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

By Meredith Drake Reitan, MPL, PhD

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

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size and proximity to City Hall made it a target for redevelopment and many city leaders supported demolition of the “outdated” and “inefficient” building.[1] The city’s goal for the site was to consolidate departments scattered around the downtown area and to reduce the amount spent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

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

DSCF0725
Figure 1: With its imposing front façade, the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters was designed by Welton Becket and J.E. Stanton and completed in 1955. The original landscape was created by Ralph E. Cornell. The building was posthumously dedicated to Police Chief William H. Parker in 1969. Photo by author, July 2017.

Parker Center as Scar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chief Parker Divides the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future of the Parker Center Site

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

1ST ST AND SAN PEDRO ST
Figure 3: Parker Center occupies an entire city block bounded by First, Los Angeles, San Pedro and Temple Streets in the Los Angeles civic center area. It replaced a once vibrant mix of houses, businesses, cultural and social institutions. Photo taken at First and San Pedro Streets in 1947. The tower of Los Angeles’ City Hall is visible in the background. Miyatake Family Private Collection, Bronzeville – Little Tokyo, Los Angeles Website. Available http://www.bronzeville-la.com/displayimage.php?pos=-4. Accessed July 19, 2017

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

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

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

 

MDR
Photo by Steve Cohn

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleveland, Carl Stokes, and Commemorating a Historic Election

By Avigail Oren

On November 7, 1967, the citizens of Cleveland elected Carl B. Stokes mayor. Stokes became the first black mayor of a major American city, a considerable feat in a majority-white metropolis. During his two terms as mayor, from 1968-1972, Stokes represented all Clevelanders and sought to universally improve the city’s neighborhoods, while simultaneously attending to issues of civil rights, economic justice, and police brutality.

This year, the 50th anniversary of Stokes’ election, Cuyahoga Community College’s Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Humanities Center has organized a yearlong community initiative to commemorate the contribution of Mayor Carl Stokes and his brother, Congressman Louis Stokes, to the city. As one part of the multifaceted programming being offered during the Stokes: Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future commemoration, Urban History Association member Todd Michney, Assistant Professor in the School of History and Sociology at Georgia Tech, led a one-week seminar sponsored by Case Western Reserve University’s Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative. During the second week of July, twelve faculty, instructors, and graduate students from Case Western Reserve (CWRU) and Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) joined Michney for “Carl B. Stokes and Black Political Power in Cleveland: A 50-Year Retrospective.”

On July 12, I drove up from Pittsburgh to observe the seminar and interview participants. After seeing the call for applications circulating through the UHA network a few months earlier I had become intrigued by the topic and the concept: to teach instructors about this history so they could convey it to their students. Having lived only a two-hour drive from Cleveland for the past six years, and, even more embarrassingly, having written a bit in my dissertation about the city’s Jewish community during the urban crisis, I knew nothing of Carl Stokes and his mayoral administration.

The goal of the seminar, in fact, was to promote more teaching of the Stokes brothers’ legacy within CWRU and Tri-C classrooms and, consequently, to encourage conversations amongst undergraduates about the connections between Cleveland’s present issues and past struggles. “Coincidentally, or maybe not,” Michney noted, “Stokes’ legacy seems relevant today.” Civil Rights and police reform are still major issues in Cleveland in 2017 despite that Stokes “strongly attempted to reform the Cleveland police department, which was engaged in all kinds of intimidation, brutality, and deaths of people in custody.” Thus the aim of the seminar in particular and the Stokes commemoration more generally has been to revive Clevelanders’ memory of Carl Stokes’ struggle for racial and social justice and to trace how his contributions continue to influence the present fight for a better Cleveland.

Several participants in the seminar were motivated to apply when they realized that they knew so little about such an influential political figure and period in Cleveland’s history. The seminar appealed to Cara Byrne, a lecturer in the Department of English at CWRU, “because I saw a deficit in my knowledge of Cleveland and of African American political figures who shaped the city.” Brian Clites, who teaches in the department of Religious Studies at CWRU and is a recent transplant to Cleveland, applied for the seminar to better familiarize himself with the city’s history. He recalled that when he received the announcement of the seminar, he realized “I never read about Cleveland when preparing for my exams,” and that “so much of [urban religious history] is told through the lens of big cities.”

Teaching inspired other participants to apply for the seminar. “Because Tri-C has spearheaded [Stokes: Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future],” Trista Powers, Assistant Professor of English at Cuyahoga Community College explained, “colleagues approached me last year and said, why don’t we as faculty collaborate and introduce this content within our classes in our respective disciplines?” The seminar thus presented a timely opportunity to read, learn, and discuss Stokes and his mayoral administration. “I am actually going to be creating a classroom curriculum completely predicated on teaching about the Stokes brothers, particularly Carl Stokes,” Powers told me, “because I teach college composition at Tri-C and part of my pedagogy is I try to incorporate really specific topics as part of the underpinning of the course, and this is an area that has been an interest of mine for such a long time.” For Powers, the seminar “was a perfect fit for me, perfect timing.”

Elise Hagisfeld, a doctoral candidate in history at CWRU and a graduate instructor, likewise saw the seminar as an opportunity to develop new course material. As a historian of philanthropy and foundations and a Cleveland native, Hagisfeld found Stokes’ Cleveland: NOW! Project—a public-private partnership to fund community-based efforts to revitalize the city—particularly fascinating. “I’m looking at ways to take this information and use it in a course that I’m teaching in the fall on Introduction to Nonprofit Organizations,” Hagisfeld explained, in order to “help students who are studying in Cleveland learn about where they are and how philanthropy and nonprofit organizations and civic leadership and business interests in the city have worked together—sometimes not so successfully—in the past.”

Cleveland: NOW! initially met its fundraising goals, but faltered after the 1968 Glenville shootout revealed enduring antagonism between the city’s black communities and its white police force and consequently punctured white Clevelanders’ belief in the possibility of racial reconciliation. For Hagisfeld, this makes it an especially valuable case study. “I think it’s … important to recognize [that] there’s a lot of celebration around those kind of public-private partnership successes,” she noted, “and there is a lot of silence around public-private partnership failures. And I think it’s just a fabulous point to study.”

On the day I attended the seminar, I entered the Baker-Nord Center’s conference room in the midst of the discussion and quietly found a seat alongside a wall of windows. The twelve participants sat around a large table in the middle of the room, the tabletop covered with books and laptops and coffee cups, framed by the immense and ornately carved light wood mantle of the fireplace behind them. Despite the group having met for the first time only days before, the conversation flowed easily as participants passed ideas amongst themselves.

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The topic of discussion that afternoon was “Black Political Power in Action: Carl Stokes’ Mayoral Administration.” Stokes gained the support of Cleveland’s white elite after the Hough Riots of 1966, when confrontations between black Clevelanders, white vigilantes, the police force, and 2,200 national guardsman over six nights in July left four dead, 30 injured, and 300 arrested. The city’s businessmen, in particular, hoped that Stokes could heal the city’s racial divisions and prevent future outbreaks of violence, which were costly to Cleveland’s economy. Bolstered by white votes, Stokes was elected to administer an institutionally racist government structure; he entered office with a mandate from his black voters to reform a municipality and a police department that were resistant to change. With little time and few resources, Stokes set about trying to change the people in power. In addition to hiring more black community members into government positions, Stokes also sought to change the perceptions of people in power. Particularly with career policemen, Stokes emphasized the sociological context of the neighborhoods and communities that gave rise to the Hough riots (and later, to the ’68 Glenville Riot). “The more I read about him,” one participant shared, “the more appreciation I have for what he was able to accomplish with so little.”

These efforts always required striking a delicate political balance, to maintain the support of both white elites and the black community. Stokes faced criticism from both sides, from white elites who were disappointed that he could not easily solve race relations and prevent more rioting and from Black Power activists who did not believe the mayor was doing enough to serve black interests. Conversation amongst the seminar participants centered on how Stokes’ experience was emblematic of black people who try to lead and have to fight for legitimacy, requiring them to project a non-threating confidence.

The seminar participants who identify as people of color related very personally to this aspect of Stokes’ legacy and the city’s history. As the conversation concluded, one participant confessed of the day’s material, “as a person of color, it’s traumatic.” This comment prompted the discussion to turn towards the pedagogical implications of discussing history that feels so personal to both instructor and students. “That’s what we have to remember when we take this back to our classrooms,” a participant noted, “that black proverb, ‘You have to work twice as hard [to succeed],’ it’s not just academic.” For her, Carl Stokes’ struggle to rise in politics and to improve the lives of black Clevelanders revealed how, for Stokes as well as for her students of color, the work is “also emotional and psychological.” Reflecting on this conversation afterwards, Powers added, “as a woman of color, it was hard to read about [Carl Stoke’s] challenges because some of those challenges were race-related challenges. So from that standpoint, it really struck a chord… reminding us of the level of grit and resiliency he had.”

Indeed, this is one of Michney’s take-aways for UHA members seeking to do similar seminars. “A lot of the value in this has been a meeting of the minds,” he noted, “and understanding people’s experiences.” Michney’s role as the seminar instructor provided an opportunity to review the history he knows so well from a number of new perspectives. After the day’s session, he reflected that:

It’s been a real reminder for me that, yes, I study living history and I may have grown up in this area, but I’m working with people in the seminar who have a more direct connection to the neighborhoods we’re studying. I grew up in the suburbs, they grew up in Hough, or their parents were activists with CORE. So I’m in a position to learn from them. It’s really helped to adjust and inform my own perspectives. It’s just so important to be a listener instead of a talker, and to bounce around these interpretations until they seem to be as good and useful and reflective as they can be. If they can’t be perfect they can at least resonate.

Participant Neeta Chandra, Assistant Professor of English at Tri-C, echoed this sentiment in her own reflection on the experience, agreeing that, “the personal insights, the lingering pain and agony that Blacks, and some participants were able to share by their and their family[’s] experiences were very special, disturbing and eye opening!”

Shemariah Arki—a native Clevelander and a dynamic educator, activist, organizer, and facilitator of the Women of Color series at CWRU’s Flora Stone Mater Center for Women—was one of the participants who shared personal and family stories with the group. For Arki, the seminar readings and discussions provided important context for her own family history. In the 1960s and ‘70s, her father was involved in the Black Nationalist party and her aunt helped to found the Cleveland chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). Learning about the Stokes brothers’ political careers and the history of Cleveland politics more broadly contextualized the liberation work of her family members for Arki, which made the seminar experience doubly meaningful.

Elise Hagisfeld likewise found the historical context she learned in the seminar to be emotionally fulfilling. “The ability to really study [Stokes’] election and tenure as mayor,” she reflected, “is helping me make sense out of the contemporary geography of the city, and when I say contemporary geography I mean that both physically and emotionally, the tenor of politics in the city and what’s informing debates we’re having now, and how far back those debates really go. … It’s very moving and personal to me, as a Clevelander.”

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Pedagogically, the seminar inspired participants to consider how to incorporate the Stokes legacy into their courses this fall. Erin Phelps, a doctoral student in sociology at CWRU, sees immense value for students who learn about Carl Stokes. “[H]is legacy,” she thinks, “can help youth nationally understand 1) the power of their voices, 2) the necessity of involvement in government, 3) that failures are within the recipe for success, 4) change can happen, 5) and the power of community action.” Insights like these demonstrate how the seminar will yield dividends for the commemoration. “I think increasingly people want to continue this further as they’ve become personally close,” Michney reported, and participants have discussed collaborating on classes, conferences, and the writing of a white paper. Most importantly, it has ensured that the story of the Stokes brothers will continue to be taught and remembered, and that their legacy will inform another generation of politics and reform in Cleveland.

The Cleveland Humanities Collaborative is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Avigail Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University. More of her writing can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ho Chi Minh City Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Kim, Sidewalk City, 41.

[5] Kim, Sidewalk City, 35.

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

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

[8] Kim, Sidewalk City, 48.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 49.

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

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

[13] Harms, Saigon’s Edge, 4.

Policing Chinatown: Chinese and Chinese American Adaptation in Progressive Era America

By Matthew J. Guariglia

During the nineteenth century, until the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, it is estimated that Chinese immigrants made their way to the United States by the hundreds of thousands. In 1900, 18 years after the massive restrictions led to a major decline of the U.S. Chinese population, there were around 7,000 Chinese or Chinese-descended residents of Manhattan’s Chinatown. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, which had a population of as high as 25,000 in 1890, the 1900 population now teetered at around 14,000. The decline of Chinese population, however, did not reflect in mounting municipal concerns over the threat of crime and contagion that Chinatowns posed to the sprawling cities around them. During the turn of the century, community desires to curb crime and retain the protections of the police was often complicated by the frequent brutality inflicted by police. Despite the fact that becoming more legible to the state often means becoming more susceptible to coercive mechanisms of power, collaboration between “native” police and majority-white police departments may have seemed to some upwardly and racially-mobile immigrants like an efficient way to provide police protection to a neighborhood without as much overt physical violence, though archives accessible now are filled with evidence to the contrary.

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Other scholars, particularly Nayan Shah, have done excellent work in demonstrating the coercive over-policing done by health inspectors in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but much less has been written on the ways in which municipal police departments struggled to exert control over the language and cultural barriers that seemingly shrouded Chinatown. For both San Francisco and New York City’s police departments, the confusion of white officers policing Chinese populations are well documented in police memoirs and newspaper accounts of the era. Full of vicious stereotypes and unchecked sensationalism, many in police walked Chinatown with little or no desire to understand their surroundings. “There is probably no American who does not regard the Chinese as beings dissimilar to and dissonant with himself; as a caste shut out by its fantastic personality from his sympathies and associations,” wrote former NYPD chief George Walling in 1887, before referring to the language, writing, and religion in the neighborhood as “fantastic and bewildering.”

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Chinatown, N.Y.C. – police and detectives guarding Chinatown, July 6, 1909Chinatown, N.Y.C. – police and detectives guarding Chinatown, July 6, 1909, George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One attempt at extending state control into Chinese neighborhoods came under the 1896 headline “A Queer System of Espionage in the Oriental Quarter of San Francisco.” Organized by the Merchant’s Law and Order League, six companies of Chinese police were organized who, once a week, reported directly to the China’s consul-general in San Francisco. Whenever they deemed that a Chinese San Franciscan had committed a crime severe enough, the Chinese police were dispatched to summon a member of the San Francisco police, and the offender was arrested. “When they first became active agents in the Chinese quarter,” read the San Francisco Examiner, “Chief of Police Crowley was informed of their object and told of the advantages that would accrue to the department through their services. They were consequently provided with a sort of card identification or credentials.” Although it’s unclear how long this arrangement, made between the Chinese community, the Chinese consul-general, and the SFPD, lasted, the police department did not swear in a full officer of Chinese or Chinese-descent until Herbert Lee took the oath in 1957.

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[Store front of Quong Yee Wo & Co., Chinatown, New York City], Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
The New York City Police Department, on the other hand, recruited its first Chinese police officer in 1904. Warren Charles was the son of a Chinese businessman living in Boston and a white mother from Chicago. As an informant, Charles was publicly commended for helping to “clean up Chinatown,” and for braving “hatchetmen” at the behest of the NYPD. Like many multilingual male New Yorkers who served as informants for the police department, Charles was eventually rewarded with an appointment to the force and stationed in Brooklyn. Years later, and to much fanfare, Charles was offered a spot in the Chinatown precinct, an offcer he quickly declined. Unlike other officers eager to work in their own neighborhoods, Charles wanted to escape the spectacle and tokenism he thought would follow a Chinese police officer, in uniform, policing Chinatown. “The police commissioner asked me recently if I would care to serve in Chinatown,” Charles recounted to the press, and “I told him I certainly would not. I had visions right there of camera men, reporters…There, ladies and gentlemen,” he imagined tour guides saying through a megaphone, “you observe the only Chinese policeman on the New York police force. He is working in Chinatown among his own people.” The NYPD would not get its first female Asian-American police officer until Agnes Chan was appointed in 1980.

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The morning market, Chinatown, San Francisco, CA, Arnold Genthe, between 1900 and 1920, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

While more and more scholarship is being produced that reveals the intellectual and physical labor behind U.S. state building and the increase of that state’s capability to exert power during the Progressive era, there is still much work that is yet to be done about how communities, like the residents of New York and San Francisco’s Chinatowns, chose to resist or embrace the privileges and injustices that came along with an increased ability to police the neighborhood.

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. 

The Photograph at the top of the page, ” [San Francisco Chinatown, 1895-1900(?): busy scene on commercial street]” can be found in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress.

Activism wrapped in capitalism: Josh Clark Davis on Activist Entrepreneurs in the 20th Century

“We now know that, during the Cold War, consumerism came to be increasingly tied to American citizenship in a particularly gendered form of privatization that occasionally surfaced into public politics,” noted Elaine Lewinnek in her review essay on architecture and consumerism in the July 2017 issue of the Journal of Urban History.[1] As evidenced by Lewinnek’s statement, it would be hard to deny the power of consumerism in American culture. More recently in the twenty first century, Presidents have framed consumerism as a central aspect of citizenship and a means to happiness amidst tragedy. “Get down to Disney World in Florida,” President George W. Bush told the American public after the 9/11 attacks. “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Our current president arguably occupies the White House due in large part to his success hawking what he perceives as “the good life” whether through reality TV or the odd cable shopping network; he even included a random, tone deaf plug for his winery as his disastrous August 15th press conference concluded. On the left, consumerism has no shortage of critics; Naomi Klein and Michael Moore regularly assail Corporate America.

Unsurprisingly, academics have found in consumerism a rich cultural vein from which some profound revelations about post World War II America can be extracted. Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003) remains mandatory reading for anyone studying ideas, government policies, and ideologies related to post World War II twentieth century consumerism and citizenship. Numerous other historians have contributed significantly to the discussion. Robert Weems, Lawrence Glickman, Kathy Piess, and Susan Benson serve as just four very notable examples; collectively they address class, race, and gender in America through an exploration of consumer behavior and activism.[2] One could easily add Meg Jacobs and Tracey Deutsch, who each have shared their own insights relating to “economic citizenship” particularly in regard to the government’s promotion of this idea, and its connection to gender.[3]

The study of consumerism includes the spaces that postwar shoppers inhabited. William Leach examined how business, finance, industry, and government intersected to create the nation’s mass consumer culture in the early decades of the twentieth century United States.[4] Long the dean of vernacular retail architecture, Richard Longstreth documented and illustrated the processes by which suburban and urban retail were transformed by business leaders, consumers, and in many cases, cars, both in terms of geography and the new spatial relations that business created for shoppers and the shopping experience.[5]

Gabrielle Esperdy and Andrew M. Shanken have also contributed work that comments on consumerism in other ways.[6] Esperdy explores the Modernization Credit Plan, part of the National Housing Act of 1934 as well as two public relations programs run through the Federal Housing Association, “Modernize Main Street” and “Better Housing Program.” She argues that though ignored, these smaller aspects of the New Deal program cast a broad influence such as through the mobilization of $5 billion in a depression era attempt to improve store fronts while promoting the idea of retail “main streets” as a symbol of commercial uplift and solution to economic decline. In many ways, Shanken’s work picks up soon after Esperdy leaves off with architects and urban planners attempting to puzzle out a postwar economic program during World War II. In doing so, he traces the discourse that popularized modernism in the U.S., provided new urban planning models, and impacted the nation in ways that exceeded architecture.

I will not even mention studies on international cities or parallel transnational works. They are legion and for our purposes here, regrettably omitted.

Josh Davis

Yet while the force of consumerism has received domestic and transnational attention, among historians the focus most often remains on corporate entities (or large scale enterprises), government planning, and a consumerist public that sways from apathy to resistance. Many, though not all, of the historians above discussed consumerism amidst the expansion of mass consumer culture in the 1920s, the rise of the social welfare state during the New Deal, World War II era U.S. and even the postwar prosperity of “consensus liberalism”.

Fewer scholars have endeavored to study the small business side of the consumerist politics during the 1960s and 1970s. In his new book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, urban historian Josh Clark Davis explores the intersection of 1960s/1970s social movements and small business activism that promoted black power and civil rights, feminism, drug reform (ok, access to and legalization of marijuana), and natural food.

Focusing largely on bookstores, small presses, head shops, and organic food markets, Davis argues that “activist entrepreneurs” reimagined “the products, places, and processes of American business,” and by doing so, laid the groundwork for an admittedly “less radical” vision but one that “lives on—albeit fragmented and diluted—in the language, products, and goals of countless American companies today.”[7] Despite Davis’ less optimistic view of the business landscape, it remains difficult to deny that the idea of corporate citizenship, at the very least in terms of rhetoric, today bears some relation to the efforts of Davis’ activist entrepreneurs. The irony of politically radical entrepreneurs establishing the, or perhaps more modestly, a template for the corporate citizen of today will not be lost on readers.[8]

Whole Foods Head Shops.jpg

The book traverses the United States. Davis carries us to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Detroit, and elsewhere. Activist entrepreneurs believed small businesses to be “the backbone of democracy” as “community institutions.” For example, Washington D.C.’s Drum and Spear Bookstore, specializing in works by black authors and promoting black nationalism and civil rights, operated as an arm of a non-profit. The owners of the Psychedelic Shop in San Francisco transformed a part of their business into a meditation room, “The Calm Center”, in an attempt to make the store “a headquarters for hippies seeking community and enlightenment as well as a refuge from the increasingly rough streets in the Haight.”[9] In this way, though not focused on the physical architecture like Longstreth or Leach, Davis explores these businesses as spaces of ideology and political engagement.

Throughout Davis navigates a variety of causes and businesses, most struggle with the same multi-armed tension: maintaining a successful business while critiquing capitalism and all it’s evils, promoting a political cause, and embodying the values of the social movement—be it feminism, the counterculture, civil rights, black power, or natural food—that served as its foundation. In some cases, most notably natural foods, labor practices and policies conflicted with business.

Resistance to entrepreneur activism not only came from without, but also from within. Many activist entrepreneurs endured attacks from the social movements they hoped to advance; distrust of capitalism by civil rights leaders, particularly among the black power wing of the movement, often led to criticism. “The central contradiction in activist business was that entrepreneurs who objected to capitalism still had to make money to survive,” writes Davis. They weren’t exploiting idealism and politics for financial gain, however. Davis’s activist entrepreneurs were grinders who “wanted their enterprises to survive in the long term.” There was rarely the opportunity to sell out for wealth and fame. “[T]he greatest threat to activist entrepreneurs was not being co-opted but simply going out of business,” notes Davis.[10]

Though the tension between dedication to the movement and the ability to stay afloat as a business tested all activist entrepreneurs, it manifested itself the most vociferously in the feminist movement. Granted, black bookstores initially struggled to win over some black nationalists, especially those who viewed capitalist enterprises warily, but by the late 1960s, most had embraced it.

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“Women are happening”, Women’s Interart Center, NY, NY, 1967-1978, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Within feminism, the idea of activist businesses proved more divisive. Susan Sojourner, owner of The First Things Bookstore in Washington D.C., noted that most “movement non-businesswomen” believed that activist entrepreneur enterprises sought to rip off, exploit, leach and profit from feminism. In this way, From Head Shops to Whole Foods documents the fault lines and points of disagreement among various movements.

In the case of feminism, some activist entrepreneurs clearly felt that too many feminists promoted a mythical womanhood. Lorraine Allen, owner of a specialty toiletry company Equation Collective, explained the plight of her fellow female activist entrepreneurs by skewering such ideas. “Just when the movement tried to perpetuate the myth that some women are somehow intrinsically, i.e. unmaterialistic [sic] here we come along with our balance sheets and income statements.”[11] Davis explores this dynamic through a number of feminist business including credit associations, book stores, publishers, and others. Efforts to create umbrella organizations that thread various feminists businesses together for economic and political gain, often met with resistance from critics inside the movement.

 

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Malcolm X, half-length portrait, seated, facing right, during press conference in offices of the National Memorial African Book Store, New York City, 1964, New York World Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Whatever the political gains achieved by black nationalist and feminist book stores, both contributed to the critical growth of each community’s economic base. Black and feminist bookstores increased the numbers of businesses owned by women and minorities but also nurtured customers’ interest in feminism and civil rights. Each contributed to an expansion of the public sphere that included a more diverse set of voices; however, both fell victim to their success. By the 1990 and 2000s, chain stores snatched up black and feminist authors. With declining readership that eventually shuttered the physical locations of even Barnes and Noble, most black and feminist bookstores soon closed their doors, unable to compete. For feminist presses, those that persisted shed or downplayed their affiliation to the movement. Due to the focus on both black and feminist entrepreneurs, these chapters put Davis in dialogue with Weems, Cohen, Deutsch, Glickman and others.

Unlike bookstores and printing presses, head shops and organic food outlets exhibited a slightly different arc: ideologies mattered less, lifestyle mattered more. Each began as alternatives to “America’s dominant consumer culture.” In the case of head shops, many activist entrepreneurs believed consumerism to be “alienating, conformist, puritanical, and ‘plastic.’”[12] But head shops also did not operate as “ideological clearing house[s] for radical social movements” or serve as collectives or cooperatives.[13] That being said, politics did seep into the scene; anti-war activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s influenced both head shop entrepreneurs and their customers. In general, however, head shops grew out of the counterculture’s distrust of materialism, an interest in Eastern religions, and tendency toward self-exploration (chemical and otherwise).

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The modern day descendent of Davis’s 1960s head shop activist entrepreneurs; “Window of the Space Cowboy Smoke Shop, which calls itself ‘the highest head shop in the world,’ in Breckenridge, Colorado”, Carol M. Highsmith, August 8, 2015, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

When the 1980s arrived with Reagan’s War on Drugs and the efforts of parents groups like Dekalb Families in Action (see Michael Massing’s The Fix for a good composite of the anti-drug parent movement of the late 1970s and 1980s), head shops faced public criticism and legislative marginalization. Eventually, entrepreneurs allied with the marijuana legalization movement and free speech advocates. It was a narrower activism than the anti-materialism and anti-war politics of the 1960s and ‘70s, but activism nonetheless.[14]

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Photoprint used by the U.S. Treasury Department to document the increasing traffic in marijuana, 1943-1945, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What most head shop owners did not highlight in this fight was the racial inequality at the heart of the War on Drugs. Instead, they often adopted a “color blind analysis of drug laws” that failed to highlight the criminal justice systems implicit racial bias. NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) also stood guilty of such sins of omission, and Davis cynically describes how NORML found it “politically effective to celebrate marijuana and its young white users as innocent, everyday Americans instead of challenging the prevalent stereotypes of African American drug users as dangerous criminals.”[15]

 

Like head shops, natural or organic foods began without being tethered to a single ideology. Rather, the natural food movement operated as a Rorschach test—the cause you ascribed to it said much more about you than the enterprise itself. “Environmentalism, pacifism, animal rights, anarchism, and the counterculture—all contributed to natural foods’ ideological profile in the early 1970s,” argues Davis. The embrace of numerous movements rather than a single one enabled activist entrepreneurs in the industry to “recast their business as a form of political resistance against powerful corporations, environmental degradation, and even war and animal cruelty.” Still, while this gave activist entrepreneurs a broader appeal it also meant they lacked the kind of frenzied attachment to their business enjoyed by those counterparts wedded to a single cause.[16]

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A modern day non-Whole Foods natural food store, “Talal Cockar’s 2011 mural “Tierra y Libertad” fills much of a wall on the Big Hollow natural-foods store building, part of the Laramie Mural Project in downtown Laramie, Wyoming”, Carol M. Highsmith, June 6, 2015, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Considering the dominance of Whole Foods over the past decade and its recent buyout, it would not be surprising if Davis’ work on organic food draws the most attention from the media and general public. The natural foods movement did not begin with Whole Foods, but rather sprang from the ideas of Japanese writer and spiritual leader George Ohsawa. In his book Zen Macrobiotics, Ohsawa advised readers to eschew sugar, canned goods, produce grown with nonorganic pesticides and fertilizers, and almost all animal products. His followers established Erewhon in the mid-1960s in Boston while promoting the macrobiotic lifestyle. Despite running afoul of the FDA, Erewhon gained its economic footing and by 1971 reported annual sales of $1.8 million. With locations in Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Toronto, it laid the groundwork for a transformation of the grocery industry.[17]

Labor practices bedeviled many natural food stores. “Some of the most successful businesses resisted efforts by employees or activists to organize unions,” writes Davis, “rejecting the idea that organized labor should play a role in securing workplace democracy.”[18] Labor difficulties aside and in terms of economic growth and presence in the American marketplace, organic foods prove the most successful of Davis’ examples. However, whether in spite or because of their success, the industry endured the criticism from a variety of constituencies including accusations of “cliquish dogmatism,” excessive prices, and “hostility toward people of color, the poor, and organized labor.”[19]

Just as feminist businesses attempted to create umbrella organizations and associations that might bind them to each other more tightly, both politically and economically, similar efforts were made among natural food producers. The formation of the Organic Merchants (OM) “counterculture trade association” sought to create a network of activist entrepreneurs as a means to address distribution problems. Many of these entrepreneurs argued that corporations would never be effective in the natural food business. Paul Hawken, the co-founder of OM, disparaged efforts by corporate America as too opaque, too focused on profits, and too dependent on what and he others viewed as corrupted advertising. “If you are in a truly meaningful business, there is no need to promote yourself other than being open, honest and communicative to your customers,” he would tell journalists. “[T]here is nothing truthful in advertising.”[20]

Cooperatives also arose in the mid-1970s as a means to increase inclusivity and democratic organization. Having lived in NYC for nearly a decade I can’t even tell you how many oddball stories about the famed Park Slope Coop I heard from friends. Now a resident in one of the nations’ most liberal suburbs, Takoma Park, I’ve witnessed Coop politics first hand, sometimes rational and thought out, sometimes not. At the very least, cooperatives raised questions about just what made for the best, most just, business model: “the cooperative model of shared ownership, the spiritually informed and consensus driven management model of companies such as Erewhon, or labor unions?”[21]

Whole Foods emerged from this activist ether. After studying earlier natural food stores like Brookline, Massachusetts’s Bread and Circus and Los Angeles’s Mrs. Gooch’s Ranch Market, John Mackey opened the first Whole Foods market in Austin, Texas. Mackey aggressively expanded the business; unlike his counterparts, Mackey sought to acquire competitors and later sold large portions of the business to venture capitalists, hence facilitating this growth. Such decisions represented a clear break with the more democratic impulses of the movement.

Later Mackey adopted a libertarian politics that eschewed organized labor and government intervention. In retelling the company’s history, Mackey conveniently neglected to mention that Whole Foods once accepted a critical loan from the government following a damaging flood to its Austin store in the 1980s. The company’s environmentalism aligned with the libertarian ideal advocating for businesses to adopt a social consciousness rather than depend on government regulation of the environment.

“[U]nlike most activist businesses, Mackey emphasized individual fulfillment at the expense of social equality and workplace democracy,” notes Davis. In Mackey’s estimation, inequality was natural, struggles for equality were manifestations of national selfishness. While Mackey outwardly embraced social causes like environmentalism, he always kept his eye on the capitalist prize: “We must make sure that we do not become so involved in social/environmental/global issues that it negatively affects our ability to serve our stakeholders,” he noted in a 1988 handbook for Whole Foods.

Davis is right to lament the dissolution of entrepreneurial activism, but at the same time, the efforts of all his subjects also helped bring their movements and the issues that animated them into the mainstream. The decline of black and feminist bookstores, and independent bookstores generally, deserves to be mourned. However, the fact that both brought black and female authors to the broader culture such that big chains began to stock them also merits some level of celebration. What was lost, perhaps, was a sense of community and the store as a space for political debate, reform, and resolution.

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Our more traditional idea of 1960s activism, [Anti-Vietnam war protest and demonstration in front of the White House in support of singer Eartha Kitt], Thomas J. O’Holloran, January 1968, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
At least in some small way, what happened to black bookstores parallels the fate of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCUs spent decades educating black America, and doing it well, only to witness declining enrollments with desegregation as African American students chose schools that had previously denied them admission due to race. At the risk of sounding simplistic, both deserved better but in capitalism we often don’t get what we deserve—rather, we get what the market dictates. Such observations hardly count as revelatory, but since From Head Shops to Whole Foods is the newest addition to the History of Capitalism series from Columbia University Press, it seems appropriate.

Relatedly, the cooption of entrepreneurial activism by companies such as Whole Foods demonstrates capitalism’s consistency regarding commodification. For example, organized labor and workers pushed the idea of “industrial democracy” during World War I as a means to break up the autocratic control of big business over their labor. After the war, employers soon adopted the same phrase and attached it to mealy-mouthed company unions that failed to deliver anything like the gains workers made during, and then lost after, the Great War. Here too, the reader encounters similar processes at work. Yet, and this remains just one testament to the complexity of Davis’ work here, if this co-option resulted in better corporate citizenship and more activist consumers, then activist entrepreneurs undoubtedly contributed something vital to American capitalism.

 

If there are aspects of the book to critique, as there are with any work, one might point to the lack of any transnational perspective. Despite the fact black nationalists and feminists circulated ideas internationally, there is no real attention to this facet of any of the movements. Secondarily, in moments, it feels as if Davis jumps from example to example and that one unifying thread for each chapter does not always emerge. These are pretty minor quibbles.

In the end, Davis book makes a valuable contribution to the study of American capitalism and consumerism. It reveals some well-worn paths in American history but in new ways, while also establishing some of the ironic origins of today’s corporate citizens.

[1] Elaine Lewinnek, “Modern Architecture, Consumer Citizenship, and the Fate of American Downtowns”, Journal of Urban History 43. (July 2017): 526.

[2] Robert E. Weems, Desegregating the Dollar: African American Consumerism in the Twentieth Century, New York University Press, 1998; Lawrence Glickman, Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, University of Chicago Press, 2010;

[3] Meg Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America, Princeton University Press, 2006; Tracy Deutsch, Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the New Deal, University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[4] William R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, Vintage Books, 1993.

[5] Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950, M.I.T. Press, 1997; Richard Longstreth, The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Space in Los Angeles, M.I.T. Press, 1999; Richard Longstreth, The American Department Store Transformed, 1940-1960, Yale University Press, 2010.

[6] Gabrielle Esperdy, Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture During the New Deal, University of Chicago Press, 2008; Andrew M. Shanken, 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the Home Front, University of Minnesota Press, 2010; Kathy Piess, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, Temple University Press, 1986; Susan Bension, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890 – 1940, University of Illinois Press, 1987

[7] Josh Clark Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 4, 8.

[8] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 245.

[9] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 58,94

[10] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 31.

[11] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 149.

[12] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 84.

[13] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 85.

[14] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 120.

[15] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 121.

[16] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 191.

[17] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 171.

[18] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 179.

[19] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 180.

[20] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 195.

[21] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 203.

“Housing for All?”: Putting History to Work in Cambridge, MA

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Rep. Marjorie Decker (Moderator), Barry Bluestone, Charles Sullivan, and Corrine Espinoza. Courtesy of Cambridge Historical Society.

This post by Hope J. Shannon belongs to a series highlighting urban and suburban public history projects.

During the fall of 2016, the Cambridge Historical Society (CHS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts held a three-part symposium titled “Housing for All?” The symposium brought historical perspective to housing issues in both Cambridge and the Boston metropolitan area, and shows one of the many ways history can be put to work in conversations about contemporary problems. I spoke to Marieke Van Damme, CHS Executive Director, about the symposium, its outcomes, and what CHS hopes to achieve by organizing this kind of innovative programming. Read on for our interview and to learn more about how you can have these kinds of conversations in your communities and neighborhoods.

Hope J. Shannon (HJS): What was the symposium? What did it do?

Marieke Van Damme (MVD): Our 2016 fall symposium, “Housing for All?” was the culmination of our year thinking about housing in Cambridge.

In 2015, the Cambridge Historical Society, as a result of serious strategic planning, decided to further refine our community programming. We decided to theme our years, and have all of our programming, events, publications, etc. relate to that theme. It was important to us that the theme be an issue that Cambridge is facing today. We knew that to be relevant to our community, to truly serve as a resource, we had to contribute to the conversation. We believe historical perspective is often lacking in discussions about the present and future, and so we set out to fill that gap and provide much-needed background.

Our first year of themed programming was 2016, and we chose to talk about housing. It’s a serious issue in Cambridge, and one of the first topics people talk about when they get together. We decided to frame our year as a question (“Are We Home?”) because we think this is more inviting to our audience. Instead of the “all-knowing” historical society telling you what you should know about housing in our city, we are asking our neighbors to share their experiences, and to participate in the conversation. As we know, so many of us are not represented in our local historical narratives, and we hope small, subtle changes in how we speak and present information will help change that. We want to be welcoming to all. We can’t be a true historical society if we only collect and share some of the stories of our city, and leave so many out.

When coming up with our set series of annual programs (that change with the different annual themes), we decided that our culminating fall program would be a symposium for a more in-depth, traditional look at an issue. (Other events throughout the year include Open Archives, History Cafes, walking tours, and a fundraiser. More information on our programs is available on our website.)

The Fall Symposium is a two- or three-part event featuring panel speakers with a moderator. In this way, it is traditional. However, we tried a few new techniques to make it more engaging:

  • We place significant emphasis on our differences with other organizations. We make it known, repeatedly, that we are a humanities-based organization. We are not a city-funded or activist group. We bring people together in a slowed-down setting and talk about historical events, precedents, and perspective. We don’t lobby, and we don’t want our audience to mistake our event for a city council meeting. Yes, there is urgency around the issue we are discussing, but the event is meant to be a pause button, not a fast forward.
  • We let it be known, through our remarks and choice of speakers, that the average Cantabrigian’s viewpoint and experience has value. Yes, “experts” are important, but everyone has something to share.

    2016 symposia 3 photos (15)
    Courtesy of Cambridge Historical Society
  • We laid down ground rules at each event, expressed verbally by me in my opening remarks, but also in our handout. They were: listen well, ask questions based on genuine curiosity, and think and speak with empathy.
  • We held the events in three different public locations; two were public library branches and one was a community center. They set the right tone of inclusion and openness we were going for.

We were honored that we won a Leadership in History Award from AASLH for this event!

HJS: Who were the community stakeholders involved in the planning and in the symposium discussion? Did the CHS form new relationships? How did the various community interests shape the project?

MVD: It being our first year of new programming, we really pulled off the event with few resources and the dedication of a small group of people. We couldn’t have done the event without very generous funding from the Mass Foundation for the Humanities, and the Cambridge Savings Bank. Their support allowed us to, among other things, pay speakers, market the event, and pay for a programs consultant.

We planned an ambitious three-part series, with three speakers plus one moderator at each event (a total of 12 speakers). To find our speakers, we asked around our networks, reached out to housing activists, and researched experts on the internet. Everyone was so generous to give of their time and participate. Having three events allowed us to delve into the past, present, and future of affordable housing. Of course, we could have had a dozen events and still not adequately covered the topic (one of our attendees wrote on our follow up survey that we were “thirty years too late” discussing the topic).

This year, with more advance planning, we formed an advisory group to help us with the symposium (focusing on changes to Kendall Square in relation to this year’s theme, “What Does Cambridge Make?), and we are already forming a year-long advisory group for 2018’s theme “Where is Cambridge From?” You can never start too early. The good news is that the relationships we formed last year have carried into this year, and have many new friends and contacts to ask for help.

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Courtesy of Cambridge Historical Society

HJS: Did the symposium provide you with any new insights about the history of Boston’s metropolitan area, Cambridge, and/or urban history more broadly? If yes, what were they?

MD: Definitely. Our challenge when planning the event was always “Is it a regional issue, or a Cambridge issue?” The answer was usually “both.” While Cambridge and Boston are often inseparable, distinctions can be made. This is also why personal stories are so important and make all the difference in showing the humanity behind the data.

HJS: What’s next for CHS?

MD: We’ve had a great year so far with “What Does Cambridge Make,” and are looking forward to our final events of the year– 2 History Cafes, and the Fall Symposium. Planning is already underway for 2018!

More about our History Cafe series here.

More about the 2016 Housing for All series here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kuhio Day

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

USA directory MCC

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Didion’s Honolulu

Critics often assail Joan Didion with accusations of solipsism. At first glance, Didion’s writings regarding her time in Honolulu confirm such assertions. “I am a thirty four year old woman with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a Tidal Wave that will not come,” Didion wrote in 1969.[1] Yet travelogues often hinge on this sort of alien, even alienated in Didion’s case, viewpoint. The Atlantic’s Adrienne Lafrance recently summarized this reality: “Travel writing is traditionally concerned with the writer’s sense of belonging, or lack thereof—the spectacle of being somewhere new, the sense of displacement one feels.” With this premise agreed upon, revisiting essays from Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979) shows that Didion did reveal some profound truths about America—though admittedly to a far lesser extent about Hawaii.

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Before diving into her work on the city, we should discuss a couple of relevant points. No doubt, in some respects Didion falters; taken together her two essays – the first “Letter from Paradise, 21 19’ N., 157 52’ W.” and the second “In the Islands” – traverse more than a decade from 1966 to 1977. Throughout each, Didion failed to really illuminate native culture. While she does not completely ignore Hawaii’s racial and cultural complexity, it is only presented through the perceptions of whites. As we noted in our bibliography for the city, for mainland writers the islands function as means to discover who we are, rather than the archipelago’s own history. For better or worse, Didion perpetuates this tendency.

Some readers will argue her criticism of American consumerism feels rote. While it is true that reading critiques of mid century American consumerism from the twenty-first century feels more nostalgic than groundbreaking, this actually testifies to Didion’s power as a writer. Her dry but ruthless vision of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and its patrons defined the period so completely that watching the Season Six premiere of Mad Men, in which Don vacations at the Royal Hawaiian and pitches their director on a new ad campaign, feels cribbed from Didion’s account. In the end, two themes emerge: the power of tourism and the breadth of the military’s influence.

Tourist Trap

Unsurprisingly, Honolulu drew from Didion an almost ineffable response. “And so, now that it is on the line between us that I lack all temperament for paradise, real or facsimile, I am going to find it difficult to tell you precisely how and why Hawaii moves me, touches me, saddens and troubles and engages my imagination,” she confessed, “what it is in the air that will linger long after I have forgotten the smell of pikake and pineapple and the way the palms sound in the trade winds.”[2] For a writer who leaned toward skepticism and doubt for much of her life–as Eric Avila pointed out she rendered Los Angeles of the same period “the paranoid capital of the world”–this is no small feat.[3]

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The Royal Hawaiian, Ryan Reft, June 2017

Of course, even in such moments of appreciation, Didion clearly embodies the fish-out-of-water, stranger-in-the-land lens of the travelogue. For Didion, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel–a Waikiki landmark–is not just a place to lay one’s head, but “rather a social idea, one of the few extant clues to a certain kind of American life.” Of course, all great hotels, she concludes, operate as “flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service.”[4] The hotel’s opening in 1927 “made all things Hawaiian–leis, ukuleles, luaus, coconut leaf hats, and the singing of ‘I Wanna Learn to Speak Hawaiian’–a decade’s craze at country club dances across the United States,” she writes. The Royal, a haole creation, reflected Hawaii through an Anglo lens for an Anglo culture; a territorial influence cast across a continent an ocean away, but defined by American occupiers rather than native peoples.

From its establishment to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the hotel catered to a certain crowd. The kind of people who sunbathed behind the exclusive ropes of the hotel’s reserved beach space discovered that “their nieces roomed in Lungita at Stanford the same year, or that their best friends lunched together during the last Crosby.”[5] Midwestern newlyweds, Seattle Mayors, and San Diego magnates rub elbows with “Australian station owners, Ceylonese tea planters, [and] Cuban operators.”[6] This vision of Hawaii, more or less “a big rock candy mountain in the Pacific,” was conveyed to the mainland through newspaper photos of “well fed Lincoln Mercury dealers relaxing beside an outrigger….”[7] The tumult of the 1960s, according to Didion, never reached Honolulu shores: “the cataclysms of the larger society disturb it only as surface storms disturb the sea’s bottom, a long time later and in oblique ways.” This last statement rings false; the mid-1970s witnessed a resurgence of Hawaiian cultural pride and protest, which goes largely unmentioned in her work.

War and Peace

Though it remains unclear she would define it as such, Didion pushes out into the waters of American imperialism. Amidst the Vietnam War, the island’s ties to European and American imperial ambitions and global conflict seem overwhelming and obvious, but according to Didion, Hawaiians viewed war differently. WWII “cracked the spine” of the Big Five (a handful of families/companies that dominated Hawaiian business and social affairs), opened up a closed economy, and brought new people and new ideas from the mainland. “War is viewed with a curious ambivalence in Hawaii,” Didion noted, “because the largest part of its population interprets war, however unconsciously, as a force for good, an instrument of social progress.”[8]

The way Didion sees it, for Hawaiians the war released them from the bondage of sugar plantation feudalism and brought investment. It also opened up society in other ways. The elite Punahou School, once reserved for missionaries and their children’s children, now served a far broader swath of the population; nearly one third of its students came from Asian and Asian American homes. Chinn Ho, a local boy climbed his way up to millionaire status; he started at the bottom and worked his way into the power elite.

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Haoles prided themselves on the island’s cultural “melting pot”, though racism lay just beneath the surface. For example, when one woman informs Didion that some white Hawaiians did mingle with local Asians she framed it in less than noble terms. “The uncle of a friend of mine … has Chinn Ho to his house all the time,” the acquaintance confided; Didion characterized this as akin to saying “‘some of my best friends are Rothschilds.’” Even progressives used dodgy logic when one island teacher grabbed the arm of a pretty Chinese girl, exclaiming to Didion, “‘You wouldn’t have seen this here before the war. Look at those eyes.’” The truth is sugar cane brought diversity to the islands; the military brought a collision between Jim Crow America and its newly acquired territory, soon to become state.[9] “The Orientals are–well, discreet’s not really the word, but they aren’t like the Negroes and the Jews, they don’t push in where they’re not wanted,” another haole resident tells her.[10]

 

Decades after World War II, Didion returns to Schofield Barracks, the setting of James Jones’ classic novel From Here to Eternity, and records what has changed and what has persisted. For her, large parts of Honolulu belong to Jones, a sentiment that at first sounds inspiring but then condescending. For native Hawaiians, the idea that Jones, who spent time at Pearl Harbor during the war before shipping out to fight at Guadacanal, could ever “own” Hawaii must grate. Yet, Jones’s vision of Oahu’s various military installations – Pearl Harbor actually refers to a constellation of military bases – for boomers like Didion remains a somber, quasi-religious place. She visits the memorial and cries. “All I know about how other people respond is what I am told: that everyone is quiet at the Arizona.”

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Schofield Barracks Military Reservation, Wilikina Drive & Kunia Road, Wahiawa, Honolulu County, HI, circa 1938, photographer unknown created by David Franzen in 1996, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Honolulu’s Hotel Street had not changed, only the destination of its patrons. Young men barely out of their teens swarmed its bars and brothels: “And the sailors get drunk because they are no longer in Des Moines and not yet in Danang.”[11] Men in search of companionship, women in search of a dollar, and military police officers in search of infractions circle one another.

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Scene from film version of From Here to Eternity 

At the National Memorial Cemetery, a site more silent than the Arizona and home to over 19,000 dead from World War II through the Vietnam War, the dead from America’s engagement in Southeast Asia had begun to arrive. “The graves filled last week and the week before that and even last month do not yet have stones, only plastic identification cards, streaked by the mist and splattered with mud,” she wrote. “The earth is raw and trampled in that part of the crater, but the grass grows fast, up there in the rain cloud.” [12]

Graves devoted to Vietnam make up a fraction of the whole and are placed in the memorial’s outer rings, most often for “local boys.” However, many mainland families choose to bury their fallen in Honolulu. “A father or an uncle calls me from the Mainland and he says they’re bringing their boy here,” the superintendent of the memorial tells her. “I don’t ask why.” [13] She attends a burial service for one such soldier killed in action; a desultory event punctuated by the superintendent’s resigned admission: “Fill, cover, get the marker on. That’s the one thing I remember about my training.”[14]

Her opinions about war might have been better couched more specifically. She never really delves into Hawaiian attitudes toward Vietnam, her examples of war bringing change stem almost exclusively from the Second World War. She witnesses the military build up connected to Vietnam and related businesses dependent on such developments, but how natives and locals feel regarding American action in Southeast Asia never comes through. If one reads letters to Hawaii’s then congresswoman, Patsy Mink, residents opposing America’s involvement in Vietnam outnumber those in favor by large numbers. Later in the mid-1970s, Hawaiians protested the military’s use of the archipelago’s smallest island, Kaho’olawe as a bombing site. Though the military and U.S. aggression abroad continued to shape Hawaii – politically, economically, and even culturally – how it was viewed locally as the century progressed remains debatable.

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Representative Patsy Mink announces the formation of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus at a press conference, Laura Patterson, May 20, 1994, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Writing decades later and from a much different perspective, Lisa Lowe aptly describes the most glaring aspect of Honolulu, and broader Asian American life, that Didion missed. The collective memories of Asian American and Pacific Island culture demonstrates the fragmented nature of history and experience, as it is a past “always broken by war, occupation and displacement,” notes Lowe. “Asian American culture ‘re-members’ the past in and through the fragmentation, loss, and dispersal that constitutes the past.”[15]

When Didion notes that there is also a Hawaii that deals only with the “past and with loss,” she does so from the perspective of a missionary’s descendent; as someone from the kind of family that believed Hawaii had been in decline since economic development and tourism reached the islands, never mind the intrusion of the missionaries. To her credit, she seems aware of this, but she never fully breaks from its mindset.

Still, for all its failings, Didion’s reflections on Honolulu remain spellbinding, profound, fluid, and flawed all at once. Mid-century America, arguably the height of the middle class, drank deeply of consumerism, tourism, and war. The California writer captured this better than most.

 

[1] Joan Didion, “In the Islands,” The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Stroux, and Giroux, 1979), 135; See also Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise, 21 19’ N., 157 52’ W.”, in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, (New York: Farrar, Stroux, and Giroux, 1968), 187: “In an essay three years earlier also written from Honolulu, she traversed similar territory. “Because I had been tired too long and quarrelsome too much and too often frightened of migraine and failure and the days getting shorter, I was sent, a recalcitrant thirty one year old child, to Hawaii, where winter does not come and no one fails and the median age is twenty three.”

[2] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 188.

[3] Eric Avila, “Essaying Los Angeles” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin R. McNamara, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 184.

[4] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 137.

[5] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 137.

[6] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 138.

[7] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 189.

[8] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 198.

[9] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 209.

[10] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 202.

[11] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 194.

[12] Joan Didion, “Letter from Paradise”, 193-194.

[13] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 141.

[14] Joan Didion, “In the Islands”, 144.

[15] Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 29.

 

Preserving Honolulu: An Interview with University of Hawaii’s William Chapman

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University of Hawai’i Professor William Chapman has spent a lifetime working in historic preservation. A former Fulbright scholar and two time Fulbright Senior Specialist, he knows a thing or two about preserving urban history and architecture for future generations. Chapman currently serves on three international committees dedicated to preserving historical sites: History and Theory, Historic Towns and Urban Areas, and Vernacular Architecture. Since 2000, he has been a member of the UNESCO committee for Heritage Awards in Asia and the Pacific.  The Metropole sat down with Dr. Chapman to pick his brain on Honolulu history, preservation policy, and the city’s present and future.

How did you find your way to Hawai’i? What do you do at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa?

I was recruited, in a sense. Former Keeper of the National Register and Vice-President of the National Trust Bill Murtagh had begun a historic preservation program at the University of Hawai‘i in 1986. He was here on a part-time, one term a year basis, and the Department of American Studies, where it was housed, wanted a full-time director. I was teaching then at the University of Georgia and was active in international historic preservation through the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (US/ICOMOS). I was encouraged to apply for the job. This was in 1992. I started in the summer of 1993. I am now chair of my department but still direct our Graduate Certificate Program in Historic Preservation.

How would you describe your experience in creating the National Register Report? How did you balance planning, history, and anthropology into a document that will influence Honolulu urban policy?

The report was for a National Heritage Area focused on downtown Honolulu and the immediately surrounding area. I expanded the report to include the whole of the ancient ahupua‘a (the Hawai’ian land division). I was asked by the initiative’s leadership to write the report, based on my past work with the National Register and my experience in the preservation field. I had great help from a special Graduate Assistant we hired for the job, Geoff Mowrer, now a National Park Service employee on the island of Hawai‘i. I approached the report as a historian, bringing in some archaeological studies to cover some of Honolulu’s early years. I had written some material on the Urban Renewal Period in Honolulu and then began with the early period. Much of my writing and research was not included in the report for the Hawai’i Capital District Proposal since it would have gotten too long. The overall aim was to rethink Honolulu as an urban site, rather than just part of the consolidated government of Honolulu and Oahu. I also wanted to provide an alternative to the usual colonial histories of both Hawai’i and the city—to better understand Honolulu as a Hawai’ian city (at least in terms of its population and workforce) not simply as the creation of Euro-Americans. There is no doubt Honolulu was a response to early globalization and the beginnings of world trade, but the labor and “personality” of the place prior to 1900 was almost entirely “Hawai’ian.”

To what extent has the report made an impact in Honolulu’s development or plans for development?

So far, very little. The proposal came up against opposition in a number of quarters. Some influential owners in Chinatown did not want to be part of a National Park Service special area even if there was no regulatory component. I think the project failed to get the word out on what this might mean and most people perceived it as “yet another level of federal government interference.” This was true of some Hawai’ian leaders as well, many of which saw the effort as an encroachment on traditionally managed homestead lands in the upper part of the proposal area.

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Aerial view of Honolulu, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 10, 2005, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I’ve read James L. Haley’s book on Hawai’i, Captive Paradise, in which he seems to suggest (and it’s possible I’m oversimplifying his argument) that Honolulu really didn’t become the true center of Hawai’i until after the whaling industry declined and sugar came on the scene in the latter part of the nineteenth century. How would you describe its development into Hawai’i’s urban/cultural/economic center?

The whaling industry kick-started the growth of the city largely through the marine chandler (supply) business. Parts of the city were devoted to the cultivation of sweet potatoes, a provision for many whaling ships. There were also ropeyards, blacksmiths, etc. The town was also a rest and relaxation area for visiting sailors and this poured quite a bit of money into the kingdom’s coffers. In 1809, King Kamehameha moved his court to Honolulu, to a site adjacent to old luakini heiau (sacrificial temple) of Pakaka from Waikiki, before returning to Hawai’i Island around 1812. By 1845, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i moved officially to Honolulu, where all functions of government operated.

This was obviously a response to the far greater economic importance of the harbor settlement over that of the old capital at Lahaina on Maui. Hawai’i continued to be an important site for the replenishment of ships’ stores and for refurbishment of ships into the 1850s and 1860s, when whaling began to decline. Sugar production, which expanded after the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 gave Hawai’i preferential tariff treatment, did in fact spark a minor boom in urban development—but this was still moderate. By the 1890s the Kingdom of Hawai’i was finding itself hard-pressed to meet its financial obligations and the Hawai’ian elite was over its head in debt. Even the overthrow in 1893 did not assure Western investors of the security of Hawai’i; only after the breakout of the Spanish American War in 1898 and the agreement to annex Hawai’i in 1900 did Hawai’i and Honolulu experience a surge in construction and urban development.

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Main St., Honolulu – Fancy goods, no date, Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One of my impressions of Honolulu, and some of this might be due to my own time in San Diego and Los Angeles, was that architecturally it felt like Southern California in many ways. From the report, prior to WWII there was some influence by California-based architects such as C.W. Dickey and Julia Morgan. How did this influence the city architecturally prior to 1945?

Honolulu indeed feels much like a Southern California town and has much in common with greater Los Angeles. The history of tract development is similar as are many of the architectural styles and the building types, notably one-story bungalows. Many of the architects working in Hawai’i moved back and forth to California, though the main cultural connection during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was San Francisco, not LA. C.W. Dickey is a case in point. He had local connections but spent much of his career in California, where he was born (Alameda) and educated (Oakland). He eventually got his architecture degree from MIT, but was very much a “westerner.”

Hart Wood, Dickey’s sometimes rival and sometimes collaborator, also spent time in both Denver and Oakland (though he was originally from Philadelphia) and had worked on the Stanford campus. He moved to Hawai’i in 1919. Probably the most similar thing about Hawai’i and California was the range of building styles. Craftsman, Spanish Colonial Revival and Mission, and Georgian Revival were all popular forms in Hawai’i as they were on the West Coast. The biggest difference was the relative quality of materials; everything had to be imported to Hawai’i so there were a number of materials economies practiced in the islands, notably single wall and double board construction. This technology, which has a parallel in California for farm buildings, especially, was widely employed in Hawai’i’s many planation camps. These types of simplified generic buildings found wide acceptance in the modest Honolulu suburbs as well. Hawai’i and LA shared a dependence on a streetcar system, which moved workers and clerks from their small houses to the central business district. The city also saw the emergence of separate satellite communities such as Kaimuki and Kapahulu, in response to the streetcar suburbs. As a cost savings, many areas did not have sidewalks and nearly all telephone and electrical wiring was strung above ground, as it is today outside of the very core of the urban district.

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Street looking towards hills, Honolulu, no date, Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I also wonder about Honolulu’s post World War II architecture. It seems to also share similarities with Southern California, but perhaps in a different way. For example, postwar California launched the ranch house, subdivisions, and an explosion in military spending and infrastructure, which in turn facilitated the expansion of housing, industry, and economic development. Did something similar occur in Honolulu because, at least superficially, there seem to be some parallels.

Actually, much of this was true for Hawai’i too in the postwar era. However, because of the scarcity of land Honolulu quickly accepted high-rise construction as an alternative to suburban sprawl. This occurred most noticeably in the resort area of Waikiki, but also downtown and in many former single-family home areas such as Makiki. The city applied zoning standards only in the mid 1960s, allowing for sporadic high-rise development in many former single-family areas as well. The first large apartment building was the Rosalei in Waikiki, built in 1956. Before that buildings were limited by the height of the longest fire truck ladder, to eight stories. There were postwar suburbs such as Hawai’i Kai, Aina Haina, and Waialai Iki, which—at least in Aina Haina—included houses by the New York-based Levitt Company and local companies such as Hicks Homes. Henry Kaiser applied the efficiencies learned in his industrial suburbs in Seattle during the war to his new development in East Honolulu. Finally, the construction of Hawai’i’s own “Interstate Highway,” the H-1, helped unify the various small commercial areas and encouraged the construction of large shopping centers. These included the Waialae Center (now Kahala Mall) built in the late 1950s, the Kaimuki Center (now Market City) and especially the megamall Ala Moana, built in 1959. The malls, in turn led to the decline of downtown Honolulu as a shopping and entertainment area, much as happened in LA.

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Aerial view of Honolulu, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 10, 2005, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Many American cities exhibit significant economic, racial, and ethnic diversity, but Honolulu must exceed most mainland metropolitan areas. How does this differentiate the city—politically, architecturally, socially—from its counterparts in North America?

As you know, Honolulu was the center of a great agricultural enterprise beginning in the 1870s but really taking off in the early twentieth century. The sugar and pineapple industries required labor. Immigrant contract labor began under the reign of King Kalākaua (reigned 1874-1891). The Chinese had been coming to Hawai’i since the mid 1850s, helping, in fact, to develop the incipient sugar industry. With passage of the Reciprocity Treaty in 1875, Kalakaua knew he needed a fresh source of labor. This would be Japan. Beginning in 1868 before Kalākaua’s reign but expanding after 1881 following an agreement with the Emperor of Japan, thousands of Japanese single men—and later families and single women—immigrated to Hawai‘i. Many planned to stay just through their contract, but then found themselves either unprepared economically or bound to responsibilities and attachments in Hawai‘i. Many of the Japanese came from the southern island, where they had eked out a living as farmers. Others came from the Japanese dependency of Okinawa. Koreans soon joined the mix, expedited by the fact Korea was under Japanese control at the time.

Soon, Europeans from places as far away as Sweden and Scotland joined the Japanese. Many of these came as technicians. Farmland on Hawai‘i Island was offered at favorable terms to entice settlers from places such as Portugal. In 1898, following a major storm in Puerto Rico, a large number of Puerto Rican families emigrated. With the defeat of the Spanish and new ties to the Philippines, there was a concurrent influx of Filipino workers after 1900. All of these ethnic groups began to occupy Honolulu as well. As a result there was a Chinatown, a Japan-town and eventually businesses operated by Filipinos. Never truly a “melting pot,” Honolulu and the rest of the Hawai’ian Islands enjoyed an ethnic balance that many sociologists saw as enviable. Army reports and the organization of sugar labor indicate strong racial “profiling.” “The Japanese were industrious but not inventive; the Chinese clever but were inscrutable; Hawai’ians were lazy,” and so on. The Hawai’i Guard, the territory’s version of a national guard, developed its units on the basis of racial “aptitudes.” Planation owners and operators created separate villages (camps) for different ethnicities. Nonetheless, the laboring classes eventually formed a sense of unity, as evidenced by intermarriage and by a growing labor movement. So by the 1930s Honolulu was indeed diverse, reflective of the diversity of the islands as a whole.

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“Kamehameha the Great” statue, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 6, 2005, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In many cities on the U.S. mainland, FHA housing policies and HOLC housing maps emerged in the 1930s and contributed greatly to institutionalizing housing segregation. I wonder if this history differs in Honolulu; for example, since it was a not a state until 1959 perhaps these policies did not affect it as acutely or at all? Also, since Honolulu is on the island of Oahu and due to the city’s demographic diversity, did anything along the lines of “white flight” occur?

Honolulu was probably far les segregated than any other US city in the 1930s. Older upper-end suburbs such as Manoa or Nu‘uanu had tacit agreements for white-only residents. Some of these expectations were written into covenants governing new land subdivisions during the early part of the twentieth century. Certainly by the 1930s these were effectively ended. By the late 1940s and 1950s they had ended even more certainly. There was no explicit segregation in Hawai’i and most neighborhoods had a mixture of different ethnicities. Hawai’ian-haole (white Euro-American) marriages were common as well, breaching the racial barrier at both the top and bottom of the social ladder. The Japanese, which comprised as much as 60 percent of the population in the 1930s, was the last group to let up on ethnic restrictions in marriage. But by the 1960s, Japanese young people were marrying out of their own ethic bounds. By the 1950s as well, former all-white enclaves, such as Manoa, had opened up to non-white ownership and residence.

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Chinatown, Ryan Reft, June 2017

As noted in the report, urban renewal policies nearly destroyed the Chinatown community in the 1960s. Similar policies in places like Chicago often removed minority and working class communities, replacing them with highways and “economic development projects” and ultimately reinforced racism while hollowing out cities. How did urban renewal unfold in the 1960s in Honolulu and what were the consequences?

The urban renewal project in Chinatown and what was then Japan-town (the Aala area) provided opportunities for many Chinese and Japanese families and individuals. There had been significant disinvestment in both areas in the post World War II era. Many owners welcomed the opportunity to sell under the Urban Renewal Program. (The program allowed for appraisals well above the market rate, a fact that benefitted many owners.) Both Japanese and Chinese residents had been migrating to the suburbs since the 1900, leaving largely landless people still within the community. Many of these residents did in fact lose their homes, notably the many wood houses along Vineyard Street and within the Aala area. But the more prosperous ownership class clearly profited from the program. None of this really affected the racial and ethnic makeup of the city. The public housing replacing Chinatown and Aala shops now houses mostly Pacific island and Filipino populations, along with Hawai’ians and other ethnic mixes. The sum total of housing probably increased in both areas through the public housing projects, which are still there.

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Chinatown Market, Ryan Reft, June 2017

When I visited Honolulu recently, I spent some time in the Chinatown neighborhood, which seems to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance. When I spoke with one proprietor she suggested that it was within last 12-18 months that more boutique stores and restaurants began popping up around the community, but judging from the report, it would seem that Chinatown’s development/“comeback” has been some time in the making. Can you provide some context for its current trajectory? Are there any drawbacks to these changes such as gentrification possibly forcing out long time residents—or this really a feel good story?

Chinatown’s “comeback” has been slow. In the postwar period, Chinatown had become the haunt of cheap bars and dance halls and pool halls. These evolved to be even cheaper bars and go-go bars. There was widespread drug use and prostitution in the area, a legacy of earlier times, during the 1960s and 1970s. National Register nomination and the creation of a special planning district in the 1970s and 1980s helped to reverse the downward trend, though major arteries such as Hotel Street remained seedy and dangerous. The fact that many community services, including housing for the homeless and drug treatment centers, were located in Chinatown worked against the “rebranding” of the 13-acre area as an upscale gallery and entertainment zone. “First Fridays,” beginning in the early 2000s, helped to change the area’s image. But the process has been slow. It is important to realize that what is now called Chinatown included at the east (Diamond Head) end several streets more associated with downtown Honolulu than with Chinatown proper; so it is perhaps wrong to think of Chinatown’s character being altered through gentrification. Nuuanu and Bethal Streets were always part of Honolulu’s nightlife and important site of many of the city’s movie theaters. Their revival, therefore—notably the refurbishment and reopening of the Hawai’i Theatre in the 1980s—was actually simply bringing some of the old life of the area back. The large number of Vietnamese and Laotian shopkeepers and sellers at farmers’ markets has had the effect of keeping the area predominantly “Chinese” in character; many of the Lao and Vietnamese are in fact ethnically Chinese.

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Waikiki at night, Honolulu, Hawaii, Ryan Reft, June 2017

Where do you see the future of Honolulu as a city going?

We seem to be becoming a new site of luxury high-rises, growing out of the old industrial area of Kakaako. Urban renewal and new construction destroyed many of the great buildings of the 1920s and 1930s downtown. Retail commerce is shifting nearly entirely to shopping malls, making it difficult for mom-and-pop stores to survive. The elevated train, if it is ever completed, could do much to stitch together the urban fabric of the city but how this will take place is not yet apparent. I am hopeful that special attention can be given to remnants of earlier commercial centers, such as Waialae Avenue and Kapahulu Avenue, both of which retain many buildings from the 1930s through 1950s and still have an “authentic” urban character. However, this would require investment from the city, which is not at all likely. I fear Honolulu will become a rather sterile place of shopping malls and luxury high-rises, oriented increasingly to the visitor industry. I am hoping that we can revive the heritage area concept and begin interpreting through museums and information plaques and kiosks to make the city’s history more meaningful for both visitors and residents.

William Chapman is Director of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Educated at Columbia (M.S. in Historic Preservation, 1978) and at Oxford University in England (D.Phil. in Anthropology, 1982), he specializes in architectural recording, the management of historic districts, and materials conservation. Dr. Chapman is widely recognized as a leading authority in recording historic architecture and in policies and procedures for historic preservation at both the local and national levels.