. I disagree, turn the volume up, listening to both the music and the noise. Neither gives way.” In his own way, Cole’s unnamed narrator gives literary flesh to one of Ofeimun’s observations of Lagos: that it exists as “a city of blocked wills.”[10]

Boys fishing in Lagos Lagoon, March 17, 2018, photograph by CE Blueclouds

Despite these convergences and oppositions, Lagos, and Nigeria more broadly, has not lacked for novelistic attentions. “The truth of the matter is that this city by the lagoon fascinates, if for nothing else, because it offers the closest Nigerian parallel to a melting pot,” asserts Ofeimun. “This, as I see it, is our prime city of crossed boundaries.” Crossed boundaries, be it nationalities, classes, mores, and so forth, make for compelling characters and riveting stories with the city serving as thefinest of Archimedian points from which dreams may be regenerated and a new way found of gaining access to the future.”[11]

Indeed, not all retuning ex-pats view the city as critically as Cole’s narrator or Achebe’s Obi. Despite her rough introduction to Lagos, Ifemelu finds opportunity in her return to the city when she first takes a job as an editor at a women’s journal, Zoe Magazine, under the supervision of Aunty Onenu. An expression of the new Lagos, the magazine’s offices are located in “Onikan … the old Lagos, a slice of the past, a temple to the faded splendor of the colonial years….” The energy of a revitalizing metropolis spills outward. Many of the buildings had sagged and rusted over the years, but enterprises like Zoe Magazine (along with real estate development) gradually refurbished the area around the publication’s offices, which welcomed visitors with “heavy glass doors [that] opened into a reception area painted a terra cotta orange….”[12]

Frank Edward at Victorious Army Ministries International 2016 Convention in Lagos Photo: Hodimages|Kunle Ogunfuyi

The Ties that Bind: Religion and Culture

 Though she eventually leaves the magazine to work on her blog, The Small Redemption of Lagos, Ifemelu’s experiences at work illustrate the Nigerian city’s broader culture. The receptionist Esther embraces evangelicalism. “’Will you come this Sunday, ma? My pastor is a powerful man of God. So many people have testimonies of miracles that have happened in their lives because of him,’” she tells Ifemelu. The women profiled in the magazine do much the same. “All of them, the madams she interviewed, boasted about what they owned and where they or their children had been and what they had done, and then they capped their boasts with God. We thank God. It is God that did it. God is faithful.[13] Her mother also practices Christianity with fervor.

As Kaye Whitman notes in his cultural history of Lagos, “The best ways to make money in Nigeria, I was told in 2001, were ‘currency speculation and religion.’” Evangelical churches began to blossom during the economically challenging 1980s, but continued flourishing in the decades that followed.[14] The New Yorker’s George Packer adds that religion often comes packed with a message of personal advancement. “Abandoned warehouses and factories on the Apapa – Oshadi Expressway have been converted into huge churches with signs that promise, ‘The Lord Shall Add,’ and on Sundays they fill up with adherents of what is known as ‘the gospel of prosperity.’” Ifemelu imagines Esther this way, describing her as a women of “small ambitions” who dressed neatly, wore slightly “scuffed but carefully polished high heels, read books like Praying Your Way to Prosperity, and was superior with the drivers and ingratiating with the editors.”

0f3ee814b97ec2848a8221690616c4697149752dA sense of salvation for those Lagosians invested in religion pervades the broader society. Upon visiting the diminishing National Museum (also located in Onikan), Cole’s narrator encounters a female staff member singing hymnals “as if for all the world, she were not at a place of work.” After admonishing him not to take photos, she “resumes sweetly singing the glories of her Lord. Her disconnection from the environment is absolute. A victorious Christian among the idols.”[15]

Of course, not every Lagosian buys into this religiosity. As one cynical observer tells Packer, he doesn’t believe God has much to do with any of it. “They pray to be rich . . . Whether they go to Heaven or to Hell, they could care less.”[16] One should note, this is hardly unique to Lagos; one could make remarkably similar arguments about the Joel Osteens of the world and those that follow his path. Moreover, it’s worth remembering that this explosive growth in evangelicalism in Nigeria has been offset by the steadier and equally persistent popularity of Islam.

Other residents of the city find connection not in religion but in their transnational existence. The Lagosian diaspora – epitomized by Okonkwo, Cole’s protagonist, and Ifemelu – cuts across decades and opinions; those returning from the West bring with them their own ideas that sometimes conflict with Lagosian tradition and each other. In regard to the former, Okonkwo chaffs at Nigerian traditions that prevent him from marrying his beloved Clara, who, being a descendent of the untouchable Osu caste in Nigeria, would bring shame onto his Christian family. No amount of accumulated culture or education abroad can overcome it. Ofeimun’s point about crossed boundaries was no less true in 1960 than today. After all, the heartrending tragedy of Clara and Obi’s relationship is compelling.

Ifemelu’s experiences with the Nigerpolitan Club, which she describes as “a small cluster of … chic people, all dripping with savoir faire, each nursing a self-styled quirkiness – a ginger colored Afro, a t-shirt with a graphic of Thomas Sankara, oversize handmade earrings that hung like pieces of modern art,” best embodies this the awkward transnational dynamic facing returnees from the West. They decry their inability to find good smoothies in Lagos and lobby for a more robust Nigerian civil society. At one meeting, Ifemelu, worried about her own Western proclivities, defends Nollywood after one fellow Nigerpolitan attendee critiqued it for its over-the-top theatricality, poor technical standards, and misogyny. “‘Nollywood may be melodramatic, but life in Nigeria is very melodramatic,” she responds. “Hollywood makes equally bad movies. They just make them with better lighting.’”[17]

Whether pretentious in their Western affectations or not, returning ex-pats like those represented in the fictional Nigerpolitan Club have helped to reshape the city and inject it with an obvious edginess. The current uptick in the city’s art “eco-system” results from a mix of homegrown talent, African immigrants, and those returning from abroad. “Generational renewal and art-world globalization are shaking up habits in the Lagos gallery scene,” a recent New York Times article noted. The music scene has also traversed cultural borders in its melding of traditional Nigerian music and sounds from the West. Bianca Adanna Okorocha, a musician described as “magnetic,” able to coax “bodies in her thrall to give in to their baser selves,” represents this trend. Okoroacha has gained fame for “her ability to fuse rock music with Afropop, the predominant contemporary sound in Lagos.”

Lagos Carnival – Ikoyi Lagos State Nigeria, photograph by Juju Films, April 30, 2011

Some boundary crossings, though inspirational, demonstrate risk as well. The Lagos fashion scene, like those in art and music, also challenges traditions, particularly in a city still dominated by conservative viewpoints on gender and sexuality. In 2014, laws were passed that banned same sex marriage and civil unions, but the legislation is sometimes is deployed more broadly by law enforcement to intimidate the city’s LGBTQ community. For example, the fashion designer Ezra Olubi’s use of make up, lipstick and nail polish has lead to conflict with the police, who harassed him by claiming that “painting his nails and wearing makeup is illegal” even though they are not. Civil society can be less than civil as well. Denola Grey, a television host, received death threats for posting an image of himself on social media dressed in a suit with a belt worn not through the loops of his trousers but over the jacket at his natural waist. “That belt you used to tie your waist, we will tie it around your neck,” wrote one ungenerous, homophobic commentator.

Construction for future part of Eko City, Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria, photograph by Harry Powanto, May 4, 2017.

Where It All Leads

Traversing new frontiers and challenging boundaries can have any number of outcomes: some undoubtedly positive, some undoubtedly negative, and others more ambivalent. Without giving away too much, each of these novels ends on a tonally different note. Achebe’s conclusion is largely revealed at the book’s outset; it’s somewhat desultory ending comes as no surprise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ifemelu settles well into her new life. She reconciles with her exes in America, blogs about the city, and makes strides toward rekindling an old relationship from her youth in Lagos. “Still, she was at peace: to be home, to be writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again,” she reflects. “She had, finally, spun herself fully into being.”[18]

Teju Cole’s narrator arrives in Lagos with no small amount of ambivalence and departs irresolutely with a case of malaria. Having arrived back in New York, he remembers one particular Lagos street scene, a hive of activity, with carpenters working “rapt in their meditative task” as they constructed caskets for the deceased. Despite the avenue’s “open sewers and rusted roofs,” he recalls that it maintained a certain “dignity”: “Nothing is preached here. Its inhabitants simply serve life by securing good passage for the dead, their intricate work seen for a moment and then hidden for a lifetime.”[19]

As he made his way out of this labyrinth of back streets he merged onto another, one reminiscent of Obi’s Lagos, where death in old age is celebrated “with great fanfare”: the most expensive casket ordered, a secondary school’s football field rented, and a “large party with canopies and live music and colorful outfits” thrown. However, if the dead is young, fallen “before the full fruition of life, the rites are performed under grief’s discreet shadow, a simple box, no frills, a small afternoon burial on a weekday, marked by bitter and unshowy tears, and attended by neither the parents nor by the parents’ friends, for the old should not see the young buried.” Marked by these two poles, the people of Lagos reside between them, an ocean of experience, the borders and frontiers of life and death sloshing across one another in wave after wave of human existence. One need not be a writer to know this. “The carpenters, I am sure, have borne witness to all of this.”[20]

Featured image (at top): Lagos, April 17, 2017, photograph by CE Blueclouds.

[1] Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease, (, 1960), 14.

[2] Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 17-18.

[3] Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 19

[4] Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 112.

[5] Teju Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, (New York: Random House, 2008), 67.

[6] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, (New York: Anchor Books, 2013), 475.

[7] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 17.

[8] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 68.

[9] Odia Ofeimun, “Imagination & the City.” African Quarterly on the Arts Vol. 3, no. 2 (2001): 138.

[10] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 69; Ofeimun, “Imagination & the City,” 137.

[11] Ofeimun, “Imagination & the City,” 138.

[12] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 494.

[13] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 494, 507.

[14] Kaye Whiteman, Lagos: A Cultural History (Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2004), 87.

[15] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 72-73.

[16] Kaye Whitman, Lagos: A Cultural History, 87; George Packer, “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos,” The New Yorker, 2008; Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 73; Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 494.

[17] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 501, 503-504

[18] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 586.

[19] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 160-161.

[20] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 162

Reimagining Slavery and Freedom: Afro-Brazilians in Lagos during the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century

By Susan A.C. Rosenfeld

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Lagos became an increasingly diverse, urban node on the Atlantic circuit, where slavery and freedom defined individual identities and shaped the city itself. A series of political and economic transformations contributed to the social dynamics of Lagos. The nineteenth-century transition from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the “legitimate” commerce in palm products created new economic opportunities for non-elite Africans; in particular, many Yoruba-speaking people from the hinterland brought goods and services to the town as part of the supply chain for the new Atlantic demand.[1]

The British bombardment of the port in 1851—followed by the town’s annexation in August 1861—prompted further changes. Runaway slaves from the interior flocked to the burgeoning colony, seeking freedom and protection under the new administration. Liberated Africans—those whose slave ships had been intercepted by the British Royal Navy’s anti-slavery squadron and rerouted to Sierra Leone—also migrated to the town. There, they formed a community of Christian, African elites called the Saros. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Lagos also became the primary destination for African emigrants from Bahia who, after years of enslavement in Brazil, bought their freedom and boarded ships bound for the African coast.

Representation of colonial Lagos, ca. 1885. “Lagos looking West from Church Tower,” from the National Archives UK, CO, 1069/78. Courtesy of Ademide Adelusi-Adeluyi and Global Urban History Blog

Thousands of formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants repatriated to West Africa from Salvador da Bahia, Brazil over the course of the century.[2] Multiple factors contributed to returnees’ increasing interest in Lagos as a destination for resettlement after 1850. First, like other self-liberated Africans in the region, these Amaros—as Afro-Brazilian repatriates were called in Lagos—sought British protection from re-enslavement.[3] Benjamin Campbell, the consul of Lagos from 1853 to 1859, encouraged these freed Africans to emigrate from Brazil; he promised to protect them in exchange for their cooperation with the colonial administration.[4] These returnees’ decisions to settle in this particular urban port may have also been guided by their interest in trans-Atlantic commerce; the economic inflation and periodic blockades in other West African coastal cities—which resulted from the British Navy centering its activity around Ouidah and other, more western portsin an attempt to suppress the Dahomean slave trade—were not issues in Lagos.[5] Finally, many of these emigrants came from Yoruba-speaking towns in the interior. By settling in the colony, these individuals returned to their region of origin.

At the same time, while many Amaros perceived Lagos as a space of freedom in contrast to Brazil, slavery continued to exist in the colony. While the British insisted on abolishing the foreign slave trade in Lagos after their bombardment of the port in 1851, they delayed abolition in the colony itself. In her examination of slavery in nineteenth-century colonial Lagos, Kristin Mann purports that it was not until after 1866 that British officials in London argued for the prohibition of slavery in the town. However, she explains, “In the second half of the nineteenth century, the colonial state largely left it to the slaves themselves to redefine their relationships with owners. Struggle over the contested and shifting relationship between owners and slaves … dominated the history of the town in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.”[6]

In this way, an examination of the Afro-Brazilian community of Lagos illuminates the ways that the burgeoning colony was comprised of a series of contradictory, complex dynamics involving slavery and freedom, old and new, and local and Atlantic networks. For African returnees from Brazil, the memory of enslavement continued to impact their lives in Lagos, at the same time that it also defined policies and relationships in the colony during the period. In addition, for non-elite, repatriated Africans, Lagos was a space in which they reengaged with local kinship and commercial connections, while simultaneously asserting themselves as “Atlantic citizens.”[7] Indeed, after these Afro-Brazilian repatriates settled in the colony, their social and commercial networks included new relations, emigrants who they had known in Bahia, and Yoruba family members with whom they reunited. Within these relationships, they constantly (re)negotiated spaces of freedom, both in the colony and in the larger Atlantic world.

Joao Esan da Rocha
João Esan da Rocha (left image) was a Yoruba slave sent to Bahia. He returned with his Brazilian-born son, Candido (right image, with his mother Angelica). João built the famous Water House in the Brazilian Quarter of Lagos, and Candido lived there courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nineteenth-century courtroom testimonies from these emigrants, contained in documents housed at the Lagos State High Court, reveal these dynamics and the ways that they impacted the lives of returnees in the colony. Ewusu, a freed Yoruba emigrant from Bahia, serves as one such example. The late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Yoruba wars dispersed Ewusu and her family from their town in the interior; as a young girl, she was captured and sold into slavery in Bahia. In 1843, she emigrated to Lagos with her husband and a Brazilian-born child named Maria Mariquinha; ten years later, in 1853, her sister came to the port city from Sierra Leone, where she had been taken by the British after her initial capture. In an 1892 testimony, Ewusu’s nephew remembered the scene when the two sisters met for the first time in Lagos, after being apart for a quarter of a century. He told the court, “They embraced and wept together. They related the stories of the troubles they had passed through in captivity.”[8] Upon Ewusu’s death, however, her Saro relatives went to trial with Maria Mariquinha, the young girl who had emigrated with her. In a fight over who would inherit her estate, the question became whether Maria Mariquinha was a kin relation or Ewusu’s former slave. In the end, the court ruled that Maria Mariquinha did not have rights to Ewusu’s property, illustrating the ways in which slavery continued to be an important element of defining identity and kinship in Lagos colony. These mixed families of formerly enslaved Amaros, Saros, and Brazilian-born relations, like that of Ewusu, illuminates the complicated identities and kinship dynamics in the city during the second half of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, while the condition and memory of slavery still shaped these returnees’ lives in Lagos on both individual and institutional levels at times, the colony also became a refuge for freedom for many formerly enslaved emigrants.


This is a passport application for José Gantois, a “preto liberto,” or “liberated black,” who is requesting to go to the “Coast of Africa.” His “nation” (ethnicity) is Mina, which was a generic term used during the nineteenth century to describe people from the Bight of Benin region. Gantois’ passport application is dated 12 March 1867. Source: APEB, Escravo embarcação, desembarcação para seguir viagem (1867–69), maço 6371. Photo by Susan Rosenfeld.

In addition to being a city comprised of complex relational networks, Lagos also served as a node of Atlantic engagement that facilitated the free movement of formerly enslaved returnees between West Africa and Brazil. While these emigrants often rekindled their Yoruba social and commercial relationships in the region, the Amaros maintained the networks that they had forged across the Atlantic, as well. Passport registers from the port of Salvador show that many emigrants made multiple trips to Bahia after repatriating to Lagos, in order to visit family or to participate in trans-Atlantic trade. The colonial policy of issuing British passports to Brazilian returnees—despite the fact that they were not considered British citizens—allowed these Amaros to travel without the risk of re-enslavement. Lisa Earl Castillo’s work on mapping the nineteenth-century Brazilian returnee movement provides insight into the origins of this practice, which Consul Campbell implemented in 1858. Castillo explains, “He [Campbell] initially envisioned this as a way of assisting those who wished to resettle in homelands in the interior rather than remain in Lagos.”[9] Campbell extended this practice to those returnees who wished to travel back and forth between Lagos and Brazil or Cuba. As Castillo notes, soon these Brazilian emigrants used their British passports “not only for international voyages but also for domestic travel within Brazil, much to the local authorities’ displeasure.”[10] Such was the case for José Godinho Bastos, a liberated African who left for Lagos in April 1876. In November of the same year, Bastos returned to Salvador on a ship that embarked from the colony; he arrived in Brazil with a British passport. In March 1877, he again set sail for Lagos; police records from Bahia note that he was still in possession of his British documents.[11] Another liberated African, Augusto João Barcellos, traveled from Rio Grande do Sul to Salvador, where he obtained a passport to sail to Lagos in 1868. He settled in the colony, where he became a farmer and a merchant. However, his trans-Atlantic business dealings brought him back to Salvador by 1889, at which point he had a British passport. He again sailed for his home in Lagos in March of that year, and the Brazilian police recorded his status as a British subject.[12]

Using their British passports, these Afro-Brazilian emigrants exercised their freedom by expanding their mobility. The colonial policies, the changing dynamics, and the diverse population of Lagos allowed these returnees to maintain and create new trans-Atlantic connections, while simultaneously rekindling the social, ethnic and commercial ties they had lost when they were sold into slavery. In this way, the city of Lagos became an important freedom hub for Africans and their descendants throughout the Atlantic during the second half of the nineteenth century. While the early-twentieth century brought additional changes and increasingly restrictive colonial policies toward Africans, the Afro-Brazilian emigrants who settled in the city during the decades before used this urban space to contest the legacies of slavery and to reimagine themselves as free members of both their local community in Lagos and their commercial and social networks that spanned the Atlantic.

DSC03231.jpgSusan A.C. Rosenfeld (@sarosenfeld) is a Ph.D. Candidate in African History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Based on multi-sited research, her dissertation—“Apparitions of the Atlantic: Afro-Brazilian Freedom, Mobility, and Self-Identification in Lagos and the Atlantic World, 1851–1900,” focuses on non-elite, formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who emigrated from Brazil to Lagos during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Featured image (at top): The Bamgboshe Martins House, home of a Candomblé Egúngún from Brazil, photograph by Aderemi Adegbite courtesy of

[1] Robin Law, ed., From Slave Trade to ‘Legitimate’ Commerce: The commercial transition in nineteenth-century West Africa (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[2] There is an ongoing scholarly debate over the number of nineteenth-century repatriates. See Pierre Verger, Flux et reflux de la traite des nègres entre le Golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos du XVIIe au XIXe siècle (Paris: Mouton, 1968), 633; Jerry M. Turner, Les Brésiliens: The Impact of Former Slaves upon Dahomey (Ph.D. dissertation, Boston University, 1975), 78; Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, Negros, estrangeiros: os escravos libertos e sua volta à África (São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1978), 210–16; Clément da Cruz, “Les Apports culturels des Noirs de la Diaspora à l’Afrique” (Contonou: UNESCO, 1983), 5.

[3] Carneiro da Cunha, Negros, estrangeiros, 137.

[4] Lisa A. Lindsay, “‘To Return to the Bosom of Their Fatherland’: Brazilian Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century Lagos,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 1 (1994): 26–27.

[5] Lisa Earl Castillo, “Mapping the Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Returnee Movement: Demographics, Life Stories, and the Question of Slavery,” Atlantic Studies 13, no. 1 (2016): 35.

[6] Kristin Mann, “Finding Slave Voices in British Colonial High Court Records: Lagos, 1879,” Conference on “Finding the African Voice: Narratives of Slavery and Enslavement,” Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study and Conference Center, Bellagio, Italy, 24–28 September, 2007. Mann also discusses this dynamic in her book, Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760–1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).

[7] This phrase is adapted to the Afro-Brazilian context from Leslie Eckel’s work on nineteenth-century writers in the United States; see Atlantic Citizens: Nineteenth-Century American Writers at Work in the World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

[8] Lagos State High Court (hereafter LSHC), Judge’s Notebook, Civil Cases, 386–88, Maria Mariquinha v. David Williams, 9 February 1892.

[9] Castillo, “Mapping the Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Returnee Movement,” 36.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia (hereafter APEB), Lista de Entrada e Saída de Passageiros (1876), maço 5953; APEB, Saídas dos Passageiros, Republicano No. 52; APEB, Registros de passaportes (1875–77), maço 5905.

[12] APEB, Registros de passaportes (1864–68), maço 5901; APEB, Registro de passaportes (1885–89), maço 5910; LSHC, Judge’s Notebook, Civil Cases, 48–53, Augusto João Barcellos v. Roqui João Gonsalo, 14 April 1891.

Lagos: A Place with Open Eyes

By Lisa A. Lindsay

A decade before the American Civil War, James Churchwill (“Church”) Vaughan set out to fulfill his formerly enslaved father’s dying wish: that he should leave his home in South Carolina for a new life in Africa. With help from the American Colonization Society, he went first to Liberia, though he did not stay there long. In 1855, Vaughan accepted an offer of employment in Yorubaland—about which Americans knew virtually nothing–with Southern Baptist missionaries. Over the next four decades in today’s southwestern Nigeria, Vaughan became a war captive, served as a military sharpshooter, built and re-built a livelihood, led a revolt against white racism in missionary churches, and founded a family of activists. When his relatives were struggling in South Carolina in the late 1860s, he sent them canvas bags filled with gold. His descendants in Lagos and those of his siblings in the United States maintained contact for the next century. When Church Vaughan died in 1893, he left his widow and three children land, businesses, and multiple houses in central Lagos, and he was buried under an imposing monument in Ikoyi Cemetery.[1]

James Churchwill Vaughan portrait.jpg
James Churchill Vaughn (1828-1893) portrait

Vaughan’s remarkable story reveals two fundamental features of Lagos life, a century ago and now. First, this is a place where strangers came, and still come, to seek their fortunes. Originally a fishing village, Lagos had developed as an outpost for international slaving and then “legitimate trade” in palm oil and other tropical produce. By the late nineteenth century, the city was known as the “Liverpool of West Africa.” New settlers arrived, pulled by economic opportunities generated by the export trade and pushed by violence and insecurity in the interior that had begun with the disintegration of the Oyo Empire in the 1820s. In the 1860s, when Vaughan, his African wife, and their little son walked there after being expelled with other Christians from the inland town of Abeokuta, Lagos’s population was estimated at 25,000. He prospered as a carpenter and then as a merchant of building supplies, importing hardware and other materials for the houses and stores that newcomers continued to build. By 1881, the city had grown to 38,000, which included only 111 Europeans, despite the fact that Lagos had become a British colony twenty years earlier. The numbers kept increasing, so that by 1911 Lagos’s population numbered three times what it had been in 1866.   People came for many reasons, including to escape interior warfare or slavery, or as part of another migrant’s retinue of dependents. But it was the lure of wealth through trade that called many of them to the city, even though few new migrants ultimately became rich. “The real Lagosian loves above everything else to be a trader,” a resident missionary wrote in 1881.[2]

JCV whole tombstone
James Churchill Vaughn’s tombstone from a distance in Ikoyi Cemetery, Lagos, Nigeria.

Many of the most visible and prosperous traders were, like Church Vaughan, refugees from Atlantic world slavery. Ex-slaves from Brazil and Cuba, most of them Yoruba or of Yoruba descent, had resettled in Lagos (and nearby Whydah and elsewhere) since the late 1830s, largely through their own initiatives. They formed a residential and commercial quarter in the city, and many of them worked as carpenters, builders, or other artisans, giving Brazilian-style flourishes to the homes and businesses of their clients. Vaughan, in fact, lived among them and became their supplier when he went into the hardware business. The other significant group of newcomers were the so-called Saro, people who themselves or whose parents had been enslaved in the disintegration of the Oyo Empire, forced onto slave ships headed to Brazil or Cuba, been rescued at sea by British antislavery patrols and landed at Sierra Leone. They later made their way back to their areas of origin. By the mid-1860s, probably around 1,000 Sierra Leonians and equal numbers of Brazilians had settled in Lagos, and their numbers tripled over the next two decades. Their prior commercial experience, initial capital, contacts with Europeans, and western education enabled some Sierra Leonians to move quickly into the import-export trade and ascend to the top of the local elite. In fact, it was mostly Saro whom Martin Delany was describing when he noticed, passing through Lagos in 1859, that “The merchants and business men of Lagos [are] principally native black gentlemen, there being but ten white houses in the place…and all of the clerks are native blacks.”[3] Both they and the Brazilians literally made their mark on the city’s landscape. To this day, central Lagos’s streets bear the names of early returnees, including Savage, Cole, Doherty, and Davies in the Olowogbowo area settled by Sierra Leonians and Bamgbose, Pedro, Martins, and Tokunboh in the Brazilian quarter (Tokunboh meaning a person who has returned from abroad).

Ebenezer Baptist Church, Lagos. Constructed in 1893 and replaced in 1974.

Church Vaughan’s remarkable life also serves as a reminder of the persistent ability of Lagosians to borrow creatively and make something new. In his case, it was his connections with the African diaspora that helped inspire him to lead a rebellion against racist white missionaries in the late 1880s. Taking inspiration from African Americans who formed their own churches and schools as a response to discrimination, in 1888 Vaughan and several others formed the first non-missionary Christian church in West Africa, the Native (later Ebenezer) Baptist Church in Lagos. But Yoruba people had long appreciated the potential of new ideas from elsewhere to improve things locally. The term ọ̀lajú, meaning “enlightenment” or “civilization” (from the Yoruba verb meaning “to open the eyes”) was first used in the mid-nineteenth century to describe the cultural package brought by European missionaries, including technical, medical, and clerical skills as well as Christianity. It also referred to those who were not necessarily well educated, but who gained worldly knowledge by pursuing opportunities away from home. Either way, the central idea was to use knowledge or experience from somewhere else to bring progress back home.[4] This was certainly what new arrivals in Lagos tried to do, building on trading connections or using ideas from places they had lived in order to pursue success in their new hometown.

29 kakawa st 300 dpi
W. Vaughan House, 29 Kakawa Street, Lagos, 2006, photo by Lisa A. Lindsay.
This was built by Church Vaughan’s prosperous son, in the “Brazilian” style. (See


The most famous Lagosian of the twentieth century may have been Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the pioneer musician and inveterate political critic, who died in 1997. Fela grew up in the town of Abeokuta, where his father had been a school principal and his mother led a massive women’s protest against a colonially-backed local ruler. After stints in London, Ghana, and Los Angeles, in the 1960s Fela made Lagos his lifelong home and creative muse. There, he created Afrobeat, an infectious musical style that blended local highlife, Yoruba melodies, jazz, and the funk of James Brown into something altogether new. Fela, like Church Vaughan and countless others, brought to Lagos the creative vitality of people on the move. The city has been built by people like them—refugees, entrepreneurs, and hustlers, who “opened their eyes” in multiple directions.

L in London 2018.jpgLisa A. Lindsay is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  A specialist in the history of Nigeria, the slave trade, and the Atlantic world, she is the author of Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa, which won the African Studies Association’s prize for the best book in any field of African studies published in 2017.  Previous publications include Working with Gender: Wage Labor and Social Change in Colonial Southwestern Nigeria (2003); Captives as Commodities: The Transatlantic Slave Trade (2008); and the co-edited volumes Men and Masculinities in Modern Africa (2003) and Biography and the Black Atlantic (2014). 

Featured image (at top): James Churchill Vaughn’s tombstone, Ikoyi Cemetery, Lagos, Nigeria.

[1] Lisa A. Lindsay, Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[2] J. Buckley Wood, “On the Inhabitants of Lagos: Their Character, Pursuits, and Language,” Church Missionary Intelligencer (1881): 683-91, 687 quoted.

[3] M.R. Delany, “Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party,” in Howard H. Bell (ed.), Search for a Place: Black Separatism and Africa, 1860, edited by (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 113-14.

            [4] J.D.Y. Peel, “Olaju: A Yoruba Concept of Development,” Journal of development Studies 14 (1978): 139-65.

Hyping Philly One More Time: A Round Up of our March Metro of the Month with additional Bibliography

As historians gather their kits together to embark on the quest that is #OAH19, The Metropole would like to provide some Philadelphia-centric reading material to those travelling the highways and byways of America to reach the City of Brotherly Love.

We offer, first, a round up of our March coverage of the Philly for our Metropolis of the Month feature (MotM). Second, Alyssa Ribeiro took a peek at our initial Philadelphia bibliography and found it a bit wanting on issues such as ethnicity and social movements. She’s provided a cracker jack addition to our foray into the field, her list being particularly focused on the twentieth century. Professor Ribeiro’s recommendations are, as the kids like to say on “the twitter,” “chef’s kiss!”

March Metropolis of the Month (MotM): Philadelphia


Philadelphia Museum of Art, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

The Complexities of Brotherly Love: Frank Rizzo, Blue Collar Conservatism and LGBT Rights in 1970’s Philadelphia

We kicked things off with our usual overview/bibliography of the MotM, this time focusing on the rise of white, blue collar conservatism and the parallel growth of Gay Liberation in the city.

“Liberty Forsaken”, mural in North Philadelphia, photo by Domenic Vitiello, 2002.

Sanctuary and the City

University of Pennsylvania’s Domenic Vitiello drops by to explore the politics of immigration and Philadelphia’s place as a sanctuary city


Reading Terminal builder Charles McCaul prepared this lithograph of Phiadelphia, Pennsylvania’s new train terminal and market for the building’s opening in 1893, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Buried Legacies: Former Landfills and Philadelphia’s Future

Temple University PhD candidate, James Cook Thajudeen discusses a sometimes maligned but absolutely critical aspect of urban living: sanitation and waste removal. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure takes on new meaning in his piece.

“Philadelphia Convention including Mary Ovington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, and James Weldon Johnson, posed standing, full-length,” between 1920 and 1938, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

African American Politics in the City of Brotherly Love

It’s always good to get a peek at upcoming works, particularly when contextualized in our current political moment. DePaul historian James Wolfinger discusses both Philadelphia history in the era of a certain orange-tinged leader and the upcoming anthology of the city that he edited, featuring contributions from leading historians of Philly.

Philadelphia General Hospital, aerial view, 1973, courtesy of University of Pennsylvania: University Archives Image Collection.

Building the Hospital City: The Redevelopment of Philadelphia General Hospital

Meds and eds has been a well publicized strategy for urban renewal in former rust belt cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The Miller Center’s Guian McKee delves into the subject to explore the ramifications of such policies and just how advantageous the public-private relationships on which these developments rest are for the city and its citizenry.


Under Two Flags 10-13-59

Under Two Flags: How Nancy Giddens Built Bridges between Black and Puerto Rican Neighbors

Black-Latino relations have often been portrayed as frayed and, while not untrue, it remains only part of a larger, more complex story. Through the person of Philadelphia Tribune columnist and frequent flyer Nancy Giddens, Allegheny College’s Alyssa Ribiero provides a window into mid-20th century Black-Puerto Rican relations and Giddens’ efforts to build community.

Aerial view of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1990 and 2000, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Additions to Philadelphia Bibliography courtesy of Alyssa Ribiero

Adams, Carolyn T. From the Outside In: Suburban Elites, Third-Sector Organizations, and the Reshaping of Philadelphia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014.

Anderson, Elijah. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Arnau, Ariel. “The Evolution of Leadership within the Puerto Rican Community of Philadelphia.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 136, no. 1 (2012): 53–81.

Bauman, John F., Norman P. Hummon, and Edward K. Muller. “Public Housing, Isolation, and the Urban Underclass: Philadelphia’s Richard Allen Homes, 1941-1965.” Journal of Urban History 17, no. 3 (1991): 264–92.

Binzen, Peter. Whitetown, U.S.A. New York: Random House, 1970.

Canton, David A. Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fights for Civil Rights in Philadelphia. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2010.

Capozzola, Christopher. “‘It Makes You Want to Believe in the Country’: Celebrating the Bicentennial in an Age of Limits.” In America in the Seventies, edited by Beth Bailey and David Farber, 29–49. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Cutler, William W., and Howard Gillette, eds. The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800-1975. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Donner, Frank J. Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Dubin, Murray. South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Dyson, Omari L., Kevin L. Brooks, and Judson L. Jeffries. “‘Brotherly Love Can Kill You’: The Philadelphia Branch of the Black Panther Party.” In Comrades: A Local History of the Black Panther Party, edited by Judson L. Jeffries, 214–54. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Ellison, Elaine Krasnow. Voices from Marshall Street: Jewish Life in a Philadelphia Neighborhood, 1920-1960. Philadelphia: Camino Books, 1994.

Ershkowitz, Miriam, and Joseph Zikmund II, eds. Black Politics in Philadelphia. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Stoop on a row house in South Philadelphia, PA, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Feffer, Andrew. “The Land Belongs to the People: Reframing Urban Protest in Post-Sixties Philadelphia.” In The World the 60s Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America, edited by Van Gosse and Richard Moser, 67–99. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.

Franklin, V. P. The Education of Black Philadelphia: The Social and Educational History of a Minority Community, 1900-1950. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979.

González, Juan D. “The Turbulent Progress of Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia.” Centro 2, no. 2 (1987): 35–41.

Goode, Judith. “Polishing the Rustbelt: Immigrants Enter a Restructuring Philadelphia.” In Newcomers in the Workplace: Immigrants and the Restructuring of the U.S. Economy, edited by Louise Lamphere, Alex Stepick, and Guillermo Grenier, 199–230. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Goode, Judith, and Jo Anne Schneider. Reshaping Ethnic and Racial Relations in Philadelphia: Immigrants in a Divided City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Griffin, Sean Patrick. Philadelphia’s ‘Black Mafia’: A Social and Political History. New York and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003.

Harry, Margot. “Attention, MOVE! This Is America!” Chicago: Banner Press, 1987.

Haumann, Sebastian. “Modernism Was ‘Hollow’: The Emergence of Participatory Planning in Philadelphia, 1950-1970.” Planning Perspectives 26, no. 1 (2011): 55–73.

Johnson, Karl E. “Police-Black Community Relations in Postwar Philadelphia: Race and Criminalization in Urban Social Spaces, 1945-1960.” Journal of African American History 89, no. 2 (2004): 118–34.

Kairys, David. Philadelphia Freedom: Memoir of a Civil Rights Lawyer. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Luconi, Stefano. From Paesani to White Ethnics: The Italian Experience in Philadelphia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Lukacs, John. Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950. 1981. Reprint, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2017.

Mural on the side of a building in a neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

McAllister, David. “Realtors and Racism in Working-Class Philadelphia, 1945-1970.” In African American Urban History Since World War II, edited by Kenneth L. Kusmer and Joe W. Trotter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Muller, Peter O., Kenneth C. Meyer, and Roman A. Cybriwsky. Metropolitan Philadelphia: A Study of Conflicts and Social Cleavages. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1976.

Naples, Nancy A. Grassroots Warriors: Activist Mothering, Community Work, and the War on Poverty. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Ribeiro, Alyssa. “Forgotten Residents Fighting Back: The Ludlow Community Association and Neighborhood Improvement in Philadelphia.” In Civil Rights and Beyond: African American and Latino/a Activism in the Twentieth-Century United States, edited by Brian D. Behnken, 172–94. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016.

Rose, Dan. Black American Street Life: South Philadelphia, 1969-1971. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

Shelton, Jon. Teacher Strike!: Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order. University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Simon, Roger D. Philadelphia: A Brief History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017.

Sullivan, Leon H. Build Brother Build. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Company, 1969.

Takenaka, Ayumi, and Mary Johnson Osirim, eds. Global Philadelphia: Immigrant Communities Old and New. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.

Vásquez-Hernández, Víctor. Before the Wave: Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia, 1910-1945. Centro Press, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, 2017.

Velázquez, José E. “Coming Full Circle: The Puerto Rican Socialist Party, U.S. Branch.” In The Puerto Rican Movement: Voices from the Diaspora, edited by Andrés Torres and José E. Velázquez, 48–68. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Weiler, Conrad. Philadelphia: Neighborhood, Authority, and the Urban Crisis. New York: Praeger, 1974.

Whalen, Carmen Teresa. “Bridging Homeland and Barrio Politics: The Young Lords in Philadelphia.” In The Puerto Rican Movement: Voices from the Diaspora, edited by Andrés Torres and José E. Velázquez, 107–23. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

———. “Citizens and Workers: African Americans and Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia’s Regional Economy Since World War II.” In African American Urban History Since World War II, edited by Kenneth L. Kusmer and Joe W. Trotter, 98–122. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

———. From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia: Puerto Rican Workers and Postwar Economies. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Wherry, Frederick F. The Philadelphia Barrio: The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Wilson, Kathryn E. Ethnic Renewal in Philadelphia’s Chinatown: Space, Place, and Struggle. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015.

Winch, Julie. Philadelphia’s Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787-1848. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Featured image (at top): Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Under Two Flags: How Nancy Giddens Built Bridges between Black and Puerto Rican Neighbors

Editor’s note: In anticipation of this week’s #OAH2019/#OAH19 in Philadelphia, the March Metro of the Month was the City of Brotherly love (you can see here for all of our offerings; it begins with the post below but if you scroll down you’ll find all the others). We offer a final new post to whet your intellectual appetites for the city. To get more info about the conference click over to the organization’s website, where you can also download the OAH’s program for the event.

By Alyssa Ribeiro

Ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico—due to both humanmade and natural disasters—has accelerated migration from the island to Philadelphia. In the past decade, the city replaced Chicago as the second largest concentration of Puerto Ricans on the US mainland, behind only New York City. These migrants joined enclaves established in the early and mid-twentieth century. Even more so than today, earlier Puerto Rican arrivals found a city sharply divided between black and white. Neighbors often dismissed them as “foreigners,” even though they were U.S. citizens. Building relationships across racial and cultural divides thus became crucial to migrants’ opportunities in a new city. Black Philadelphians were generally more likely allies than their white counterparts.

Featured image (at top): Church of the Advocate located on the Northwest corner of Eighteenth and Diamond Streets was an important organizing space for social movements in North Philadelphia, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, the growth of Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican population quickly accelerated. Clustered in a handful of North Philadelphia neighborhoods, recent arrivals shared space and resources with a predominantly black population. In these years, Puerto Ricans forged early ties with black communities through Nancy Giddens, a middle-class, African-American woman who was a well-known socialite and journalist. These ties prefigured relationships that would coalesce into multiracial grassroots organizing and political coalitions in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Nancy Giddens was born Nancy Bryant in Portsmouth, Virginia and moved to Philadelphia sometime prior to 1940. She attended business school in the city and settled with her husband Earl in West Philadelphia, where they raised one son. She was an expert seamstress with an interest in fashion, the social scene, travel, and charity work. She played active roles in many organizations, and for two decades she spoke to the public through the pages of the Philadelphia Tribune, a twice-weekly black newspaper.

Giddens was involved in an array of established organizations and created several of her own. From the early 1950s, she coordinated the activities of the Mahlon M. Lewis Guild of Greater St. Matthews Independent Church, where she worshipped. She was founder and president of the Traveleers Civic-Social Club, a group through which Philadelphia professional women traveled and offered their service. She also organized fundraising events for Heritage House, an educational and cultural institution for black youth. Her civic activism gained wide recognition, and in the midst of the Vietnam War Giddens became the first black woman to be appointed to a draft board in the state of Pennsylvania. Such representation mattered during a foreign conflict that disproportionately took its toll on communities of color.

Discover Puerto Rico U.S.A. Where the Americas meet, Frank S. Nicholson, between 1936 and 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Giddens’ love of travel took her to Puerto Rico regularly beginning in 1955. Friends often threw lavish bon voyage parties before her departures from home, with as many as one hundred guests. Her daughter-in-law, Marion Gracia, said Giddens was “loved” on the island, adding “She was their queen, and she received many honors during her visits there.” [1] This reception likely reflected her warm personality as well as her desire to bring much-needed resources to island residents. Giddens also warmly received visitors from the island back in Philadelphia, on one occasion throwing an elaborate dinner party for Reverend and Mrs. Jose Anthony Luciano from Naguabo, Puerto Rico. Giddens’s personal relationship with the Lucianos and others on the island guided the Traveleer’s relief efforts. The group created a Milk Fund for Puerto Rican children and donated supplies in the wake of a hurricane.

Closer to home, Giddens hobnobbed with Puerto Rican migrants to Philadelphia, most of them likely middle class and involved in civic organizations. Giddens was well enough regarded in the growing Puerto Rican community that she was elected president of the Puerto Rican Civic Association in 1959. She also served as director of the Puerto Rican Women’s Committee, sat on the board of the Spanish Youth Congress, and advised the Puerto Rican Center at Berean Institute.

Discover Puerto Rico U.S.A. Where the Americas meet, Frank S. Nicholson, between 1936 and 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Many more Philadelphians encountered Giddens through her long career with the newspaper. In the mid-fifties, she sat on the Tribune’s Board of Directors and started to write a dressmaking column. Meanwhile, out of personal interest she began occasionally writing about Puerto Rico and its people. In late 1958, her efforts became a regular column titled “Under Two Flags,” which sought to “enlighten the public on the problems encountered and faced by the Puerto Rican migrant.” [2] The column ran with varying frequency until 1967. Giddens also provided the public with general updates in “Social Whirl,” which was later renamed “The Changing Scene.” In the early seventies, she penned a column that profiled local working women. In addition to writing, Giddens served as the paper’s Women’s Editor for more than a decade. Giddens had a strong and wide-ranging network of social connections, and she used the Tribune’s women’s pages to promote and publicize the activities of local programs and organizations.

Giddens’s contributions and popularity did not go unnoticed at the time. While presenting her with an award, radio personality Del Shields of WDAS-FM called her “the woman who literally holds the key of influence and leadership among women in Philadelphia.” [3] In addition to honors from many local organizations, the mayor recognized the breadth of her community service in 1963. She later received a Distinguished Service Award from President Gerald Ford for her work on the Philadelphia Selective Service Appeal Board. After leaving the Tribune in the early seventies and starting a public relations firm, Giddens passed away in 1989.

Giddens served black and Puerto Rican residents in several ways. She was a ubiquitous participant in clubs and civic organizations, where she often used her artistic, logistical, and social skills to coordinate impressive events. Given her popularity and level of involvement, she likely facilitated networking among Philadelphia’s black middle class, and may have inspired others to serve or donate resources. She also served as a type of cultural ambassador between Philadelphia’s black and Puerto Rican residents through her widely-disseminated columns and her involvement in early Puerto Rican organizations. These ties created a foundation for broader alliances as Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican population continued to grow in the following decades.

2019-03-28 15.36.43Alyssa Ribeiro is a historian of 20th century US cities, race, and ethnicity. She holds a PhD from Pitt and is currently an assistant professor of History and Black Studies at Allegheny College. She previously studied Black and Puerto Rican relations in Philadelphia and is now working on a book manuscript which traces how North Philadelphia residents responded to the pressures of deindustrialization, fiscal austerity, and growing political conservatism between the 1960s and the 1980s. You can read other brief essays she has written on related topics at the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia ( 

[1] Quote from Kendall Wilson, “Social Columnist Nancy L. Giddens Succumbs at 76,” Philadelphia Tribune, June 27, 1989.

[2] Quote from Nancy Giddens, “Under Two Flags,” Philadelphia Tribune, December 13, 1958.

[3] Quote from Priscilla Penn, “21 Key Club’s 2nd ‘Creative Arts’ Award Presented to Tribune Society Editor,” Philadelphia Tribune, December 11, 1962.



Nollywood Dreams, Lagosian Realities: A Bibliography for the Capital of West Africa

In its section on Nigeria, Lonely Planet’s 1995 edition of its Rough Guide to West Africa advised that getting the most out of one’s visit to the country depended on avoiding “Lagos and the sprawling congested cities of Ibadan, Port Hartcourt, Enugu, and Onitsha.” Several years later, a 30th anniversary edition offered a more nuanced take suggesting that some travelers might find the city “compelling” but that the metropolis remained a wild ride: “Lagos is chaos theory made flesh and concrete.”[1]

To be fair, Lagos struggled mightily in the early 1990s. “Lagos’s prosperity peaked in the early 1980s,” notes sociologist Oka Obono, “before military coups and difficulties with the IMF drove Nigeria into recession.”[2] Military rule ensued, as did restrictions on civil liberties and a debilitating crime wave. Over time, although crime rates fluctuated on the whole they remained high. During 2007, 50 people per month perished in Lagos State robberies. “Home invasions were extremely common in Lagos in the 1990s, they still happen, though less frequently,” the unnamed protagonist of Teju Cole’s Everyday for the Thief —a Nigerian ex-pat returning to the city for the first time in over a decade—tells readers.[3]

During the ‘90s, the city became the epicenter for political resistance to the authoritarian government. Even with such dissent, Lagos had lost some of its governance mojo as Nigerian leaders moved the capital to Abuja in 1991. Abuja bloomed under the jaundiced influence of malfeasance and graft as greedy military leaders and contractors conspired to build the new capital for personal benefit and largely at the public’s expense. “The stink of corruption, presumed to be too much the vernacular of life in Lagos, become the breath of air in this Medina,” famed Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun observed.[4]

Amidst economic, political and social struggle, Lagos still made its mark on Africa, let along Nigeria. The proliferation of VCR’s and hand-held recording devices during the late 1980s and early 1990s intersected with a city struggling through economic depression and a debilitating crime wave. No longer safe enough to venture out to the cinema nor able to afford its cost, Lagosians invested time and money in “home movies,” as they are sometimes referred. Film making on Lagos streets emerged as a popular new and widely disseminated media form. Known as Nollywood, Nigeria’s movie industry, the third largest in the world behind America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood, soon asserted itself continentally.

Due in part to Lagos’s “low capital” economy dominated by informal employment, directors and producers discovered cost efficient strategies to scatter celluloid stardust across Africa. “Nollywood is cheap and nimble,” a 2010 Economist article summarized. “Films are shot on digital video cameras. Scripts are improvised.” Pirates understood how to smuggle and distribute Nollywood products across national boundaries and over vast distances, thereby creating the pan-African movie market. It gave voice and representation to not only Lagosians and Nigerians, but Africans generally. “Nollywood is the voice of Africa, the answer to CNN,” Lancelot Idowu, one of Nigeria’s best-known directors noted. The Economist furthered this argument by declaring film “Africa’s dominant medium, replacing music and dance. It links distant societies, fosters the exchange of ideas and drives fashion trends.”[5]

“New Money” one of the most popular Nollywood films of 2018 courtesy of

Due in part to Nollywood and a burgeoning art scene, a new Lagos—or, at the very least, a new projection of Lagos—has come to dominate the media narrative about the city. A February 2019 New York Times article depicted the Lagos art world as an edgy, transnational, and still developing affair, though emergent enough that Lagosians refer to it as an art “ecosystem.” Gallery showings draw Lagos’ upper crust and exude an air of excitement amidst the chaos that many point to as the metropolis’s defining characteristic. “Cars snaked out from the hideous traffic and deposited the city’s elite, dressed to impress, at the Civic Center, a concrete-and-steel edifice fronting Lagos Lagoon,” journalist Siddhartha Mitter noted. “Women exuding Vogue beauty and power paused on the patio to give television interviews.”

Do not underestimate the importance of such developments. “Literature, music, visual arts, theater, film. The most convincing signs of life I see in Nigeria are connected to the practices of the arts,” Cole’s aforementioned protagonist remarks. “And it is like this. Each time I am sure that, in returning to Lagos, I have inadvertently wandered into a region of hell, something else emerges to give me hope.”[6]

Keep in mind, on the one hand, 21st century Lagos is replete with chaotic traffic, electricity blackouts, violent crime, and overcrowded housing. On the other hand, it boasts glittering skyscrapers, a burgeoning art scene and an ascendant film industry. Today’s Lagos did not emerge from a vacuum but rather took its shape from a postcolonial order over the course of six decades.

In 1950, fewer than 300,000 people resided in Lagos, but by 1963, 1.14 million residents lived there; thirteen years later, the population had climbed to 2.55 million. By 1982, the city counted just over 4 million residents, and today estimates often exceed 21 million. Industry took root in Lagos even before independence, such that by 1965 roughly a third of the nation’s manufacturing could be found in the metropolitan area.[7] The rise of Lagosian industry in turn set off migration from the countryside to the city. Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, the city’s overall growth rate averaged 6%. Due in part to this industrialization, particularly after 1960, the annual growth rate of Lagos State averaged just below 10% from 1970 to 1980, three times the national standard. Many of the newcomers hacked it out as squatters or found spaces in illegal housing. For example, in 1952, 22% of families lived in unplanned areas; just over two decades later, this figure had more than doubled to 50%.[8]

Though massive slum clearance legislation passed in 1955 and persisted into the post-colonial era, colonial rulers made few if any concessions for this migration. The only sections of Lagos that appeared to have been actually planned were those inhabited by Europeans. The rest of the metropolis would be shaped by economic forces rather than direct government intervention.[9]

Mural on the NITEL telecom tower by Nickson Borys Architects, completed in the 1960s in Old Lagos courtesy of The British Council

Lagosian urban renewal focused on projecting a newly independent Lagos as a symbol of national standing. Much as in American cities of the time, the Lagos business district along Marina Road, Broad Street, and Nnamdi Azikiwe Street received special attention. Nigerian architects adapted the international style of Europe to the African climate, inventing tropical modernism. “Slim, streamlined slabs of reinforced concrete with unadorned faces – the signs of modernism in Europe – were also the markers of tropical modernism,” writes historian Daniel Immerwahr. The excitement of independence allowed for adaptations such that Nigerian architects “let fly with all the clichés, gambits and stylistic treatments” that European tastes and regulations forbade.[10]

Western House by Nickson Borys Architects, Old Lagos. An example of tropical modernism courtesy of The British Council

Yet tropical modernism represented only one side of the coin in the nation and city’s bifurcated housing policy. The new architectural style would be reserved for government offices and downtown buildings, but government housing estates would follow European models. While tropical modernism represented an exciting break from the colonial past replete with Nigeria’s personal stamp, housing estates signaled the newly independent nation’s stability and power as it drew upon the modern, though not necessarily modernist, styles of Europe. The yolk of colonialism persisted even after independence: the “respectability politics” of architecture.

For example, one of the earliest housing estates built, Surlure, was constructed on the British Garden City model and looked much like the contemporaneous “automobile suburbs of the U.S.” As one of the state’s first such efforts, it established a pattern for public housing regimes. Erected during an oil boom on the northern section of Lagos’ mainland, much like public housing in the United States, Surlure was isolated; its location made work commutes difficult and attempts by the government to transform “slum dwellers” into “polite suburbanites” proved misguided and unsuccessful. [11]

The award winning British Council building in Lagos, an updated version of tropical modernism. Courtesy of the British Council.

Government housing provisions established in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s placed regulations on housing that made its cost prohibitive for many city residents. Unplanned communities sprouted. To the extent one can assign a noticeable design influence, the Brazilian bungalow model brought to Nigeria by formerly enslaved Muslims and Catholics who settled in Nigeria in the latter half of the nineteenth century would be the best example. The inability or unwillingness to follow regulations did not hamper the growth of such communities since the government failed to enforce their provisions, until crime, depression, and political decline assaulted Lagos during the 1980s.

By then, the government imposed its draconian will with overly zealous policing and intervention into daily affairs.[12] The latter was exemplified by the government’s “War Against Indiscipline,” begun in 1984, which attempted to raze the city’s informal sector by eradicating slums, disrupting local markets, and getting Nigerians to “queue patiently at bus stops, shops, and government offices.” Between 1985 and 1986, the government demolished nearly 5,000 illegal structures. The “War Against Filth” followed, which required Lagosians to clean their homes and yards during the last Saturday of every month from 7am to 10 am. While it sounds like a noble goal, in reality, it functioned as a carrot for the well off and a stick for the working classes and poor.[13]

Market in Mushin, December 2017, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Those driven out by land speculation settled in what the United Nations describes as “peri-urban” areas, almost like slum satellite cities. In Lagos, “new shantytowns grow all the time like shifting sands” in the ever expanding mega-city, journalist Kaye Whiteman points out, notably along Badagry Road, Agege Motor Road, and the Ibadan Expressway.[14] Others end up moving to mainland slums like Mushin, living in “rectangular concrete-block houses” with seven to eight people to a “single, mosquito infested room – in bunks or on the floor – along a narrow corridor of opposing chambers,” as the New Yorker’s George Packer observed in 2006. Both famously and troublingly, only .4% of the Lagos population resides in a home with a toilet connected to a sewer system; two of three residents lack direct access to clean drinking water, electricity, waste disposal or roads.[15]

“Unplanned housing” in Lagos, photo by CE Blueclouds via Flickr, April 14, 2017.

Despite a problematic housing policy and authoritarian regimes, democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999. From the quick, but especially over the last twenty years, Lagosians discovered new ways to navigate the city—notably by building on its long-existing informal economy. In 1963, 70% of women in the city depended on petty trading and related activities to buoy their finances. Hawking one’s wares and services from the home or a nearby sidewalk beat paying rent for a storefront.[16] By the mid 1970s over half the city claimed a foothold in the informal economy.[17] Such hustle, as it is widely known, still accounts for much of the Lagosian economy. As of 2006, informal transaction accounted for over 60% of economic activity. “Everywhere is a market,” one resident told Packer. “The market – as the essence of the city – is always alive with possibility and danger,” Cole’s narrator tells us.[18]

Few things exemplify the complicated existence of Lagos more than its traffic jams and the informal economy that inexplicitly buzzes around them. Markets pop up spontaneously around them; cottage industries such as okadas, motorbikes that traverse traffic congestion far more quickly and cheaply (if at greater risk) than cars and which ferry low-income workers to their place of employment, have gained traction in the informal economy. The “hustle” is literal and metaphorical.

Of course, one should not lionize such developments too much. After all, okadas represent a survival tactic by workers facing structural readjustments in the economy, a nod to the fact that pay in the “regular economy” declined significantly over the course of the 21st century. Traffic jams at once embody the resourcefulness of Lagosians but also the ways in which they remain subject to neoliberal forces of the megacity. “To mention traffic jams is like twiddling a raw nerve in many cities: In Lagos, it is the rawest nerve,” Nigerian poet Ofeimun reminds us.

“It’s like Armageddon,” says one resident of Lagos traffic told the City Journal. George Osodi/AP Photo, courtesy of City Journal.

Middle class Lagosians do not have it easy either. Take, for example, the fictional case of Ifemelu, the protagonist and returning Lagos ex-pat from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. Despite returning to Lagos after many years abroad as a fairly successful professional writer, she must temper her expectations for housing. “The other flats she liked were too expensive. Even though pipes poked out under the kitchen sink and the toilet was lopsided and the bathroom tiles shoddily laid, this was the best she could afford.” Her rent payment helps to explain why illegal housing proves so attractive to many residents. “She wrote the check for two years’ rent. This was why people took bribes and asked for bribes; how else could anyone honestly pay two years’ rent in advance?”[19]

As Whiteman admits, though troubled, Lagos remains a buzzing hive of human ingenuity; in the face of deprivation and with neoliberalism run amok, it contains a “deep and complex cultural richness,” the source of “a multitude of creativities.”[20] The power of Lagos lies in its people, relentlessly hustling and endlessly defiant. “Lagos is more than just a city or megacity; it is in its essential form a ‘spirit of defiance.’ Everything that works can be subverted to some other use,” writes Obono.[21]

Nor can the city or its residents rest on its historical laurels. There can be no dependence on past glories but rather an emphasis on future progress. “Nigerians don’t buy houses because they’re old. A renovated two-hundred-year-old mill granary, you know, the kind of thing Europeans like. It doesn’t work here at all,” Obinze, Ifemelu’s main love interest in Americanah, tells her upon her return to Lagos. “But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of the past.”[22]

Lagos by night, photo by CE Blueclouds via Flickr, April 17, 2016.

Lagosians have always specialized in making something out of very little. Enduring very similar urban policies and navigating far more corrupt systems of graft and governance, Lagos’ citizens have carved out their place in Africa and the world – a booming film industry, an expanding art scene, and an unabated hustle. Lagos, despite all its contradictions, remains an entrepot of promise and opportunity. Peril undoubtedly lingers, but on the streets of Lagos everyone is the star of their own movie.

As always, we’ve provided a bibliography of the city below.  Great thanks to Titilola Halimat Somotan and Susan Rosenfeld for their help in compiling the bibliography. The Metropole realizes that we might have left some essential works off of the list, so please fell free to add those titles we missed in the comments!


Adebanwi, Wale. “The City, Hegemony and Ethno-spatial Politics: The Press and the Struggle for Lagos in Colonial Nigeria.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 9, no. 4 (2004): 25-51.

Adefuye, Ade, Babatunde Agiri, Akinjide Osuntokun, eds. History of the Peoples of Lagos State. Lagos, Nigeria: Lantern Books, 1987.

Adelusi-Adeluyi, Ademide. “Historical Tours of ‘New’ Lagos: Performance, Place Making, and Cartography in the 1880s.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 3 (December 1, 2018): 443–54.

Aderibigbe, A.B., ed. Lagos: The Development of an African City. Nigeria: Longmans, 1975.

Aderinto, Saheed. When Sex Threatened the State: Illicit Sexuality, Nationalism and Politics in Colonial Nigeria, 1900-1958. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015

Agbola, Tunde. The Architecture of Fear: Urban Design and Construction Response to Urban Violence in Lagos, Nigeria. Ibadan: Institut Français de Recherche en Afrique, 1997.

Akinsemoyin, Kunle and Alan Vaughan Richards. Building Lagos. Jersey: Pengrail, 1976.

Akinyele, Rufus T. “Contesting for Space in an Urban Centre: The Omo Onile Syndrome in Lagos.” In African Cities, eds. Francesca Locatelli and Paul Nugent. Brill, 2009, 109–134.

Apter, Andrew A. The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Baker, Pauline. Urbanization and Political Change: The Politics of Lagos: 1917-1967. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Barnes, Sandra T. Patrons and Power: Creating a Political Community in Metropolitan Lagos. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.

Bigon, Liora. “The Former Names of Lagos (Nigeria) in Historical Perspective.” Names 59, no. 4 (December 1, 2011): 229–40.

Bourne, Richard. Nigeria: A New History in a Turbulent Century. London: Zed Books, 2015.

Cole, Patrick. Modern and Traditional Elites in the Politics of Lagos. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Davies, Lanre. “Gentrification in Lagos, 1929–1990.” Urban History (February 2018): 1–21.

Echeruo, M.J. Victorian Lagos: Aspects of Nineteenth Century Lagos Life. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Falola, Toyin and Matthew Heaton. A History of Nigeria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Fapohunda, Olanreqaju J. The Informal Sector of Lagos: An Inquiry into Urban Poverty and Employment. Lagos: University Press Limited, 1985.

Fourchard, Laurent. “Lagos and the Invention of Juvenile Delinquency in Nigeria, 1920–60.” The Journal of African History 47, no. 1 (2006): 115-137.

Gandy, Matthew. “Planning, anti-planning and the infrastructure crisis facing metropolitan Lagos.” Urban Studies 43 (2006): 371–96.

George, Abosede. Making Modern Girls: A History of Girlhood, Labor, and Social Development in Colonial Lagos. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014.

George, Abosede. “Introduction: The Imaginative Capital of Lagos.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 3 (2018): 439–42.

Giles, Omezi. “Nigerian Modernity and the City: Lagos 1960-1980.” In The Arts of Citizenship in African Cities: infrastructures and spaces of belonging, edited by Mamadou Diouf and Rosalinds Fredericks. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 277-298.

Godlewski, Joseph. “Alien and Distant: Rem Koolhaas on Film in Lagos, Nigeria.” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 21, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 7-19.

Hargreaves, John. Prelude to the Partition of West Africa. London: Macmillan, 1963.

Haynes, Jonathan. “Nollywood is Lagos, Lagos in Nollywood Films.” Africa Today 54, no. 2 (Winter, 2007): 131-150.

Immerwahr, Daniel. “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 19, no. 2 (December 2007): 165-186.

“Lights, Camera, Africa,” The Economist, December 16, 2010.

Lindsay, Lisa A. “‘To return to the bosom of their fatherland’: Brazilian Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century Lagos.” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 1 (1994): 22–50.

——–. “Domesticity and Difference: Male Breadwinners, Working Women, and Colonial Citizenship in the 1945 Nigerian General Strike.” American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (1999): 783-812.

——–. Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa. UNC Press Books, 2016.

Mabogunje, Akin. Urbanization in Nigeria. New York: Africana Publishing Corporation, 1968.

Mann, Kristin. Marrying Well : Marriage, Status, and Social Change among the Educated Elite in Colonial Lagos. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

——–. Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Marris, Peter. Family and Social Change in an African City: A Study of Rehousing in Lagos. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1962.

Matory, J. Lorand. “The English Professors of Brazil: On the Diasporic Roots of the Yorùbá Nation.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41, no. 1 (1999): 72–103.

Mitter, Siddhartha. “Lagos, City of Hustle, Builds an Art ‘Ecosystem.’” The New York Times, 8 February 2019.

Muritala, Monsuru Olalekan. “Urban Livelihood in Lagos, 1861-1960.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 20 (2011): 193-200.

Nzegwu, Nkiru. “Bypassing New York in Re-Presenting Eko: Production of Space in a Nigerian City.” In Re-Presenting the City: Ethnicity, Capital and Culture in the 21st-Century Metropolis, ed. Anthony D. King. New York: New York University Press, 1996, 111–36.

Obono, Oka. “A Lagos Thing: Rules and Realities in the Nigerian Megacity.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 8, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 31-37.

Ofeimun, Odia. “Imagination & the City.” African Quarterly on the Arts vol. 3, no. 2 (2001): 12-15, 137-141.

Olukoju, Ayodeji. The “Liverpool” of West Africa: The Dynamics and Impact of Maritime Trade in Lagos, 1900-1950. Africa World Press, 2004.

Olorunyomi, Sola. Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent. Ibadan: IFRA, revised edition, 2005.

Oluwasegun, Jimoh Mufutau. “The British Mosquito Eradication Campaign in Colonial Lagos, 1902-1950.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 51, no. 2 (May 4, 2017): 217–36.

Osifodunrin, Paul. “Strangers, Indigenes and Child Kidnapping in Late Colonial Lagos.” Lagos Historical Review 13 (July 2013): 1–16.

Onajide, M. O. The Development of Housing Policy in Nigeria, 1952-1983: A Case Study of Western Nigeria. Abuja: National Library of Nigeria, 1988.

Peil, Margaret. Cities and Suburbs: Urban Life in West Africa. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981.

—–. Lagos: The City is the People. London: Belhaven Press, 1991.

Packer, George. “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos.” New Yorker, November 13, 2006.

Peel, J.D.Y. Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Sawada, Nozomi. “Selecting Those ‘Worthy’ of Remembering: Memorialization in Early Lagos Newspapers.” Journal of West African History 2, no. 2 (2016): 79-108. doi:10.14321/jwestafrihist.2.2.0079.

Sydney Smith, Robert. The Lagos Consulate: 1851-1861. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979.

Whiteman, Kaye. Lagos: A Cultural History. Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2014.

Wright, Gwendolyn. The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.


Abani, Chris (ed.). Lagos Noir. Brooklyn, NY: Akashic Books, 2018.

Achebe, Chinua. No Longer at Ease. 2009.

Cole, Teju. Everyday is for the Thief. New York: Random House, 2007.

Ekwensi, Cyprian. Jagua Nana. London: Hutchinson, c1961.

——-. Lokotown and Other Stories. London: Heinemann, 1966.

Ngozi Adichie, Chimamanda. Americanah. New York: Anchor, 2014.

Onuzo, Chibundu. Welcome to Lagos. London: Faber and Faber, 2017.

Saro-Wiwa, Ken. Basi and Company. Port Harcourt: Saros Publishers, 1987.

Featured image (at top): Lagos skyline at night, photo by CE Blueclouds via Flickr, July 7, 2018.

[1] Kaye Whiteman, Lagos: A Cultural History, (Northampton, MA: Interlink Publishing, 2014), 113.

[2] Oka Obono, “A Lagos Thing: Rules and Realities in the Nigerian Megacity,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 8, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 32-33.

[3] Obono, “A Lagos Thing,” 35; Teju Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, (New York: Random House, 2007), 45.

[4] Odia Ofeimun, “Imagination & the City,” African Quarterly on the Arts 3, no.2: 12-15, 135-141.

[5] “Lights, Camera, Africa,” Economist, December 16, 2010.

[6] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 87.

[7] Oka Obono, “A Lagos Thing: Rules and Realities in the Nigerian Megacity,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 8, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 32.

[8] Daniel Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 19, no.2 (December 2007): 166, 176; George Packer, “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos,” New Yorker, November 13, 2006,

[9] Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 170-171.

[10] Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 168-169.

[11] Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 171-175.

[12] Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 178.

[13] Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 179.

[14] Whiteman, Lagos: A Cultural History, 52.

[15] Obono, “A Lagos Thing,” 36.

[16] Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 173.

[17] Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 173.

[18] George Packer, “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos,” New Yorker, November 13, 2006,; Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 57.

[19] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, (New York: Anchor, 2014), 486.

[20] Whiteman, Lagos: A Cultural History, 89.

[21] Obono, “A Lagos Thing,” 36.

[22] Adichie, Americanah, 358.

Building the Hospital City: The Redevelopment of Philadelphia General Hospital

By Guian McKee

Visitors to this year’s OAH conference in Philadelphia will likely spend much of their time amidst the revitalized restaurants, bars, arts venues, and office towers of Center City. All this is one part of post-industrial Philadelphia, but historians seeking to understand the actual core of the city’s new economy would do well to skip a conference session or two (really, it’s ok!) and head a few blocks west to the banks of Schuylkill River along Civic Center Boulevard. There, you will pass the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the glass façade of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (or CHOP). Moving farther down the boulevard, you will pass Children’s Seashore House Hospital and reach Osler Circle, coming upon large medical research towers associated with Penn and CHOP.

Two sisters Esther and Louisa Page looking intently at a Truman poster outside Convention Hall in Philadelphia, crowd in background,” 1948, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Fifteen years ago, looking across Civic Center Boulevard you would have seen the gray concrete buildings of the Philadelphia Civic Center and Convention Hall, the site of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s re-nomination for President at the 1936 Democratic National Convention (along with the 1940 Republican National Convention and the 1948 conventions for both parties). Those buildings are now gone, replaced by Penn’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, Smilow Research Center, and Jordan Medical Education Building, as well as CHOP’s Colket Translational Research Building and Buerger Center for Advanced Pediatric Care, and a large parking garage built to accommodate the automobiles of staff and patients driving in from the suburbs and beyond. If you peer past those buildings, you might be able to glimpse the east bank of the Schuylkill River, where CHOP is constructing a series of medical research towers (and more parking garages). If you perambulate down the boulevard to University Avenue, you will also pass a Veterans Administration nursing home, which connects via a pedestrian bridge to the main VA hospital.

During this half mile walk, you will have seen the core elements of Philadelphia’s post-industrial economy: According to the U.S. Economic Census, hospitals are the largest employment sector in the city; by 2013 they accounted for nine of the city’s sixteen largest private employers, and as of 2016, hospital employment in the city totaled just under 59,000 people.[1] Although most of Philadelphia’s hospitals are nominal not-for-profits, together they generate more than $9 billion in patient revenues. These statistics, along with the walking tour, suggest that we need to think of Philadelphia, and cities like it, not only as deindustrialized cities, but as medicalized cities. Philadelphia’s medical institutions are emblematic of the political economy of the twenty-first century U.S. city: not-for-profit (but decidedly not non-profit), quasi-public institutions, neither government agencies nor market organizations, that now play a critical part in the tentative and problematic revitalization of American cities such as Philadelphia.

Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia General Hospital, University Museum, aerial view, 1934, courtesy of University of Pennsylvania: University Archives Image Collection.

Where did this massive complex in West Philadelphia come from? What are these institutions, and how should we understand their role in our cities? One clue emerges in our walk down Civic Center Boulevard. Passing CHOP’s Abramson Pediatric Research building, the sidewalk is separated from the research complex by a slightly anomalous fence of wrought iron interspersed with brick and masonry columns. The fence is one of the few surviving remnants of the site’s previous occupant, Philadelphia General Hospital (PGH), which served as the city’s public hospital prior to its 1977 closing by Mayor Frank Rizzo. PGH had struggled for years with an outmoded physical plant and a teaching relationship with Penn and CHOP that allowed the nearby academic medical centers to pull in patients who would generate third-party insurance payments. Faced with these problems, along with a pressing municipal budget crisis, Rizzo made the controversial decision to close the hospital. Despite the angry opposition of PGH supporters, Rizzo went ahead with the plans to shutter the public hospital. Less known is that his administration replaced it with a system of free primary health care provided by neighborhood clinics and supplemented with subsidized care at private hospitals when needed. The Philadelphia Daily News summarized the implications in January 1978: “for all practical purposes, Philadelphia now has socialized medicine.”[2] The new system ultimately failed to live up to this promise, and by the 1990s the city was struggling to fund the program, with costs for hospitalization causing particular strain. At many of the clinics, patients faced lengthy waiting lists for an appointment.

Philadelphia General Hospital, aerial view, 1973, courtesy of University of Pennsylvania: University Archives Image Collection.

The closing of PGH itself is a complex story, the full extent and implications of which lies beyond the short summary above. This blog post focuses instead on one consequence of the decision: the ensuing redevelopment of the PGH site, and how it relates to the larger social and economic transformation of Philadelphia in recent decades.

Penn and CHOP dominated the PGH redevelopment. As the current and recent construction along the Schuylkill suggests, this is a process that is still ongoing. The actions of Penn and CHOP in relation to the city and federal government and to the wider health care industry generate significant questions about whether a distinct “not-for-profit” space can actually be carved out between government and market, at least in the case of these massive and only nominally not-for-profit health care institutions. While in one sense these institutions clearly operate within the sphere of neoliberalism, they are also representative of much older, and much more deeply rooted associational models of interaction between the state and the private sector in pursuit of development and other putative public ends. Relying on voluntary associations with for-profit and not-for-profit corporations has allowed the American state to wield considerable power, despite its decentralized character. This has been particularly common where the public goals involve the development of infrastructure and economic capacity. Private, voluntary organizations – such as not-for-profit hospitals – typically act as crucial intermediary institutions in such relationships.[3]

Bridge across the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In the years after the PGH closure, two broad options emerged for redeveloping the site. The first consisted of a proposal for a mixed-use development from a politically connected suburban developer. Along with an office tower that would be leased to CHOP, the plan included a parking garage, a shopping center, a nursing home, and a 700-unit housing development, with the latter to include approximately 150 Section 8 units. The Section 8 allotment was intended to induce HUD to release $21 million in Community Development Block Grants that had been frozen after Mayor Rizzo blocked the Whitman Park housing project in a white South Philadelphia neighborhood.[4] Along with the provision of some low-income housing, this plan would have generated property, wage, and commercial tax revenues for the city. It quickly foundered, though, because of opposition from Penn, which wanted the site for hospital expansion. Additionally, the weak economy and soaring interest rates of the early 1980s prevented the developer from securing financing.

The second option – the one that was actually chosen – consisted of the reuse of the site for medical and scientific purposes. Since the PGH closure announcement, both Penn and CHOP had eyed the property for expansion. Constrained by lack of space and outmoded research buildings, Penn in particular found it increasingly difficult to attract leading medical researchers and win external grants. Medicare reforms and the emergence of managed care among private insurers had set off a decline in patient revenues, making it imperative for both institutions to increase their access to outside research support – and to do so, they needed new research facilities capable of attracting top-flight scientific talent.

Penn and CHOP found allies in City Hall. During the 1980s, Mayors William Green and Wilson Goode, who followed the Rizzo administration, prioritized the health care sector as a potential source of economic development that might replace jobs lost through deindustrialization. Viewing the city’s major health care institutions as an economic development engine, Green and then Goode welcomed the possibility that Penn and CHOP – both major employers – might lead the redevelopment project. For all the sector’s potential, though, relying on health care as a source of economic growth came at a significant cost, as it still does today. As not-for-profit institutions, hospitals are generally exempt from paying property taxes to the city. In a few cities, such as Boston, major institutions provided a “payment-in-lieu-of-taxes” (or PILOT) to reimburse the city for the provision of municipal services. Philadelphia’s “eds and meds” made no such payment. Devoting the PGH site to HUP and CHOP expansion would thus prevent it from being added to the city’s tax rolls. In addition, the jobs created would be of mixed quality. Hospitals provide employment over a wide range of skill and educational levels, often in close proximity to poor and minority neighborhoods, but they feature a starkly bifurcated wage structure with a feminized, minority work force at its service-intensive lower end. Hospital unionization has long been a contentious issue as well. CHOP has been unionized for many decades, but Penn remains unorganized.[5]

Sculpture “Sentinel” at Philadelphia Veterans Administration, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” Carol M. Highsmith, 2007, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Putting such concerns aside, Penn and CHOP announced the formation of the PGH Development Corporation in the spring of 1983. They were joined in the project by Children’s Seashore House, an Atlantic City children’s rehabilitation hospital with a predominantly Philadelphian patient base; it would move from its aging facility (located literally on the New Jersey shore) to a new building on the PGH site. Penn and CHOP also invited the Philadelphia VA hospital to join the consortium, displacing yet another early plan that would have given it most of the site’s twenty-one acres. In June 1984, the development corporation announced plans for a $250 million, seven-building development. “When this project is complete,” Penn vice president of health affairs Thomas Langfitt told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Philadelphia will have the premier academic health center in the country.”[6] The economic benefits, Langfitt promised, would include 2,000 construction jobs, 2,100 permanent jobs, and over $1.5 million in local wage tax revenues.

Fairmount Water Works on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Although private institutions had taken the lead in planning the Philadelphia Center for the Health Sciences, as the project soon became known, they still required substantial public involvement to bring the redevelopment effort to completion. This involved direct and indirect public support, across multiple levels of the U.S. state. After initially demanding that the city donate the PGH land, the development corporation agreed to purchase the site for the still relatively nominal fee of $2.5 million. In November 1985, the City Planning Commission approved the sale of the first parcel of land to Penn for the construction of a clinical research building.[7] Later in the project, the city Hospital Authority issued tax-exempt bonds that provided critical financing for both the new Children’s Seashore House facility and CHOP’s Abramson Pediatric Research Building. (Such financing by tax-exempt public authorities had become a common pattern for hospital capital projects beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s). During the 1990s, the city’s industrial development authority issued additional bonds to finance a 1,300-space parking garage.[8] Despite the hospitals’ non-profit status, these quasi-public financing devices made them actors in expansive financial markets.

The larger purpose of the PGH Development Corporation, though, was to partner with the city in applying for a federal Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) that would pay for much of the necessary infrastructure. This approach formalized the public-private development partnership and tied it to the associational tradition of state-led economic development in the United States. After an initial rejection by HUD, in 1986 the city received a $5.4 million UDAG covering “a parking facility, roadways, and utilities.”[9] The following year, HUD approved a second UDAG of $4 million, including infrastructure costs. Federal participation also came from the National Cancer Institute, which provided $2.5 million for Penn’s Clinical Research Building, and from the VA, which provided $16 million for a veterans’ nursing home. On February 14, 1986, the VA broke ground on its new facility, marking the start of the actual redevelopment of Philadelphia’s former public hospital site.

With public sector action and support, the identity of Philadelphia’s medical institutions as constitutive of a neutral, not-for-profit sector collapsed into conceptual incoherence. Instead, these institutions are better thought of as part of the long-standing U.S. associational state, through which government pursues ostensibly public ends (in this case, economic development and expanded medical services and research) by subsidizing private development. This is a tradition that can be traced to (at least) the early republic.

Schuylkill River, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Construction on Penn’s clinical research building, CHOP’s administrative and ambulatory care facility, and the new Seashore House followed shortly thereafter.[10] By the time those buildings approached completion in 1989, CHOP had begun planning a $75 million pediatric research building while Penn was planning a $100 million life sciences research building. With the additional facilities the total cost of the project reached $457 million and created approximately 2,500 new jobs. Over the last decade, the Center has expanded beyond the old boundaries of PGH, as Penn and CHOP purchased and demolished the Civic Center to the south and built the new research buildings mentioned during our virtual walk. More recently, CHOP acquired former industrial properties on the east bank of the Schuylkill River. These purchases, with their attendant transition to the institutions’ tax exempt status, removed $112,307 from the city’s annual tax rolls.[11] Nonetheless, CHOP today employs more than 10,000 people, while the overall Penn Medicine system employs nearly 22,000. Within the scope of its stated goals, the redevelopment of the Philadelphia General Hospital site has clearly succeeded. The hospital city has been created.

Acknowledging the success of the project in terms of its stated goals, though, is insufficient. The redevelopment of the PGH site took place in the context of the decentralization of population and the shift away from a manufacturing-based economy. It also coincided with technologically-driven changes in medicine, as well as shifts in health care financing and the funding of medical research. Not least, the PGH redevelopment occurred in conjunction with the wider shift to a market-oriented approach to public policy. All this contributed to conditions of austerity in federal urban policy as well as to the ongoing fiscal crisis of the local state. The overall result should not be seen as the rise of an autonomous non-profit sector, but instead the expansion of associational arrangements that assign potential governmental functions to the private sector – specifically, economic development and health care provision. Much of this activity, whether through UDAGs or through Medicare and Medicaid payments, has been publicly funded. With their intertwining of public and private functions, of market and state, these massive health care institutions exist as components of both. As such, they form part of a multi-layered, associational model that incorporates features of market organizations including private control, revenue-generation through competition, and participation in financial markets, but that also undertakes tasks associated with or assigned by the government such as provision of health services, medical research, and economic development. All of this takes place under the banner of a not-for-profit status that justifies tax-exemption.

Passyunk Street Bridge offered an excellent view of Philadelphia’s oil refineries that were a staple, and eyesore, of industrial Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

It is true that the key institutional actors in question are technically not-for-profits. But not-for-profit status as such means relatively little when the institutions involved generate billions in revenue and millions in net income – as both Penn and CHOP do – and when they are deeply intertwined both with financial markets through their bond issues and with the private health insurance industry. We should also note that with the exception of a five-year period during the 1990s, Philadelphia’s hospitals have continually used their non-profit exemption to avoid paying property taxes despite the city’s persistent fiscal crisis and, especially, that of its school system.

While it may have taken on new forms during this period, the complex associational model deployed in the PGH redevelopment has deep roots in the history of the U.S. state. The results of such public-private action are often problematic, as the assertion of public purpose does not prevent the pursuit of private interest – as has happened in the case of Philadelphia’s emergent hospital city. It may be true, as an analysis of neoliberalism suggests, that recent patterns reflect an intensification of such relationships, or perhaps even a significant rearrangement of their constituent parts. The deep involvement of massive not-for-profit institutions characterized by both governmental and market organization may even reflect a new stage in the associational model. But the underlying structures are not new, and they need to be assessed within such broader contexts of state development, as well as in the context of deep structural changes both in the U.S. city and in the wider political economy.


Guian McKee.jpgGuian McKee is an associate professor in Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He received a PhD in American history at the University of California, Berkeley in May 2002, and he is the author of The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia, published in 2008 by the University of Chicago Press. McKee’s research focuses on how federal policy, especially in the executive branch, plays out at the local level in American communities. He is currently working on a book project that examines the rise of the health care economy in American cities after World War II, focusing on the development of hospitals and academic medical centers as critical but problematic urban economic anchors as well as drivers of cost in the larger health care system. This project builds on his earlier work by connecting social, political, and economic developments in specific places (Baltimore provides a core case study for the book) with larger policy structures. As part of the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program, McKee edited Volumes 6 and 7 of The Presidential Recordings of Lyndon B. Johnson (published originally by W.W. Norton and in a digital edition by the University of Virginia Press). He is also the editor of a thematic volume that will include all of Johnson’s recorded conversations about the War on Poverty. This project is published digitally by the University of Virginia Press through its Rotunda electronic imprint.

Featured image (at top): “Panorama aerial view of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 Economic Census of the United States, “Table: EC1200A1: All sectors: Geographic Area Series: Economy-Wide Key Statistics: 2012, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania”; Pew Charitable Trusts, Philadelphia 2013: The State of the City, (Philadelphia: The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2013), 16-17, 20; Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, Center for Workforce Information and Analysis, “Industry Employment 2016-2026 Long-Term Projections,” 4.

[2] Kit Konolige, “Socialized Medicine in Philadelphia; PGH Replacement an Improvement,” Philadelphia Daily News, January 24, 1978.

[3] William J. Novak, “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” American Historical Review 113:3 (June 2008): 752-772; Brian Balogh, The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015); James Sparrow, William Novak, and Stephen Sawyer, eds., Boundaries of the State in US History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).

[4] For the wider context of race and housing policy under Rizzo, See Timothy Lombardo, Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

[5] For a preliminary discussion of hospital labor issues in Philadelphia, see my essay “Hospitals (Economic Development),” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (Rutgers University, 2017).

[6] Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, “Minutes of the Stated Meeting,” 18 June 1993, Minutes of the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, UPA 1.1 1990 – 1999, Penn Archives, 16-18; Gregory Byrnes, “$250 Million Health Center Proposed For PGH Site,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 June 1984; Byrnes, “Group is United on Plan for PGH Site,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 June 1984.

[7] Roger Cohn, “Sale of land For Health Center OKD,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 November 1985; “Minutes of the Stated Meeting of the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania,” 25 October 1985, Minutes of the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, UPA 1.1 1980 – 1989, Penn Archives, 191-192.

[8] As this post incidentally suggests, parking is a perpetual priority in urban hospital development, and as such forms a component of the wider problem of cost in the U.S. health care system; health care analysts, who as a rule see the health care system as ungrounded in place or space, have not noticed this relationship.

[9] “News From Senator John Heinz: Heinz Announces $5.9 million in UDAG’s For Philadelphia; 642 Permanent New Jobs,” 27 June 1986, Senator John H. Heinz III Collection, “Press Releases-May 27-September 17, 1986,” Carnegie Mellon University Digital Collection; Kurt Logsdon, “Heinz, Specter Announce $12 Million in PA Economic Development Grants; 846 New Permanent Jobs Across the State,” 31 March 1987, Senator John H. Heinz III Collection, “Press Releases-May 27-September 17, 1986,” Carnegie Mellon University Digital Collection; Gregory Byrnes, “Phila. Snares More Than $6 Million in Federal Grants for Three Projects,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 June 1985.

[10] “Minutes of the Stated Meeting of the Executive Committee of the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania,” 12 September 1986, Minutes of the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, UPA 1.1 1980 – 1989, Penn Archives, 382.

[11] Patrick Kerkstra, “Exempt Sites Complicate Tax Fixes,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 September 2012; Inga Saffron, “Board Demands Changes in Waterfront Hospital Design,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 April 2014.

African American Politics in the City of Brotherly Love

By James Wolfinger

A Huffington Post reporter contacted me in early August, 2016. “What’s going on in Philadelphia?” he wanted to know. “How can you as a historian help me make sense of what I’m hearing?” Donald Trump had just received the Republican Party’s nomination a couple weeks earlier and the Huffington Post was canvassing the city to take the pulse of Philadelphia voters. What reporters found surprised them. Nearly every African American voter the Post spoke to said they would vote for Hilary Clinton. “For the most part,” as one respondent put it, “it feels like she is for the people.” Yet, in a city known as a Democratic stronghold, many voters signaled a willingness to at least flirt with Donald Trump. The city clearly had a racial divide in its political views.

The Posts article, which focused on South Philadelphians, featured sentiments from Trump’s supporters that will surprise few readers after two years of his administration. “He seems to have a head on his shoulders. He does know what he is talking about,” said one woman. “It’s the change that we need for a long time instead of politics as usual,” said a technician. “He seems down to earth – an average type of guy.” Others pointed to, of course, immigration: “I have no problem with people that come here and go through the proper channels,” a man said. “I have a massive problem with illegal immigration and people who are here gaining benefits … and not following the rules and doing better than people who are citizens and work here and are on the street.”

As we all know, Donald Trump carried Pennsylvania and its crucial twenty electoral votes, winning the state by 44,000 ballots. In Philadelphia, Hilary Clinton claimed 82 percent of the vote to Trump’s 15 percent. Clinton had a crushing victory in Philadelphia—by far her best countywide tally in the state—but her percentage slipped three points from Barack Obama’s count, and Trump’s 109,000 votes in the city were enough to assure his statewide triumph. Postmortems of Philadelphia’s votes showed that black and Latino wards voted overwhelmingly for Clinton while those with larger white populations gave the Democratic candidate significantly less support, or in some cases even went for Trump. Those wards were overwhelmingly concentrated in the city’s northeast, not South Philadelphia where the Huffington Post’s reporters had roamed.

A. Philip Randolph (right) at a ceremony commemorating the freedom of the slaves, held by members of the National Negro Congress in Independence Hall, Philadelphia. Dr. W. Harry Barnes (left), of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, watches as Mayor S. Davis Wilson presents Addie W. Dickerson, president of the International Council of Women of Darker Races, with the gavel he used to strike the Liberty Bell,” between 1940 and 1969, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I thought about these returns, the national importance as well as the vagaries of Philadelphia politics, often in the months after the election. I also thought about how reporters identified surprising politics afoot, and turned to a historian for explanation (even if most of my great quotes—as always, alas!—were left on the cutting room floor). The election of 2016 planted the seeds for an edited collection that I have coming out from Temple University Press. When the press’s editor contacted me in January of 2018 to meet at the AHA, I knew a real opportunity existed to pull together some of the exciting new scholarship regarding Philadelphia’s African American political history. Such a collection could contribute not only to scholarly understanding of the city and the historical experience of its black population; it promised a historically grounded way of thinking about how Philadelphia and the nation had arrived at this current political moment.

In an age of the Black Lives Matter movement, the campaign for a living wage (Fight for $15), the activism around the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and other African Americans, the reaction to the assault on the social safety net by the Trump administration, and many other issues, it is impossible to ignore the importance of African American political activism. African American Politics in the City of Brotherly Love aims to give readers a deeper historical sense of how black political engagement has developed over the last century while at the same time emphasizing how Philadelphia has served as a critical site for African American politics. The book covers the long twentieth century, spanning the late 1800’s through the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Authors explore Philadelphia’s history chronologically, helping readers understand the impact on politics of the growth of black Philadelphia’s population in the 1910s; the cultural ferment of the 1920s; the dire economic circumstances of the Great Depression; World War II’s economic respite; the growth of the Democratic Party in the 1950s; the hope and disillusionment of the 1960s; the rise of Frank Rizzo and reactionary politics; economic decline and new alliances in the late twentieth century; and a new era of more radical activism in the Obama years and beyond.

First African American motorman in Philadelphia, Thomas Allen, leaves trolley barn under police escort,” circa 1944, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

African American Politics in the City of Brotherly Love takes an expansive view of politics. Elections and political office of course matter. The importance of electing Wilson Goode, John Street, Michael Nutter, and Dwight Evans to the mayor’s office and Congress cannot be underestimated. But this collection extends beyond these stories and digs deeply into the city’s social movements that drew on class, gender, and other markers of identity to mobilize black Philadelphians throughout the twentieth century. These mobilizations led to advocacy for a wide array of changes in the city and beyond: job rights, access to housing, equal educational opportunities, and fair treatment by the police among many other goals. In the end, the book will offer a holistic treatment of black Philadelphia’s history that helps readers understand how the interplay between activism and the broader political context shaped developments in the African American community and the larger city.

What especially energizes me about this collection is the stable of vibrant, young scholars who are making exciting contributions to the field, augmented by a few seasoned hands who bring a more experienced perspective.

  • Heather Ann Thompson, fresh off her Pulitzer Prize winning Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy and now working on a book about MOVE, offers the Foreword.
  • Clemmie Harris draws on his forthcoming Reconstructing Philadelphia: The Persistence of Racism and the African American Struggle for Political Leverage and Civil Rights to explore the massive demographic changes that took place in Philadelphia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and how those changes shaped African American politics.
  • David Canton, author of Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fights for Civil Rights in Philadelphia, examines the development of black political power in Philadelphia from the Great Migration to the Great Depression.
  • Stanley Arnold draws on his Building the Beloved Community: Philadelphia’s Interracial Civil Rights Organizations, 1930-1970 to explore the city’s political realignment between 1929 and 1945
  • Abigail Perkiss, author of Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Post-WWII Philadelphia, analyzes how legal, policy, and demographic changes led to intentionally constructed integrated neighborhoods and political conflicts over this urban space in the postwar period.
  • Clemmie Harris analyzes the implications of African American support for the post-World War II liberal Democratic reform movement on the growth and loss of black political power by the 1960s.
  • Timothy Lombardo, who recently published Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics, explores how African Americans accommodated and challenged Frank Rizzo to remake the city’s politics in the 1970s.
  • Alyssa Ribeiro, who is working on a book manuscript that traces how North Philadelphia residents responded to the pressures of deindustrialization, fiscal austerity, and growing political conservatism from the 1960s to the 1980s, analyzes multiracial coalition-building and the challenges African American populations faced after gaining more formal political power in Philadelphia with the election of Wilson Goode as mayor.
  • Stephen McGovern, who has written extensively on urban politics, examines activism around race, class, law enforcement, and mass incarceration in Philadelphia since 2000 with particular attention to the period associated with the current mayor, Jim Kenney.

This is an exciting lineup of scholars offering fresh insights on black politics in Philadelphia. Their work promises to change scholars’ understanding of African American political development. Just as importantly, with an anticipated publication date of spring, 2020, their research should inform voters as they head to the polls in November that year. It is my honor to bring these fine scholars together so their work can help shape discussions about race and politics in urban America.

Vice president, Philadelphia branch, George B. Morris, explains NAACP program at neighborhood meeting held in north Philadelphia,” Smith’s Photo Service, circa 1950-1960, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

When in the mid-1990s I first started to research and write about twentieth-century Philadelphia, especially its African American community, there was only a limited body of scholarship on the subject. As Philadelphia Divided came out, Matthew Countryman’s Up South, Guian McKee’s The Problem of Jobs, and Lisa Levenstein’s A Movement Without Marches joined my work. We in some ways jumpstarted the historical study of contemporary Philadelphia. A wave of young scholars has since come along to ask new questions, find new sources, and advance the field. I am excited to know that future Huffington Post reporters will not only have this book to turn to, but many more scholars to consult.

Wolfinger_2016James Wolfinger holds a joint appointment in history and education. He serves as associate dean for curriculum and programs in the College of Education, and is the director of the DePaul University and Facing History and Ourselves Collaboration. In addition to his two books, his articles and reviews have appeared in the Journal of American History, American Historical Review, Journal of Urban History, Labor, and Pennsylvania History.

Featured image (at top): “Philadelphia Convention including Mary Ovington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, and James Weldon Johnson, posed standing, full-length,” between 1920 and 1938, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Buried Legacies: Former Landfills and Philadelphia’s Future

By James Cook-Thajudeen

Garbage, rubbish, litter, and other forms of solid waste are among the most pressing policy challenges faced by Philadelphia in the early twenty-first century. Bold efforts such as Philadelphia’s Zero Waste by 2035 goal and the city’s seemingly endless battle against illegal dumping and littering have recently been front-page news and fodder for discussion among American urbanists. But in a city with a nearly 340-year history, new news is often old news. Much of the history of solid waste management in Philadelphia lies in decaying clippings, blurry microfilms, and dusty reports, but thousands of Philadelphians experience that history in a visceral way each day. Few of the city’s neighborhoods illustrate the ramifications of past actions and inaction with regard to solid waste than Eastwick in Southwest Philadelphia.

Most people experience Eastwick in passing; many of the attendees of this year’s Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting will speed through the area while riding the train from Philadelphia International Airport to Center City. However, were they to disembark they would be struck by evidence of Philadelphia’s steep environmental inequality, much of it a legacy of the dumping and landfilling that occurred along Eastwick’s western edge during most of the twentieth century. The area is home to one of Philadelphia’s four Superfund Sites and borders another in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, both of which are the remnants of former landfills. The story of how and why Eastwick residents came to live in a toxic shadow cast by the very soil and marshland that surrounds them is a microcosm of the history of how Philadelphia disposed of its solid waste, as well as a cautionary tale for the city’s present-day leaders.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wheelhouse of an abandoned ship near the city dump used as an occupied shack, Paul Vanderbilt, c. 1938, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

For decades prior to the 1950s, Eastwick was Philadelphia’s afterthought. It was a place where trains gathered steam on their way to points west and south, and where dirty business that would not be tolerated in wealthier, more densely populated parts of the city could be carried on unimpeded. By the end of the Second World War, Eastwick had become a center for operators of privately owned dumps—expanses of land where matter and objects that were thrown away would be laid to rest. A dump operator made the most of their land by setting fire to its contents, thereby reducing their volume and making room for more refuse. Dump burning annoyed residents, pedestrians, and motorists, but little was done to mitigate it because of the role dumps played in the disposal of refuse from industrial and commercial establishments, which were not typically served by the city’s Department of Streets and its incinerators. It was so common that the abatement of dump burning became a marquee issue for Philadelphia’s famous reformist Democratic mayor, Richardson Dilworth, who served from 1956 to 1962.[1]

Under Dilworth’s direction, Philadelphia began closing open dumps within city limits. Early in Dilworth’s first term as mayor, the Philadelphia health department demanded that sixteen private dumps cease burning trash. Dump operators fought against city efforts to curtail burning, but lost. On December 31, 1957 the city shut down the offending dumps for good.

City leaders predicted that the dump burning ban would quickly have a positive impact on the city’s air quality, but shutting down the dumps did not eliminate the demand for their services on the part of the their clients. Many commercial establishments reported increases of 30 to 75 percent in the price of refuse disposal following the implementation of Philadelphia’s dump ban, but they found a way to accomplish it nevertheless. The answer lay in dumps beyond the city line, where ordinances and mayoral decrees had no impact. One such facility, owned by Edward Heller, a public official in the nearby town of Upper Darby and a long-time private waste hauler, was adjacent to Eastwick and, despite belonging to Darby Township, was only accessible by road from Philadelphia. Dump fires burned with impunity on Heller’s land.

Eastwick residents promptly complained to the city about Heller’s activities, prompting action. Mayor Dilworth ordered police to barricade the entrance to the dump with railroad ties, but to no avail. Trucks from Heller’s waste hauling company, City-Wide Services, merely bypassed them using a path that observers likened to the Burma Road, the rough, overland route that linked southwest China and Southeast Asia during the Second World War.

pick-it-up-logo.jpgEdward Heller not only subjected Eastwick residents to the smoke that Philadelphia’s leaders had tried to shield them from, he was also embroiled in a scandal in Upper Darby, where he served as sanitation chief. Upper Darby faced its own solid waste problem, which its leaders tried to resolve by agreeing to purchase the land Heller used as a dump for the purpose of erecting an incinerator. The deal appeared to wildly inflate the price of the land, prompting an investigation by a Delaware County grand jury into whether a conspiracy involving Heller and several others had attempted to defraud Upper Darby taxpayers. Despite the legal scrutiny, and despite not having a dumping permit from Darby Township, City-Wide Services continued to deposit and burn trash on the site. Facing the prospect of testifying before the grand jury, Heller asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. In April 1958 the grand jury issued its report on the alleged lease conspiracy, recommending the indictment of Heller and eight others, including the township commission presidents of Darby and Upper Darby. However, the matter went no further; the Delaware County district attorney declined to bring charges against the figures singled out by the jury.

As the efforts of local authorities to halt the continued burning of rubbish on Heller’s dump faltered, the State of Pennsylvania explored intervening, but at the time possessed no agencies involved in the regulation of solid waste and pollutants. In the end, state involvement in the impasse amounted to little more than a few stern warnings; state officials had little confidence that their mandate extended any further. Philadelphia redoubled its efforts to block access to the offending dump, but a more permanent barrier on the street did not close off the “Burma Road.” Eastwick residents continued to call city officials and protest outside the facility’s entrance, but to no avail.

BigBelly overflowing with residential trash, photo sent to Philly311 in January 2017 courtesy of

Once the scandals of 1958 fell from the spotlight a process of forgetting quickly began. By September 1958 the owners of the offending dump had obtained an injunction barring Philadelphia from barricading its entrance. Broader social forces also worked to the advantage of polluters. Aided in part by the rapid transformation of Eastwick through Philadelphia’s extensive urban renewal program, City-Wide Services and its burning dump ceased to concern city officials. Eastwick, always marginal, became more deeply marginalized during the 1960s.

The re-marginalization of Eastwick enabled the rebranding of the dump as the Clearview Landfill, a name that associated the facility with the comparatively safe practice of sanitary landfilling despite little evidence of substantive change. The Clearview Landfill continued to operate openly until 1973, when it was officially closed. However, the closure of Clearview did not stop Richard Heller, Edward Heller’s son and current owner of City-Wide Services. In defiance of state law, City-Wide Services continued to dump waste on the site into the late 1990s. Finally, in 2001 the State of Pennsylvania imposed a large fine on Heller and the U.S Environmental Protection Agency placed the site on its National Priorities, or Superfund, list. Remediation efforts in areas adjacent to the Clearview Landfill continue more than six decades after the site first became a dumping ground.[2]

In the late-2010s the people of Philadelphia continue to battle the environmental hazards caused by solid waste. New challenges for city leaders have arisen in areas prone to illegal dumping, in particular where the issue often shades into the similarly thorny problem opioid addiction. The story of the Clearview Landfill reveals how difficult it can be for American cities to manage environmental problems—even when the responsible parties were easy to identify. In the case of Clearview, Philadelphia’s difficulties arose from the fact of municipal boundaries, the unwillingness of courts to interfere with a property owner’s access to his land, and the lack of a clear mandate for a higher authority, such as the State of Pennsylvania, to intervene. As a consequence, the palpable traces of Philadelphia’s past include not only such landmarks as Independence Hall, the row houses of Rittenhouse Square, and William Penn’s gridiron streets, but the soil, air, and water. In seeking to create a zero-waste future, Philadelphia’s leaders would be wise to consider not just the waste being produced in the present, but the depth and breadth of its abundantly wasteful past.

James_Cook_Thajudeen_photo.jpgJames Cook-Thajudeen is a PhD candidate in History at Temple University. He is currently writing a dissertation on solid waste and public policy in the Philadelphia metropolitan area from the nineteenth century to the present. 

[1] For more information on the place of Eastwick and the mayoralty of Richardson Dilworth, see: Guian McKee, The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010). For more on the limitations of liberal reform in Philadelphia, see: Matthew Countryman, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

[2] For more on the technical distinction between dumps and landfills, as well as a nationwide account of solid waste issues in the postwar period, see: Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

Featured image (at top): Reading Terminal builder Charles McCaul prepared this lithograph of Phiadelphia, Pennsylvania’s new train terminal and market for the building’s opening in 1893, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.