Tag Archives: Policing and Incarceration

From Community Action to Community Policing: The Ford Foundation and the Urban Crisis, 1960-1975

By Sam Collings-Wells

On July 16, 1970, McGeorge Bundy circulated a letter to various US Senators informing them of the Ford Foundation’s “major new program to help strengthen and modernize the exercise of police function in urban areas.”[i] He was referring to the establishment of the Police Foundation, an independent organization which was allocated an enormous $30 million for action-orientated research into new policing strategies and technologies.[ii] Internal program documents repeatedly stressed that the principal purpose of this new entity was to stimulate “change in police function,” not by funding the purchase of additional hardware but instead by “bringing the police closer to the community” and fostering “mutual cooperation between police officers and community residents.”[iii]

The Ford Foundation’s leap into the realm of community policing during the early 1970s has largely been neglected by historians. This is surprising, particularly given that the organization’s role in pioneering the community-based antipoverty strategies of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty has been well documented. Scholars from Alice O’Connor to Joshua Zeitz have demonstrated how the urban community action experiments pioneered by Ford during the early 1960s formed the basis of the “maximum feasible participation” clause of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act.[iv] Yet in these works the Ford Foundation appears only briefly, surfacing as the progenitor of the controversial Community Action Agencies before largely disappearing from view.

This lack of attention to the Ford Foundation’s later efforts in the realm of law enforcement has obscured its role in fraught city politics of the 1960s. Keeping our focus on the organization throughout the decade allows us to track the evolution of its urban policies, which shifted from an antipoverty strategy of “community action” to a law-and-order based program of “community policing.” Despite their obvious differences, these two projects shared a core belief in the efficacy of operating at the level of the “community.” In fact, the Police Foundation’s attempts to better integrate law enforcement into the fabric of local neighborhoods drew on the antipoverty strategies Ford had pioneered earlier in the decade. And crucially, uncovering these connective tissues serves to buttress Elizabeth Hinton’s recent thesis that the transition from War on Poverty to the War on Crime was less a decisive rupture than an organic evolution.[v]

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New Haven Government Center, New Haven, Connecticut. Model A. Façades facing New Haven Green. Street level view, Rudolph Paul, 1968, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Tackling the urban crisis at the level of the community was central to the Ford Foundation’s antipoverty efforts early in the decade. Beginning in 1960, the Foundation’s “Gray Areas” program initiated a series of grants to community corporations in five cities—Boston, Philadelphia, Oakland, New Haven and Washington D.C—which were tasked with formulating an integrated response to inner-city deprivation.[vi] What distinguished this approach from previous antipoverty efforts was its emphasis on engaging poor residents in the formulation of solutions. While in practice the program achieved differing levels of participation, leveraging community associations to democratize the planning and provision of social services remained its core innovation. Local schools often served as the locus of this activity, keeping open their doors after-hours and on weekends for adult education, remedial reading, and various “community building” exercises.[vii]

Other Ford Foundation grants also sought to mobilize the community in the service of urban renewal. The most notable of these was that made to Mobilization for Youth (MFY), an agency located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side which had begun as a traditional anti-delinquency program carried out by a local settlement house tackling gang violence. After receiving Foundation funding in 1960—and under the influence of sociologists such as Leonard Cottrell, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin—MFY was gradually nudged in the direction of greater local participation; by 1963 it had stopped working with existing neighborhood organizations and begun recruiting unaffiliated poor individuals from the Lower East Side.[viii] It was this aspect of the program which would be imported into Lyndon Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act the following year, Title II of which mandated the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor.

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War on Poverty Baltimore Community Action Agency, Thomas J. O’Halloran, May 28, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Yet as both the MFY experiment and LBJ’s War on Poverty demonstrated, mobilising the poor in this way could hardly occur without generating controversy—particularly when the fraught issues of housing, jobs, and poverty interacted with the cresting civil rights movement in the North. By the middle of the decade MFY’s organizers were coordinating a series of rent strikes, boycotts, and protests, none of which endeared the organisation to established local power structures. Soon MFY found itself fighting off charges of communist infiltration and inciting riots.[ix] Similar tensions arose within the Gray Areas program, with communities of color utilizing the new structures it had put in place to press their complaints against city hall. This mirrored the arc of Johnson’s War on Poverty, where local Community Action Agencies (CAAs) clashed with mayors and local police departments. As maximum feasible participation soured into “maximum feasible misunderstanding,” many at the Ford Foundation became embarrassed by their trail-blazing role in the most contentious aspect of Johnson’s War on Poverty.[x]

This backlash to Johnson’s Community Action Agencies ensured that by the time McGeorge Bundy arrived at the Ford Foundation as president in 1966, the organization was already quietly abandoning the more radical aspects of the “community action” approach. As signaled by its pioneering use of Community Development Corporations (CDCs) in Robert Kennedy’s Bedford-Stuyvesant regeneration project, the Foundation began to focus less on the process of community participation and more on the end-goal of attracting business, capital and middle-class residents back to deprived neighborhoods—a precursor to the neoliberalization of urban governance during the late-1970s and 80s.[xi] Despite this shift, however, the Foundation did not banish the participatory impulse of the earlier community action approach altogether. Instead, by the late 1960s it had migrated into the Ford Foundation’s new emphasis on law enforcement—an emphasis which by this time was dovetailing with broader national political shifts.

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Nixon’s the one!“, poster, 1968, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

With Richard Nixon elected in 1968 by capitalizing on widespread concerns over “law and order,” policing appeared to offer the Foundation a powerful, non-controversial avenue for involvement in the urban crisis.[xii] Instead of tackling the root of unrest through community-based antipoverty programs, the Foundation would now focus on controlling the symptom of urban malaise through improved policing strategies. Yet in making this transition the Ford Foundation hardly acted as the President’s cheerleader. Rather, it sought to inject what they saw as a much-needed grassroots emphasis into Nixon’s “top-down” war on crime. This was reflected in the stated ambition of the Police Foundation, which hoped to “[c]ontribute significantly to the movement away from the centralized and quasi-military models of patrol operations to more flexible neighbourhood based patrol operations which are more responsive to varying community needs and values.”[xiii]

The main function of the Police Foundation was to provide financial assistance for a number of (primarily urban) police departments to initiate local experiments and demonstration projects. These were aimed at redefining law enforcement functions, altering the way in which effective policing was assessed by focusing more closely on police-community relations.[xiv] In Cincinnati, for instance, a major impact grant funded an experiment that placed small police teams permanently in specific neighborhoods. Known as community sector team policing (or ComSec), this approach sought to encourage “mutual cooperation between police officers and residents,” with the ultimate aim of “controlling crime by increasing community cooperation.” Similar experiments were undertaken in New York City, Dallas, Kansas City and Sacramento.[xv]

Community action had thus evolved into a form of community policing, which sought to control urban unrest by stitching structures of surveillance into the social life of the neighborhood itself. The ComSec program not only encouraged private citizens to involve themselves in crime prevention by reporting it to trusted officers, but actually sought to blur the distinction between police and community by instructing officers to work in plain clothes and interact regularly with the neighborhood. And as a report on the Dallas Police Department’s program noted, this would help identify the “basic needs of the community” through “restructuring police services to respond to those needs.”[xvi] This reached its apotheosis in Dayton, Ohio, where the Foundation funded the establishment of a Joint Task Force which paired both citizens and police officers together to work towards to tackling civil disorders, prostitution, and drug abuse. Its explicit purpose was “to involve citizens in police policymaking.”[xvii]

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Ford Foundation Headquarters atrium, New York, New York, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Ford Foundation was still seeking to develop communities, then, but the focus of this effort shifted. Rather than building a community around the school-house—as had occurred during the Gray Areas program—the Foundation now sought to construct one around the police station. The rhetoric and practices of “community self-help” and “grassroots empowerment” were co-opted to accommodate shifting political currents, inflecting these shifts in turn with its own peculiar emphasis on local participation. By the 1970s, one strand of this had led to the market-orientated emphasis of Community Development Corporations; the other to the law-enforcement community work of the Police Foundation.

Together, these two strands worked reciprocally to pave the way for the neoliberalization of urban governance during the 1980s. They did so by helping to replace a liberal strategy of federal spending linked to community mobilisation with one focused on attracting business investment–and more effectively policing disordered urban spaces that remained. A constant throughout these shifts was the analytical base-unit of the urban “community.” The difference was that these communities were not only starved of external assistance by the retrenchment of the welfare state, but also found themselves subject to efforts to direct their own internal resources towards surveillance and coercion rather than empowerment and mobilization.

ProfileSam Collings-Wells is a first year PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. His research examines the historical intersections between community development, modernization, and policing in cities around the world. Twitter: @Sam_cw_

Featured image (at top): Woolworth store on 14th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., an area affected by the 1968 riots, November 6, 1972, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 


[i] Letter from McGeorge Bundy to Mike Mansfield, (July 16, 1970), Ford Foundation Archives (FF), Office Files of McGeorge Bundy [OFMB], Series II: Subject Files, FA617, Box 17, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), Sleepy Hollow, New York, p. 1.

[ii] Ford Foundation, Annual Report 1970, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1970), pp. 8-9.

[iii] National Affairs, “Police Foundation: Progress Report,” (1973), Catalogued Reports, Reports 1-3254 (FA739A), Box 105, Report no. 002445, p. 6.

[iv] Robert Halpern, Rebuilding the Inner City: A History of Neighborhood Initiatives to Address Poverty in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); Joshua Zeitz, Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House (New York: Viking, 2018). See also Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012).

[v] Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[vi] Ananya Roy, Emma Shaw Crane, and Stuart Schrader, “Gray Areas: The War on Poverty at Home and Abroad,” in Roy and Crane, eds., Territories of Poverty: Rethinking North and South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015).

[vii] Alice O’Connor, “Community Action, Urban Reform, and the Fight against Poverty: The Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas Program,” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 22, No. 5 (July 1996), pp. 586-625.

[viii] Goldstein, Poverty in Common, pp. 123-124.

[ix] Tamar W. Carroll, Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[x] Daniel P. Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (New York: The Free Press, 1969).

[xi] Ferguson, Top-Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Tom Adam Davies, “Black Power in Action: The Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Robert F. Kennedy, and the Politics of the Urban Crisis,” Journal of American History, Vol. 100, No. 3, (December 2013), pp. 736-760.

[xii] Lawrence O’Donnell, Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics (New York: Penguin Press, 2017).

[xiii] “Police Foundation: Progress Report,” p.16.

[xiv] The Ford Foundation, A More Effective Arm: A Report on a Police Development Fund, Newly Established by the Ford Foundation (New York: The Ford Foundation, 1970).

[xv] “Police Foundation: Progress Report,” pp. 6-8.

[xvi] The Ford Foundation Information Paper, Appendix B: “Summary of Grants, Foundation-Administered Projects and Publications,” (1973), Catalogued Reports, Reports 1-3254 (FA739A), Box 105, Report no. 002445, p. 1.

[xvii] The Ford Foundation Information Paper, Appendix B, p. 3.

 

The Metropole Bookshelf: Historian Genevieve Carpio discusses the intersection of mobility and ethnic studies in her new work, Collisions at the Crossroads

The Metropole Bookshelf is an opportunity for authors of forthcoming or recently published books to let the UHA community know about their new work in the field.

Genevieve Carpio. Collisions at the Crossroads: How How Place and Mobility Make Race. University of California Press, 2019.

By Genevieve Carpio

Collisions at the Crossroads seeks to bring the insights of both mobility and ethnic studies to bear on the histories of race-making across the 20th century, particularly in places with large multiracial populations. In this effort, I foreground not just migration and immigration, but the everyday movement of people and the practices shaping those movements in Californiafrom bicycle laws criminalizing Japanese agricultural workers in the era of the Alien Land Laws; to popular radio broadcasts that treated Mexican drivers with suspicion as joyriding laws incarcerated Mexican youth in unprecedented numbers during the Depression era; to the hyperpolicing of Latino motorists through sobriety checkpoints that targeted undocumented drivers prior to 2015.

 When I looked across time, I found that restrictions and permissions on mobility were intimately tied to race-making. I focus on inland Southern California and the networks flowing from it, which were symbolically and economically tied to the production of citrus. But, the need for mobile labor consistently came into contact with a hegemonic desire to maintain strict racial lines. When the mobility of nonwhite (and poor white) workers challenged that flow, it was met by staunch efforts to manage it.

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In some of its more extreme forms, people of color’s mobility was met by criminalization and, subsequently, imprisonment. Even bicyclists were arrested at high rates for behaviors as common as riding without a light in the evening. In inland communities, three or more violations of such rules could result in six months of jail time, not to mention hefty fees. These trends have persisted historically—the mobility of people of color has been met with state efforts to immobilize it. This is a story that cannot be told without placing (im)migration history, particularly that of aggrieved groups, alongside the continually unfolding process of settler colonialism. There is debate about exactly how these various groups are positioned alongside one another, but there is large consensus that the attempted control of each group has been a key component of advancing the white settler colonial project.

I also aim to show that groups we think of as stuck in place have come up with innovative mobility strategies to overcome the confinement that state forces would thrust upon them. For instance, we see this with prisoners and their allies, who created periodicals that circulated where they themselves could not, worked collectively to foster family visitation across geographic divides, and risked further incarceration by running away when living conditions were unbearable. There are parallels across time. For instance, I also include stories about the ways those who would be confined resist their immobility, such as American Indian children who ran away from federal boarding schools at the turn of the 19th century and Mexican American youth who manipulated their registration records to avert police arrest in the mid-twentieth century.

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Traffic on Interstate 405, Los Angeles, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

We cannot fully understand current battles against oppressive forms of containment and the pursuit of mobility equity (migration, transportation, and otherwise) without considering a historical perspective. In this endeavor, it is imperative to foreground analyses of everyday mobilities. Part of what inspired this project was witnessing the injustice of traffic checkpoints across Southern California during the twenty first century, as well as responses to them by activists. Although erected in the name of stopping inebriated drivers, by and large they targeted undocumented immigrants in majority Latinx communities. They were held during peak commuting hours, between school dismissal and the end of the workday, and often far from bars or pubs. That is, they were targeting everyday mobility. It turned the street into a minefield that could be triggered at anytime. But, it did not target everyone equally. It is through practices such as these that we learn who does and who does not have access to the street and, by extension, public space and cultural belonging.

This is not just an academic conversation. Rather, spatial mobility continues to be an important battleground on which aggrieved groups struggle for equity. This struggle is fought through grassroots activism and litigation, cultural claims for inclusion through the reimagining of car culture, and cries for public transit justice here in Los Angeles. I find great inspiration in these efforts and the futures they make possible.

CEBA9419Genevieve Carpio is an Assistant Professor in UCLA’s César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies. She is author of Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (University of California Press, 2019).

 Featured image (at top): Map of Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mountains, Automobile Club of Southern California, circa 1915, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

 

Rethinking Partisanship in the Postwar United States

By Charlotte Rosen

In 2016, two Black Lives Matter activists made headlines when they confronted Hillary Clinton at a private fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina. Holding a sign that contained the words “We have to bring them to heel,” Ashley Williams called on Clinton to “apologize to Black people for mass incarceration.” The sign referenced a statement Hillary Clinton made during her husband’s reelection campaign, where in praising President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, she referred to the primarily Black working-class youth being targeted by the punitive crime legislation as “super-predators.” Clinton added, “We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” During Williams’s action, Clinton became visibly flustered, frustrated, and then patronizing, accusing Williams of not wanting to hear the facts. Attendees in the video can be heard expressing their displeasure with Williams, saying things like “that’s rude” or “this is not appropriate.”[1]

Embedded in the audience’s irritation with Williams’s confrontation is a pervasive yet misleading historical interpretation of American politics in the post-WWII United States. In its most condensed form, this interpretation of postwar partisanship portrays Democrats and Republicans as polar, warring opposites: Democrats are pro-civil rights, in favor of robust social welfare programs, and egalitarian, while Republicans are hostile to racial, economic, and gender equality and enemies of big government social provision. Historically speaking, such a paradigm presents an “all-roads-lead-to-Reagan” narrative that interprets mass incarceration as the result of the New Right’s victorious ousting of a dying New Deal liberal order.[2] To expose the Clintons’ role in escalating the current crisis of racialized policing and imprisonment, as Williams did, disrupts this powerful historical construct of American partisanship. Two parties and their constituencies that once appeared at historic odds over racialized law and order politics now appear as all too comfortable accomplices in its harmful escalation.

Pointing out unsavory or bad faith liberal policymaking is far from a foreign project for urban historians. From detailing the structural shortcomings of the New Deal’s pro-growth economics, mapping the government’s many-handed facilitation of racially unequal housing markets and urban development policies, and outlining the ways liberal welfare programs criminalized working-class Black and Brown communities, the literature is robust and shows no signs of slowing. Yet, unspoken but powerful discursive boundaries between liberals and conservatives have shaped the way urban historians conceptualize power in the post-World War II era. Bad liberal actors or liberal constituencies are not hard to find in histories of postwar metropolitan inequality, but we have qualified their politically harmful actions as unintended, tightly bound to local or regional metropolitan contexts, and ultimately still not on par with conservatives. Even when expertly dissected, our core lens for understanding postwar history often remains one of partisan difference, with Democrats and Republicans’ epic battles driving our understanding of major political outcomes.[3]

Recent urban historical literature on the development of the postwar metropolis and rise of mass incarceration suggests that the framework of postwar partisanship obscures more than it clarifies. Specifically, this framework has erased an equally if not more important legacy of convergence between white conservative and liberal politicians and constituencies around core ideologies like the sanctity of private property rights, belief in the myth of meritocratic individualism, and the social and political decency of law and order policing.[4] Embedded in this bipartisan ideology is an ostensibly race-neutral and uncontroversial political economy that actually structurally disadvantages working-class Black and Brown communities through criminalization and exclusion. As common sense values for both postwar Republicans and Democrats, property ownership, consumer choice, and law and order stymied racial integration and legitimized new formations of racial subjugation in the late postwar period. By making it harder for analysts to see these norms as bipartisan – and therefore more powerfully entrenched in United States governance and political systems – a rigid partisan framework actually limits our ability to identify the mechanisms that keep white supremacy and capitalism churning in the post-Civil Rights era. As Matthew Lassiter contends, with “red-blue binaries” serving as the “hegemonic framework” of postwar US political history, we miss the unpleasant fact that a “supermajority” of white people found common ground in resisting racial integration.[5] And as Naomi Murakawa notes in The First Civil Right, partisan frameworks reductively paint racial inequality as the product of external “white animus” amid an otherwise “non-racial backdrop,” critically missing the shared norms and ideologies that reproduce hierarchies of racial difference in US political institutions and administrative structures.[6]

Scholarship on the postwar metropolis, and specifically the development of the suburbs, reveals the limits of the partisan binary. On the one hand, this literature has demonstrated that the New Deal era mass production of segregated white middle class property owners did not lead to a clear-cut partisan politics. Although once considered bastions of the New Right, it is now clear that suburbs served as ready incubators not just for conservatism but for more centrist and even diehard liberal political cultures. Yet, despite their differences in political party preference, white suburbanites of all stripes coalesced around a belief in the political purity of individual property ownership and the colorblind myth that they had earned prosperity through hard work instead of systemic white racial privilege. Suburbanites’ investment in the politics of homeownership produced what Matthew Lassiter calls in The Silent Majority a “bipartisan political language” of private property rights and white “suburban innocence” that resonated with both staunch conservatives and a more “volatile center” whose partisan preferences have been historically up for grabs.[7] Indeed, the electoral success of racially moderate and pro-growth New Democrats such as Bill Clinton or the more recent success of Doug Jones in the Sunbelt south remind us that suburban areas normally deemed loyal Republican strongholds were and remain electorally competitive. Even bleeding heart liberal suburbanites, whose partisan affiliation remained firmly Democratic in the postwar period, infused their party with the same free market meritocracy and individual property rights ethos of New South politicians. As Lily Geismer argues in Don’t Blame Us, although suburban liberals outside Boston led seemingly progressive campaigns for fair housing or metropolitan school integration, their foundational belief that their homes were the product of individual effort made their support for civil rights contingent on whether proposed reforms protected their property values and attendant racial privileges. Their perception of markets as fundamental so long as they were stripped of formal discrimination led them to repeatedly push for individualist solutions over ones that would meaningfully address historic structures of racial discrimination.[8]

In highlighting points of ideological convergence among white suburbanites, histories of postwar metropolitan space disrupt traditional narratives of partisan difference. Through zeroing in on what white suburbanites and their politicians actually do, rather than merely taking proclamations of party affiliation at face value, this literature reveals a more central and axiomatic bipartisan commitment to the historical fiction of meritocratic individualism, free markets, and private property as all-encompassing pathways to freedom. In doing so, this body of work actually helps us to make clearer sense of why racial inequality persists in our post-Civil Rights era. Although facially race-neutral, in practice these bipartisan ideologies enshrined racial hierarchies in politics, policymaking, and private markets by masking structural inequality and white complicity. Rather than rooting our analysis of postwar political development in party rhetoric or electoral gains and losses, studies of postwar metropolitan space uncover a more diffuse – and therefore more durable – bipartisan project of institutionalizing racial difference and protecting capitalism. Perhaps most pressingly, they presage the political perils of the Democratic party’s continued appeals to this white, middle-to-upper class suburban center. As Lily Geismer and Matthew Lassiter wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, such a strategy nourishes an unequal status quo and alienates the very working-class voters that are central to Democratic Party success.[9]

Histories of the postwar carceral state similarly suggest the ineffectiveness of partisan framing for making sense of mass incarceration. Naomi Murakawa, Elizabeth Hinton, Heather Ann Thompson, and Heather Schoenfeld dismantle common presentations of liberalism as a progressive foiPl to conservative law and order by revealing postwar Democrats’ expansive role in generating the racialized carceral state. Far from merely reacting or submitting to conservatives’ crime and punishment hysteria, postwar liberals laid the groundwork for the later mass imprisonment of Black communities.[10] Perhaps most shockingly, they did so not merely by bulking up the state’s criminal justice arms but by infusing punitive frameworks into often celebrated liberal social welfare programs. As Elizabeth Hinton demonstrates in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, postwar liberal administrators embedded racist assumptions about Black “cultural deficiencies” into flagship liberal welfare legislation, such as in President Kennedy’s Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961 and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and War on Crime, that constructed African American youth as pathologically criminal.[11] The result was that liberal administrations, and Johnson’s in particular, increasingly steered antipoverty programs towards more punitive forms of state intervention in majority Black neighborhoods that swapped social workers and community programs for law enforcement and militarization.

Johnson’s punitive “merger” of welfare with crime control reached its peak in the Safe Streets Act of 1968, which pumped $400 million via the newly created Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) into state governments for the purposes of modernizing local law enforcement and heightening the surveillance and social control in Black urban areas.[12] Nixon would go on to channel LEAA funds in ways that expanded the state’s capacity to criminalize the Black urban poor, and Reagan’s War on Drugs would implement some of the most harmful and racist carceral policies of the era. But scholarship on liberal law and order demonstrates that conservatives in many ways appropriated and expanded upon a liberal project of punitive anticrime policies, namely that of replacing robust social welfare administration with law enforcement, making the rise of racialized mass incarceration a distinctly bipartisan project.

Although mainstreaming knowledge about liberal complicity in mass incarceration and spatial segregation is crucial, the point is not that we should only blame liberals, but rather that partisan frameworks more generally limit our ability to see the causes and mechanisms of postwar inequality clearly. Julilly Kohler Hausmann’s study of welfare and criminal justice policymaking in the 1970s comes closest to modeling a post-partisanship framework by showing how grassroots constituencies and legislators on both sides of the aisle accepted as true the claim that “most criminals were governable only through punishment and incapacitation, and state efforts to rehabilitate them were futile and counterproductive.”[13] This is not to say, of course, that Republicans and Democrats are perfect mirror images of one another when it came to racialized crime politics; there remain critical differences between the two parties and their development over time that consequentially shaped the development of the racialized carceral state. But decentering partisanship cuts through the false binaries of the Democratic Party’s innocence and the Republican Party’s singular cruelty by making the historically co-constituted embrace of racialized law and order politics visible.

Beyond forcing us to contend with the real impact of this bipartisan “common sense,” decentering partisanship also means grappling with the messier historical forces that fueled carceral state expansion and the white supremacist metropolis. Even as this scholarship challenges an easy narrative of white elite culpability for mass incarceration or spatial segregation (bipartisan or otherwise), it also highlights the insufficiency of partisan frameworks to properly account for contemporary crises of inequality. For example, Kohler-Hausmann shows how harmful policies such as mandatory sentencing ironically have their roots in prisoners’ complaints about harm done by indeterminate sentencing. Similarly, James Foreman’s Locking Up Our Own describes how Black lawmakers in Washington D.C. supported punitive anticrime policies as an extension, rather than repudiation, of their civil rights commitment to the “protection of black lives.”[14]

Scholars of the suburbs have also rightfully refuted presentations of postwar suburbs as all-white and elite spaces, and in doing so have explored nonwhite suburbanites’ more complex relationships to property ownership and suburban political culture. Black suburbanites, whose population ballooned nationally in the postwar period, often acquired homes in suburbs out of a desire to escape the white supremacist spatial terrain of the city, achieve upward mobility, and build Black community, even as they faced continued racial barriers in the suburbs.[15] The fact that Black suburbanites’ pursuit of property often led them to strengthen rather than dismantle the unequal racial and class logics embedded in real estate markets cannot be understood absent a deeper analysis of property ownership as a means of liberation in African American communities. As Nathan D. B. Connolly contends in A World More Concrete, Black property ownership must be contextualized within a longer history of racialized political exclusion and structural violence that made property ownership one of the only means of a still limited Black political power.[16]

In other words, that the carceral state or metropolitan disparity is not the straightforward product of political conspiracy, and instead is the result of a more complex and historically-situated series of institutional legacies, unintended and intended policy outcomes, and political decisions, suggests partisanship’s constraints in telling this story. Decentering the explanatory power of partisan polarization, then, also allows us to better grasp how institutionalized and racist frameworks around law and order policing and Black criminality amplified some policies over others in ways that could coopt the intentions of more transformative reforms.

Once untethered from expectations about partisan political behavior, our narratives become less about revealing that liberals were racist or elitist or warmongers too—although such work has and continues to be vital— and more about diagnosing the shared ideologies, norms, and frameworks that keep white supremacy and capitalism afloat regardless of whom is in office. Even in our current moment, where Trump’s daily and terrifying legitimization of fascism and white nationalism might suggest a renewed need for partisan analysis, disrupting partisan frameworks is critical. Decentering partisanship reminds us that our work will not be done when Trump leaves office or when pundits deem the most visible manifestations of racial violence eliminated. As historian Dan Berger warns in his trenchant critique of the “First Step Act,” the much-celebrated bipartisan prison reform bill passed last November, the historic maintenance of a bipartisan “middle ground” that preserves the sanctity of policing and prisons ensures that reform efforts barely undo the carceral status quo and often serve to bolster it through repackaged forms of surveillance and criminalization.[17] Although it might be tempting to dig into narratives of postwar partisan polarization, approaching this same history with an eye for shared assumptions and bipartisan collaborations – what goes unquestioned or appears as orthodoxy to the majority of those involved – will offer a more clarifying, if less politically sexy, narrative of American state governance.

In clarifying where and how “liberalism and conservatism overlapped,” urban historians and historians of the carceral state should see our scholarship as ground zero for reconceptualizing the bigger postwar historical narrative of United States politics. This does not mean ignoring real partisan difference or discarding deep analyses of party politics entirely. The discrete political agendas of Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, or northeastern liberals and southern segregationists, continue to deserve analysis. But a bipartisan lens is crucial for making sense of the postwar era’s most defining markers of institutional racial and economic inequality, including the crisis of mass incarceration, rampant resegregation of public schools, the return of Gilded Age levels of income inequality, and much more. With scholarship on the postwar carceral state and metropolitan politics as our guide, urban historians should see partisan convergence not merely as added historical complexity but as a framework for theorizing – and potentially reimagining—20th century American state power.

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Charlotte Rosen is a doctoral student at Northwestern University studying US urban history. She is currently researching crime and prison politics in late-twentieth-century Pennsylvania. Prior to graduate school, Charlotte worked for a housing justice nonprofit in the Bay Area. You can find her on Twitter @CharlotteERosen.

 

 

Featured image: Black Lives Matters activist Ashley Williams confronting Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton during a South Carolina fundraiser in February, 2016. Image originally featured here.

[1] “Mrs. Clinton Campaign Speech,” January 25th, 1996, C-SPAN, https://www.c-span.org/video/?69606-1/mrs-clinton-campaign-speech; Eugene Scott, “Black Lives Matter Protestors confront Clinton at Fundraiser,” February 25th, 2016, CNN.com, https://www.cnn.com/2016/02/25/politics/hillary-clinton-black-lives-matter-whichhillary/index.html.

[2] Matthew Lassiter, “Political History Beyond the Red-Blue Divide,” The Journal of American History 98, no. 3 (2011): 761.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Lassiter, “Political History Beyond the Red-Blue Divide;” Julilly Kohler Haussman, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017); Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[5] Lassiter, “Political History Beyond the Red-Blue Divide,” 763.

[6] Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right, 8.

[7] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 1, 304, 319.

[8] Lily Geismer, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). See also Lila Corwin Berman, Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[9] Lily Geismer and Matthew Lassiter, “Turning Affluent Suburbs Blue Isn’t Worth the Cost,” June 9th, 2018, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/opinion/sunday/affluent-suburbs-democrats.html.

[10] Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime; Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right; Heather Schoenfeld, Building A Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” The Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (2010): 703–34.

[11] Hinton, 39.

[12] Hinton, 98, 103-135.

[13] Julilly Kohler Haussman, Getting Tough, 210.

[14] James Forman, Jr., Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), 11.

[15] Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 8.

[16] Nathan D. B. Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)

[17] Dan Berger, “What the Latest Bipartisan Prison Reform Gets Wrong and Why It Matters,” November 16th, 2018, Truthout.org, https://truthout.org/articles/what-the-latest-bipartisan-prison-reform-gets-wrong-and-why-it-matters/.

Member of the Week: Llana Barber

Barber - PhotoLlana Barber

Associate Professor, American Studies

College at Old Westbury (SUNY)

 

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

My first book, Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945-2000, explored the history of Dominican and Puerto Rican experiences with urban crisis in Lawrence, MA, and Latinx activism to transform the city. When it was published last year, I thought that would mark the end of the project. Instead, it has brought me the opportunity to travel widely to discuss my research, and these conversations continually push my ideas to evolve. So, although I am no longer in the archives in Lawrence, I remain engaged in this research.

My new project, however, is quite different. I am researching the incarceration, interdiction, repatriation, and deportation of Haitian migrants from the 1970s to 1990s. I argue that this militarized migrant exclusion was central to the formation of the U.S. as a nativist state. While this project does not have a distinctly urban focus, there are surprising methodological overlaps. Being an urban historian has made me particularly attentive to the fact that dramatic inequality can be created and maintained by restricting human mobility across space, and that force, law, and discourse have long been used in concert to contain marginalized populations. My work applies these urban history insights to the study of national borders and American empire.

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

The College at Old Westbury (SUNY) is a small, public, liberal arts college with a longstanding social-justice mission and a student body that is diverse by nearly every metric. My scholarship weaves together several different fields, and I am fortunate that I get to teach in all of them: immigration history, urban history, Latinx history, and the history of U.S. imperialism. My students often have strong opinions and immense curiosity about the past. Their outrage over injustice and their enthusiasm for social movements keep these histories vivid and new for me, so being in the classroom consistently reignites my drive to excavate the past. My students never let me lose sight of the “so what?” in my scholarship; we feed in each other a faith that understanding systems of oppression will help us dismantle them.

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

I loved Julio Capó’s Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940! His work shows the rich results of applying queer theory and transnational methodologies to urban history. Also, I thought Kelly Lytle Hernández’s City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965 broke important ground in uncovering the relationship between the carceral state and the nativist state.

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

As obsessed as I am with systems, spaces, and structures, history is about people. If your work is missing people’s voices, it is missing the point.

Your undergraduate degree is in dance! What historical event or episode would you want to be commissioned to choreograph a dance about, and where would you stage the performance?

Great question! Yes, my undergraduate degree is indeed in dance, but I was always more interested in the cultural context (who danced and where? who watched and why?), than the content. So, if I may indulge my fancy here: rather than choreograph a dance performance about a specific historic event, I would rather take people out dancing. Popular dance cultures still thrive, and their transformations over time create an embodied record of the past. Similar to oral histories, dance cultures need to be interpreted carefully as historical sources, but there is a lot to be learned about a city’s past on its dancefloors!

The Metropole Bookshelf: Timothy Lombardo’s Blue Collar Conservatism

The Metropole Bookshelf is an opportunity for authors of forthcoming or recently published books to let the UHA community know about their new work in the field.

By Timothy J. Lombardo

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Timothy J. Lombardo. 2018. Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 328 pp. 10 photos. ISBN: 978-0-8122-5054-1. $37.50. Hardcover.

Frank Rizzo embarked on his first campaign for mayor of Philadelphia in 1971. Promising “law and order” and running as the self-proclaimed “toughest cop in America,” his campaign focused on turning out voters from Philadelphia’s white ethnic, blue-collar neighborhoods. With a month before the election Rizzo campaigned heavily in South Philadelphia, where he had been born and raised. During a stop at a neighborhood tavern, a campaign reporter asked the bar’s patrons what they liked about Rizzo. One replied that the city needed “an 11th grade dropout” to straighten things out. “He’ll win because he isn’t a Ph.D.,” he continued. “He’s one of us. Rizzo came up the hard way.”

Frank Rizzo went on to win the election and serve two terms as the mayor of Philadelphia, becoming the first former police commissioner elected mayor of a major American city. As police commissioner, Rizzo earned a national reputation for his tough stance on crime, the heavy-handed tactics of his police force, and his openly hostile treatment of civil rights activists. Although Rizzo was a Democrat, he maintained his base of support by opposing public housing, school desegregation, affirmative action and other liberal programs that he and his supporters deemed unearned advantages for nonwhites.

Rizzo was perhaps the archetypal example of late twentieth-century urban, white ethnic, populist conservatism and the quintessential “backlash” politician of the 1960s and 1970s. He is rightly remembered as one the most controversial figures in the city’s history. Yet his white ethnic, blue-collar supporters never wavered in their support of the tough-talking former cop they called “one of us.”

Blue-Collar Conservatism tells the story of Frank Rizzo’s white ethnic, blue-collar supporters and their evolving politics in the long postwar era. It focuses on the working- and middle-class white Philadelphians that fought the integration of their children’s schools, their neighborhoods, and their workplaces while clamoring for “law and order.” It locates their “blue-collar conservatism” in a mutually reinforcing promotion of law-and-order conservatism and selective rejection of welfare liberalism. In Frank Rizzo they found a champion and defender of their blue-collar traditions and institutions. They responded not only to his forceful rhetoric, but also his up-from-the-streets “one of us” populism.

The standard explanation for the rise of working-class anti-liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s has relied on a familiar narrative of racial backlash. This focus, while not inaccurate, has obscured the importance of class ideologies and identities in this political history. Blue-Collar Conservatism shows how Frank Rizzo’s supporters attempted to use class identity and blue-collar discourses to obfuscate the racial politics of modern liberal policymaking. The result was the establishment of a populist variant of modern conservatism shaped by the racial upheavals of midcentury urban America, but imbued with blue-collar identity politics.

The context for this political development is the urban crisis of the 1960s and 1970s. The upheaval that led to high rates of unemployment, shrinking city tax bases, fiscal shortfalls, rising crime and, most dramatically, waves of urban uprisings, produced the spatial and political realignments that shaped modern American political culture. Blue-collar whites in Philadelphia and throughout the country were caught up in the many transformations wrought by the urban crisis. Blue-Collar Conservatism shows how their political transformation sprang from both the economic instabilities of a changing era and their responses to a shifting racial order.

In the end, Blue-Collar Conservatism offers a nuanced social and political history of a pivotal period in modern America, set in one of its most dynamic cities. It uses Frank Rizzo, his supporters, and his city to explore how white working-class engagement with the politics of the urban crisis led to one of the least understood but most significant developments in modern American political history. The book ultimately shows how urban blue-collar whites joined the conservative movement that reached fruition in the 1980s and reshaped it into a coalition that backed populist politicians from Frank Rizzo to Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump.

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Timothy J. Lombardo is a Philadelphia native and an Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Alabama. His work has appeared in The Journal of Social History, The Journal of Urban History, The Journal of American History, and The Washington Post. Blue-Collar Conservatism is his first book. Follow him on Twitter @TimLombard0

Opportunity Costs in the War on Crime: The High Impact Anti-Crime Program in Newark

This post by Andy Grim is our third entrant into the Second Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. Grim’s essay exams a moment in which the city of Newark “struck gold” by winning a High Impact Anti-Crime Program grant. The lucre, however, proved a mixed blessing…

In January 1972, the Nixon Administration announced a new, $160 million crime fighting initiative. The High Impact Anti-Crime Program—operated by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) of the Justice Department—selected eight medium-sized cities with high crime rates, each of which would receive $20 million over three years to combat “stranger-to-stranger” street crime, focusing in particular on murder, rape, robbery, assault, and burglary. LEAA administrator Jerris Leonard touted the potential of the program, declaring it “will revolutionize crime control.”[1] Newark, New Jersey—one of the cities selected to participate in the program—took this call to revolutionize crime control further than any other city. Earl Phillips, a 38-year old psychologist selected to run the Impact program in Newark—and the only Black Impact program director in the country—proposed allocating most of the funds not to the police or to other established criminal justice agencies, but to community groups and social service programs. For the LEAA, which prioritized allocating federal money to beef up the capacity of local police forces, this creative, non-punitive approach to combatting crime represented a direct challenge to their “law and order” way of thinking.

In the years leading up to its selection for the Impact program, Newark experienced more than its share of hardship. Its economy had been declining for decades, as manufacturing and service industries moved out of the city in large numbers, leaving scores of unemployed men and women behind in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1970, when Kenneth Gibson was elected the city’s first Black mayor, Newark faced daunting budget deficits, high rates of unemployment, surging crime rates, and a nascent heroin epidemic. The homicide rate in Newark was four times the national average.[2] Many city and state officials saw the High Impact program as a way to breathe new life into the ailing city. New Jersey Governor William T. Cahill expressed his desire to see the funds used to modernize police equipment and enlarge the police force in Newark, saying that a grant-funded expansion in crime control measures “will contribute to the rejuvenation and revitalization of the City of Newark.”[3]

Mayor Gibson, for his part, expressed his appreciation for the LEAA’s purported commitment to let cities develop their anti-crime programs as they saw fit. “For the first time,” he declared, “the City of Newark will be able to decide what its needs are to fight crime without worrying if those needs fit into some specific federal guideline.”[4]

Earl Phillips press conference

Phillips, whom Gibson selected to run the program, did not come to the High Impact program from a law enforcement background. Rather, he had most recently served as head of the Essex County Urban League, working on prison and housing reform among other issues. He brought a social science-oriented approach to his work with the Impact program. Phillips assembled a team of social workers, lawyers, and criminologists to craft the city’s proposal to the LEAA for how they planned to allocate the funds. Phillips and his team conducted a months-long analysis of crime in Newark, which had the highest crime rate of all Impact cities, followed by St. Louis and Baltimore.[5] In the process, they consulted with community groups and attended community meetings at which residents complained about the problem of crime in their neighborhoods and the lack of adequate police protection; residents openly explored the idea of establishing their own patrols to make up for the inadequate police presence. Phillips supported this idea and included it in his final team’s proposal.

Beyond inadequate policing, his team also found that high school dropouts committed a significant portion of crimes in the city. Consequently, they proposed establishing alternative schools for dropouts.[6] For drug users who had been convicted of a crime, Phillips proposed establishing treatment programs rather than merely incarcerating them.[7] Many of Phillips’ proposals sought to find preventative and non-punitive responses to crime in the city. And many of them involved allocating money not to the police or to courts or jails, but to community groups and social service programs. Phillips’ emphasis on community involvement reflected the ethos of the Community Action and Model Cities Programs, federal anti-poverty initiatives established under the Johnson administration, which mandated “maximum feasible participation” of residents of the areas being served.

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Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Newark, Essex County, New Jersey, Sanborn Map Company Volume 4, 1892, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

This community-oriented and preventative approach marked a departure from the way the LEAA tended to operate. As scholars like Vesla Weaver, Elizabeth Hinton, and Julilly Kohler-Hausmann have observed, the LEAA typically took a purely “law and order” approach to the crime problem. Rather than addressing root causes of crime or exploring non-punitive methods of enhancing public safety, they facilitated the militarization of police forces, providing departments with costly and unnecessary equipment, including an airplane for the Indiana State Police and, for the police in Birmingham, Alabama, three tanks.[8] For the LEAA’s critics, such expenditures seemed wildly out of sync with the agency’s purported goal of reducing crime. Phillips had no intention of implementing this flawed approach, and no intention of reflexively shoveling more money to a police department that many saw as hostile to large swaths of the city’s population.

Newark had a long history of tension between its police department and Black and Puerto Rican residents. In the postwar era, activists had agitated continuously for policing reforms and sought to draw attention to police mistreatment of Black and Puerto Rican Newarkers. In 1967, a police beating of a Black cabdriver sparked a rebellion in the city during which 26 people were killed, many by police officers.

When Mayor Gibson came into office in 1970 he promised to reform the notoriously corrupt and brutal police department. However, the Gibson administration failed to fully deliver on this promise. Within a year of his inauguration the New Jersey branch of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a scathing report indicating that accusations of police brutality by Black and Puerto Rican Newarkers had actually risen under Gibson.[9]

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Neighborhood Youth Corps, Newark, N.J, photography Thomas O’Halloran, February 16, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In their High Impact proposal, Phillips and his team addressed the tense relationship between Newark police and citizens. The proposal noted “There is presently a feeling on the part of the community that the police ‘don’t care.’ They are unresponsive to the crime problems of the city and apathetic to the concerns of potential crime victims in high crime areas.”[10] In the previous year, police had failed to respond to approximately 15,000 calls for service, leading many in the city to feel the police department had abandoned them.[11] “Citizens,” Phillips observed, “while crying out for more police protection, often do not trust or cooperate with the police.” Rather than ignoring this lack of trust or hoping that years of police-community tensions could be resolved simply by giving the police department more money, Phillips chose to focus on empowering the community to take the issue of crime control into their own hands without having to rely on a historically unreliable police force. Phillips proposed allocating 34% of Impact funds to community groups, with 27% to the police, 14% to juvenile areas, 15% to corrections, 8% to narcotics, and 2% to the courts.[12]

Before Phillips’ plan could be implemented it had to be approved by the LEAA. Unfortunately, the plan received a chilly reception by LEAA officials, who complained: “The plan tends to be critical of the system, especially the police, and describes the development of the community as the core of the overall strategy.”[13] They conceded that community involvement was a necessary component of crime control initiatives, but objected to Phillips making such involvement the linchpin of Newark’s anti-crime strategy. The response also criticized the proposal for dealing too much with crime causation. LEAA administrators preferred a short-term, police-oriented approach that could be shown to have immediate impact on crime rates.

The LEAA did not simply reject Phillips’ proposal. They demanded that Mayor Gibson fire him or else lose the $20 million in Impact funding. Gibson initially defended Phillips and tried to negotiate with the LEAA but the agency stood firm. Phillips chose to resign rather than risk Newark being removed from the High Impact program.[14]

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Parkhurst at Pennsylvania Ave., Newark, 1979, photograph by Camilo J. Vergara, 1979, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In late November 1972 Phillips held a press conference in which he announced his resignation and criticized the LEAA for their treatment of him and their approach to the crime problem. As the only Black High Impact director in the nation, Phillips said his ouster smacked of “institutional racism.”[15] The LEAA had rejected his plan, he said, “because our programs took a preventative, not a police-type approach and because members of the community were to be actively involved.” Despite promises that local Impact agencies would be able to run their programs as they saw fit, the LEAA, according to Phillips, was now seeking to establish “total administrative control” of Impact programs. “If the old ways of pouring money into existing institutions are followed and community needs go unheeded,” he warned, “the program will go right down the drain and we’ll go back to business as usual with more arrests, more incarcerations, more crimes.”[16]

Ultimately, the Newark Police Department received 55% of Impact funds while a paltry 17% went to community groups like the ones Phillips sought to aid.[17] Newark’s High Impact program funded a number of expensive police projects, including a new, state of the art communications system.[18] These projects, however, did not reduce crime rates in the city. In 1976, two separate studies of the High Impact program found that crime had actually increased in the eight Impact cities. One study, conducted by the National Security Center, slammed the program as an “irresponsible, ill-conceived and politically motivated effort to throw money at a social program.”[19] We will never know whether or not Earl Phillips’ plan would have been more effective. It is entirely possible that it have done little to actually empower ordinary Newarkers. Historian Elizabeth Hinton has explored at length the ways in which community-based crime control programs during the War on Crime—although operating outside the traditional criminal justice system—“normalized the presence of law enforcement authorities and crime control technologies in the everyday lives of young Americans living in segregated poverty.”[20] Programs touted as efforts to empower communities ended up merely reinforcing the power of the state. Nevertheless, the Phillips plan represented an earnest effort to address rising crime rates without relying solely on the police. It was a missed opportunity to fund non-carceral alternatives to “tough on crime” policies that left communities no safer, empowered deeply flawed policing institutions, and drove mass incarceration in the proceeding years.

IMG_9070.jpgAndrew Grim is a history PhD Candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he studies 20th century American social and political history and the Carceral State. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyLeeGrim

Featured image (at top): Ariel view of Newark, NJ, 1964, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress  

[1] “U.S. To Aid 8 cities in Fight on Crime” New York Times, Jan 14, 1972; pg. 21

[2] Dorothy H. Guyot, “Newark: Crime and Politics in a Declining City,” in Heinz et al., Crime in City Politics (New York: Longman, 1983), 70-78.

[3] “Governor Foresees US aid to Newark” The Star Ledger, Jan 11, 1972; pg. 9

[4] Robert W. Maitlin, “Newark Getting $20 million to Combat Crime” The Star Ledger, Jan 14, 1972; pg. 1

[5] Eleanor Chelimsky, High Impact Anti-Crime Program: National Level Evaluation Final Report, Vol. II (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, 1976), 105

[6] “Street Crime in Newark and Elsewhere” Washington Post, Nov 28, 1972; pg. A18

[7] Treatment Alternative to Street Crime, A proposal Submitted by High Impact Anti Crime Program and Addiction Planning and Coordination Agency October 1972, Box 4 folder 9, Kenneth Gibson Papers, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, New Jersey.

[8] “Street Crime in Newark and Elsewhere” Washington Post, Nov 28, 1972; pg. A18

[9] “Brutality Rises With Black Mayor” New Pittsburgh Courier, May 22, 1971; pg. 2

[10] Project Application: Citizen Crime Prevention Units. Submitted by High Impact Anti-Crime Program, Newark, Box 4 folder 9, Kenneth Gibson Papers, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, New Jersey.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Review of the impact city plan Law enforcement assistance administration regional office And New jersey state law enforcement planning agency, Box 4 folder 9, Kenneth Gibson Papers, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, New Jersey.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Richard J.H. Johnston “Newark Crime Foe Quits, Charging Fund-Cut Threat” New York Times, Nov 22, 1972; pg. NJ74

[15] Charles Q. Finley “Chief Quits Newark Crime Project” The Star Ledger, Nov 22, 1972; pg. 1

[16] Ibid.

[17] Guyot, 82.

[18] Ibid., 84.

[19] Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 161.

[20] Ibid., 99.

Member of the Week: Matthew Guariglia

39310556_10213341790634339_3231092978973933568_oMatthew Guariglia

Ph.D. Candidate in History

University of Connecticut

@mguariglia

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

My current research explores how policing changed as U.S. cities became more racially and ethnically diverse between the 1860s and the 1920s. A few years ago I became very interested in how the state learns about citizens and how that knowledge is employed in the project of policing and social control.

After years of research, what I’ve discovered is that between around 1895 and 1920, police departments experimented with a number of different tactics in order to make people it deemed too foreign to be “legible” to the state more policeable. I’ve also been surprised at how international my scope has become in order to tell this story. By tracing the origins of these different tactics and technologies used on the streets of New York City, my dissertation has widened to include U.S. colonial governance and race making in the Philippines and Cuba, criminal anthropology in Italy, newly invented information management techniques in Germany, as well as a number of policing tactics present in European cities that were developed in colonies in East Africa and South Asia.

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

Last semester I taught African American History from 1865 to the present, which really helped me solidify a lot of the themes and ideas in my dissertation. I had been having trouble conceptualizing the difference between how immigrants and African Americans in New York were subject to two entirely different modes of policing and what that meant for the project of racial state building. Getting the chance to teach Reconstruction and the history of Black citizenship really helped me develop this idea of police as citizen-makers who could deploy different styles of policing depending on who they were bringing in to the national fold and who was being excluded.

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

 Lately, I’ve been very encouraged and inspired by the recent scholarship pulling the conversation on race, crime, policing, and incarceration further into the past. I believe the genealogies of mass incarceration go back much further than post-war policy. For me, Adam Malka’s The Men of Mobtown, Tera Eva Agyepong’s The Criminalization of Black Children, and Kelly Lytle Hernández’s City of Inmates, have all been brilliant at showing the intellectual and structural foundations on which the carceral state was built. In terms of upcoming books, I am excited for an upcoming book by Craig Robertson on the history of the filing cabinet. It’s a bit of a pet project and obsession of mine, but because the state’s collection and retention of information on racialized subjects is so central to my thinking on state power, that book is going to be a must read.

As for my own work, this fall I have an article coming out in the Journal of American Ethnic History that looks at the mechanization of bureaucracy and deportation in 1919-1920. It is also proving increasingly timely as it revolves around the political agency of bureaucrats to resist policy from within institutions, especially those institutions that are engaging with questions of race, immigration, and civil liberties.  

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

When visiting that city for research, go seek out the archivists, librarians, museum employees, and historical society workers. Their perspective is invaluable for understanding the history of a city. Them, and cab drivers. Telling people I study the history of the NYPD has brought me so many good tips that usually begin with, “My grandmother always used to say her father was a police officer……”

Last year your Made By History article was retweeted by none other than Edward Snowden. How do you plan to top that? 

That was a weird day. I had a lot of people accusing me of being a Russian spy. If I could top that experience, it would be by getting some policy makers to actually read the Made By History column. It’s always so disappointing when politicians propose solutions to problems like police brutality or mass surveillance and are unaware that those solutions already have long histories. I would love to start seeing some of that work seep into the political sphere.

Busting Out in WWII-Era Brooklyn

This piece by Emily Brooks is the first entrant into the Second Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. We we invited graduate students to submit essays on theme of “Striking Gold,” whether lucre or archival treasures. Brooks’ interpretation of the theme hews to the latter, and she uses a memo discovered on a reel of micofilm to unspool a dramatic, cinematic story.

The nail file was a gift. Whether it belonged to Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, or Jean we will never know. What we do know, however, is that one of these 14 and 15-year-old girls acquired the file while on trial for juvenile delinquency at the Manhattan Children’s court in July 1944. This young woman then brought the nail file with her to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s Brooklyn shelter where the five white girls were imprisoned during the heat wave of early August 1944.[1]

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The four freedoms. Step right up folks, for the greatest ride in the world …“, Alfred T. Palmer, between 1941-1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For these young incarcerated women, the nail file presented an opportunity. On the night of August 8, the five prisoners used the manicure file to scrape through a brass padlock securing the window in their dormitory. Once they had dispatched the lock, the girls crawled through the window and up a fire escape to access the roof of the building, carrying their bed sheets along. After reaching the roof, they knotted the sheets together and climbed down onto the roof of the Children’s Court building next door. The girls successfully evaded the court building’s custodian as he raised the flag on the roof the next morning, before escaping down the stairs and fleeing onto the street. They hailed a cab, despite lacking shoes and wearing white shelter uniforms. The quick-thinking young women informed the taxi driver that their clothing had been stolen while they were at Coney Island, and directed the driver to the apartment of a boyfriend on Madison Avenue.[2]

Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean’s dramatic escape created a number of public relations problems for New York City’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine, and officials in the city’s court and police systems. The escape challenged the power of the state to control the behavior of young women during World War II, and forced city officials to reframe discussions around the necessity of this control. The superintendent of the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children drafted a document for the head judge of the city’s Domestic Relations Court, innocuously-entitled “Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944,” which detailed the event and its subsequent irritations.[3]

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Mayor La Guardia speaks over WNYC on Grade A milk from Budget Room / World-Telegram photo by Fred Palumbo“, March 23, 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Decades later, during another hot New York City summer, I found this memo on one of the hundreds of microfilm rolls dedicated to Mayor La Guardia’s records at the city’s Municipal Archives. I came upon the document, as well as a number of letters related to the escape, while performing research for my dissertation on the activities of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) during World War II. Exploring histories of policing in New York City presents challenges for historians since the NYPD often declines to share records with researchers, and sometimes even “misplaces” them.[4] Those records that do exist can provide insight into official police policies, but evaluating the impact of such policies or finding resistance to them can prove more elusive. The “Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter” provides a rare glimpse into the lives of five teenagers affected by the NYD’s wartime campaigns against juvenile delinquency, and an illustration of how they sought to resist this type of surveillance.

During the war, although the overall number of police officers decreased as men joined the military, young women came under increasing surveillance from the NYPD. Officers monitored the city’s streets, particularly around hubs of entertainment and transit, searching for teenage girls like the escapees. Once arrested, many of these young women shared the fate of Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean, whose offenses included staying out late and spending time with older men.[5] Girls had socialized with men throughout the twentieth century, sometimes coming into conflict with their parents and the state because of it.[6] For many women of all ages, however, World War II, introduced new employment opportunities, and for some young women the war brought reduced parental supervision. As a number of historians have documented, new sexual possibilities and anxieties emerged along with the economic and social disruptions of war.[7] Historian Amanda Littauer has argued convincingly young people seized on these opportunities to engage in premarital sex at higher rates than their prewar counterparts.[8]

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Cure juvenile delinquency in the slums by planned housing“, Federal Art Project, 1935, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

At the same time as teenagers like the escapees explored new social and sexual freedoms, Valentine and La Guardia called for intensified NYPD campaigns against prostitution, juvenile delinquency, and other crimes of “vice.” New York City’s leaders, responding in part to federal demands to monitor Americans during wartime, framed policing Gotham as an essential part of the war effort. [9] The NYPD needed, officials argued, to protect enlisted men from sexually transmitted infections and to maintain “order” in an increasingly interracial wartime city. Throughout the war, the department’s campaigns against juvenile delinquency focused on arresting boys of color for supposed crimes of minor violence or theft, and monitoring young women of all races for inappropriate social or sexual activities.[10] In the case of young women, officials argued that monitoring their behavior and incarcerating them for violations served to protect both arrestees themselves and their male potential sexual partners.[11]

Although officials held that Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean’s disappearance endangered both the young shoeless women, and their potential male paramours, interactions between the state and Estelle’s mother following the incident belied this claim. Estelle’s mother, Elisabeth, visited the office of the society that ran the shelter to seek more information about her daughter’s escape. The superintendent described Elisabeth as “belligerent” and “a high-strung, nervous person.” The shelter’s representatives reminded Elisabeth multiple times that her own daughter and the other girls had run away from home before. The officials argued, therefore, that “nothing too serious could happen to her at this point beyond what has already happened to her.” Elisabeth returned the next day, seeking more answers. She asked for her daughter’s possessions and inquired how it had been possible for the young women to flee without shoes or street clothing. The superintendent lamented that by the end of her second visit Elisabeth had become “extremely suspicious and doubtful about the good faith of the representatives of the Society.”[12] Estelle’s mother also lodged complaints with members of the NYPD and the mayor. The mayor expressed limited concern, proclaiming that “when five girls use such extreme means to escape, it is almost impossible to restrain them.”[13] The dismissive responses to Elisabeth’s anxiety about the whereabouts of her daughter demonstrated by the representatives of Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Mayor La Guardia suggest that the protection of teenage girls was not the paramount concern of these city officials. The city seemed more concerned with controlling “all the female problems we have prowling the streets today,” as Police Commissioner Valentine had articulated a few months before the escape.[14]

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Collier’s House at PEDAC, New York City. Girl’s room I“, Gottscho-Schlesnier, Inc., 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What did Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean gain by fleeing the shelter’s confines to “prowl” the city’s streets? They gained freedom from the control of shelter employees and their families, as well as unsupervised access to the city, which they used to visit Harlem and Coney Island, among other places. What this freedom meant to the girls is difficult to say. For Jean, who lived with a foster family in New Jersey, it may have meant unrestricted access to the excitements of New York City. For Estelle, who sought out a boyfriend at Floyd Bennet Field in southeastern Brooklyn, perhaps these few days provided an opportunity to continue a prohibited relationship. For Margaret, who was the oldest of four in a working-class family, maybe the escape was a respite from familial responsibilities.[15] The “Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944,” provides a small window into a few days in the lives of five of the young women that police, court, and political leaders deemed so threating to the health of the city and nation in wartime. The details of their escape suggest that whatever a few days of unsupervised free time in the city meant to these young women, they went to great lengths to attain it.

Featured image (at top): Eggers & Higgins, 542 5th Ave., New York City. Six girls, Gottscho-Schlesnier, Inc., 1946, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Brooksheadshot

Emily Brooks is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her writing has appeared in the Journal of Policy History, processhistory.org, and the gothamcenter.org. She is currently working on a dissertation about anti-vice policing in New York City during World War II. 

 

[1] “4 Year Heat Record Set at 96.3” New York Times, August 5, 1944, 1. Throughout this piece I will use first names only to protect the identities of the young women and their families.

[2] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Joseph Goldstein, “Old New York Police Surveillance is Found, Forcing Big Brother Out of Hiding” New York Times, June 16, 2016.

[5] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[6] For discussions of the policing of young women in progressive-era New York see Cheryl Hicks, Talk with you like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) and Ruth Alexander, The “Girl Problem”: Female Sexual Delinquency in New York, 1900-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995). For more on the development of juvenile delinquency laws governing girls see Mary E. Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the Unites States, 1885-1920, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[7] John D’Emilio Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Allan Berube, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: The Free Press, 1990); Leisa D. Meyer Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[8] Amanda Littauer, Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion Before the 1960s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 19-20.

[9] For examples of how officials handled these federal demands and wartime exigencies in Virginia see Pippa Holloway, Sexuality, Politics and Social Control in Virginia, 1920-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), particularly chapters 6 and 7.

[10] Luis Alvarez uses the zoot suit as a lens through which to explore racialized policing of youth during WWII in The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II (Oakland: University of California Press, 2009). Clarence Tayler discusses the efforts of the city’s Teacher’s Union to defend African American boys targeted by the police in Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era (New York City: Fordham University Press, 2011), particularly chapter 1 “To Be a Good American: The New York City Teacher’s Union and Race during the Second World War.”

[11] For a discussion about federal support for criminalization of female sexuality during the war see Marilyn Hegarty, Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality during World War II (New York City: NYU Press, 2007) and for the different ways that women’s sexuality was mobilized for the war effort see Megan K. Winchell, Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[12] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[13] From Mayor LaGuardia to Mrs. Elisabeth, August 14, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[14] “Mayor Asks More Help for Wayward Girl,” New York Times, May 26, 1944, 12.

[15] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37. Information on Margaret’s family from 1940 Census, accessed on ancestry.com, July 24, 2018.

 

 

Member of the Week: Alan Lessoff

Lessoff at ND, TW photo, Oct 16Alan Lessoff

University Professor of History

Illinois State University

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

I’m in the middle of two projects. The first is an exhibition and book project undertaken with the McLean County Museum of History, an exemplary regional museum in this part of Illinois. The theme is unbuilt buildings and failed and defeated plans and development projects. A lot of large cities in the United States and elsewhere have had exhibition and publishing projects on the theme of the Unbuilt City. They are often gorgeous–because of all the renderings, charts, and models–and they invite imagination of all sorts of possibilities, negative as well as positive. They also draw people into a discussion of how groups of residents in the past understood and argued about their city and its problems and potential. As far as we can tell, this is the first time a mid-sized city has tried an Unbuilt City exhibit. Given the nature of planning and development in mid-sized cities, this invites a discussion of the state-of-the-art professional advice–the contemporary best practice–that planning consultants and architects have over time diffused from larger cities to regional and secondary metropolises and how that diffusion shaped cities everywhere.

My other current project is a pair of essays about how Europeans became aware of American debates over urban machine politics, focusing on James Bryce (whom I wrote about in the past) along with William T. Stead and Mosei Ostrogorski. This is part of an international project about urban politics and corruption that I’ve worked with off and on for about a decade. In general, Europeans tried to distance themselves from the idea that mass party politics could bring urban political machines to European cities, but there was also the counter-notion this might become another menacing form of Americanization, that European cities could become “Chicagos,” as contemporaries at times put it.

This is pretty typical for me over the past two decades–my urban history goes in a public and regional history direction, but I also try to keep going with more conventional, analytical work.

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

Once a year, I teach a senior/graduate course on U.S. urban history that includes a segment in conjunction with the McLean County Museum that we have devised to involve students with urban history archives, how they are organized, and how one can work with them. Given where we are in Central Illinois, I use works like Ann Keating, Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age, and Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, to encourage students to have a geographic and visual sense of the urban region. Keating’s Chicagoland is especially inspiring. I use it as the basis for a project in which students are meant to take photographs of their hometown or neighborhood and consider how a place they think of as familiar might fit into the regional patterns that Keating lays out and how they might be able to see previously unseen history in their own towns.

I also teach a senior research seminar on comparative urban history, as well as an MA-level seminar in local and public history methods. Last summer, I had the chance to try out a version of this seminar at the Bielefeld University Graduate School for History and Sociology, using historical museums and sites in that section of Westphalia. Public history draws us to the local wherever we are, but we can readily conceive of it in transnational and comparative ways as well. (This is not an original thought by any means.) And right now, I’m trying a new MA seminar on the United States in Transnational Perspective, which encourages big thinking among students about urban networks and urban environmental history. I also oversee our internship program and our small urban studies minor. Overall, my teaching these days amounts a pretty good arrangement for someone who does what we do–it runs the gamut from the most hands-on to the most interpretive.

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

A short while back, I read a clear, detailed book by a University of Chicago urban studies scholar, Chad Broughton, Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). It’s a vivid account of the people swept up in both places when the Maytag plant moved in the early 2000s from Galesburg, Illinois, to Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. This book gives me ways to connect my earlier writing about South Texas to my current research on Central Illinois–he does a great job with one of the most relevant subjects one can imagine.

I love the way that Benjamin H. Johnson’s new book, Escaping the Dark, Gray City: Fear and Hope in Progressive-Era Conservation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), draws upon all the recent work in urban environmental history to create a new general narrative of the conservation movement.

One of the next books on my to-read shelf is Daniel Czitrom, New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), about the Lexow Investigation of 1894. I feel that our current debates about abusive policing help us better to understand why contemporaries in the late 1800s saw machine politics as so unsavory and oppressive.  Understanding police racketeering should offset any romance we might still have with the image of good-hearted ward bosses.

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

To stay engaged with their places and the physical and local aspect of urban history work, even through all the anxiety and uncertainty of trying to become established professionally. We’re fortunate to have a field that enables us so readily to connect with the places where we happen to be, and that helps to some degree to keep us alive intellectually through the periods when one feels so unsettled and therefore so driven to live in one’s head and in one’s CV. All those places will accumulate and will be a tremendous resource later on.

You’ve written a history of Corpus Christi, Texas. What’s a surprising fact about the city that neither urbanists nor residents likely know?

Because of its name and location, people imagine Corpus Christi to manifest the Spanish and Mexican presence in South Texas that was overwhelmed by Anglo American conquest and colonization. In reality it shares more with Houston and other Anglo American urban foundations along the Texas coast, in that it began as an Anglo American outpost and gateway into what’s now southern Texas and the Borderlands, a launching point for the extension of Anglo American commercial and political networks and environmental transformation into what had formerly been a Spanish and Mexican frontier region. Anglo American civil engineering reshaped a shallow bay on the edge of an arid plain and with a hurricane-prone coast into a practical-enough site for urbanization geared into U.S. urban systems. The Spanish heritage, Mission Revival design, and ranger and pioneer lore that still dominate regional historical and visual identity can overshadow this more modern story of regional development for commercial agriculture, labor exploitation, and resource extraction. The main theme of my book was the tense interplay between those older regional epics and lore and an urban character, layout, and culture shaped by railroad- and petrochemical-era Texas.

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