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.
Renewal 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).
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I’m interested in the post-Civil War “Deep South” with a particular focus on the intersection of public policy, labor, cities, and civil rights. My current project explores urban renewal and resistance in an Alabama community following the Housing Act of 1949. Most studies of housing in the state focus on Birmingham, the state’s largest city. However, I hope to broaden our understanding of the practice in the state and its effects on communities. I first learned of urban renewal efforts in the community I study when conducting an oral history interview with a former civil rights activist. The former activist believed that urban renewal and other events in the community had been overlooked and encouraged research on the subject.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
This semester I am a teaching assistant for an undergraduate world history course in which I lead four weekly discussion sections. Each week I make an effort to incorporate current events or elements of popular culture into our discussions. Most recently, I asked my students to analyze a classic hip-hop song as a primary document. I find that making the material relevant encourages engagement, particularly for those students who are not history majors or have had poor experiences in the subject in high school.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a thesis project related to urban history or urban studies?
I would encourage graduate students to engage local historians and consult local cultural institutions. Both are likely to have resources not available in larger collections or secondary sources. My own research has benefited tremendously from primary sources in the possession of local historians and local public library.
You recently interned at the White House Historical Association! Tell us about a really cool moment or experience you had, or something you learned as an intern that you may not have learned in the classroom.
The internship provided a great window into public history in the nation’s capital. My responsibilities included content development, marketing, and historical research. Also, as part of the internship experience, I visited the White House twice. On the first visit, I was among the first users for the Association’s new mobile app. The app is the twenty-first century version of the Association’s White House guidebook and offers users guided tours of the Executive Mansion.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Robert 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.
Brent 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.
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:
I 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.
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.”
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
More 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).
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).
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
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
Professor of History and Assistant Dean, School of Arts and Sciences
St. Thomas Aquinas College
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
My current research focuses on urban renewal in New York State. There has been much written on urban renewal in large cities generally and New York City in particular. I was surprised to find that dozens of small cities and towns around the State—some with only a few thousand residents—also received funding for “revitalization.” My project is an effort to broaden our understanding of urban renewal and how it affected diverse populations. I started thinking about this question more intently after the last Urban History Association conference, when I was on a panel on Urban Renewal in Small Cities.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
I teach 20th century U.S. history courses like the History of the 1960s and a course called “City and Suburb in America.” My college’s particular geography, only 15 miles northwest of New York City, allows my courses to feature the many great and not-so-great local examples of architecture, infrastructure, redevelopment and public housing. I have taught at this college for 18 years, so my courses have come to reflect my interest in urban policy but also the histories of many of my student’s families, who left New York City’s five boroughs in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of my students will be the next generation of the City’s teachers and police officers. I’m also an assistant dean in the School of Arts and Sciences. My college recently began a Bachelor’s program in a maximum security prison in our vicinity, for which I have primary responsibility. I’d like to begin introducing my students to some of the research on the geography of incarceration, both local and national. I’m also pursuing some different options for connecting the students on the “inside” and my traditional students through programming and club fundraising activities that will buy additional books and supplies for students in the facility.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I am working with a team of historians on a book that documents the destruction of downtown Albany, New York, in the 1960s and the creation of a major renewal project under the auspices of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The project, entitled 98 Acres in Albany, began as an effort to map, block by block, the destruction and renewal of the 40-block project in that city. We have photographs of every property taken by the State, some including the interiors and residents themselves. We have made an effort to track down the many stories of the people displaced and also those involved with the planning and construction of the modernist government office complex that now stands. We have created a website, 98 Acres in Albany, which features photos and stories from the project. We would like to finish the manuscript by the end of 2018.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
As for my advice for you urban historians, I would say that your place matters. It has been thrilling to help my students develop a consciousness about the history of where they come from and their current landscape. Consider developing projects with your students that incorporate the places near and around your college or university. This is an excellent way to engage them and, though I never considered myself a “local” historian while I was in graduate school, it has, rewardingly, moved my scholarship in that direction as well.
Before you ever contemplated being a historian, you studied art. If you were given a giant wall in downtown Albany and charged with creating a mural, what would you do with it? Would you paint it yourself, or commission an artist? What images, people, or events would you consider representing?
I grew up in Albany, but as many others native “Albanians” of my generation, never knew about the destruction of the downtown core. In today’s downtown I would love to see a mural placed in the vicinity of the impressive and extensive abstract public art collection chosen by Nelson Rockefeller. It would depict the displacement of 7,000 residents who populated the downtown, their homes and businesses. It would be a great way for the community to envision what was lost, and how renewal changed Albany so dramatically.
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