Tag Archives: Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Assessment Map, Cook County, IL courtesy of Andrew Kahrl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The briefest of guides to #AHA19

Growing up in and around Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s, one witnessed the city’s incomplete political transformation. Mayor Harold Washington’s 1983 victory propelled him to City Hall where during his brief but impactful tenure he began dismantling the Democratic machine built under Anton Cermak during the 1930s and consolidated by Richard J. Daley in the mid-1950s.

Observers like University of Illinois Chicago political scientist, former alderman, and Chicagoland sage Dick Simpson argue the machine bent but never broke. Rather, under Richard M. Daley–who succeeded Washington (via the hapless Eugene Sawyer)–the machine would be reconstituted; “Pinstripe Patronage,” according to Simpson, which represented a shift toward large banking and legal institutions and transnational manufacturers. “Businessmen who give contributions to the mayor expect to . . . deliver goods and services to City Hall at inflated prices,” Simpson told Chicago Magazine in 2008. Crain’s Chicago Business called the new machine, “legalized bribery.”

As for the current occupant, Rahm Emanuel? Well he certainly has not lived up to the lighthearted brilliant social media-inspired satire of Dan Sinker’s The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of Rahm Emanuel. In Sinker’s completely fictional telling of the 2011 mayoral race, the author secretly created a majestically profane faux twitter feed (@MayorEmanuel) purporting to be the voice of future Mayor Emanuel campaigning for office in 2010/2011.

You get the idea. In the end, Emanuel closed a lot of schools, pushed for charters, enabled police brutality scandals to fester and pulsate, and economically cozied up to corporate interests. All that being said, the upcoming mayoral election, in which Emanuel is not running, features 50 candidates!

Ok perhaps not 50, but as of late November, which marked the deadline for submitting petitions, 18 individuals sidled up for a mayoral run. Though speculation ran rampant, Chance the Rapper demurred and instead endorsed Amara Enyia.

The larger point here is that just as the city is embracing a new political day, marked by a certain nervous uncertainty, so too with the crossover appeal of this year’s #MLA19 and #AHA19 synergy are historians and literary scholars embracing a more interdisciplinary future! With this in mind, The Metropole has some suggestions for those attendees casting about for ideas regarding what to do in the Windy City while conferencing.

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Chicago’s Fulton Market neighborhood, December 2018

First, we’d be remiss not to remind everyone about the Urban History Association Meet Up, co-hosted by Becky Nicolaides and Carol McKibben on Saturday morning January 5 (you can also see here for more details).

 

Second, while hardly comprehensive, we have a couple of slightly off the beaten path recommendations.

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One of the highlights of the Chicago Architecture Center, its giant model of Chicago. December 2018

Chicago Architecture Center

Granted it’s not a giant affair–really two floors and a gift shop. Nor does the Chicago Architecture Center offer a particularly critical examination of the city’s building history. While the exhibits do make mention of discriminatory housing policies and highway construction, regrettably, it does not spend a great deal of time on such matters. Still, for a thumbnail and visually attractive tour of Chicago’s architectural history it’s good for a 45-minute visit.

 

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From the CAC’s second floor exhibit exploring designs across global cities (including Chicago). December 2018

Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)

Everyone knows the Art Institute and far be it from us to dissuade you from visiting the august cultural institution. The still newish modern wing is stunning and its collections remain some of the best in the world. However, its tragically ignored sibling the Museum of Contemporary Art offers a wealth of innovation and creativity, plus a truly great free sitting room known as the Commons (see featured image at top).IMG_8803.JPG

Notably for urbanists, the current exhibit West by Midwest explores the migration of artists, photographers, and other creative types to California, especially Los Angeles; think Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, Charles White, and Judithe Hernández, among many others. At several points West by Midwest functions like an advertisement for the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), due to the school’s overwhelming influence on many artists whose work appears in the exhibit. The exhibit traverses intersectional Chicano, Black Power, and Feminist threads that weave their way through the works on display. It alone is worth the price of admission, but check out other aspects of the MCA like Jessica Campbell’s oddly compelling yarn based artwork on display in the Chicago Works exhibit.

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If you have an evening open and are unsure where one might venture out to, let us offer this suggestion. Start off at Moneygun, a dimly lit bar in the Fulton Market/Near West Side/West Loop neighborhood, with sharp cocktails and draft beer set to soul tunes from the 1970s. Once you’ve imbibed a libation or two, walk a couple blocks over to Duck Duck Goat, an eminently solid Chinese restaurant with obvious hipster pretensions or perhaps the also nearby Publican, a popular spot that, although sometimes overrated by locals, provides a very good “American Creative” option. Of course it is Chicago and your restaurant/bar options are endless, so consider this a drop in the hat of your numerous choices.

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Moneygun at night. December 2018

Finally, we conclude with this helpful twitter thread from @tenuredradical (aka Professor Claire Potter of the New School) in which the historian offers some helpful advice for first-time AHA attendees and experienced conference-goers alike.

Also, for those caftan enthusiasts out there, don’t worry:

Good luck everyone!

 

Member of the Week: LaDale Winling

Ladale WinlingLaDale Winling

Associate Professor, Department of History

Virginia Tech

@lwinling

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I am currently researching real estate and segregation in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. From this milieu, in the midst of the Great Migration and in wake of the 1919 race riot, emerged new real estate practices, new public policy such as HOLC’s redlining, and a new electoral viability of African Americans with the election of Congressmen such as Oscar DePriest, Arthur Mitchell, and William Dawson. My collaborative work with the Mapping Inequality team, the inspiring scholarship by Margaret Garb, David Freund, and Carl Nightingale, and the time I spent in Chicago in graduate school led me to this topic. Chicago is a well-studied city but I think there are new stories to be told about the city, its institutions, and its people.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I teach digital history and public history at Tech, and I am contributing to a minor called Data in Social Context. This involves teaching math and science types to bring humanistic values to their use and understanding of data, and teaching humanists how to work with data tools. It is important to keep building skills into history programs, and to make sure historians can use a wide array of tools and resources in our scholarship.  As part of this effort, I am currently teaching an undergrad class in which students will choose a Congressional district and conduct research on the demographics and geography, the electoral history, current campaign coverage, and current polling, then make an election forecast just before midterm election in November. We’ll learn about the history of the U.S. census and the history of public opinion polling along the way, as well as how to read polls critically.  It brings together my interests in political history, spatial history, and bringing historical context to current events.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

A team at the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab is about to launch the first phase of a new history of Congressional elections in early October as part of the American Panorama digital atlas. By the time it’s all out, we’ll have have created an interactive mapping tool like you see for recent elections on major sites like the New York Times, as well as a large dataset of every House and Senate election result for researchers. Our goal is to contribute to work on grassroots political history by connecting Congress and the American voting public more directly in our political history.

In terms of books, I’m excited to see work in progress on racial capitalism by Destin Jenkins and Nathan Connolly, which will make important revisions in the way we think about the history of capitalism. I just met Nikole Hannah-Jones and am going to find it hard to wait for her book on segregation in education. As for recent books, I’m also looking forward to reading Timothy Lombardo’s new book on Frank Rizzo, Blue Collar Conservatism, and to pick up Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

I have one fundamental piece of advice: study a topic that you love, and that makes your heart sing, but keep a pragmatic consideration about developing transferable skills and opportunities to gain experience in non-academic venues. Learn GIS, as I did in graduate school, or get experience in writing and administering grants, or hone your prose in writing for public audiences, or work on an exhibit at a local museum, and most of all, learn how to pitch yourself. The academic job market is a difficult one, and while a tenure-track job is a great option, it is not the be-all and end-all of higher education or graduate school. There are many different ways to make a rewarding living and to use your knowledge to help improve humanity.

What are you most excited about for UHA 2018?

I am most excited about sitting in on some sessions at UHA. I have loved UHA from the beginning of grad school (my first conference was Milwaukee 2004) because I get so much energy and inspiration from learning about the new work people are doing and from catching up with old friends. It has been quite rewarding, through planning, to help move the conference and, potentially, the field in new directions. Now I’m just looking forward to being part of that fundamental process of sharing ideas, of hearing and responding to new research in progress.

Member of the Week: René Luís Alvarez

160205_Rene_Luis_Alvarez.jpgRené Luís Alvarez, PhD

Lecturer in History

Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago
 

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I have researched and written about the history of American urban education, focusing mainly on Chicago’s Mexican American community. While the teaching and administrative responsibilities of my current position at Arrupe College have lessened the amount of time I can devote to new research projects, I am able to draw upon my academic training to serve Arrupe students, who mostly are first-generation college students from lower income and previously underrepresented communities across the city.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

As a two-year degree-granting program, Arrupe College offers general education courses which students then can use to transfer to a four-year degree institution or to enter the working world. As such, I teach both halves of the United States survey and both halves of the Western Civilization survey. In addition to teaching full-time, I have a cohort of advisees with whom I meet regularly, both individually and in groups, to ensure that they are on their best paths towards graduation. As an educational historian, I understand the patterns of inequality that have deprived some students access to a rigorous, liberal art education. A large part of Arrupe College’s mission is to provide students the opportunity to achieve their educational goals at the highest levels. In this way, my training as an historian and my current work nicely complement each other.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

Stephen N. Katsouros, SJ, the Dean and Executive Director of Arrupe College, published Come to Believe: How the Jesuits are Reinventing Education (Again) last year. In it, he details the first years of Arrupe’s founding and development. My signed copy has been on my office shelf since its release. While I have my own insider’s view of Arrupe College and have discussed several aspects of Arrupe with Fr. Katsouros on many occasions, I am eager to read about Arrupe from Fr. Katsouros’ perspective.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

I would advise young scholars to take an interdisciplinary if not eclectic approach to their curricular and extra-curricular activities in order to develop their versatility. To this I would add that they be open to a variety of career opportunities. The contours of higher education have changed significantly since I completed my doctorate ten years ago, which in turn has affected the history job market. As such, I think young scholars need to consider opportunities that are not necessarily of the tenure-track nature. Having a diverse set of skills that include non-academic as well as academic skills while being open to different kinds of jobs can enable someone to find some very meaningful work.

You now teach at your undergraduate alma mater! What has changed for the better in the intervening years, and what are you relieved to find has remained the same?

I always have been proud of my affiliation with Loyola University Chicago because of its enduring commitment to quality education in the Jesuit tradition, so I am very happy to now be a part of that commitment and tradition. I am glad that Loyola’s commitment and tradition has not diminished since I graduated (at some point during the last millennium.) In many ways, it has grown even stronger, evidenced by programs like Arrupe College. In addition to this, I also have been overwhelmed by the physical changes of Loyola’s campuses. Both the Lake Shore Campus in the Rogers Park neighborhood and the Water Tower Campus in Chicago’s downtown have transformed over the years through ambitious construction projects, providing students facilities that not only are great for living, studying, and learning but also are aesthetically pleasing to the senses.

Member of the Week: Betsy Schlabach

headshot schlabachBetsy Schlabach

Associate Professor of History and African & African American Studies

Earlham College

@schlabetsy

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My current book traces African-American women’s use of policy gambling to navigate racism, sexism, and capitalism in Black Chicago between 1890-1960. Policy structured economic and gender relations there, where participation in the formal economy was tenuous and unstable—or plain back-breaking. Policy was a viable option for the overwhelming amount of women who confronted a lack of opportunities to get ahead legitimately in the primary economy. I rely on archival collections from the Chicago Public Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and National Archives, as well as arrest records and police reports from the Archives Department of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, to show that Chicago’s policy women—the wives, the queens, the runners, the gamblers and conjurers—capitalized on both their tenuous relationship to the economy and the men in their lives to capture unheard of possibilities.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I’m teaching a first-year writing seminar on the Underground Railroad, with a focus on Eastern Indiana-Ohio history. I’m also teaching an upper-level survey course, African-American History to 1865. These courses, at first, don’t seem very related to my research on policy gambling but both push students to reconsider the legacies of escape. Escape informs the ways in which gambling, as part of the informal economy, unfolded in major urban centers such as Chicago, Harlem, and Washington, D.C. The Great Migration starts with these radical acts of self-emancipation and results in innovations to capitalism. Isabel Wilkerson charts this amazing chronology in her book The Warmth of Other Suns. I also push my students through various writing and digital assignments to reflect on the ways in which the past informs their present, especially our relationships in urban spaces. For example, my Underground Railroad students have to complete a digital storytelling project exploring the parallels between present-day issues such as Sanctuary Cities and the Underground Railroad.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

Keisha N. Blain, the editor of the wonderful blog Black Perspectives, recently released her book Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (Penn 2018). It is on my must-read list as is Tera W. Hunter’s Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Harvard, 2017). I’m also rereading Rashauna Johnson’s Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, 2016). The latter is helping me craft a collaborative faculty/undergraduate research seminar on the History of New Orleans. I appreciate her use of digital humanities to help us reconceptualize the relationship between race, labor, and the urban geography of New Orleans.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

I can offer words of advice on balancing the demands of your institution while satisfying your own research agenda. I have found that the best way to balance my commitment to research and the demands of teaching at intensive small liberal arts intuitions like Earlham College is to follow academic blogs like this one or others such as Black Perspectives and to start networking on Twitter. This became my way to keep on top of the debates in my fields and keep me informed of relevant publications when I can’t devote a lot of time to reading scholarly monograph after scholarly monograph or traveling to conferences.

I’ll also offer a plea: if you find yourself in a place where you can take advantage of the benefits of tenure-track employment turn your focus to the tireless advocacy for contingent laborers in our field–the adjuncts, visiting assistant professors, and short-term contracts. There is no better place to focus our efforts.

Your current work is on gambling. What’s the best story you’ve seen during your research about how someone spent their winnings? 

Most people who won from policy drawings used their money to place more bets—this was how policy writers (those who solicited bets door to door throughout the neighborhood) made their living. Their goal was hook patrons on the excitement of the drawings and small kickback winnings. But by far the most incredible story comes from the famous Jones Brothers in Chicago. The brothers, with help from their mother, owned and operated several policy wheels all over Chicago pulling in millions of dollars annually. In the late 1940s their family had several run-ins with the Italian mafia forcing them out of the city. The family matriarch, Harriet Lee Jones, moved the family to Mexico City where they opened up a very successful car dealership and textile factory. Harriet and her boys were tireless and very successful entrepreneurs.

Member of the Week: Elizabeth Todd-Breland

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Photo credit: UIC – Jenny Fontaine

Elizabeth Todd-Breland

Assistant Professor

University of Illinois at Chicago

@EToddBreland

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I am currently finishing a book about transformations in Black politics, shifts in modes of education organizing, and the racial politics of education reform in Chicago from the 1960s to the present. I’ve always been personally and professionally interested in African American history. I also spent time working with Chicago Public Schools students in schools and afterschool and summer enrichment programs. This project has uniquely allowed me to merge my training as a historian with my commitment to racial justice and educational equity.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

Two of my favorite undergraduate courses to teach are Race and Education Since Brown v. Board and The History of Chicago. I’ve been able to draw on my research to inform the content and assignments for these classes. In these courses I require that students leave the confines of the classroom to attend local school and community meetings, conduct community research projects, and/or visit Chicago’s museums and neighborhood-based cultural institutions. The students analyze these experiences within a broader historical context informed by course readings and other materials. While I want my students to learn new content and develop a critical analysis of history and the city, I’m also always excited for them to visit and engage intellectually with parts of the city to which they might not otherwise venture.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I’m excited to finally be finishing my book, A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming 2018). The last book I read was Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. It is a beautiful and thrilling novel that challenged me to be more imaginative in thinking about the space and genre of the city in the particular way that good fiction can. I’m also looking forward to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s forthcoming book Race for Profit on Black housing and the relationship between the private sector and public policy during the 1970s.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

You will be with your research projects for a long time. So, it is important that you are passionate about the topics of study that you choose. Keep asking questions. Take the time to build relationships with people in the communities where you conduct your research. Be prepared to learn more from these collective experiences than you will ever teach others.

What was the most memorable oral history you completed as research for your book project?

I’ve had the privilege of conducting some amazing oral histories for my book. One of my most memorable was with a woman named Lillie Peoples. She taught in Chicago schools for more than forty years, organized Black teachers as a leader in Operation Breadbasket’s Teachers Division, and impacted many people along the way. Over the course of several phone calls and in-person interviews, she shared her personal and professional journey with me and allowed me look through her private collection of pamphlets, newsletters, obituaries, meeting minutes, and photographs. She is a dynamic storyteller with a quick wit, speaks her mind boldly, and remains a passionate advocate for Black children and public education. Like many of the Black women educators who I interviewed, Lillie Peoples’ story has not been adequately documented in an official historical record. Nonetheless, these Black women transformed city politics and education efforts as education practitioners, theorists, community organizers, and anchors of blocks and neighborhoods. There is an added urgency to this history given recent political attacks on public school teachers and public sector employees nationally, which have had a disproportionately negative impact on Black workers and Black communities.

Member of the Week: Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

joanna-merwood-salisburyProf. Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

Faculty of Architecture and Design

Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I began my career as an historian of late-nineteenth-century American architecture, in particular the culture of the early Chicago skyscraper (roughly 1880 to 1910). My research investigated the broader group of social actors involved in the creation of the skyscraper city, and asked how the appearance of the skyscraper changed ideas about the nature of cities and American society as a whole. From there I moved on to explore the types of public space available to Americans during this period: what was the dominant understanding of public space? How was it incorporated into strategies of urban design and how did different social groups make use of it? These interests lead to my current project on the history of Union Square in New York City.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

My current position as Associate Dean of Research and Innovation means I spend the majority of my time helping other scholars make the most of their own research. When I do teach it is courses in modern Architectural History. Throughout my career I have usually worked with students aiming for careers in architecture practice. I find that students enrolled in a professional program are principally focused on the contemporary issues at stake for design. For this reason I try to situate historical material in relation to those issues. For example, I connect the current concern with sustainability to the long-standing interest in “organicism” in architecture; in courses dealing with the formulation of the industrial city in the nineteenth-century, I relate historical processes of change to contemporary issues in urban design, in particular the impact of globalization and the environmental crisis.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am excited for the publication next year of Race and Modern Architecture, edited by Irene Cheng, Charles L. Davis II and Mabel O. Wilson. This is a series of essays on the critical role of racial theory in shaping architectural discourse. Redressing a longstanding neglect of racial discourses among architectural scholars, it reveals how the racial has been deployed to organize and conceptualize the spaces of modernity, from the individual building to the city to the nation to the planet. I have an essay in it about racial themes in Civil War-era New York City architecture. I’m also looking forward to the publication of my book-length project on Union Square, Design for the Crowd Patriotism and Protest in Union Square, which investigates the history of the Square since the early-nineteenth-century, understanding it as both a real public space and as the symbol of competing ideas about the operation of democracy in the United States.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Even if it seems unfashionable, obscure, or even over done, find a topic that you are deeply interested in, not just one that seems to tick the right boxes. The many hours you’ll spend in library basements and archival storage will seem even longer if you’re not passionate about what you’re looking at.

In this current moment of political protest, how would you design the optimal protest space? What would it look like and where would it be? Assume no obstacles!

Protest movements today no longer rely on gatherings in physical space to get their message across. Some of the most effective contemporary activism (the “Black Lives Matter” movement, for example) is geographically dispersed with a heavy reliance on social media. However I still believe that physical space has a role to play, principally in giving a visual image to protest movements, as in the Occupy Wall Street protest at Zuccotti Park. The most effective seem to combine occupation of dedicated public spaces (where proximity to symbols of power is key) with dynamic connections to larger groups not present on site, via mainstream and new media.

The Chrysler Village History Project: Public History and Community-Building on Chicago’s Southwest Side

This is the inaugural post in a series highlighting urban and suburban public history projects.

The Chrysler Village History Project has its origins in the spring semester of 2013, when a group of history graduate students from Loyola University Chicago nominated the Chrysler Village neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side to the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination was successful, and the Chrysler Village Historic District was officially added to the National Register in early 2014.

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The Chrysler Village Historic District is bounded by S. Long Avenue, S. Lavergne Avenue, W. 63rd Street, and W. 65th

Rachel Boyle, who was part of the group that wrote the nomination, explained the district’s historical significance. “Chrysler Village represents an important link between urban and suburban history,” Boyle said. “It was a distinctly urban housing development created by private-public partnerships during WWII, but stands out in Chicago’s physical landscape with its suburban-esque curvilinear streets. Additionally, the neighborhood’s history contributes to Chicago’s history as one of the only construction projects that took place during WWII.”

In many cases, the focus on properties or districts nominated to the National Register fades with their rejection or successful designation. But Boyle wondered if she could take a different route and find some way to put the research gathered during the nomination phase to work for the Chrysler Village community. “Recurring questions [about the designation] from the community lingered: ‘So what? How does this actually benefit us?,’” Boyle said. “The Chrysler Village History Project began as an experimentation of how to harness the neighborhood’s newly discovered history for the immediate benefit of Chrysler Village residents.”

Maggie McClain recounts Boyle’s next steps. “In the interest of capitalizing on this successful nomination, Rachel Boyle visited my first graduate public history course at Loyola [in fall 2014] seeking ideas for how the neighborhood’s history could be used to build community within Chrysler Village.” The course was History 480: Introduction to Public History Methods and Theory, a requirement for incoming MA and PhD students in Loyola University Chicago’s graduate public history program. Boyle, who was by then a PhD candidate, worked with the course instructor, Patricia Mooney-Melvin, Ph.D., to turn these questions into a half semester-long course project. Students in the course had to develop proposals explaining how they would use the history gathered from the National Register nomination to create some kind of value for the residents of Chrysler Village.

Kelly Schmidt, who was also a student in History 480 that fall, explains what happened at the end of the semester. “I joined Rachel Boyle and a group of students who continued the project outside of the classroom.” Chelsea Denault, who had been part of the group that worked on the original National Register nomination, also joined the project at this stage. “Together, we decided our purpose was to preserve and celebrate the historical significance of the community, but we wanted to do so in a way that was accessible and engaging to everyone in the community,” explains Denault. “I thought it would be worthwhile to take part in a new project that involved the residents and provided them with some service, opportunity, or benefit.”

The Loyola team knew that they needed to establish a strong working relationship with local residents before they could move forward with their ideas. “One of the challenges we faced initially was coming in to a community as outsiders,” said Schmidt. “Fortunately, we met a group of residents who were ‘movers and shakers’ in their community and were willing to commit their time and energy to the project. We wouldn’t have had as much success in building a relationship with these residents without the involvement of the director of the local historical society, who was adept at serving as a bridge, communicating our interest in the community as well as what residents desired to see for their neighborhood. Our resident partners were able to draw upon resources and people in the community we never would have known about, or who we wouldn’t have been able to get on board ourselves… Residents were able to build other stakeholders’ trust in ways we as outsiders could not.”

Committee Meeting
The community committee and Loyola team meet in Chrysler Village to discuss project plans.

The Loyola team brought the most viable ideas from the History 480 proposals to a community meeting in Chrysler Village in spring 2015. This meeting resulted in the creation of a community committee that worked with the Loyola team to decide on the parameters of what they called the Chrysler Village History Project. Together, they decided to plan an oral history initiative and community history festival, among other things. They also built a website to house historical materials relating to Chrysler Village’s history and to act as a central hub where anyone interested in the project could learn about it and join the effort as a volunteer.

Maggie McClain coordinated much of the oral history initiative, which involved interviewing current and former residents of the Chrysler Village area, transcribing the interviews, and donating them to the nearby Clearing Branch of the Chicago Public Library. They worked with Chris Manning, Ph.D., instructor of Loyola’s graduate oral history class, to incorporate Chrysler Village interviews and transcriptions into his fall 2015 course syllabus. Students in the course recorded and transcribed interviews with current and former Chrysler Village residents for their final course project. The community history festival, which took place in August 2016, also involved the recording of interviews—one of many festival activities intended to help build connections across the Chrysler Village community.

 

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The Loyola team and volunteers from Loyola’s history graduate program at the community festival in front of a mural painted by a local youth in celebration of the area’s history. Photograph courtesy Barb Ziegler.

Ultimately, Boyle attributes the success of the project to the strength of the partnerships developed between the team and key community stakeholders. “A cohort of passionate residents were committed to making the project work for their community, and proved to be the core reason the project succeeded,” Boyle said. “The constant support of the local alderman’s office also ensured that the necessary resources were available. And when communication between public historians and the local community struggled, the local leader of the historical society quickly emerged as an incredibly valuable translator.”

The Loyola team faced challenges along the way that ultimately yielded powerful lessons about public history practice. Schmidt explains, “Sometimes in our public history training we study the ideal of public history method, but ideals don’t always prove effective in practice. We had been taking formal avenues…to obtain our goals, which was a slow and expensive project. Our community partners showed us how relying on relationship networks was a far more fruitful approach.” Boyle added, “I recall being rightly convinced by local residents that the marketing for the festival should emphasize ‘fun’ rather than ‘history’ and ‘community-building.’ These incidents drove home that public historians have valuable skills to contribute but need to be tempered by the realities of community stakeholders. In short, shared authority can produce better results.”

Denault notes another difficulty faced by the Loyola team: the decision about what to do with the project once the community history festival had taken place. “We struggled a great deal with how to responsibly extricate ourselves from the project and hand off ownership of the project’s future to the community. After meeting with our resident stakeholders and having an honest conversation about their expectations and vision for the future and how to achieve that, we ultimately felt that we had given our community partners enough tools, contacts, skills, and guidance to remove ourselves in order to let them grow and transform the project to continue to meet the community’s needs.”

 

Community Fest
The Loyola team with Chrysler Village residents and volunteers at the community festival. Photograph courtesy Barb Ziegler.

With the history festival behind them, the Loyola team is hopeful that community members will continue the efforts begun as part of the Chrysler Village History Project. Boyle said that residents from Chrysler Village recently established a block club to “build off the energy from last year’s festival and continue to foster community.” McClain added, “Many of us in this group felt that we have done what we can to engage the community…it will be up to community members to keep that going.”

Hope Shannon is the UHA newsletter editor and a doctoral candidate in United States History and Public History at Loyola University Chicago. Before joining Loyola’s history program, she was the executive director at the South End Historical Society in Boston. She is the author of Legendary Locals of Boston’s South End, a book that draws on oral history testimony to tell a new story of the neighborhood’s history. Hope is a founding member of Loyola University Chicago’s Public History Lab, and she is the chair of the American Association for State and Local History’s Emerging History Professionals Committee.


This post discusses only a small portion of a very large project. Click here for more about the many facets of the Chrysler Village History Project, including a mural, pop-up museum, short articles about the area’s history, and a collection of historic images. The Chrysler Village History Project was also the recipient of the 2017 Student Project Award from the National Council on Public History and a 2017 Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. They received Honorable Mention for the Alice Smith Prize in Public History from the Midwestern History Association.

The Loyola arm of the Chrysler Village History Project operated within Loyola’s Public History Lab, a group founded by Loyola University Chicago history graduate students in 2013 that aims to create partnerships between history graduate students and organizations and sites of history in the greater Chicago area.

Bios:

Rachel Boyle earned her Ph.D. in United States History and Public History at Loyola University Chicago. In addition to studying gender and violence at the turn of the twentieth century, Boyle brings over seven years of professional experience in every corner of the public history field, from exhibit curation and site interpretation to oral history and historic preservation.

Chelsea Denault is a Ph.D. Candidate in United States History and Public History and Graduate Assistant at the Institute of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago. Her dissertation focuses on the local politics surrounding the construction of the nation’s largest trash incinerator in Detroit, the community and international backlash against its operation, and the complex and problematic financial legacy it left to the city.

Maggie McClain is the Visitor Experience Coordinator at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison, Wisconsin, where she plans and manages family programming and assists with the volunteer program. She is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago.

Kelly Schmidt is a Ph.D. student in United States History and Public History at Loyola University Chicago, where she studies eighteenth and nineteenth century American history, particularly in the area of race, slavery, and abolition. Kelly has pursued her interests in museum work at the Heritage Village Museum, Cincinnati Museum Center, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.