Tag Archives: Urban Planning

The Value of Farmland: Rural Gentrification and the Movement to Stop Sprawl

This post by Angela Shope Stiefbold is our second entrant into the Second Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. We invited graduate students to submit essays on theme of “Striking Gold,” whether lucre or archival treasures. Stiefbold’s essay hews towards the former interpretation, examining how rapidly rising metropolitan land value can mean “Striking Gold” for some land owners while threatening the livelihood of others.

Rents are rapidly rising. Property values are skyrocketing. Real estate taxes are ever-increasing. Long-time owners are selling out and moving away. Newcomers express values and politics at odds with older residents. This sounds like a gentrifying urban neighborhood—but it was the situation in not-long-to-be-rural, mid-twentieth century Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

J. Warren Shelly, whose family began farming in Bucks County in the 1700s, worried that he would have to sell the 65-acre farm where he was born, because its real estate tax assessment was increased 900 percent in 1972. Yet, as he noted, “The land isn’t for sale, so the market value doesn’t mean anything to us.” He went on to observe “It’s a funny thing…A lot of people came here originally because they like the way it is out here, with the open spaces and green fields. Those are the same people who are taxing us out of existence.”[1]

geographic Position 1954 plan
“The Geographic Position of Buck’s County.” Source: “General Background, Buck’s County Regional Plan, Part 1” (Doylestown, PA: Buck’s County Planning Commission, 1954), follows p. 1.

Shelly was one of many Bucks County farmers who found their lives upended as the demand for exurban estates and suburban tract homes transformed their rural townships and caused land prices to sharply appreciate. Some farmers happily sold their land and pocketed the windfall, which allowed them to comfortably retire from the hard work and financial uncertainty of farming. But other farmers found increased property values and the higher real estate taxes they produced problematic if they wanted to continue to farm or to live out their retirement years on land that had been in their family for generations.

While many of the new arrivals were sympathetic to the plight of neighboring farmers, the novelty of the problem and the glacial rate of change in state and local government policy resulted in many long-time residents being uprooted from their land. When programs were finally enacted to preserve prime farmland and agriculture, the new policies were implemented largely because farmers found allies in their exurban neighbors who valued the amenity that a farm landscape provided.

The history of suburbanization has largely been written in order to understand the experience and motivations of the people who moved from city to suburb.[2] I am interested in the perspective of the farmers who were living in the rural areas to which suburbanization came. The legacies of conflicts over land, how it is regulated and taxed, and who can afford to live on it, continue to reverberate not just in cities, but at the rural-urban fringe.

UFPA Newsletter 1933
Newsletter of UFPA. Source: Agrarian Periodicals in the United States, 1920-1960 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977), microfilm.

For generations, Bucks County residents sustained their households by both consuming and selling to urban markets the products of their land.[3] Family farms, along with a few large commercial farming enterprises established in the 1920s, shipped tons of produce to Philadelphia, New York, and other nearby cities. According to the 1940 U.S. Agricultural Census, Bucks County farmers produced thirty percent of the state’s total sale value of vegetables, harvesting more broccoli, parsnips, spinach, rhubarb, turnips, carrots, and green beans than the rest of Pennsylvania combined.[4]

Yet even with such productivity, many of the county’s farmers struggled during the Great Depression. Crop prices dropped after WWI and were slow to recover. Additionally, the agricultural industry was changing, and many family farms could not compete with larger, more efficient, better capitalized and better-connected commercial operations. Bucks County farmers lobbied for tax relief and policies that would help the small operator, both through the Grange, the largest farm organization in the county, as well as a more radical local group, the United Farmers Protective Association (UFPA). The UFPA went so far as to disrupt sheriff’s sales and threaten to block milk deliveries in the early 1930s. Ultimately the county’s “dirt farmers” got little relief and many gave up and sold their farms—often to a new type of Bucks County landowner.

Starkey Bean Field 1941 LOC
Marion Post Wolcott, Portable irrigation unit in bean field. Starkey Farms, Morrisville Pennsylvania, May 1941, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017806944/.

Howard Paxson, lifelong Solebury Township resident and farmer, commented in 1942 that “there had been great changes in his community since he started farming. Few farms were today in the same hands…only one farm was being farmed by the third generation.”[5] The county’s countryside attracted wealthy summer visitors from Philadelphia and New York City, and in the 1930s they purchased Bucks County land in growing numbers. Some new owners tried their own hand at agriculture, but more often they converted the farms to manicured estates, rented the bulk of the fields to a neighboring farmer, or hired managers to run the farm, sometimes consolidating and converting several diversified, general farms into cattle or horse breeding operations. One thing that held true for almost all of these estate-farm owners was that they did not need to be profitable farmers—for them agriculture was a hobby.

Long-time local farmers, like Benjamin Kirson, complained that “wealthy men who have bought farms in this vicinity [a]ffect other farmers. They have raised inspection standards too high and the high wages they pay and superior living conditions they provide make it hard for th[e] average farmer to keep help satisfied.”[6] Of other exurban estate owners, William Greenawalt, agricultural extension agent, said “…I met many who had no idea of what to do with the farm after they had it. Apparently they had put most of their cash into the purchase and for repairs to buildings and then didn’t have the capital for equipment or stocking. They had no particular interest in the land other than as a home in the country.”[7]

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Marion Post Wolcott, Farm. Bucks County, Pennsylvania. June 1939, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017801231/

After WWII, Bucks County’s farmland faced what Dr. Gerald Brees, director of the Bureau of Urban Research at Princeton University, described as “the path of two giant steamrollers, one from New York City and the other from Philadelphia.”[8] Real estate promoters had long encouraged industrial growth in the lower end of the county, the location of highways and railroads connecting Philadelphia and New York. In the 1950s that growth finally took off, with large industrial and residential development projects making significant changes in the landscape. They included U.S. Steel’s Fairless Works, which employed over 7,000 on a 3,800-acre site and Levitt and Sons’ second Levittown development of over 17,000 houses across eight square miles.

Aerial-View-of-Levittown
“Levittown dwarfs a neighboring farmstead,” http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/levittowns

This wave of development displaced thousands of county farmers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau there were 4,299 Bucks County farms in 1940, but only 1,159 in 1969.[9] Herman L. Margerum, Jr., president of the Morrisville Bank, commented in 1953 that due to the new suburban growth “many old-timers have moved after selling out at good prices. Some purchased rich farmland up-county, others bought farms in Delaware and a few retired to Florida.”[10] By 1960, farmer Harry Atkinson, Jr. complained that “There has been no land sold south of Doylestown in the last 10 years that a farmer could afford to buy and farm.”[11]

If a farmer wanted to stay put, forgo the windfall of increased property value, and tolerate the change in the community, property taxes posed a final obstacle. Suburban development required substantial local investment in new public facilities, primarily funded by real estate taxes. When the Bucks County Board of Assessment released the results of a county-wide reassessment in 1972, farmers saw their property valued at levels two to ten times higher. Operating on the slimmest margins of profitability, they lobbied for relief. Otto Fink, a poultry farmer in Milford Township, said in reaction to his new assessment, “Either the new assessment on my farm is lowered for 1973 or I’m out of business. It’s as simple as that.”[12] The prospect of many farmers doing the same was expressed by Walter Wurster, representative of the Bucks County Farmers’ Association, who reported “it’s not an assessment notice, it’s an eviction notice.”[13]

Given the declining importance of agriculture in Bucks County, one would imagine that farmers faced an uphill battle to convince local authorities to help their situation.[14] In 1970 farm operators made up less than half of one percent of the county’s total population (415,056).[15] In 1974, the value of the county’s agricultural production was $22 million, a small fraction of the $2.7 billion in revenue produced by the county’s manufacturing firms.[16] Only one third of the county’s land area remained agricultural use.[17]

However, the county’s farmers found strong allies among non-farm residents, many of whom moved to Bucks because they wanted to live in a farming landscape. Additionally, there was a growing movement for environmental protection, including preserving prime agricultural soils for local food production. James Iden Smith, the ninth generation of his family to own his farm and a Quaker involved in the UFPA in the 1930s and soil conservation efforts throughout his life, found himself serving as a spokesperson for farmland preservation in the 1970s. He observed that “Land produces everything we need for clean, healthful living. If we use that up eventually the country is going to suffer for it.”[18]

The first protectors of the rural countryside, beginning in the late 1930s, tried to restrict growth using township zoning ordinances that required large lot sizes and prohibited multi-family housing. By the early 1970s, a more ecological approach to guiding growth was promoted by the Bucks County Planning Commission. It urged limiting development of areas with environmental constraints or significant natural resources. They recommended agricultural soils with prime productivity remain 95 percent undeveloped.

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Blue Areas are designated Prime Agricultural District. “Comprehensive Plan: Bucks County, Pennsylvania” (Bucks County Planning Commission: Doylestown, PA, June 1977).

The first protectors of the rural countryside, beginning in the late 1930s, tried to restrict growth using township zoning ordinances that required large lot sizes and prohibited multi-family housing. By the early 1970s, a more ecological approach to guiding growth was promoted by the Bucks County Planning Commission. It urged limiting development of areas with environmental constraints or significant natural resources. They recommended agricultural soils with prime productivity remain 95 percent undeveloped.

Many farmers opposed these approaches to preserving the agricultural landscape because they reduced the wealth embodied in their land—their retirement nest-egg. If fewer homes could be built on their farm, developers would pay less for it. Objecting to zoning proposed in Buckingham Township, farmer Edwin Daniels testified that because the future profitability of agriculture was questionable and it was unlikely farmers’ children would continue farming, it was important “for us to hang onto the value of our farms for them.”[19] In the early 1970s housing developers and landowners brought successful court challenges against restrictive zoning in several Bucks County townships.

Following this setback, the county planning commission, proponents of open space preservation, environmentalists, and anti-growth activists began collaborating with farmers. They embraced programs designed to protect farmland not by prohibiting non-farm uses, but by encouraging the success of farming operations. As the Bucks County Planning Commission’s director of community planning James C. Lodge noted, “using agriculture as an activity and preserving agriculture itself is going to be one of the mechanisms to preserve land.”[20]

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Graphic used by Bucks County Planning Commission to describe factors contributing to farmland loss. “Agricultural Preservation in Bucks County” (Bucks County Planning Commission: Doylestown, PA, July 1979)

Bucks County civic leaders helped propel bills through the state legislature that provided real estate tax relief to landowners who promised not to develop farmland. County and township officials implemented a purchase of development rights program, funded through state, county, and local bond initiatives (overwhelmingly approved by voters), which paid farmers the difference between the market value of land and its farm-use value, in return for an easement on the land forever prohibiting its development. Between 1989 and 2016 over $151 million was spent through the county’s Agricultural Land Preservation Program to preserve more than 15,000 acres of farmland.[21] This subsidy provided farmers access to the development value of their land without destroying the productive value of its soils or the amenity of its pastoral landscape, appreciated by farmers and non-farmers alike. Yet this solution came much too late for most of Bucks County’s farmers. In 2012 only 17 percent of the county remained in farmland, down from 67 percent in 1930 and the number of farms had fallen from 4,360 to 827.[22]

Concurrently, individual farmers made changes in their operations in order to prosper in a suburban market, with the advice and assistance of county agencies, farm organizations, and the Penn State Extension Service. They increasingly sold plants, fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products directly to local consumers, shifted to organic production or specialty crops, and incorporated farm-based-entertainment into their operations. These farmers practiced a form of agriculture very different from that of the “dirt farmers” of the 1930s, who were unsuccessful at rallying local support for the distressed family farmer. Instead, they survived because they provided a service and amenity valued by their non-farm neighbors. One can see similarities with the experience in gentrifying city neighborhoods, where the influx of new, affluent residents redefines what is considered appropriately authentic urbanism.

1977 video with James Iden Smith talking about farming and preserving farmland from 31:00 to 33:40

In my forthcoming dissertation, I further investigate the diverse and complex motivations for and opposition to farmland preservation. In presenting this summary, I have simplified a great deal of the contentious public debate over the fate of Bucks County’s farmland and farmers. Residents and local officials debated: the rights of land owners; the fairness of using real estate taxes to fund public services; the viability of small-scale agriculture; and the responsibility of government to represent and protect the interests of its citizens, both current and future. Rarely admitted publicly, but likely motivation for some anti-sprawl, pro-farm activists included keeping low-income and minority residents at a distance. Homebuilder and Bucks County Planning Commission member Ralph Pisani said of the fight over development, “…it’s difficult to tell the good guys from the bad [g]uys…farmers, land owners, legitimate environmentalists, bigots (disguised as environmentalists), professional planners, municipal officials and land developers comprise the list of combatants…the battlefields are the farms…the weapons are the federal and state constitutions.”[23] Protecting farmland was a way to slow suburban sprawl while supporting the indisputably worthwhile causes of protecting the environment, the food supply, the American farmer, and the rural landscape.

Stiefbold PhotoAngela Shope Stiefbold is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati, where she studies urban history, planning history, and public history, and has become increasingly interested in their intersection with agricultural and rural history. She earned a Master of City and Regional Planning from UNC-Chapel Hill, and her career in city planning included working as a Senior Planner for the Bucks County Planning Commission. She has also served on her local historic preservation, economic development, and planning commissions.

[1] Clark DeLeon, “Farmers’ Choice: Raise Crops…Or Tax Money,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 6, 1972, Newspapers.com.

[2] Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987); Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth (New York: Pantheon, 2003). One of the few works to discuss the agency of the rural landowner in the history of suburbanization is: Mark Linder and Lawrence S. Zacharias, Of Cabbages and Kings County: Agriculture and the Formation of Modern Brooklyn (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999).

[3] For a comprehensive history of Pennsylvania agriculture, see Sally McMurry, Pennsylvania Farming: A History in Landscapes (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017).

[4] “County Farm Situation Is Undergoing Changes,” Daily Intelligencer Clippings Files, “Bucks Co Agriculture, 1915-1945,” Spruance Library, Bucks County Historical Society; U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Census of Agriculture, 1940, Volume 1 First and Second Series, State Repots, Statistics for Counties,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942), http://agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu/AgCensus.

[5] Minutes, March 4, 1942, Minute Book, Box 2, Folder 7, Pomona Grange #22 Collection, Spruance Library, Bucks County Historical Society.

[6] Minutes, September 6, 1944, Minute Book, Box 3, Folder 1, Pomona Grange #22 Collection, Spruance Library, Bucks County Historical Society.

[7] William F. Greenawalt, “Annual Report: December 1, 1949-November 30, 1950” (Agricultural Extension Association of Bucks County: Doylestown, PA),” n.d., 1.

[8] “Claims Present Bucks Situation Was Inevitable,” Bristol (PA) Courier, March 3, 1952, Newspapers.com.

[9] U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Census of Agriculture, 1940, Volume 1 First and Second Series, State Repots, Statistics for Counties,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942), http://agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu/AgCensus; U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Census of Agriculture, 1969, Volume 1 Area Reports, Part 9 Pennsylvania, Section 1. Summary Data,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972), http://agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu/AgCensus.

[10] William G. Weart, “Bucks County Boom Beset by Problems,” New York Times, December 26, 1953, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.

[11] Minutes, March 2, 1960, Minute Book, Box 2, Folder 7, Pomona Grange #22 Collection, Spruance Library, Bucks County Historical Society.

[12] Sonya Sharp, “Farmers Feel New Assessments Will Put Them Out of Business,” Morning Call (Allentown, PA), August 2, 1972, Newspapers.com.

[13] Clark DeLeon, “Farmers’ Choice: Raise Crops…Or Tax Money,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 6, 1972, Newspapers.com.

[14] For a history of federal efforts to preserve farmland, see Tim Lehman, Public Values, Private Lands: Farmland Preservation Policy, 1933-1985 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[15] Richard L. Forstall, “PENNSYLVANIA: Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990,” U.S. Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/population/cencounts/pa190090.txt.

[16] Bucks County Planning Commission, “Comprehensive Plan, Bucks County Pennsylvania,” (Doylestown, PA: June 1977), 22.

[17] U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Census of Agriculture, 1974, Volume, Part 38, Pennsylvania State and County Data,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977), http://agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu/AgCensus.

[18] Michael B. Smith, “Bucolic Buckingham Township Resists the Developers’ ‘Cure’,” Philadelphia Inquirer May 26, 1974, Newspapers.com.

[19] Lawrence C. Hall, “Officials Reveal New Zone Plan,” Daily Intelligencer (Doylestown, PA), July 27, 1973, Newspapers.com.

[20] Meeting Minutes, March 14, 1979, Minute Book 4, (Bucks County Planning Commission: Doylestown, PA), 87.

[21] “Annual Report, 2016” (Bucks County Agricultural Land Preservation Program: Doylestown, PA, August 2016), 9-10. Privately-funded nonprofit organizations also pursued development rights purchase programs in the county.

[22] U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Census of Agriculture, 2012,” https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_2_County_Level. U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Census of Agriculture, 1930,” http://agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu/AgCensus.

[23] Ralph Pisani, “In Development War, There Are Only Victims,” Daily Intelligencer (Doylestown, PA) December 15, 1977, Newspapers.com.

Digital Summer School: Renewing Inequality

Undoubtedly, one of the break out digital humanities projects of the last decade is Mapping Inequality: Redlining in America, the impressively ambitious and ultimately very successful work resulting from the collaboration of scholars at Virginia Tech, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Maryland including LaDale Winling, Nathan Connolly, Richard Marciano, Brent Cebul and directed by Robert K. Nelson out of the University of Richmond.

In 2016, Forbes ranked it as one of the five GIS projects changing the public’s conception of institutional racism. As University of Iowa’s Sarah Bond wrote of Mapping Inequality: “Such spatial analysis allows us not only to see how racism is instituted, but also to see how historical decisions continue to have an impact on the U.S. today.” Nelson, Cebul, and others have embarked on a new digital initiative on a topic close the hearts of urban historians, urban renewal, with Renewing Inequality: Urban Renewal, Family Displacements, and Race, 1955-1966. The two historians sat down with The Metropole to discuss the motivations behind Renewing Inequality, the complexity of mapping urban renewal projects, and the insights they hope to provide into the process of post-World War II economic development.

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Urban renewal demonstrators protesting plans to redevelopment Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, (outside City Hall, NY), January 19, 1962, Prints and Photograhs Division, Library of Congress

What was the impetus behind Renewing Inequality and who do you envision as your audience?

Renewing Inequality is the sequel to Mapping Inequality, the earlier project we created around the maps produced by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s. We were and continue to be pleased to see journalists and other users of Mapping Inequality make connections between the federal government’s urban policies in the 1930s and the landscape of inequality–particularly along the lines of race–in American cities today. That said, in no simple way did redlining cause or alone shape contemporary inequality. And it wasn’t the only federal policy or program that shaped that landscape.

The urban renewal projects that the federal government largely funded in the third quarter of the twentieth century were arguably just as, if not more impactful than, redlining – and in many cases renewal was the solution prescribed for neighborhoods whose decline was sparked or accelerated by redlining. Those renewal projects ended up displacing hundreds of thousands of families from their homes, they destroyed hundreds of communities, and in many cases they accelerated urban decline rather than abating it. And throughout, families of color disproportionately bore the highest costs of displacement, over-crowding, and entrenched urban decline.

In short, we created Renewing Inequality for much the same reason we created Mapping Inequality: we hope to make more people aware of how the brunt of federal urban policy refracted through local government priorities and elite leadership fell upon the poor and people of color, the impact of which continues to be felt today.
How did this Renewing Inequality come to fruition? Were there any obstacles did you had to overcome?

Urban renewal was obviously a very complicated program. One challenge we struggled with is how to offer an account–a history–of the program where the point was not obscured but instead revealed by the data. The students we worked with spent hundreds of hours entering and correcting data. We ended up being pretty aggressive in selecting the data we used and discarding much of it. We collected, for example, tens of thousands of individual pieces of data that categorized how much of each cleared project was re-zoned or re-purposed for commercial, industrial, residential, and public uses. None of that is visualized or shown in Renewing Inequality. In order to focus as much as we could on the enormous impact of the program on people we decided to foreground data about displacements and either bury pretty deep or entirely ignore other data we collected (which was painful!). We also developed a more qualitative section of the site devoted to the social and planning history of the program – its lived experience – which we call “The People and the Program.”

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Land development project (“Southwest Redevelopment A”), Washington, D.C. Map showing redevelopment and problem areas, architect Keyes, Smith, Satterlee & Lethbridge, between 1951 and 1955, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Another challenge that we faced, which is an ongoing struggle, is finding maps for individual projects. There were thousands of urban renewal projects funded by the federal government in hundreds of cities and towns. It has been surprisingly difficult to find maps for many of these projects, particularly in some of the smaller towns. We’re confident what we have in Renewing Inequality is the largest collection of urban renewal footprints created to date, but it’s still far from being comprehensive. Then again, we also learned that many urban renewal projects –the program funded local code enforcement initiatives, for instance–did not have officially defined project boundaries and therefore maps. But the qualitative historical record suggests that these sorts of programs were almost certainly targeted on specific neighborhoods and people and, in the case of code enforcement, could accelerate displacement by means other than condemnation, eminent domain, and razing homes.

What role do digital projects like Renewing Inequality play in the field of history? Where do you see this project and others like it going in the future?

In urban history, in particular, urban renewal has most often been studied at the scale of the largest cities. In terms of sheer number of people displaced, the Chicagos, Detroits, and New Yorks are clearly the most significant. But what our data also makes clear is that renewal was a program most often deployed in smaller cities of 50,000, 25,000, even 10,000 or fewer residents. If the twentieth century was a century of urbanization, many of these urbanizing cities participated in urban renewal, and often with devastating effects upon residents of color and their urban fabrics. So our hope is that this project joins more recent efforts by scholars such as Douglas Appler and James Connolly to encourage urban historians to broaden our conception of what counts as “urban” in urban history. In the case of urban renewal, a preponderance of programs were deployed in cities like Rome, Georgia or Easton, Pennsylvania. Being able to visualize this historical reality is one way to begin to broaden our field of view.

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Skyline Urban Renewal Area, Arapahoe & 17th Streets (Commercial Buildings), Arapahoe & Seventeenth Streets, Denver, Denver County, CO, photograph by William Edmund Barrett, after 1933, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One of the next steps we’re taking is a partnership (still in its infancy) with MASS Design Group on an exhibit tailored to urban designers and planners that might alert them to the history of urban renewal in mid-sized and smaller cities. As with Mapping Inequality, our goal will be to explore the connections between past policies and present inequalities, and, in this case, help urban planners and designers to think more capaciously about the roles of history, enfranchisement, and scale when designing plans for cities across the spectrum of urban forms. This partnership should result in some new applications within Renewing Inequality, so stay tuned for updates to the site.

Urban renewal has been a very big topic among historians, what misperceptions or myths regarding it do you hope to correct?

We’ve mentioned the need to consider smaller and mid-sized cities, where the majority of renewal projects took place and which continue to be the preponderant but too often overlooked urban form in the United States. But another aspect of urban renewal that we visualize though perhaps we don’t emphasize enough is the evolving, surprisingly plastic goals of urban renewal. What began almost exclusively as a housing and development program came to encompass broader goals over time (often when planners and policymakers were faced with resident activism against the local plans). Urban renewal funds were used to advance the expansion of university and colleges by the late 1950s, to take the first steps toward hospital-based redevelopment of deindustrializing cities, and later to rebuild areas decimated by natural disasters. For instance, five of the six cities in Alaska that received “urban renewal” funding received it as disaster funding after the 1964 earthquake that caused a devastating tsunami. The “Valdez Area” project “displaced” the entirety of that small town as it was moved several miles west to a seismically stabler area. These were larger scale programs akin to the earlier uses of the program, but over the course of the 1960s, the program was amended to include much smaller scale interventions: programs for city beautification through tree planting, parks, and playgrounds; citizen outreach meetings and planning initiatives; and even grants directly to homeowners to rehabilitate their homes rather than raze them. Though the backlash to the program brought it to an end in 1974, for over a decade leading up to its demise the program was continuously amended to incorporate critiques of the mega-block style that dominated in the 1950s and early 1960s. We’ve tried to capture this evolution in our legislative history of the program.

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Transportation Center, Cincinnati, Ohio. Schematic section from A Revitalization Plan for the City Core of Cincinnati, Ohio ,planning, Victor Gruen Associates, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Considering the success of Mapping Inequality, how do your hopes or aspirations for Renewing Inequality compare? Similar? Different? Why? 

One of the tragic ironies at the heart of the success of Mapping Inequality is that it derives from the perverse beauty and clarity of the HOLC maps themselves as well as the ugliness and equally clear racism so often voiced in the accompanying area descriptions. The forcefulness and intelligibility of these materials has led to a great deal of visibility for our site. But those same qualities have also led some to point to redlining as a monocausal agent leading to all sorts of instances of urban inequality today. Renewing Inequality complicates those monocausal explanations of contemporary inequality. While complexity isn’t always the best route to attracting eyeballs, Renewing Inequality offers a very data-rich, comparative, and nuanced portrait of the ongoing effort to redevelop cities at midcentury that helps to explain not only ongoing forms of inequality but why it is that downtowns in places as seemingly distinct as Lawton, Oklahoma (population 61,700 in 1960) and Boston share characteristics like modernist, megablock, center city developments.

Featured image (at top): Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. Model, wide view, architect Paul Rudolph, between 1967 and 1972, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

unnamed.jpgRobert K. Nelson is director of the Digital Scholarship Lab and affiliated faculty in the American Studies Program at the University of Richmond. He has authored, directed, or edited digital humanities projects such as American Panorama: An Atlas of United States History, “Mining the Dispatch,” and an enhanced edition of the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. He teaches and writes on antislavery and slavery in the nineteenth-century United States.

Cebul_BBrent Cebul is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His scholarship sits at the intersection of urban and political history with topical interests in federalism, inequality, and political and economic development. His first book is Illusions of Progress: Business, Poverty, and Development in the American Century (under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press). It is a history of how and why 20th century liberals repeatedly convinced themselves that stimulating business growth might fight poverty. At Penn, Cebul is also a Mellon Research Fellow at the Price Lab for Digital Humanities.

Slums: Alan Mayne Responds

The Metropole‘s recently launched a new series of book reviews, edited by Jim Wunsch. UHA President Richard Harris inaugurated the series in May with a review of Alan Mayne’s Slums: The History of a Global Injustice. Wunsch contacted Professor Mayne regarding his response to Harris’ review, which Mayne generously wrote and shared:

9781780238098I thank Richard Harris for his searching review of my Slums: The History of a Global Injustice. I especially appreciate his concluding assessment that “it makes principled connections across time and space”: this book draws upon a long and now (largely) concluded career as an urban historian, and I would very much like to be remembered with those words!

Allow me to respond to four of Richard’s criticisms.

Firstly, that I obscure the fact that clearance and upgrading schemes have “done some good.” Yes, I am guilty of that, because I wanted to emphasize the appalling social costs overall of ‘slum’ programs from the nineteenth century to the present day.

Secondly, that there are gaps and imbalances in my analysis of global trends and events. Yes, the book inevitably reflects my research years spent in Britain, the US, India, and — quirkily — my homeland Australia. I spent a lot of library hours attempting to smooth out the imbalances, and in so doing learnt a great deal about Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Richard is right about the gaps, but I think my general historical arguments are nonetheless unassailable.

Thirdly, that “Mostly, Mayne focuses on how areas have been (mis)represented, rather than the places and people themselves.” Again, Richard is right, although as he acknowledges there are substantial parts of this book in which I move beyond the misrepresentations that I highlighted in my 1993 book The Imagined Slum: In doing so I draw upon anthropology, cultural geography and sociology. I also harness my collaborations with historical archaeologists over the past 30 years.

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Better housing The solution to infant mortality in the slums” produced by Benj. Sheer as part of the Federal Art Project, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Which brings me to a fourth and final point. Richard and I fundamentally disagree — albeit, I think, in a constructive sense — about ‘slums’: he thinks of them as a socio-spatial reality whereas I think ‘slum’ is an imposed and caricatured denial of those realities. Richard writes, “by whatever name, slums have been a significant element in the modern urban experience.” I would argue instead that whereas social disadvantage has indeed always been an element in urbanization, the linguistic construction of ‘slum’ — dating from the ‘urban revolution’ of the early nineteenth century, and unfortunately reasserted in the ‘developing world’ by well-intentioned reformers since the middle of the twentieth century — has sought to deny or trivialize that connection.

Jim Wunsch’s insertion of Charles Abrams’ thoughts about ‘slums’ in his The Language of Cities (1971) highlights this juxtaposition of viewpoints. Yet as Abrams concludes, “The word ‘slum’ is a piece of cant of uncertain origin, little more than a century old. Slum reveals its meaning the moment it is uttered. Abhorrence of slums has often led to reckless destruction and more than once contributed to severe housing shortages.”

Featured image (at top): “Eliminate crime in the slums through housing,” Federal Art Project, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Book Review: Slums by Alan Mayne

In this, our first book review in a new series edited by Jim Wunsch, UHA President Richard Harris tackles an epic historiograpical effort by Alan Mayne.

Alan Mayne, Slums. The History of a Global Injustice. London: Reaktion, 2017. 360 pp. notes, index. ISBN 978 1 78023 809 8

9781780238098More than ever, we need broad syntheses that bridge the specialized literatures in which most of us spend our time. That is one reason why Alan Mayne’s Slums. The History of a Global Injustice is so welcome. Another is that, by whatever name, slums have been a significant element in the modern urban experience, the object of much planning, policy, and writing.

Mayne builds two big bridges. The first connects the extensive body of work on slums in Anglo-America with the even more abundant literature on those in the global South. The second links past and present, in a survey that extends from the 1810s to the 2010s.

He moves between thematic and chronological treatments. Early chapters dissect the definition, connotations, and uses of ‘slum’. He then considers its influence on policy in Anglo-America through the 1960s, before turning South, where ‘slum’ has been “orientalized”, in the colonial, early postcolonial (1940s-1970s) and more recent periods. Since the 1970s, U.N. and World Bank policy has globalized thinking, whether for slum clearance, upgrading, or neoliberal market reform. His strongest criticism is of clearance programs but, although he prefers upgrading, he argues that even these usually fall short because they fail to “partner” with local residents (287).

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New York, New York. Demolition for slum clearance. Blocks of slum area are torn down for housing project“, photography by Edwin Rosskam, December 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mostly, Mayne focuses on how areas have been (mis)represented, rather than the places and people themselves. The exception is a late chapter where he considers how residents have lived, made a living, and built community. His theme is the “slum deceit”: how the stereotype oversimplifies, implies that residents are deficient, overlooks their contribution to the urban economy, and justifies “coercive intervention” (10). Yes, he says, ‘slum people’ are poor, live in deficient housing, lack municipal services, and feel ambivalent about their neighbourhoods and also the ‘slum’ label; and yes, some policies have been well-intentioned (196-199). But, he argues, none of this justifies the use of ‘slum’, and the “warped ‘reform’ agendas” that it encourages (199).

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“Cross out slums. USHA”, by Lester Beall, 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

His critique of ‘slum’ could use more nuance. Not all substandard areas can be saved. Upgrading projects have usually, and even clearance has occasionally, done some good. Although clearance has had a higher profile, unobtrusive improvement (including basic servicing) has surely been more common than Mayne suggests, and certainly more than the index indicates. Overall, his dissection of the rhetoric could usefully have been judged with closer reference to the reality.

Those who know London in the 1880s or Delhi in the 1950s will inevitably find something to quibble about. There are geographical biases. In the South, we hear a lot about India, something about Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, but little elsewhere. And Mayne overlooks early bustee and kampong improvement programs in Calcutta (1880s) and the Dutch Indies (1920s). But, given the available historiography, gaps are inevitable. This survey and sustained critique, a life’s work, is the first of its kind. A complement to Carl Nightingale’s Segregation, it makes principled connections across time and space. Anyone interested in slums should check it out.

Richard Harris, McMaster University

harrisr@mcmaster.ca


Slum: A building or area that is deteriorated, hazardous, unsanitary, or lacking in standard conveniences; also, the squalid, crowded, or unsanitary conditions under which people live irrespective of the physical state of the building or area. The latter definition is a deviation from the standard meaning, which puts emphasis on physical conditions. At three persons per room, however, even sound housing is a slum. A neighborhood may be physically sturdy, but if it is devoid of good transportation (as in Watts, Los Angeles) it could be classified as a slum. If the neighborhood school is a disgrace, the best cosmetic treatment of the housing will not eliminate its slum aspect.

The word ‘slum’ is a piece of cant of uncertain origin, little more than a century old. Slum reveals its meaning the moment it is uttered. Abhorrence of slums has often led to reckless destruction and more than once contributed to severe housing shortages. (See BLIGHT; GRAY AREA.)

Charles Abrams. The Language of Cities (New York: Avon Books, 1971) 285-86

Featured image (at top): “Children in slum area, Washington, D.C. Children in their backyard in a slum area near the Capitol. This area inhabited by both black and white”, photograph by Carl Mydans, November 1935, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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.

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.