The Strange Career of Residential Segregation: Persistent Patterns of Discrimination in the Industrial Northeast and Midwest, 1940s-1960s
This post is an edited version of a seminar paper written for Marj Murphy’s Swarthmore College course, Labor and Urban History. The paper is a combination literature review-history report, on (obviously) residential segregation in Rust Belt cities during the three decades following WWII. It’s more formal than some of the other bloggy stuff I like to post, but if you’ve already made it this far, I encourage you to stick around and read on.
One of the surest signs that race still plays an important role in the social structure of the United States is the inequality present in America’s inner cities, particularly those Midwestern and Northeastern cities whose hemorrhage of manufacturing jobs after WWII earned the region the moniker “The Rust Belt.” Searing class and racial residential segregation remain entrenched elements of the Rust Belt urban geography, and they are clear reminders that despite the watershed of Brown v. Board of Education and the entirety of the Civil Rights movement, American society is far from racially integrated. In the late 1960s, riots in Detroit and Chicago, as well as the growing fiscal issues in New York City, brought the urban crisis to the fore of the public consciousness.
Scholars, taking up the topic of the urban underclass over the following decades, revealed that the hardships, segregation, and inequality facing inner cities then as now was rooted in changes and actions that took place starting around the time of World War II. Arthur R. Hirsch dug into the history of Chicago’s black ghettos in the mid-1980s with his book Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960. Hirsch concluded that Chicago saw the creation of a second ghetto, far larger than the Black Belt present at the time of the 1919 riots, during the post-WWII period.
In 1996, Thomas J. Sugrue’s well-received The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit took the exploration of ghettos further, revealing the forces of discrimination and political reaction that combined with economic restructuring and suburbanization to produce a segregated Detroit. “Urban inequality,” he contends, “is the result of the mapping of understandings of racial differences onto the geography of a city.”
In Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto. Wendell E. Pritchett explores the forces of neighborhood transformation in this corner of Brooklyn, which was long considered among the worst slums in the nation. He draws out the story of black and Puerto Rican in-migration, collapsing community organizations, and discriminatory public housing that adds even more weight and detail to the growing consensus about the creation of urban ghettos.
These authors, writing about the two or three decades following World War II, take their readers inside the discriminatory workplace, explaining the impact of homeowners’ associations and restrictive covenants, detailing proposals for public housing and the riots against them, and more. Though they challenge the inevitability of urban decline, they make clear that the historical actors were often making choices out of desperation amidst the crippling tides of economic change and inner city disinvestment for which there seemed no easy cures. For non-whites, the game was rigged. Without a doubt, the postwar years witnessed a terrific convergence of the economic, social and political forces that renewed and deepened the inequality faced by inner-city residents.
Though the 1950s in the United States have been considered boom times—whether for babies, wallets, or suburbs—prosperity was not distributed evenly across the nation. In Midwestern and Northeastern cities, the prevailing winds of the national and increasingly global economy led employers to shift many manufacturing jobs elsewhere, especially jobs in the textile industry (an early casualty) and by the 1960s even the auto and steel industries. Facing competition from firms in regions with lower wage rates and lower taxes, employers cut back. Their tools were overtime, elimination of entry-level positions, and automation, which Sugrue calls “a weapon in the employers’ antilabor arsenal.”
New plants often located in the newly developing land along the expanding federal highway network, or in the rural Midwest or South, where they joined new government-supported, military-industrial jobs. Some companies even began outsourcing overseas. Overall, Detroit lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs between 1947 and 1963. Hirsch writes that “the 1950s marked a decisive turning point in the development of [Detroit]—a systematic restructuring of the local economy from which the city never fully recovered.” When jobs disappeared, urban Rust Belt residents increasingly suffered from unemployment, and cities’ coffers drained cash. Though New York City may have held onto more of its working-class jobs, this economic context was the case for many inner-city neighborhoods and played a fundamental role in their decline.
In short, capital mobility was good for business, but it left immobile workers behind. Inner-city blacks, who struggled to find affordable housing near the new jobs—and who may not have owned cars to drive to them—found themselves stranded. This problem, the spatial mismatch between residents and jobs, helped cause cities to become, in the words of one analyst, “the domicile of disproportionately large numbers of less-educated blue-collar workers, while the suburban rings are developing as the residential locus of the better-educated, white-collar worker.” As the exodus of better-educated, more affluent workers brought millions of households to America’s suburbs, inner cities suffered.
Neighborhoods in Transition
The tragic employment situation for inner-city residents played out against the drama of massive in-migration that grew populations of blacks in Chicago, Detroit, and, along with Puerto Ricans, New York City. With half a million Southern blacks and Puerto Ricans moving to New York City between 1945 and 1955, Detroit’s black population doubling between 1940 and 1950, and Chicago’s black population growing by a startling factor of ten between 1920 and 1966, northern industrial cities braced for a Greater Migration that forced whites and non-whites, in Hirsch’s words, “to work out a new geographical accommodation between the races.” Had whole cities been open to these new residents, the situation might have turned out rather differently, but non-whites faced housing segregation that, according to Hirsch, Pritchett, and Sugrue, was self-reinforcing.
To many observers documenting the decline of central cities, decline seemed natural, a myth that was perpetuated in the practice of business and public policy. The situation, however, was by no means natural. Rather, housing was structurally separated by race, and it was disturbingly unequal. “Even those who seldom experience racism personally at work or school,” charged Meyer, “do meet discrimination when facing the issue of where to live,” whether from white residents, landlords, bankers, real estate agents, or government policymakers. In the face of surging demand for housing in northern cities, Detroit blacks “were entrapped in the city’s worst housing stock, half of it substandard, most of it overcrowded.” Poor blacks, already segregated in racial ghettos in the 1940s, struggled to maintain their dwellings, be they private homes or apartments. Lack of plumbing, electricity, and heating, as well as fire hazards and rat infestations, plagued parts of the non-white ghettos. Everywhere, landlords and real estate brokers gouged black residents, often “at the cost of over-extending family finances,” because they knew blacks had few other choices. In Chicago, blacks paid between 10% and 25% more than whites would have.
As cities progressed into the 1950s, many residents of urban ghettos began to push against the borders of their old neighborhoods. On top of massive population growth from outside their metropolitan areas, some neighborhoods, like Brownsville, also had to accommodate residents forced out of urban renewal sites, “accelerating their demise.” Brownsville, a historically Jewish enclave, began receiving blacks and Puerto Ricans en masse by the 1950s, and in five years “went from being two-thirds white to 80 percent black and Puerto Rican.” Detroit blacks also began moving “out of the oldest, most run-down sections of the city into newer neighborhoods.” These new neighborhoods, however, were already home to whites and transitional periods of diversity usually lasted just a few years before whites themselves fled, usually to even newer neighborhoods.
Indeed whites had vast new housing opportunities opening up for them after WWII, and as whites spread out across the fringes of metropolitan areas, patterns of residential discrimination followed in their wake. Between 1945 and 1959, writes Hirsch, 77% “of the new units in Chicago region were located in the suburbs. Moreover, 76% of the units were single family dwellings.” Suburbanization was opening up private homeownership to large segments, largely white, of the population. The suburban historian Kenneth T. Jackson notes in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, that as early as 1907 observers were commenting that “the laying out of subdivisions far out beyond the city limits makes cheap and desirable home sites obtainable for a multitude of working men.” Even in vast New York City, newcomers were bumping up against Brownsville’s second-generation residents were escaping to housing upgrades in more distant neighborhoods like Canarsie and suburbs in New York and New Jersey.
Real estate agents profited from speculation in transitional neighborhoods, and “well into the 1950s, the majority view was that integrated neighborhoods were an impossibility.” In almost all cases, whites retreated ahead of blacks of any and all classes, even moving outward from prosperous suburbs like Southfield, Michigan that blacks found themselves colonizing. For blacks, Brownsville and the countless neighborhoods they were moving into across the Rust Belt were not stepping stones, nor were their houses “starter” homes—they were all that was available to them.
Disadvantage, Disturbance, Decay
Larger structures of moneylending also made residential advancement difficult for non-whites. As a general rule, “lending institutions were also unwilling to challenge residential segregation” because of the supposed risk they would take on in doing so and political pressure they believed they faced from whites. Racial restrictions, including restrictive covenants, were encouraged by the Federal Housing Authority. Most notably, the government, working through the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, mapped race onto the geography of the nation in their assessments of mortgage qualification. The results for blacks and other non-white groups was called “redlining.”
Sugrue explains that “Federal housing policy gave official sanction to discriminatory real estate sales and bank lending practices [via] the Residential Security Maps and Surveys, developed by Federal Home Loan Bank Board officials in collaboration with local real estate brokers and lenders. The maps carefully subdivided [metropolitan areas] into sections ranked from A (green) through D (red),” based on age, condition of buildings, and “most important,” the racial composition of the neighborhood. Those with money and power, always in search of a profit, helped to enforce bleak housing conditions in racially segregated neighborhoods, with disastrous results.
When the federal government built highways that ran out away from inner cities and subsidized homeownership through mortgage insurance from the Veterans Administration and FHA, the newly-affordable suburban dream was mostly affordable only to whites. As Meyer writes, “Few blacks were able to take advantage of the change, however, because the lending institutions remained reluctant to grant them mortgages, especially if they intended to move into a white neighborhood.” In Detroit, a developer building in the area near Wyoming and Eight-Mile Road constructed a 6-foot-high concrete wall to separate his new homes from those of an established black neighborhood, simply to meet Federal Home Loan Bank Board financing requirements.
In many neighborhoods, whites felt threatened by black “invasion” and found ways to fight back. For many whites, black neighbors signaled decline, plain and simple, and they worked to sabotage the invaders while planning their own escape. After all, white working-class families had reason, they believed, to be defensive about the homes for which they had saved up and in some cases had personally built. And whether one owned a home or rented an apartment, whites confronted with black “invaders” generally experienced drops in real estate values and, if they were renters, deterioration and neglect. Thus widespread fear of blacks had widespread impacts on white neighborhoods.
One white 6th-grader in northeast Detroit reveals the depth of this fear in her response to the essay question, “Why I like or don’t like Negroes.” She writes:
“1. Because they are mean 2. And they are not very clean 3. Some of them don’t like white people 4. They leave garbage in the yard and it smells 5. And in the dark the skare you 6. And they pick you up in a car and kill you. at nite 7. And they start riots.”
It is true that many neighborhoods with increasing numbers of black residents experienced increasing levels of crime over the course of the 1950s, and this young girl’s response demonstrates the extent to which white urbanites experienced neighborhood change as a rising sense of danger. But in many cases where fear escalated into violence, that violence was initiated by whites. By the late 1940s, four block-wide section of Chicago became a war zone as blacks, moving in, found they were the ones who had to defend their new property. “Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles, and numerous other cities,” writes Meyer, “saw tremendous conflict before vigilantism was defeated.” By the mid-1950s, Chicago had experienced three bombings, ten arsons and eleven attempted arsons.
Urban Renewal—Renewed Segregation
Above and beyond the impact of businesses’ locational choices and the ongoing cycles of neighborhood transformation and white flight, the pattern of segregation was reinforced by the contours of public policy, particularly those policies designed to subsidize housing, build new housing, or raze existing housing. Some efforts dated from the New Deal, like HOLC and the FHA, of which Jackson, the suburban historian, says, “No agency of the United States government has had a more pervasive and powerful impact on the American people over the past half-century [1935-1985].” All of the loans granted through these arms of government were subject to the same discriminatory qualifications that led banks to avoid lending to blacks. By speeding the flight of whites from central cities, these programs added to the racial divisions of the city.
Equally significant to the policy-driven containment of blacks in segregated neighborhoods were public housing projects. Public housing tended to be located in neighborhoods that were in decline, and they tended in general not to serve the residents who needed housing most. As early as the PWA housing program and the Ida B. Wells homes built in Chicago before WWII, units for blacks were being placed in the Black Belt, a sign that public housing would reinforce geographic segregation, and some projects had an explicit goal to replicate the racial composition of the neighborhoods destroyed to build them. Jackson explains that because the 1937 and 1949 United States Housing Acts facilitated segregation because they made public housing construction dependent on local political initiative—initiative that many suburbs, for example, chose not to take. “Many public housing projects occupied racial and economic ghettos worse than those they replaced,” writes Pritchett.
In Chicago during the 1950s, the CHA stopped asking Mayor Richard J. Daley’s City Council for projects to be located outside of ghettos. Of 33 projects approved between 1950 and the mid 1960s, just one was in a white area, while the rest were in black or transitional areas. The failures of public housing to give a real “fair deal” to diverse inner-city residents can be blamed in part on pressure from voters and activists. In Chicago, the South Deering Improvement Association threatened CHA with mob action, and neighborhood organizations in outlying sections of Detroit and in suburban Dearborn actively fought plans to bring public housing, such as the Sojourner Truth projects, to white areas.
Opposition to public housing of any kind contributed to the surprising 1949 loss of a Democratic Detroit mayoral candidate to Republican Albert Cobo, unusual in this heavily Democratic city. Cobo, with the support of homeowners’ associations, immediately halted nearly all the public housing projects slated for the area of the city populated with single-family homes. In Detroit and across the country, the discrimination and segregation inherent in public housing projects was a product both of their conception and practical implementation as well as the influence of the vocal electorate.
To add injury to injury, many residents of public housing were not the poorest blacks, and frequently excluded blacks entirely. Chicago’s middle-income Lake Meadows housing project, writes Hirsch, “was not intended for [its] locale’s old occupants.” In Detroit, an increasingly black city, 9908 whites and only 1226 blacks were given public housing from 1947 to 1952, a pattern borne out in Chicago as well. Integration remained a goal in some programs, however, including a 1959 program of the New York City Housing Authority that aimed for a racial balance in housing. Though most New York City civil rights groups supported it, it only affected a handful of projects and left the vast majority segregated. Housing programs also sought out employed, two-parent families, and rare was it, at least in New York City, that a public housing resident was on welfare. These and other regulations also broke up families whose composition didn’t fit the letter of the law. Now social divisions along lines of race and class were being written in concrete and mortar.
Public housing’s bedfellow, urban renewal, has long been a sore spot for observers of the inner city, who note its impact on powerless residents. Yes, public housing needed open land for its construction and so did federal highways, but both of these types of projects were rammed into some of the poorest neighborhoods. Admittedly, selecting impoverished slums as the location for urban renewal effectively minimizes the economic impact of such renewal. But in human terms, a poor neighborhood is just as much a neighborhood as a rich one, and far less resilient in the aftermath of demolition. As Robert A. Caro documents in his damning biography of New York City urban planner Robert Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the 1950s represents the sort of community destruction that highway projects caused. Though Caro writes about East Tremont, a neighborhood that was largely Jewish in the early 1950s, the example nonetheless symbolizes the devastating impact highway construction had on vulnerable communities, communities that were barely but steadily holding on to jobs, safe parks, and decent schools.
The process of community razing was repeated in Detroit through its postwar master plan, which centered on slum clearance. In Chicago, downtown business interests, fearing decline of the Loop neighborhood, lobbied for and influenced the thinking behind redevelopment legislation, burying their desire for self-preservation beneath a façade of the “public interest.” In all of these situations, residents faced powerful people who felt their programs were as inevitable as the demographic changes they reported observing. Pritchett includes a quote from Robert Moses on the subject of race- and class-segregated housing in Brownsville that illustrates this fatalism: “‘here again we have a neighborhood which needs to be cleared and apparently can be rehabilitated in no other way.” There could have been other ways, but as urban renewal ran its course in Rust Belt cities, it simply reinforced the patterns of segregation had been “that way” for decade after decade.
 Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, (Princeton: Princeton University, 1996), xx.
 Sugrue, The Origins, 131.
 John D. Kasarda, “The Changing Occupational Structure of the American Metropolis: Apropos the Urban Problem,” in The Changing Face of the Suburbs, ed. Barry Schwartz, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1976), 113.
 Sugrue, The Origins, 126.
 Ibid., 5.
 Kasarda, “The Changing Occupational Structure,” 115.
 Wendell E. Pritchett, Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002), 151.
 Sugrue, The Origins, 33.
 Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983), 16.
 Sugrue, The Origins, 5.
 Meyer, As Long as, 11.
 Sugrue, The Origins, 33.
 Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 29.
 Pritchett, Brownsville, 121.
 Ibid., 152.
 Sugrue, The Origins, 183.
 Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 27.
 Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, (New York: Oxford University, 1985), 117.
 Pritchett, Brownsville, 150.
 Ibid., 143.
 Sugrue, The Origins, 269.
 Ibid., 46.
 Sugrue, The Origins, 43.
 Meyer, As Long as, 116.
 Sugrue, The Origins, 218.
 Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 51.
 Meyer, As Long as, 118.
 Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 203.
 Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 12.
 Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 225.
 Pritchett, Brownsville, 4.
 Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 241-243.
 Ibid., 231.
 Sugrue, The Origins, 74.
 Ibid., 84.
 Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 125-127
 Sugrue, The Origins, 58.
 Pritchett, Brownsville, 118.
 Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, (New York: Knopf, 1974), 850-855.
 Sugrue, The Origins, 48.
 Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 111, 213.
 Pritchett, Brownsville, 100.