Tag Archives: Policing and Incarceration

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

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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

Member of the Week: Danielle Wiggins

headshotDanielle Wiggins

Doctoral Candidate in History

Emory University

@from_dlwiggins

 

 

 

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

I’m currently writing my dissertation about the development of black politics in Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s by examining how members of the black political class–namely, mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young as well as people on the city council and county commissions, in the Georgia Assembly, in the Department of Public Safety, and within the the black business community–governed through issues of crime and urban development. More specifically, I investigate how these figures responded to rising crime rates, in particular what they identified as “black-on-black crime,” and escalating fear of crime, as well as deepening inequality with punitive public safety policies and market-based economic development programs based in notions of law and order, personal responsibility, and the sanctity of capital. I argue that these leaders accomplished this with the approval of much, though not all, of Atlanta’s black electorate by drawing on a black reformist liberal tradition that emerged in the late 19th century, a political moment of revanchism similar to that of the 1970s and 1980s. More broadly, I consider the ways in which shifts in black politics on the urban level provide insight into the broader rightward shift of the post-Great Society Democratic Party.

I came to this topic in the aftermath of the murder of Freddie Gray and the uprising in Baltimore. I wanted to understand how putatively liberal, Democratic black political officials could come to condone systems of policing and urban redevelopment that criminalized poor black people and exacerbated racial inequality. My research shows that black leaders not only condoned these practices, they designed them, and furthermore, they defended them by appealing to traditional ideals in black political culture.

Describe your current public history work. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?

This year, I’m working as an editorial assistant with the Washington Post’s “Made By History” blog. It’s a forum that enables historians to share insights about current events and their historical context with a broad audience. It has been really fun as a historian to learn about the work other people are doing and to read fascinating pieces outside of my field. It has also been really rewarding as a scholar committed to dismantling barriers between the academy and the wider world to help other scholars make their work accessible and cogent for a broader audience.

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

When I’m not writing my dissertation or editing pieces for the blog, I’m working on an article that provides a genealogy of the concept of “black-on-black crime.” It has really surprising origins in black progressive politics that provide insight into the role of African Americans in constructing the carceral state. As for the work of other scholars, Brian Goldstein’s The Roots of the Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem has been really instructive for me as I try to untangle the messy politics of development within black politics. I also really enjoyed Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, which is not only a well-researched historical study, but is a real page-turner. I think it would make a great movie a la The Big Short.

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

As I was struggling to write my dissertation prospectus, Nathan Connolly advised me to spend some time reading the records of city council proceedings. This really helped me to get a sense of what issues were really important to city legislators and their constituents and what they believed was at stake in how the city governed on particular issues. Issues that I thought would be really significant based on the secondary literature–affirmative action and animosity between the mayor and the business community, for example–were not nearly as inescapable or as contentious as the crime issue, which of course was inextricable from the development issue and the push to make Atlanta the “next great international city.” This realization changed the entire project. So my advice would be to start by spending a good amount of time with city council records to see what people actually cared about and how they went about addressing their concerns.

You have served as a teaching assistant and editor with the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, in which Emory University undergraduate students are examining unsolved and unpunished racially motivated murders from the modern civil rights era. What was one of the most memorable moments–either experienced by you, or a student, or shared as a class–from the time you worked on the project? 

The Cold Cases Project  is an important initiative and I’m very happy to been able to contribute. There isn’t quite one particular moment that stands out because the course, and the project itself, was very much a process of discovery. We spent the semester examining one case, the murder of James Brazier in southeastern Georgia. Each week the students examined different components of the case and gradually they were able to put the pieces together. As a teacher, I enjoyed helping students do the real work of history–examining different kinds of evidence such as autopsy reports and witness statements, putting these pieces of evidence in conversation with each other and the secondary literature, and creating a narrative that provides an informed explanation of the case.

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

By Meredith Drake Reitan, MPL, PhD

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

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

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

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

Parker Center as Scar

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSCF0773
Figure 2: The rear of Parker Center is dour. It offers a blank, windowless wall to the Little Tokyo neighborhood located behind it. Photo by author, July 2017.

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

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

Chief Parker Divides the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future of the Parker Center Site

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

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

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

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

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

 

MDR
Photo by Steve Cohn

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Member of the Week: Michael Durfee

durfee. headshot.Michael J. Durfee – Niagara University – Assistant Professor

https://pointsadhsblog.wordpress.com/author/mjdurfee/

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

My research focuses on the substantial growth of the carceral state throughout the Crack Era, the contingency of missed opportunity for police to cooperate with grassroots anti-crack and anti-crime activists in the Bronx, and the subsequent militarization of urban policing. Moreover, to borrow a phrase from the leading scholar of the field, I follow how local activists made sense of and struggled with the criminalization of urban space. In addition to the local, my book project explores the bipartisan panic spurred by the emergence of crack and the overdose death of Len Bias. As a cadre of scholars continue to probe carceral studies we are learning to train our gaze towards the deeper historical roots of mass incarceration. However, analyzing passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 is an important tipping point in cementing governing logics of hyper-punishment. Since the advent of #BLM I have been particularly interested in the ways in which old conversations about policing and punishment are suddenly “new” and ahistorical. Hopefully my work can highlight this unfortunate reality and underscore the continuity of activism regarding issues of policing and policy.

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

This fall I will be teaching a course on the rise of mass incarceration that examines the concurrent wars on crime and drugs. I also routinely teach a course entitled “The Crack Era in Context” which allows me to offer students an in-depth seminar using ethnography, historical monographs, and the interdisciplinary articles that got me started in the field. Additionally, I teach a general requirement Postwar United States history course that takes students away from narratives of American Exceptionalism and investigates how policy and place shaped inequality and rights to citizenship. It is incumbent that students and instructors grapple with the social, political, and economic consequences of the burgeoning carceral state in order to properly understand the latter half of the Twentieth Century.

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

While I am genuinely excited for my forthcoming review essay in the JUH on informal economies, my preference is to point readers to the current and forthcoming work of scholars that have been invaluable to my understanding of my own research. For the less patient, I implore members to read Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s book, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America which arrived at my door last week. Moving forward I am particularly excited about two forthcoming monographs: Matthew Lassiter’s The Suburban Crisis: The Pursuit and Defense of the American Dream and Max Felker-Kantor’s book project, Battle for the Streets: Policing, Politics, and Power in Los Angeles.

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

Apply to and attend relevant conferences, ask questions, and get to know what I have found to be highly accessible, thoughtful scholars working in the field. Make and maintain connections with other graduate students pursuing research in urban history, and try to join a writing group. Perhaps most importantly, do not be afraid to submit your work, and write as frequently as possible. I also find applying our expertise and engaging the public sphere to effect change both rewarding and sustaining.

What book would you like to put in the hand of elected officials or policy makers who are trying to ameliorate the opioid epidemic?

This past year our community suffered a profound loss with the passing of Eric Schneider. To understand addiction, heroin culture, and unsuccessful punitive roads taken by elected officials and policy makers, Schneider’s Smack: Heroin and the American City is indispensable. This brilliant scholar, mentor, and somehow, even better human being will be sorely missed. I first met Eric in 2012 at the UHA conference where he chaired a panel with another scholar that subsequently took me in—Michael Javen Fortner. I think I can speak for Michael in saying that Eric improved our work—and my confidence—in immeasurable ways.

Documenting Lynching and its Influence: The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic at Northeastern University is Doing Just That

jay_ddriskell_1
Jay W. Driskell, Ph.D.

In his 2003 work, The Contradiction of American Capital Punishment, University of California law professor Franklin E. Zimring suggested that a correlation existed between lynchings and capital punishment; states with more of the former participated at higher rates in the latter. Zimring’s statistics, Elaine Cassel argued, “should give pause to anyone who believes that the death penalty is somehow the product of reasoned deliberation, rather than simple mob vengeance.”

The connection between vigilantism, specifically lynching, and state sanctioned executions points to the possibility that America’s judicial and law enforcement infrastructure has internalized a disturbing set of values that have historically been shaped discriminatorily by race and class. Despite this possibility, no real database accounting for the nation’s history of lynching exists. A new a joint project between Northeastern University and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice clinic is attempting to create a public digital accounting of this history.

Though the project is ongoing, historian and lead researcher Jay W. Driskell believes not only have historians not fully identified the number of lychings that occurred throughout U.S. history but that the practice might have been subsumed and obscured by the nation’s law enforcement structures. The Metropole sat down with Driskell to discuss the role of lynching in our national history, the methods used in documenting this violent past, and what the results of his study might mean in regard to the American legal system.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you ended up doing this kind of research? How has it informed your own views on history?

I am a historical consultant and researcher based in Washington D.C. I got involved in this project because my first book was a history of the Atlanta NAACP in its early years, so I was familiar with the organization and its records. This project is being jointly conducted between the Northeastern University School of Law and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice (CRRJ) clinic. It is the result of a 2007 conference organized by NEU Law Professor Margaret Burnham on cold cases of the 1960s. After that conference, Prof. Burnham and MIT political science professor Melissa Nobles decided to look backwards to the Jim Crow era. The scope of the research covers 13 southern states chronologically from 1930 to 1954 picking up from where Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck left off in their widely-used inventory of lynchings. This database is part of each scholar’s respective research on racial violence in the Jim Crow period.

NAACP Box

My part in this project is to uncover every lynching I could discover between 1930 and 1954. We are initially focusing on three main repositories: the NAACP Papers in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress; Department of Justice (DOJ) records located at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA); and eventually records of the FBI. So far I am deep into the first two; the F.B.I., however, is of course it’s own beast.

What have I learned about history from all this? As somebody who has studied both labor and African American history, I always knew history was really violent. It wasn’t until I looked at the history of lynching in a very concentrated way that I came to reckon with the brutal nature of our nation’s history. Through this research, more than ever I understand what this violence looks like on an individual basis, case after case after case—and I’ve looked at hundreds of cases. When I uncover a new case, I sometimes think about my father and how old he was at the time of this killing. For example, in 1948, a political activist named Robert Mallard was murdered by a mob in Toombs County, GA for driving black voters to the polls in the recent gubernatorial election. In 1948, my dad was 14 years old. This was not that long ago. There have been mobs of thousands of angry white people, attacking a jail and killing an African American man and this happened in our parents’ lifetimes. Some of the perpetrators and participants in these lynch mobs are still alive – and unpunished. The kind of violence that the Ku Klux Klan and others unleashed was really just yesterday, and I am nowhere near certain that it won’t come back. This sort of history makes the world seem very fragile to me.

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Silent protest parade in New York [City] against the East St. Louis riots, 1917, Underwood and Underwood, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
What have you learned about navigating these collections and these archives? Do you have any tips for other historians in regard to archival research?

Let me start with the NAACP. The thing I’ve learned about the NAACP is that when you get to the 1930s and early 1940s, every week they are about to close their doors because it’s run on a shoestring. Yet, there’s this moment where they realize in many parts of the country, they are the only organization doing civil rights work. Sure there’s the International Labor Defense (ILD), the Communist Party, and other groups, but the NAACP is often the only game in town. And this means that everyone is writing the NAACP asking them to take their case. Their resources are stretched so incredibly thin that they can’t do it all. For example, in 1934 NAACP president Walter White read an account of an oil field worker named Ed Lovelace, who was beaten and then burned alive in the town of Wink, TX. White wired the president of the San Antonio branch to investigate. Given that Wink is nearly 400 miles from San Antonio, and it was the site of a violent mob murder of a black man, it would take a tremendous amount of courage for another black man to take this risky journey. Instead, the San Antonio branch looked in the local newspapers for any coverage. Finding none, the case was closed as far as the NAACP was concerned. But, I can’t help but wonder had the local branch made the journey or if the national office had the resources to send an investigator, the murder of Ed Lovelace might well have been counted as one of the fourteen lynchings that the NAACP recorded in 1934.

NAACP 1919 announcement
“N.A.A.C.P. Began Anti-Lynching Fight Says Chas Macfarland”, 1919. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

After World War II, the organization has almost the opposite problem. The relative prosperity of the war years and the impact of the Great Migration caused the NAACP’s membership to surge. They grow so quickly that the bureaucracy sustaining the organization becomes so complex that things get misfiled, overlooked and lost in the records. So even though the papers look like they are in order – and in many ways they are—there is a lot of chaos in them. If you are patient and willing to do the work, there is a lot of new material to be harvested.

Also, many researchers focus too much on the microfilmed portion of the NAACP papers. What’s available on microfilm is really a small slice of the larger collection.

With that in mind, everything I said about the NAACP goes double for the DOJ at NARA. The DOJ is a vast, vast, agency and NARA is a massive archive. What gets recorded often depended upon how much the secretary or clerk working that day felt like filing. The main thing about working at NARA is that you have to work with the archivists. There is no way to productively navigate NARA’s holdings without the help of these archivists and their highly specialized knowledge of their subject areas. No historian, no matter how smart, will have mastered these records as they have. The NARA archvist I’ve been working with most, Haley Maynard, has been indispensable to the success of this project so far.

NAACP Nov 14 1919 pg 1 lynching report
Report of the Secretary to the Anti-Lynching Committee, November 14, 1919, page 1. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Why is MIT creating this lynching database?

The CRRJ intends it to become a public history resource.

How does a historian go about gathering and organizing all this data? What has been your method? Did it change as you visited different archives?

When I started this project, I thought the NAACP had done a very good job of reporting on lynchings. In many ways they had. For its time, the organization was very thorough. The problem, however, was that the character of lynching changes over the course of the 1920 and 1930s. In the words of Howard Kester who worked with the NAACP as a white southerner and thus could do undercover investigations of lynchings, it went “underground.” It became less spectacular and ritualistic and, as a result, harder to find because these killings are no longer showing up in press accounts.

So to address this part of my methodology involves recreating the event itself in my head. When you do this it really reveals how lynchings, despite their horrific nature, could be obscured. For example, who are the people who knew the most about this event? First, obviously, the victim, but unless they survived, that voice is forever silenced. The second tier is the perpetrators. When lynching was brazen and public, you can find the perpetrators in the press bragging about it. Sometimes, knowing when they are going to get off, they even sell it to the media as in 1955 when J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant killed Emmett Till and sold their story to Look Magazine. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s as the NAACP ratchets up public pressure for anti-lynching legislation, lynchers fall silent and stop bragging.

NAACP pg2 1919lynching report
Report of the Secretary to the Anti-Lynching Committee, November 14, 1919, page 2. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

This brings us to the third tier of people who are paying relatively close attention to who is being killed and by whom. This comprises the universe of law enforcement officials, at both the local and the federal level. There are two big reasons that law enforcement is paying attention. First, are those cases where law enforcement is either sanctioning or participating in the lynching. Second, they opposed lynching because it interrupted their monopoly on violence. While lynchers were technically breaking the law by committing murder, this act of killing was also a direct challenge to police prerogatives as the only legitimate purveyors of such violence. That’s the police. Notice, we haven’t even gotten to the NAACP yet.

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A tragic and ironic depiction, particularly in light of Dr. Driskell’s early findings,  of the “lynching problem” from 1899; “The Lynching Problem”, Louis Dalrymple, Puck Magazine, 1899. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The fourth tier is the press, often newspaper reporters. Small town reporters were often members of the community committing the lynching and were often members of these lynch mobs – either as participants or observers – so they give very detailed accounts. This is where modern newspaper databases have really helped my research. Chronicling America, ProQuest historical newspapers, and other newspaper digitization projects have really changed the game. For example, the NAACP had to depend on local townspeople sending them clippings; otherwise the organization had no real way to know about lynchings that occurred. So today we have access to identified lynchings that appeared in the local press at the time but the NAACP did not know about because maybe they didn’t have a branch in that town or no one in the town was brave enough to go the post office to mail a clipping to a New York address. You get the idea. This includes the black press too; shockingly the NAACP did not have full access to the black press. In fact the black press was harder to get at since they were often under-capitalized and over-extended, perhaps only issuing one publication a week. Also, even if there were lynchings, the local black press might not have covered it because these presses operated under local conditions and were sometimes unable to report freely.

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Group of African-Americans, marching near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to protest the lynching of four African-Americans in Georgia“, 1942,  NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Then finally, at last you get to the outer tier comprising groups like the Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP, but as you can see they are all very removed from the center of the event. It’s almost like they are the external valence shells on this historical atom. So my goal as a researcher became not to bounce around the outer most orbit of that atom, but rather to determine how to get to the center. The key has turned out to be tier three, the police and law enforcement, because they are the ones, for reasons explained already, paying attention and–crucially–keeping records. If those records wind up in the FBI or DOJ, they are at NARA. That’s the road that will take you to the center of that atom.

In turn, that changed the way I structured the research project. To begin, I went through all the names of lynchings we had already collected. I then made a name database of lynching victims, but as I discovered in the newspapers, they also often listed the names of the perpetrators, more frequently than one would think. In addition, the DOJ often lists cases under the name of the killer, so in some places you only have th name of the killer. You can then use the DOJ litigation index at NARA to find the case number that is linked to that particular killer’s name, which hopefully reveals something about the event that was otherwise lost to time. So far, it has proven pretty fruitful; I’ve even discovered a number of cases the NAACP did not know about.

For example, I found a file in the DOJ records with a 1933 letter from Corinne Banks to FDR. Banks, who lived in Chicago, was the sister of Hirsch Lee, who had been lynched earlier that year. Lee was a 14 year old boy who lived with (and possibly worked for) a white family and had a friendship with a white girl in that family. A rumor spread that it was more than friendship and the family (along with other white men in the area) took Lee to the woods and killed him. They dismembered his body and left it in the woods. The DOJ wrote back to Banks to say they had no jurisdiction in this murder case. There is no indication that the NAACP or any other civil rights group ever found out. What struck me the most was the similarities to the 1955 Emmett Till case. How many Emmett Tills were there?

So in regard to what historians have argued, many historians suggest that lynchings peaked after WWI with another spike during the Great Depression, but then it goes into a long term decline. However, and please keep in mind this is still preliminary and based on this early research, while I think lynching did decline, it did not decline as much as we like to think it did.

NAACP letter Jan 1938
James Weldon Johnson to Walter White regarding a proposed anti-lynching bill, January 24, 1938, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Now I’m going to expand on this but keep in mind this is mostly just my opinion and not that of the CRRJ. That being said, I am willing to theorize that based on this research there is a baseline level of anti-black violence in US history that has proven very difficult to reduce. Some historians have discussed this, like Michael Pfeifer in his 2006 book, Rough Justice. He theorizes lynching declines because the death penalty takes its place. However, what I am discovering is that maybe the form of this baseline anti-black violence changes from lynchings to police killings. Lynch mobs became less necessary for the maintenance of white supremacy because officers of the law are serving the same function in killing mostly black or Latino men. When confronting black or Latino suspects they use excessive force that leads to death far more often than they do with whites. This was something very clear to those counting lynchings in the 1930s through the 1950s. A 1934 letter from a local NAACP investigator in Alabama to the NAACP describes this relationship:

“If we listed all of the cases where officers go with the intention of killing the man, we would have many more lynchings than any other organization lists. I was told by a teacher in Selma, Ala. that ‘the reason we have no lynchings around here is this: when a Negro gets out of line the officers go and bring him in dead – that is the general rule here’.”

So I am also looking at police brutality files in the NAACP and DOJ records. When the US goes from being predominantly rural to predominantly urban in the 1920s, it changes a great deal about American life particularly in how populations are surveilled and policed. You have the Great Migration bringing African Americans into cities in record numbers but also rural whites moving to urban America (to say nothing of European immigrants who came in the preceding decades). What used to get solved by lynching in the countryside starts getting addressed by professional or semi-professional police forces. Just to complicate this further, I think an older definition of lynching as popular justice, as spectacular, as carnivalesque, and this idea that historians have bracketed its era as ending in 1930, has prevented people from seeing the possible connection between the decline in lynchings and the increase in police killings and brutality. To test that out you would need a reliable adequate number of how many people killed by police over the past century and that work has not been done.

May 1941 Marshall to White LBJ
Even LBJ voted against anti-lynching laws (he did so consistently throughout his congressional career), in the third paragraph Marshall offers commentary on the congressman from Texas; Thurgood Marshall to Walter White, May 1, 1941, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Is it safe to assume that the shift from lynchings to police brutality was due to political changes that resulted in anti-lynching campaigns (particularly by the NAACP) and the growing civil rights movement? Would you explain this shift another way or add to it?

Another complexity to think about is when lynchings do begin to decline, the NAACP and others link this decline to their repeated attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation. Though the NAACP never managed to pass an anti-lynching law, there is at least some evidence that keeping the issue of lynching before the public reduced the number of lynchings. In 1938, as Congress is debating an anti-lynching bill, at least four lynchings are averted by sheriffs explaining to the mob that a lynching would only empower the NAACP and other supposed enemies of the South.

But, there’s not enough solid evidence that it was the NAACP’s efforts to pass anti-lynching laws that led to lynching’s decline. It’s very possible that the NAACP increasingly needed to justify why it was prosecuting a fight, which they never win, at least in terms of legislative victories. Since the failure of the Dyer Bill in 1921, all attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation foundered in the face of a southern, white supremacist filibuster. But an anti-lynching law is NAACP President Walter White’s baby. The NAACP has a finite amount of resources and White must show his board of directors and others that there is a reason to pursue this anti-lynching campaign. White’s argument, at the risk of being too simplistic, is that the campaign, even if a failure legislatively, did marginalize lynching as an act such that it declined. White and the NAACP need to generate a narrative of success along the lines of “this hasn’t been a fruitless battle”; using these resources for anti-lynching makes sense particularly when for most of its history, the NAACP is a resource-strapped, zero sum institution. Because the NAACP starts to believe this narrative, I think they wind up undercounting the actual number of lynchings–particularly into the 1930s and 40s.

One last thing to add: I’d caution people who are doing this sort of research that it is emotionally impossible to distance yourself from the topic. You might see hundreds of dead bodies each week on television but it’s not the same. It’s case after case—and some cases go into great, disturbing detail. For instance, in NAACP investigative reports I came across the phrase “beaten to a pulp or jelly” again and again. I realized that this is not just a metaphor, but a literal physical state. I’ve asked some doctors I know if this was possible, and it is. If beaten hard enough, for a long enough time, flesh and blood and bone coagulates into a something like a jelly. That can make it hard to sleep at night. It’s something you can’t just harden yourself to; it takes a heavy emotional and physical toll. So, give yourself time to breathe, and carry on the work.

Jay Driskell is a historian whose work explores the relationship between race, gender and the forging of effective political solidarities in struggles for power within the urbanizing, segregating South. His first book, Schooling Jim Crow: the Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics (University Press of Virginia, 2014), traces the changes in black political consciousness that transformed a reactionary politics of respectability into a militant force for change during the fight for black public schools in Atlanta, Georgia.

Driskell also runs a historical consulting business for institutions and individuals who require access to the wealth of historical resources in the DC-area. Major clients have included the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the National Labor College