Category Archives: Unique Content

Fiscal Fright in NYC: A Review of Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics

Kim Phillips-Fein. Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017. 417pp. $9.98. (Paperback) 
Review by Michael R. Glass

By 1965, a $255 million gap had opened in the New York City budget. To cover the city’s operating expenses, Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. decided to “borrow now, repay later.” After all, he reasoned, “a good loan is better than a bad tax.” His successors, John Lindsay and Abraham Beame, made the same choice. Each mayor turned to short-term loans with the hope that additional tax revenues or federal aid would materialize. They did not. In the spring of 1975, the banks refused to purchase the next round of bond issuances, citing concerns that the city had exceeded its constitutional debt limit. The country’s largest metropolis teetered on the edge of default. Kim Phillips-Fein recounts these events and the social conflicts that followed in Fear City. The result is a magisterial account of the New York City fiscal crisis.


Although critics would attribute the city’s fiscal woes to profligate spending, Phillips-Fein argues that the budget gap was the product of several interlocking structural processes. Deindustrialization steadily undercut the city’s economic foundation, as manufacturers shifted their operations to southern states and then abroad. Federal housing and highway policies siphoned middle-class white residents to the suburbs, depriving the city of their tax receipts. And while the federal government briefly injected additional resources during the War on Poverty, the Nixon and Ford administrations shrank the funding for those programs. City officials were left the stewards of a robust public sector that included tuition-free universities, municipal hospitals, and inexpensive subways, but it all rested upon a dwindling tax base. They plugged the gaps with loans upon loans until the day of reckoning eventually arrived.

Three boys with tough expressions smoking cigarettes, photograph by Bill Cunningham, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Sophisticated in its methodology, Fear City tells the story of the ensuing crisis from multiple vantage points. The middle chapters focus on the negotiations over bond sales and the terms of a possible aid package from Washington. These meetings triggered a process of elite class formation that brought together investment bankers, corporate executives, and real estate magnates; the crisis “made these upper echelons look to each other.”   As officials begged for their investment, these elites demanded layoffs, service cuts, and tax abatements in return. The last section shifts attention to the communities and institutions hardest hit by austerity and the activists who rallied in their defense. Weaving together multiple archives and toggling between scales, Fear City narrates the crisis from both above and below.

Albert Shanker, Pres of U.F.T. holds report issued by mediators to Mayor Robert Wagner that helped to stop strike threat of teacher, photo by Walter Albertin, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What emerges from these divergent perspectives is a crisis that unfolded along competing time horizons. For the members of the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC), the agency created to market long-term bonds on behalf of the city, the crisis was a week-to-week scramble to locate investors for the next bond sale. With a deadline looming, for instance, power brokers convinced Albert Shanker, head of the city teachers’ union, to purchase MAC bonds with the teachers’ pension funds after an all-night conversation in his apartment. The union bailout rescued the city hours before it would have declared bankruptcy. For Mayor Abraham Beame and Governor Hugh Carey, who shuttled between meetings at the White House and Capitol Hill in search of aid from tightfisted officials, the fiscal crisis was a succession of deadlines, meetings, and fraught negotiations.


Ordinary residents, meanwhile, experienced service reductions in both moments of intense drama and protracted struggles. During the first round of budget cuts, garbage piled up in the streets, class sizes swelled in the schools, and hundreds of laid-off police officers blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. At Hostos Community College in the South Bronx, students barricaded themselves inside the building for several weeks to prevent its closure. Residents of Williamsburg kept their local firehouse open by occupying it for sixteen months straight, dubbing it the “People’s Firehouse.” Although the city nominally ended the crisis when it re-entered the bond market on its own accord in 1979, many services that had been eliminated were never restored, and rates of poverty, drug addiction, and crime all spiked over the next decade.

African American parishioners arriving at Harlem – Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, photograph by Marilyn Nance, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ultimately, the fiscal crisis fundamentally transformed the city. The budget cuts shrank the scope of the public sector, diminishing not only the level of city services but also citizen expectations of government. The years-long specter of default created what Phillips-Fein calls “the politics of inevitability,” which made alternatives to austerity seem nonexistent. To be sure, New York still maintains a comparatively expansive array of public goods: its subway system, while perennially underfunded and marred by constant delays, remains public and viable; its city university system, while no longer tuition-free, remains fairly affordable. At the same time, officials preserve these services by catering to the corporate executives, white-collar professionals, and tourists that now drive the city’s economy, and they court capital investment through public-private partnerships and tax subsidies. Fiscal discipline, efficiency, and private initiative have become the guiding principles of urban governance.

9780805095258_p0_v4_s600x595.jpgWhile Fear City reads as an origin tale for our current age of inequality, historians would do well to project the fiscal crisis backwards as well as forwards. A question that the book raises, but never fully answers, is how a small number of bankers could bring the entire city to its knees by simply refusing a loan. Phillips-Fein claims that city leaders repeatedly “turned to debt” to evade divisive political debates. Mayors certainly used loans to kick the can down the road, but cities had also depended on other debt instruments in the twentieth century. The literal foundation of the modern metropolis—its roads, bridges, and sewers—had been financed, chiefly, with municipal bonds. With each transaction that financiers brokered, they accrued additional power, and when cities ran up deficits, they proved willing to offer additional loans. By the 1970s, American cities (and suburbs and towns) had become dependent on the support of private financiers to deliver public services—both for the long-term bonds that financed the infrastructure and for the short-term loans that plugged the gaps. In other words, the fiscal crisis did not create the dependence on financiers; rather, it revealed the dependence that had been growing for decades.

Phillips-Fein’s comprehensive account opens new avenues of inquiry for other scholars. By framing the fiscal crisis as a monumental turning point, Fear City asks urban historians to chart the fate of cities under the austerity regimes that arose in the late twentieth century, as well as how decades of “borrow now, repay later” had led cities up to the fiscal cliff.

Featured image (at top): New York City Skyline, Charles and Ray Eames, circa 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

Mike Glass is a Ph.D. Candidate in US History at Princeton University. His dissertation explores the history of school finance in suburban Long Island during the postwar era. 

Rethinking “Old Shanghai”: A Review of Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City


By Taoyu Yang

Isabella Jackson. Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 274 pp. $99.99 (cloth).

No Chinese city has attracted as much attention from academics and the public as Shanghai. The most cosmopolitan of Chinese cities, Shanghai for generations has been central both to China’s development and now the global economy. A megacity of 23 million, it is the world’s busiest container port.

A portion of “Plan of Shanghai” (Sheet 1), original scale 1:15,840. “Heliographed at O.S. from drawings of the 1933 Municipal plan [of Shanghai]”, U.S. Army Map Service, 1945 courtesy of WikiCommons
What long distinguished Shanghai from most other Chinese cities was that it was not controlled by Beijing or a single colonial power, but by local governing bodies beholden to their directors and the almighty dollar, the franc and the pound sterling. These local governments functioned almost as city-states. From the 1840s to the 1940s, what is now called “Old Shanghai” was governed by three distinct administrations each having control over different parts of the city. The largest part of the city remained under Chinese control. A second sector, the French Concession, was famed for its cultural and architectural elegance. Finally, the International Settlement was run jointly by British and Americans, including members from various European nations and later Japan and China. But the British in the International Settlement remained dominant until it was overrun by Japan in the Second World War.

Isabelle Jackson’s Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City focuses on The International Settlement and especially its governance by the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC). The focus is appropriate. While the International Settlement constituted only a portion of the city, this sector dominated the larger city politically, financially and culturally.

Old Shanghai,” March 3, 1920 courtesy of WikiCommons

Jackson argues that the history of the SMC brings into sharp focus what she calls “transnational colonialism,” a type of authority exercised not by big powers but by residents—Westerners and prosperous Chinese and Japanese. This distinctive form of localized colonialism broadly shaped the lives of Shanghai residents and the development of their city. Shanghai was not the only Chinese city governed in this way. Notably, Tianjin, another prominent treaty port in northern China was also shaped by the complexities of transnational colonialism.

Throughout the book, Jackson does a wonderful job of elaborating the diverse functions of the SMC and its idiosyncratic legal status. First and foremost, the SMC served as a conventional city council managing police, fire, and sanitary functions, though, exceptionally, it could also support its own quasi-military force. At times SMC also operated like a company board of directors, with its leaders elected not by shareholders but by a limited number of local tax payers. SMC operations were under-written by tax receipts and revenues sufficient to make governance self-supporting. Thus, the SMC did not have to look to Whitehall or Washington for financial assistance. Jackson notes that transnational dynamics, connections to global capital and the multi-national composition of its membership allowed the SMC to shape the growth and development not just of the International Settlement but also Shanghai itself. Though fundamentally undemocratic—it openly discriminated against the majority of poor Chinese and the many impoverished Russians living in Shanghai—the SMC could also be seen as a benevolent oligarchy, which introduced modern medical and sanitary practices to the city.

Tennis club, Shanghai, Kiangsu province, China, between 1890 and 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The most provocative claim that Jackson makes concerns the nature of colonialism in China. In seeking to define colonialism in China, scholars have utilized terms such as “informal empire” and “semi-colonialism” that seek to capture the qualitative differences between colonialism in Shanghai and in other settings such as British-run India. Jackson contends that these terms tend to downplay the influence of colonialism on Shanghai by characterizing what the city experienced as “lighter-touch” imperial control. Jackson argues that the SMC’s touch was not especially light. The SMC dominated Shanghai as much as any as any imperial power might dominate a colonial city. But the nature of SMC’s domination and repression was complex, and that is the story that Jackson tells so well.   And in giving us insights into the “transnational nature of colonialism” we begin to see what made Shanghai distinctive. We are indebted to Jackson for opening up a way to understand a special form of colonialism.

Despite what may seem a narrow focus on a single part of a single city, Jackson’s study should interest a broad range of readers. Thematically, it addresses numerous topics critical to our understanding of urban history and municipal governance, including global financial connections, policing, public health, and social reform. Methodologically, it offers insights into how transnational elements shape local institutions. It is no exaggeration to say that scholars of urban history, Shanghai studies, modern Chinese history, colonial studies, and transnational history will all find Jackson’s monograph necessary reading.

Featured image (at top): Old Shanghai Teahouse, Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai, China, photograph by Indy Randhawa, January 16, 2013

Taoyu Yang is a PhD student of modern Chinese history at University of California, Irvine. His research interests concern colonial history, urban history, history of modern China, and critical historiography. His dissertation project examines the role of multi-imperial interaction in the production of urban space in Tianjin and Shanghai, two of the largest treaty port cities in China from 1840s to 1940s.

All Stick No Carrot: Racism, Property Tax Assessments, and Neoliberalism Post 1945 Chicago

Our focus on the new edited volume, Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century continues as we discuss race and property tax assessments with University of Virginia historian, Andrew Kahrl who contributed the essay, “The Short Ends of Both Sticks: Property Assessments and Black Taxpayer Disadvantage in Urban America.” You can see The Metropole’s overview of Shaped by the State here

In 2017, housing expert Richard Rothstein published The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Whatever one thinks of the title – historians haven’t “forgotten” that the government segregated America, they’ve spent the last four decades revealing it – Rothstein deftly synthesizes decades of scholarship on housing, economic development, and school segregation, demonstrating the ways the government pulled multiple levers to ensure that black homeowners and communities remained secondary to their white counterparts.

This government project united American political leaders across ideological lines. “Racial segregation in housing was not merely a project of southerners in the former slaveholding Confederacy,” Rothstein writes. “It was a nationwide project of the federal government in the twentieth century, designed and implemented by its most liberal leaders.” It took a constellation of laws, policies, and regulations to establish and maintain: the apotheosis of deliberateness across ideology.[1] This is a position with which the editors and contributors to the edited volume Shaped by the State would largely agree. “Jim Crow was liberalism,” writes Nathan D.B. Connolly in his essay for the collection. “We would do well to consider fundamental elements in liberalism, writ long and writ large: the primacy of private clubs, property ownership, extralegal violence, and state sponsored segregation.” Call it classical liberalism, growth liberalism, civil rights liberalism, or neoliberalism, but they are all supported by the same unequal structure.[2]

As evidenced by Rothstein’s bibliography, he drew upon a wealth of scholarship in his research. Yet, even as historians, sociologists, and others have devoted millions of hours and pages to the issue of segregation, at least one area remains understudied: the history of property tax assessments. “African Americans could save less from their wages because in some (perhaps many) cities, discriminatory property assessments left them with less disposable income than white’s with similar earnings,” notes Rothstein. Excessive property tax assessments carry with them harsh compounding effects: an inability to reinvest in homes for renovation or upkeep, greater vulnerability to tax delinquency and liens, and a general muzzle on black wealth. Despite such pervasive consequences, “no contemporary studies of assessed-to-market value ratios by community and race [exist],” observes Rothstein, “so we cannot say whether discriminatory tax assessments persist to the present time, and if so, in which communities.” [3]


Enter University of Virginia historian Andrew Kahrl, whose contribution to Shaped by the State explores the issue of property tax assessments mostly in Black Chicago, but also their impact in Gary (Indiana), Atlanta, New York, and Detroit—and in doing so begins to address the very blind spot that Rothstein laments. Undoubtedly, in the post World War II U.S., federal, state, and municipal housing and school policies institutionalized segregation on the American landscape, and the assessment process no less so: “biased assessments played an instrumental role in the uneven development of American cities from the 1950s through the 1970s … [and] helped build and populate” suburbia, notes Kahrl.[4]

Part of a larger project on the effects of property tax assessments in Chicago, in his article for Shaped by the State Kahrl draws upon several of the municipal reports cited by Rothstein, as well as scholarship by historians and sociologists—particularly Isaac Martin and his 2008 work The Permanent Tax Revolt: How Property Tax Transformed American Politics—and several Chicago archives including Special Collections at the University of Illinois Chicago, the Chicago History Museum Research Center, the Center for Economic and Policy Analysis, and Harold Washington Archives and Collections.

Harold Washington Library, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Kahrl’s first book The Land was Ours explored the history of African American landownership and leisure industry in the coastal Southeast. While conducting research for the book, he discovered a peculiar consistency: assessments persistently increased on black businesses and homes when they competed or interfered with the economic interests of white investors and entrepreneurs. What appeared on its face to be an impartial instrument of measurement, a “supposed tool of observation,” morphed into an state implement “prone to manipulation [and] weaponized … against African American homeowners [and] black owned and operated enterprises,” Kahrl told The Metropole in a recent phone interview.[5]  

Kahrl discovered clues in the black press, where anecdotal evidence abounded—particularly in how often such publications “made references to discriminatory” taxes. Following breadcrumbs dropped by black journalists led him to legal records and tax rolls, where he found a veritable “hidden archive in plain sight” that clearly documented structural bias in property taxes. Moreover, discriminatory assessments not only served as a means to observe the impact and consequences of segregation, they drove it; excessive property taxes deprived black homeowners and communities of resources and wealth thereby putting black property owners at greater risk of tax delinquency, foreclosure, and loss.[6]

How do property taxes and assessments work? First, county tax assessors, often acting as elected officials, appraise the value of a home and then multiply that value by a tax rate set by various municipal government agencies, such as the fire department, police department, schools, and so forth. The total tax rate results from the sum of these rates.[7] While these taxes affect homeowners most directly, tenants often pay higher rents when landlords raise them to make up for property tax increases.

Assessments were as much political decisions as economic ones; assessors used them to curry political favor. “When it comes to property taxes, who you are has often been just as important as what you own in determining what you pay,” Kahrl pointed out, which meant black communities marginalized from the political process carried a heavier tax burden than their white counterparts. For example, during the 1960s and 1970s, Bridgeport, the home of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and the “nucleus of the local Democratic Party Machine,” had one of the lowest assessment rates in the city, while comparable black communities often paid three times as much in property taxes. Even a heavily biased municipal report on the subject from the 1980s, produced in the interest of the municipal government, acknowledged that more than 40 percent of black communities endured “assessment regressivity.”[8]


Jimmy Carter and Mayor Richard J. Daley at the Illinois State Democratic Convention in Chicago, Illinois, photograph by Thomas O’Halloran, September 9, 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ironically, black homeowners have been an oft ignored actor in metropolitan history despite playing a central role, yet Kahrl reveals one of Shaped by the State’s larger points by focusing on their battles: the larger system of American governance rests on inequalities, often racial, and that when neoliberal policies took hold over this structure, it reified them. In the face of deindustrialization, cities handed out reduced assessments to corporations and industries, which in turn encouraged competition between metropolitan regions to hand out the best underassessment. A race to the bottom ensued. “Many of the features of urban governance that critics today describe as neoliberal are rooted in the administrative practices and prerogatives of the Jim Crow state,” writes Kahrl, which “then bloomed during the apex of postwar liberalism – a period and a politics often framed as the counterpoint to our neoliberal present – serving as instruments of racial segregation, white middle class homeowner advantage, and corporate capital accumulation.”[9]

During the 1960s and 1970s, the white homeowner identity (which at least rhetorically embodied the great Silent Majority) wielded its political power deftly uniting across ideological lines and lobbying to maintain a system based on racial inequality in colorblind language of property rights, free markets and individualism. African American property holders did not receive the same hearing from government officials or the broader public.

During the 1970s, Illinois State Senator and future mayor Harold Washington organized black homeowners in protest over the disproportionate tax burden shouldered by African American communities. Chicago officials greeted them with indifference. Municipal leaders labeled the “black tax” a myth; the newly elected County Assessor Thomas Hynes responded to the protest with a “a message tailored to appeal to white suburban voters,” Kahrl writes, “many of whom viewed urban minorities strictly as tax recipients (not taxpayers), scoffed at claims of institutional racism (especially those issued by outspoken black politicians), and equated progressive tax reform with tax hikes and increased aid for the ‘undeserving poor.’”[10]

Assessment Map, Cook County, IL courtesy of Andrew Kahrl

Part of what made the assessment issue so controversial was that it coincided with deindustrialization, white backlash to school integration, and distrust in government (notably due to the Watergate scandal). Municipalities struggled to keep white homeowners, businesses, and industries within city limits, thus gearing much of their public and taxation policies toward these entities. To compete, cities adopted neoliberal politics “characterized by tax breaks, concessions, and non-enforcement for corporations and developers as well as a benefits-received principle, in which levels of services correspond with individuals’ tax contributions for everyone else.” In order to make up for declining city coffers, municipalities adopted new “revenue collection schemes” to make up for loss while ignoring rampant “corporate tax avoidance.” In particular, many of these new revenue schemes targeted middle- and working-class communities of color.[11]

The opaque nature of assessments masks their pernicious effects. Often, the assessed value of a home used by officials falls well short of market value, giving a homeowner the idea that he or she is “getting a deal.” Arcane rules and a complicated bureaucracy make appealing assessments a complex process beyond the means of many low-income residents, Kahrl asserted in his interview. Along with the selective nature of the actual assessments and with the use of fractional assessments, the system is “designed to shield the Assessor’s Office from public scrutiny,” he noted. A recent 2018 report by the Illinois Policy Institute came to a similar, simple conclusion: “a needlessly complex appraisal system often resulting in unfair or inaccurate property assessments.”

African-American family living in crowded quarters, photograph by Russell Lee, Chicago, Illinois, April 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For black families, be they renters or homeowners, this assessment process—in conjunction with housing segregation—highlighted the limits placed on their economic and social mobility. Lending discrimination and a panoply of exclusionary practices meant black homeowners lacked the mobility of their white counterparts, Kahrl pointed out, making them targeted, captive communities who are more vulnerable to these sorts of tax regimes. The ability of middle-class whites to decamp for rival cities or surrounding suburbs meant that government policies would be aimed at retaining them, since their African American counterparts lacked similar options. Tax expert Diane Paul summarized the system simply and darkly: “If [the] goal [of the assessor] is to maximize revenue, then discrimination against blacks … is rational.”[12]

Due to these complexities, tax reform, though necessary, came at the expense of white homeowners who benefitted from the larger racially biased infrastructure of housing markets. Federal and state policies naturalized the benefits white owners accrued at the expense of their minority counterparts, which meant property tax reforms would impact middle- and working-class white homeowners.

In Illinois, following post-1967 reforms, homes in largely white “appreciating markets” received property tax bills two to three times larger than the previous year.[13] Future-Mayor Harold Washington, who led Chicago’s black homeowners in protest – even uniting the historically divided political leadership of the city’s black communities on the south and west side – directly acknowledged this reality. “All you’re saying is that you’ve been unjustly enriched with our money, and you don’t want to put it back … In plain simple English[,] if your taxes are lower, because mine are higher, then you [have been] unjustly enriched. I don’t expect you to give it up willingly, no I expect you to go kicking, screaming and yelling, into the twentieth century, but you’re going there one way or another.”[14]

Some critics might suggest that grounding a study of government malfeasance and exploitation in a city renowned for segregation, graft, and political corruption serves to highlight the exception rather than the rule. Kahrl disagrees. Chicago boasts a “thriving industry of predatory tax buyers … a whole class of investors who buy tax liens on property, and not coincidentally often in overtaxed neighborhoods that end up over-represented on tax rolls.” Illinois law allows for third-party sales of tax liens, creating a large market for the sale of debt; all aspects of the American economy that one sees replicated at the national level. Frequently, homes sold at tax sales were homes victimized by over-assessments, Kahrl contends.

If anything, the city’s history of corruption encourages awareness and activism. Chicago citizens might be cynical but they are very “observant to these discrepancies,” placing offices like the Cook County Assessor’s under greater scrutiny then elsewhere. “In many ways, Chicago might just be a more visible manifestation of the issue that ails” so many black, brown, and gradually, but increasingly, some white communities.[15]

Street scene African American neighborhood, Chicago, IL, photograph by Russell Lee, April 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The value of Kahrl’s study, and really the larger Shaped by the State volume, lies in its ability to use the various examples marshaled by Kahrl and others to demonstrate the “lived experience of the neoliberal present.” Agreeing with fellow contributor Nathan D.B. Connolly, Kahrl emphasizes that, under segregation, black Americans have long lived the austere neoliberal reality.[16] For Kahrl, African American history, particularly in regard to cities, operates as “the canary in the coal mine”; “conditions in black America alert us to the structural problems” that will eventually afflict all of us. The exploitation of property taxes illustrate the long-term effects of tax cuts at the top that fail to trickle down, leaving the most vulnerable populations to be ravaged by exploitative practices. As a result, governments have to cut services to their communities—casting aside the public to chase capital. Starved of revenue due to decades of tax cuts and subsidies for the wealthy, politically connected, and industry, cities increasingly depended on the over taxation of minority communities and regressive forms of taxation. Ferguson Missouri’s police department, as evidenced by a 2015 Department of Justice report, extracted revenue from its black population through tickets and fees levied at will. Such taxation policies are regrettably common.

“We need to look beyond politics and focus on the policies of the administrative state,” Kahrl asserts.[17] Indeed, one way or another, we all pay property taxes, and the reality is that we are all being taken. Understanding this commonality and focusing on the overarching structures that exploit us, rather than the less pervasive “politics” that divide us, will yield a more promising understanding of the past and the present. All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill once opined, but maybe not quite the way he meant it.

Featured image (at top): Harold Washington on the campaign trail during the 1983 Chicago Mayoral Election. 

[1] Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, (NY: Liveright Publishing, 2017), xii.

[2] Nathan D.B. Connolly, “The Strange Career of American Liberalism,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 64-65.

[3] Rothstein, The Color of Law, 169-172.

[4] Andrew Kahrl, “The Short End of Both Sticks: Property Assessments and Black Taxpayer Disadvantage in Urban America,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 191-192.

[5] Andrew Kahrl, interview with author, May 6, 2019.

[6] Andrew Kahrl, interview with author, May 6, 2019

[7] Rothstein, The Color of Law, 169.

[8] Kahrl, “The Short End of Both Sticks,” 208, 201; Andrew Kahrl, interview with the author, May 6, 2019.

[9] Kahrl, “The Short End of Both Sticks,” 192.

[10] Andrew Kahrl, “The Short Ends of Both Sticks,” 204.

[11] Andrew Kahrl, “The Short Ends of Both Sticks,” 206-207; Andrew Kahrl, interview with the author, May 6, 2019.

[12] Andrew Kahrl, “The Short Ends of Both Sticks,” 197.

[13] Andrew Kahrl, “The Short Ends of Both Sticks,” 206.

[14] Andrew Kahrl, “The Short Ends of Both Sticks,” 205.

[15] Andrew Kahrl, interview with the author, May 6, 2019.

[16] Nathan D.B. Connolly, “The Strange Career of American Liberalism,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 62-95.

[17] Andrew Kahrl, interview with the author, May 6, 2019.


Beyond the Political History Paradigm: The new edited volume Shaped the State and Urban History

“Political history — a specialization in elections and elected officials, policy and policy making, parties and party politics — was once a dominant, if not the dominant, pursuit of American historians,” professors Frederick Logevall and Kenneth Osgood noted in a controversial 2016 New York Times editorial. “But somewhere along the way, such work fell out of favor with history departments … As a result, the study of America’s political past is being marginalized.” The two historians lamented what they perceived as the fragmentation of the sub-field into a cacophony of voices that made it difficult to separate “the signal from the noise,” to paraphrase Nate Silver. Responses came quickly on social media and the NYT printed nearly half a dozen letters to the editors both in support of and opposition to Logevall and Osgood’s argument.

About a year earlier the Miller Center at the University of Virginia held a conference, “Seeing beyond the Partisan Divide,” that brought together a host of scholars to “construct alternative frameworks for studying twentieth century political history.” Their efforts resulted in the recently published edited volume of essays, Shaped by the State (University of Chicago Press).

The conference preceded Logevall and Osgood’s editorial by almost a year and the edited volume followed it by nearly three. During this four-year interval, historians critically engaged the issue—and the contributors to Shaped by the State were no exception. Rather than push forward the traditional left-right/blue-red/liberal-conservative paradigm which Logevall and Osgood’s framing of the argument implicitly promoted, Shaped by the State reveals the structures that have created our political reality and shines a bright light on the continuities that become apparent when we refuse to place “politics” in a binary framing.

Neoliberalism word cloud courtesy of

What sorts of continuities do the authors discuss? Primarily, neoliberalism. In recent years observers have deployed the term to describe the current political and economic structure of the nation. As Kim Phillips-Fein notes in her historiographical contribution to the volume, neoliberalism as a concept now includes “the broadest dynamics of contemporary politics, and the emergence of a political sensibility that spans both political parties.”[1] The term, she argues, did not really come into broad usage until the 1990s, yet in many ways it is not new. Nor is neoliberalism tied to a particular ideology at least in regard to the left-right/blue-red/liberal-conservative paradigm; liberals and conservatives alike have harnessed their policies to this austere political vehicle. If historians only view political history under the left-right paradigm they surrender to “a hegemonic framework that reinforces artificial boundaries and locates policy formation and political conflict within boundaries and locates policy formation and political conflict within binaries rather than along spectrums,” writes Matthew Lassiter in the volume’s concluding chapter.[2]

Yet how can anything “neo” not be new, or at the very least an update of a historical concept or categorization? “Market forces” in American life, in political and economic rhetoric and policy are long established structurally; the language of ‘free markets”, particularly the idea that they represent a natural, unfettered requirement of democracy dominates American political discourse from its earliest days. For much of this history, these allegedly impartial forces of the market have nonetheless excluded large swaths of the population, notably non-whites and especially African Americans. Both Democrats and Republicans supported the discriminatory edifice constructed by the government during the 1930s; when the civil rights and Black Power movements forced change, Americans recast racism as a personal rather than structural problem, thereby obscuring the ways in which the larger system continued to marginalize groups. “Letting the ‘market’ decide became the meeting place of segregationist, liberal, and libertarian defense of white power,” Nathan D.B. Connolly writes in his essay.[3]

When viewed from this vantage point, the neoliberalism that many hail as a new development and also decry for hollowing out employment, diminishing government intervention, and privileging the wealthy and big businesses over the collective population resembles what Blacks have endured for centuries. “Indeed, to live as a ‘Negro’ under Jim Crow was to live in a so-called neoliberal age before the term had become fashionable. What we are experiencing today may simply be the black side of liberalism writ large, the blackening of the American polity as a whole. Whatever it is, there is nothing ‘neo’ about it,” asserts Connolly.[4] We are not in the middle of a new age, but rather an extension of the old one. Admittedly some aspects of our modern political and economic structures are new, but not the incentives that drive them, the parameters that bound them, and the foundations that uphold them.

In some ways, Shaped by the State is reminiscent of the seminal 1989 work, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order (NDO) a collection of essays that announced the death of Roosevelt’s social welfare state and ushered in what has come to be referred to as the age of neoliberalism (though to be clear none of the essays in NDO specifically used the term). Its contributors dutifully considered how multiple viewpoints and movements have worked to undermine the New Deal political order that grew out of FDR’s New Deal, and, while critical of the New Right, also assailed Democratic leaders for “vacillating and half hearted efforts … to make good on the promises of equality and opportunity so essential to the legitimacy of their political order.”[5]

This mural dedicated to the New Deal at the Clarkson S. Fisher Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse, Trenton, New Jersey pictorially captures the problematic aspects of New Deal legislation i.e. the privileging of white labor and interests over those of others; photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2010, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Editors Brent Cebul, Mason B. Williams, and Lily Geismer credit NDO for incorporating “multiple traditions” into the contest that is American politics and for taking conservative and populist ideas seriously, which in turn led to a more nuanced and considered understanding of American political history. However, while valuable analytically and certainly a landmark work in the field, NDO’s left-right paradigm, like a fog enveloping the land, obscured a great deal as well: “it tended to subsume other crises, structures, patterns, and experiences of citizenship and historical development within the framework of these relatively few, unitary political traditions and established big narratives around the concept of crisis.”[6] NDO’s contributors and editors succeeded in acknowledging the ways in which the New Deal structure abandoned the class consciousness that had made it such a force in the 1930s and failed to deliver the same rights and benefits to communities of color as it did their white counterparts. Yet they viewed these results in strict binary formation: “If the New Deal ushered in a Reformation in American political life, then arguably the reign of Ronald Reagan constituted a Counter-Reformation.”[7]

Vice President Rockefeller addresses congressional Black Caucus full employment forum, here Nelson is shaking hands with Representative Shirley Chisholm, Rep. Walter Fauntroy and others look on, photograph by Thomas O’Halloran, May 20, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

NDO emerged just as the “transnational turn,” as it has come to be known, unfolded in the 1990s; contributors to the 1989 volume rarely considered how transnational forces shaped developments. Shaped by the State addresses this issue in several places. For example, Stuart Schrader explores the rise of the carceral state through the lens of New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller but places the notorious Rockefeller drug laws in an international context. The “aperture” of the burgeoning carceral state needs to be expanded such that historians better understand its “nascence, persistence, and effects,” Schrader insists. Long active in foreign policy circles, Rockefeller drew upon Japan as a model for his anti-drug legislation, yet it is also true that because the U.S. occupied Japan after World War II, the country’s drug laws descended from the United States’ own policies on the issue (which of course were predicated on very problematic racial logic of the time). “U.S. influence on postwar Japan baked racial inequality into [Japan’s] drug laws,” Schrader points out. Therefore the “inequality” of Rockefeller’s drug laws did not represent a “new” phenomenon “in New York in the years after the success of the civil rights movement.” Essays by Julie Wiese, Melissa May Borja, and Suleiman Osman also wade into transnational waters.

97815491483231Shaped by the State also aims to create a shared language. If the transnational turn of the 1990s sometimes downplayed the role of the state at the expense of transnational forces such as the flow of labor and capital across borders and regions, over the last twenty years scholars have reconsidered this position. Historians doing cultural and social history have incorporated the state as a central actor in their analyses, though many of these writers would not consider themselves political historians despite the state and politics occupying critical spaces in their work. As a result, no agreed upon lexicon exists to facilitate dialogue. As the editors argue, “the field lacks a set of organizing principles and theories, key questions and debates, and well established research agenda’s around which ‘traditional’ political historians and ‘unofficial’ political historians could make common cause.”[8] Shaped by the State attempts to do just this, or at least begin the discussion toward such an end while eschewing the red-blue/liberal-conservative scaffolding that often bounds it.

51ThUHwS2aL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Works like George Chauncey’s Gay New York, Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides, and Matthew Lassiter’s The Silent Majority serve as models for the way forward; works that are inherently political and focused on the state and politics, but examine overarching structures rather than the ideological tribes that defined (and continue to define) our political culture. Chauncey explored the formation of gay culture in Progressive Era New York under scrutiny and later persecution by both liberal and conservative regimes. “[E]xclusive heterosexuality became a precondition for a ‘man’s identification’ as ‘normal’ in middle class culture….”[9] Shah examined how public health governance in San Francisco, again by both conservative and liberal leaders, surveilled, controlled, and discriminated against its Chinese population in the late nineteenth and twentieth century: “There is a persistent congruence between the public health logic of normal and aberrant and the racial logic of superior and inferior and their reconfiguration over time.”[10] Lassiter delved into the ways that suburban whites in the sunbelt during the 1960s and 1970s based their political identity and standing on property ownership, around which various rights and privileges were awarded even though they hinged on “structural mechanisms of exclusion that did not require individual racism by suburban beneficiaries in order to sustain white class privilege and maintain barriers of disadvantage facing urban minority communities.”[11]

51C+QhSlaJL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThese historical classics attest to how central a role urban history plays in investigations of politics. Though not every essay in the volume speaks to urban history directly, most do, and critically. Andrew Kahrl’s exploration of tax assessment policy and the ways it has penalized black homeowners is one example; David Freund’s investigation into the rise of money orthodoxy during the Great Depressions speaks directly to the fiduciary struggles of metropolitan America during the 1930s and the solutions the state designed to address them—which, as discussed above, demonstrates more continuity across traditional political divides than rupture. Sarah E. Igo, Sarah E. Milov, and Rachel Louise Moran contribute essays on the rise of the administrative state, data collection and public culture, labor law and union complicity with employers regarding safety regulations, and the role of gender and family in the political history of regulation (particularly the notorious “nanny state” we hear so much about). Though perhaps not urban on their face, each of these contributions further urbanists’ understanding of the processes driving metropolitan life.

Perhaps one way to summarize the collection’s contribution to and debate with political history can be found in relation to the 2016 New York Times editorial. Columbia historian Merlin Chowkwanyun, a participant and attendee at the 2015 conference in Charlottesville (and, full disclosure, a friendly acquaintance of the editors), responded pithily to the arguments put forth by Lovegall and Osgood by pointing out that the best historians utilize numerous analytical frames, methodological approaches, and data types when delving into historical inquiry. They do not ignore elite politics, but rather incorporate them into their analysis. Co-editor Brent Cebul agreed, noting in an email to The Metropole that the goal is to revive “a more coherent, inclusive, and capacious sense of political history.” After all, as the edited collection attests, the very state that has shaped us rests on a much broader political project than right-left/red-blue paradigms.

Editor’s note: This month we will be featuring posts, interviews, and discussions from contributors to Shaped by the State and specifically its relevance to urban historians.

[1] Kim Phillips-Fein, “The History of Neoliberalism” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 351.

[2] Matthew Lassiter, “Ten Propositions for the New Political History,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 370.

[3] Nathan D.B. Connolly, “The Strange Career of American Liberalism,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 82.

[4] Nathan D.B. Connolly, “The Strange Career of American Liberalism,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 86.

[5]Gary Gerstle and Steve Fraser, “Introduction,” in Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980, Eds. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), viii.

[6] Brent Cebul, Mason B. Williams, and Lily Geismer, “Beyond Red and Blue: Crisis and Continuity in Twentieth Century U.S. Political History,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 4.

[7] Gary Gerstle and Steve Fraser, “Epilogue,” in Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980, Eds. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 294.

[8] Brent Cebul, Mason B. Williams, and Lily Geismer, “Beyond Red and Blue: Crisis and Continuity in Twentieth Century U.S. Political History,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 4.

[9] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 14.

[10] Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 6.

[11] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 4.

At Street Level in Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham

By Thai Jones

Wallace, Mike. Greater Gotham: A History of New York City From 1898 to 1919 (New York: Oxford University Press,2018). 1182pp. $45.ISBN 978-0-19-511635-9

 Greater Gotham opens on New Year’s Eve, 1897, with thousands massing in Union Square before stepping off to join a parade celebrating consolidation of the five boroughs—including what were at the time the nation’s largest (New York) and fourth-largest (Brooklyn) cities—into one gigantic metropolis (7). “It had long been a civic tradition,” writes Mike Wallace, “for Gothamites to take to the streets” (3). While the city fathers orchestrated the parade, the myriad of unsanctioned street melees that followed often appeared so dangerous and disruptive as to threaten the very stability of the city. A mis-en-scène of conflict dominates the two decades examined in Greater Gotham.

This long-awaited second installment of Wallace’s Gotham series was intended to cover more than twenty years. But the significance and weight of an era when New York arguably stood at its zenith among all the world’s cities cannot be overstated. Also, the author and his research assistants had to contend with a mountain of archival research. The twenty years covered here takes up more than 1,000 pages, almost as many as the earlier volume required to tell the story of two and half centuries. To manage and reconcile both micro- and macro-histories of the city, Greater Gotham surveys the “historical landscape” from the altitude of a satellite, jetliner, helicopter, and a bird in flight. These elevations situate the city in global, regional and national networks. But the essential vantage point here is the street. That is where the action takes place. The din of streets overwhelms all else.

The flat boomers of Gotham, Albert Levering, April 11, 1906, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Although the book dutifully tackles an encyclopedic range of municipal issues from the rise of skyscrapers to the consolidation of Wall Street finance, it is Greater Gotham’s attention to the politics of confrontation that sets it apart. Almost every chapter here features some episode of unrest—race riots and rent strikes, suffrage rallies and Labor Day parades, and even mob violence against reckless automobile drivers (240). For New Yorkers of the time, such street scenes began to shape a certain cultural and psychological outlook. It was no accident, then, that the Ash Can School of painters began “relish[ing] crowds” (867), and that Tin Pan Alley composers would rhapsodize over the “Sidewalks of New York” (486). In political circles, the importance of demonstrating dissent was clear to the likes of “Big Bill” Haywood, who as a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World could urge the city’s leftists to take to the streets rather than “…sitting around waiting for the next election” (732). This rhetoric inspired such anxiety that the chief of police could extoll the new subway system as a way to “absolutely preclude the possibility of riots in New York.” Cops could be sent by rapid transit to any flashpoint in the city (234).

Unruly, fascinating, and beyond control, the city’s street demonstrations were the local iteration of global experience. The hundred thousand or so Russian Jews landing annually at Ellis Island were themselves reacting to street violence—pogroms and the Czarist massacre of Bloody Sunday. Italians—arriving at twice the rate of Jews—were fleeing a repressive state that had murderously suppressed bread riots in Milan, Naples, and Rome. In the Southern United States, “grisly lynchings and pogrom-like riots” (807) sent thousands of African Americans northbound on steamers and trains.

Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) demonstration, New York City, April 11, 1914, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Wallace’s earlier Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (written with Edwin G. Burrows and published in 1999) was also replete with disorder, including the fearsome Draft Riots of 1863, perhaps the most catastrophic urban uprising in American history. But in the disorders of the Progressive Era, Wallace sees something new. “Slowly, remarkably, for perhaps the first time in New York’s history,” he writes of a 1909 women’s garment workers strike, “a mass labor uprising in the streets began to win support from the city’s mandarins—or, more precisely, from their wives and daughters” (714).

Newspaper row, New York, 1906, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Beginning in the early twentieth century, in his telling, and continuing sporadically through to the present, New Yorkers seeking change fought for it in the streets. Though the city showed scant tolerance for violent demonstrations, activists in time won significant victories as this city, the quintessence of capitalism, also began to emerge as the nation’s center of progressivism.

For Wallace, who first engaged with radical politics as a graduate student in the campus protests at Columbia University in 1968, the politics of confrontation are central to understanding the city.[1] More recently, Occupy Wall Street showed how a protest movement, especially when confronted by a brutal police response, could effect change in mentalities and policies.

Wallace, who wrote widely on Occupy in its moment of fluorescence,[2] likely had these upheavals in mind while reconstituting the feverish cityscape of the 1910s, a period which he summarizes as having “witnessed nonstop battling between classes, races, ethnic groups, genders, and religions” (1052). Like the 2010s, those years saw extreme income disparity and an upsurge of popular frustration at the government. With economic opportunities limited and formal political process discredited, New Yorkers—a century apart—took the reasonable step and plunged into the streets.


Featured image (at top): He shouldn’t have any trouble in choosing, Louis Dalrymple, October 13, 1897, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

Thai Jones is the Herbert H. Lehman Curator for American History at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. He is the author of More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy (Bloomsbury, 2012).

[1] Reminiscences of Michael Wallace (1983), Student Movements of the 1960s project, Oral History Archives at Columbia, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

[2] Mike Wallace, “Before Occupy Wall Street,” Jan. 5, 2012,

Decision Making and Future Thinking in Lagos

By Olamide Udoma-Ejorh, Lagos Urban Development Initiative

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

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

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

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

Sunday Dare on the 2015 campaign trail courtesy of The News

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

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

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


Governance & The Use of Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lewis Map of Lagos I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rush hour traffic in Lagos courtesy of Future Lagos via

Scenario Planning & Active Citizenship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[9] Hootsuite, 2017,

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Retrieved from

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

Transnational Boundary Crossing in Fictional Lagos

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

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

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

Returns, 1960 – 2000s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying to Tell Tales of the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ties that Bind: Religion and Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where It All Leads

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 494.

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

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

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

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

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

[18] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 586.

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

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

Book Review: City of Inmates by Kelly Lytle Hernández

Kelly Lytle Hernández. City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

We are living in an era of human caging on a massive scale. Each night, 2.2 million people fall asleep locked inside one of more than 6,000 prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile correctional facilities in the United States – a vast network of cages that sprawls across the land of the free.

Historians have done tremendous work documenting the expansion of incarceration in the late 20th century. The war on crime and the advent of militarized policing were strategic efforts to eradicate Black rebellion in the late 1960s and 1970s. The war on drugs, draconian sentencing laws, and the dramatic expansion of zero-tolerance policing in the 1980s and 1990s caused the prison population to nearly quadruple between 1980 and 2000.

And yet, it is significant that Kelly Lytle Hernández’s City of Inmates ends in the year that most narratives of mass incarceration begin – 1965 – concluding with the event that is often considered the catalyzing moment of the late-20th century carceral “frontlash”: the Watts Uprising (195). In this framing, Hernández joins scholars excavating the roots of the carceral state deep in the U.S. past, such as in Reconstruction-era convict labor and the early 20th-century criminalization of Black life.

The Los Angeles lens, however, offers a radically new perspective. The settler colonial and immigrant history of California indisputably shaped the caging policies and practices that emerged in the City of Angels. In six distinct histories spanning nearly two centuries, Hernández locates the origins of the carceral state in longstanding efforts to eliminate Native populations as sovereign entities, to control and exploit the labor of non-settler populations, and to exclude racialized immigrants from settler territory.

A Los Angeles police officer, armed with a shotgun, searches bag of African-American woman while another woman holding baby watches, August 14, 1965, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Hernández excavates the legal architecture and cultural assumptions that made incarceration the answer to so many distinct questions: Indigenous resistance to colonial labor regimes, vagrancy among white male seasonal workers, the presence of Chinese laborers on the West Coast, the growing Mexican population in the borderlands, the increasing activism of Black L.A. – these posed distinct problems for a white supremacist settler society, and yet the solution to each of them was the same: incarceration. Why?

Hernández answers that incarceration is a form of elimination, and elimination is inherent to the settler colonial project. Adopting incarceration as a strategy to remove Native peoples from settler L.A., to undermine their resistance, and to compel them to labor for a society from which they were simultaneously excluded in every meaningful way, Los Angeles officials established a template that would be flexibly applied in subsequent eras to “tramps,” Chinese, Mexicans, and African Americans as the city grew.

Evidence for this recycling abounds in City of Inmates, but the clearest example is the use of public order charges to incarcerate a shifting array of “targeted populations” throughout the city’s history (1). Beginning in the 1850s, Los Angeles officials criminalized Indigenous “vagrancy” and swept up Tongva and other Native peoples to work on roads and public works projects in chain gangs, including auctioning convicts to private employers.

By 1910, Los Angeles had one of the largest jail systems in the nation, and the labor of its convicts built many of the city’s roads and public infrastructure, including Sunset Boulevard. By this era, nearly all of the city’s incarcerated were white, largely temporarily unemployed seasonal workers, targeted for removal on public order charges. As the Los Angeles Herald advocated in 1902, “It is infinitely better to take tramps and vagrants into custody on minor charges, than to permit them to roam about the city unmolested” (quoted on 51).

Broadway at 8th Street, Los Angeles, California, ca. 1920, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As the city’s Mexican and Black populations grew, they became the focus of L.A.’s carceral apparatus. From 1928 to 1939, 86 percent of the LAPD’s arrests of Mexicans were for public order charges. In the same era, Black activists protested the LAPD’s overzealous enforcement of those charges in Black neighborhoods, arguing that it “unfairly corralled African Americans, namely the poor, into jail for nonviolent crimes” (159).

City of Inmates concludes with the voices of several activists fighting mass incarceration today. Their stories illustrate how public order arrests still operate to remove people from their neighborhoods, now in service of gentrification. As Hernández makes clear, selective enforcement of public order laws strip targeted populations of their “right to be” in the city (148).

Chinese pharmacy, Los Angeles, California, 1899, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

With its groundbreaking emphasis on immigrant incarceration, City of Inmates “sutures the split” between histories of mass incarceration and immigrant exclusion (5). This is an essential intervention, and not merely a historiographic one; viewing them as separate systems blinds us to their ongoing relationship. The carceral and nativist states have long shared overlapping targets, discourses, strategies, and even the same literal structures.

Hernández focuses on the 1892 Geary Act (explicitly aimed at removing Chinese laborers from the nation) and the Supreme Court cases it provoked, which determined that deportation is not punishment for a crime, but that immigrants could nonetheless be legally be detained during the deportation or exclusion process. These decisions formed the judicial anchor for our contemporary system of immigrant detention and deportation, the legal framework by which immigrants are denied the most basic protections of the criminal justice system, such as the right to counsel or protection from indefinite detention.

With unlawful residence thus removed from the purview of criminal law, legislators responded to the growing Mexican population in the Southwest by criminalizing unlawful entry in 1929, making first-time offenses a misdemeanor and unlawful reentry a felony. Within a decade, tens of thousands of Mexicans had been imprisoned for illegally entering the United States. This dramatic influx of immigrant prisoners led Congress to expand the federal penal system in the 1930s, including constructing the first federal prison in the U.S.-Mexico border region in 1932.

Mexican quarter of Los Angeles. One quarter mile from the City Hall, Dorothea Lange, February 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

City of Inmates demonstrates incontrovertibly that the systems of immigrant exclusion and mass incarceration emerged together and fed each other. Incarceration was a weapon in the war against immigration, and anti-immigrant policies drove the expansion of the carceral state. This is an important lesson for those of us working to build a world free from human caging.

Los Angeles shaped and was shaped by national transformations, and Hernández moves seamlessly between urban, national, and transnational frames. Lest we feel compelled to dismiss L.A.’s story as too unique to be representative, Hernández reminds us that Los Angeles locks up more people than any city in the United States – the nation, of course, that imprisons more people than any country on earth. Los Angeles is, in this sense, the global epicenter of the human caging catastrophe, and its history offers insight for us all.

Llana Barber is associate professor of American Studies at SUNY Old Westbury. Her first book, Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945-2000, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2017, and won that year’s Kenneth Jackson Award from the Urban History Association. She is currently researching the history of militarized exclusion of Haitian migrants and the formation of the nativist state.

Featured image (at top): Chinese Features, La Fiesta de Las Fleures [i.e. Flores], Los Angeles, Cal., c. 1903, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Last Chance to Enter the 2019 UHA Award Competition

If you are an urban scholar who put a book, article, or dissertation out into the world in 2018, we encourage you to check out the Jackson, Hirsch, Katz, and unnamed “best non-North American book” awards and consider applying.

The selection criteria for all awards is the samee: significance, originality, quality of research, sophistication of methodology, clarity of presentation, cogency of arguments, and contribution to the field of urban history. Membership in the UHA is not required, but all works must be in English or in English translation. And all the awards have the same deadline of May 1, 2019!

Best of luck in your pursuit of these major awards!

Book Review: John Strausbaugh’s Victory City

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

Reviewed by Michael L. Levine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World War II Era Harlem courtesy of Cole Phelps at

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

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

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

 Featured image (a top): World War II Era Harlem courtesy of Cole Phelps at