Tag Archives: New York City

Member of the Week: Kim Phillips-Fein

Gallatin HeadshotKim Phillips-Fein

Associate Professor

Gallatin School of Individualized Study and History Department, College of Arts and Sciences

New York University

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

I’m actually between major research projects now, which is a nice though sometimes anxiety-provoking place to be!  I have been thinking about a lot of different topics–about the far right in the 1930s; about how to tell the history of the Great Depression in a way that is not triumphalist about the New Deal; about the transformation of the lived experience of political economy between the 1970s to the 1980s, especially the major strikes of that era (most of which ended in defeat for the unions involved) and the ways they reflected a fundamental conflict about the future of the country; about the political ideas of business executives going back into the 19th century, and the ways that their thinking has helped to shape a distinctive political tradition in the United States, one that is far more ambivalent about democracy than our mainstream political culture would suggest–but my energies are still dispersed.  I recently finished writing an essay for an edited volume about the contested history of the idea of neoliberalism, and this was fun because it allowed me to pull together some of the thoughts I had while working on Fear City. In general, I think that the current political situation informs my research interests. I am always trying to understand how and why the right is so powerful in this country, what kinds of voices get heard in political life, who is able to exercise power and how.

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

This year I taught one class on the history of ideas about American capitalism in the 20th century, one course which I called “The American Business Tradition: Entrepreneurs, Robber Barons, Salesmen and Frauds,” and one on the history of social movements of both the left and the right in the 20th century (this was co-taught with Linda Gordon). All these classes are in direct dialogue with my own thinking about my research, even though in my classes I always try to take as broad a view as possible, rather than teaching my own arguments (I never really like assigning my own work).  In my writing I try to think about how to put complex ideas into clear language and how to foreground my arguments without making them too simple; teaching is great practice for both of these, as well as a chance to listen to what college students think about history, politics and American society.

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

There’s always so much I am looking forward to reading at the end of the semester!  One book I’m especially looking forward to is Stacie Taranto’s Kitchen Table Politics, about conservative women in New York State. I’m also excited about Keisha Blain’s Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, as well as Michael Honey’s recent To the Promised Land, which is about Martin Luther King, Jr., and his longstanding commitment to economic justice. I’ve also been looking forward to LaDale Winling’s Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century, as I think about the efforts of cities to adapt to the loss of industry in the 1970s and after.

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

Always let yourself become deeply engaged by the city you’re writing about. Spend lots of time walking around it, observing it, traveling it. Don’t just work in the archives, but try to let your work there go along with an immersion in the present life of the place whose history you’re exploring.  If it is your home town, think of ways to make it appear strange and new to you, and if it is a new city, try to talk to the people who have lived there all their lives.

Your book, Fear City, is one of the most frequently referenced publications on The Metropole! It has clearly been an influential and useful resource for urban historians. Looking back on your career so far, what book or article most influenced you and the questions you have asked about the past?

While it’s hard to pick a single book, Josh Freeman’s Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II was the most important work for me as I was thinking about Fear City, in that it emphasized the distinctive nature of postwar New York and the unusual style of liberalism that existed in the city.  More generally, for thinking about urban history, both Jefferson Cowie’s Capital Moves and Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis were very important for me–they both suggested the importance of exploring the internal dynamics within cities while also seeing them as part of larger systems of power. Both books show that what we think of as the problems of cities are in many ways simply the problems of inequality, as they play out in a specific geographical space.

Member of the Week: Mason Williams

WilliamsMason Williams

Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science

Williams College

@masonbwilliams

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

I’m writing a book about how New York City rebuilt its public institutions in the wake of the 1975 Fiscal Crisis—looking especially at schools, policing, and public space. The era of New York’s political history that I described in City of Ambition really does come to an end in the 1970s—if anyone hasn’t read Kim Phillips-Fein’s book Fear City, stop reading this and go find a copy! That moment of pure disinvestment doesn’t last very long, though; by the 1980s, liberals and technocratic problem-solvers alike are trying to recapture a vision of a democratic public sphere. But they’re doing so in ways that end up embedding racial and class inequalities in new institutional forms: public school choice, quality-of-life policing, public-private partnerships, and the like. (If anyone’s interested, there’s a preview of this argument in the latest issue of Dissent.)

To me, the most interesting thing about neoliberalism in New York is that key parts of the neoliberal state are not simply the products of a power grab by capital—which means they have at least some democratic legitimacy among people who think of themselves as progressives. All of which helps to shed light on one of the interesting paradoxes of contemporary American politics: the most progressive places are also the most unequal ones.

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

I’m teaching a course I offer every spring, Race & Inequality in the American City. It began a few years ago as a chronologically-organized history of American cities since 1945. But it became obvious that what the students really wanted to understand was what to do about contemporary forms of urban racial inequality. So I reorganized it. We now start with the deep structural underpinnings of contemporary compounded deprivation—they read Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, Massey and Denton’s American Apartheid, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (and Destin Jenkins’s great review of it). Then we look at how specific policy areas like policing and criminal justice, education, and housing/gentrification fit together and rearticulate broader structural inequalities. I want them to understand how much is being elided, for instance, when people speak of school equity in terms of an “achievement gap,” “failing schools,” or “bad teachers.”

By the end of the semester, the students understand just how deeply contemporary urban inequality is embedded in American capitalism, politics, and culture—and so they realize that small-scale reforms that leave larger structures of inequality intact risk making things worse. Once they’ve really grappled with that reality, we’re ready to talk about what “solutions” might actually look like.

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

I’m about to publish an edited volume with two great historians of urban America, Brent Cebul and Lily Geismer. It’s called Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century, and it will be out with the University of Chicago Press in November 2018. The project started as an inquiry into what historians were missing by framing post-1932 American politics as a story of “red vs. blue”—the rise and fall of the New Deal order, the rise of conservatism, the turn from “embedded liberalism” to “neoliberalism.” By the time we were putting the final manuscript together, the controversy over what constitutes “political history” had broken out. So we ended up doing a broader audit into what political history really is right now. A number of the contributors are UHA members: N. D. B. Connolly, David Freund, Andrew Kahrl, Matt Lassiter, Suleiman Osman, and Kim Phillips-Fein.

Of course, as a historian of New York, I’m also excited by all the work that’s coming out on Gotham’s recent political history: Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s Getting Tough, Mike Woodsworth’s Battle for Bed-Stuy, Brian Tochterman’s The Dying City, Brian Goldstein’s The Roots of Urban Renaissance, Aaron Shkuda’s The Lofts of SoHo, Heath Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, Saladin Ambar’s American Cicero, Chris McNickle’s Bloomberg, Joe Viteritti’s The Pragmatist (on de Blasio’s first term)—plus in-progress work by Marsha Barrett, Amanda Boston, Dylan Gottlieb, Ben Holtzman, Dominique Jean-Louis, Nick Juravich, Lauren Lefty, Suleiman Osman, and many others who I’m mortified to be leaving out. This is a golden age of scholarship on New York politics, and it’s exciting to be a small part of it.

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

Go out of your way to meet scholars who are a few cohorts ahead of you. You’ll get to know your peers, and you’ll hopefully have good relationships with the senior faculty members on your committee and elsewhere in your area of study. But having mentors, role models, and friends a few years ahead of you who’ve recently been in your shoes and really understand what you’re going through is invaluable—and only more so as your career progresses.

You work at the intersection of history and political science. We at The Metropole would like to know: which discipline throws better conferences? 

You’re trying to get me in trouble! I will say, the best thing about conferences is catching up with old friends, and I’ve been a historian longer than I’ve been a political scientist. But an occasional four-cell table wouldn’t hurt anyone!

Mickey Spillane’s Hell of a Town

By Brian Tochterman

Across the banner of “The Metropole” as I write spans the George Washington Bridge, the majestic and modern steel link between the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan and the city of Fort Lee, New Jersey, although those that cross it typically seek points far beyond those two ends. The “GWB” serves as the mise-en-scene for the opening scene of Mickey Spillane’s cold war novel One Lonely Night (1951), a place where his protagonist alter-ego Mike Hammer seeks solace from a “soft little judge” who has spurned him Downtown. As Hammer narrates,

Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost fog-like, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.

The grand suspension bridge, then, becomes the setting for Spillane’s hard-boiled suspense. Hammer stands there considering a choice: his work as a New York City private investigator/vigilante or a move to the emergent suburbs somewhere on the other side of the bridge, perhaps with his loyal secretary Velda, “to start up in real estate in some small community where murder and guns and dames didn’t happen.” When a murder-suicide tied to a communist conspiracy within the city effectively falls at Hammer’s feet, the choice is easy.[1]

Mickey Spillane understood both sides of the bridge. He was born in Brooklyn, but spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In the late-1930s he came back to New York to work in comics, working on a character and strip called “Mike Danger.” He spent World War II in the service but on the homefront, flying planes across the American south. With the war over Spillane migrated from the comics to pulp novels, an industry that took off during the paperback revolution of the era. Over the next decade and beyond, Spillane carefully crafted an image of a working-class cold warrior. He was quick to call himself a “writer” not an “author,” lest he be considered soft or effete. In photographs he wore flannel and denim, and via his alter-ego protagonist, Mike Hammer, he corrected any perceived personal faults. Hammer, for example, was a decorated war hero who epitomized Arthur Schlesinger’s “vital center” vision of cold war masculine virility, took no prisoners (spoiler: he shot and killed them), and found himself both the object and subject of graphic seduction (by the standards of the time).[2]

The New York City of Spillane’s early Mike Hammer novels – the six he published between 1947-1952 were some of the bestselling books of the era – was the kind of place where crime, violence, and conspiracies often fell at one’s feet. Spillane’s representation of a city in the throes of crisis may have been a stand-in for the atomic anxieties of the immediate postwar era, but it was also quite prophetic about the discourse of cities like New York in the not too distant future. As I argue in my recent book, The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear, Spillane offered a template for a variety of commentators and cultural producers fearful of the changing face of New York in the post-World War II era.

Image3_Tochterman_The Dying City

Spillane was particularly adept at detailing the physical “blight” of so-called “slums,” not unlike the concurrent planners then making the case for urban renewal. He describes an area on Manhattan’s east side as “one of those shabby blocks a few years away from condemnation. The sidewalks were littered with ancient baby buggies, a horde of kids playing in the garbage on the sidewalks and people on the stoops who didn’t give a damn what the kids did so long as they could yap and slop beer.”[3] Midtown Manhattan’s 33rd Street, which at the time of his writing housed or abutted the Empire State Building, Macy’s Department Store and Herald’s Square, and the soon to be demolished Pennsylvania Station, was from Spillane’s perspective a “cemetery of buildings.”[4]

Yet as Spillane demonstrates, the city’s problem was not so much its declining physical state, but rather its entrenched racial enclaves and shifting racial and ethnic demographics. Hammer narrates a section on Harlem that labels the African American neighborhood “that strange no-man’s-land where the white mixed with the black and the languages overflowed into each other like that of the horde around the Tower of Babel,” with “strange, foreign smells of cooking and too many people in too few rooms.”[5] In more than one novel Hammer notes his unease within the geography of the city he knows well, seeking to get back to “my kind of people.” Those that “didn’t have dough and they didn’t have flash, but behind their eyes was the knowledge of the city and the way it thought and ran.”[6] With New York City’s growing population of southern African American and Puerto Rican migrants in this period, it requires a limited narrative leap to grasp the kind of people offering Hammer comfort: white working class ethnics then crossing the bridges en masse into the suburban hinterland of New Jersey and Long Island.

153626

In Spillane’s world, the volatile combination of physical decline and social disorder wrought the city’s “monster,” a permanent underclass of criminals that terrorized the city and its inhabitants with abandon and at random. It is the monster that stages drive-by shootings in wealthy, crowded districts and desensitizes citizens to violence. “This is New York,” he writes in Kiss Me, Deadly (1952). “Something exciting happening every minute. After a while you get used to it and don’t pay any attention to it. A gunshot, a backfire, who can tell the difference and who cares. A drunk and a dead man, they both look the same.”[7] There were a variety of neighborhoods where “murder isn’t uncommon,” and where “a killing…was neither important nor interesting enough to drag out the local citizenry in a downpour.”[8] This was fiction in the 1950s, a period recently hailed as the relative low point for violent crime statistics in New York City.[9]

3g13318r
Motion picture lobby card for “I the Jury” shows stars Biff Elliot, Preston Foster and another actor in a scene from the film, 1953, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mike Hammer, of course, is Spillane’s fantasy of a final solution to urban violence and disorder. In the pages of Spillane’s novels he never operates as a private investigator for hire, but rather a tangential victim or good guy with a grudge seeking revenge. This is evident from the opening of I, the Jury, where Hammer appears on the scene “anxious to get some of the rats that make up the section of humanity that prey on people,” and avenge the killing of a military brother. He informs a friend in the NYPD: “I’m not letting the killer go through the tedious process of the law…this time I’m the law and I’m not going to be cold and impartial.”[10] To Hammer, due process meant lawyers, judges, and juries finding ways to release pathological criminals back into the city.

Hammer’s heroic vigilantism has had considerable cultural power since, whether properly attributed to Spillane or not. From the law-and-order discourse of the 1960s emerged filmic imitators like Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan, who patrolled the streets of San Francisco killing crazed hippies and begging crooks to make his day. Rising crime rates and fears in New York made for a fertile climate of violent revenge fantasies. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) immediately comes to mind, but for me Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) of Death Wish (1974) is the quintessential 1970s analogue to Mike Hammer. A decade later fantasy would become reality through the act of Bernard Goetz, New York’s “Subway Vigilante,” who shot four young African American men alleged by Goetz to be armed and set to rob. It is not surprising that Spillane himself reemerged as a mainstream culture figure at this time, putting on his tough-guy act in beer commercials and commissioning a Mike Hammer television series.

IMG_7356
Mickeys Spillane’s bar in Hell’s Kitchen Manhattan, Ryan Reft, February 2018

As I have discussed elsewhere, the Spillane and Hammer worldview resonates today. It is found in the summoned fantasies of random violence met with gun-toting heroism propagated by the likes of the National Rifle Association and open/concealed carry advocates.[11] This trend departs from Spillane, however, because the environment that necessitates a Mike Hammer is no longer urban. The great fears of the vigilante wannabe or “good guy with a gun” – the home invasion, the car-jacking, the mass shooting – conjure a decidedly suburban setting. If someone strutted around New York today like an extra from a John Ford movie, they would likely get laughed out of town, not unlike Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969). But for Mike Hammer to be a viable character within the context of the 1950s, Spillane needed a setting like New York City to give his fantasies verisimilitude. In his depictions New York was a hell of a town. But it was his town, and, as Spillane writes in One Lonely Night, “they gave it to me gladly and wondered why I wanted it so nice and all alone.”[12]

Tochterman.B-350x350Brian Tochterman is Assistant Professor of Sustainable Community Development in the Department of Social Responsibility at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, where he teaches courses in land use planning, community development, and history. His research interests lie primarily in post-World War II urban history, and, most recently, is the author of The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear (UNC Press, 2017).

[1] Mickey Spillane, “One Lonely Night,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 2 (New York, 1951). 5-9

[2] On cold war masculinity see: K.A. Cuordileone, Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War (New York, 2005).

[3] Mickey Spillane, “The Big Kill,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 2 (New York, 1951). 196

[4] Mickey Spillane, “Vengeance is Mine,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 1 (New York, 1950). 387

[5] Spillane, “One Lonely Night.” 133.

[6] Mickey Spillane, “Kiss Me, Deadly,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 2 (New York, 1952). 418

[7] Ibid. 433

[8] Spillane, “One Lonely Night.” 114. Spillane, “The Big Kill.” 181.

[9] Ashley Southall, “Crime in New York City Plunges to a Level Not Seen Since the 1950s,” in New York Times. Dec. 27, 2017

[10] Mickey Spillane, “I, the Jury,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 1 (New York, 1947). 6, 14.

[11] See: Angela Stroud, Good Guys with Guns: The Appeal and Consequences of Concealed Carry (Chapel Hill, 2016)

[12] Spillane, “One Lonely Night.” 5.

Member of the Week: Valerie Paley

V PALEY COLORValerie Paley, Ph.D.

Vice President and Chief Historian, New-York Historical Society

Director, Center for Women’s History

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

As a public historian working at New York City’s oldest museum, I find that my day job keeps me nimble where research is concerned. Just recently, I studied up on Radio City for an interview about its 85th anniversary with the New York Times. That same week I spent a day or two charting the evolution of Christmas and the holidays in New York for a live satellite radio broadcast with Cardinal Dolan. At this moment I’m fact-checking and editing the text labels for an exhibition of historic shoes called Walk This Way, set to open at New-York Historical’s Center for Women’s History in the spring. It’s my responsibility to ensure that all of this content for general audiences maintains a scholarly underpinning. I am fortunate to have an extraordinarily smart team of doctoral-level historians helping to keep me honest and on deadline with these varied tasks.

But I do value the hours I manage to spend doing sustained work by myself with my own scholarship on the founding in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of what would become some of the most famous cultural institutions of New York City. The New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Metropolitan Museum began as ambitious private projects for the public good and evolved into significant standard bearers not only for the city, but for the nation. I’ve pursued a research thread that places the main responsibility for these endeavors not with the directors or curators, but with their funders and founders. Their mark—bearing grander aspirations for their nascent institutions and, by extension, the character of their emerging metropolis—is still in evidence today. As a born-and-bred Manhattanite, I’ve always been drawn to the culture of the city in its entirety, and consider it almost a guilty pleasure to be able to legitimately spend time researching it for scholarly purposes.

Describe your current administrative, curatorial, and/or public history work. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?

I greatly value the skills and knowledge I gained in the academy, but nothing I encountered there could have prepared me for the kind of work that I currently do in the name of History. I have been engaged over the past couple of years in both the administrative and programmatic activities of establishing a Center for Women’s History under the umbrella of the New-York Historical Society. It requires me to think broadly about bringing women’s history into the larger narrative of American history as we convey it through educational and scholarly programming, public lectures, a yearly day-long conference, collecting, research, and a film, in addition to the expected exhibitions. This in turn extends to imparting this vision to our visitors, with my team of scholarly fellows and in collaboration with our CEO and board, and other colleagues like K-12 educators, librarians, art curators, exhibition designers, and members of our communications and fundraising departments.

I’m not sure how directly this relates to my own scholarship, other than by providing me with a framework for understanding the moving parts that make a museum function successfully “on the ground.” The theoretical texts which Museum Studies scholars write and read are all well and good intellectually, in a perfect world. But the challenges and choices I face daily actually working in a museum require me to be far more pragmatic in my approach. There is a struggle to be “pure” while heeding the necessity of being engaging to the public—not to mention getting the funds to make it all happen.

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

No doubt about it: I’ve anticipated Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham as much as any other New York City history junkie. (In fact I was somewhat happy to come down with the flu last week so I could spend some extended untethered time reading it.) Wallace’s ability to harness the scale and variety of the growth of the city in the early twentieth century while capturing it in such painstaking detail is breathtaking. I also commend his capacity to be a great “crossover” historian that can create significant work that resonates for the general public.

The towering achievement of Mike Wallace with Greater Gotham makes me wonder with anticipation about when the other pillar of New York City history, Kenneth T. Jackson, will finally finish his new works on the late twentieth-century progression of suburbia and the current urban condition.

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

I offer the same advice I give to PhD-level historians: don’t be rigid or unimaginative about where the PhD can take you. There is a need for sophisticated content and critical thinking skills outside the academy. In fact, there is probably even more of a need. Speak and write clearly in a language anyone can understand, not mired in scholarly jargon. It’s harder than you think.

You are given the chance of a lifetime: an endowment to start a new museum anywhere in the world, devoted to any subject, time period, or person(s). Money is no object! What would you devote yourself to collecting, preserving, and curating?

This is an interesting question I’ve posed to my museum seminar students, and it cuts to the core of what a museum is and should look like. Is it a large, architecturally significant building in an urban space, filled with stuff and exhibitions? Is it a place for community engagement, in which visitors are encouraged to consider their place in society or even their very humanity? Is it a locus for an educational experience? Museums historically have been all of those things, and we hardly need another one. Perhaps what we need is a larger forum for collecting ideas that contemplate the history of the human condition. Would we do it in words, artworks, objects, images, documents, audio, video? I’d probably do it with all of the above and more, and ask a multi-disciplinary team of scholars, thinkers, and teachers to come up with a template of questions to spur an online “museum” that crowd-sources ways of visualizing this history and shares it on the web with everyone. Imaginative curators, web designers, and communications strategists can encourage the broadest ways of collecting this content from a diverse international community with access to the Internet. Then I would task museums around the world, large and small, with addressing through their own collections some of the issues the online museum raises. It would be like an abstract version of a History of the World in 100 Objects, but one that minimizes hierarchical curatorial thinking and utilizes a democracy of objects, things, and concepts—and defacto curators—representing a range of ideas and “stakeholders” as opposed to the standard object connoisseurship we expect of the best museums.

 

Member of the Week: Matt Lasner

matthew-lasner_uap-bio2Matthew G. Lasner

Associate Professor, Urban Policy and Planning

Hunter College, City University of New York

 

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

I am writing a new book tentatively entitled the rather cumbersome Bay Area Urbanism: Architecture, Real Estate, and Progressive Community Planning in the United States from the New Deal to the New Urbanism. It explores the work of socially engaged designers in the San Francisco Bay Area who, at various points between the 1930s and 1990s, either partnered with sympathetic developers (like Joseph Eichler) or became part-time developers to get new kinds of speculative housing built—generally low-rise, high-density communities built for a mixture of kinds of households, with open-space. Before the New Deal, urbanists all over the U.S. (as in Europe throughout the twentieth century) were interested in managing urban growth but quirks in big federal programs like public housing and, especially, urban renewal diverted attention to rebuilding city centers to the exclusion of most else. Except in the West, and especially the Bay Area, where the unique natural environment (geography, topography) made it more difficult to ignore the suburbs. So the book is about how professionals assert their values but also about flexibility and creativity in the American system of housing provision.

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

You’ve caught me in the middle of a sabbatical. Normally, though, I’d be teaching a mixture of service courses for our masters’ students like Introduction to Urban Planning and the History and Theory of Urban Planning, and courses focused on housing: both the history and current struggles. Nearly every fall I teach a course called Housing and the American City and in the spring a course called Housing in the Global City. In general I see teaching and research as iterative. Teaching the past and present of U.S. housing in a single semester has proven hugely helpful in clarifying my ideas about American housing politics. And it led, rather directly, to my work on the book Affordable Housing in New York (2016), which I co-edited, and wrote or co-wrote about half of, with Nick Bloom. Meanwhile, I recently published an article in Journal of Urban History (“Segregation by Design“) about how developers in the U.S. South used design to maintain racial boundaries in rental apartment complexes without flouting the law after passage of the Fair Housing Act. The primary example I look at is a swinging-singles complex built in the late 60s that I learned about from my students when I was teaching at Georgia State University. Had I not taught classes there on the history of U.S. suburbs and on U.S. cultural landscapes, I never would have known about these kinds of places. But, really, in every course I teach I learn so much from my students.

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

It should go without saying I’m eager to have my own book done, although it’s still quite a way’s off. Working on a book about the Bay Area, and about speculative postwar housing, I’m most excited about several new(-ish) books on overlapping topics: Alison Isenberg’s Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay (2017), Ocean Howell’s Making the Mission: Planning and Ethnicity in San Francisco (2015), Barbara Miller Lane’s Houses For a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs 1945-1964 (2015), and James M. Jacobs’s Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia (2015). I’m also quite excited for two non-scholarly books that have just been published: Progress & Prosperity: The New Chinese City as Global Urban Model (2017), edited by Daan Roggeveen, who previously wrote one my favorite books on contemporary urbanism in China, How the City Moved to Mr. Sun (2010); and The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion, which the Brooklyn-based planning firm Interboro Partners (Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore) have assembled after more than a decade of work.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?

My advice for PhD candidates is to broaden. It’s important to have feasible, realistic research goals—no one should bite off more than they can chew, and I believe in the old adage that the best dissertation is a done dissertation. At the same time, I find that too many dissertations jump from literature review to the internecine, losing sight of the kinds of questions that are of interest to a general scholarly audience, and that will advance the field. Urban history, broadly conceived, is still inchoate, especially for non-UK topics. In U.S. urban history in particular we need dissertations that ask big, fundamental questions about the contours of urban change, and that challenge the field’s foundational texts, many of which reflect the anxieties of a very different era in the evolution of the American metropolis.

Do you find that researching and studying housing as a profession has made it easier or more difficult for you to find housing? Has it made you more critical about where (and in what kind of housing) you choose live? Or are you a broker/real estate agent’s dream client?

My preferences in housing have perhaps become somewhat more particular—I think a lot about things like internal circulation (in apartment buildings) and the number of exposures (in an apartment). Since entering the for-sale market (multifamily, naturally) I’ve also likely become a thorn in the side of agents. When we bought our current apartment I had the seller scrambling to find not just copies of the building by-laws and house rules, but the original offering plan, floor plans, evidence of building reserves and all kinds of other things that most people never think to ask for. And when I sublet, I insist that my tenant also have copies of most of these documents. The place we live is a condominium—so no board interview with a screening (or screaming, as one observer called it) committee—but if it had been a cooperative, I’m sure I’d have had more questions for them than they for me. I came away from my first book believing that multifamily homeownership can work—that it’s not a lot of gold bricks, as one critic worried—but I’m all too aware of the potential pitfalls.

 

Taxing the land: Henry George, NYC, and the land value tax

By Daniel Wortel-London

The land-value tax is coming back in vogue among municipal policy makers and scholars of urban studies. If real property consists of both structures and land, and if the value of land is determined by locational amenities produced by a community, then that community has a moral claim to this value– or so say advocates of the tax. Taxing this “unearned increment” would also, according to according to advocates, encourage owners of vacant land to build upon their properties, or sell their parcels to those who would, and thus increase housing-stock and drive down rents. Eliminating speculative profits, lowering rent, intensifying development—what’s not to love?

Unfortunately, there has been little research into how such a policy might be implemented, or what its consequences might be. The reason for this is simple: it generally hasn’t been tried on a large enough scale or for a long enough time to answer such questions. There are precedents that we can learn from nonetheless, namely, New York City’s flirtation with the land-value tax in the turn of the last century.

The origins of the land-value tax movement in New York City can be traced to Henry George and his famous 1879 book Progress and Poverty. George saw urban land speculation as a driver of urban inequality; by reducing the supply of buildings it raised rents for tenants and made home-ownership prohibitively expensive to most New Yorkers.

37132r
Henry George, undated, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Liberal reformers at the time advocated building roads and mass-transit lines to the city’s periphery, where land was more affordable, as a means of solving New York’s rent and congestion problem. For George, however, this measure was at best a stopgap. He believed land-values in the city’s peripheries would quickly escalate in the wake of these improvements, making them again unaffordable to the masses.

In George’s view, liberals who took the opposite tack of providing welfare provisions for tenants as a remedy for social inequality amenities directly to tenants were also mistaken, as their remedies would again translate into higher land values. “Suppose the very rich men of New York were to become suddenly imbued with that public spirit which shows itself in the Astor Library and the Cooper Institute,” George declared in 1883. “Mr. Vanderbilt, not to be outdone, were to assume the cost of putting down good pavements, and cleaning the streets, and running the horse-cars for nothing; while the Astors were to build libraries in every ward. The result would be that New York being so much more desirable a place to live in, more people would desire to live in it, and the landowners could charge so much the more for the privilege. All these benefactions would increase rent.”

Some of us are familiar with George’s remedy for the evils of speculation and rent-seeking; a “single-tax” that would confiscate all value attached to a parcel of land by virtue of neighboring improvements and which would, George claimed, force landowners to construct dwellings upon them or sell them to those willing to do so. Scholars of gilded age labor are also aware of how New York’s working-class artisans were greatly attracted to the anti-speculative nature of this policy’s producerist logic and the promise of home-ownership it offered laborers, and with how these workers came close to electing George Mayor of New York City in 1886. What most people do not know, however, is that George’s defeat marked the beginning of the land-value taxation movement in Gotham.

08309r
The city of greater New York, Charles Hart, 1905, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This movement was not so much spearheaded by grassroots social movements as we understand them today, but rather by a powerful lobbying organization and well-placed bureaucrats within New York’s municipal government. The former was the innocuously named New York Tax Reform Association, formed in the early 1890s by followers of Henry George. In terms of bureaucrats the land-value tax movement could count amongst its advocates New York’s tenement house commissioner, register of the Bronx, chief tax commissioner, and several other committee chairs and secretaries by the early 1910s.

While ultimately in favor of George’s single-tax proposal, most of these individuals and groups had the more subtle and immediate goal of enhancing the ratio of property taxation represented by land as opposed to buildings and ensuring that this land was being taxed to its full market value. At the time there was a “long and well-recognized custom” that city real estate should not be assessed at more than 65 percent of this market value, and land at only 30 percent of its value. Such policies rewarded speculators and penalized the small-home builder, Georgists charged.

Lawson Purdy, appointed head of New York’s department of taxes and assessments in 1905 and a closet Georgist, transformed this situation dramatically under the banner of “full assessment” of land. His policies had immediate fiscal consequences; “full assessment” yielded the city increased tax revenue from this source by an outstanding 42% in only a year. It also had equitable consequences by placing a heavier tax burden on wealthy Manhattan, where land was worth far more than buildings, than on the far less valuable landed property of small home-owners in the city’s periphery.

These important but behind-the-scene maneuvers by the Georgists received a shot in the arm in 1906 when a collection of some of New York’s premier reformers, dubbed the Committee on the Congestion of Population in New York, publicized the causes and consequences of congestion and the high rent they believed caused it in a public exhibition. The dramatic images and data they assembled, together with the seeming failure of the new-fangled subway to relieve the ills of congestion, galvanized public opinion and provided a brief window for alternative means of accessing the city’s periphery and lowering rent. The land-value tax was one such solution to both, and the Georgists jumped at the chance.

Between 1911 and 1915 Georgists led an effort to pass legislation halving the tax rate on buildings and correspondingly increasing taxation upon land. What other groups supported this measure? Several tenant organizations supported it because it would save the rent-payer at least a month’s worth of rent, at least according to advocates. Savings and Loan Associations (S&Ls) representing the prospective homeowner also signed on to the land-value tax. At the time large insurance companies and savings banks tended to invest their mortgage money in apartment houses and office buildings, leaving the small home seeker dependent upon S&Ls for aid. These organizations saw the land-increment tax, by cutting taxes on buildings and forcing speculators to sell to the small home-buyer, as encouraging homeownership among the city’s working-classes and therefore supported it heartedly.

1s06625r
Looking toward N.Y. sky-scrapers from Parkway over Brooklyn Bridge, Underwood & Underwood, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Where did existing homeowners fall on the issue? An economist at Columbia, Robert Murray Haig, noted in 1915 that the land-increment tax would generally reduce the taxes of homes at the city’s periphery, which seemed to bode well for its support among homeowners. Haig warned, however, that home-owners seeking to profit by “flipping” their property would be harmed by the measure, as their “house will not sell for more because of its lowered tax while his land will sell for less because of its increased tax.” Whether a homeowner benefited from the tax would in the end “depend upon the relative importance of his gain as a tax-payer and his loss as a land-owner.”

On this ground, working-class homeowners largely stood to benefit from the tax as any hopes of speculative profit from landownership on their end was dwarfed by their immediate need for affordable and lightly-taxed homes. Historians have traced how such homeowners consistently resisted even seemingly innocuous public improvements in their neighborhoods, such as sewage systems and paved roads, that might lead to higher taxes upon their hard-earned homes. Any policy that served to reduce this tax won their approval. It was largely for this reason that artisanal labor-unions, whose members owned homes at even higher rates than many middle-class professionals in the early 20th century, heartedly supported the land-increment tax in New York City.

Conversely, for middle-class homeowners the value of property was only secondarily attached to the utility of buildings; they saw the land, specifically property values, as a source of income and upward mobility. Unlike working-class citizens they were willing to pay higher taxes on their buildings for public improvements that might enhance the value of their land, while being far more hostile to taxes that threatened said value – such as higher taxes on land. The opposition of the city’s growing suburban middle-class – together with the more obvious opposition of the city’s powerful developer and banking interests – was enough to ultimately defeat the land-increment tax campaign by the mid-1910s.

The story does not quite end here, however. Following World War One an enormous housing crisis hit New York City due to the growing costs of building materials and labor. With construction halted and overseas veterans returning, vacancy rates plummeted from around five and a half percent in 1916 to a third of one percent in 1920. Unable to move, tenants were vulnerable to dramatic rent increases from their landlords; between July of 1914 and 1919 wage-earners saw their rents increase more than 51 percent on average, and continued to rise.

3c26730r
Varick B’ldg. B’way & Pk. Pl., Oct. 28, 1922, Irving Underhill, Prints and Photographs Division

Under these dramatic conditions desperate builders and banks, along with several tenant unions, seized upon tax cuts as a means of ending the housing crisis and lowering rent. This unlikely coalition succeeded; in 1921, an ordinance was passed exempting taxes on most new buildings or large apartments for 10 years. This was not strictly speaking a Georgist program, as it excluded already-built housing from the tax cuts and did nothing to further shift the property tax’s burden onto land in any way. Nonetheless, both Georgists and their opponents eagerly reported upon the effects of this legislation as a kind of referendum on their policies. Would the “invisible hand” of supply and demand respond to the prod of government incentives, and would that hand rescue New York’s most vulnerable?

The most immediate effects of the tax-exemption was a decade-long building boom that remains the largest in New York’s history; between 1921 and 1923 construction outlays were seven times that of the three years prior to the act, and throughout the 1920s New York would account for roughly 20 percent of national residential construction; a rate that was exceptional even in the context of the roaring 20s. Vacancy rates rose as a result, reaching its pre-war level of 5 percent in 1927. Furthermore, because land continued to be taxed as usual under the terms of the exemption, this building boom born of a tax cut wound up dramatically enhancing the city’s coffers. Even as overall tax rates were kept down, New York continued to expand its welfare and social services through the decade.

3b30423r
Highest priced apartment house on Fifth Ave.; house to right is Brokaw residence, December 20, 1913, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

But now we come to the crux of the matter: did this building boom end the rent crises? A short answer would be no. There is, however, a longer answer. For most New Yorkers rents did indeed rise through the decade, but at a much slower pace than earlier. Whereas the average rent rose from $138.1 to $162.4 a year between 1920 and 1923, between 1923 and 1926 the number only rose to $170.2. Whereas rents had been increasing by nigh-catastrophic levels before the tax exemptions, ultimately the average citywide rate of increase was only 10 percent between 1919 and 1927.

And yet such aggregate numbers distort the picture. For African-Americans in Harlem segregated out of the housing market, rents increased by almost 100 percent during the exact same years. For poor New Yorkers more generally, the effects of the tax exemption seemed to make little visible, positive difference in their rent levels. While wealthy and middle-class New Yorkers could take advantage of the vacancies enabled by mass construction to negotiate lower rents, these vacancies did not “trickle-down” to poor neighborhoods to any degree so “noticeable as to demand consideration,” in the words of a 1926 report, The Cost of Living in New York City.

By the mid-1920s lower-income tenants and progressives tarred the tax exemptions as giveaways to the rich, and in 1925 successfully pressured the New York State legislature to allow the ordinance to lapse; henceforth no new buildings would be granted tax exemptions. Disabused of their faith in the invisible hand, a growing number of progressives would embrace rent control and (even more radically) public housing as more direct means of securing lower rents. Simultaneously, the fiscal benefits of full land assessments were forgotten as subsequent municipal administrations pledged to lower taxes for the city’s growing suburban middle-class. By the 1950s the promise and potential of land-value taxation was largely forgotten by both the right and the left. In fact, we’ve gone significantly backwards; since 1983 New York has legally committed itself to taxing different classes of property at different rates, with Manhattan property owners benefitting at the expense of renters and small businesses at the city’s periphery. Purdy must be rolling in his grave.

What conclusions can we draw from this narrative? The first is that the passing of any land-value tax measure would have to occur under particularly dramatic and rare circumstances. While New York’s current vacancy rate of 3.8 percent is rather tight, it is not yet close to the even tighter market that confronted many New Yorkers in the early 1920s. Furthermore, the alliance between hard-pressed tenants and blue-collar homeowners that gave this measure whatever political momentum it had through the early 1910s seems unlikely to be repeated now.

Even if it were to be passed, its effects would not be a panacea for the rent crisis. For one, New York’s zoning laws would have to be confronted in order to intensify development so as to make substantive differences in vacancy rates; an issue that booming New York in the 1920s did not have to face as much given the amount of undeveloped land it still possessed. Furthermore, if the largest building boom in New York’s history was not enough to translate into lower rents for the city’s poorest, it suggests that other forms of housing subsidies or policies will be needed to safeguard this population even if and when land-value taxation is passed today. And we should ask whether the environmental damage wrought by reproducing such a boom would be a “consummation devoutly to be wished.”

All that being said, the land-value tax deserves to be passed for several reasons. New York’s middle classes and creative precariat deserve aid, and their predecessors’ experiences in the 1920s suggest that an exemption-driven building boom would indeed help lower, or at least stabilize, rents for them. The policy of fully taxing New York’s vacant residential land is also fiscally useful; currently New York taxes such land at a mere six percent of its market value, robbing the city of both structures and revenue. And more fundamentally, the moral critique of the “unearned increment” that siphons off society’s wealth to the rent-seeking Trumps and Ratners of the world remains as pressing as ever.

We must not forget that the “Golden Age” of income equality (at least among whites) during the 20th century, roughly from the years 1945 to the 1970s, cannot be attributed to any one universal policy. Minimum wage laws, full employment programs, and progressive taxation: these and other measures contributed differently in different places to a general tendency towards higher social mobility and class leveling across the western world. This applies to cities as well. We will need all the policy ammunition we can get if we are to arrest, much less reverse, the inequality that blossoms in our cities like cancer. The land-value tax is one such bullet—not silver, but deadly if aimed right.

unnamedDaniel Wortel-London is a Ph.D. candidate in history at New York University, Jersey-born and Gotham-based, interested in urbanization, the political economy of solidarity, and public policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century North Atlantic. He has written about the class politics of bicycles, the political economy of post-war urban tourism, labor politics in the 1939 New York World’s Fair, notions of “public space” in the works of John Dewey, and the political effects of urban decentralization on Tammany Hall. He also serves as the graduate student editorial board member of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. (@dlondonnyu) 

Holiday Histories and Well Wishes to All

We are taking a brief hiatus from our regular Tuesday Member of the Week feature. With the end-of-semester crunch and end-of-year celebrations in full swing, UHA members have their hands full with work and socializing–no need to burden anyone with more of it! In the spirit of the holidays, we instead bring you two pieces from the personal vaults of The Metropole‘s co-editors.

fullsizeoutput_142dTonight marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Hannukah. Three years ago, in the midst of my dissertation research, I spent a few hours on the first night of the holiday combing through all of the board meeting minutes, programs, flyers, newsletters, and oral histories I had gathered from the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood looking for descriptions of Hannukah celebrations. This Jewish Community Center in Northern Manhattan became the central case study of my dissertation; I was (and continue to be) fascinated by the many ways New York City’s postwar fiscal crisis, demographic changes, and neoliberal renaissance played out within and around one small communal space. The changes in how the Washington Heights Y celebrated Hannukah between 1929 (the earliest records I have) and the late 1970s provide one small window into the evolution of American Jewish identity and the robustness of  sectarian urban institutions.

fullsizeoutput_142cChristmas, meanwhile, is two short weeks away. For those who still prefer brick-and-mortar stores to online retailers, ’tis also the season of malls. For KCET last year, Ryan wrote about how architect Victor Gruen came to design the shopping centers that would go on to become ubiquitous in the American suburbs. Although Gruen pioneered the trend of mall development, he would eventually become a critic of his own retail architecture work.

We hope these offbeat historical takes on the holiday season provide respite from the harsh winter winds and endless stacks of grading. If there was such a thing as a secular blessing over history and historians, I think it would be this:

“I should like professional historians and, above all, the younger ones to reflect upon these hesitancies, these soul-searchings, of our craft. It will be the surest way they can prepare themselves, by a deliberate choice, to direct their efforts reasonably. I should desire above all to see ever-increasing numbers arrive at that broadened and deepened history which some of us–more every day–have begun to conceive.”

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft

Happy holidays !

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

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

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

34870r
John Lewis, then leader of SNCC now congressman, rises to speak at the March on Washington, Bob Adelman, 1963, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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

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

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

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

3c26840r.jpg
People, some with picket signs, gather outside Lincoln School in Englewood, N.J. protesting the city’s failure to end racial segregation, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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

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

3c18982r
Bayard Rustin (center) speaking with (left to right) Carolyn Carter, Cecil Carter, Kurt Levister, and Kathy Ross, before demonstration, 1964, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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

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

35542r
On their way to the March on Washington, CORE members swing down Fort Hamilton Parkway, Brooklyn, toward 69th St. ferry on trek to the capital, O. Fernandez., August 15, 1963, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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

51zi1BIM6mL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

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

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

ESB_Photo

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

 

 

 

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

­­

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid, 95.

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

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

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

[9] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[16] Ibid.

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

[18] Ibid.

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

[20] Ibid.

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

[22] Ibid.

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

[24] Ibid.

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

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

Strange Times in New York

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

By Ryan Donovan Purcell

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

Lindsay NYT

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

Soylent Green Still 1
Soylent Green (1973)
Soylent Green Still 2
Trailer for Soylent Green (1973): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_jGOKYHxaQ&t=18s

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

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

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

Escape from NY
Escape from New York (1981): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckvDo2JHB7o

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

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

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

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

Alton Marshall
Alton Marshall at Rockfeller Center, 1979 (NYT– http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/26/nyregion/26marshall.html

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

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

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

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

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

[2] According the FBI crime reporting statistics, NYC’s crime index increased from 609, 465 in 1966 to 911, 703 in 1974– https://www.ucrdatatool.gov/Search/Crime/State/StatebyState.cfm?NoVariables=Y&CFID=228455794&CFTOKEN=d3af00ce1132c6dc-64C8B77D-C426-E0B9-CAA10D5FA4F7661D.

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

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

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

Member of the Week: Joe Merton

P1000726Joe Merton

Department of History

University of Nottingham

 

 

 

 

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

I’m currently working on a project which examines a perceived crisis of crime, particularly street crime, in 1960s and 1970s New York City, and its role in transforming the city’s politics, public policy norms and modes of governance, built environment and media cultures. You can find a recent example of my research in the Journal of Policy History, which examines the role of public and political anxieties over crime in undermining a culture of expertise in New York politics and policy during the Lindsay years. I was initially hooked in by the image of the infamous ‘Fear City’ campaign run by some of the city’s police officers during the fiscal crisis and widespread austerity of the mid-late 1970s, as well as the symbolic power New York holds in shaping the image we hold of the contemporary city and the promise and perils that lie within it. Yet there’s also something about this period more broadly which seems so fluid, so transformative, and so crucial to the making of our own times and our own cities today: it really is a critical juncture in contemporary history. I wanted my work to be part of that.

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

I teach a final year, full-year course on narratives of crisis and decline in the 1970s United States called Life During Wartime (I’m a Talking Heads fan). We look at the construction of various political and cultural narratives of crisis in the 1970s, from Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich’s predictions of imminent environmental disaster to neoconservative warnings of the impending ‘Finlandization’ of the United States; the pathologies of the urban crisis to the perceived failures of public policy in areas such as welfare or prisons. This is what we in British history departments call a Special Subject, with a strong emphasis on the analysis and discussion of primary sources. It is extremely rewarding to teach, as each year my students come up with new and amazing ways of conceptualising or making sense of the 1970s from their readings of original sources, much of which work to inform my own research (even if they also regularly complain how “gloomy” and “depressing” the content is!).

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

I really enjoyed Brian Tochterman’s recent book on cultural and political representations of post-war New York, The Dying City. It offers such a diverse and wide-ranging insight into the various narratives of fear, pathology and even death which worked to construct a particular image of New York, taking us from film and literature to planning documents and public policy discussions. I also enjoyed the recent collection of articles in Journal of Urban History on New York City after the fiscal crisis, edited by Jonathan Soffer and Themis Chronopoulos, each of which do much to challenge many of our prior understandings of the crisis and the rather loose or imprecise labels – neoliberalism, conservatism, gentrification – we use to conceptualise it. The series also, like Kim Phillips-Fein’s recent book, finally gives us an account of how ordinary New Yorkers experienced the crisis, and its role – sometimes deliberate, at other times inadvertent – in establishing many of the city’s contemporary problems and inequalities.

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

Put yourself out there. It’s not easy, and often intimidating, when you’re starting out, but attend conferences and seminars, submit your work for review, and don’t be afraid to approach others, even senior scholars, with questions, advice, or simply to introduce yourself and your work. The encounters and exchanges you have will undoubtedly enrich your work. On a similar note, don’t forget where you have come from. You were once that irritating undergraduate determined to perfect their coursework or borrow that book. Likewise, you were once that sessional teaching assistant on a poorly-paid, fixed-term contract with little time for marking and teaching preparation, let alone research. Provide counsel and advice, lend support – especially to those new to the game or on short-term contracts – and be as giving of your time as others were to you.

What item/idea/trend/attitude would you bring back from the 1970s, and what enduring item/idea/trend/attitude from that decade do you wish hadn’t followed us into the present?

What a question. I would certainly argue that our diminishing faith or trust in a particularly academic or professional form of expertise – a trend whose genesis I would trace to the 1970s – has had a destructive impact on public life since the 1970s. Equally would anyone argue that the individualism of the 1970s identified in Tom Wolfe’s (admittedly limited) “The ‘Me’ Decade” – now manifested in selfies, Instagram feeds and #YOLO – has really enriched our lives?! As for what I would like to bring back, greatly reduced income inequality would be nice. Or how about a socialist Labour government?