Monday, July 06, 2009

Architecture and the Civil Rights Movement

I've often wondered why architecture has played such a minor role in the Civil Rights movement. Traditionally, architecture has been a vehicle of hegemony, owned and controlled by dominant norms and organizations. Thomas Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (2008) takes us away from the South, where Civil Rights stories are often told, and examines the lesser known eruptions of resistance north of Jim Crow. Surgrue teaches American history at UPenn. His earlier Origins of the Urban Crisis (2005) focuses on Detroit's urban history and his co-edited New Suburban History (2006) introduces the complexities of American suburbanization.

Sweet Land of Liberty is a humongous encyclopedic work (543 pages of text) dealing with every aspect of the Civil Rights movement from Martin Luther King's student days at Chester, PA (when he was refused food at a dinner in Maple Shade, NJ), to the welfare rights activism of Roxanne Jones. The book was of great interest to me in discussing the spaces and architectural settings of resistance. Anyone interested in architecture's contribution to resistance movements has lots to learn. Sugre explores the spaces of restaurants (130-142), movie theaters (138-142), jazz clubs (264), public beaches (154-159), schools (163-199), and most importantly houses (200-250).

Chapter 7, "No Right More Elemental" deals with the central battle ground over housing. America's suburbanization in the model of Levittown (earliest one completed in 1958) created mechanisms to exclude African Americans from the suburbs, whether through private covenants or federal housing policies. This story is well known; in my history of housing class, I teach it through Gwendolyn Wright's Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America (1981). What we learn from Sugrue is the organized resistance against Levittowns. Beginning in 1953, for instance, an American Friends Service Committee was formed and held secret meetings to crack Levittown's exclusionism. The ogranization had Quaker roots and included African-American and Jewish members. Sugrue also tells the story of William and Daisy Myers, the first black family to move into Levittown (220-228). Even more fascinating is Conccord Park, an interracial suburb developed by Morris Milgram in the white suburbs of Philadelphia (230-237). See Milgram obituary (NYT June 26, 2007). Milgram also developed Greenbelt Knoll, in Northeast Philadelphia, an experimental community of 19 houses designed by Robert Bishop and Margaret Duncan. Sugrue does not discuss the particulars of the architecture, but Harris Steinberg (dir. of Penn Praxis) and others have noted the involvement of Louis Kahn in the designs.

In 1953, African Americans from North Philadelphia started to migrate to the white affluent neighborhood of Mount Airy, where they met intense resistance from block-busting and real-estate agents. The historic West Mount Airy Neighbors association formed in 1959 to organize the battle that concluded with one of the most segregated neighborhoods in America. Thomas Sugrue is not just a teacher and scholar but a committed activist. In 1996, he took over the directorship of the West Mount Airy Neighbors and worked with the Fund for Open Society, created by Morris Milgram. Nathaniel Popkin's, "The Vital Thread of Tom Sugrue," Pennsylvania Gazette (June 2009), pp. 32-37, gives a full portrait of Sugrue's pursuits in both academia and the neighborhood.

Sweet Land of Liberty opens a door into urban history and the Civil Rights movement that can inspire other specialists of space, politics and architecture. In addition to documenting a unique historical period, Sugrue also gives inspiration for political engagement. I quote Sugrue's advice:

“One of the main issues we struggle with,” Sugrue explains, “is that often our vision is really small. We can’t solve the problems of the city by gussying up storefronts. I love and am a member of the grassroots, but ultimately they have the will but not the capacity. One take-away from [Sweet Land of Liberty] is that far-reaching gains in Civil Rights require people to organize locally but form a broader coalition, providing a longer reach. But we tend to think real small.” On the other hand, he says, “It’s the small things that matter” to people in city neighborhoods. He means that a meaningful understanding can only come from close observation. “One of the most interesting features of the urban landscape is going to places in the day and night. I don’t play golf or tennis, but I do go out and explore, ride the buses and subways. So, for example, at night the street changes. In some places it becomes marked. Women, especially, feel trapped. They’re made to feel they can’t go out.”
(Pennsylvania Gazette interview)

1 comment:

Diana Wright said...

As an unattached woman living in downtown DC for 20+ years, and an activist from the civil rights era, I found that the gay movement had much more to do with DC architecture than did civil rights. Neighborhoods where gays prefer to live immediately become safer neighborhoods for women, for a whole series of reasons. I think you might look at the architectural deterioration of Birmingham AL, my home town, as one of the outcomes of the civil rights movement there when you are working up your theories on the movement and architecture

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States