Category Archives: Unique Content

From Redlining to Urban Renewal: University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab goes from “Mapping Inequality” to “Renewing Inequality”

When the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab (DSL; @UR_DSL) unveiled its ambitious Mapping Inequality project a few years ago, urban historians and others applauded. A collaboration of scholars at Virginia Tech, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Maryland and directed by Robert K. Nelson and Brent Cebul of the University of Richmond, Mapping Inequality starkly illustrated the highly structured nature of housing discrimination in 20th-century America. Forbes magazine designated it as one of a handful of GIS programs that had successfully reshaped the way Americans understand racism. “To the extent that you have a business publication engaging with the less-than-stellar history of business, it really is amazing how putting something on a map makes it so much more accessible for people to see,” Cebul told L.A’s KCET last year.

The folks at DSL have been burning the midnight oil while at work on a new project that focuses on urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s. With help from undergrads who tirelessly digitized hundreds of maps and entered reams of data into GIS programs, Robert Nelson, Brent Cebul, Justin Madron, Nate Ayers, and Leif Fredrickson have constructed Renewing Inequality, which digitally documents hundreds upon hundreds of urban renewal maps across the nation.  Lauren TiltonNathan ConnollyDave HochfelderAndrew Kahrl, and LaDale Winling also provided critical feedback and thereby helped DSL refine and improve the finished product.


Considering that urban populations bestowed renewal programs with the nickname “Negro Removal”, it should come as no surprise that families of color were disproportionately affected; at least 300,000 households were displaced by the process as homes were seized and communities leveled. With a focus on cost and family displacement, notably the difference between white and non-white families—the latter term an admittedly blunt demographic tool which Cebul describes as “an administrative term of art at the time”—Renewing Inequality provides insights not only into already well-known metropolises of the era, but also smaller cities of 50,000 or less.

“The intimacy of the violence of displacement in cities at that scale really hasn’t been considered (largely because urban historians tend to focus on big cities),” Cebul conveyed to The Metropole over social media. “In short, I think this points to whole new avenues for research that might expand our conception of what counts as ‘urban’ history in the 20th century – a century of urbanization.” The project also includes a social history of urban renewal, which can be found under “The People and the Program” tab.

As Cebul noted in our back and forth, the project is far from complete. Technical kinks still need to be worked out and they continue to add data from federal, state, and municipal reports as a means to deepen its resonance for researchers and the broader public. However, it is undoubtedly a solid beginning.


Renewing Inequality

Renewing Inequality Youtube promotional video

Mapping Inequality

KCET story on L.A. HOLC maps/segregation and Mapping Inequality




Policing the Public: Public Outcry and the Threat of Moral Intervention in San Francisco, 1857

By Carolyn Levy 

On April 4th, 1857, the San Francisco newspaper Daily Globe published a column concerning the existence of Chinese prostitutes in the city. Daily Globe was a short-lived newspaper, published only from 1856 to 1858. Although the newspaper did not last, the column published in the Daily Globe is indicative of the public sentiments that pushed for the development of organizations like the California Workingmen’s Party—which, in turn, pushed for laws targeting Chinese immigrants. Police forces alone could not prevent Chinese prostitution in San Francisco. However, the combined actions of the police, white citizens, and the federal government effectively targeted the Chinese and reduced the number of potential threats to white America. The column on April 4th read:

“The Voice of Many Citizens.

An indecent exhibition of harlots, has, for some weeks, disgraced the streets of San Francisco. An open insult to the family of every citizen is daily paraded through the principal promenades, in the shape of a gaudy equipage with liveried servants, filled with the most notorious of the abandoned women of the city. In a larger place than this, so audacious a violation of the proprieties of life, would perhaps pass unnoticed, but this community, the wrong to good morals, and to the fair name of our city, is too apparent not to require prompt action to stop so disgraceful a scene—one which tells to every child in the city a tale of infamy, and which is a mock and insult to every honest woman who is forced to meet it in her walks. This thing has been suffered long enough. It is now a crying evil, and while Chinese brothels are being deluged with water on every opportunity, infamy in a gilden [sic] coach is allowed the freedom of the city. A warning is now given that this scandal can not be permitted. It will be well for those interested to take heed.”

Professional police departments were a relatively new development at the time this column was published. As such, the anonymous writings published in the Daily Globe speak to the perceived need for citizens to aid in dealing with crime in the city. Published prior to the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments as well as the building of the transcontinental railroad, there were few reasons for the federal government to intervene in immigration in San Francisco in the 1850s. However, within a few decades, the federal government had enacted multiple laws—including the Page Act (1872), the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), and the Geary Act (1892)—in order to control Chinese immigration and therefore the composition of individuals living within the United States. How did moral policing instigated by citizens, understood here as white, likely middle-class individuals and groups, transform into a federal immigration issue? The answer lies in the policing of racialized others within the United States.

History of San Francisco mural “Beating the Chinese” by Anton Refregier at Rincon Annex Post Office located near the Embarcadero at 101 Spear Street, San Francisco, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Carol M. Highsmith collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Historians have attempted to trace the development of Chinese and Asian racialization in the United States.[1] Racializing the Chinese as yellow, and therefore not white, made it easier to attach other issues to racial difference. Arguments about moral and religious differences stemmed from racialization, and these accusations of difference had real political consequences. Individuals like the proclaimed “Voice of Many Citizens,” pointed to Chinese prostitutes as symbols of immorality, and therefore the antithesis of respectability. The writer’s threat to take heed should not be viewed as a mild warning, as moral policing in the United States could result in forcibly intervening in the lives of those deemed immoral. Indeed, as reform movements surged during the Progressive Era, reformers used intrusive and violent strategies, as seen with groups like the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Committee of Fourteen and Committee of Fifteen in NY.[2]

Anti-Asian sentiment in turn of the century American media, “How John may dodge the Exclusion Act“, circa 1905, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The 1857 column cited here serves as an early sign of the sentiments behind the push to legally discriminate against the Chinese. The arguments for Chinese exclusion were not limited to gendered moral critiques. The Page Act stated that, “the importation into the United States of women for the purposes of prostitution is hereby forbidden…it shall be unlawful for aliens of the following classes to immigrate into the United States, namely, persons who are undergoing sentence for conviction in their own country of felonious crimes other than political or growing out of or the result of such political offenses, and women “imported for the purposes of prostitution.””[3] The Page Act was created in order to prevent Chinese female prostitutes from immigrating to the United States, but in practice the law was used to stop almost all Chinese women from coming to the United States. The Page Law’s emphasis on the deviant moral character and sexual nature of Chinese women demonstrated the significance of maintaining and protecting an American form of culture and sexuality that was considered the moral norm. Scholar Eithne Luibhéid described the Page Law as the “harbinger not only of sexual, but also of racial, ethnic, gender, and class exclusions that were codified by subsequent immigration laws.”[4] The Page Law serves as proof of the role public discourse and the state played in determining respectability. This relationship between the public and the state is further revealed in the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Geary Act. The power to police was not restricted to police forces, nor was it solely based on the impetus of state authorities. Within the general public, white American citizens played a crucial role in monitoring and policing racialized others.



Carolyn Levy is a PhD Candidate in the dual-title program with the departments of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on constructions of gender, sexuality, and respectability in the United States during the nineteenth century. You can find her information at and follow her on Twitter @carolynannlevy.

Image at top of the article: A Chinese grocery – San Francisco, circa 1904, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] Najia Aarim-Heriot, Chinese Immigrants, African Americas, and Racial Anxiety in the United States 1848-1882 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003). Aarim-Heriot describes the process of racializing the Chinese as “Negroization”. See also Michael Keevak, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[2] See Jennifer Fronc, New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009). See also George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (Basic Books, 1994).

[3] Forty-Third Congress, Sess. 11, “Ch. 141,” 1875.

[4] Luibhéid, Entry Denied, 31.

The Vernacular Architecture Forum is on the March!

The Vernacular Architecture Forum invites urban historians — students, faculty of any rank, independent scholars, public historians — to apply for the third round of its Access Award. The award supports attendance at the group’s annual meeting — including two full days of tours and one day of paper sessions — no strings attached, for individuals who have had limited formal exposure to the disciplines of architectural history and vernacular studies, and  have never attended a VAF meeting. The conference, working with the theme of  A Shared Heritage: Urban and Rural Experience on the Banks of the Potomac, will take place in and around Alexandria, Virginia, May 2-5. For more on the award see and on the conference The deadline for applications if February 1. Read about the experience of one last year’s winners, Emmanuel Falguières, a PhD candidate in history at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) – Paris, here:


Also don’t forget about the VAF’s Bishir Prize:

The Bishir Prize, named for longtime member and influential scholar Catherine W. Bishir, is awarded annually to the scholarly article from a juried North American publication that has made the most significant contribution to the study of vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes. In judging the nominated articles, the jurors look for an article that is based on primary research, that breaks new ground in interpretation or methodology, and that contributes generally to the intellectual vitality of vernacular studies. Entries may come from any discipline concerned with vernacular architecture studies. Articles published in the two years prior to the VAF annual conference are eligible for consideration. Please note that essays published as chapters in a book are also eligible if the volume is peer-reviewed, published within the time parameters specified, and the research presented in the essay is new. Anthologized collections are not eligible. The Bishir Prize was awarded for the first time in 2012.

Call for Nominations: 2018 Bishir Prize 

The Bishir Prize is awarded annually to the scholarly article from a juried North American publication that has made the most significant contribution to the study of vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes. Work published as a chapter in a book is eligible along with journal articles. Nominations should be based on primary research, break significant new ground in interpretation or methodology, and contribute to the intellectual vitality of vernacular studies. Entries may come from any discipline concerned with investigating vernacular architecture/landscape. Nominated pieces must bear the publication imprint of 2016 or 2017.

Deadline for submission is 1 February 2018. Send an electronic copy of the work to the prize committee: Elizabeth Collins Cromley (, Joseph Sciorra (, and Richard Longstreth, chair ( Please provide the author’s contact information along with your own. Note that the committee automatically considered all refereed articles appearing in the VAF’s journal, Buildings + Landscapes.

The prize winner and nominator will be notified in early March. The award will be presented at the Vernacular Architecture Forum annual meeting in early May.

To nominate an article please submit the following:

  • MS Word document providing contact information, publication data (name of book publishing company or title of journal, and date of publication), and a brief statement contextualizing the author(s) and article.
  • PDF copy of the article.

2018 Bishir Prize Committee

Richard Longstreth, chair

Joseph Sciorra

Betsy Cromley

The Conference Debate

Earlier this month, longtime UHA member Jim Wunsch of Empire State College (SUNY) raised some great questions and points of debate regarding how we organize, conduct, and process conferences, including: accepting fewer papers for presentation; rethinking how historians present research (and the context in which they are presented); and posting papers earlier to encourage greater engagement and debate. Today, UHA President Richard Harris responds, and on Wednesday the Program Co-chairs for UHA 2018, LaDale Winling and Elaine Lewinnek, will weigh in.

Jim Wunsch has made some good points about conferences, and especially the paper sessions. These are perennial – or perhaps I should say bi-ennial – matters that UHA conference organizers have wrestled with over the years and to which there is no perfect answer. Significantly, in the online membership survey that we conducted earlier this year, members were perfectly divided on the question as to whether we should be more selective in accepting paper proposals. My response expresses personal views, not those of the UHA, although they are consistent with, and draw upon, the way members answered other survey questions.

Jim points out that some papers are less than ground-breaking, while presentations can be underwhelming. He suggests that greater selectivity might be desirable; that some or all papers might be posted in advance and that, afterwards, The Metropole blog could celebrate those papers or intellectual exchanges that were especially original or exciting.

The probable result of greater selectivity would be a conference in which panel sessions were of higher quality, more satisfying and, if only because there would be fewer of them, better-attended. But it would also produce a smaller conference, more top heavy in terms of seniority. It would be difficult for program committees to turn down proposals from established scholars who might include ex-supervisors, and even when such proposals were rejected the senior scholars might be able to attend anyway. In other words, fewer of those present would be graduate students and junior scholars.

Obviously, there are pros and cons, and the balance surely varies according to the conference and the organization. There are some large conferences that I have attended which seemed unwieldy; where there were dozens of poorly-attended concurrent sessions; where little intellectual exchange seemed to occur. I name no names. There, indeed, I had wondered whether the downside of taking all-comers outweighed the upside. But I have found that at smaller conferences, such as those organized by the UHA and SACRPH, the balance is different.

Perhaps my opinion here is shaped by two of the first conferences that I ever attended, the first as an undergraduate and the second as a junior grad student. Both were modest in scale. The first was organized by housing activists in Newcastle, England, and helped inspire my continuing interest in housing. The second, in Guelph, Ontario, organized by Gilbert Stelter and Alan Artibise, was the beginning of a short series of Canadian urban history conferences, and it fueled my commitment to the field. Maybe it augurs well that my term as president should coincide with the first time that the UHA has held a conference in another mid-sized city.

The book that came out of the first Canadian urban history conference.

Now if I am honest and if – even more challenging – my memory serves me well, it wasn’t the panel sessions alone that affected me in either place. Indeed, at the housing conference what I remember most vividly was a field trip to the Byker wall, an award-winning and soon notorious public housing project. At the Guelph conference what has stayed with me was the overall buzz – the excitement, the conversations in corridors and bars that declared: here is a community of people with shared, kindred interests. No subsequent conference could hope to fully recapture that feeling. It was first love, after all. But I still feel something similar when I attend the UHA and SACRPH conferences, sometimes in paper sessions, but at least as often in corridors or out in the city. The point I’m trying to make is that, for me, papers sessions are only part of the picture.

In this, I seem to be fairly typical. One the questions that we asked in the online survey of members was “what are the most important functions of the conference?” Respondents were given four options, and most checked off two or more. Almost nine out of ten reckoned that the conference was “very important” or “essential” as “an opportunity to learn what research other urban historians are doing.” Paper sessions are obviously a good part of this, but so too are chance encounters and, as a number of people indicated in their open-ended comments, conversations around the book exhibit. Just as striking, almost two thirds of members reported that one of the very important/essential functions of the conference was “to network – advancing my career and/or research” while almost half saw it as “an opportunity to socialize with friends and colleagues.” Fewer, about a fifth, also reckoned that it is “an opportunity to visit and explore a city that I may not know.” So, not surprisingly, it turns out that members attend UHA conferences for a variety of reasons.

The Byker Wall Housing Project, Newcastle, England. Photo: Byker Community Trust

Bottom line: the presentation of a paper is as much a means to an end as it is an end in itself. If program committees were more selective, fewer people, and especially younger scholars, would be able to attend and enjoy the other benefits of conference attendance. That would be a high price to pay.

But it is true that we could all be more creative about how we present our research. Responding to another question, for example, one third of members reported that in paper sessions they usually read from a text (using no slides) but less than half that number reckon that this was the most effective type of presentation. It is here, perhaps, as Jim suggests, that we could all try to think outside the text, or the slide presentation. Along those lines, the program committee for the Columbia conference is encouraging people to propose less traditional formats, but I will leave it to the program co-chairs, LaDale Winling and Elaine Lewinnek, to say more about that.

Richard Harris

UHA President

Policing the White City

Our third and final entry in The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest explores the intersection of law enforcement, imperialism, and American racial hierarchies through the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago intended to reflect the high point of U.S. and white Western civilization and, according to reports published by some of Chicago’s most famous detectives, the police that patrolled it did the same.[1] The centerpiece of the exhibition, the White City, was a sprawling downtown full of water features, glittering towers, and grand facades done in the French Neoclassical style. However, as the scientific advancements, historic recreations, and white domes attracted millions to the fairgrounds, the Chicago police also feared the temptation of millions of wallets and naïve tourists would attract visitors of a seedier element.

In an effort to police the impeccable international city with an impeccable international police force Chicago police utilized the new technologies and tactics developed by police departments in the U.S. and across Europe throughout the 1890s. Enabled by a number of scientific and bureaucratic advancements they had imported from departments around the globe, the Chicago police attempted to put the cutting edge of policing into practice in the White City.

For instance, the criminal file, complex systems of identification, new vehicles, and modern investigative techniques were all in use at the Columbian Exposition, and each had been recently imported to the U.S. from police departments in Europe. In many instances, the European detectives who invented and utilized these innovations were the veterans and masterminds behind new systems of coercive governance in colonies abroad, making late nineteenth and early twentieth century police departments in Europe—and invariably the U.S.—the product of a growing sense of globalism and a lasting imprint of imperialism on the intellectual and urban landscape.

Ferris wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

During the exposition, Chicago detectives specifically worked with the Bertillon method, a system of identifying criminals based on bodily measurements, which had been developed by M. Alphonse Bertillon of the Paris police department. Likewise, for months, the Chicago police reportedly collected criminal files and familiarized themselves with the faces of the most notorious wrongdoers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe should any of them appear on the fairgrounds.

Like the technologies and tactics utilized by the police, the men recruited to the force were also of an international makeup and intended to represent the pinnacle of white Victorian manhood. Historians like Gail Bederman, Kevin Murphy, and Michael Tavel Clarke have shown how “[l]ate Victorian culture had identified the powerful, large male body of the heavyweight prizefighter (and not the smaller bodies of the middleweight or welterweight) as the epitome of manhood,” and how these racialized, gendered, and embodied values became deeply engrained in police departments across the United States.[2] Images of Victorian manhood often deliberately excluded men of color. Despite a slowly growing presence of African American patrolmen in the Chicago police department—, of the 2,000 job openings for the “Columbian Guard,” the policemen of the White City—, not a single man of color was hired for the force.

The title of this photo, “Cannibals carrying their master” underscores the larger themes of imperialism, Orientalism and the “Other” at play at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill, 1893, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For a year before the official start of the exposition, the Chicago police recruited dozens of detectives from cities across the United States and from around the world as they culled the corrupt, lazy, and “unworthy” members from their department. Each major police department from Europe was asked to detail, and provide the salary for, two of their own officers to patrol the city should any of their hometown villains make an appearance. In total, 600 foreign police reported for duty at the exposition, all of them white, tall, and fighting fit.[3]

Columbian Guard at Chicago’s World Fair, 1893

To walk around the exposition, it was nearly impossible not to internalize the intended argument that the future of the United States was unassailably white. Where people of color did exist at the exposition, they were relegated to the outskirts, or the metaphorical past. Along the Midway, the main thorough fair at the exhibition, American Indians participated in “outdoor living exhibits” as part of an anthropological and chronological journey through Western civilization. Nearby, one of the largest living exhibits on the Midway was the Dahomean Village, a sensationalist view of a West African village portrayed through stereotype and colonial trope.

Parade of Arabian circus, at World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1893, Prints and Photographic Division, Library of Congress

African Americans at the fair also received little representation. After mostly excluding Black exhibitors from other halls, the exposition never fulfilled their initial intention of creating, a hall for the literary accomplishments of Black Americans. As the fair progressed, the Haitian building became a center of organizing and activism. Under the editorship of Ida B. Wells, and with writing and collaboration from Frederick Douglass, a group of activists wrote, published, and distributed a pamphlet entitled “The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” In the pamphlet, which over 10,000 tourists received, lynching, and the police who enabled it, were as much on trial as the exclusive white organizers of the exhibition.

Statue of the Republic and arch, at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, Charles Dudley Arnold, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Like the event itself, the police at the Columbian exposition may have represented the current high water mark of modern science and technology, but it also served as a reflection of the white society’s evolving commitment to imperialist thinking and white supremacy—after all, this was the event where historian Fredrick Jackson Turner rolled out his “Frontier Thesis.” The police force’s internationalism, both in officers and in tactics, only emphasizes that the project of subordination along racial lines was not unique to the United States, but an undertaking shared and collaborated on by imperialist powers on either side of the Atlantic.

Matthew Guariglia is the editor of The Metropole’s Disciplining the City series and a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut. His most recent work on the dangers of overzealous government surveillance appeared in the Washington Post for its “Made by History” series earlier this summer. 

[1] W. McClaughry and John Bonfield, “Police Protection at the World’s Fair, “ The North American Review, Vol. 156, No. 439 (June, 1893), 711-716.

[2] Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, 8.

[3] Christopher Robert Reed, All the World is Here!: The Black Presence at the White City, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002, 74.

The New York Times and the movement for integrated education in New York City

Our second entry in The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest explores the role of the New York Times in NYC school integration debates during the early 1960s through the lens the newspaper itself and the Pulitzer Prize winning work of Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s work, Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. 

During the 20th Century, a strategic decision was made by media outlets to associate America’s race problem with the South. To uphold this one-sided narrative, actions, and events regarding Martin Luther King Jr., the Montgomery Bus Boycott and school integration in Alabama were strategically covered by journalists. This has been recognized in Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. In meticulous detail, Race Beat explains the role of the press as it traced events of racial confrontation across the South, the book emphasizes information crucial to the development of black and white media sources.

John Lewis, then leader of SNCC now congressman, rises to speak at the March on Washington, Bob Adelman, 1963, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Undeniably, the media played a central role in the civil rights movement; as former Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader and Congressman John Lewis observed, “If it hadn’t been for the media … the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song.”[1] This framing presented the relationship between the media and movement as inseparable. But when we flip the question, what do we see when exploring the New York Times’s relationship to civil rights activism in the North? The bird didn’t have wings in cities like New York, given the media’s tendency to dismiss and disparage the movements there.

In January of 1964, a decade-long movement demanding desegregation of New York City’s public-school system came to a peak. Ten years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, civil rights activists in New York City (like their Southern counterparts) had grown weary of the gradual progress in the movement for racial equality. Building on the momentum of 1963’s widespread grassroots organizing, New York activists looked to resume civil disobedience through a series of protests that targeted the Board of Education (BOE) for their failure to create and implement a reasonable integration plan. After much debate and a decade of official intransigence, numerous New York activists, both African American, and white, decided that a one-day mass school boycott would be a productive step forward.

On February 3rd, 1964, 464,361 students and teachers of color participated in the school boycott to dramatize the poor conditions in predominately African American and Puerto Rican schools.[2] This protest has been recorded as the largest civil rights protest in American history, surpassing even the 1963 March on Washington. This demonstration could have been a decisive opportunity for the media to oppose and expose segregation in the city and all of those who maintained it. Unfortunately, what we see from the Times is complacency and even opposition; while grudgingly noting the massiveness of the protest, they diminished the existence and negative impact of segregation in city schools, only to characterize the boycott as “unreasonable” and activists as “reckless” and “violent,” ultimately furthering support for the white power structure within NYC.[3]

The February 3rd, 1964 “Freedom Day” protest was directed by Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Reverend Milton A. Galamison of Siloam Presbyterian Church.[4] Reverend Galamison had moved from Philadelphia after attending Lincoln University and lived with his wife and son in Brooklyn. Galamison had made previous attempts to negotiate with city officials, but even under the guidance of Mayor Robert F. Wagner, who was known as New York City’s most “Liberal Mayor,” city officials had been lackadaisical in their approach to school integration.[5] The reverend had hired civil rights activist Bayard Rustin to help organize the boycott. Rustin had recently helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, which drew a crowd of 200,000 people, and was working as the Executive Secretary for the War Resisters League.[6] In a profile, the Times depicted Rustin as a lifelong activist with a talent for “putting demonstrators in demonstrations and pickets in picket lines.”[7] While the Times was eager to profile Rustin for the boycott, possibly because of his international presence, they ignored Galamison, the boycott’s director, in addition to the parents and teachers who dedicated their expertise to the cause. Grassroots activists from Brooklyn’s Congress of Racial Equality, The Parents’ Workshop, National Advancement Association of Colored People (NAACP) and Harlem Parents Committee showed support for the boycott in February of 1964, but these activists also went unnoticed by the paper.[8] Given Galamison’s strong presence in the community, it would have been easy to produce a comprehensive profile that showed his dynamic character. As momentum for civil rights in NYC persisted, opposition to the protest from white liberals continued, many complaining that leadership within the African American community had “taken a turn for the worst”.[9]

People, some with picket signs, gather outside Lincoln School in Englewood, N.J. protesting the city’s failure to end racial segregation, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In the coverage leading up the school boycott the Times failed to see the demonstration as part of the larger movement. An editorial titled “No More School Boycotts” framed the demonstration as “tragically misguided” and generalized all boycotts as “pointless”,dangerous” and “destructive” to the children of New York.[10] The newspaper castigated Reverend Galamison and let it be known that, when concerning segregation in New York City, “there is no realistic way to alter the balance.” However, the Times suggested that it’s up to the “reasonable” civil rights leaders to mend ties with their liberal counterparts.[11] In 1964, activists were calling on the BOE to create an integration plan that is “complete and city wide” instead of the “piecemeal” Princeton (paring) Plan,[12] which asked for small portions of the city to be bused, leaving the majority of predominately African American and Puerto Rican schools segregated. What this Times article ignored was the fact that cities like New York had been segregated though racist housing policy, government zoning and neighborhood pacts by whites to keep communities racially homogenous.

Following the boycott, the February 4th, 1964 issue of the Times stressed a variety of opinions, analyzing the role of educators and students, while also shedding light on what reporters considered the flaws and successes of the boycott. Times correspondent Homer Bigart reported that the boycott “was even bigger than last summer’s March on Washington” which had been the biggest civil rights demonstration to date.[13] In an article titled “Leaders of Protest Foresee a New Era of Militancy” long-time journalist, Fred Powledge wrote of the boycott as a communal effort in which people of all kindsjoined the effort to make food, posters, and prepare lessons for the one-day boycott directed by Bayard Rustin.[14] Powledge failed to recognize that the demonstration was a significant step ­­within a much larger movement that was orchestrated by New York City activists, with the help of Rustin. This inaccuracy minimizes the efforts conducted by activists in New York and emphasizes the Times’s failure to recognize grassroots activists who made the boycott successful.

Bayard Rustin (center) speaking with (left to right) Carolyn Carter, Cecil Carter, Kurt Levister, and Kathy Ross, before demonstration, 1964, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Meanwhile, reporter McCandlish Philips felt that Freedom Day was “not very useful” and quoted Dr. John H. Fisher, President of Columbia University’s Teachers College at the time, saying the “boycott was a mistake from the beginning.”[15] Many liberals aligned with this sentiment, declaring that things were moving too fast, including Rabbi Max Scheck, President of the New York Board of Rabbis who was quoted saying, “They’ve been waiting for 100 years now…we’re asking them to wait a little longer.”[16] The notion that African Americans needed to be patient and wait for societal standards to change gradually was a philosophy often articulated by segregationists in South.

Not all reporters failed to see this demonstration as a singular act. Seasoned reporter Peter Kihss placed the boycott within the larger movement ­in his article “Many Steps Taken for Integration.” Kihss emphasized the boycott as one of many demonstrations by Northern civil rights activists, who had been working to create equal opportunities for the children of NYC since the 1950s.[17] Kihss focused on the longtime struggles made by civil rights activists such as African American lawyer Paul B. Zuber and Galamison, applauding their ability to continue the battle even as “white parents remain hostile” to desegregation efforts in New York.[18] With the exception of Kihss, Times journalists failed to mention that white backlash was embodied in the Parents and Taxpayers Organization, whose organizing was rooted in a racist ideology.

On their way to the March on Washington, CORE members swing down Fort Hamilton Parkway, Brooklyn, toward 69th St. ferry on trek to the capital, O. Fernandez., August 15, 1963, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Reports published by the Times on the boycott showed there was a consistent impact on school attendance, stressing that 44.8 percent of the total enrollment had not shown up, but recording that the average absentee rate hovered around 10 percent.[19] Numbers showed that in predominantly white communities attendance was hardly affected. Staten Island for example had a slight increase in attendance, with an absentee rate of 11.2 percent.[20] Reporter Robert Trumbull explained that the Citywide Committee for Integration of Schools noted that more than “400 Freedom Schools had functioned for pupils staying away from classes” calculating the attendance at Freedom Schools to be between “90,000 and 100,000.”[21] There were accounts of lessons being led by community educators in religious institutions, recreational spaces, and homes of volunteers. Students who regularly attended class in an NYC school building had complaints of “water overflowing from the toilets” and “rats in the cafeteria”, recognizing that it was the first time they’d received a quality education in sanitary spaces.[22] This article was one of the few in which the deplorable conditions plaguing New York City’s public schools were mentioned.


Leonard Budner reported “3,357 of the 43,865 teachers who were employed by the city were absent on Monday, nearly three times the usual number.”[23] Even with threats from Superintendent Donovan that “We don’t pay people to march around,”[24] many teachers were spending their day at Freedom Schools teaching a curriculum of African American history and civics, both curated and distributed by the Harlem Parents Committee.[25] By spending the day teaching without pay or recognition in makeshift schools, teachers were drawing attention to the desperate conditions in African American and Puerto Rican schools. Instead, the Times focused on the criticisms given by Superintendent Donovan, who said that all teachers would receive an “official warning” if they “[26]

By understanding the New York Times’s criticism of the local movement, we are better informed of the structural, societal and ideological barriers that activists faced when attempting to secure an equal and integrated education. With extensive criticism and a lack of moral support, we see how the New York Times chose to support the struggle in the South but became a foe to the activists, children and parents of the movement in New York.


Ethan Scott Barnett is a PhD student in History at the University of Delaware where he studies 20th century African American history, with a focus on the Jim Crow North and West. He can be reached on twitter at @EthanScottBarn.




Image at top: Mrs. Claire Cumberbatch, of 1303 Dean St., leader of the Bedford-Stuyvesant group protesting alleged “segregated” school, leads oath of allegiance, Dick DeMarsico, September 12, 1958, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


[1] Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006), 407.

[2] Clarence Taylor, Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 96.

[3] “A Boycott Solves Nothing” NYT (Jan 31, 1964).

[4] Clarence Taylor, Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 96.

[5] Ibid, 95.

[6] “Man in the News” NYT (Feb 4, 1964)

[7] “Picket Line Organizer” NYT (Feb 2, 1964)

[8] Fred Powledge, “Leaders of Protest Foresee a New Era of Militancy Here” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[9] Ibid.

[10] “The School Boycott” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[11] “No More School Boycotts” NYT (Feb 3, 1964).

[12] Fred M. Hechinger, “Education School Boycott” NYT (Feb 2, 1964).

[13] Homer Bigart, “Thousands of Orderly Marchers Besiege School Board’s Offices” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[14] Fred Powledge, “Leaders of Protest Foresee a New Era of Militancy Here” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[15] McCandlish Philips, “Many Clergymen and Educators Say Boycott Dramatized Negro’s Aspirations” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Peter Kihss, “Many Steps for Integration” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Boycott Cripples City Schools” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Robert Trumbull, “Freedom School Staffs Varied but Classes Followed Pattern” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Leonard Buder, “Move to Mediate School Dispute in City is Rebuffed” NYT (Feb 5,1964)

[24] Ibid.

[25] Robert Trumbull, “Freedom School Staffs Varied but Classes Followed Pattern” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[26] Leonard Buder, “Galamison Group Modifies Position on a New Boycott” NYT (Feb 19, 1964).

Strange Times in New York

Our first entry in The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest considers “A New Season,” the contest theme, through an examination of New York City Mayor John Lindsey’s creative attempts to reshape the public sector. The city, in the midst “of social, economic, and political distress” during the 1970s, presented an opportunity for a new season of “wild experimentation.” 

By Ryan Donovan Purcell

It was difficult to believe such a story at first. I rechecked my sources multiple times, and it was clear. In the summer of 1973 New York City Mayor John Lindsay announced a program to privatize the NYPD. I found the story strange not because of New York’s historically tenacious municipal unions. Transportation, sanitation and education disputes riddled Lindsay’s mayoral career. The police were no different. Nor was the weirdness of this story due to the fact that Lindsay himself was such an unusual politician. As the first Republican Mayor since Fiorello LaGuardia, John Lindsay was quite progressive—a social democrat in all but name.

Lindsay NYT

What made this story so bizarre was that it read like a science fiction plot of that era.[1] Films like Soylent Green (1973) presented New York as it might appear in the near future. Set in 2022, Soylent Green shows us a city that is falling apart. The city’s dilapidated infrastructure and housing have long since served its swollen population, now 40 million. Most New Yorkers live on the streets, homeless and unemployed. The lucky few with jobs survive on rations produced and distributed by the Soylent Corporation. Public services are virtually non-existent. The subways don’t run; the water doesn’t work. The NYPD barely hangs on as an impotent remnant of the city’s forgotten past. Detective Frank Thorn, the story’s central protagonist, has a two-year backlog of unsolved murders, which is characteristic of the public sector’s inefficiency more broadly. In this narrative, a private corporation supplants the role of the government in sustaining a population— in this case through food manufactured from the bodies of populace itself.

Soylent Green Still 1
Soylent Green (1973)
Soylent Green Still 2
Trailer for Soylent Green (1973):

And it is hard to separate this depiction from the actual physical condition of New York in the 1970s. Housing literally disintegrated. Residents were denied basic public utilities. New York’s park system and roads were in ruins. To many, graffiti that began to mark subway trains in the early 1970s signaled the end of times.

Lower Manhattan May 1973
Lower Manhattan, May 1973. Wil Blanche/NARA
Alphabet City ca 1970
Alphabet City, ca. 1970
SoBro ca 1975 1
South Bronx ca. 1975, Joe Conzo Jr.
SoBro ca 1975 2
South Bronx ca. 1975, Joe Conzo Jr.

Escape From New York (1981) envisions a slightly different urban history set in 1997. In this film, the U.S. government converts Manhattan Island into the country’s largest maximum-security prison following a 400% increase in crime during the 1980s. Here, New York’s municipal government is absent—conceivably relocated to the urban periphery. An organized criminal government has emerged in its place. The city, in this way, functions less like a prison than a separate country ruled by inmates. The city is in ruins, and as in Soylent Green, public services do not exist. When a terrorist attack aboard Air Force One forces the President of the United States to crash-land in Manhattan, the police commissioner hires a private contractor to perform the rescue, not the police or even the military.

Escape from NY
Escape from New York (1981):

Oddly enough, these films contextualize Mayor John Lindsay’s crime policy. From 1966 (the year that Lindsay took office) to 1974 (when Mayor Abe Beame assumed office) New York City’s crime index increased 49.5%–not quite the 400% imagined in Escape from New York.[2] Struggling to manage a dwindling municipal budget, the Lindsay administration experimented with ways of improving public sector productivity while cutting operating costs.[3] The 1973 proposal to privatize the police was one such experiment that nearly took hold. The initial phase would be implemented gradually. It called for a fifty-man private security force to supplement the municipal anticrime effort in Midtown. Armed with walkie-talkies, and some with guns, contractors were not authorized to make arrests, but would act as surveillance units with direct communication with the police, reporting trouble or suspicion. The plan also employed private building workers, superintendents, and doormen who would use code numbers to preserve their identities. At first the force would be assigned to follow police beats from 42nd to 59th Streets, between Second and Seventh Avenues, from 6pm to 1am. Upon successful implementation of the initial phase, the program would expand, and ultimately encompass all five boroughs. “This is a very important development,” Lindsay declared at the inaugural ceremony in front of the Time-Life building on 6th Avenue and 50th Street. A formation of armed security contractors stood behind him. “[T]he involvement of the public is essential in fighting crime,” he continued. “The worst thing that can happen is an apathetic public. Here we have proof of an aware public.”[4]

Garry Winogrand
Garry Winogrand, Mayor John Lindsay with New York City Police, 1969, printed 1970s

The Association for a Better New York, a consortium of New York-based corporations, pledged an “open checkbook” to finance the program, according to chair Lewis Rudin. “We have come to realize that the proliferation of crime— specifically crime against persons—is what is hurting our city more than anything else,” Rudin explained at the ceremony. “We have decided than an all-out commitment of our resources to stop crime is mandatory if we want to make New York better.” It made sense to see the executive leadership of the Building Owners and Managers Association standing next to Rudin on the speaker’s platform. It must have been strange, however, to see Sanford Garelik, former NYPD chief inspector, and representatives from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “The fact that we are using the security guards in this fashion is not to be construed as criticism of the police,” Rubin qualified. “We worked with the police in setting this up and will continue to coordinate our activities with the police.”

Others were less reserved. To Alton G. Marshall, president of Rockefeller Center Inc. and former executive secretary to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Lindsay’s program signaled a turn toward more effective city governance. The blustery ex-Marine could hardly contain his excitement while talking to reporters after the ceremony: “This is the kind of attitude the city has wallowed in for years—let the government do.” His animated bushy brows punctuated his speech from behind his iconic thick wide-framed glasses. “There is no reason, for instance why 30,000 private security people can’t be organized to supplement the police,” he said, adding, “At Rockefeller Center we have our own security force.”

Alton Marshall
Alton Marshall at Rockfeller Center, 1979 (NYT–

Lindsay’s plan to privatize the NYPD never fully materialized. That spring, after an unsuccessful presidential campaign, he announced that he would not run for a third term as Mayor. Democrat Abe Beame, who was elected mayor in November, did not renew Lindsay’s program. In October 1973, the Arab oil embargo began to shock the American economy, nudging New York City along a path of fiscal insolvency. By June 1975 the city had run out of cash and it nearly declared bankruptcy.

This story struck me as so unusual because it was like an urban dystopian fiction that could have become very real. And in some ways it did. The principal architect of the privatization program, Lindsay’s deputy administrator E.S. Savas, went on to found the Central Park Conservancy, a public-private partnership that continues to steward the park. By 1980, he was advocating privatization on a federal level as Assistant Secretary of HUD during President Reagan’s first term. Where else might we find the legacy of these initiatives?

“The seventies,” Kim Phillips-Fein suggests in Fear City, “marked the moment before the rise of neoliberal New York, the emergence of Donald Trump, the stock market’s climb—a time when New York (and America) still felt open, when one could dream of a different future in a way that no longer seems possible.”[5] To make sense of Lindsay’s plan to privatize the NYPD we might say that it was a product of this feeling of “openness” and “possibility.” We might say that it emerged out of a particular cultural logic, of which the films Soylent Green, Escape from New York, and the advent of subway graffiti were part. Each was a product of wild experimentation during a time of social, economic, and political distress. The fabric of American culture was in flux, and New Yorkers struggled to recreate meaning through new ideas, cultural forms and ways of life—some of which remain with us, while others are forgotten. If nothing else, however, this story illustrates the fact that sometimes history can be just as strange as fiction.

Ryan Donovan Purcell is a history PhD candidate at Cornell University, where he studies 20th century American popular culture and urban history. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, College Art Association, and Hyperallergic, among other venues.

[1] For more discussion on 1970s New York and film see: Stanley Corkin, Starring New York: Filming the Grime and the Glamour of the Long 1970s (Oxford UP: 2011); Carlo Rotella, Good With Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt (U. Cal. Press: 2002), chapter 3 particularly analyzes the depiction of New York’s “grittiness” in 1970s film.

[2] According the FBI crime reporting statistics, NYC’s crime index increased from 609, 465 in 1966 to 911, 703 in 1974–

[3] See David Rogers, “Management versus Bureaucracy,” and Charles R. Morris, “Of Budgets, Taxes, and the Rise of a New Plutocracy,” in Joseph P. Viteritti ed, Summer in the City: John Lindsay and the American Dream (John Hopkins U. Press, 2014)

[4] Murray Schumach, “Private Security Guards to Join Midtown Patrols,” NYT, June 8 1973

[5] Kim Phillips-Fein, Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and The Rise of Austerity Politics (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2017): p. 307

A History of Loss: My Three Decades of Cleveland Sports

By Adam Gallagher 

One of my earliest memories is of my dad, a pretty even-keeled guy most of the time, punching through a toy drum of mine after what surely seemed to be the trough of his Cleveland fandom. It’s the winter of 1988, and the Cleveland Browns are facing the Denver Broncos for the second year in a row in the conference championship game. The previous year the Browns lost in overtime, after John Elway’s (in)famous 98-yard drive knotted the game up in the waning minutes of regulation (forever remembered by masochistic Cleveland fans as “The Drive”). Long story short, Browns running back Earnest Byner fumbled on the literal one-yard line with a minute left to go, losing the chance to tie the game (forever known to Cleveland fans as “The Fumble”). Browns lose again, my dad was irate, my drum destroyed. And that began my very sad sojourn as a Cleveland sports fan.

In popular culture, Cleveland sports has become so synonymous with losing that it’s one of the first things associated with the city. That narrative of loss has also tracked Cleveland’s more painful economic rise and fall from a booming steel city in the middle of the 20th century to the one of the preeminent examples of a broken down rust belt town. In 1950, Cleveland was the seventh biggest city in United States with 900,000 residents, but it had reached its peak with an economy heavily centered on manufacturing. By the late 1960s, Cleveland’s steel industry was struggling with environmental regulation, rising labor costs, and changes in trade. The city lost one-quarter of its manufacturing jobs between 1958 and 1973 and 14 percent of its overall population in the 1960s. To boot, the Cuyahoga River, which feeds into Lake Erie on the shores of Cleveland, caught on fire in 1969.

Cleveland Municipal Stadium during Cleveland-Detroit night baseball game, June 30, 1950, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Losing was what the city became known for; after all, Cleveland was called the “mistake by lake.” And its sports weren’t any better. You can do a quick tour of these losses anytime, as the internet is littered with “Worst Moments in Cleveland Sports History” articles. ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Believeland” helped popularize the connection between Cleveland’s economic demise and its sports curse.

Let’s go back to the Browns for a minute and fast-forward from 1988 to 1995. Art Modell, the Browns owner, decided to relocate the team to Baltimore for the 1996 NFL season, after he lost a bruising battle with the city to have taxpayer dollars refurbish the decrepit Cleveland stadium (forever known as “The Move”). People in Cleveland were devastated and Modell has forever been one of Cleveland’s most hated villains.

Up until this point, despite the crushing playoff losses, the Browns were largely considered a respectable franchise. They won the last title for the city back in 1964, before the NFL-AFL merger and the Super Bowl, but still. Cleveland was considered one of the most loyal, rabid fans bases. Losing the team hurt. But then, in 1999, the NFL gave Cleveland an expansion franchise. Football was back in Cleveland. And pretty much from that season on it’s been a horror show. One playoff appearance. Zero playoff wins. The worst record in the league from 1999 to today. Only two winning seasons. The Browns’ quarterback situation since 1999 has been a tire fire, starting an unconscionable 28 different QBs.

I’ve been going to the Browns home opener since 2011 (they have only won one of those games). Every year there’s the same spectrum of hope and dread among the fans, with some sure that this is the year they turn it around and the others just a little too beaten down to have any such notion. But, everyone there gets why my brother and I drive from Washington, D.C. to see the game. We know the Browns are probably going to lose. For those of us who come from out of town, or just down the street, we’d rather experience that loss with 60,000 other Browns fans. Misery loves company.

The Cleveland baseball club, American League, season 1922, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Since the mid-1980s, Cleveland’s baseball team – the Indians will be referred to as the Cleveland Professional Baseball Team (CPBT) because Chief Wahoo is a racist mascot – did things a little differently. Although mostly known as a laughing stock from the 1960s through the ‘80s, in the ‘90s the CPBT became a true powerhouse in Major League Baseball. The ‘90s CPBT were my first real “favorite team” and were beloved by the city. Despite all the star power on those teams, though, they could never make it over the hump.

The CPBT made the World Series in 1995 and 1997, losing both, with the ’97 loss coming in the 11th inning of the last game of the series. Eventually that team disintegrated, but by the mid-2010s the CPBT was once again one of the best in Major League Baseball. Last year, in the famous cursed-franchise World Series against the Chicago Cubs, the CPBT was up 3-1 before the Cubs came roaring back to win three in a row and break their 108-year drought. This year, after setting the modern-day record for most consecutive wins at 22 during the regular season, the CPBT was widely regarded as the one of the best teams in baseball. In the first round of the playoffs against the universally hated Yankees, the team went up 2-0, only for the Yankees to storm back and win three in a row and knock them out of the playoffs. Another gut-punching playoff loss.

Like the Indians, the Cavaliers, Cleveland’s NBA team, have had moderate success since the 1980s, punctuated by some pretty awful lows and the highest of highs: The Land’s only modern-day championship. Before drafting LeBron James in 2003, the Cavs were probably most famous for being one of the teams Michael Jordan regularly trounced come playoff time in the second half of the 1980s. One year after The Fumble, Jordan knocked the Cavs out of the playoffs in the first round with an iconic buzzer-beating jumper over Craig Ehlo (forever known as “The Shot”).


Unable to take on Jordan, that talented Cleveland team eventually fell by the wayside and the Cavs were about as mediocre as you could imagine for a decade. Then in 2003, the Cavs won the draft lottery and the chance to draft native son LeBron James, who hails from Akron, Ohio, 40 miles south of Cleveland. At 18, LeBron came into the league ready to dominate, and he was immediately embraced by the city as our best and brightest hope. By 2007, LeBron was the best player in the league (at 22!) and took the Cavs to the finals, where they lost, of course, to the San Antonio Spurs. But, that loss really didn’t hurt that much – we had LeBron, things were only going to get better.

After several seasons of not being able to advance back to the finals, things were getting dicey for the Cavs and LeBron’s mounting frustration with the organization’s inability to surround him with enough talent was beginning to make everyone in Cleveland nervous. LeBron couldn’t leave, right? In the summer of 2010, LeBron made an hour-long special on ESPN, all to tell the obsequious Jim Gray, who was “interviewing” him, that he was “taking his talents to South Beach” (forever known as “The Decision”). Cleveland was crushed.

There are many, many Cleveland fans who regret their behavior and the things they said about LeBron after The Decision and during his years with Heat. Some burned his jersey. Others tried to convince themselves he was overrated (definitely me for the first two years he was gone). In the end, though, it was obvious to everyone: we lost the best player in the world, maybe ever. How could we ever overcome that loss?

But, miraculously, LeBron returned in the summer of 2014 after going to the finals four straight years with the Miami Heat. He came home as a champion and rallied us all back when he told in the pages of Sports Illustrated: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”

All of that melodrama with LeBron led to the most precious, important, historic moment in Cleveland sports history: the Cavs 2016 championship. After losing to the formidable and hated Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA finals, the Cavs found themselves facing a 3-1 deficit to those same Warriors in the 2016 finals. Then LeBron went nuclear. The next three games were something out of a fever dream. LeBron scored 41 in game 5, 41 in game 6, and notched a triple double in the closing stand to put Cleveland over the top.

As long as I live, I will never forget LeBron’s block on Andre Iguadola with less than two minutes to go in game 7 of the 2016 NBA finals. With Iguadola about to drop in a layup to put the Warriors up two with less than two minutes to go, LeBron made the most defining play of his career: With the perfect combination of timing, superhero athleticism, and unadulterated power, LeBron locked on to the ball like precision-guided missile and smashed the layup attempt into the glass (forever known as “The Block”). The Cavs would go on to win the game, becoming the only team to ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals. If it wasn’t for The Decision, we wouldn’t have had The Block and it would have never been so sweet.

I watched that game from rooftop of the 9 Cleveland Hotel and got to take in the city in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 championship. Walking the streets afterward, I’d never seen so many people so happy at once, as random strangers hugged and slapped backs for blocks and blocks. Everyone let out a collective breath of relief and the curse was broken.

I’d like to say it ended there and it felt like the losses would stop. But, then the CPBT had its 2016 and 2017 post-season collapses and the Browns look as pathetic and sad as ever, losing 23 of their last 24 games. With Cleveland, the losses just seem to be so much more impactful. It’s not just run of the mill futility with regular losses piled on top of another over the years – of course, there’s plenty of that too. These are devastating losses: We lost our football team, the World Series twice in three years, the best basketball player in the world.

[Cleveland vs. LA], December 24, 1950, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
After The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move and The Decision and all of the tragedies foisted upon Cleveland fans by the CPBT, it’s fair to ask why Cleveland fans keep coming back? In some weird way, sports have long been a bellwether for the city; the losses are just part of a life in Cleveland. For me, the collective resolve was its own sort of victory, as I experienced so many of those losses with my family and friends. Maybe we almost never won, but at least we all went through it together.

With the NBA season just underway, and a more realistic shot at a championship than in most years for most Cleveland teams, Clevelanders stare into a deeply uncertain future. LeBron remains at his peak; after 15 seasons in the league he’s still regarded as the game’s best. But, at the end of this season, LeBron will once again have to make a decision as he enters free agency. Will Cleveland lose again?

Photo at top: Cleveland Stadium, April 6, 1931, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Adam Gallagher is a writer and editor, who was born in and lived throughout Northeast Ohio. His writing on foreign policy, politics and sports has appeared in The Hill, The American Prospect, The Huffington Post, World Politics Review, The National Interest, The Progressive, The Diplomat, International Policy Digest, Tropics of Meta and for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @aegallagher10.

“On the cusp of cool”?: The Problematic Nature of Rust Belt Narratives in Two New Histories on Cleveland

“[Cleveland, a city] of nearly 400,000 residents is where millennial boomerangs are returning and transplants are arriving, bringing with them big ideas,” Fran Golden wrote in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year.   “Count me among the most surprised to see amazing stuff happening in the Rust Belt.” For much of the late twentieth century, Cleveland and its Rust Belt peers, functioned almost as a synecdoche for deindustrialization and urban decay. However, as noted by the L.A. Times headline, “Cleveland, once called the ‘mistake on the lake’ is on the cusp of cool”, hope is in the air and as evidenced by two new works on Cleveland so is historical scholarship.

Yet, the way writers like Golden speak about places like Cleveland betrays a set of tropes too often employed by those trying to grasp the region that often grates locals and longtime residents. One can hear this frustration across the Rust Belt in Cleveland and beyond. On their 2014 album “Under Color of Official Right,” the postpunk house band for Detroit, Protomartyr, mocked the media narrative of a Motor City revival and redemption led by the coastal creative classes. “Have you heard the bad news, we’ve been saved by both coasts, a bag of snakes with heads of gas, the complicated hair cuts ride in on white asses.” Lead singer Joe Casey dryly comments on this apparent hipster utopia/dystopia, “Count their money with broken arms, come as friends, are you ready to be capitalized?”

In its own way, the band’s commentary serves as short hand for the worries of urban and planning historians concerned about overly simplistic narrative arcs. Too often cities are framed like VH1 Behind the Music episodes, hitting the routine beats of nostalgic origin story, bitter collapse, and promising second act renewal. As band members attest, they never left Detroit and it never left them; to those who stayed, the promises of urban salvation–whether by “Pure Michigan” tourism campaigns, investment by the likes of Cleveland Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, or Portlandesque twenty-somethings with impeccable taste in urban farming–ring false. With the Amazon sweepstakes at play, now might be a perfect time to reconsider how these narratives influence policies, perceptions, and life on the ground and how two historians poke and pull at the various loose threads emanating from them.

One could argue, with admittedly a bit more complexity, that urban historians have been struggling with this dynamic for some time. Stories of ascension and declension obscure as much as they reveal. “[N]arratives of urban death are unfair – both to thriving neighborhoods such as Detroit’s Mexicantown and, more generally, to the millions of people who remain in shrinking cities,” Andrew Highsmith wrote in a 2011 Journal of Urban History review essay. “Cities are immortal geographic and political constructs. Even if they could die, though, recent experience suggests that civic boosters rarely abandon their chosen cities.”[1]

Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, Wilber Henry Adams, c. 1930, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Granted a certain irony exists in deploying a Detroit band as a means to open a discussion about Cleveland and urban history narratives, but one might argue it represents the sort of pessimistic humor at the heart of J. Mark Souther’s Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation. According to Souther, residents and boosters of “America’s North Coast,” working class laborers and white-collar elites alike fell victim to a similar dark humor, even amidst outwardly positive rhetoric and ambitious urban renewal projects. “Perhaps some truly believed that downtown Cleveland might continue on the path it had taken during its initial half century rise, but many more said what they were expected to say publicly while expressing serious concerns behind the scenes,” writes Souther.[2]

Not everyone signed on for or even faked knee-jerk boosterism; local journalist George E. Condon, for example, rejected publicity campaigns like “Cleveland: The Best Things in Life are Here” or “The Best Location in the Nation” as “braggadocio” that both annoyed locals disappointed by the tendency to pitch said efforts to higher income populations and also set falsely high hopes for visitors. One Shaker Heights resident commented acidly, “Anyone dumb enough to believe that ‘the best things in life are right here in Cleveland’ deserves to breathe Cleveland’s air and live in Cleveland’s filth.”[3] In general by focusing on these sorts of interactions between resident and booster, Souther seeks to complicate “rise and fall” narratives so often attached to Rust Belt metropolises.

Todd Michney also engages Highsmith’s argument in his most recent work on Cleveland, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980. In Surrogate Suburbs, Michney explores black agency by studying how African Americans staked their claim to homeownership in Cleveland’s outer neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs. Offering a “less pessimistic perspective on the postwar city,” one that eschews rote histories of urban decay and deterioration that often overemphasize black victimhood, the Georgia Tech professor highlights how even during some of the city’s tougher moments, residents battled for better lives and homes.[4] Inequalities no doubt existed and weighed heavily on the prospects of minority homeowners but so too did creative resistance.

As we noted in our bibliography for “The Forest City,” despite the attention paid to Rust Belt counterparts like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and others, historians have not delved into Cleveland’s history to the extent they have others. Taken together, Michney and Souther both situate Cleveland in these discussions, but, like many of their peers, they attempt to complicate the discourse that scholars like Arnold Hirsch, Robert Caro, and Tom Sugrue critically put forth in earlier decades. Additionally, since Souther and Michney focus on very different aspects of the city’s twentieth century history, interested parties would do well to read both as means to grasp at the city’s attempts to “manage decline,” as Souther argues, but also to examine how those who remained in the city—in Michney’s case, African Americans and ethnic whites—negotiated the difficulties of structural racism in housing markets and the deleterious effects of urban renewal.

The “old” economy, Cleveland, Ohio, Thomas J. O’Halloran, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Management of Decline

First one needs the broad outlines of Cleveland’s economic and demographic state in the ensuing decades that followed World War II. During the 1950s, labor opportunities largely absconded for the suburbs and Sunbelt. From 1953 to 1958, Cuyahoga and Lake Counties shed 68,000 manufacturing jobs. Census figures also shifted. From 1950 to 1965, the city’s black population almost doubled to 279,352 as 128,000 African Americans migrated from the South. At the same time, 242,000 white residents decamped from the city; these countervailing population flows drove the proportion of the city’s black population to nearly 35 per cent.[5] As in many cities of the time, industry retreated and tax revenue shrunk just as a population looking for work and in need of municipal services arrived. Things did not necessarily improve. During the 1970s, Cleveland’s population shrunk by almost 24 per cent; the five county metropolitan area lost 6.3 per cent of its residents, the first time it did so in its history.[6] From the early 1980s to the mid-2000s, the “metro area hemorrhaged” over 40 per cent of its industrial jobs; while gains in health care made up for some of the loss, overall job creation remained well below the national average during the same period.[7]

As with cities from Los Angeles to New York, beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s downtown retail struggled. Municipal, business, and civic leaders sought to staunch the out-migration of industry while encouraging investment in the city, especially downtown, hence Souther’s account of the countless attempts to rebrand and resell Cleveland to the nation and to some extent to the city itself. The aforementioned Condon, who functions like a dissident Greek Chorus throughout Souther’s account, summarized these efforts in his usual style. “The curious thing about Cleveland is that the more plans are devised to make it more interesting the more it stays the same,” he argued. “No city in America has undergone such close scrutiny by so many planners for so many dollars for so few results.”[8]

This dynamic between city boosters and residents, witness to the various efforts made by the municipality to reassert Cleveland’s Midwestern dominance, serves as Souther’s main focus. “Long before urban image became unhinged from the specific symptoms of urban crisis and morphed into almost a self driven obsession with reversing decline, it served as a rationale for promoting development that would maintain growth,” Souther writes. Indeed, in Believing in Cleveland Souther swaps declension narratives for a different approach, one in which boosters, government, and residents attempted to maintain positivity and move forward in the face of economic and demographic challenges, often to no avail.

As one draws on out-of-town bands to frame a discussion of Cleveland, so too did boosters draw upon outside examples to promote development. For example, Cleveland’s political, economic, and civic leaders advertised the potential construction of a subway system as a means to recreate the Chicago Loop; likewise the Erieview project, the largest downtown urban renewal project of its day, drew comparisons with Rockefeller Center, the Ohio City Renaissance on the city’s West Side was equated with New York City’s Central Park West, and the Cleveland Development Foundation (CDF) modeled its mission on the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD). Even in its efforts at rebirth, Cleveland seemed constrained by promotional and development boundaries established by other metropolises.

Chester Beach’s 1927 “Fountain of the Waters” in University Circle at the entrance to Cleveland, Ohio’s, Cleveland Museum of Art, Carol M. Highsmith, 2016, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Unfortunately, most of these efforts foundered. The CDF struggled with internal fissures and never matched the cohesiveness of the ACCD. The subway failed to achieve public support not once, but twice. In the case of Erieview, the project came to fruition much more slowly and with less success than boosters promoted. Ohio City did succeed by some measures emerging as an attractive housing option in league with Shaker Heights, Lakewood, Rocky River, and Chagrin Falls. Still, the Near West Side neighborhood lost 34 per cent of its population in the 1970s and depended on a ginned up “historical authenticity” related to the city’s legacy of white ethnic settlement.[9]

Not every effort was for naught. As part of his Cleveland NOW! initiative Mayor Carl Stokes delivered more than 4,600 units of new housing, though roughly half were public housing units that were in the works before he ascended to the mayoralty. Moreover, Stokes literally lit up the city with a revival of earlier mayoral plans to improve the city’s streetlights. “We determined that we wanted to change all these lights because this was something visual” that enabled residents to see a physical manifestation of their tax dollars while also improving security, noted the city’s utilities director. “The relighting bolstered public confidence, burnished Stokes’s image, and provided bragging rights in a city that had had few new superlatives,” Souther points out.[10] The revival of Playhouse Square—home to five theaters, which when combined amounted to 12,000 seats—as a cultural attraction also enjoyed modest success. Over time the waterfront area known as the Flats would also develop but much more slowly than municipal leaders had hoped.

New Homeowners Amidst Cleveland’s Struggles

Glenville High School, c. 1913, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Predictably, urban renewal and development in Cleveland hinged on race. Efforts to reshape the city focused on its East Side, where racial transition and the desire to contain integration held sway. Todd Michney documents what this meant for African American residents in his 2017 work, Surrogate Suburbs. Invoking Andrew Wiese, Michney explores the ways in which black Clevelanders secured housing in an era dominated by structural and individual racism. Rather than highlight victimization, which Michney and others argue has been the focus of too much urban housing literature, Michney emphasizes the responses by black residents, particularly those hoping to settle down in more suburban environments. The communities of Mount Pleasant, Glenville, Lee-Seville, and West Park (to a lesser extent than these other examples) serve as his main focus, sometimes juxtaposed with the harder scrabble, inner city neighborhoods of Cedar Central and Hough. As with Wiese’s Places of Their Own (2005), Michney explores how largely middle and working class Africans Americans sought to cement homeownership and, to some extent, suburban status in outlying Cleveland neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs.

One of the more provocative arguments presented by Michney regards urban history’s intellectual forbearers, Arnold Hirsch and Thomas Sugrue, and their evaluation of black struggles for housing. “This historiography,” argues Michney, “has fallen short in underestimating black agency, the ability of African Americans–and especially those with comparatively greater economic resources–to push against and reshape manifold barriers placed in their way.”[11] The Cleveland’s of the world, and their black middle class inhabitants, have been largely ignored.

To Andrew Highsmith’s point about ignoring longstanding urban populations with declension models, Michney’s work attempts to address this both in terms of race and class. He juxtaposes the unfolding demographic change in more working class Mount Pleasant and its slightly better off counterpart, Glenville. “During and after World War II, Mount Pleasant in the southeast and Glenville in the northeast would emerge as black middle class strongholds where families achieved homeownership at levels far surpassing the black average,” notes Michney. In the book’s early chapters, he documents how the varying ethnic and class composition of each affected neighborhood transition.[12]

Urban Renewal in Cleveland, Ohio, Thomas J. O’Halloran, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In the process of exploring efforts by Cleveland’s black middle class to gain a foothold outside the lines of FHA/HOLC inspired segregation, Michney highlights relations between the city’s white ethnic population and their growing numbers of black neighbors. Jewish Cleveland in particular played a large role in this regard and though self-interest exerted an influence over the actions taken by Jewish homeowners in the city. Michney suggests that due to the dynamics between the two communities, housing integration in Cleveland lacked the kind of violence found in Chicago and elsewhere.

What explains relationship between Cleveland’s Jewish and black populations? According to Michney, early contact between black and Jewish homeowners established some familiarity at the turn of the century. Relatively, close proximity during these years between blacks, Jews, Italians, and Slavs in Cleveland perhaps helped to reduce later frictions or at least blunt violence. Jewish Cleveland, though undoubtedly hostile in moments, also made efforts through the formation of interracial community organizations to maintain neighborhood stability in Mount Pleasant and Glenville. While some Jewish homeowners attempted to enforce housing covenants prohibiting sale to prospective African American buyers, many others chose to take advantage of market dynamics and sell at higher profits, a point a 1939 HOLC study lamented: “Jewish occupants in [Glenville] have not been unwilling to sell to colored.” [13]

West Side Market, Cleveland, Ohio – front corner view, showing tower, 1919, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In contrast, Catholics demonstrated greater zeal in preventing black homeownership. Expressing more hostility and engaging in vandalism, Catholic Cleveland proved more aggressive and outspoken in its racism. They resisted joining interracial community groups aimed at managing racial transition and generally resisted encroachment by minority homeowners, possibly in the name of defending local parishes, which as historians have noted did not move with Catholic populations like other Christian sects.[14] Nonetheless, though blacks were hardly welcomed with open arms by their white neighbors and moments of real conflict emerged and persisted, overall Cleveland residents worked to blunt the worst aspects of housing integration seen in other cities.

To this point, significant portions of white Cleveland recognized differences between race and class. As middle class blacks purchased new and better housing in Glenville and Mount Pleasant in the late 1940s and early 1950s, some white residents admitted that their new middle class neighbors demonstrated better care for their homes and community than previous working class white homeowners. “Glenville’s Negroes are better than [hillbilly] white trash,” one white resident told interviewers. “I wouldn’t want white or colored trash as neighbors,” commented a second white homeowner.[15]

In Glenville and some other communities, whites did not necessarily equate black residence with deterioration, rather they often attributed housing conversions or decline to particular members of the community instead of to the whole. Even with such understandings, blacks witnessed a certain level of social distancing between themselves and their new white neighbors. “The Jews were here first, but they seem to be running from us now,” one black interviewee noted. Some black homeowners even pointed out that burgeoning friendships with whites really wasn’t a central concern: “The white man needs to learn that the Negro believes in the right to choose one’s own associates, but being good neighbors and citizens does not demand that you become a personal friend.”[16] One white Lee-Harvard resident captured the general attitudes of even more “progressive” homeowners: “We wanted to be friendly and democratic with the Negro but when it’s a case of children not having [any] white friends, you think twice about remaining in such an area,” explained one resident about to leave the city for the suburbs.[17]

Due to the structural racism of the housing market, African Americans often paid more for less; limited stock meant many had to settle for older houses with greater maintenance requirements. With so many communities off limits to black homeowners, competition for housing in places like Lee-Harvard led to higher prices for buyers and better profits for sellers. “I know my house is not worth more than $25,000,” noted one white homeowner, “but if I have to sell to a Negro, I’m going to get $30,000.”[18] The segregated market, however, giveth and it taketh away; white homeowners might have exploited such conditions for profit, but it also drove up prices in other city neighborhoods and the suburbs. [I]nstead of blaming the segregated, ‘dual’ housing market for erratic prices, they saved their ire for the incoming black residents,” observes Michney.[19] Much as David Freund has noted in his own work, white homeowners naturalized the benefits of structural racism, unable or unwilling to see how it shaped their lives for the better and penalized their black counterparts.

Cleveland, Ohio. Heart of downtown Cleveland and Union Terminal group, 1951, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One of the more interesting discussions in Surrogate Suburbs focuses on the role of black real estate agents. Blockbusting proved a divisive practice that garnered criticism from whites and blacks. In Cleveland, the Urban League pleaded with brokers to follow a code of sales conduct. Yet acknowledging the reality of the housing market placed their actions in context. The Call and Post critiqued the practice but also noted that it proved a symptom of larger malady: “any real onus for its existence must be placed squarely in the laps of the forces that created it … ‘Blockbusting’ hurts nobody as much as it does the poor devil who is forced to pay through the nose for the dubious advantage of occupying a white family’s second hand house.”[20] Whatever reservations one held regarding black real estate agents who engaged in blockbusting, their efforts, arguably manipulative and exploitive in moments, the practice did eventually open up whole neighborhoods to African American homeowners.

Andrew Wiese made similar arguments in Places of Their Own. Wiese found that black real estate agents openly advertised their efforts to integrate communities. Bringing racial transition to a formerly segregated community served as a “source of special pride in Realists’ efforts to expand the African American housing market.”[21] Black brokers saw “race progress” as a “class responsibility.” Of course, the question follows, how much of this was about racial progress? How much was an advertising ploy? And to what extent did this victimize black homeowners? Definitive answers to these questions remain debatable but Michney captures these sorts of processes and their meaning to white and black residents of Cleveland during this era, exactly the sort of stories ignored by rise-and-fall narratives that paint real estate brokers as inherently compromised.

Michney brings into focus the complexities that emerged between populations obscured or ignored by urban declension narratives, but that continued to occupy and shape the city. In such instances, Souther and Michney are in direct dialogue. Along with those cases of white resistance, Michney details the community organizations formed by white ethnics and blacks to help smooth neighborhood transition. In comparison, Souther discusses the pessimism expressed by these same communities toward the various urban renewal and economic development plans enacted by the city. Though the Ohio City Restoration Plan hinged on selling and idealized the city’s white ethnic past to investors and the public, ward representatives and residents articulated doubts about the viability of such efforts.

In addition to historians already mentioned, one catches glimpses of others. Michney mentions the toil of blacks who built their own homes or hired African American contractors to do so during the 1920s, much as Becky Nicolaides demonstrated the same of working class whites in the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate. John Teaford enjoys nearly a half dozen references by Souther, who draws upon the professor emeritus to frame Cleveland’s economic and political straights. This is to say nothing of the new cohort of Rust Belt historians mentioned in our bibliography earlier this month, including Tracy Neumann, Patrick Vitale, and Suleiman Osman, among others.

Cleveland, Ohio, 'Flats' District
Flats District of Cleveland, Ohio, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980-2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ultimately the combination of the two books enables readers to, on the one hand, understand the kind of urban renewal efforts and publicity campaigns underway in post World War II Cleveland, and on the other, to confront the stories of those communities who remained in “The Mistake on the Lake” and the frictions that defined life there. To paraphrase a famous musician, looking back near the end of one’s life our personal histories read like a perfectly written novel, but the fact is no one’s life unfolds in such a manner. We apply a narrative later; the messiness of living defines who we are at the end, but it’s a well-crafted story by then and not necessarily accurate. In the end, cities persist long after we are gone, but the lived experiences of those inhabiting them form the material for historical narratives. Indeed, cities are immortal but, in their own way, so too are the lives that form the spine of urban spaces and culture—not least of all Cleveland. We choose narratives; Michney and Souther tell a story that reimagines the ones we have told ourselves about urban America.


[1] Andrew R. Highsmith, “Decline and Renewal in North American Cities”, Journal of Urban History, 37.4 (2011): 619, 625.

[2] J. Mark Souther, Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation, (Temple University Press, 2017), 19.

[3] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 174.

[4] Todd Michney, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980, (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 4.

[5] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 83-84.

[6] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 181-182.

[7] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 201.

[8] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 136.

[9] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 167-168.

[10] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 104-05, 118.

[11] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 257.

[12] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 21.

[13] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 21-22, 38-41.

[14] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 96.

[15] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 90.

[16] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 91.

[17] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 170.

[18] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 171.

[19] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 172.

[20] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 190.

[21] Andrew Weise, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, (University of Chicago Press, 2005), 133.

Doing Urban History in Cleveland: A Personal Reflection


St Patricks Day 1988
The author with friends on Cleveland’s Public Square, St. Patrick’s Day 1988.  Courtesy of Coventry Village Reunion (Facebook Group); Photo above: Cleveland Municipal Stadium, postcard, ca. 1940. Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project.

By Todd Michney

As for my earliest Cleveland memory, I am unsure, but riding the RTA’s Red Line Rapid Transit to the old Municipal Stadium for baseball games toward the end of the 1970s is one that certainly stands out. Initiated in 1928 when Cleveland still ranked as the country’s fifth-largest city, the facility in its twilight years felt cavernous with the fans coming nowhere close to filling its near 80,000-seat capacity.

Terminal Tower Christmas
Higbee’s Christmas Tree in lobby of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, 1968. Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project.

Another is the Terminal Tower in all its Art Deco grandeur – once the city’s main train station, and until 1964 the tallest skyscraper outside New York City. Its observation floor was regularly open then, and I can still faintly resolve the urban vista I spied through those windows as a child. Or Gordon Park – founded at the turn of the twentieth century, and as I experienced it, a place where my father sometimes played in softball tournaments. I would later discover that the park was a site of sporadic racial conflicts over beach access in the 1930s and 1940s. It was to Gordon Park that I went even earlier, on one of the in-state field trips that the Cleveland Public Schools authorized under the auspices of some Nixon-era federal program, in tow with my father and his students from Harry E. Davis Junior High School on a visit to the city’s aquarium formerly housed there. The sight of Lake Erie’s vast expanse on that occasion, probably for the first time, may actually be my earliest Cleveland memory.

When my parents met there in the late 1960s, just out of college, Cleveland was about to elect Carl B. Stokes as the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city; although civic leaders in the 1950s had burnished a somewhat exaggerated reputation for good race relations, Stokes was elected in the hopes of quelling the discontent exposed by the 1966 Hough Riots.

Mayor Stokes Edgewater Beach
Mayor Carl B. Stokes with kids at Edgewater Park Beach, 1969. Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project.

In a seminar convened this past summer to commemorate the semicentennial of his landmark victory, I had a particularly poignant opportunity to contemplate Cleveland’s changes in my lifetime, against the backdrop of my book research on its African American middle class over the course of the twentieth century. As David Stradling has shown, the city’s reputation took a hit as the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire coincided with a rising environmental consciousness; however, Cleveland was still a decade away from receiving its notorious moniker, “The Mistake on the Lake.” Even as the city hit its population peak of almost one million in 1950, the shrinking heavy industrial base was already a cause for worry, as discussed by J. Mark Souther. I experienced this contraction when in the late 1970s my paternal uncles lost jobs at factories like White Motors and LTV Steel. For working-class African Americans, it proved even tougher. In Cleveland just like in Detroit, they had been forced to confront rising unemployment from deindustrialization much earlier. Along with other suburban adolescents attracted to the local punk rock music scene in the late 1980s, I approached the city and metro area’s declining population with a sense of adventure as I made trips to explore downtown spaces like the Old Arcade, a precursor to the modern shopping mall built in 1890 with considerable buy-in from Cleveland’s most famous citizen at the time, John D. Rockefeller.

Old Arcade
Old arcade, postcard, ca. 1900. Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project.

Like many other historians, I was motivated to choose a dissertation/book topic relating to my own personal background. But for those of us who make this choice, at what point does the intense familiarity with (and affection for) one’s hometown stop, and scholarly interest begin? How does one articulate the significance of such overlooked places to a broader audience – or, as I have been asked on more than one occasion: “Why should we care about Cleveland history?” For me, this question has become even more perplexing with the rise of “Rust Belt Chic,” a term Richey Piiparinen credits to Joyce Brabner, life partner to the late Clevelander and comics legend Harvey Pekar.[1] Explored in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology – first published in 2012 by Anne Trubek, who went on to found Belt Magazine the following year – the concept represents a wry effort to reappropriate and shape the urban image of Great Lakes postindustrial cities amid increased attention from East and West Coast culturati, most recently on the occasion of Cleveland’s hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention.

I grounded an argument for Cleveland’s significance not just in its past prominence among U.S. cities and its significance as a Great Migration destination for African Americans, but by comparing its patterns of racial encounter with those in nearby Chicago and Detroit. Inspired by the work of Arnold Hirsch and Thomas Sugrue, among others, I nonetheless became dissatisfied with the applicability of Hirsch’s “second ghetto” concept[2] for the black middle class neighborhoods I studied, ultimately coming to believe that “surrogate suburbs” served as a better descriptor for these outer-city spaces and their residents’ ability to find creative workarounds in facing structural racism. I found that there was some truth behind Cleveland’s reputation for a more proactive approach to racial conflict during the 1950s – at least compared to Chicago and Detroit – but that an even more important factor was the disproportionate prominence of its Jewish neighborhoods that came to serve as black middle-class expansion areas, turning over with racial tension but little in the way of violent resistance. The intertwining of Cleveland’s Jewish history and African American history comes through particularly clearly in the tour we have created in conjunction with the upcoming SACRPH conference, which traces the outward geographic mobility of black families from peripheral city neighborhoods to suburbs like Shaker Heights.

Ernest Bohn
Ernest J. Bohn, 1962. Bohn simultaneously served as Director of the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA; 1933-68) and chair of the City Planning Commission (1942-66). Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project.

But Cleveland also turns out to be an incredibly well-documented city, as I began to realize in my first post-college job as a book page at the Western Reserve Historical Society, which is still the most important manuscript repository among all the city’s archives. Already as an undergraduate, I had encountered the voluminous personal papers of CMHA’s nationally-prominent head Ernest J. Bohn, nicknamed “Mr. Public Housing,” as a summer intern at Case Western Reserve University Library’s Special Collections. Later I discovered the Cleveland Press “morgue” at Cleveland State University (CSU) Special Collections, essentially the entire clippings files and photograph collection of the city’s once-leading daily newspaper that closed up shop in 1982. As I delved deeper and the dissertation morphed into a book project, I visited the invaluable Public Administration Library in City Hall, the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland Archives, the Cuyahoga County Archives and Recorder’s Office, and the often-overlooked Cleveland City Council Archives where materials are organized in a seemingly arcane fashion, according to the relevant ordinance.

The more obscure among these resources are obviously not where the novice or weekend conference-goer should begin. However, significant among all the changes I’ve seen in Cleveland over the last two decades is a growing consciousness of local history and the increasing availability of digital resources. Among the best places to start are the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, which originally debuted in 1987 in print form, as the first such reference work on an American city; and Cleveland Historical, a website and mobile phone app created by CSU’s Center for Public History + Digital Humanities. CSU’s Michael Schwartz Library has also developed the Cleveland Memory Project, containing thousands of maps as well as images from the aforementioned Cleveland Press collection; the Cleveland Public Library’s Digital Gallery also contains photographs, among other resources. An outstanding blog and research clearinghouse worth mentioning is Teaching Cleveland Digital. If you’re on Twitter, you could consider following This Was Cleveland, the most active of about a dozen similarly-themed accounts I’ve found. In any case, I hope to see you in Cleveland sometime, and that whether you come on a conference or a research visit, you have an enjoyable and rewarding stay.

Michney_1Todd M. Michney teaches in the School of History and Sociology at the Georgia Institute of Technology and is the author of Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). He is a current UHA board member and is the U.S. Articles bibliographer for the Urban History Newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter @ToddMichney.

[1] Richey Piiparinen, “Anorexic Vampires, Cleveland Veins: The Story of Rust Belt Chic,” in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, ed. Richey Piiparinen and Anne Trubek, 2nd ed. (Cleveland: Belt Publishing, 2014), 26.

[2] Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960, reprint ed. with a new forward (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).