Category Archives: Unique Content

Making Cities Global: The Transnational Turn in Urban History

By A.K. Sandoval-Strausz

In conjunction with our friends at the Global Urban History Project, this article is cross posted at the GUHP blog, go check them out!

Urban historians in the United States have increasingly been adopting the kinds of transnational frameworks already central to inquiry in other disciplines. We were slower to take the transnational turn than scholars in fields like sociology, anthropology, and geography. The reasons why have a lot to do with both nation and methodology.

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Outside the United States, there were clear reasons for people to think in terms that transcended the nation-state. The contributors to the new volume that I’ve co-edited with Nancy Kwak, Making Cities Global: The Transnational Turn in Urban Historymany of whom work on South Asia, East Asia, and Latin America, readily pointed out why: in the parts of the world long controlled by colonial powers, , people understood that empires could reach from beyond the horizon and exert authority over them. Scholars trained in Europe, meanwhile, had long understood overseas empires as a taken-for-granted historical formation.The sheer extent of imperial infrastructure—both colonial districts overseas and the looted monuments to their empires that dotted so many metropolitan capitals—made it more intuitive for scholars of urbanism and architecture like Anthony King, Peter Hall, Swati Chattopadhyay, and Zeynep Çelikto place cities in an imperial context.      Methodologically, urban historians have studied particular places. Indeed, the entire subfield is defined by its focus on specific categories of space. Our approach is to know a place in great detail; our purpose may be to examine larger processes on the human scale, but that requires close attention to the local instantiation. As Simon Schama once put it, historians can be divided into parachutists and truffle-hunters depending on their preferred scale of inquiry; in that framework, we were clearly more truffle-oriented. To the extent that the community study was the basic building block of the field, that often circumscribed our ability to think systematically beyond the horizon. Indeed, even in areas where U.S. urban history consistently crossed borders, as in the history of immigration to cities, until relatively recently most attention was on immigrant destinations rather than migrant networks or the process of migration. The idea that a substantial contingent of immigrants eventually or repeatedly returned home, for example, was unexplored for decades.

Making Cities Global seeks to combine the most intellectually revealing aspects of transnational studies and urban history. The ground was already well prepared, since many studies of globalization in other fields already viewed cities as the most important sites of transnationalism in actual practice. In many cases, however, globalized scholarship tended toward grand narrative or abstraction. Some approaches seemed to emplot cities into existing narratives of imperialism, while others took unmistakably useful concepts like “system” and “flow” but used them in ways that privileged capital to the exclusion of people and power on the ground, yielding accounts that didn’t have the look, sound, taste, or feel of the world’s extraordinarily diverse metropolitan areas.

In response, we emphasized aspects of urban history that would keep the analysis empirically grounded and fully global. In particular, many of us focus on specific types of metropolitan places; equally important, most of our essays deal with trans-Pacific and pan-American linkages rather than the more commonly researched Atlantic world. In this way, we encourage scholars to think about multiple transnationalisms that were often discontinuous and contested.

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These approaches are reflected in the text, of course, but also in an illustration program that is an essential part of our collection. For example, Margaret O’Mara’s chapter on high-tech suburbs features a magnificently mid-century photograph of President Charles De Gaulle visiting Silicon Valley in 1960 as part of his efforts to create a French equivalent—efforts, O’Mara shows, that set the stage for a worldwide competition to establish spaces for innovation.

One of the most striking images in the book is of a man dressed as Jesus walking the streets of Chicago. Arijit Sen sees the man—a member of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which attributes its origin to St. Thomas the Apostle’s landing on the coast of India in 53 CE—as a way to explore the changing character of immigrant parades and the embodied character of transnational performances in urban space.

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Building types, too, can cross oceans. Malls, for example, have become some of the most standardized set pieces in metropolitan areas worldwide. Erica Allen-Kim demonstrates, however, that these spaces include local variations like the retail condominium—a spatial arrangement created by small business and real estate investment imperatives in East Asia—that have emerged and been disseminated across great distances. Among her examples is Pacific Mall, a Chinese-Canadian shopping center in suburban Toronto.

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Transnationalism is a fundamentally historical process, and Matt Garcia shows how a community’s migrants and immigrants can take on very different meanings depending upon its position in a changing global economy. Arbol Verde, originally a Mexican settlement on the periphery of Los Angeles, meant one thing to workers in early-twentieth-century agribusiness like the one who drew this map of the barrio and something very different to college administrators in the globalized educational economy of the turn of the millennium.

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In these and eight more essays, we try to show how urban history can think beyond the nation-state, especially by continuing to modify its methodological traditions to encompass a broader, transnational framework. In so doing, we build upon a body of work in globalized urban history that has been growing quickly in recent years. We discuss a lot of this literature in greater detail in the introduction to the volume, but you can get an initial sense of the emergence of work in this vein by going to the Urban History Association website and perusing the conference programs over the years: research on transnational urban history is one of the components of an efflorescence in the field, a reason why the most recent biennial conferences have between two and three times as many papers as the early ones. Moreover, a group of scholars recently launched the Global Urban History Project, a wide-ranging effort to continue transnationalizing the field; the project also has its own blog.

As far as future directions for transnational urban history, there are all kinds of promising points of departure, but I think political history has a great deal of potential. After all, the entire field of urban history was revitalized in the mid-1990s by scholars who used community studies—often within a metropolitan framework rather than a municipal one—to illuminate trends connecting local and national politics. Theirs was a thoroughly national framework that needs to be globalized.

In this political moment, there is a great deal that is transnational about urbanism and politics. The shocking outcome of the U.S. presidential election of 2016 has become something that needs to be explained, but of course that was only the most surprising of a number of recent political reversals around the world. Domestically, the initial narrative of a blue-collar revolt has been called very much into question by people who have pointed out the centrality of race to people’s electoral choices. But the role of urbanization needs a lot more explanation, since one of the most consistent divides was people living in urban areas and inner suburbs versus those on the further periphery and in rural areas; even after adjusting for race, the differences were considerable, as Richard Florida and others have pointed out.

This is also a transnational story, however. Immigration was not just an important issue in the U.S. election, but also in the earlier Brexit vote and in subsequent national and local elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and then again in the United Kingom. But this has not played out the way that people often think. in the U.S., places with the highest proportion of foreign-born people were strongly Democratic (again after controlling for race), while GOP anti-immigrant sentiment paradoxically flourished in places where comparatively few newcomers to our shores reside. In Europe, the relationships among immigration, urbanization, and voting have also been consequential, though less straightforwardly than here.

This is also a transnational matter because this pattern of reactionary politics thriving in rural areas has been apparent for quite some time. The metropolitan split in the politics and violence that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia comes to mind, as the more complex political geography of the Brexit vote. If we consider this more globally, though, the picture changes dramatically: in India, the world’s largest democracy,the nationalist BJP rests on an electoral base that is relatively urbanized. There is much to think about here, and the answers may have a great deal to tell us about what we analyze in Making Cities Global as the “intertwined historical development” of “the connections between urbanization and globalization.”

sandoval-strauszA. K. Sandoval-Strausz is the incoming Director of Latinx Studies and Associate Professor of History at Penn State, having moved after sixteen years at the University of New Mexico. He is a life member of the Urban History Association, the author of Hotel: An American History (Yale University Press, 2007), “Latino Lanscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America” (Journal of American History, 2014), and the coeditor of Making Cities Global (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

 

White Space: Beyond the ‘First’ White Presidency

By Walter Greason

White nationalists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. From an historian’s perspective, there was little surprise in this action, especially after two years of widespread appeals to white nationalism in the course of one of the most heated presidential campaigns in American history. Why did the organizers’ choose Charlottesville? What do their organizations hope to gain by defending sites of Confederate history?

Virginia is, perhaps, the deepest home for white nationalist expression in the United States. Long before the American Revolution, ideas about racial differences and divisions shaped the Old Dominion. Between 1670 and 1750, the intertwined influences of slavery and white supremacy redefined freedom and bondage in the British Colonies. Cities like Norfolk and Richmond, and small towns like Charlottesville, grew in the soil of racial strife and oppression for more than three centuries. Racial perceptions shaped the spaces and places that teach American history. White supremacy molded the evolution of the American political economy.

Due to the grafting of racial perceptions through economic spatialization (informed by race), we must ask: how can the detailed analysis of metropolitan growth better inform scholarly and public understandings of white supremacy in the twenty-first century? The first step must be the forceful confrontation of the pervasive denials about racist decision-making by people in positions of authority throughout American society. In 2016, university leaders made straight-faced excuses about the hateful politics of white supremacy represented by Woodrow Wilson with nothing more than nostalgia as a rhetorical fig leaf.

Urban historians – better than most – know that the language of economic growth offers the thinnest veneer for earlier generations of racist reasoning based in both science and religion. In the traditions of Kenneth Jackson, Robert Fogelson, Lizabeth Cohen, and Thomas Sugrue, in his book Colored Property, David Freund revealed how the language of biological racism in housing markets before 1945 transformed into market and efficiency justifications during the Civil Rights/Black Power era. Even 100 years prior to the racist housing associations in Freund’s work, in the early nineteenth century, municipal land-use patterns reflected the assumptions of white supremacy, including in discussions about gradual emancipation. In the context of the Charlottesville Nazi and Klan marchers’ chants of “Blood and Land,” the expanding metropolis represents an existential threat against the purity of small towns and isolated rural communities.

The megapolitan threat – as both a symbol and a reality – mobilized the resurgent fascist movement in the United States. A megapolitan is a massive, metropolitan region – there are currently ten in the United States (“BosWash” or “Boston-Washington” being the wealthiest) and perhaps another dozen growing around the world. The white nationalists understand that inclusive cities undermine their political agenda. No one symbolized the ascendant power of a global, multi-racial coalition against white supremacy more than Barack Obama. The daily reminders about an African American with presidential authority instigated a backlash that channeled through a patriarchal xenophobia that simmered under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. The feeling of retreat among social conservatives who perceived the encroachment of women’s rights, racial equality, LGBTQ equality, and fluid immigration policies drove a politics of resentment that continues to unfold daily in 2017. For educators, it is a crucial moment to distinguish among the segments of the American population that are committed to fascism and white supremacy and others who simply stand silently on the sidelines waiting for the tension and conflict to subside.

Figure 1. Richmond, Virginia (c. 1864)

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Urbanists’ challenge is to bring rural spaces into urban history.. This imperative exists because the majority of the participants in the movements to reassert white nationalism come from rural areas and small towns across the United States. In Suburban Erasure, I began this process by showing that the fringes of cities were simultaneously independent small towns and rural communities. Even without formal incorporation into the political framework of major cities, the commercial infrastructure that connected metropolitan areas dramatically transformed rural places. Sometimes, this process even erased the most vulnerable enclaves of African Americans. Since 1960, racially marginalized communities with little material prosperity have remained the easiest target for suburban redevelopment in the United States.

Suburban erasure did not just eliminate small enclaves of African Americans; it also created a new terrain of white nationalism. The twentieth-century erasure of historically black, brown, and impoverished communities differs significantly from nineteenth century settlement and land-use patterns. African American communities were only protected by the perception of the profitability of the residents’ bodies and labor before the Civil War. The possibility of thriving, autonomous black communities after Reconstruction (and, especially, after Plessy v. Ferguson) was intolerable, as seen in the rising tide of lynchings and riots that culminated in the Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa riot of 1921, and the destruction of Rosewood, Florida, in 1923. With the advent of amortized mortgages, violent removal was no longer necessary. Market forces and economies of scale could simply erase small communities. Over the next century, scholars must grapple with the ways that race informed the evolution of space and place in locations like Middletown and Toms River, New Jersey (see Figures 2 and 3) – formerly rural places where new forms of metropolitan segregation reinforce the politics of white supremacy.

Figure 2. Middletown, New Jersey (c. 2017)

Middletown

Figure 3. Toms River, New Jersey (c. 2017)

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Scholars have added new insights into old debates that simultaneously sought to reverse the process of historical erasure and form new understandings of urban, rural, and suburban spaces. Robyn Rodriguez’s In Lady Liberty’s Shadow and David E. Goldberg’s The Retreats of Reconstruction advance scholars’ understanding of this changing cultural and spatial landscape. Goldberg shows how the political economy of northern Jim Crow entrenched racist policies of inclusion that required immigrants to pursue social expressions of white identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rodriguez complements this knowledge by revealing the ways that whiteness shaped the suburban politics of immigration after 1970. Willow Lung-Amam has uncovered similar patterns and pressures in Silicon Valley’s suburban schools. Zaire Dinzey-Flores documented the effects of these forces in Puerto Rico as gated communities shaped the built environment. Rhonda Williams opens the door to new paradigms in urban history by centering the experiences of African American women in the processes of creating just, inclusive metropolitan places. Anthony Pratcher’s new research on Phoenix, Arizona, emphasizes the patterns of displacement and erasure that compose the central assumptions of suburbanization and metropolitan expansion. Work by Carl Nightingale and Angel Nieves shows the ways that transnational institutions communicated these assumptions over the last two centuries, inspiring a new generation of scholars led by Paige Glotzer, Devin Fergus, Nathan Connolly, and Marcia Chatelain to analyze the racial and spatial dimensions of greed in the real estate markets.

These combined efforts bring urban history to the forefront of the public policy debates as seen in the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic magazine, the Boston Review, and National Public Radio. As historians contribute to the planning of future cities, Charlottesville reminds us to carefully disentangle the ways that white supremacy has informed the transitions among rural, urban, and suburban spaces over the last three hundred years.

Photo at top: The Rotunda, the signature building at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 – 2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Walter Greason is a professor of history and anthropology and Dean of the Honors Program at Monmouth University. Dr. Greason’s research focuses on the comparative, economic analysis of slavery, industrialization, and suburbanization. He serves as the Treasurer for the Society for American City and Regional Planning History, which is holding its national conference this year in Cleveland, Ohio, from October 26 through 29, 2017. Dr. Greason has published widely including three books, The Path to Freedom, Suburban Erasure, and The American Economy. 

 

“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.

Preserving Law and Order: The Fight for Los Angeles’ Parker Center

By Meredith Drake Reitan, MPL, PhD

On February 7, 2017, the Los Angeles City Council ruled against colleagues on the Cultural Heritage Commission. After a lengthy and emotional public comment period, the Council decided not to designate Parker Center, the longtime headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, a local historic monument. The following month, the Council approved a new master plan for the Civic Center that included a 27-story tower on the Parker Center site. These decisions ended years of wrangling by preservationists, neighbors and city leaders about the future of the building.

Built in 1955, the police department abandoned Parker Center 54 years later when a new headquarters was constructed a few blocks away. The site’s large size and proximity to City Hall made it a target for redevelopment and many city leaders supported demolition of the “outdated” and “inefficient” building.[1] The city’s goal for the site was to consolidate departments scattered around the downtown area and to reduce the amount spent on leased space.

Parker Center may have been bright and shiny when originally built, but its construction and the legacy of its namesake cast a long shadow over the preservation debate.[2] The building was a complicated symbol for Los Angeles; representing the problematic history of the LAPD and the loss of a significant portion of the Japanese neighborhood of Little Tokyo. The fight to preserve it had divided allies and pitted communities that usually worked together against each other.[3]

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Figure 1: With its imposing front façade, the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters was designed by Welton Becket and J.E. Stanton and completed in 1955. The original landscape was created by Ralph E. Cornell. The building was posthumously dedicated to Police Chief William H. Parker in 1969. Photo by author, July 2017.

Parker Center as Scar

Preservation documents prepared for the Cultural Heritage Commission briefly mention the buildings that occupied the Parker Center site before its construction. The reports described the area simply as “residential with small clusters of commercial and industrial enterprises.”[4] Newspapers from the period gave a slightly fuller view, suggesting that the number of buildings removed to accommodate Parker Center was “enough to meet the business needs of a good-sized city, among them landmark structures that were notable in Los Angeles’ pre-metropolitan days.”[5]

Parker Center occupies some of the oldest blocks in Los Angeles. In the 19th century, the land was used for cattle and planted with grape vines. As the city urbanized, the neighborhood was settled by a racially and ethnically diverse mix of African American, Jewish, Irish, German and Chinese newcomers. After 1900, Japanese families established businesses along First Street and by 1920, the area was the “undisputed center” of Southern California’s Japanese community.[6] Twenty years later, on the eve of World War II, approximately 35,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans lived and worked in what had become known as Little Tokyo.

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and the Japanese community of Los Angeles was forcibly removed. They were released from the internment camps three years later and returned to the city. In the years they were gone, Little Tokyo had become home to thousands of African American migrants who were drawn to Los Angeles’ industrial jobs. After the war, Japanese Americans began to re-establish businesses in the area. However, in 1948 the city council identified the heart of Little Tokyo as the location for the new police headquarters. The area bounded by First Street, San Pedro, Market Street and Los Angeles Street was designated part of the Los Angeles Civic Center and the City Attorney’s office began to acquire property through eminent domain proceedings.[7] Forty-three individual parcels were condemned and the site was cleared.

Designed by Welton Becket and Associates, in collaboration with architect J.E. Stanton and landscape architect Ralph E. Cornell, the new “Police Facilities Building” was nationally recognized when it opened in 1955. Like many of his other projects, the building represented the architect’s commitment to the idea of Los Angeles as a “city of tomorrow.”[8] For the LAPD, Becket created an 8-story International style building with crisp right angles and spare detailing. Sitting away from the street, the landscape that initially surrounded the building occupied an entire city block with sprawling lawns, decorative river rock and gardens inspired by a Japanese Zen aesthetic. The design received an Award of Merit from the AIA in 1956 and a contemporary review suggested that the building represented a “brand-new design category” of centralized public facilities.[9] Drawings were displayed by the Architectural League of New York and the building was entered in the League’s 61st National Gold Medal Exhibition of the Building Arts in 1960.[10] Becket’s success with the Police Facilities Building earned the firm additional commissions in the Los Angeles Civic Center, including the Federal Building next door and the various buildings for the Music Center on the top of Bunker Hill completed in the 1960s.

While acknowledged as an architectural icon, city staffers received numerous letters against preserving Parker Center. More than 3,000 African Americans had been displaced by the condemnation proceedings of the 1940s, and yet most letters recalled the losses of the Japanese American community. Letter writers described a pre-war world of rich familial and social connections. They talked about shopping in stores now demolished and included family photos with smiling siblings and relations in front of restaurants and small businesses. The letters also told stories of grandfathers who participated in sumo wrestling at a dohyo on the block and uncles who founded the still extant Rafu Shimpo Newspaper in a building on the corner of First and Los Angeles Street.[11]

For many Japanese Americans, saving Parker Center meant preserving a scar. It was a reminder of years of disconnection and “mass displacement.”[12] The building’s presence in the neighborhood inspired anger. In his comments before the Planning and Land Use Commission, Chris Komai of the Little Tokyo Community Council suggested that the building represented an “unfair seizure.” He went on to say that while its architecture might be admired, the LAPD building had cut Little Tokyo off from the Civic Center and the rest of the city, “Look at it. All we see is its back.”[13] Kanji Sahara, another opponent of preservation, spoke for many when he told the commission, “the city said they needed the land for a ‘public purpose’ – to build Parker Center. Now that the public purpose has gone away, the Japanese people want that land back”.[14]

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Figure 2: The rear of Parker Center is dour. It offers a blank, windowless wall to the Little Tokyo neighborhood located behind it. Photo by author, July 2017.

In arguing against preservation, some letter writers found themselves in an uncomfortable position, noting that they would normally be on the side of those trying to save a building.[15] The break with the Los Angeles Conservancy was particularly difficult. The Conservancy was a strong and vocal supporter of the Little Tokyo National Register District that protected several blocks of the neighborhood’s early commercial core. More strategically, the Conservancy was an essential and necessary ally. Due to gentrification pressures, local landowners had begun to sell older properties to developers and there were concerns that Little Tokyo would not “survive”.[16] While Parker Center was an issue, local leaders still considered preservation to be an important tool to control growth.

The Historic American Landscape Survey for Parker Center prepared by the city’s Department of Public Works emphasized the building’s architectural legacy and defended the structure using the technical language of preservation.[17] The report had not addressed the site’s previous Japanese and Japanese American users. The documents also failed to acknowledge issues important to other communities of color in Los Angeles. While innovation described the structure, social conservatism defined the LAPD that filled the offices.

Chief Parker Divides the City

Early Parker Center preservation documents described the Los Angeles Police Department in glowing terms. Later comments by staff of the Cultural Heritage Commission suggested that the department’s legacy among Los Angeles’ non-white communities was “complicated.” The Los Angeles Conservancy acknowledged that the building was named for the “controversial” Chief William H. Parker.[18] All three sources credit Chief Parker for professionalizing the department, however the abuses of power that accompanied this professionalization are hard to ignore.

William Parker joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1927. He became its leader in August 1950 and served in this capacity until his death in 1966. During his tenure, Parker established strict new standards for the recruitment and training of officers. According to the Historic American Landscape Survey, Parker was a “policeman’s policeman.” He “inspired in all who served the department the higher ideals of service and justice, as well as a new sense of pride, professionalism and self-discipline.”[19] The Chief’s efforts in this area earned him a national reputation that he capitalized on through his friendship with the actor Jack Webb, who played Sgt. Joe Friday in the 1960s television show, Dragnet.

While he may have inspired the department’s rank and file, in private Chief Parker was an impatient and ambitious man. He was also quick to attack. Like a “horse charging toward the apocalypse of our times”, Parker was critical of anyone who disagreed with his strict law and order prescription for society. [20] He resisted political oversight of the LAPD and attempted to undermine the credibility of his detractors. According to Parker, only the “criminal, the Communist and the self-appointed defender of civil liberties” called for restrictions on police authority.[21] Parker’s impatience was accompanied by a sustained and irrational paranoia. He attributed his failures to local democrats, the Truman administration and to communist sympathizers who he imagined had personal vendettas against him. To balance the scales, Parker created a “mysterious and highly secret” intelligence gathering unit within the LAPD that reported directly to him.[22] The group served as his personal “Pretorian guard” and, before it was disbanded by court order, the unit had amassed thousands of records on 5×8 note cards. The files contained data on known criminals, as well as political and public figures.[23]

Parker coined the term, the “thin blue line” to describe the police as an institution that stood between “civilization and barbarism”.[24] However, Parker’s LAPD was capable of its own brand of barbarity. Records from the department’s Internal Affairs Division show that in 1951 alone, the police received 848 complaints of brutality. Internal investigations substantiated 298 of these complaints and yet just 10 officers faced disciplinary action. Only two officers were removed from the force due to the complaints.[25]

Newspapers frequently reported incidences of police violence while Parker was in command. Patrolmen fired their weapons at a doctor in East Los Angeles who had apparently failed to yield because he was rushing to the bedside of a sick child.[26] A local bus driver was hospitalized after officers attempted to “subdue” him during an arrest. Among other injuries, the driver sustained a blow that ruptured his bladder.[27] A shoemaker was approached in his car by two plain clothed officers with their weapons drawn. The officers pulled the man from the car, threw him to the ground and repeatedly kicked his head. The man was taken to the hospital and later informed that the officers had mistaken him for a suspect.[28]

On Christmas Day 1951, seven young men were arrested on misdemeanor charges and taken to the city jail where they were savagely beaten for hours by somewhere between 15 and 50 police officers. When the incident came to light, Parker claimed to be “vigorously” pursuing an internal investigation.[29] However, the allegations against officers were so appalling that they could not be contained. A judge ordered a grand jury and public inquest. During the hearings, police officials were asked to describe the night. According to the judge, their testimony stunk, “to high heaven and all of the perfumery in Arabia cannot obliterate its stench.”[30] Thirty-six officers were disciplined by the LAPD, while 8 others were indicted for assault with a deadly weapon.[31] Of the eight, five officers were found guilty and sentenced to either one or two years in the Los Angeles County Jail.

Despite public commitments to reform, the brutality continued. In 1959, Herbert Greenwood, the only African American Police Commissioner, resigned citing the “unhealthy attitudes” of the LAPD leadership regarding race.[32] Then, on a hot August night in 1965, Marquette Frye was arrested in Watts for suspicion of driving drunk. During his arrest, Frye, his mother and brother fought with an officer of the California Highway Patrol. Hundreds of residents were drawn to the scene and anger spread through the crowd. Frye’s arrest sparked six days of fighting, looting and rebellion during which thirty-four people were killed. Chief Parker saw this and other protests against the police as a personal attack. To Parker, it was the complaints, rather than the police, that were “wrecking” the LAPD.[33] Over time, his lack of transparency and repugnant comments in the aftermath of Watts worsened relations with Los Angeles’ communities of color.[34]

However, while Parker was unpopular for some, his strongman rhetoric was lionized by others. After his death, members of the City Council unanimously recommended that Becket’s Police Facilities Building and the ground on which it stands be named in his honor. The name change was enthusiastically supported by the city’s business elite and residents who described Parker as a “great American” and “champion of law and order.”[35] The Sentinel, the city’s largest African-American newspaper, reported the Chief’s death, but remained silent on the issue of renaming police headquarters in his honor.

Parker was succeeded by new chiefs. However, relations between the police and Los Angeles’ communities of color did not improve and the lawn in front of Parker Center was the location of countless demonstrations against police misconduct. The issue became especially charged when Parker’s prodigy, Daryl Gates assumed the position of Chief. Gates, perhaps even more than Parker, became a symbol of the racism and prejudice that permeated the LAPD. Over the years, Parker’s thin blue line had become thicker. By 1992, it was an impassable chasm, so that when four LAPD officers were acquitted in the nighttime beating of an African American motorist on a lonely highway, the city exploded. Again.

The Police Department’s relationship with Los Angeles’ citizens of color was a quiet bass note that sounded throughout discussions about whether to save the building. Most African American leaders were silent on the issue, however a few voices sought to use and reinterpret this history by adaptively re-using Parker Center. Gail Kennard, an African American member of the city’s cultural heritage commission acknowledged that, “preserving Parker Center won’t resolve L.A.’s troubled policing history. But restored and reopened, it can remind us how far we’ve come and how much more there is to do.”[36]

Future of the Parker Center Site

In retrospect, it is not surprising that the effort to preserve Parker Center failed. The Cultural Heritage Commission received a handful of lukewarm letters in support of preservation, but the fame of its architect could not overcome the building’s legacy of division. Parker Center sliced through the neighborhood that surrounded it, its namesake divided the city along racial and ethnic lines and the effort to save the building created rifts between the city’s preservation community.

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Figure 3: Parker Center occupies an entire city block bounded by First, Los Angeles, San Pedro and Temple Streets in the Los Angeles civic center area. It replaced a once vibrant mix of houses, businesses, cultural and social institutions. Photo taken at First and San Pedro Streets in 1947. The tower of Los Angeles’ City Hall is visible in the background. Miyatake Family Private Collection, Bronzeville – Little Tokyo, Los Angeles Website. Available http://www.bronzeville-la.com/displayimage.php?pos=-4. Accessed July 19, 2017

Documents prepared by preservation planners articulated the building’s architectural value. They acknowledged Chief Parker’s problematic leadership but did not address the community that had been destroyed for Parker Center to be built. Yet, it was this origin story that ultimately persuaded members of the city council to reject cultural monument status.

City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents the Little Tokyo district spoke during the final preservation hearing. He suggested that to save Parker Center “dismisses the injustices done to many communities.” Huizar, who as a young man had delivered papers for the Rafu Shimpo Newspaper, specifically connected the history of the Japanese in Los Angeles to his experiences of prejudice as an immigrant, “I did get a bit emotional in the committee when I was talking about the injustices to the Japanese-American community…It just kind of hit me what that would have been like for those residents. And I put that into the context of what is happening today.”[37] The councilman’s testimony was persuasive and his colleagues unanimously denied the motion to designate Parker Center.

With demolition imminent, plans have been made to save a large sculpture that was attached to Parker Center’s exterior façade and to reuse a tile mosaic that decorated the building’s foyer. No plans have yet emerged to memorialize the Chief. As Richard Barron, President of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission suggested, Parker Center is simply “not an easy building to love.”[38]

 

MDR
Photo by Steve Cohn

Meredith Drake Reitan is an Associate Dean in the Graduate School and Lecturer in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. Her work has been published in the Journal of Planning History, the Journal of Urban Design, the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research and in Planning Los Angeles, an edited volume for Planners Press. She writes for KCET’s Lost LA and has a blog, called the LAvenuesProject, that uses the thousands of mundane decisions that define the look and feel of LA streets to talk about the long history of the city as a planned environment.

 

Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Emily Gersema and Hillary Jenks for their comments and feedback on early drafts of this post.

[1] City of Los Angeles Council. Information Technology and General Services Commission. Motion 2/17/2006

[2] Foote, Kenneth Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. University of Texas Press 1997, Austin

[3] See for example: Anderton, Francis. “Gail Kennard Makes the Case for Saving Parker Center” KCRW Design and Architecture. March 19, 2015 http://blogs.kcrw.com/dna/gail-kennard-makes-the-case-for-saving-parker-center; Waldie, D.J. “Op-Ed What to do with Parker Center, L.A.’s former police headquarters?” Los Angeles Times April 4, 2015 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-waldie-save-parker-center-20150405-story.html; “Parker Center’s Possible Demolition Sparks Interest in LA’s Civic Center Master Plan” The Planning Report June 2, 2015 http://www.planningreport.com/2015/06/02/parker-centers-possible-demolition-sparks-interest-las-civic-center-master-plan; Kennard, Gail. “Op-Ed Parker Center isn’t lovable, but it should be preserved” Los Angeles Times December 25, 2016 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kennard-preserve-parker-center-20161225-story.html; Waldie, D.J. “What to Do with Parker Center? Preserve? Repurpose? Demolish? KCET Lost LA January 11, 2017 https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/parker-center-preserve-repurpose-demolish

[4] City of Los Angeles. Cultural Heritage Commission. Parker Center, Case Number CHC-2016-3949-HCM and ENV-2016-3950-CE, Final Staff Recommendation Report, Categorical Exemption and Nomination. November 3, 2016. http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/CHC/2016/11-03-2016/5_ParkerCenter_Final.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2017.Pg 16

[5] Cohan, Charles “City to Erect Two Modern Structures: Large Area East of the City Hall Being Cleared for Projects” Los Angeles Times Sep 3, 1950; pg. E1

[6] Wild, Mark. Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth Century Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2005, Berkeley; Jenks, Hillary. Home Is Little Tokyo”: Race, Community, and Memory in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. Dissertation. University of Southern California, Los Angeles. ProQuest/UMI, 2008.

[7] __________ “Council Fixes Sites of Two New Buildings”, Los Angeles Times. Sep 21, 1948; pg. A7

[8] Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee. Built by Becket. Available: https://www.laconservancy.org/sites/default/files/files/issues/Built%20By%20Becket%20-%20Full%20Brochure%20-%20lowres.pdf

[9] __________ “Police Headquarters” Progressive Architecture. March, 1956

[10] __________ “Police Building Wins Place at N.Y. Exhibit” Los Angeles Times. Sep 27, 1959, pg. F10

[11] City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Committee. Correspondence from Alan Kumamoto 2/17/2017, Chris Komai, 2/7/2017, Nancy Kyoko Oda 2/6/2017, Yukio Kawaratani no date, Joanne Kumamoto 11/28/2016 and Jonathan Takeo Tanaka, 2/7/2017.

[12] City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee Correspondence from Dean Matsubayashi, 2/7/2017; Pacheco, Antonio. “LA to Heal Planning Scars with Ambitious Civic Center Master Plan” The Architect’s Newspaper April 10, 2017 https://archpaper.com/2017/04/los-angeles-civic-center-master-plan/

[13] Komai, Chris. Statement before the City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee Meeting. February 7, 2017

[14] Sahara, Kanji Emailed communication to City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee. February 17, 2017

[15] Tsukada Simonian, Irene. Letter to City of Los Angeles, Cultural Heritage Commission. January 10, 2017

[16] A light rail station has recently been erected in Little Tokyo and another is in the works. Several buildings were demolished to make way for these stations and the area is seeing increased land speculation. See Lue, Ryan. “Can Little Tokyo Survive the Growth of Downtown LA?” Planetizen. April 12, 2012. https://www.planetizen.com/node/56145

[17] City of Los Angeles. Cultural Heritage Commission. Parker Center, Case Number CHC-2016-3949-HCM and ENV-2016-3950-CE, Final Staff Recommendation Report, Categorical Exemption and Nomination. November 3, 2016. http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/CHC/2016/11-03-2016/5_ParkerCenter_Final.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2017.

[18] City of Los Angeles. Cultural Heritage Commission. Parker Center, Case Number CHC-2016-3949-HCM and ENV-2016-3950-CE, Final Staff Recommendation Report, Categorical Exemption and Nomination. November 3, 2016. http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/CHC/2016/11-03-2016/5_ParkerCenter_Final.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2017. Pg. 11; Los Angeles Conservancy. Parker Center/Police Facilities Building, History. https://www.laconservancy.org/locations/parker-centerpolice-facilities-building. Accessed July 11, 2017

[19] City of Los Angeles. Cultural Heritage Commission. Parker Center, Case Number CHC-2016-3949-HCM and ENV-2016-3950-CE, Final Staff Recommendation Report, Categorical Exemption and Nomination. November 3, 2016. http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/CHC/2016/11-03-2016/5_ParkerCenter_Final.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2017.Pg. 22

[20] Hertel, Howard and Berman, Art. “Thousands Mourn at Funeral Rites for Chief Parker” Los Angeles Times; Jul 21, 1966. pg. 1

[21] Webb, Jack. The Badge. Prentice Hall Engelwood Cliffs NJ. 1958

[22] Blanchard, Robert “Democratic Leader Raps Chief Parker” Los Angeles Times May 23, 1956; pg. 1

[23] Buntin, John. “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” Three Rivers Press 2009, New York

[24] Fogelson, Robert. “Big City Police: An Urban Institute Study” Harvard University Press 1977. Boston, MA;

[25] __________ “FBI Probing L.A. Police Brutality: Grand Jury Attention Indicated; Department Pushes Own Inquiry” Los Angeles Times, Mar 14, 1952; pg. 2

[26] __________ “Chief Parker Hits Brutality Stories: Unsubstantiated Complaints” Los Angeles Times. Feb 28, 1952, pg. 7

[27] __________ “Parker Hits at Charge of Brutality: Prisoner’s Claim Unfounded, Says Chief of Police” Los Angeles Times Jun 24, 1952; pg. 2

[28] __________ “$125,000 Suit Accuses Police of Brutality” Los Angeles Times Jan 28, 1958; pg. 5

[29] __________ “Judge Urges Jury Inquiry on Brutality” Los Angeles Times Mar 13, 1952, pg. 1

[30] __________ “Judge Urges Jury Inquiry on Brutality” Los Angeles Times Mar 13, 1952, pg. 1

[31] __________ “36 L.A. Policemen to Face Discipline for Brutality” Los Angeles Times, Jun 17, 1952; pg. 1

[32] __________ “Police Board Member Flays Parker, Quits” Los Angeles Times Jun 19, 1959, pg. 1

[33] __________ “Chief Parker Hits Brutality Stories: Unsubstantiated Complaints” Los Angeles Times. Feb 28, 1952, pg. 7

[34] Fogelson, Robert. “Big City Police: An Urban Institute Study” Harvard University Press 1977. Boston, MA; Buntin, John. “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” Three Rivers Press 2009, New York; Shaw, David. “Chief Parker Molded LAPD Image–Then Came the ’60s” Los Angeles Times May 25, 1992

[35] Mrs. Luther Liebenow. Letter to Mayor Yorty, August 16, 1966; Calvin E. Orr. Letter to Mayor Yorty. July 17, 1965. Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center. Box CC-01-1989, A-1989

[36] Kennard, Gail. “Op-Ed Parker Center isn’t lovable, but it should be preserved” Los Angeles Times 12/25/2016 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kennard-preserve-parker-center-20161225-story.html

[37] __________ “LA City Council Dooms Historically Fraught Parker Center” The Hollywood Patch. March 24, 2017 https://patch.com/california/hollywood/la-city-council-dooms-historically-fraught-parker-center; __________ “Huizar Weighs in on Parker Center, Little Tokyo” The Rafu Shimpo February 10, 2017 http://www.rafu.com/2017/02/huizar-weighs-in-on-parker-center/

[38] Kennard, Gail. “Op-Ed Parker Center isn’t lovable, but it should be preserved” Los Angeles Times 12/25/2016 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kennard-preserve-parker-center-20161225-story.html

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.