Tag Archives: Racial Segregation

Doing Urban History in Cleveland: A Personal Reflection

 

St Patricks Day 1988
The author with friends on Cleveland’s Public Square, St. Patrick’s Day 1988.  Courtesy of Coventry Village Reunion (Facebook Group); Photo above: Cleveland Municipal Stadium, postcard, ca. 1940. Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project.

By Todd Michney

As for my earliest Cleveland memory, I am unsure, but riding the RTA’s Red Line Rapid Transit to the old Municipal Stadium for baseball games toward the end of the 1970s is one that certainly stands out. Initiated in 1928 when Cleveland still ranked as the country’s fifth-largest city, the facility in its twilight years felt cavernous with the fans coming nowhere close to filling its near 80,000-seat capacity.

Terminal Tower Christmas
Higbee’s Christmas Tree in lobby of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, 1968. Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project.

Another is the Terminal Tower in all its Art Deco grandeur – once the city’s main train station, and until 1964 the tallest skyscraper outside New York City. Its observation floor was regularly open then, and I can still faintly resolve the urban vista I spied through those windows as a child. Or Gordon Park – founded at the turn of the twentieth century, and as I experienced it, a place where my father sometimes played in softball tournaments. I would later discover that the park was a site of sporadic racial conflicts over beach access in the 1930s and 1940s. It was to Gordon Park that I went even earlier, on one of the in-state field trips that the Cleveland Public Schools authorized under the auspices of some Nixon-era federal program, in tow with my father and his students from Harry E. Davis Junior High School on a visit to the city’s aquarium formerly housed there. The sight of Lake Erie’s vast expanse on that occasion, probably for the first time, may actually be my earliest Cleveland memory.

When my parents met there in the late 1960s, just out of college, Cleveland was about to elect Carl B. Stokes as the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city; although civic leaders in the 1950s had burnished a somewhat exaggerated reputation for good race relations, Stokes was elected in the hopes of quelling the discontent exposed by the 1966 Hough Riots.

Mayor Stokes Edgewater Beach
Mayor Carl B. Stokes with kids at Edgewater Park Beach, 1969. Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project.

In a seminar convened this past summer to commemorate the semicentennial of his landmark victory, I had a particularly poignant opportunity to contemplate Cleveland’s changes in my lifetime, against the backdrop of my book research on its African American middle class over the course of the twentieth century. As David Stradling has shown, the city’s reputation took a hit as the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire coincided with a rising environmental consciousness; however, Cleveland was still a decade away from receiving its notorious moniker, “The Mistake on the Lake.” Even as the city hit its population peak of almost one million in 1950, the shrinking heavy industrial base was already a cause for worry, as discussed by J. Mark Souther. I experienced this contraction when in the late 1970s my paternal uncles lost jobs at factories like White Motors and LTV Steel. For working-class African Americans, it proved even tougher. In Cleveland just like in Detroit, they had been forced to confront rising unemployment from deindustrialization much earlier. Along with other suburban adolescents attracted to the local punk rock music scene in the late 1980s, I approached the city and metro area’s declining population with a sense of adventure as I made trips to explore downtown spaces like the Old Arcade, a precursor to the modern shopping mall built in 1890 with considerable buy-in from Cleveland’s most famous citizen at the time, John D. Rockefeller.

Old Arcade
Old arcade, postcard, ca. 1900. Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project.

Like many other historians, I was motivated to choose a dissertation/book topic relating to my own personal background. But for those of us who make this choice, at what point does the intense familiarity with (and affection for) one’s hometown stop, and scholarly interest begin? How does one articulate the significance of such overlooked places to a broader audience – or, as I have been asked on more than one occasion: “Why should we care about Cleveland history?” For me, this question has become even more perplexing with the rise of “Rust Belt Chic,” a term Richey Piiparinen credits to Joyce Brabner, life partner to the late Clevelander and comics legend Harvey Pekar.[1] Explored in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology – first published in 2012 by Anne Trubek, who went on to found Belt Magazine the following year – the concept represents a wry effort to reappropriate and shape the urban image of Great Lakes postindustrial cities amid increased attention from East and West Coast culturati, most recently on the occasion of Cleveland’s hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention.

I grounded an argument for Cleveland’s significance not just in its past prominence among U.S. cities and its significance as a Great Migration destination for African Americans, but by comparing its patterns of racial encounter with those in nearby Chicago and Detroit. Inspired by the work of Arnold Hirsch and Thomas Sugrue, among others, I nonetheless became dissatisfied with the applicability of Hirsch’s “second ghetto” concept[2] for the black middle class neighborhoods I studied, ultimately coming to believe that “surrogate suburbs” served as a better descriptor for these outer-city spaces and their residents’ ability to find creative workarounds in facing structural racism. I found that there was some truth behind Cleveland’s reputation for a more proactive approach to racial conflict during the 1950s – at least compared to Chicago and Detroit – but that an even more important factor was the disproportionate prominence of its Jewish neighborhoods that came to serve as black middle-class expansion areas, turning over with racial tension but little in the way of violent resistance. The intertwining of Cleveland’s Jewish history and African American history comes through particularly clearly in the tour we have created in conjunction with the upcoming SACRPH conference, which traces the outward geographic mobility of black families from peripheral city neighborhoods to suburbs like Shaker Heights.

Ernest Bohn
Ernest J. Bohn, 1962. Bohn simultaneously served as Director of the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA; 1933-68) and chair of the City Planning Commission (1942-66). Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project.

But Cleveland also turns out to be an incredibly well-documented city, as I began to realize in my first post-college job as a book page at the Western Reserve Historical Society, which is still the most important manuscript repository among all the city’s archives. Already as an undergraduate, I had encountered the voluminous personal papers of CMHA’s nationally-prominent head Ernest J. Bohn, nicknamed “Mr. Public Housing,” as a summer intern at Case Western Reserve University Library’s Special Collections. Later I discovered the Cleveland Press “morgue” at Cleveland State University (CSU) Special Collections, essentially the entire clippings files and photograph collection of the city’s once-leading daily newspaper that closed up shop in 1982. As I delved deeper and the dissertation morphed into a book project, I visited the invaluable Public Administration Library in City Hall, the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland Archives, the Cuyahoga County Archives and Recorder’s Office, and the often-overlooked Cleveland City Council Archives where materials are organized in a seemingly arcane fashion, according to the relevant ordinance.

The more obscure among these resources are obviously not where the novice or weekend conference-goer should begin. However, significant among all the changes I’ve seen in Cleveland over the last two decades is a growing consciousness of local history and the increasing availability of digital resources. Among the best places to start are the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, which originally debuted in 1987 in print form, as the first such reference work on an American city; and Cleveland Historical, a website and mobile phone app created by CSU’s Center for Public History + Digital Humanities. CSU’s Michael Schwartz Library has also developed the Cleveland Memory Project, containing thousands of maps as well as images from the aforementioned Cleveland Press collection; the Cleveland Public Library’s Digital Gallery also contains photographs, among other resources. An outstanding blog and research clearinghouse worth mentioning is Teaching Cleveland Digital. If you’re on Twitter, you could consider following This Was Cleveland, the most active of about a dozen similarly-themed accounts I’ve found. In any case, I hope to see you in Cleveland sometime, and that whether you come on a conference or a research visit, you have an enjoyable and rewarding stay.

Michney_1Todd M. Michney teaches in the School of History and Sociology at the Georgia Institute of Technology and is the author of Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). He is a current UHA board member and is the U.S. Articles bibliographer for the Urban History Newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter @ToddMichney.

[1] Richey Piiparinen, “Anorexic Vampires, Cleveland Veins: The Story of Rust Belt Chic,” in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, ed. Richey Piiparinen and Anne Trubek, 2nd ed. (Cleveland: Belt Publishing, 2014), 26.

[2] Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960, reprint ed. with a new forward (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Member of the Week: Troy Hallsell

Hallsell PhotoTroy Hallsell

PhD Candidate, Department of History

The University of Memphis

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

My research explores the grassroots politics of anti-freeway activism. In 1956, federal highway administrators proposed a freeway that would run directly though Overton Park in Midtown, Memphis. Their proposal became one of Tennessee’s and the nation’s most contentious public works project of the post-World War II era. Community activists organized to protect their park, going all the way to the Supreme Court to successfully prevent the freeway’s construction. While many scholars recognize their efforts as critical to protecting public spaces in American cities, they have not fully interrogated the politics behind the citizens’ freeway revolt, nor have they fully considered the ways in which this struggle served to increase residential segregation in places like Midtown Memphis. The project bridges literatures on environmentalism, urban history, and historic preservation to demonstrate the surprising and often unintended consequences of grassroots environmental activism that sought to preserve neighborhoods and public spaces.

As a historian and native Memphian, I have sought to answer questions about my home town—especially why is it segregated and how did it happen? During my MA program at George Mason University I took a course titled “Technology and Power” with Zachary Schrag. A portion of this course was dedicated to infrastructure and I was fascinated with our discussion about how roads/streets/highways shape built environments physically, spatially, and politically. When I began my PhD program at the University of Memphis I stumbled upon this freeway revolt in a book and found the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park’s archival record at the Memphis Public Library. I decided to take it up as a dissertation project and add to my city’s backstory.

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

I am currently teaching two courses: one that explores cities, technological innovation, and technology’s effect on the urban environment. This course is an extension of my research, but I have expanded it to include public health, housing, policing, and military activity. My other course, titled Environment and Society, is an introductory course that exposes students to some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. Using an interdisciplinary approach, they learn the science behind these issues, as well as the economic, political, and social factors that influence environmental change and shape our responses to it. Here, they learn that environment and politics are deeply intertwined.

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

There are two books sitting on my desk that I am about to read: Benjamin Looker’s A Nation of Neighborhoods: Imagining Cities, Communities, and Democracy in Postwar America and Lila Corwin Berman’s Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit. Both books speak to dynamics at work in Memphis during my period of study.

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

The biggest lesson I learned came too late for me. When PhD students are selecting their major and minor fields, they must choose ones that complement, not necessarily reinforce. For example, I chose 20th century US history for my major field and African and African American history for my minor fields. Since my major field was headed by urban and civil rights historians, I read tons (perhaps literally) of African American historiography. While great for teaching, it is difficult to draw a straight line between Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship and urban renewal. I should have chosen an Urban Studies minor field instead of African American historiography. Working with a minor field advisor, we could have created a reading program that covered urban, race, gender, and class theory. This approach would have provided a theoretical foundation that I could then let loose on my dissertation topic. Instead, I am having to teach it to myself while writing a dissertation and found this to be a daunting task.

What Memphis sites are currently overlooked, but really should be a “must-see” on any historical tour of the city?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. When people come to Memphis they will inevitably eat BBQ, go to the National Civil Rights Museum, and drop $40 to see Graceland. But I always recommend people do the following things. First, see the Peabody Ducks. I’m thirty-five years old and I still act like a six-year-old when I see a guy in a tuxedo march ducks out of an elevator and along a red carpet to swim in the hotel’s lobby fountain. Second, if you are on Beale Street venture into Silky O’Sulivan’s. Upon first glance, it is a bar like any other. But if you venture into the courtyard you’ll see a pair of goats off to the right. They always make me laugh, because, well, goats. Lastly, walk down to the Beale Street landing and take in the Mississippi River. Memphis sits upon the river’s widest point and people rarely consider how big and powerful a river can be. They don’t call it mighty for nothing.

10 Questions for Emily Landau, author of Spectacular Wickedness

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In the process of building a bibliography for New Orleans, fellow scholars repeatedly recommended Emily Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness: Race, Sex, and Memory in Storyville, New OrleansIn Spectacular Wickedness, Landau provides a window in the the Progressive Era politics that dominated the nation during the first two decades using the notorious Storyville neighborhood of New Orleans. Landau was kind enough to discuss with The Metropole: New Orleans, her work, and the value of sexuality as a historical lens for politics, culture, and economics.

What drew you to New Orleans as a topic of study?

To be honest, when I began the project I knew very little about New Orleans; I was drawn to the city through Storyville. What began as an investigation into the discursive construction of “the octoroon” became a history of New Orleans as I sorted through the various myths surrounding that figure in the city. It was important to me to understand and to show the historical background(s) and political contexts of the creation of the sexualized “light-skinned,” female slave, and her continued circulation, if you will, as a type through the nineteenth century, in Storyville, and, frankly, even today.

How would you describe your work, Spectacular Wickedness to someone unfamiliar with New Orleans?

First of all, the book is a history of Storyville, the red-light district, which opened in 1897 and closed in 1917. Thus, the book explores those twenty years in the history of New Orleans. It is hard to imagine someone unfamiliar with New Orleans’s reputation for sybaritic excess, but I suppose I would outline the broad contours of that reputation (and the history behind it) and then explain that Storyville was actually an attempt to curb rampant prostitution in the city, contrary to popular understanding.

Second, the book puts that history into a broader national narrative about the establishment of strict racial segregation. Storyville offered a wide array of entertainments for its visitors, but its most notorious attraction was the easy (and advertised) availability of women of color to white men. The book describes the goings-on in Storyville and analyzes them in the larger contexts of increasingly rigid racial segregation and contemporaneous sexual purity campaigns, both of which denounced sex across the color line. The argument, at its most simple and general, is that one cannot properly understand racial politics in that (or any) era without also understanding the social construction of gender and the politics of sex and sexuality. Storyville becomes a kind of case study, an extreme one, to be sure, of national attitudes toward race and sex, and therefore also about power.

Because I knew so little myself about New Orleans when I began, I felt compelled to include a fair amount of history in the book, going back to the earliest days of settlement, if you can call it that, in the area. This was partly to provide some historical background, and partly to show how Storyville’s promoters used the long history of “spectacular wickedness” in their city to promote more of it!

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Spectacular Wickedness uses the Storyville district of New Orleans to touch on a number of key subjects: Progressive Era politics, sexuality, race, and the economics of the New South. In many ways, it explores the tensions that exist between these forces/issues and the contradictions that emerge as a result. How did you begin to understand and sketch these connections through Storyville in your research and writing?

One of the first artifacts I saw from Storyville was a little guidebook to the district. As if this was not stunning enough on its own (a tour guide to a commercial sex district!!), the contents of the booklet were astonishing and dictated the direction my research would take. The book listed the women of Storyville according to “race,” so that there were women listed as “c” for “colored,” “w” for “white,” and “oct.” for “octoroon.” There was a rubric explaining all this at the beginning of the booklet, too. I was surprised that the district so blatantly advertised sex with women of color; I was also perplexed by the booklet’s use of the term, “octoroon” to describe women working there. I knew that the Plessy v. Ferguson case had sanctioned state segregation-by-race laws just the year before Storyville opened, so I was intrigued by what seemed a clear flaunting of racial proscriptions in the South. Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in that famous case, was himself a New Orleanian; his lawyer, Albion Tourgée, made much of his light skin, referring to him as an “octoroon” in his arguments. After the decision, that designation seemed entirely moot, atavistic. But Storyville’s promoters made much of that same category, in a modern way. It was important to me to show that Storyville was very much a product of its time and place—and not a throwback to an earlier New Orleans, on the one hand, or an exemplar of New Orleans’s “devil-may-care” attitudes about race-mixing and morality, on the other. The latter is most certainly part of New Orleans’s mythology, but it is not true. So, in order to pierce that mythology, I had to make the connections you mention in your question and show how Storyville fit into the larger web those connections create.

In recent years, historians have produced a number of works that use sexuality as a means to draw larger conclusions about politics: Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles, Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides and Stranger Intimacy, and Margot Canaday’s The Straight State serve as just a few examples (not all of which are urban history). Why is sexuality such a useful lens from which to study politics and economic trends, particularly in an urban setting?

While I can’t speak to the motivations of these other authors, I can say that social attitudes toward sex and sexuality more broadly are useful cultural barometers, worth probing. Anxiety about who is having sex with whom—and how society as a whole must deal with those relationships—reveals fundamental anxieties about the ordering of society; social hierarchies are inherently about power and powerlessness. Re-ordering society requires political access and clout. Urban spaces are both anonymous and intimate (sometimes at the same time). Looking at cities through the lens of sexual politics often can reveal the more subtle contours of those spaces and how they are mapped culturally, socially, and, of course, economically. Which urban spaces become “safe” spaces for what dominant society considers transgressive? (And how safe are they, really—and for whom?) Why are they where they are? Who is trying to find them and eradicate them? Again, why? Answering these types of questions requires some deep probing into the politics of space and representation, which revolve around questions of electoral politics and economics.

Contradictions abound in Storyville. For example, the district simultaneously celebrated the Old South while mocking the new acquisitive, model of the New South, yet it depended on the latter for a large chunk of its business. Interracial sex was celebrated openly but also still seen as inappropriate. One could go on. What does this tell us about New Orleans? What might this tell us about the United States during this period?

I would say that Storyville developed a marketing niche. The district celebrated a very particular aspect of the Old South: the sexual power of white men over women of all shades. This sexual power over women also translated into raw power over black men. (And, let’s be frank, white men had sexual power over black men as well; I am waiting for the scholarly work on that. Maybe it is out there or in progress, but I am not, as yet, aware of it.) By suggesting that Storyville could provide white men with that kind of sexual access and power, for a fee, Storyville’s entrepreneurs implied that all white men shared in the plantation legacy of absolute power and the sexual prerogatives that went along with it, at a time when that legacy was not so secure. The fantasy was aspirational, as slave-holding had been for many in the antebellum years. Storyville was a commercial enterprise, and its promoters availed themselves of modern advertising techniques, mostly in the blue books. It was a transgressive space, so the mocking of contemporary society must be seen in that context. Nobody thought of Storyville as legitimate or moral, obviously, and so there was a fair amount of winking in the ads for it.

In the foreword I wrote for Pamela Arceneaux’s study of the blue books I make this point, perhaps more explicitly than in my book. (See Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans). The point is that the mocking is part of the transgressive fun—the customer is in on the joke and thus off the hook for the moral and social (and racial) transgression he is about to commit. Storyville was popular with locals and tourists alike. Nostalgia for the antebellum south was a national phenomenon, and this included a desire for a return to what seemed to many (white men) to have been a simpler and clearer race-and-gender order. One of my favorite books on this subject is Nina Silber’s wonderful The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900.

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Terminal Station, New Orleans, LA” between 1910-1920; its completion in 1908 contributed to Storyville’s decline as city leaders worried about the station’s proximity to the notorious neighborhood; Detroit Free Press Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

By the same token, Storyville seems almost a transitional space during its existence. It is created as a means to control vice, in a way, as an expression of Progressivism’s impulse to regulate all manner of social interactions (admittedly, I’m using Progressivism here broadly since it’s a fairly imprecise term considering the big tent nature of its beliefs). However, by the end this vice is what gets it targeted for elimination. Similarly, you use Storyville to encapsulate other shifts: the shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, from a nation divided regionally to a more national identity (consolidated arguably by WWI and the consumer culture of the 1920s that followed), from a rural population to an urban one, and from interracial sex as an expression of white male power and supremacy to a representation of the same as a weakness. To what extent do you think such developments were unique to New Orleans? Was this an aspect of the book you recognized early on or one that developed as you dug deeper into research?

One of the funniest things about Storyville is that both its creation and its closing down were pushed by “progressive” reformers. In the late 1890s their idea was to map the city according to morality. This was never about the women who worked as prostitutes, or even, really, the men who patronized them. The rationale was to preserve areas of the city for “legitimate” business. In this way, the creation of red-light districts might be seen in a similar light to the most significant urban mapping program of the day: segregation by race. I write about this in the book as well. By 1917, reformers who sought an end to any kind of tolerated vice had gained the upper hand, not least because of the war. There was a newly urgent imperative to keep young men “fit to fight” both morally and physically, and so the era of tolerated (or grudgingly acknowledged) red light districts came to a close.

Tracking the transitions within the Progressive Era through Storyville shows some of the shifts in the nation during those twenty years. Among the most important is the ascendancy of Woodrow Wilson and the southern progressives in his circle. Wilson’s progressivism included segregating the federal government and removing, where possible, African Americans from the civil service, or relegating them to inferior positions. By the time New Orleans “closed” the district, racial segregation was more or less complete, either de jure or de facto. It is a very dynamic period, containing not only the changes you list above, but the vigorous efforts of American citizens to combat them or move them more swiftly along. Storyville is an unlikely microcosm, but because it is so extreme an example, because, that is, its very transgressive nature meant it showcased a kind of underside of modern life that most reformers sought to hide, it is potentially very revelatory. Storyville was unique in many ways, to be sure, but it was not a secret. Its international reputation certainly had national implications.

Lulu White embodies the complexities of Storyville well. On one hand, the district offered her a level of agency, yet an agency that explicitly depended on a level of racialized subservience that bounded her and other women like her to a system of Jim Crow inequality. By the end of the book, she seems undone by the requirements of this limited agency, while her counterpart Willie Piazza, who to some degree took a different strategy in regard to race than White did during Storyville’s final years, appears to have done markedly better. How did your views of White evolve over the course of your research? Did you find any explanation as to why Willie Piazza seemed to do better in the aftermath of Storyville’s demise than her competitor/peer White?

I am not sure that I would juxtapose their different post-Storyville lives in terms of decisions regarding race. Willie Piazza seems to have been a much better money manager. She saved and made good investments. White, on the other hand, died poor, not having saved or invested. There is also a rumor that White was robbed or cheated out of whatever savings she did have. What I learned about Lulu White over the course of my research and writing was that I would never really know her as a person, and that there was always going to be more about her that I did not know, and never would know.

What promising trends do you see in future works on New Orleans? 

Historians are taking New Orleans seriously as a subject of scholarship. At the recent Organization of American Historians conference—in New Orleans—a scholar described her experience of being told NOT to write about New Orleans because no one would take such work seriously. I don’t think that would happen today. I can’t really speak to trends in urban history, sorry to say.

Do you have any favorite works of pop culture on New Orleans that you love or would recommend to others?

I am among the few who loved the HBO series, “Treme.”

What are you working on now or hoping to begin working on?

My next project will be a study of murder ballads and the culture that produced them. So, I will move away from New Orleans and into Appalachia, but continue to focus on gender, sexuality, race, and politics.