Category Archives: Metropolis of the Month

“The Good Life in Shaker Heights”: Integrating one of Cleveland’s most iconic suburbs

By Nichole Nelson

On January 3, 1956, a bomb exploded in the garage of John G. Pegg, an African- American newcomer to the Shaker Heights neighborhood.[1] The explosion was a turning point for the Cleveland suburb: the wealthiest neighborhood in America in 1960.[2] Though it destroyed Pegg’s garage, it also jolted Shaker Heights’ residents into action. Out of the debris emerged white residents’ desire to change their community from one that fostered racial intolerance to one that openly accepted African Americans. Instead of succumbing to fear, they decided to racially integrate.

Emboldened by the landmark Supreme Court decision Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which ruled racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional, African Americans like John G. Pegg began moving to Shaker Heights in the 1950s.[3] In response to this influx of African-American homeowners, some white homeowners feared that they would have to leave their affluent community. Subsequently, some white residents started selling their homes.[4]

Other white residents hoped to remain in the Ludlow neighborhood of Shaker Heights; they felt invested in the community and wanted to continue living there regardless of the increasing black population. Spurred by the firebombing of Pegg’s garage on January 3, 1956, while his home was under construction, white residents, as well as African-American newcomers Winston Richie and Theodore and Beverly Mason, formed the Ludlow Community Association (LCA) in 1957.[5] The LCA’s first president, a white resident named Irwin Barnett, was most concerned with stopping the rumors that “Ludlow was going to turn into a ghetto” due to the influx of black residents and ensuing white flight.[6] As a result of these fears, Barnett sought out strategies to encourage whites to purchase homes in the community.[7] However, two external threats impeded the LCA’s progress: banks and real estate agents. Realtors refused to show whites homes in the Ludlow neighborhood and banks made it difficult for them to secure mortgage financing.[8]

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Mr. and Mrs. Pegg, circa 1956, Courtesy of Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library.

As a result of banks and realtors obstructing white homebuyers’ ability to purchase homes in Ludlow, subsequent LCA presidents prioritized attracting white potential homebuyers.[9] These presidents were able to re-attract whites to Shaker Heights using a variety of methods, including lending up to $5,000 for second mortgages to prospective homebuyers who could not afford the cost of a down payment.[10] Many of the LCA’s social events raised funds for white homebuyers’ loans. In 1966, LCA President Alan Gressel invited jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald to perform, and raised $10,000 in ticket sales, which funded the LCA’s activities, including its mortgage program.[11] In 1969, LCA President William Insull, Jr. used the proceeds from the LCA’s production of My Fair Lady to finance loans for prospective white homebuyers to live in Ludlow.[12] As a result of the LCA’s efforts, Ludlow began to reverse the annual rate of change from 1964 to 1967, where home sales were about one-tenth of one per cent from white to black.[13] By 1968, the rate of change transitioned from black to white.[14]

Unfortunately, the LCA’s focus on white homeowners to maintain integration meant discouraging black people from purchasing homes. While the LCA never explicitly encouraged discrimination against black homebuyers, its actions reveal otherwise.[15] Many African-Americans who wanted to finance their homes faced difficulty and few, if any African-American homebuyers purchased homes through the LCA’s program, given the organization’s preference for white homebuyers.[16]

Additionally, African-American businessman William Percy was so outraged by the LCA’s aloofness towards him when he viewed a home that he was “ready to sue the LCA for discrimination.”[17] Ironically, when Percy moved to Ludlow and joined the organization, he began to understand the LCA’s position, and eventually became its first black President in 1964.[18] Percy’s “shared interests” with white Ludlow residents “as the basis for the construction of suburban identities” both motivated his and white LCA members’ ability to disavow their discrimination against black homebuyers as a way to subsequently maintain their community’s property values.[19]

Several events that took place between 1968 and 1979 laid the foundation for Shaker Heights to pursue a more equitable form of integration in the 1980s. By the 1970s, the changing racial climate in the U.S. ushered in by the Civil Rights Movement, the Open Housing Movement, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 produced an environment in Shaker Heights where there was harsher criticism of local fair housing organizations’ problematic policies.[20]

In 1972, Joseph H. Battle, an African-American Ludlow resident, realtor, and President of Operation Equality—a national housing program that the Urban League of Greater Cleveland implemented to ensure that housing practices abided by the Fair Housing Act of 1968—wrote a scathing denunciation of the Shaker Communities Housing Office, for Operation Equality.[21]   The Shaker Communities Housing Office, an organization founded in July 1967, openly preferred white homeowners over black homeowners, asserted Battle.[22] More specifically, Battle lamented the Housing Office’s continued discrimination against prospective black homebuyers, its failure to achieve neighborhood stabilization due to integrated areas receiving a growing African-American population, and the reluctance to support open housing in unintegrated sections of the city.[23] Given the Ludlow Community Association’s role in establishing the Housing Office in 1967, LCA members expressed guilt over the Housing Office’s errors. In 1972, members internally acknowledged that stabilizing Ludlow would become “increasingly more difficult,” that “nothing is being effected to motivate the white brokers at this time…unless the laws are more vigorously adhered to.”[24] Despite the LCA’s internal admission that it was difficult to maintain integration in Ludlow, more criticism would continue to be levied at Shaker Heights’ failure to equitably integrate.

Cosmo Magazine The Good Life in Shaker Heights Color Magazine Cover
“The Good Life in Shaker Heights”, a 1963 cover story in the March issue of Cosmopolitan that year, Western Reserve Historical Society

Tension over the Housing Office’s policies erupted in April 1979 when half of the Housing Office’s coordinators, two black and four white women, resigned in a public protest over the disparate treatment of white and black prospective homebuyers.[25] In a public letter published in the Sun Press, the resigning coordinators cited the ambiguity of whether the Housing Office’s pro-integrative policies were meant to encourage integration or containment.[26] Finally, in June 1979, the Housing Office unveiled a new policy that promised black and white prospective homebuyers equal treatment. Under the new policy, whites were to be shown homes in areas that were predominantly black and blacks would be shown homes in areas that were predominantly white.[27]

Donald DeMarco, who became the Director of Community Services in November 1982, enhanced these policies.[28] Although DeMarco did not work for the Housing Office, as the Director of Community Services, his office oversaw the Housing Office’s seventeen employees.[29] Under DeMarco’s direction, the Housing Office enacted policies intended to “promote and sustain racial integration” instead of aiding homebuyers who want housing in areas that helps “further segregation.”[30] For example, the Housing Office worked with real estate agencies that provided the Housing Office with referrals from homebuyers who were not interested in exploring housing options in an integrated community.[31] Acquainting homebuyers and realtors who were initially opposed to living in and selling homes in an integrated community, with the appealing aspects of Shaker’s vibrant community—such as its excellent schools—were non-race based methods of making these homebuyers and realtors receptive to the idea of living in and selling homes in a community with fantastic amenities, that happened to be integrated.

The City of Shaker Heights also supported the Housing Office’s newfound commitment to equitable integration. In 1986, the City of Shaker Heights inaugurated a homebuyers’ loan program called the Fund for the Future of Shaker Heights.[32] The Fund for the Future of Shaker Heights provided white homebuyers with loans to encourage them to move into neighborhoods that were at least fifty percent black and black homebuyers with loans to encourage them to move into neighborhoods that were at least ninety percent white.[33]

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The iconic Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights. Exterior of Plymouth Church, Theodor Horydczak, between 1920 and 1950, Horydczak Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Shaker Heights’ commitment to integration also extended to establishing metropolitan-wide integration by forming an inter-government agency called the East Suburban Council for Open Communities (ESCOC) in 1983. Shaker Heights, in conjunction with the nearby suburbs of Cleveland Heights and University Heights, as well as their respective school districts, founded ESCOC as a joint venture, funded by the Gund and Cleveland Foundations.[34] Led by African-American Ludlow resident Winston Richie, ESCOC provided loans to black homebuyers who purchased homes in suburbs that were less than twenty-five percent black and white homeowners who purchased homes in suburbs that were more than twenty-five percent black.[35] By 1990, ESCOC estimated that it assisted 400 black families in moving into Cleveland’s predominantly white eastern suburbs.[36]

Despite the revolutionary promise of these local and regional fair housing organizations, it was still difficult to eradicate white supremacy’s impact on the housing market. While the city’s policies provided economic incentives to encourage both black and white homebuyers to integrate neighborhoods, few black homebuyers could afford to purchase homes in predominantly white neighborhoods; therefore, white homebuyers still received ninety percent of loans in the early 1990s.[37] Establishing equality proved to be quite difficult in the Cleveland-metropolitan area, given its ranking as the second most segregated housing market in the nation, in accordance with two nationally published independent analyses of 1990 Census data.[38]

This disparity is also important because it reveals that white privilege in the housing market is persistent and cannot be eradicated, only abated. Therefore, the efforts of all three entities to curtail housing segregation underscore that efforts to combat residential segregation have to be consistent and constant because of the housing market’s preference for whiteness and segregation.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Shaker Heights’ commitment to pro-integrative policies waned. ESCOC dissolved shortly after Winston Richie’s resignation as Executive Director in January 1991.[39] In 2002, the Housing Office closed and two offices of city government absorbed its functions.[40] Additionally, the community associations that invested so much time and energy into integrating Shaker Heights in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s began to exist as solely social organizations in the 1990s and 2000s.[41]

One possible explanation for Shaker Heights de-prioritizing its fair housing efforts is colorblindness. The idea that Shaker Heights “accomplished” its goal of integrating its community and therefore no longer needs apparatuses to intentionally integrate is a form of colorblindness. This misconception ignores the housing market’s preference for whiteness and residential segregation, under the guise of equality for all.

These colorblind attitudes have had tangible effects on Shaker Heights’ racial demographics over the past two decades. The absence of pro-integrative efforts places Shaker Heights in danger of completely re-segregating as a predominantly black, middle or working-class community. Racial demographics in 2000 and 2010 reveal that Shaker Heights was beginning to re-segregate without persistent methods to maintain integration. According to the 2000 Census, Shaker Heights was 59.9% white and 34.1% black.[42] By contrast, in 2010, whites composed 54.9% of the total population and blacks comprised 37% of the total population.[43] These statistics are significant because they underscore the white flight that afflicted the community over the past two decades.

This high rate of white flight demonstrates the difficulty in retaining white homeowners and attracting white homebuyers to integrated communities without interventions in the housing market. While it is not negative for a community to re-segregate as a predominantly black community, studies demonstrate that predominantly black neighborhoods struggle with less access to quality amenities and report lower incomes compared to white neighborhoods. Employment discrimination causes black employees to earn lower incomes than white employees. Therefore, integration is desirable not for cultural reasons but rather to expose black homeowners to resources that they otherwise might not receive in a segregated, racist housing market. [44]

The most logical steps for Shaker Heights to stave off complete re-segregation are for residents and activists to be vigilant of the segregation and whiteness that permeate the housing market. While this does not include giving preferential treatment to white homebuyers to reside in the community, these steps should include targeted advertisements to white homebuyers, given many white homebuyers’ fear of living in communities with increasing populations of color. Other steps should include providing mortgage subsidies to both black and white homebuyers and providing financial assistance for black and white homeowners to reside in neighborhoods where their races are underrepresented. Taking steps to encourage integration will also help the community stabilize its home values. Overall, Shaker Heights’ integration can be maintained only if there are concerted efforts to do so.

Summertime Facebook Profile Photo

Nichole Nelson is a PhD candidate at Yale University studying twentieth-century American History, with a focus on post-WWII urban and suburban history. Nelson was the Metropole’s UHA member of the week in April. Read more about her research here. 

Photo at top of the page, Shaker Heights rapid transit line, Jet Lowe, 1978, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

[1] Russell H. Davis, Black Americans in Cleveland from George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969. (Washington: Associated Publishers, 1972), 331.

[2] Thomas Meehan, “The Good Life in Shaker Heights,” Cosmopolitan, 46-51, March 1963.

[3] Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) (Oyez, Dist. file). The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1940-1949/1947/1947_72/ accessed April 22, 2015.

[4] Joseph P. Blank, “Ludlow—A Lesson in Integration,” A Reader’s Digest, September 1968, 194.

[5] Sources: Pegg’s home was located at 13601 Corby Road. Davis, 331; Blank, 194 and “1957-2007: 50th Anniversary LCA—Ludlow Community Association,” 3-4, Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5; Western Reserve Historical Society.

[6] Blank, 194.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Trends in Housing,” National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing 9, no. 6, (November-December 1965), Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5; Western Reserve Historical Society

[9] Gilbert Selden served a one-year term in 1959; Bernard Isaacs served as President from 1960-1962; Joseph Finley was President in 1963; William Percy served as President and 1964; Alan D. Gressel succeeded him, serving from 1965 to 1966. Source: “1957-2007: 50th Anniversary LCA—Ludlow Community Association,” 3.

[10] “Trends in Housing.”

[11] 1966 Ludlow Community Association Annual Report, Shaker Library.

[12] Sources: John S. Diekhoff, “My Fair Ludlow,” The Educational Forum, March, 1969, Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5, Western Reserve Historical Society; Ronald Spetrino, President of the Ludlow Community Association, to Ludlow Residents. Shaker Heights, Ohio, Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5, Western Reserve Historical Society; “1957-2007: 50th Anniversary LCA—Ludlow Community Association,” 3-4, Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5; Western Reserve Historical Society.

[13] The Worlds of Ludlow. Report. Shaker Heights: Ludlow Community Association, 1968, 8.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Blank, 198.

[16] Ludlow Community Association Board Meeting Minutes, June 6, 1963, Western Reserve Historical Society Ludlow Community Associations, 1957-1972, Files A-B, Container 1, Folder 9.

[17] Blank, 196.

[18] Sources: Ibid. and “1957-2007: 50th Anniversary LCA—Ludlow Community Association,” 3-4.

[19] Lacy, 186.

[20] Cynthia Mills Richter, “Integrating the Suburban Dream: Shaker Heights, Ohio.” PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1999, 92.

[21] Ibid., 89.

[22] Ibid., 92.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ludlow Community Association Executive Board Meeting Minutes—April 12, 1972 (Western Reserve Historical Society Ludlow Community Associations, 1957-1972, Files A-B, Container 1, Folder 9)

[25] Ibid., 93-94.

[26] Ibid., 94.

[27] W.C. Miller, “Shaker Housing Office Unveils Equality Policy,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 23, 1979.

[28] Donald DeMarco, interview by Nichole Nelson. January 8, 2015

[29] Donald DeMarco, interview by Nichole Nelson. January 8, 2015 and Tuthill, Linda. “Pursuing an Ideal: How Shaker Heights strives to maintain integration,” Shaker Magazine May 1985, 35 (Shaker Historical Society)

[30] Donald DeMarco, interview by Nichole Nelson. January 8, 2015

[31] Ibid.

[32] Angela Townsend, “Cities Help Sell Homes, Racial Mix Special Funds Lend Integration Support,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 11, 2000.

[33] Isabel Wilkerson, “In Ohio, Oasis of Integration,” Herald International Tribune, December 31, 1991-January 1, 1992, Shaker Historical Society.

[34] Tuthill, 35

[35] Ibid., 103.

[36] Ibid., 104.

[37] Wilkerson.

[38] Bill Lubinger, “Pro-Integrative Efforts Assessed Pattern of Segregation Unlikely to Change Study Finds,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 26, 1992.

[39] Terry Holthaus, “Fair Housing Leader Quits, Calling Efforts a Lost Cause,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 13, 1991.

[40] “Communities,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 12, 2002.

[41] Informal conversations with current Ludlow Community Association Presidents, Julie Donaldson and Mary Ann Kovach, underscore the community associations’ transition from integration in the 1950s through the 1990s to social programming in the 1990s and 2000s.

[42] “Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000: Geographic Area: Shaker Heights city, Ohio,” from “Profiles of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000 Census of Population and Housing, Ohio.”

[43] I calculated the percentage of white residents by dividing the number of white residents—15,635 by the total population—28,448. I calculated the percentage of black residents by dividing the number of black residents—10,545—by the total population—28,448.

Source: “Race and Hispanic or Latino Origin: 2010—Con.,” from “Ohio: 2010—Summary Population and Housing Characteristics: 2010 Census of Population and Housing.”

[44] These themes are discussed in detail in Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Mary Pattillo’s Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class, and Mary Pattillo’s Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City.

“PEOPLE WERE SAYING NICE THINGS ABOUT CLEVELAND AGAIN”: REFLECTING ON CARL STOKES AND CITY IMAGE

By J. Mark Souther

On a crisp October day in 1970, a crowd cheered Carl Stokes on as he scrambled down the dock behind Fagan’s Beacon House in his yellow fishermen’s boots onto a submerged platform and sloshed through the murky waters of the Cuyahoga River. Stokes, elected 50 years ago next month as the first African American mayor of a large U.S. city, had promised this stunt of appearing to walk on water as a demonstration of his faith in the fledgling entertainment district that had recently sprung up along the riverbank. Stokes’s messianic gesture was part of the Flats Fun Festival, an event intended to help Clevelanders reframe their perception of a river that infamously caught fire the previous year.

The savvy and charismatic Mayor Stokes was accustomed to embodying hope in Cleveland, a city that like many in the emerging Rust Belt was well aware of its own urban crisis before the river burned. Two race riots—the Hough uprising in 1966 and the “Glenville shootout” two summers later—had brought it into sharp focus. The city’s mishandling of urban renewal had even resulted in a federal freeze on releasing additional renewal funds to Cleveland until a few months into Stokes’s first term. Morale had sunk so low in 1967 that Stokes chose as his campaign slogan “I Believe in Cleveland” and promised a clear departure from the inertia of the “caretaker mayors” who preceded him.

The 1967 election produced jubilation. Like other energetic mayors of his time—New York’s John Lindsay, Detroit’s Jerome Cavanaugh, and Boston’s Kevin White—Stokes seemed capable of delivering a renaissance in Cleveland. He gave Clevelanders “a psychological lift” and, in the words of one observer, “a feeling . . . that perhaps the city can be saved after all.” And the hopeful image extended far and wide. The mayor’s executive assistant reported that wherever he traveled, “people were saying nice things about Cleveland again.”

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Carl Stokes for Mayor campaign ad:”I Believe in Cleveland”, 1967, Cleveland Plain Dealer

The success that Stokes had in reshaping public impressions of Cleveland owed in no small measure to William Silverman, a public relations guru who had cut his teeth on Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign. It was Silverman’s idea to brand the mayor’s agenda with a catchy name to wrap its many initiatives in a shiny package. Silverman’s conception, Cleveland: NOW!, soon became a tagline for TV ads, billboards, and was an ingenious way for Stokes to cultivate the appearance of progress through otherwise unrelated modest initiatives that were more readily achieved than his more expansive plans. The symbolism of Cleveland: NOW! was useful not only for countering the enervating effect of intractable problems but also for offsetting symbolic losses that paralleled the urban crisis. Among these losses were the closures in 1968 and 1969 of the beloved Sterling Lindner department store, shuttering of the row of cinema palaces that comprised Playhouse Square, and demise of Euclid Beach, Cleveland’s most storied amusement park.

Although Mayor Stokes cared more about expanding the city’s supply of affordable housing and improving access to industrial jobs, he was also conscious of the need to attend to Cleveland’s image, and nowhere was better for that than downtown, which inspired metaphorical description as the city’s “showcase,” “heart,” or “mainspring”—in short, a place thought to possess central economic and symbolic importance for the metropolitan area. Following a period when two previous mayors had struggled to produce just three sizable new downtown buildings even with the promise of the nation’s largest federally subsidized downtown urban renewal project, Stokes made regular use of his spade and scissors at groundbreaking and dedication ceremonies for an impressive roster of new high-rises. More importantly, his administration was attuned to the need to do more than simply rely on a building boom to create a larger captive audience of office workers that might stave off the decline of downtown retailing.

As in other American city centers, downtown Cleveland experienced a loss of shoppers to suburban shopping plazas after mid century. At a time when San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, a former chocolate factory converted into a shopping, dining, and entertainment complex, was an influential model for reorienting central cities as destinations for suburbanites and tourists, Cleveland planners were taking note. While the city’s 1965 reevaluation of the 1959 downtown plan continued to recommend the “malling” of Euclid Avenue as an antidote to retail decline, it also noted the 1890 Arcade’s potential to be Cleveland’s answer to Ghirardelli Square. Although the Arcade did not materialize as a major tourist venue, Stokes was the first mayor to actively pursue a leisure-driven agenda for downtown Cleveland as part of a broader effort to rejuvenate a city beset by problems. In the downtown segment of his televised Cleveland: NOW! documentary in 1968, the mayor told of a French magazine writer who remarked during a visit to Cleveland on how deserted the downtown streets became after dark. Stokes believed downtown could become a “people place.”

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Mall Cafe, a project initiated by Stokes’s properties director Ed Baugh, 1968, Cleveland Press Collection, CSU Library

The mayor’s vision found an advocate in Ed Baugh, who had recently left the Peace Corps to serve as Stokes’s city properties director. From his City Hall office, Baugh looked out on the Mall, one of the nation’s few Daniel Burnham City Beautiful plans to be implemented to a significant degree, and he saw an attractive but little-used expanse. In his mind’s eye, Baugh conjured a Tivoli on the Mall—piped music, live concerts, cafes, surrey rides, and nighttime floodlighting—as an antidote for what one of the city’s daily newspapers called Cleveland’s “grim, all-business image.” With the mayor’s blessing, Baugh opened the Mall Café and staged events such as Mall-A-Rama, with games, crafts, and even model boat races in the fountain pool, and Fun Day on the Mall, a music festival that brought rock and R&B acts headlined by Edwin Starr. Significantly, the administration took pride in drawing together a diverse audience and saw diversity as essential to the city’s future.

Baugh extended his version of the “Fun City” mindset that Mayor Lindsay championed in New York beyond the Mall. The administration recognized the potential of efforts by business owners and the Old Flats Association to turn the rough-and-tumble docklands of the Flats along the Cuyahoga into a place fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Old Town Chicago or Gaslight Square. The Old Flats Association, formed in 1968 by business owners such as Harry Fagan, (whose four-year-old tavern featured a New Orleans-style jazz band), found an ally in Baugh and the Stokes administration, which added gas lamps and signage and worked with organization to sponsor a rededication of the site where city founder Moses Cleaveland landed in 1796.

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Playhouse Square after theater closings; marquee advertises films at a suburban theater!, 1970,  Cleveland Press Collection, CSU Library

Even as the Stokes administration worked to carve out new entertainment destinations, it also labored to restore one that had been lost. The Playhouse Square area on downtown’s eastern end had once hummed with activity. In addition to the 12,000 seats in five theaters, dozens of fashionable stores and large restaurants lent a Times Square-like quality that persisted long after sunset. When the theaters closed, their demise took down a number of nearby businesses. Concerned business owners formed the 9-18 Corporation (named for East 9th and 18th Streets, which marked the boundaries of the part of Euclid Avenue the organization served). The 9-18 Corporation partnered with the mayor’s office to relight Euclid Avenue with super-bright “Lucalox” bulbs developed at General Electric’s Nela Park, its lighting division campus in East Cleveland.

Stokes’s predecessor, Ralph Locher, had undertaken a citywide plan for replacing streetlights with a similar symbolic gesture as part of a demonstration project to jumpstart a moribund urban renewal project in Hough just months prior to the Hough uprising, but before the relighting campaign could progress far, the murder of a Cleveland Orchestra chorister in the heart of University Circle forced the mayor to redirect new lighting to allay fears in the city’s cultural district. Three years later Stokes was making a similar move to quell concerns about the dark, forbidding stretch where theater marquees had until recently blazed with light. As Stokes’s utilities director later recalled, the Lucalox treatment was “something visual” to help “taxpayers see where their dollars were going,” and it was predictably touted as another public service of Cleveland: NOW! On a late October evening in 1969, the mayor flipped a ceremonial switch to dedicate what he claimed was now the brightest downtown in the United States and spoke of his hope for reinvestment in Playhouse Square.

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Ad for downtown relighting ceremony, sponsored by 9-18 Corp. and Stokes administration’s Cleveland: NOW! program, 1969, Cleveland Plain Dealer

The mayor went a step further. Understanding that the 9-18 Corporation, like so many other organizations formed over the years in the interest of promoting specific sections of downtown, was insufficient to the task of promoting all of the central business district, Stokes worked with business leaders to form the Downtown Consortium in 1970. The Downtown Consortium was Cleveland’s first public-private partnership to coordinate revitalization in the district. The new organization pledged to continue supporting efforts to revive Playhouse Square while also undertaking a variety of symbolic interventions. Perhaps the most noteworthy was the plan to hold a downtown festival and, at Ed Baugh’s suggestion, use the event to test an idea first hatched in the 1959 downtown plan: making Euclid Avenue into a pedestrian mall. The closure of the street for the festival separated this event from previous festivals sponsored by business interests, but it did not lead to a permanent “malling” of the street, leaving future planners to continue debating the concept through the 1970s.

Clevelanders may not have seen the immediate coalescence of a leisure-driven downtown transformation, but they certainly learned to see their city as having the potential to move in that direction. Indeed, it was at this time that Herbert Strawbridge, the chairman of the Higbee Company, a leading local department store, having recently visited Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, began seriously thinking about making a bold move to use his store as a developer of a similar complex in the Flats. He thought of it as a way of making Higbee’s future less dependent on office workers by creating a powerful magnet for suburbanites and tourists. Strawbridge would take the plunge in 1972 when, after he read in the newspaper that a junkyard was planned on the site of Moses Cleaveland’s river landing nearly two centuries before, he resolved that Higbee’s could not stand by and watch the desecration of “Cleveland’s Plymouth Rock.”

The Stokes era, now being celebrated in the golden anniversary year of his historic election, was a might-have-been watershed in Clevelanders’ efforts to jar their city onto a new course of revitalization. We now know very well that, not only in Stokes’s time but also throughout the half century since, decline and revitalization are not sequential but coexist in perpetual tension. Many times we have seen mayors, business leaders, and other urban prognosticators declare that revitalization is at hand—that a city has “turned the corner” or embarked on a “comeback.” History tells us that it’s rarely so simple. Revitalization is something that must be forever cultivated. That is exactly what Carl Stokes understood. He knew and often admitted that Cleveland’s problems were real and should not be swept under the rug. Yet, as he worked to steel the public for a long, expensive, and sometimes controversial struggle for a better city, the mayor also understood and deployed the symbolic rhetoric and actions that he knew might help manage people’s response to the challenges ahead.

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Mark Souther is a Professor of History at Cleveland State University. Souther will be speaking on October 27 in the “Alternative Visions for Cleveland” roundtable at this year’s SACRPH conference. This essay was adapted from Souther’s new book Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation” (Temple University Press, 2017). Souther is also the author of New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City (LSU Press, 2006).

 

 

“The Cuyahoga will be the place”: A bibliography for over two centuries of Cleveland

“I believe … the Cuyahoga will be the place,” Moses Cleaveland wrote in July of 1796. Working for the Connecticut Land Company, Cleaveland had arrived in Ohio to survey the land and plot it for settlement. Cleveland, he believed, would be well situated for future success. “It must command the greatest communication either by land or Water of an River on the purchase or in any ceded lands from the head of the Mohawk to the western extent or I am no prophet,” he wrote to his superiors.[1] Others viewed the potential hamlet more problematically. “Cleveland has a Thousand Charms but I am deterred from pitching on that place by the Sickness, the poorness of the Soil, and the inhabitants under the hill,” wrote Gideon Granger in 1804. Needless to say, Granger’s views suggested changes needed to be made.[2]

Transformation occurred. Due in part to the kind of physical alteration of the environment that made its larger counterpart Chicago famous, “the Sickness” that Granger noted was afflicting residents eventually dissipated. Engineers opened new channels that more directly connected to Lake Erie; the Cuyahoga River’s swift current eliminated sandbars that had previously prevented larger ships from accessing the lake. It also eliminated “the miasmic swamps from the mouth,” thereby bringing greater health to inhabitants.[3]

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Cleveland and Toledo Rail-Road 1856, G. F. Thomas & Co., Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

With other transportation improvements such as the completion of the Erie and Ohio Canals and the introduction of the railroad, Cleveland boomed. The city evolved from hamlet to “commercial village and city [to] industrial city, and [to] post industrial city,” as historians Carol Poh Miller and Robert A. Wheeler summarize in their short history of the metropolis. Though it lay it in what was then considered the American West, planners and leaders attempted to construct the city on the model of the New England town.[4] It would not stay that way.

Canal building and railroad construction enabled the city to establish itself as a commercial center; circumstances did not remain static. First the “west” moved; in 1825 Cleveland could lay claim to frontier status, but by 1845 that frontier had moved 1,000 miles further west. Second, demographics shifted. If its population consisted primarily of the native born in 1825, two decades later half of the city’s residents had been born abroad. Third, the disinterested gentlemen politicians of 1825, serving only for the “public good” had, twenty years on, become machine hacks as ”party politics” determined most elections.[5]

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Birds eye view of Cleveland, Ohio 1877, Ruger, A., J.J. Stoner and Shober & Carqueville, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the city had emerged as a regional economic force. Cleveland shed its provincialism and its political and civic leaders engaged in national debate particularly in regards to slavery and abolitionism. Industry soon flourished; its police and fire departments formed in the 1860s. Having emerged as a center of abolitionism, the city threw its support behind Lincoln and, after secession, the Union. European immigrants poured into the city. In its early years the city housed mostly new arrivals from Ireland and German, but with the onset of industrialization it welcomed Italians, Slavics, Greeks, Hungarians and other immigrants. Hoping to escape discrimination in Europe, Jews also arrived in large numbers. Roughly 3,500 resided in Cleveland by 1880, and within 40 years the number climbed to 75,000, making Jews nearly 10% of the overall population.[6] In 1890, 37 percent of its population had been born in Europe, but even more telling, three quarters of the city were either born abroad or the progeny of parents who were immigrants.[7]

Jewish Americans would be critical to the city’s wellbeing in the coming decades particularly as the black population swelled and pressures resulting from segregation and structural racism in the housing market bulged. In moments, Jewish homeowners resisted African American attempts to purchase homes in Cleveland neighborhoods; at other times, they worked to reduce tensions between the two groups as communities slowly integrated. An odd amalgam of self interest, altruism, and fear over alleged declining home values shaped responses. “[I]n Cleveland, ethnic and religious divisions shaped divergent responses and decisions,” historian Todd Michney points out. “Whites of different backgrounds reacted more or less disconcertedly, some departing sooner and others later, with patterns hardly resembling unanimity.”[8] Still, on average, when compared with their Catholic white ethnic counterparts in the city, Jewish Clevelanders demonstrated greater flexibility and understanding in relation to housing integration.

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Bathing beach and pavilion, Gordon Park, 1917, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Admittedly, for much of the nineteenth century, African Americans made up a small percentage of the city’s population. Serving as a guide, navigator, and interpreter, Joseph Hodge (aka Black Joe) had been an important contributor to Moses Cleveland’s initial founding of the future metropolis in 1796, but the state’s Black Laws, which essentially discouraged black settlement in Ohio, and the practice of slavery south of the state’s borders, more generally helped keep these numbers low.[9]

It was not until World War I and the Great Migration that residents would witness an increase in the city’s African American population. With immigration at a standstill, “Cleveland’s industrialists turned to the ready supply of black labor in the South,” historian Russell H. Davis pointed out in 1972. The great flow of labor north brought the quotidian, the remarkable, and everything in between. For example, James Cleveland Owens, named after the city his parents viewed as “the promised land,” arrived in the Ohio metropolis during the 1920s. During his first day of school he took on the name that he would later make famous. Unable to fully understand Owens due to his southern accent, his teacher mistook his nickname of J.C. for Jesse. His teachers “from that day forward, called him Jesse instead. So did everyone else in this new world he was in,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in her Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Warmth of Other Suns.[10]

Jesse Owens needs little introduction, of course , but rather embodies Cleveland as a site of opportunity, both shaping and shaped by new arrivals. The growth of the black population continued through and after World War II. Most settled on the city’s east side which would be “the principle place of residence” for Black Cleveland for much of the twentieth century.[11] Though limited by segregation, as Michney argues in his recently published work, Surrogate Suburbs, Cleveland’s black working and middle classes “dynamically and creatively engaged with space at the urban periphery” and transformed communities into critical centers of black economic, social, and political life.[12] This influence exceeded local neighborhoods, labor, and demographics. In 1967, Carl B. Stokes triumphed in the mayoral contest becoming the first black mayor of a major U.S. metropolis.

World War II drove Cleveland to further economic and demographic heights. In 1950 the city reached nearly 1,000,000 residents with almost 150,000 of that figure accounting for black Clevelanders. Unfortunately, like other rust belt counterparts such as Pittsburgh or Detroit, the fall came soon after. In ensuing decades, the usual story of decline and deindustrialization unfolded, yet its history, while similar to its sister rust belt metropolises, proved unique. As Mark Souther notes in his forthcoming work Believing in Cleveland, it did not “endure collapse as stultifying as that in Detroit”; it lacked the kind of global connections and vastness of the Windy City or the tourist friendly James Rouse revisionist reboot of Charm City. Pittsburgh, perhaps its closest relative, found ways to rebuild successfully upon the dual industries of “eds-and-meds” and cutting edge robotics and medical technology (though Patrick Vitale’s arguments to the contrary are noted).[13] Cleveland, arguably the most understudied of these examples, went its own way.

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Jewish Temple, Cleveland, O[hio], 1900, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
For example, in the area of race relations and housing, though it witnessed its own tensions and occasional violence, it never endured the kind of unrest and bloodshed that defined other cities. Cleveland “did not experience anything remotely approaching the sustained and highly organized violence mounted by white residents in … Chicago and Detroit”, writes Michney.[14] White ethnics in Cleveland, particularly its Jewish residents, might have been uncomfortable with neighborhood transitions, but they never resorted to the kind of brutality that defined the era, and many even tried to work with community groups in order to blunt population changes or enable them to occur more efficiently.

Urban historians have spent decades peeling back the layers of rust belt ascension–decline–ascension narratives. In addition to groundbreaking work like Tom Sugrue’s The Origin of the Urban Crisis which established a new template for discussions of urban America, a newer cohort of scholars like Tracy Neumann, the aforementioned Vitale, Michney, and Souther, Elihu Rubin, Andrew K. Sandoval Strausz, Chloe Taft and others have been reworking the rise-and-fall narratives by intellectually sauntering down previously ignored avenues of exploration. In particular, Michney and Souther seek to place Cleveland, with some exceptions, into this discussion. “Like many cities across the Great Lakes region,” writes Souther, “Cleveland was a city whose leaders faced broad challenges that forced them to manage its decline or, perhaps more accurately, to manage perception of metropolitan transformations that produced spatially differentiated outcomes – winners and losers.”[15]

Even if rise and fall narratives obscure important realities, few would argue that by the 1970s Cleveland could use some improvements. In a fifteen-year period from 1958 to 1973, the city lost 50,000 manufacturing jobs. Schools struggled, neighborhoods faced declining infrastructure, and air pollution soared. While some African Americans found purchase in the suburbs, most remained relegated to struggling communities in the inner city that ultimately served as a “repository for the metropolitan area’s worst socioeconomic hardships,” Souther argued in a recent article.

“The Best Location in the Nation” (1940s), “The Best Things in Life are Here” (1970s), “Comeback City” (1990s), and “Believe in Cleveland” (2000s) serve as only a few taglines among countless others that were meant to sell post-World War II Cleveland to the nation. “New York might be the Big Apple, but Cleveland is a plum,” the Cleveland New Dealer once asserted.[16] Unfortunately, no degree of semantics could alter opinions held by even local residents. “Anyone dumb enough to believe that ‘the best things in life are right here in Cleveland deserves to breathe Cleveland’s air and live in Cleveland’s filth,” wrote one disbelieving Shaker Heights resident. “Cleveland is a rotting corpse clothed in a hazy, blue gray shroud. Cute songs and slogans won’t fix it. You fix a trash heap by cleaning it up. You start with the air and work your way down period.”

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Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio, Carol M. Highsmith, 2010, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Today, disgruntled Clevelanders of the past aside, it would seem such attempts to renew interest in the metropolis are unnecessary; the city has shed the image of the “mistake on the lake,” when the Cuyahoga River caught fire from pollution. Pop culture overflows with references to the city. The soap opera that is the relationship between Lebron James and the Cavaliers has transfixed the nation for over a decade and arguably boosted the NBA to new heights of popularity. ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Believeland” laid out the angst of the city’s erstwhile sports fan for all to see; only to be improbably redeemed by James and the Cavaliers the same year. Tina Fey’s Thirty Rock dedicated an entire episode to the city’s undeniable if unexciting pleasantness; the film Trainwreck gently teased it for the same. It even gets a mention on the latest album, Sleep Well Beast, by Ohio’s most famous aging hipster rock band, the National: “Young mothers love me / Even ghosts of girlfriends call from Cleveland / They will meet me anytime, anywhere.”

Whether or not our bibliography for Cleveland fully explains how the city came to its current incarnation remains to be seen. We do hope that it piques interest in a rust belt city that has persevered through two centuries of existence. Beyond trite slogans, 1990s sitcoms (Drew Carey, we are looking at you), or museums dedicated to dying art forms (we kid, Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Millenials love dinosauresque four-piece garage bands … ), the city of “progress and prosperity” soldiers on in ways 1970s resident might never have predicted. Perhaps, Mr. Carey, Cleveland does rock.

As always, we know the list has flaws but hope that readers will use the comments section to help us fill in the blanks. Special thanks to J. Mark Souther (especially herculean in his efforts), Todd Michney, and Nichole Nelson for their help in creating the bibliography.

Photo at top of the page: Dusk-time view of the Cleveland Museum of Art from Wade Lagoon in ClevelandDusk-time view of the Cleveland Museum of Art from Wade Lagoon in Cleveland, Ohio, Carol M. Highsmith, 2016, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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Overview, southeast, Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, Cleveland, Ohio, Carol M. Highsmith, 2016, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Books

Campbell, Thomas F., and Edward M. Miggins, eds. The Birth of Modern Cleveland, 1865-
1930
. Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1988.

Cigliano, Jan. Showplace of America: Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue, 1850-1910. Kent, OH: Kent
State University Press, 1991.

Davis, Russell H. Black Americans in Cleveland: From George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969. Cleveland: Associated Publishers, 1972.

Hammack, David C., Diane L. Grabowski, and John J. Grabowski, eds. Identity, Conflict,                and Cooperation: Central Europeans in Cleveland, 1850-1930. Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 2002.

Harwood, Herbert H., Jr. Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen Brothers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

Howe, Frederic C. The Confessions of a Reformer. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press,
1988.

Keating, W. Dennis. The Suburban Racial Dilemma: Housing and Neighborhoods.Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Keating, W. Dennis, Norman Krumholz, and David C. Perry, eds. Cleveland: A Metropolitan Reader. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995.

Kerr, Daniel R. Derelict Paradise: Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland, Ohio. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.

Kusmer, Kenneth L. A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 1978.

Michney, Todd M. Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in
Cleveland, 1900-1980.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Miller, Carol Poh, and Robert Wheeler. Cleveland: A Concise History, 1796-1996. 2nd ed.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

Moore, Leonard N. Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 2002.

Pekar, Harvey, and Joseph Remnant. Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland. Scarsdale, NY: Zip Comics,
2012.

Phillips, Kimberley L. AlabamaNorth: African-American Migrants, Community, and Working-Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915-1945. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Souther, J. Mark. Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the
Nation.”
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017.

Stokes, Carl B. Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster,
1973.

Stradling, David, and Richard Stradling. Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015.

Swanstrom, Todd. The Crisis of Growth Politics: Cleveland, Kucinich, and the Challenge of
Urban Populism
. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985.

Tittle, Diana. Rebuilding Cleveland: The Cleveland Foundation and Its Evolving Urban
Strategy
. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992.

Toman, James A., and Blaine S. Hayes. Horse Trails to Regional Rails: The Story of Public
Transit in Greater Cleveland
. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1996.

Vacha, John. Meet Me on Lake Erie, Dearie!: Cleveland’s Great Lakes Exposition, 1936-1937.
Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2010.

Van Tassel, David D., and John J. Grabowski, eds. Cleveland: A Tradition of Reform. Kent,
OH: Kent State University Press, 1986.

Wiese, Andrew. Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth
Century
. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

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Jimmy Carter at a street rally during a campaign stop in Cleveland, Ohio, Thomas J. O’Halloran, September 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Articles

Borchert, James, and Susan Borchert. Downtown, Uptown, Out of Town: Diverging Patterns of Upper-Class Residential Landscapes in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, 1885-1935. Social Science History 26, no. 2(2002): 311-346.

Jenkins, William D. “Before Downtown: Cleveland, Ohio, and Urban Renewal, 1949-1958.”
Journal of Urban History 27, no. 4 (May 2001): 471-496.

Michney, Todd M. “Race, Violence, and Urban Territoriality: Cleveland’s Little Italy and the 1966 Hough Uprising.” Journal of Urban History 32, no. 3 (March 2006): 404-428.

Michney, “Constrained Communities: Black Cleveland’s Experience with World War II Public Housing,” Journal of Social History 40 (Summer 2007): 933-956

Michney, Todd M. “White Civic Visions Versus Black Suburban Aspirations: Cleveland’s
Garden Valley Urban Renewal Project.” Journal of Planning History 10, no. 4 (November 2011): 282-309.

Souther, J. Mark. “A $35 Million ‘Hole in the Ground’: Metropolitan Fragmentation and
Cleveland’s Unbuilt Downtown Subway.” Journal of Planning History 14, no. 3 (August 2015): 179-203.

Souther, J. Mark. “Acropolis of the Middle-West: Decay, Renewal, and Boosterism in
Cleveland’s University Circle.” Journal of Planning History 10, no. 1 (February 2011): 30-58.

Stradling, David, and Richard Stradling. “Perceptions of the Burning River: Deindustrialization and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.” Environmental History 13, no. 3 (July 2008): 515-35.

Tebeau, Mark. “Sculpted Landscapes: Art & Place in Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens, 1916-
2006.” Journal of Social History 44, no. 2 (winter 2010): 327-50.

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Cleveland, Ohio, aerial view, Thomas J. O’Halloran, September 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Online Resources

Cleveland Historical. https://clevelandhistorical.org. A website and mobile app that puts
Cleveland history at your fingertips. Developed by the Center for Public History +
Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University.

Cleveland Memory Project. http://clevelandmemory.org. An online collection of digital photos, historical texts, oral histories, videos, and other local history resources. Developed by the Michael Schwartz Library at Cleveland State University.

Cleveland Voices. https://clevelandvoices.org. An online streaming-audio collection of
approximately 1,000 interviews conducted since 2002 as part of the Cleveland Regional
Oral History Collection, a project of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities
at Cleveland State University.

 Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. http://ech.case.edu. Originally published in 1987 by Indiana University Press and now online, the ECH is edited by Case Western Reserve University historian John J. Grabowski, contains more than 3,000 entries about all aspects of Cleveland history.

 

[1] Carol Poh Miller and Robert A. Wheeler, Cleveland: A Concise History, 1796 – 1996, (Indiana University Press, 1997), 9.

[2] Miller and Wheeler, Cleveland, 17.

[3] Miller and Wheeler, Cleveland, 33.

[4] Miller and Wheeler, Cleveland, 32-34, xiv.

[5] Miller and Wheeler, Cleveland, 31.

[6] Miller and Wheeler, Cleveland, 102-103.

[7] Miller and Wheeler, Cleveland, 82-83.

[8] Todd Michney, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980, (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 10.

[9] Russell H. Davis, Black Americans in Cleveland: From George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969, (Associated Publishers, 1972), 5.

[10] Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, (Random House, 2010) 265-266.

[11] Russell H. Davis, Black Americans in Cleveland: From George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969, (Associated Publishers, 1972), 127-128.

[12] Todd Michney, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980, (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 3.

[13] J. Mark Souther, Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in ‘The Best Location in the Nation’, (Temple University Press, 2017), 4.

[14] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 9.

[15] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 11.

[16] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 2.

Goodbye Ho Chi Minh City, Hello Cleveland!

Just as I’m sad to see that the warm days of summer are behind us, it’s bittersweet to realize that our coverage of Ho Chi Minh City has come to an end. In tandem with the Burns/Novick documentary on the Vietnam War, I felt immersed in this Metropolis of the Month. A trip to HCMC may not be on the horizon for me, but next time I’m in the D.C. area I will most certainly take an afternoon to visit Eden Village.

It makes sense that Northern Virginia’s Little Saigon is where we ended our exploration of HCMC, since we began by recognizing how empires shaped Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City. “Subject to imperial rule throughout their history,” we noted in our HCMC bibliography, “the Vietnamese people held tightly to their own identity while absorbing aspects of its occupiers—China, Japan, France and the U.S.” To better understand the “navigation of identities, economies and politics,” at play in “this burgeoning Southeast Asian metropolis,” we published two travelogues from wildly different perspectives: a nineteenth-century American-born woman living in Japan, who made a stop in Saigon/Cholon on a round-the-world tour, and a twentieth-century American man in modern HCMC on vacation. While Clara Whitney remarked on the “queer mix of nationalities … these different people and costumes” and the “low marshy shores – completely overgrown with a thick vividly green foliage,” our own correspondent found “a nation awash in youth and motor scooters,” where the “Traffic flows like a giant school of fish along the wide boulevards constructed during French occupation.”

While Cleveland may not be “awash” in scooters, it certainly shares wide boulevards with HCMC–notably Stokes Boulevard, named after former mayor Carl Stokes, which runs eastward from the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University towards the suburb of Shaker Heights. We’ll feature several posts this month that examine Shaker Heights, either directly or tangentially, as well as the Stokes mayoralty, the role of sports and arenas in municipal politics, and the experience of conducting research in and on Ohio’s cultural capital and second largest city.

For those attending the upcoming SACRPH conference, we hope that our Metropolis of the Month coverage will ensure that your visit to Cleveland will be historically enriched. And for those who cannot join, we hope that you will share in the spirit of the mid-1990s when the Drew Carey Show ruled the airwaves, the Indians threatened to win a World Series, and city leaders told residents and the national public that Cleveland was the “Comeback City.”  Arguably amidst a second renaissance–boosted by a “Believe in Cleveland” boosterism–with a renewed downtown, the best basketball team east of the Mississippi, an equivalent baseball team to boot, and a now-fully-established Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, it is just as the Drew Carey Show’s theme song attested: Cleveland Rocks!

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“Capital within a Capital”: Covert Action, the Vietnam War, and Creating a “Little Saigon” in the Heart of Northern Virginia

“That flag is the symbol of the spirit of the refu­gee,” Springfield resident and Vietnamese American talk show host Liem D Bui told journalists in 2012. The flag to which Bui referred is that of the fallen South Vietnam government and it along with an American flag fly over Eden Center shopping plaza in Falls Church, VA, a symbolic embodiment of Vietnamese American culture and Ho Chi Minh City that some call “a capital within a capital,” for D.C.’s 80,000 residents of Vietnamese descent. [1]

Eden Center was established over 30 years ago, and it still retains a cultural resonance today–albeit one that remains subject to popular perceptions. “[M]erchants and community leaders worry that, outside their circle, their home away from home is increasingly viewed as a place for gambling and gang activity,” noted Washington Post journalist Luz Lazo, “a perception that some business leaders say hurts business and threatens the vibrant social hub.”[2] Undoubtedly, many residents remember their own difficult arrival in the U.S. Though few recall now, the majority of Americans opposed President’s Ford’s approval of refugee acts enabling Vietnamese passage to the U.S. and in many places they faced discrimination and resentment.

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In his 2014 book Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia, Haverford College professor Andrew Friedman demonstrates how the refugee populations that followed CIA efforts in El Salvador, Iran, and Vietnam reshaped Northern Virginia’s built environment and demographics. Eden Center shopping plaza is a symbol of this change, a piece of Ho Chi Minh City on the edge of the American South. While an obvious result of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, the relationships or intimacies that led to the settlement of Vietnamese Americans in Northern Virginia were forged through not just the war but decades of covert action abroad.

Occupation, War, and Covert Action 

For much of the twentieth century, American legislators severely limited immigration from Asia and refused the right to naturalized citizenship to those that did come. Of course, this is not to say that migration in the nineteenth or even early twentieth centuries evolved only from military conflict. As Yale scholar Laura Barraclough has demonstrated, Japanese farmers and labors migrated to places like California’s Imperial County and San Fernando Valley to work the land even in the face of discrimination.[3]

U.S. involvement in wars in Asia and its occupation of Hawaii and the Philippines helped to create various transnational connections related to economics, politics, and intimacies (referring to friendships, sexual affairs, and collaborations that occurred as part of covert activities) that later contributed to shifts in immigration policies in the early 1950s. The 1952 McCarran Act removed the ban on naturalization, but maintained quotas for certain groups, notably Asians. Not until 13 years later did the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act redefine the rules for immigration, making family unification a priority and replacing racial quotas with hemispheric ones, thereby facilitating greater numbers of newcomers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

During this same period and afterward, covert action abroad in places like Vietnam constructed refugee and immigration flows to the United States. However, where these new populations settled in the U.S. often depended on the quality of contacts developed between American actors abroad and the nations subject to intervention, in this case the Vietnamese. American empire propped up and then negated South Vietnam but also enabled many South Vietnamese allies to gain footholds in the U.S. as residents and later citizens.

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Market in Ho Chi Minh City, December 2013

The U.S. had an interest in developing capitalist markets in Asia while also building political bridges to defeat communism. U.S. occupation and reconstruction of Japan provides a prime example of this, as was its defense of what became South Korea in the 1950s. In each case, many soldiers stationed abroad developed relationships with Asian women—love, at least for a moment, ensued. Initially, the War Brides Act of 1945 allowed for only non-Asian spouses to enter the U.S. Not until an amendment was added to 1950 legislation were Japanese and other Asian spouses allowed to consistently migrate to U.S. shores. In this way, family bonds, friendships, marriage, and the like influenced government action and policy.

Immigration policy did not dictate the level of migration unilaterally. The relationship between American interventions in Asia and immigration or refugee flows that followed hinged mightily on political realities in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam respectively. During both the postwar occupation of Japan and the Korean War, the nation allied with the U.S. remained, more or less, physically and geopolitically intact. Korea might have been split into two nations but the Korean War, even though it did lead to Korean immigration stateside, did not set off a wave of refugee immigration to the U.S.

In contrast, American actions in Vietnam did not result in victory for its allies; rather, those Vietnamese allied with the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government found themselves targeted by the victorious Communist North Vietnam for imprisonment, torture, and execution. This created a larger flow of refugees to the U.S. and the passage of the 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act by the Ford administration, despite public opposition. The 1980 Refugee Act subsequently resulted in directed flows of Vietnamese to places like Orange County, California and Northern Virginia. From 1980 to 2000, 531,00 Vietnamese sought and received refuge or asylum in the U.S. Today 40% of all Vietnamese Americans live in Orange County.

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Tet Vietnamese Lunar New Year Celebration in Garden Grove | Photo by Jametiks used under a Creative Commons license

While much has been said about how American adventures abroad and the region’s own anti-communist conservatism helped to reshape Orange County demographics, less has been written about a similar process in Northern Virginia or how covert action rather than direct military intervention played a role in facilitating refugee flows. For example, many credit the Marshall Plan for helping to rebuild European economies. It stands as an open symbol of U.S. postwar beneficence. However, as Friedman points out, the same Marshall Plan led to US involvement in Vietnam in the late 1940s, nearly twenty years earlier than the Vietnam War. Indeed the Marshall Plan, established as one expert noted “to help rebuild civilization with an American blueprint,” also approved $685 million in foreign currency for CIA covert political action. By the time the Vietnamese crushed French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the U.S. was paying nearly 80 percent of France’s war costs.[5]

The U.S. agency charged with Vietnamese economic and infrastructural development Special Technical and Economic Mission (STEM), led by individuals like Mark Merrell attempted to “modernize” the Southeast Asian nation and unwittingly contributed to CIA efforts.  In his capacity as STEM leader in Vietnam, Merrell’s activities – road building, economic development, housing complexes – reconstructed the shape of Vietnam’s built environment. “[Y]ears before Americans are seen has having significant spatial impact on the country, [Merrell’s] work … entered, altered, and established crucial aspects of the built environment and material life of Vietnam that became incorporated into its physical expression as a place, that defined how it was experienced by local residents and later observers,” reflects Friedman.[7] Rufus Phillips performed similar duties after Merrell. “He dug wells. He brought fertilizer. He handed out medical kits. He rebuilt markets, roofs, roads, and bridges,” points out Friedman. “[H]e sculpted American aid, American material, and American building techniques into the landscape of Vietnam.”[8] One hears the enthusiastic, Kool-Aid drinking voice of The Quiet American’s Alden Pyle whispering in the ears of men like Merrell and Phillips as they promoted U.S. stewardship of their Southeast Asian allies.

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Ho Chi Minh City, December 2013

If Merrell and Phillips constructed the built environment with materials and U.S. money, others worked relationships. Take Edward Lansdale, who was sent with the “Saigon Military Mission” to ensure that Vietnam did not reunify even as the U.S. agreed at the 1954 Geneva Conference to do just that. Lansdale used his charisma, inquisitive nature, and aptitude for political calculations to build personal relationships with Vietnamese collaborators that forwarded U.S. interests. “Lansdale prided himself on understanding not only the politics, but the cultures of places he entered … He claimed to communicate on good humor alone,” Friedman writes. “And he almost always acquired his cultural knowledge through one on one experiences of extreme intimacy with people he knew for political reasons.”[9] Lansdale supported the efforts of Merrell and Phillips, seeing in medical aid, for example, a way into Vietnamese hearts and minds while also providing U.S. companies an inside track into emerging markets where businesses could demonstrate the superiority of American wares to a people “hungry for technological improvement.” The Saigon Military Mission disbanded once Vietnam formally split, and the agents returned to NOVA.

Soon after, however, in 1965, Lansdale returned to Vietnam as a special assistant to the US Ambassador to “organize and carry out what was now called a ‘rural construction’ program.” Lansdale held frequent parties in his Saigon home, welcoming US dignitaries, Vietnamese elites, and others in a heady mix of politics, camaraderie, and intrigue. Luminaries like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sometimes attended, mingling with Southeast Asian counterparts, developing intelligence, and drawing conclusions about U.S. actions. Creating this “cultural corridor” between NOVA and Vietnam did not ensure real equality between actors. Race and U.S. power always remained a dissident murmur preventing equal relations between individuals. Even those agents who came to treasure Vietnamese culture sometimes expressed their view of the nation’s people in racist terms. One writer noted surprise at the opinions offered by members of Rufus Phillips’ team regarding the Vietnamese. Greeted by the particular team member’s part-Vietnamese and part-French wife in a home filled with Asian artifacts, the biographer encountered a man who seemed less than impressed by Vietnam. “I then proceeded to interview a man who in the course of an hour used such racist epithets as ‘goddam slopes’ innumerable times as I asked for his thoughts and recollections about his time in Vietnam.”[10] Admittedly, Lansdale would do much to help collaborators settle in NOVA in the years after the Vietnam War, but these relationships always rested on unequal partnerships.

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Eden Center Parking Lot, July 2014

Coming to America

By April of 1975, South Vietnam’s fall seemed imminent, but despite clear indications of American failure, no real evacuation plans for Vietnamese allies emerged. While the aforementioned legislation of the mid 1970s and early 1980s facilitated waves of Vietnamese immigrants to U.S. shores, the initial 1975 evacuation symbolically represented their fates. The image of a bedraggled U.S. helicopter taking off from Saigon as thousands of Vietnamese living in “apocalyptic fear” of the incoming regime sat below forced American policymakers to answer a simple question: What had the South Vietnamese earned by allying with the United States? “The evacuation degenerated quickly into an improvised experiment in racism,” one official remembered. “Only those with white skin were assured a way out.” In eighteen hours of emergency evacuation, 5,595 Vietnamese joined their American counterparts in departing Saigon. By the end of April, a total of 42,123 Vietnamese and others found their way out via “black flights.”

Many ended up in refugee camps run by the Pentagon in one of four places: Camp Pendleton, CA, Fort Chafee, Arkansas, Elgin Air Force Base, FL, and Fort Indiantown, PA. The refugee camps ran civics classes to instruct the Vietnamese on US customs and ways to redefine themselves in this new environment. “In lessons about work, when a woman made the motion of casting a fishing net, the teacher would correct, ‘I am a housewife,’” notes Friedman. “When a man made a gun with his hands and said, ‘I rat-a-tat-tat,’ the teacher would recommend, ‘I work with my hands.”[11]Their pasts would have to be wiped clean, though as will be seen, this process contained greater complexity than any camp instruction could hope to solve.

Needing a sponsor to escape the camps and get established on U.S. soil, many refugees fell back on the intimacies established before and during the Vietnam War. As a result, many found their way to NOVA and specifically, the Dulles Corridor, a twenty five mile stretch from D.C. city limits near the Pentagon to Dulles International Airport inhabited by large concentrations of American covert actors often in the employ of the CIA or Pentagon. “Identification by empire,” reflects Friedman, “may have voided the landscape of South Vietnam as their homeland, but it allowed them to settle and claim the CIA’s and Pentagon’s suburban landscape as their own.”[12] By June 19, 1975, 3,733 Vietnamese had settled in Northern Virginia, and within five years 9,541 resided in the area. Many refugees settled in proximity to their refugee camps, hence Orange County’s proliferation of Vietnamese residents. Some migrated to Washington state, New York, and Minnesota, where established Asian American communities resided. Northern Virginia differed in that it was neither proximate to any camp nor could claim an established Asian American population. Intimate connections to CIA covert actors led Vietnamese to NOVA where they settled largely in Arlington County, not coincidently home to many of their military and government sponsors. Many key Vietnamese actors active in U.S. counterinsurgency programs there appealed to and even visited Lansdale; he even hosted gatherings at his McLean home, “where newly arrived refugees could organize some self help groups.”[13]

Not that average Virginians welcomed their arrival. At best, many white residents of Northern Virginia, a region at the time still pockmarked by the legacy of Jim Crow segregation, resented the newcomers and demanded they integrate into local economies and cultures as quickly as possible. Others more maliciously wondered aloud if NOVA would be able to remain truly “American.” Vietnamese newcomers might have used their intimacies to secure a new home in the burgeoning Northern Virginia suburbs but they did so unevenly as their white counterparts, some guilty of subterfuge, torture, and assassination, settled into cushy office jobs in government and private business. For example, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the man photographed famously executing an alleged VC collaborator during the war, settled in NOVA, even opening a pizza parlor named Les Tres Continents, but remained subject to the occasional ominous threats for his actions during the war.

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Eden Center Shoppers, July 2014

Whatever his complicity or guilt (the story behind the shooting remains as murky as during the war), some came to his defense. “Everybody did it, it’s not only him,” the Vietnamese wife of an American State Department official commented. “The past in Vietnam is not in the United States.” The physical and conceptual newness of Northern Virginia helped in this regard. “Violence rests in the past, and the past is geographic, distant in very sense, relegated to the lost Vietnam that can’t penetrate the resilient visual immediacy of Virginia’s suburbs,” Friedman explains.

Even in the face of racism and the difficult process of establishing new identities and careers, Vietnamese refugees first settled in Arlington, Falls Church, Annandale, Vienna, and Clarendon and along the thoroughfares that connected them, like Wilson Boulevard and Columbia Pike. They did not settle en mass in one large “immigrant ghetto” but rather dispersed though a “wide swath of the Dulles Corridor landscape.”[14] They established businesses and worked jobs that radically differed from their occupations in Vietnam. A navy commander worked as a bag boy at a local Giant supermarket on Leesburg Pike; women who worked for large American companies now clerked at the Fairfax Quality Inn.

 

Soon, cultural and business institutions took form. In 1975, Rev. Nhi Tran established the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Catholic Church in Arlington. In these early years of settlement, Clarendon formed the heart of this new Vietnamese community with its Little Saigon. Even before 1975, in 1972, the first real Vietnamese presence in the county bulged with the establishment of a restaurant, followed by other restaurants like the Queen Bee, and grocery stores. Vietnamese immigrants lived in old government housing, new garden apartment developments, and some of the nation’s first FHA insured demonstration projects. Indeed, the very architecture of the state sheltered refugees from the country’s foreign policies. When the metro line to the area was completed, bringing government offices, Vietnamese businesses migrated further out to Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners in the Falls Church area. [15] In fact, 60 percent of Vietnamese resided within three miles of Seven Corners.[16]

It would be here in the early 1980s, where Vietnamese refuges would take an old run down shopping plaza and refurbish it into an economic hub and a visual representation of their community. Jefferson Village, a 500 unit, 70 building project, and the Willston “garden apartment complex” more or less bookended Eden Center and both came to house large numbers of Vietnamese Americans. Ironically, these apartments also provided accommodations to CIA agents and military officers who had worked for men like Mark Merrell in Vietnam decades earlier.

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Eden Center Water Feature, July 2014

Named after the Eden Arcade in Ho Chi Minh City, Eden Center soon emerged as not only a hub for the NOVA Vietnamese community and a physical reminder of U.S. foreign policy, but also as a sort of capital for the Vietnamese diaspora. “All Vietnamese communities around the world look up to this one as the crown of the anti-Communist government and its sense of duty,” one Vietnamese immigrant told interviewers. Ethnographers found that for many Vietnamese transplants going from the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, to the capital of the U.S. seemed fitting, hence Eden Center’s status as “capital within a capital.”[17] The “Little Saigon of the East Coast,” noted one Vietnamese American and Maryland resident.[18]

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Eden Center Flags, July 2014 

Today, Eden Center continues to fly two flags in the center of its parking lot: an American one and the flag of the fallen South Vietnam. The practice began in the 1980s and while it testifies to the influence of local Vietnamese Americans it also bears witness to American actions abroad. Even local governments have taken formal notice, such as in 2003 when the local Board of Supervisors granted recognition to the South Vietnamese flag as the “heritage flag” of NOVA’s Vietnamese American community. Residents themselves fought for this distinction, arguing that Fairfax County did not have to abide by U.N. regulations and could ignore “international protocol” in regard to Vietnam’s “actual flag.”[19] “It is a wonderful, unique environment,” Falls Church City Council member David Snyder told journalists in 2012. “I often say to people, ‘If you want to get a great, wonderful taste of Vietnam without going, taking your passport and spending a couple of thousand dollars on flying . . . just pop in your car and go to the Eden Center.’ ”[20]

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Eden Center Restaurant, July 2014

Nor do the mechanics of U.S. covert action simply stop, but rather continue in surprising ways. Successful refugees like developer Vietnamese American Tien Hoang, himself a 1975 arrival to NOVA, returned to Ho Chi Minh City in the 1990s, building housing complexes in Vietnam and selling units through a sales office in Falls Church. He even planned a strip mall in Vietnam based on American models and hoped to name it “Little Fairfax,” telling interviewers “It’s like Reston [VA] was back then.” In the end, Vietnamese Americans like Hoang and others who collaborated directly with U.S. actors returned to Ho Chi Minh City in search of development opportunities not as “conquering South Vietnamese Republicans but as American capitalist emissaries looking to develop its land,” Friedman argues.[21]

Unlike other recipients of covert aid such as Salvadorians, the Vietnamese refugees had the “benefit” of a very visible war that flickered across American television screens and polarized popular debate. Facilitated by intimate connections to U.S. officials, a result of their alliances during American occupation of South Vietnam, the Vietnamese carved out conceptual and physical space in Northern Virginia through their own sweat and toil, a capital within a capital.

 

[1] June Q. Wu, “Police Raid Falls Church Cafes,” Washington Post, August 12, 2011; Tom Jackman, “Two Dead in Eden Center Shootings in Falls Church,” Washington Post, July 15, 2012; Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.

[2] Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.

[3] Laura Barraclough, Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development and White Privilege, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011).

[4] Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of the U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 128.

[5] Ibid, 136.

[6] Ibid, 135.

[7] Ibid, 130.

[8] Ibid, 142.

[9] Ibid, 143.

[10] Ibid, 157.

[11] Ibid, 176.

[12] Ibid, 174-175.

[13] Ibid, 179

[14] Ibid, 180-181.

[15] Ibid, 182-183.

[16] Ibid, 189.

[17] Ibid, 191-192.

[18] Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.

[19] Ibid, 217.

[20] Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.

[21] Ibid, 218.

 

 

 

Touring HCMC: Motorbikes, Sidewalks, and the Memory of War

Tourism matters in ways we don’t always consider, often functioning as a “transnational practice imbued with meaning,” as historian Scott Laderman argues. For example, in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the U.S. government took an interest in promoting tourism in Southeast Asia, specifically in Ho Chi Min City (then referred to as Saigon and Cholon). Writers extolled Saigon’s mix of “French modernity” and Southeast Asian tradition. American policy makers believed U.S. travelers to Vietnam would strengthen ties between the two nations and publicize the efforts of South Vietnam to remain independent in the face of the alleged communist threat from the North. Searching for international legitimacy—particularly since its creation negated the agreed upon reunifying general elections prescribed by the 1954 Geneva Conference—the South Vietnamese government also saw in tourism a means to secure its status. “Visitors will be amazed by [Saigon’s] physiognomy, a happy combination of old Oriental civilization and blooming modernization,” noted a guide to HCMC produced by the South Vietnamese government’s National Travel Office.[1]

Growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s, films like RamboPlatoon, and countless other Vietnam War movies portrayed a nation besieged by violence and an enemy obsessed with American invaders. Even films that were arguably more critical of the U.S. intervention, like Stanley Kubrick’s very dark Full Metal Jacket, conveyed the idea that the Vietnamese sought to eradicate their American counterparts at all costs; any attempt to explain or describe motivations other than those of Americans was largely eschewed.

Even in seemingly sympathetic moments, many U.S. observers never seem to question the general morality of the war or the fact that when Americans discuss Vietnam, they are most often discussing the U.S. “Many Americans travel to Vietnam to learn not about Vietnam but about the United States,” Laderman notes in his 2009 work, Tours of Vietnam: Travel Guides, War, and Memory.[2] It always seems lost on many Americans that whatever lengths the Vietnamese went to repel invaders, they were always fighting in defense of their country, a very important but often ignored point.

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The most recent 10-part Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary series on the war serves as only the most recent and accomplished example of this self-referential obsession, coming on the heels of 2014’s The Last Days of Vietnam. To their credit, Burns and Novick do more than anyone else before them to present a broader context to the war and draw out the most ignored experiences of the conflict, at least in the West: that of the millions of Vietnamese civilians who perished and North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers who fought off American interlopers.

Still, even in its brilliance, the documentary sometimes falters. It fails to fully explicate the history of Chinese interference in Vietnamese affairs and sometimes sets up false equivalencies between the behavior of the French and Americans with that of North Vietnamese and guerilla fighters in the South, the Viet Minh and Viet Cong.

Equally troubling, notes Christian G. Appy in his review of the first episode in the series, U.S. policy is too often depicted as based on mistaken impressions, tragic communications failures, or misunderstandings rather than on the expansion of power in the face of what the nation’s intelligence community believed to be a reputable “policy of global counterrevolution,” argues Appy. “The United States did not stumble unwittingly into Vietnam.”

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Endless motorbikes in HCMC, December 2013, Ryan Reft

Beyond War in HCMC

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If you watch the aforementioned Full Metal Jacket, the film’s first half focuses on the psychological wringer that is and was Marine boot camp; the second half of the movie unfolds in the troop’s deployment to Vietnam, specifically the travels of Private Joker (Matthew Modine). This latter portion of Full Metal Jacket opens up in HCMC with Joker, a journalist for the Army, being robbed of his camera by Vietnamese thieves who speed off on a motorbike. Needless to say, while this might have been an accurate portrayal of the city’s nightlife amid war in the late 1960s, it underscores the very dynamic described above. More importantly for our purposes, HCMC today is a very different metropolitan animal.

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HCMC in late December 2013, Ryan Reft

I spent three days in HCMC around Christmas of 2013. What you find in this South Vietnam metropolis isn’t tired communist architecture, hostile residents bent on robbing G.I.s or drab “comrade”-inspired clothing and pop culture, but a nation awash in youth and motor scooters. Traffic flows like a giant school of fish along the wide boulevards constructed during French occupation; the immensity and collective nature of the traffic oddly matches the grandiosity of the boulevards. One steps out gingerly into a busy Haussmanesque thoroughfare as motorbikes swarm around you, yet they always seem to avoid collision with pedestrians and each other. Admittedly, upon the first couple of attempts, the process feels more than a little disconcerting, but by the end of your second day it feels natural.

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Looking down on the endless traffic flow of HCMC, December 2013, Ryan Reft

Quaint boutique coffee shops, small businesses, street food, restaurants, and sidewalk commerce abounds. The bustling walkways of the city animate HCMC in countless ways; they communicate “a tale of human condition … something both gritty and humanizing,” A.M. Kim notes in her study of the metropolis.[3] Nearly one third of the city generates a living from sidewalk commerce, and low cost food, household sundries, and services all can be found simply by strolling along city paths. The government may be communist politically, but what you see all around is pure capitalism.[4]

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French architecture in HCMC, December 2013, Ryan Reft

Much of the nation and certainly much of HCMC’s population is under 40. In two decades, the city has doubled its size; in even less time, the average income of its citizens has tripled.[5] Most residents vaguely remember the conflict with the US, if at all. The fact is the U.S was last in a long line of occupiers: the Chinese, French, Japanese, and French (again) all came before America’s benighted intervention. France’s footprint exceeds that of its American counterpart. The former Francophone presence simply can’t be ignored as the city’s urban design and distinctly French architecture exerts itself upon visitors and residents alike.

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Independence Palace, December 2013, Ryan Reft

Take, for example, Independence Palace. Built originally by the French in the nineteenth century and formerly known as Reunification Palace, it was once home to the South Vietnamese government and, before it, Japanese occupiers during World War II. It stands simultaneously as a reminder of imperial rule and the Vietnamese people’s rejection of occupation, be it French, Japanese, or American.

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The incredible late ’60s themed Game Room in Independence Palace, December 2013, Ryan Reft

Then again, despite its burgeoning reputation as one of Southeast Asia’s cosmopolitan metropoles of the modern era, the city cannot be fully divorced from the U.S. intervention. Some of its most popular tourist destinations, like the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum, have everything to do with the war. In fact, according to Laderman, by the early 21st century, the War Remnants Museum emerged as the city’s most popular tourist trap.[6]

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Interior Independence Palace, December 2013, Ryan Reft

 

Cu Chi Tunnel

The Cu Chi Tunnel tour on the outskirts of HCMC serves as great example of the post-war tourism. Where else can you spend the day with giddy Australians, Japanese, Malay, Kiwis, and countless other citizens of the world as you crawl though old VC tunnels or witness displays of military ingenuity, while a tour guide points out the various booby traps used against American forces.

“The man in the black pajamas,” Walter Sobchak mutters  in The Big Lebowski, “a worthy adversary”. Indeed, some workers on the tour don the very outfit to which Sobchak refers and in a way the uniform serves as the centerpiece. At one point, you sit in wooden huts drinking hot tea as guides tell you about the black uniforms worn by insurgents. You can even pay 10 dollars to shoot old VC rifles on the facility’s target range, an opportunity this writer passed up but several others quickly took advantage of. As our guide noted, “Today we welcome Americans as our friends.”

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Perusing the booby traps at the Cu Chi Tunnels, December 2013, Ryan Reft; Above: Engaging the Cu Chi Tunnels, December 2013, Ryan Reft

Granted, the Cu Chi Tunnel tour seemed surreal to this American observer, most notably as a contingent of Malaysians tourists stood for a group photograph in front of a confiscated American tank. Yet, for the Vietnamese, the Cu Chi tunnels represent a sort of Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, and Battle of Yorktown all in one; centuries of conflict with foreign invaders bested through a combination of grit, will, and innovation. Neil Sheehan, a journalist who covered the war and author of one the conflict’s defining books, A Bright Shining Lie, pointed out in a 1988 interview, “The Vietnamese simply will not tolerate foreign domination; their whole history has been one of repelling invaders.”[7] With the American defeat, it had shrugged off Western occupiers, one a traditional colonial imperial force and the other a modern superpower, through no small amount of sacrifice. Tourists, and perhaps the Vietnamese themselves, don’t visit the tunnels out of bitterness; they visit to celebrate a hard won victory for independence.

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The differing meanings of the Vietnam War for non-Americans, December 2013, Ryan Reft

To put the tunnels in perspective consider Michael Moore’s short-lived TV Nation, a show which once asked how we should think about war reenactments. Reliving Civil War battles might seem harmless, but what if we reenacted the 1975 “Fall of Saigon”? Our tour guide referred to the American retreat from the city as liberation but graciously acknowledged for Americans it earned the “Fall” moniker. When Moore reenacted the event in one episode he was met with bewilderment and sometimes hostility and anger, yet how different is it? Moreover, would Americans be so gracious with a nation that essentially invaded, occupied, and forcefully prevented unification for seven years? I doubt it. I’ve encountered countless numbers of students who get riled up about the Japanese and Pearl Harbor, and that was a military target.

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At the end of your tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels you can fire the same weapons as the VC, December 2013, Ryan Reft

The War Remnants Museum

“This Museum may be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow … but [the] truths underlying these exhibits [are] as important to our history as [they are] to that of the Vietnamese people.” – American Veteran circa 1994 as recorded in the War Remnants Museum comment book.

Between indiscriminate bombings, American-backed coups, and Agent Orange, the conflict collectively resulted in over 2 million civilian deaths. One could argue that the U.S. has a lot for which to atone in Vietnam. We visited the tunnels before going to the War Remnants Museum—formerly named the “American War Crimes Museum” and later changed to simply the “War Crimes Museum,” before settling on the aforementioned title today.

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War Remnants Museum, December 2013, Ryan Reft; Below: On the grounds of the War Remnants Museum, December 2013, Ryan Reft

A visit to the second floor of the museum forces observers to witness the atrocities that occurred toward civilians, notably women, children, and, yes, infants. One doesn’t walk away confident about American motives or interests. Human rights abuses appear to have been legion in the war and obviously not limited to civilians. Did the North Vietnamese regime torture POW? Yes, but unfortunately so did the US.

To be clear, while soldiers are responsible for their behavior and some committed horrible atrocities, as an American tourist the museum elicits contempt for the United States’ political leaders – Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, and Nixon. As documented by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest, the nation’s political leaders put soldiers in an untenable, morally ambiguous position. David Marinas captured the tragedy of the war for American soldiers in heart-wrenching detail in his 2004 work They Marched into Sunlight. American veterans who walked away from the war were left with real questions over what exactly their purpose was; in contrast, Vietnamese veterans of the conflict can look back assured their sacrifices not only meant something, but contributed to their nation’s independence.

Over 50,000 American soldiers tragically lost their lives, but nearly 3 million Vietnamese, the lion’s share of that number civilians, died in the process. When you see pictures of Agent Orange’s long-term impact, such as indescribable birth defects and the like, the carnage of Cold War containment forces one to readjust their perspective. Tony Judt and others have suggested the problematic nature of historical tropes about America’s Cold War “victory” and the righteousness of containment as a foreign policy. The museum drives this point home in brutal fashion. Yet, when you go the museum, it’s not dominated by nationalistic Vietnamese but Western tourists.

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Captured U.S. plane at the War Remnants Museum, December 2013, Ryan Reft

 

Is it one sided? Yes, it never really interrogates the abuses of the Communist regime after reunification. Of course, that being said, whatever one thinks of the North Vietnamese government and its abuses, Vietnam was its country. In an age of false equivalencies, this seems to be worthy of consideration and a point that non-Americans certainly take into account. As Laderman explores in his book, the museum offers visitors a space to express their reactions to its curatorial efforts. One Malaysian tourist heralded the Vietnamese as “freedom fighters” battling for liberty and unification. A Singaporean immigrant from Canada added, “To say no more war is naïve. . . You have to fight for your rights and freedom. I admire the Vietnamese people for defeating foreign powers to regain their dignity and stand proudly as an independent nation.”[8]

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Buddhist Temple, Cholon HCMC, December 2013, Ryan Reft

American responses run the gamut from shame over our involvement to anger over what some visitors view as a biased account. The response by the daughter of one veteran sums up this dichotomy. She acknowledged the U.S. had made mistakes that “cost lives, future, and security,” asked that forgiveness be given but then qualified with this plea: “The side that isn’t displayed in this museum is what the Vietcong did to our boys. They made mistakes too.” As Laderman points out, the Vietnamese probably aren’t searching for forgiveness since they didn’t invade America. The idea of national liberation never entered her mind.[9]

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Market, HCMC, December 2013, Ryan Reft

Over the past two decades, HCMC has reinvented itself and reemerged as a city on the make, yet, for many American visitors all that is new remains tied to events over half a century old. Natives of the city might feel equally tied to the past, but its meaning and effect prove far different and HCMC’s future, though always impacted by China’s regional influence, appears to be, finally, fully its own.

[1] Laderman, Tours of Vietnam, 24.

[2] Scott Laderman, Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory, (Duke University Press, 2009), 3.

[3] Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 7.

[4] Kim, Sidewalk City, 17.

[5] Kim, Sidewalk City, 3.

[6] Laderman, Tours of Vietnam, 154.

[7] Walter Gelles, “Neil Sheehan”, Publisher’s Weekly, September 2, 1988.

[8] Laderman, Tours of Vietnam, 168-69.

[9] Laderman, Tours of Vietnam, 175.

A Nineteenth Century Travelogue of HCMC: Clara A. Whitney in 1880 Saigon

With European colonialism exterting itself in Asia by the 1860s, Ho Chi Minh City, then known as Saigon and Cholon respectively, had fallen under French control. As Gwendolyn Wright and others since have noted, city building served as a central aspect of French colonialism. French leaders believed beautiful, grand cities embodied the nation’s strength, sophistication and imperial reach particularly during an historical moment in which Germany threatened the Francophone empire.[1] It helped that new urban design standards established by law in mid-nineteenth century Paris would be enacted at the same time as France expanded its presence across the globe.

Depending on the admiral installed to lead French efforts in Saigon, the city’s urban development proceeded along at rates related to leadership’s enthusiasm for such projects and the finances required to implement them. For example, one of HCMC’s early governors, Louis Adolphe Bonard, pursued the city’s urban development aggressively until a shortage of funds undercut his efforts. His successor Admiral La Grandiere “commissioned the construction of several institutional buildings and parks, as well as 15,350 km of streets,” writes historian A. M. Kim. “Obsessively controlling, he also issued an avalanche of decrees and regulations that left little to improvisation.”[2]

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Complete Map of Vietnam, between 1885 and 1890, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Governors like La Grandiere and Bonard imagined the future Saigon as a bustling, heavily populated metropolis. The former sought to design a city of 500,000, the latter of four million. Needless to say, in the late nineteenth century the cities that would become HCMC a century later consisted of far fewer citizens than these dreams envisioned. In 1873, French officials counted over 150,000 residents in Saigon-Cholon: 82, 681 Cambodians, 49,595 Chinese, 16,638 Malays, 1,391 Malavard, and over 7,500 Europeans, though only 1,114 of those were considered permanent inhabitants.[3]

Even in the nineteenth century, visitors remarked on the diversity of the city. Clara A. Whitney, the daughter of William C. Whitney, had resided in Japan since 1875; her father established a business college there at the behest of the Japanese government. In 1880, as she and her family traveled back to America they stopped in numerous cities along the way, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, Cairo, Naples, Rome, Florence, Geneva, Paris, and of course, Saigon. Only nineteen at the time, Whitney’s 1880s journals, housed at the Library of Congress, provide insight into Ho Chi Minh City’s early years under French colonialism. Saigon proved only a brief stop on her tour of Southeast Asia, but Whitney provides useful, if also Eurocentric observations on the city as it embarked on its Haussmanian redevelopment.

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Above: Sketching of William C. Whitney, based on 1874 original produced in 1961, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Below: Clara A. Whitney’s 1880 journal, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Upon their initial approach to the city, Whitney noted Saigon’s “low marshy shores – completely overgrown with a thick vividly green foliage” and searched for monkeys and alligators along the shore as her steamer moved toward the harbor. Heat greeted Whitney and her fellow passengers: “We arrived in the Saigon harbor and cast anchor beside the wharf in the boiling mid day son of this the hottest place in the world! It is the [Vietnamese Winter] but everybody goes around either in white or very scantily clothed.”[4]

 

According to Whitney, “this curious desert town as French colony” arose out of the jungle. The “smooth and glassy banks” of the Mekong River surrounded them as the river wound in and out upon their approach to the city, and where she saw the “white spires and red roofs of what appeared to be a great city lying like a magical [metropole] on this waste of green foliage and placid waters.”

To her mind, Saigon’s most impressive building was its Agency of the Messageries Maritime, the second home to the French Shipping Company created in 1851. The agency was housed in “a great white building with a flaming red roof over which metallic dragons climbed up towards the Unicorn and Crown of the French coat of arms.”[5] Whitney believed they had anchored and put into port on an island just across the river from Saigon, but in reality she and the others had docked at Thu Thiem, a peninsula, or more precisely, an oxbow across from the city.

Well before France’s arrival, Thu Thiem contained a market (1751) and judging from the writings of U.S Navy Lieutenant John White who visited the city in October of 1819, functioned as a site of bustling, energetic commerce. Boats ferrying fruits, teas, “timber, bamboos, and new canoes, from various parts of the country” remained in constant motion around the city.[6] Whitney reported similar activity sixty years later and, like White, noted the centrality of boats in the lives of Saigon residents. “Towards the evening we went on shore in a queer little boat whose bow resembled a gondola,” wrote Whitney, whose “arched cover protects a raised platform on which the passengers are expected to sit. Like the Chinese sampans these boats seem homes for families too to judge from the pillows and cooking utensils … around the walls.”[7]

Both White and Whitney, due to their own western conceptions of urbanity, obscured or failed to grasp the use of space in a river town like Ho Chi Minh City. White “denigrated life on shore as impermanent, inundated, eroding, muddy, lacking order, and unfixed,” historian Erik Harms notes. Rather what White should have noted was the means by which inhabitants best utilized space in order to create a “linear form of urbanism set against a backdrop of less developed land, which was reserved for agriculture, fishing, and gathering activities.”[8] Arriving six decades later and with French urbanism on going, Whitney drew fewer conclusions about wasted space or impermanence perhaps due to the city’s development or her own time abroad in Japan.

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Clara Whitney in her 20’s, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

HCMC’s cavalcade of ethnicities was not lost on the young female traveler. Whitney commented on the diversity of Saigon citing Chinese boatmen, French soldiers, Hindu carriage drivers, and Arab merchants all around her: “in the market place, one met a queer mix of nationalities. It was a positive pleasure to see all these different people and costumes.”[9] Unsurprisingly, Whitney falls into the usual Orientalist tropes form the era, using the word “queer” repeatedly and it remains unclear how much she was able to distinguish between Saigon’s Chinese residents and those of other Asian ethnicities, most notably the Vietnamese.

Whatever Whitney’s own prejudices, she paid close attention to the sartorial choices of residents. She noted the black trousers and long robes buttoned up to the neck but slit on both sides to the hip of boatwomen. The boatsmen resembled Chinese rowers, dressed in “wide white trousers, a little short white jacket and a broad brimmed straw hat.” For twenty cents an hour, Hindu men in picturesque dress transported Whitney and her fellow travellers along in cabs pulled by “energetic well fed little ponies.”

Similarly, she records the numerous turbans worn by local guards, the silver and gold hair combs in women’s hair, the amber, silver, and coral jewelry that adorned merchant women in the market. “The women were dressed much very much like the boat women but some wore amber and coral necklaces and bracelets and all wore little beads of amber in their ears fastened on the under side,” she explained. “Some were immense tortoise shelled combs pinned with silver.”[10]

In moments, Clara even seems to indicate the slightest measure of sexuality. She finds the Hindu cab drivers to be “the finest men in physique . . . Tall and muscular, dark skinned and eagle eyed their darkness set off by their bright costume.” Their racial characteristics do not escape her or their perceived relationship to Europeans. “They are cousins, not to be ashamed of. It seems strange nevertheless that these queer people are nearly related to us [more] than the Japanese are in fact our Caucasian cousins.”[11]

Whitney marveled at the local fauna and flora at the Governor’s gardens, where the caged tigers impressed her—but not nearly as much as her awe for the city’s verdant vegetation. “I never in my life saw such magnificent shrubbery. The palms and bananas grew in a state of luxuriousness. One leaf alone of a banana tree was five feet long and two wide. The palms were gigantic,” she noted. “Deep crimson” flowers grew all around.[12]

What of Saigon’s urban development in 1880s? “The streets are wide and clean – paved with square blocks of stone and very smooth. The sidewalks are shaded with quivering mimosa trees,” she recorded. Hotels abounded and churches, cathedrals, and temples were not uncommon.

Admittedly, Saigon’s low lying, swampy location presented difficulties—a point Whitney returns to on more than one occasion—but by the mid 1880s, five boulevards, nearly 40 streets, and three quays had been constructed, amounting to over 23 miles. “The pavements are everywhere well shaded with thick foliaged trees of all kinds and the drains well looked after by the municipality,” noted on observer in 1885. “Lamps line them at regular intervals.”[13] Whitney seems to have encountered the city as it built up this sort of infrastructure.

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Clara A. Whitney with husband and children in Tokyo circa 1900, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Whitney soon left the city for Singapore, but six year later married the son of a prominent Japanese Naval officer, Kaji Umetarō with whom she had six children. She eventually returned to the United States in 1900 and settled in Pennsylvania, where she subsisted off income supplied by her husband (who remained in Japan) and the money she earned by writing about Japan.

[1] Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[2] Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 38.

[3] Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 38-39.

[4] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[5] Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[6] Erik Harms, Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon, University of California Press, 2016), 128.

[7] Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[8] Harms, Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon, 129.

[9] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[10] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[11] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[12] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 39.

Culture, Commerce, and History in Ho Chi Minh City: A Bibliography of Vietnam’s Cultural Capital

For fans of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, Ho Chi Minh City is a familiar place. Both men have recorded numerous episodes for various television series over the years dedicated to the urban alchemy of HCMC. They laud its cuisine, marvel at its energy, and generally wallow in the boulevards and alleyways of Vietnam’s commercial and cultural capital. Obviously, such visions of HCMC oversimplify the city’s (and the nation’s) existence. After all, Vietnam itself is “neither wholly Eastern nor Southeast Asian,” as one scholar of the city argues; it cannot be considered fully socialist or capitalist, and instead it follows the vague government directive of a “market economy with a socialist direction.”[1] It is exactly this kind of in-between space, this navigation of identities, economies and politics beyond binaries that help one to understand this burgeoning Southeast Asian metropolis.

Late nineteenth and early twentieth century European tourists sometimes breathlessly described the city as the “Venice of Asia”; French colonists dubbed it “Little Paris.”[2] Subject to imperial rule throughout their history, the Vietnamese people held tightly to their own identity while absorbing aspects of its occupiers—China, Japan, France and the U.S. HCMC encapsulates this tension; it didn’t officially become designated as Ho Chi Minh City until 1976, but existed as two cities divided by the Saigon River, Saigon in the East and Cholon in the West.

By the late nineteenth century, Saigon represented the efforts of French colonizers intent on communicating to the world the grandeur of its Haussmanesque urban planning, the strength of its empire, and the “rationality of its modern bureaucracy,” notes Annette Mae Kim.[3] Defined by its grid plan, roundabouts, and grand boulevards, Saigon would later be designated the French colonial administrative center in 1931. During colonization much of its population consisted of Western and Vietnamese elites or Vietnamese working for the colonial French government. Unless they worked in the service sector for colonists, Chinese and Vietnamese residents were prohibited from living in French neighborhoods.[4]

HCMC’s Chinese population lived largely in Cholon, while Vietnamese largely resided in areas peripheral to both Saigon and Cholon. Between the late 1700s and mid-1800s, Saigon fell into disuse and sometimes into outright disrepair. At the same time, Cholon experienced steady growth, but did so based on a widespread Southeast China model. “Each community centered around a temple that also housed its association,” Kim points out. “Buildings lined streets that were oriented to access the canals built for transportation and trading …marked by narrow, curved roads toward the river …”[5]

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[Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson standing among group of Vietnamese soldiers and Americans during a visit to Saigon, South Vietnam], Thomas O’Halloran, May 12, 1962, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Cholon’s merchants, of mostly Chinese and Vietnamese descent, operated as middlemen, “hard driving bargainers” and conduits between the “disparate” worlds of Southeast Asian trade routes, western colonialism, and the dizzying diversity that each brought to the region.[6] Southeast Asian sensibilities, notably what Tana Li describes as HCMC’s place at the frontier of Vietnam’s southern borders, inculcated in residents a certain independence that enabled them to cling less tightly to traditional bonds between state and society. The earlier Nguyen rulers of South Vietnam in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries differed from the Trinh in the North. Through trade and openness to culture, the South defined “new way[s] of being Vietnamese.”[7] By the late 1880s, this diversity and emphasis on trade visibly demarcated Cholon from its neighbor Saigon. “As truly as Saigon is transplanted France, Cho’lon three miles away is transplanted China. With something over two hundred thousand inhabitants, Cho’lon is more than twice as large as its French neighbor,” one observer noted. It exuded modernity in its blazing electric signs above its shops and trams and motorcars that sped along its paved streets.

During the 1920s, Vietnamese anticolonialism took root in HCMC. In the interwar period, pro-independence movements and class consciousness gained greater footing among the city’s poor, yet the Vietnamese could not occupy Saigon more fully until the 1954 Geneva Conference.[8]

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[Group of ten workers posed by palm trees, Saigon, South Vietnam], between 1890 and 1920, Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
For much of its history, HCMC’s place as a trading center made it a site for migrants and refugees. This proved especially true in the 1950s as tensions with the North increased the flow of refugees to the city. The areas between Cholon and Saigon bulged with new arrivals from the north. South Vietnam’s turn toward market-based capitalism, supported by the United States, brought new economic opportunities to HCMC and in turn drew more migrants and refugees as well.[9]

American forces ushered in a thriving urban economy that benefitted some Cholon residents, though some observers bemoaned the changes that had undertaken the city by the late 1960s. “The good old days of Saigon are gone forever. The famous tree lined boulevards of Saigon have been widened to provide maneuvering room for the trucks, jeeps, and Hondas that are crowding out the Cyclos these days,” writer Dick Adair reflected in 1971. The threat of war and air conditioning kept people inside. “Gone is the simple pleasure of sitting quietly and gazing at the passing scene while sipping a refreshing drink,” Adair wrote.[10]

Often missing from accounts are the voices of the Vietnamese. The Vietnam War made a generation of American writers famous: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Tim O’Brien among others. Ho Chi Minh City often served as their headquarters abroad as they wrote dispatches to Americans back home. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American casts a large shadow, and the many American films made about Vietnam in the 1980s and 1990s arguably eclipses these examples combined. In all these examples, the viewpoint of the Vietnamese is marginal at best. Even urban histories often ignore the majority of Vietnamese residents in HCMC, since many as noted lived just outside Saigon and Cholon, divided between the peripheries of both cities. Still, emigration from HCMC has helped to shape modern American demographics and urban life in places like Orange County, California and Northern Virginia, a topic we will visit this month at the The Metropole.

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Little Saigon, Westminster, Orange County. Photo: A Culinary (Photo) Journal/Flickr/Creative Commons

 

With hostilities ended and a communist government asserting itself across a newly unified Vietnam, HCMC fell into economic isolation. Though long at the center of international trade routes, “Saigon literally vanished form the Southeast Asian mercantile orbit in the space of five years,” notes Eric Tagliacozzo. Hanoi’s ideological dedication to communism shrunk HCMC’s economy such that when Western observers returned to the city many recoiled at the levels to which the standard of living had plummeted. “[P]eople had begun to live on next to nothing,” Tagliacozzo writes.[11]

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[Group of children, with baskets, posed under palm tree, Saigon, South Vietnam], between 1890 and 1920, Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Judging from the Bourdains and Zimmerns of the world, HCMC is currently experiencing an economic and cultural renaissance. However, like many cities in the developing world, the traditional dichotomy between urban and rural does not fully capture its sprawling nature. Take Hoc Mon, an often, ignored peri-urban district on the edge of the city that serves as the focus of Erik Harms’s study on modern day HCMC. “There are no Vietnamese poems about Hoc Mon, which is littered with construction materials, marked by the ‘creative destruction’ of global industrial expansion and unbridled urbanization,” argues Harms. A product of the postcolonial world order and a totalizing global capitalism, Hoc Mon embodies the exciting but troubling growth of urban areas like HCMC. “Poverty is not beautiful, and the landscape it produces smashes ideal categories against the concrete realities of lived life,” Harms cautions.[12] At once, Hoc Mon raises questions about socialist utopias, the promise of capitalism to lift all boats, and the divide between our conceptions of the inner and outer city.

Yet, do not count Hoc Mon natives out, Harms asserts, for in their social and economic lives they exhibit a certain “social edginess” rather than marginality; they are not simply vessels on the ocean, but active participants. “Sometimes people actively edge their way into opportunities created by their position on the urban fringe,” he suggests, “at other times they are edged out by processes beyond their control.”[13]

 In the end, HCMC offers a fascinating, complex insight into modern metropoles. For over two decades urban historians have sought to dissolve the overly simplistic lines dividing the urban, suburban, and rural, and Ho Chi Minh City seems to be doing this not only theory, but in practice. In many ways, it seems to have been doing so for much of its complicated existence.

As per usual, the bibliography we have provided is far from comprehensive and really serves as a means for readers to get their feet wet. We welcome additions to the bibliography in the comments section below. Thanks to Scott Laderman for his help with getting us started on HCMC.

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Cholon Chinatown, Ho Chi Minh City, Katina Rogers photographer, April 2011

Ho Chi Minh City Bibliography

Saigon: Mistress of the Mekong, Ed. Anastasia Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Peter Arnett, Saigon Has Fallen (Rosetta Books, 2015) – Questia review

Jennifer W. Dickey, “Review: Reunification Palace,” The Public Historian 33 no. 2 (Spring 2011): 152-162.

Suhong Chae, “Contemporary Ho Chi Minh City in Numerous Contradictions: Reform Policy, Foreign Capital and the Working Class,” in Wounded Cities: Destruction and Reconstruction in a Globalized World, Ed. Jane Schneider and Ida Susser (Berg, 2003), 227-248 – Questia review

Haydon Leslie Cherry, Down and Out in Saigon: A Social History of the Poor in a Colonial City, 1860-1940. PhD disseration, Yale University, New Haven, 2011.

Michael Dolinski, “Identity Changes of the Chinese Community in Vietnam: A Survey of 20 Families in Cholon,” Asia Pacific Forum 26, (December, 2004): 192-208.

Lisa Drummond, “Street Scenes: Practices of Public and Private Space in Urban Vietnam,” Urban Studies 37.12 (2000): 2377-2391.

Lisa Drummond and Mandy Thomas, Eds. Consuming Urban Culture in Contemporary Vietnam (Routledge Curzon, 2003).

Catherine Earl, “Vietnam’s ‘Informal Public’ Spaces: Belonging and Social Distance in Post-Reform Ho Chi Minh City,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 5.1 (2010): 86-124.

Donald B. Freeman, “Doi Moi Policy and the Small Enterprise Boom in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam,” Geographical Review 86.2 (1996): 178-197.

Martin Gainsborough, Changing Political Economy of Vietnam: The Case of Ho Chi Minh City (Routledge, 2003).

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War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Ryan Reft Photographer, December 2014

Jamie Gillen, “Tourism and Nation Building at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104 no. 6 (2014).

Neil L. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam (University of California Press, 1993) – very short NYT review

Elena Givental, “Ho Chi Minh City: Contested Public and Private Space in the Vietnamese Metropolis,” Focus on Geography 56 no. 1 (2013): 32-44.

Eric Harms, Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City, (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) – Part of JUH review essay

Eric Harms, “The Boss: Conspicuous Invisibility in Ho Chi Minh City,” City and Society 25.2: 195-215.

Gregg Huff and Luis Angeles, “Globalization, Industrialization and Urbanization in Pre-World War II Southeast Asia,” Explorations in Economic History 48 (2011): 20–36.

Du Huynh, “The Misuse of Urban Planning in Ho Chi Minh City,” Habitat International 48 (2015): 11-19.

Annette Mae Kim, Learning to be Capitalists: Entrepreneurs in Vietnam’s Transition Economy (Oxford University Press; 2008) – Economic Development and Change review

Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015) – Asian Pacific Studies review (via Project Muse)

Priscilla Koh, “You Can Come Home Again: Narratives of Home and Belonging among Second-Generation Viet Kieu in Vietnam,” Sojourn: Journal o f Social Issues in Southeast Asia 30 no. 1 (2015): 173-214.

Scott Laderman, Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory, (Duke University Press, 2008) – Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia review (via Project Muse)

Tana Li, “An Alternative Vietnam? The Nguyen Kingdom in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 29.1 (1998): 111 – 121.

Tana Li, Nguyen Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Cornell University Press, 1998) – H-Net review

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Fruits and Juices, Ho Chi Minh City, Katina Rogers, April 2011, via Creative Commons

Hy Van Loung, Urbanization, Migration, and Poverty in a Vietnamese Metropolis: Ho Chi Minh City in Comparative Perspectives (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2009) – Journal of Vietnam Studies review (via JSTOR)

A.T. McGee, The Southeast Asian City: A Social Geography of the Primate Cities of Southeast Asia (G. Bell and Sons, 1967).

Kein Nguyen, The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood (Back Bay Books, 2002).

Andrew X. Pham, Catfish and Mandala: A Two Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam (Picador, 2000) – Very brief NYT times review

Gontran De Poncins, From a Chinese City: In the Heart of Peacetime Vietnam (Trackless Sands Pr. Inc, 1991) – Journal of Southeast Asian Studies review

Srilata Ravi, “Modernity, Imperialism and the Pleasures of Travel: The Continental Hotel in Saigon,” Asian Studies Review 32 no. 4 (2008): 475-490.

Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450 – 1680 (Yale University Press, 1990) – Journal of Sociology review (via Sage)

Anthony Reid, “The Structure of Cities in Southeast Asia, 15th – 17th Centuries,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 11 (1980): 235 -250.

Jonathan Rigg, Southeast Asia: The Human Landscape of Modernization and Development (Routledge, 1997) – Contemporary Southeast Asia review (via JSTOR)

Eric Tagliacozzo, “An Urban Ocean: Notes on the Historical Evolution of Coastal Cities in Greater Southeast Asia,” Journal of Urban History 33.6 (September 2007): 911- 932.

Phillip Taylor, Fragments of the Present: Searching for Modernity in Vietnam’s South (University of Hawaii Press, 2001).

Nigel Thrift and Dean Forbes, The Price of War: Urbanization in Vietnam: 1954 – 1985 (Allen and Unwin, 1986).

Allison J. Truitt, Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Washington Press, 2013) – Popanth review

William S. Turley, “Urban Transformation in South Vietnam,” Pacific Affairs 49.4 (Winter 1976): 607-24.

E.S. Ungar, “The Struggle over the Chinese Community in Vietnam, 1946-1986,” Pacific Affairs, 60.4: 596-614.

Nghia M. Vo, Saigon: A History (McFarland, 2011).

Michael Waibel, “The Production of Urban Space in Vietnam’s Metropolis in the Court of Transition: Internatnalization, Polarization, and Newly Emerging Lifestyles in Vietnamese Society,” Trialog 89.2 (2006): 43-58.

Michael Waibel, Ronald Eckert, Micheal Bose, and Volker Martin, “Housing for Low Income Groups in Ho Chi Minh City: Between Reintegration and Fragmentation,” ASIEN 103 No. April (2007): 59-78.

Johannes Widodo, The Boat and the City: Chinese Diaspora and the Architecture of Southeast Asian Coastal Cities (Marshall Cavendish, 2004).

Michael C. Williams, Vietnam at the Crossroads (Pinter, 1992) – Foreign Affairs review

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

Fiction

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (Penguin Books, 2002).

Duong Thu Hong, Paradise of the Blind: A Novel (New York: Harper Collins, 2002) – very short EW review

Ma Van Kang, Against the Flood: Voices from Vietnam (Curbstone Books, 2003).

Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) – Independent review

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer: A Novel (Grove Press, 2016) – NYT review

 

[1] Erik Harms, Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 4.

[2] Eric Tagliacozzo, “An Urban Ocean: Notes on the Historical Evolution of Coastal Cities in Greater Southeast Asia,” Journal of Urban History 33.6 (September 2007): 923; Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 45.

[3] Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 38.

[4] Kim, Sidewalk City, 41.

[5] Kim, Sidewalk City, 35.

[6] Tagliacozzo, “An Urban Ocean,” 923.

[7] Tana Li, “An Alternative Vietnam? The Nguyen Kingdom in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 29.1 (1998): 111 – 121; Tana Li, Nguyen Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Cornell University Press, 1998), 59, 119.

[8] Kim, Sidewalk City, 48.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 49.

[11] Tagliacozzo, “An Urban Ocean,” 922.

[12] Erik Harms, Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 3.

[13] Harms, Saigon’s Edge, 4.

Goodbye Honolulu, Hello August

Alas, it is time to hang up our leis and board our flight back to the mainland. Unlike most trips to Honolulu, this was no vacation. We challenged ourselves and our readers to travel beyond the resorts of Waikiki beach and explore the rich history of the Hawai’ian islands and its many peoples. The goal we set in the introduction to our Honolulu bibliography was to peel back the facade created by U.S. imperialism and capitalism to find the city’s indigenous history and culture, without minimizing the often brutal, sometimes fruitful, impact that American involvement had on the islands.

From behind a camera lens and atop a skateboard, our correspondents roamed the city’s streets in search of sites connecting Hawai’i’s present to its past. Both wrote about visiting the statue of King Kamehameha, who unified the Hawai’ian Islands in 1810 and became the kingdom’s first monarch, to learn about his reign and how celebrations of his legacy became a symbolic act of cultural reclamation during the Hawai’ian Renaissance that began in the 1970s. Indeed, our contributing expert on Honolulu’s historic preservation concluded his interview with us on an optimistic note, with his hope that the city “can revive the heritage area concept and begin interpreting through museums and information plaques and kiosks to make [Honolulu]’s history more meaningful for both visitors and residents.”

A figurative visit to Honolulu’s Metropolitan Community Church–made via the archives, through a close reading of an issue of the church’s newsletter–also brought past and present together in one site. The Supreme Court of Hawai’i was one of the first to rule in favor of gay marriage, and the history of Honolulu’s Metropolitan Community Church provides some insight into how the mainland struggle for LGBTQ+ rights transplanted to and flourished in Hawai’i.

The inextricability of U.S. imperialism from Hawai’ian history especially came through in our readings of William Finnegan and Joan Didion, two mainland writers who spent time in Hawai’i and vividly portrayed daily life in Honolulu. Both describe the prevalence of American imports, from the racial hierarchy to the military to consumerism. Yet, both also manage to capture something essentially Hawai’ian about the place, as a result of their outsiderness.

Although we are returning to the mainland U.S. in August, we will not be deplaning in a new Metropolis of the Month. We’re going to take the month to develop exciting content about the cities we will be featuring in the fall. In the meantime, we will be posting pieces on a wide range of topics that we hope you will enjoy.

Finding Religion in Honolulu: The LGBTQ Metropolitan Community Church of Hawai’i

In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court issued a ruling that would prove prescient. Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, along with two other couples, had filed a lawsuit against the state in order to have a marriage license issued to them. At the time, Hawaii state law banned same sex nuptials. Surprisingly, while the court did not revoke the ban, it did issue a 3-1 majority opinion that would propel same sex marriage forward and spur the backlash against it. “Marriage is a basic civil right” and that “on its face and as applied,” the Hawaii law “denies same-sex couples access to the marital status and its concomitant rights and benefits,” wrote Justice Steven H. Levinson in the court’s majority opinion. When President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Congress cited the ruling as a compelling reason for the passage of the law. Mainland states feared having to honor same sex marriages from Hawaii–hence the reason for DOMA defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

At the time, the Baehr lawsuit appeared to be “quixotic”, noted the New York Times in 2013. Indeed, even within the LGBTQ community, the idea of gay marriage was controversial, sometimes even divisive. Literary critic Edmund White noted as much in his memoir City Boy: “Back then we had no notion of ‘gay marriage’, partly because many of us were equally opposed to marriage for straight people … As the [1970s] wore on, we became more and more convinced that monogamy – and even the concept of the couple – was outdated.”[1] White, of course, did not speak for the entire LGBT community, but he represented a powerful strain of thought among many within it at the time. Yet, two decades later, Hawaii became one of over two dozen states to sign same sex marriage into law; later Obergefell v. Hodges made same sex marriage the law of the land.

Normally when one thinks of LGBTQ history, New York or San Francisco dominate narratives, however, Honolulu clearly has its own history in this regard. A 1971 newsletter/pamphlet from the city’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a branch of the larger MCC evangelical LGBTQ movement started in 1968 Los Angeles, provides insight into Honolulu’s gay history and a window into the national connections beginning to emerge among the Gay Liberation of the 1970s.

Perry in Detroit
Flyer, Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit, 1971-1973, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In 1968, Troy Perry held the Metropolitan Community Church’s first service. It began in Perry’s Huntington Park living room, but by 2016, according to the MCC’s website, the Christian organization encompassed 300 congregations and 43,000 members in 22 countries across the globe. As Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons surmised in their 2006 work, Gay L.A., “it is probably the world’s largest employer of gays and lesbians.”[2] According to Heather Rachelle White, author of Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights, the founding of the MCC, “catalyzed a gay religious movement that quickly eclipsed predecessor efforts.”[3]

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Los Angeles Metropolitan Community Church, 1973-1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

A former Pentecostal clergyperson, Perry had been defrocked due to his homosexuality, but never let go of his belief in Christianity. Perry did, however, express a healthy skepticism regarding traditional churches potential for accepting gay Christians. “[M]ost organized religions have been no more helpful to us than an empty well,” he wrote in 1972.[4] Thus, he embarked on creating a network of affiliated churches open to gay and lesbian Christians. Perry’s “strong features, penetrating hazel eyes, and towering six feet” naturally drew listeners as did his penchant for pithy quotes refuting scripture-based homophobia: “I’m not saying Jesus was homosexual, but if he lived today, people would be suspicious, he never married, he ran around with 12 men all the time and was betrayed by a kiss.”[5]

Within only a few years, the MCC movement had spread to several other cities and states including Honolulu, Hawaii. One of the most prominent LGBTQ political activists of the 1960s and 1970s, Frank Kameny—whose papers are located in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress—followed the expansion of the MCC and collected newsletters from several of its churches. One such newsletter from the Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, located in Honolulu, provides insight into the city’s gay community and the issues most important to its the LGBT residents.

The MCC also provided a space for community beyond bars. Though gay bars had proliferated in the post WWII era and were undoubtedly important in forging a gay community, they often remained under surveillance by local law enforcement; police in Los Angeles and elsewhere frequently harassed, arrested, or outted patrons and owners. Moreover, in the search for identity and companionship, many gay men and women eschewed the bar scene more generally. “[I]t is difficult for [gay men and women] to get to know each other as people in the bars and other such meeting places,” noted the Honolulu MCC newsletter. “One of the valuable functions of the church is that it provides a place where people can relate to other peoples as individuals, rather than merely as sexual contacts.”[6] Institutions like the MCC provided both visibility and community.

Newsletter cover
Cover, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, March 21, 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

The Honolulu church represents the power of this movement. Judging from its March 1971 newsletter, the Honolulu MCC engaged the public in a number of ways. Its pastor, Reverend Hanson, often addressed American Studies classes at the University of Hawaii; he attempted to convey to students the difficulty of gay life in 1970’s America. Due to the secrecy of gay life, promiscuity proved easier and safer “in some ways, since living with one person makes it necessary to decide what to tell other people, such as parents and co-workers.” “The strong pressures brought against such a relationship lead to the failure of many,” Hanson would tell the students, “which is why MCC requires a six months’ trial period for a couple before a marriage may be performed.” [7]The very fact that the church sanctified gay marriages demonstrates its prescience.

Denver newsletter cover
“The Catalyst” newsletter, Metropolitan Community Church of Denver, June 4, 1972, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Even the church’s small numbers—according to the newsletter, its most recent service counted 43 attendees—were related to sexuality, since many gay men and women feared being unmasked to a then hostile public. Moreover, the church’s prominence would draw unwanted attention to homosexuality. Nonetheless, the church continued to engage the broader community. Additional efforts at outreach included meetings with local police to express parishioner anxieties regarding surveillance and harassment. [8]

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“Rapping with the Police”, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, March 21, 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Political concerns also drew the church’s attention. In 1971, the state legislature had begun to consider revoking Hawaii’s anti-sodomy law. State Rep. John Carroll (12th district) met with church members and assured the church that he was in favor of the revision, noting that he “strongly opposed . . . the hypocrisy of our current laws, and has supported changing them for several years. What people do in private should not be a matter for public concern, as long as the public is not harmed by it,” Carroll told listeners.

Mainland politics also drew the scrutiny of MCC newsletter editors Alan Chapman, Dick Roberts and Ned Will. Frank Kameny’s 1971 campaign for Washington D.C.’s non-voting seat in Congress received coverage, and the editors wrote of Kameny’s effort positively for forcing the media to acknowledge the LGBTQ community: “Kameny’s campaign has a major plank; the recognition of a Homosexual Citizen as a full member of society.”

JackBakersShoes2
Campaign poster “Jack Baker for MSA President, 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress

Minnesota’s Jack Baker, who with his partner Michael McConnell attained the nation’s first gay marriage in 1971, also drew ink. Baker had been denied a position in the University Minnesota Library and had sued arguing this denial stemmed from discrimination. Baker had first gained national attention in his successful 1971 run for University of Minnesota Student Government President; now his victory in federal court added to his LGBT rights resume. Unfortunately, a Federal Appeals court reversed the decision later that same year.

Kuhio Day

While the newsletter tells us little about the ethnicity, race, or gender of church members, it did highlight native history in both its graphics and articles. One such example was this March 1971 piece on the 100th anniversary of the birth of “The Citizen Prince” Prince Kuhio Kalanianaole. “He was democratic in demeanor, dignified yet affable,” the editors wrote. “His chief contribution to constructive legislation was his work toward the enactment of Congress in 1921 of the measure creating the Hawaiian Homes Commission of which he was one of the first members.” While many date the Hawaiian Renaissance to the mid-1970s, when a series of events and protests signaled a new interest and political awakening of native Hawaiian culture, the newsletter suggests that at some small level this was occurring even earlier.

USA directory MCC

Though it might be a solitary newsletter, this single issue tells us a great deal about aspects of Honolulu’s LGBTQ culture. Perhaps congregation members were a minority among the larger gay population, but they were active not only in the church but in the surrounding community. Church congregants expressed an awareness and interest in politics, local and national, while highlighting aspects of the state’s native history.

 

[1] Edmund White, City Boy: My Life in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 99-100.

[2] Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 260.

[3] Heather Rachelle White, “Proclaiming Liberation: The Historical Roots of LGBT Religious Organizing, 1946-1976”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 11. 4 (May 2008): 103.

[4] Troy Perry, The Lord is My Shepard and He Knows I’m Gay: The Autobiography of the Rev. Troy D. Perry, (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1972), 5.

[5] Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.; “Life in Christ”, Metropolitan Community Churches Newsletter Volume I Issue II, Christ Church, Baltimore, Maryland, July 1972, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[6] Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, Vol 1 Issue 10, Honolulu, Hawaii, March 21, 1971

[7] Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, March 21, 1971

[8] Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, March 21, 1971.