Tag Archives: Urban Planning

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.