Tag Archives: San Francisco

The Metropole Bookshelf: Mark Wild’s Renewal: Liberal Protestants and the American City after World War II

Mark Wild. 2019. Renewal: Liberal Protestants and the American City After World War II. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 336 pp. $50. ISBN: 978-0226605234. Hardcover.

In some ways, the idea for this book began during my childhood in 1970s-era San Francisco. The city in those years was much more dynamic, much more interesting, and much scarier than it is today. This was as true of the city’s Protestant religious communities as anything else. A few examples: In the Tenderloin district, the once fading Glide Memorial Methodist church had transformed under the leadership of pastor Cecil Williams into a thriving interracial congregation with an international reputation and a substantial local political presence. Not far away (and just a few blocks from my home), Jim Jones’s People’s Temple had acquired a comparable level of publicity, while rumors about its cultish and treacherous leader foreshadowed the carnage that followed the temple’s relocation to Guyana. Even our family’s church—a staid, white Episcopalian congregation in a well-to-do neighborhood—was not insulated from the forces of cultural change.  One Sunday morning in 1978, the associate rector, William Barcus, announced that he was gay. At the time, such a declaration from a mainline clergyman was shocking, even in San Francisco. Father Barcus went on to deliver the eulogy at Harvey Milk’s funeral and to establish a homeless ministry before dying of AIDS-related complications in the early 1990s.

9780226605234.jpgRenewal investigates a problem that vexed many people in the years after World War II: how should the church respond to the volatile climate of modern urban America? One movement of mainline clergy and laypeople believed that new kinds of ecclesial institutions were needed. Capital flight and suburbanization were luring the middle-classes, especially the white middle class, out of cities. Their replacements were more working-class, more racially and religiously diverse. The renewalists argued that mainline congregations no longer served the needs (spiritual, social, and political) of these parishioners. They designed new forms of ministry and spiritual community to appeal to these residents. Along the way they rethought the church’s relationship to the city. Hoping to abolish, or at least reduce, the distinction between sacred and secular, they carved out a vision of a church embedded in all dimensions of urban America.

A few of these efforts, like Glide Church, enjoyed spectacular success.  Most did not. Renewalists envisioned unified parishes and the simultaneous empowerment of the diverse ethnic, racial, and cultural communities within them. Balancing unity and autonomy was (and remains) notoriously difficult, and by the time I was going to church, renewalists had lost much of their energy and resources.

Why should urban historians care about a movement that failed to achieve most of its objectives? For one thing, renewalists, despite their limitations, had a significant impact on the communities where they worked, not only through their own ministries, but by supporting the larger network of community organizations and campaigns that reshaped urban America in the postwar period. For another, renewalist efforts bear striking similarities to those of other institutions—freedom-movement and ethnic nationalist organizations, unions, and local political machines, to name a few—of their era. When Father Barcus came out to our congregation, he did so partly to protest a state referendum, sometimes referred to as the Briggs initiative, that would have barred LGBT teachers from public schools. The coalition that mobilized to defeat Briggs spanned local and regional organizations, both secular and church-based. These kinds of subjects have occupied the attention of urban historians for a long time. Understanding them requires understanding the church people who supported and sometimes led them. These renewalists were not just the religious arm of a secular cause, but active constituents in the evolution of urban history, whose stories hold lessons for people inside and outside the church.

Mark Wild has taught history at California State University Los Angeles since 2002. In addition to Renewal, he is the author of Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth Century Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2005).

Featured image (at top):

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, renovation, San Francisco, CA, photo by Beverly Willis, 1966, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

 

Member of the Week: Matt Lasner

matthew-lasner_uap-bio2Matthew G. Lasner

Associate Professor, Urban Policy and Planning

Hunter College, City University of New York

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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