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.”[1]

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.


Economic Restructuring

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.”[2]

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.[3] Some companies even began outsourcing overseas. Overall, Detroit lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs between 1947 and 1963.[4] 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.”[5] 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.”[6] 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,[7] Detroit’s black population doubling between 1940 and 1950,[8] and Chicago’s black population growing by a startling factor of ten between 1920 and 1966,[9] 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.”[10] 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,”[11] 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.”[12] 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.[13]

            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.”[14] 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.”[15] Detroit blacks also began moving “out of the oldest, most run-down sections of the city into newer neighborhoods.”[16] 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.”[17] 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.”[18] 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.[19]

            Real estate agents profited from speculation in transitional neighborhoods, and “well into the 1950s, the majority view was that integrated neighborhoods were an impossibility.”[20] 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.[21] 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”[22] 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.[23] 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.”[24] 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.”[25]


            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.[26] “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.[27]


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].”[28] 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.[29] 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.[30] “Many public housing projects occupied racial and economic ghettos worse than those they replaced,” writes Pritchett.[31]

            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.[32] 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,[33] 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.[34]

            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.[35] 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.”[36] In Detroit, an increasingly black city, 9908 whites and only 1226 blacks were given public housing from 1947 to 1952,[37] 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.[38] 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.[39]

            The process of community razing was repeated in Detroit through its postwar master plan, which centered on slum clearance.[40] 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.”[41] 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.”[42] 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.

[1] Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, (Princeton: Princeton University, 1996), xx.

[2] Sugrue, The Origins, 131.

[3] 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.

[4] Sugrue, The Origins, 126.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Kasarda, “The Changing Occupational Structure,” 115.

[7] Wendell E. Pritchett, Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002), 151.

[8] Sugrue, The Origins, 33.

[9] Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983), 16.

[10] Sugrue, The Origins, 5.

[11] Meyer, As Long as, 11.

[12] Sugrue, The Origins, 33.

[13] Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 29.

[14] Pritchett, Brownsville, 121.

[15] Ibid., 152.

[16] Sugrue, The Origins, 183.

[17] Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 27.

[18] Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, (New York: Oxford University, 1985), 117.

[19] Pritchett, Brownsville, 150.

[20] Ibid., 143.

[21] Sugrue, The Origins, 269.

[22] Ibid., 46.

[23] Sugrue, The Origins, 43.

[24] Meyer, As Long as, 116.

[25] Sugrue, The Origins, 218.

[26] Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 51.

[27] Meyer, As Long as, 118.

[28] Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 203.

[29] Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 12.

[30] Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 225.

[31] Pritchett, Brownsville, 4.

[32] Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 241-243.

[33] Ibid., 231.

[34] Sugrue, The Origins, 74.

[35] Ibid., 84.

[36] Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 125-127

[37] Sugrue, The Origins, 58.

[38] Pritchett, Brownsville, 118.

[39] Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, (New York: Knopf, 1974), 850-855.

[40] Sugrue, The Origins, 48.

[41] Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, 111, 213.

[42] Pritchett, Brownsville, 100.

Check out the recent op-ed we wrote for The Daily Gazette (Swarthmore’s online daily paper)

Op-Ed submitted by Andrew Karas ’15 and Matthew Goldman ’15.

Folks at Swat know that we love cities. Some know this through SwatCities, the urbanism interest group we founded together last year. Others have been bombarded with Matthew’s charming obsession with New York City–his home–where he learned to read from the subway map. Others may have heard of Andrew’s public transit-riding urges or his horrified fascination with the famous urban planner Robert Moses. But most of friends here know that we both spend a whole lot of time thinking in terms of cities.

We’d like to make the case that you should try thinking this way, too.

Today, more than half the world’s population resides in metropolitan areas, a figure that is growing steadily. While cities have always been centers of information, capital and cultural exchange, their contemporary significance is unique. As individuals who will lead our peers, ideas and communities well into the twenty-first century – we need to devote more attention to city planning, urbanism, and regional studies.

The city is the locus of some complex, sometimes shitty stuff. As we were reminded just this week, cities are sometimes the targets of terrorism, both foreign and domestic. They’re places where natural disasters, like earthquakes and hurricanes, as well as almost-natural disasters, like the Chicago fire, hold the lives of thousands if not millions in the balance. As population density incarnate, urban areas also put humanity on stage, revealing our societies’ successes and failings in particularly salient fashion. So whether we live in them or not, we’ve staked a lot on our cities, and they can teach us lessons we need to learn. Cities are our subject, our tool, and our solution.

Not all urbanites live examined lives, but nevertheless cities are slowly rising in the public consciousness. Let’s face it: cities are cool these days.

When we talk about Brooklyn or Portland, Berlin or Shanghai, we’re often talking about the cafés, art galleries, and walkable neighborhoods that make urban life a life to be desired, not feared. Many Swat graduates, in search of a job, an internship, or even simply new friends, move straight to one of these cities or the many like them.

Even absent the people that make places great, the material fabric of cities can be beautiful and downright impressive. What architect hasn’t dreamed of putting their stamp on the popular imagination in the form of a skyscraper? City green spaces, too, like Chicago’s Millenium Park and Boston’s North End Park (which sits where an elevated highway once stood), invite us to share in music festivals, art shows, and the general spirit of community. Then there are the unique monuments to our cultural heritage, like the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, or even the Hollywood Sign, that live in our minds whether we’ve visited the cities they inhabit or not.

Cities are home to all of this and more. But beyond icon and adventure, ambition and entertainment, cities are a locus of many of the terrible social forces shaping our societies as a whole.

When #occupy protesters took to the streets in 2011, the largest protests happened in cities where banks, public figures, and picketers put inequality in vivid relief. But cities big and small are also the sites of inequality itself, where the 1% on Wall Street, LaSalle Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue exist mere miles (or less) from the 99% in the neighborhood blocks that make headlines only on the occasion of a school closing or a double-homicide. Cities across the world are staggeringly divided between those who have and those who aren’t given.

Take Detroit, the auto capital of the twentieth century, where global economic shifts and discriminatory government policies helped encourage whites to abandon the city on the broad highways to the suburbs. Or take Dubai, where the world’s tallest building and the luxurious islands just offshore were built by immigrant labor, largely unnoticed by the visitors jetting in from London or Hong Kong. Or take Mumbai, where colonial-era density restrictions have helped trap literally millions of residents in crumbling shantytowns like Dharavi.

The story of transnational oppression–expressed in sweatshop labor, dispossession, famine, and disease–is based in the city. It’s based in the metropoles of yesterday’s empires that screwed over the global south as well as in the metropolises of today’s consumption world that thrive by exploiting the communities they take from.

At the same time, cities are hubs of innovation and governance. Silicon Alley, in the middle of Manhattan, is producing apps and websites that rival those coming out of Mountain View and Palo Alto. The Washington, D.C., area has mushroomed in recent decades into a thriving center for research and advocacy–for public health, education, military technology, and all the rest.

As cities thrive in this way, they grapple with the wrenching impact of gentrification, the constant battle between the enviable success of privileged newcomers and the persistent plight of the less-enfranchised, who are constantly pushed farther and farther towards the geographic and social margins of our urban areas.

Cities can be places of the greatest discovery and the most empowering opportunity. We in the twenty-first century are increasingly challenged to make that true for residents of all races, ethnicities, languages, and incomes.

When we think about injustice, many of us think immediately of the environment, as well. Our species’ destruction of so many of the ecosystems and natural balances that keep our planet running has been perpetrated in part by the way we’ve planned urban spaces. And even the best-engineered, LEED-platinum, carbon-neutral buildings are implicated in that environmental destruction through the extraction of resources that sustain their inhabitants. From factory neighborhoods (and, these days, factory suburbs) to the beltway interstates that invite endless suburban sprawl, the city has been at the heart of our collective crusade against the environment. Therefore, the city needs to be at the heart of our collective crusade to replenish what’s left of it.

When we aspire to transform injustice and inequality, we believe we must think first, most critically, and most creatively about cities. We must conceptualize how to make them truly sustainable, ecological, collaborative, productive and fair places for well over half of tomorrow’s world population to call home.

If you care about the buildings, bridges, monuments, and trees that help make up our cities, or if you agree with us that cities’ significance goes far beyond the easily visible, we want to hear your voice. SwatCities holds informal conversations on a near-weekly basis, and this weekend we’re hosting a symposium for students, faculty, and everyone in our community.

At 3:00 pm Saturday in Kohlberg 116, you’ll have a chance to meet and talk with three recent alums–Anson Stewart ‘10, David Burgy ‘10, and Ben Bradlow, all urban planners–and ask them about their amazing experiences (at a planning firm, in community organizing, and on a Watson Fellowship).

Anson, David, Ben, and both of us all think in terms of cities. We hope we can encourage you to do so too.

From Nationalism to Nation-Building: A Comparative Perspective on the Modern Encounter in Beijing and Nanjing

By Wonbin Sohn ‘13

[Wonbin is an international student at Swarthmore College from Seoul. This piece is the second in his series about Asian cities and is an abridged version of a paper he wrote for a class at Swarthmore. Please email for a copy of the bibliography.]

National and social revolutionaries both seek ‘to assert and make good their claims to state sovereignty.’ Then, it could be asked, what was the role of Chinese architects under China’s modern struggle for a nation-state? The Confucian metaphysical philosophy devalued material artifacts, and as a result, architecture was not traditionally seen as a scholarly field throughout pre-modern China. Architectural study as a formal academic discipline began only in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when it was introduced as a field of study by Westerners. For example, the Old Summer Place, known as Yuanmingyuan in Chinese (圓明園 Yuánmíngyuán), was an extensive collection of imperial gardens and eighteenth century neoclassical mansions, constructed by Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist, who were employed by the Qianlong emperor to satisfy his taste for exotic buildings and objects (the initial construction began in 1707, during the reign of Kangxi emperor). The garden was destructed during the Second Opium War, when British and French expeditionary forces marched to the imperial capital of Beijing. Since then, on the strength of substantial foreign influx of Western presence to China, Chinese scholars have produced a significant body of architectural history that has helped shape the way that Chinese people think of architecture and urban planning.

Following the historic opening of China to the Western world, and the turn of the twentieth century, foreign architectural and planning influences started to appear in Chinese urban landscapes, mostly imported directly from the West. As in Shanghai, a prototype of cosmopolitan modern cityscape in China, foreign architectural firms, such as Palmer and Turner, Spense Robinson and Partners, and Atkinson and Dallas, made an appearance. Since the signing of the Nanjing Treaty, Shanghai had been the most open and lucrative economic entity in China during the period, and the city has consistently encapsulated foreign influences and progressive modernism, as the formation of the politically autonomous areas (i.e. the international concession and the French concession) and the forest of Neo-Classist and Art Deco architecture epitomizes. For example, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Cooperation headquarter in Shanghai, the quintessential example of Chinese neo-classicism architecture, was acclaimed as the most luxurious building from the Suez Canal to the Bering Strait.


The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Shanghai. Source: Peter G. Rowe, and Seng Kuan, Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China.

Besides the direct foreign presence in architectural employments, by the early twentieth century, Western-educated Chinese architects had returned to the motherland, and joined the projects for modern institutions and new commercial enterprises. Most of the so-called China’s First Generation of modern architects, including Zhuang Jun, Liang Sicheng and Dong Dayou, had theoretical and empirical origins in the Western Beaux-Arts tradition, and furthermore, the architects incorporated ambidextrous building designs that amalgamated different styles and methods. Corresponding to the return of Chinese architects, foreign engineers in China had already experimented with incorporating Chinese architectural features into their designs, as Henry K. Murphy’s Yenching University project in Beijing exemplifies, and during the 1920s, there arose the ‘Chinese Form’ movement (中國固有形式 zhōngguó gùyǒu xíngshì), which was characterized by the use of a Chinese roof on a steel and concrete structure, and the use of traditional decorative motifs and sometimes of traditional spatial organization.  According to Jianfei Zhu, this was an attempt to restore traditional cultural values and Confucian learning in modern Chinese architecture, and this practice was further promoted by the republican government in the Shanghai and Nanjing planning proposals in 1929. For instance, the Mayor’s Building in Greater Shanghai Civic Center, which was designed during the 1930s, had neoclassical proportions and adhered to the Western compositional principle, while employing decorative elements from the palace and temples of ancient China in its façade and interior spaces.

Henry K. Murphy’s Design of Yenching University, Beijing. Source: Jeffrey W. Cody, Henry K. Murphy’s “Adaptive Architecture,” 1914-1935.


Dong Dayou’s Mayor’s Building in Greater Shanghai Civic Center. Source: Seng Kuan, Between Beaux-Arts and Modernism: Dong Dayou and the Architecture of 1930s Shanghai.

At the most superficial level, the primary issue, which confronted the nationalist officials was that of constructing a bound polity drawn together by a set of grand symbols, shared cultural legacies and moral consciousness of political unity. As a result, the architects of Nanjing attempted to promulgate a set of horizontally universal values via their building designs, which could effectively replace the hierarchically stratified values of a previous cultural order under the Qing Dynasty. 

The Ministry of Railways, Nanjing. Source: Charles D. Musgrove, Building a Dream: Constructing a National Capital in Nanjing, 1927-1937.


Thus the architecture of Nanjing can be summarized by an amalgamation of the cultural spirit of Chinese culture – curved roofs and traditional interior ornaments – and the modernity of Western civilization – Beaux-Arts influenced imperial design with modern construction materials, which would result in an ostentatious display of national dignity and the political authority of the regime. Through the hybrid of Chinese culture and the Western concept of architecture, the new city-designs of Nanjing focused on a promotion of ‘societal consciousness’ (民主意識 mínzhǔ yìshí) to create a sense of national community under the nationalist regime. Republican China saw the popularization of the term “monumental”(紀念 jìniàn) within the public domain, including its use in such phrases as jinian hui (紀念會; defined as commemorating gathering), jinian guan (紀念館; defined as museums), and jinian youpiao (紀念郵票; defined as a commemorative stamp), and for example, when inviting public participation of architectural designs of the city, the government stipulated competition guidelines, such as a requirement to have “classical Chinese style with distinctive and monumental features (獨特而有具有紀念性意義的 中國古典形式).” Thus, through emphasizing “monumental features” of its cityscape, the nationalist government promoted both visual monumentality and the profound psychological memories of Nanjing, associated with modern political sovereignty.  In addition, with the influence of the City Beautiful Movement that emphasized the creation of large-scale public spaces and elaborate public buildings along wide parkways, the architects of Nanjing attempted to benchmark the layouts of other capital cities in the world, mostly those of Washington D.C. and Paris. Therefore, the planners envisioned the new capital with wide boulevards, malls and parks, resembling the National Mall of Washington D.C. In short, Nanjing’s main streets and districts were an extravaganza of Chinese cultural consolidation and nationalist displays. 

Top-ranked plan for Nanjing’s central administrative zone. Source: Charles D. Musgrove, Building a Dream: Constructing a National Capital in Nanjing, 1927-1937.

Through Nanjing’s architecture and city layout, the nationalists attempted to reorder society through the imposition of an ideological and aesthetic discipline, and to foster ethno-nationalist pride and development. As Zhu summarized, Nanjing as a republican capital can be explained in ideological, spatial and social terms: (1) Ideologically, the architectural style of Nanjing was the consequence of Lenin, Sun and Chiang’s varying but consistent support for constructions of national independence from colonialism and imperialism; (2) In spatial layout and construction, the overall nationalist social order was pervasive in all cities and regions ruled by the party; (3) In social terms, a Chinese bourgeois space and cosmopolitan society had already existed before 1927, and the KMT’s imposition of a new layer of urban order and meaning – with a nationalist ideology and modern state-building – was not only visual and symbolic, but also real and instrumental.  As discussed earlier, the nationalist government in Nanjing was a result of the prolonged geopolitical revolution against the anachronistic Qing Dynasty and Western imperialism, and as the KMT regime sought to openly inculcate a modern cosmopolitan urbanism, with the new national pride and sense of “Chineseness”, a vibrant aesthetic and architectural culture appeared in Nanjing. Certainly, as Figure 4 demonstrates, the urban landscape of Nanjing was an amalgamation of Chinese-style architecture upon modern configuration. The capital plan of 1929 displays a civil construction of a modern city with a set of commercial buildings and private industries as well as the KMT’s government and municipal complexes. The forms of government offices and public buildings were required to adopt a Chinese architectural design, with the prolonged tradition of pre-modern imperial palaces included, while the city layout adopted a Beaux-Arts composition of diagonals in a grid of orthogonal lines. In addition, the distinctiveness of a large and open space, specifically aimed at holding a large-scale public gathering, should be noted. 

A large “open” space in front of the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial. Source: Jianfei Zhu, Architecture of Modern China: A Historical Critique.

While proclaiming a Chinese cultural heritage and ethno-nationalist legacies, the architecture in Nanjing was also an exchange of ideas, designs, construction and engineering technologies between the West and East. The Capital Plan of 1929 advocated a combination of “principles of European-American science and technology” with the artistic tradition of China. Influenced by the early-generation of Chinese architects, who were trained either in Western Europe or in the United States, and with the presence of Western architects in China (i.e. Henry K. Murphy and Ernest Goodrich), Nanjing’s urban landscape was a hybrid of the imperial architectural tradition from pre-modern Chinese dynasties, with European Beaux-Arts and neo-classical compositions. Therefore, Nanjing’s architecture and urban planning were an active “reinterpretation” of Chinese culture in a modern, republican setting: diverse constructive elements were alloyed to promote a hybrid synthesis of Western science and technology with Chinese culture and values, thus demonstrating a progressive and modern ideological politics of the nationalist regime.

The People’s Republic’s national embodiment (國粹 guócuì) includes some of the Confucian and Taoist legacies as well as some selections of Mao’s revolutionary ideals, with a central focus on filial piety and the qualified extrapolation of these principles to the communist political arena – that is, the need for socialist peace, harmony and stability in China. As in Nanjing, the state-centered architecture of Beijing has been in charge of guarding the guocui and the day-to-day workings of the government coincide with the core ideological symbol. Thus, during the early and mid-1950s, at the pinnacle of the nascent nation-building process of the People’s Republic, the second wave of Chinese nationalism in architecture and urban planning made an appearance. Under the title of Socialist Realism, the architecture of Beijing during this period was a part of strong upsurge of national pride and optimism over the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, and to some extent, over the “defeat” of American imperialism in the Korean War. Within this framework, modernism and the international style of architecture were condemned as expressions of Western imperialism, capitalism and bourgeois culture, and as a result, streets in Beijing openly demonstrated communist ideology, which proclaimed that public architecture should embrace socialist content and should adopt a national form. The architect Liang Sicheng, one of the early-generation Chinese architects, integrated the popular symbolism of the Chinese Revolution in 1951, and this architectural composition has served as the aesthetic basis in many projects of the period, including Zhang Bo’s Friendship Hotel.


Friendship Hotel, Beijing. Source: Jianfei Zhu, Beyond Revolution: Notes on Contemporary Chinese Architecture.


Attesting to the magnitude of engineering feats accomplished in China, the communist architecture reached its pinnacle in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, when the central government commissioned ‘Ten Grand Projects’ for the celebration of the tenth National day on 1 October 1959. As noticed before, the buildings employed Chinese roofs and traditional decorative motifs within a Western classical composition. Moreover, the contemporaneous architects intended to incorporate modern Soviet building designs by devising the impressively massive and clearly functional designs of buildings. The Ten Grand Projects connoted the highest political and symbolic importance in Beijing, and the buildings dominated and defined the landscape of the capital of the People’s Republic. As Zhu summarizes, the plans for the ‘Ten Grand Projects’ were strictly symmetrical and hierarchical, and the architectural styles were comprised of a very particular combination of eclectic, historicist and ‘classical’ compositions. For instance, some of these buildings, such as the Beijing Railway Station and the Cultural Palace of Nationalities explicitly display traditional architectural themes of China, while others incorporate Chinese decorative motifs within a Western classical composition. Pivoted around the Tiananmen, the Museum of History and Revolution, and the Great Hall of the People stand, flanking the east and west, respectively. Furthermore, as a part of political symbolism, communist slogans, iconographic images of the red torch and stars, sculptures depicting the ‘revolutionary masses’ and even portraits of Chairman Mao himself appeared in buildings of Beijing.


Cultural Palace of Nationalities. Source: Hung Wu, Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space.


Beijing Railway Station. Source: Hung Wu, Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space.

The Museum of History and Revolution. Source: Jianfei Zhu, Beyond Revolution: Notes on Contemporary Chinese Architecture.


The Great Hall of the People. Source: Jianfei Zhu, Architecture of Modern China: a Historical Critique.

Through this practice of pervasive influence of communist ideology on the central landscape of Beijing, the government of the People’s Republic envisioned a monumental urban layout that could both represent its zealous communist pursuits by adopting Soviet architectural models, and its instillation of nationalism and patriotism by embodying a traditional cultural identity. However, it should be noted that there exists a persistent trend across the architectural conventionality of the first and second waves of Chinese architecture. Despite the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the political ideologies of the nationalists and communists, architecture in both Beijing and Nanjing displays a Chinese roof set on a modern building structure, a continuing legacy of the 1920s Beaux-Arts model. In regards to the communist architecture along Tiananmen Square, Jianfei Zhu briefly outlines the historical development of political symbolism in the People’s Republic.

“Here, against the background of the historical imperial city, the legacy of the École des Beaux Arts intersected with the aims of the Chinese Communist Revolution: the Western classical approach, already localized and tested, was used in the representation of the revolutionary state…In the evolution of the Chinese Beaux-Arts model, the ten projects as a whose marked a transition from the tradition-based National Form to an ideologically based political symbolism.”

In sum, nationalism not only was effectively inculcated throughout this period; its content was very much manipulated to serve the government. The new sacred symbols of nationhood that were taught all served as instruments both for the new Chinese nation and the communist party-state. The socialist cause, the party leadership, and the Chinese nationhood all merged into a set of architecture, representing a unified identity. As the prolonged continuity of Beijing and its traditional concept as an imperial heartland of pre-modern China was overwritten by the juxtapositions of the newly erected communist government buildings and memorials, this newfangled symbolic structure of Beijing attempted to represent an egalitarian combination of history and people on a spatial plane. Indeed, Beijing, and its central plaza at Tiananmen Square have been frequently used as a space for massive public demonstrations, often praising the rule of the CCP and agitating people against the common enemy – the “bourgeoisies” within the Chinese society and the foreign antagonists, namely the United States and later the Soviet Union. The city even endured a series of severe domestic upheavals from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Although both incidents had casted a mortal blow to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chairman himself, the revolutionary future that Tiananmen Square promised eventually survived the turmoil and remained upon the resilient Chinese public, all until the principles of market economy and Western-style liberalism made an appearance during the late 1970s.


A Bird’s Eye View of Tiananmen Square in 1977. Source: Hung Wu, Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space.



Contemporary Cityscapes of China. Source: Terry Hill, Solutions for a Modern City: Arup in Beijing.

So far, the study of nationalism and the subsequent political symbolism in architecture and urban planning have examined the top-down nation-building process through Nanjing’s nationalist era and Beijing’s Maoist period of the People’s Republic of China. Unlike when both leaders of Nanjing and Beijing struggled to accomplish their nationwide dignity, China is in the midst of an unprecedented economic growth since the 1980s, and the country seems to be gradually evolving toward a fuller realization of the concepts of nation and political citizenship, not to mention the increasingly confident perception of its position in the world. Considering the increasing demands for greater participation and inclusion in the polity by various elements of the population, as epitomized by the erection of the Goddess of Democracy during the June Fourth incident, the architectural scenery of China may be gradually redrawn by private, and more creative civilian influences from below. Rather than the old dichotomy of traditional and modernist approaches, architectural scenes in China are being influenced by a fusion of regional, contextual and even late modern-formal compositions. The retreat of the radical communist ideology of the past made possible a renewal of interest in both the traditional and early modern Chinese culture as well as Western architectural composition, and as a result, the contemporary buildings in China are less dictated by the government and more pluralistic in its artistic expression. Certainly, on the strength of open and dynamic socioeconomic developments, Beijing’s architectural scenes and its prolonged cultural tradition of socialist realism have recently undergone a significant commercialization – a reflection of the increasingly heterogeneous urban culture. For example, Soho China Limited, a private real-estate developing corporation in Beijing, has worked to develop commercial properties in China, and the firm has incorporated internationally renowned architects to produce modern iconic architecture. Also, through open design competitions, many Western and Chinese architects have won the commissions of state or state-related buildings with new and radical architectural modernism.

By modern iconic architecture, I mean projects that do not involve a systematic state-centered building plans or construction decrees, and architectural designs that deviate from the outmoded combination of Chinese roofs and Soviet-style buildings of the 1950s and the 1960s. Thus, with the presence of aesthetically motivated international architects, and the gradual dissolution of “state-centered” architectural decrees, the contemporary Chinese cities have witnessed the convergence of different ideas and approaches in designing its own skyline. After a century of struggles, China is approaching a new plane of aesthetical consciousness, opening up new possibilities for the commercialization of the architectural tradition; the fast-developing economy of China has contributed to the unprecedented collages of traditional elements mingled with the ultra-modern signs and screens. In sum, China is leaving behind not only its past legacies of the Maoist Revolution, but also the hybrid modern tradition of Beaux-Arts composition with the traditional design motifs in which both the nationalists and communists were bound for so long to express their political legitimacy.

Shanghai: An Exotic Amalgamation of Cultural Traditions, Past Colonialism, and Booming Commercialism of Modern Days

By Wonbin Sohn ‘13

[Wonbin is an international student from Seoul. This piece is the first in his series about Asian cities in the present day. The series also kicks off our push to open up the Swat Cities Blog to any Swattie who wants to write about how we as people interact with the built environment around us.]

As of 2010, more than 23 million people are proud to call Shanghai home. A commercial capital of the People’s Republic of China (Shanghai is responsible for more than one-fifth of the aggregate economic activities in the nation), Shanghai is still growing in a rapid phase, craving more foreign capital, talented people, and a rich cultural heritage. If you ever visit Shanghai, and want to actually feel how fast China has grown over the last three decades, I strongly recommend you take a maglev train from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to the downtown area. The train operates at an average speed of 280 miles an hour, and moves people from the airport to the city like a bullet, covering the distance of 50 miles just in 13 minutes.


Shanghai’s airport maglev

The maglev reaches speeds around 280 mph.

Pudong, the financial district, at night.

Pudong by day.

The ever-widening income disparity in Shanghai is increasingly becoming a social problem. Facing such a problem, Shanghai in the near future may face serious social upheaval and violent protests.

Due to the seemingly endless construction and industrialization, Shanghai’s air is heavily polluted, and its tap water is simply unsuitable for drinking.

In contrast to the current image as a mecca of international commerce and cultural exchange, pre-modern Shanghai was an insignificant village inhibited mostly by independent farmers. Shanghai, as its name demonstrates (in Chinese, Shanghai literally means “above Sea”), most of the present-day jurisdiction of Shanghai was composed of muddy rice fields along low-altitude plain in the past. As the agricultural production of the region was largely insignificant and unproductive, the imperial authorities of the Ming and Qing Dynasties did not pay much attention to the area. It was not until the Opium War and the gradually increasing presence of western imperialism of the 19th century that Shanghai underwent a major transformation. Located along the coast of the East China Sea, Shanghai had a propitious geographical advantage in terms of international trade, as it served as a major port connecting the Guangzhou and Hong Kong region and the imperial metropolitan areas of Beijing and Tianjin located in the north. Soon, the small agricultural town became a flourishing nexus of radical political ideologies, booming international trade, and the spread of western imperialism, that would soon transform the entire Middle Kingdom in a few decades.

When completed, the HSBC Headquarters’ building was widely praised as the most beautiful building in Asia.

(Photo courtesy of:,_the_Bund,_Shanghai.jpg/800px-HSBC_Building,_the_Bund,_Shanghai.jpg)

With many privileges, including the extraterritorial rights and monopoly on trade, foreign concessions and markets for international trade were established while local Chinese inhabitants became increasingly marginalized under a severe political discrimination and economic disenfranchisement. Meanwhile, the Jesuit missionaries, who had been striving to disseminate Christian ideals in Mainland China, had founded a number of gothic-style cathedrals around the city. By the late nineteenth century, Shanghai became a city that no longer belonged to the imperial rulers of the Qing Dynasty, or to the local Chinese dwellers. Shanghai had developed a striking inconsistency in its skyline with the sights of gothic bell towers and beaux-art architectures, along with pagodas and temples that resembled traditional Chinese culture. 

The Shanghai Bund in the past.

(Photo courtesy of:

The Bund today.

As a part of the Self-Strengthening Movement of the late 19th century, the Qing Dynasty sent a number of Chinese students overseas, largely aimed at learning and benchmarking the technologies of western nations. Mostly comprised of descendants of elite scholar-gentry families, the students attended prominent educational institutions of the era, including the University of Pennsylvania in the United States and Heidelberg University in Prussia (present-day Germany). Once receiving their degrees, the students sought to apply what they learned to the realities of their homeland, and Shanghai became a real-world laboratory for those foreign-educated intellectuals. Staring from the fields of architecture and urban planning, the intellectuals amalgamated the western technologies (i.e. the Beaux-Arts architecture) with Chinese traditional identity, thus engendering the movement in search of the national identity of China.

East Nanjing Road was one of the districts in Shanghai that had mixed influences of Western architecture and Chinese tradition as early as the mid-19th century. 

The grandiose designs and planning for the Shanghai Civic Center represent the ambitious attempt of the newborn Republican government to promulgate its political authority over the city while emphasizing national identity through the traditional look of the buildings.

(Photos courtesy of Cody, Jeffrey William, Steinhardt, S. Nancy, Atkin Tony, Chinese Architecture and the Beaux-arts. 2011, University of Hawaii Press, print.)

During the late 1930s and 1940s, as Japan initiated its notorious imperial expansion throughout China, Shanghai confronted a stark reality of penetrating imperialism and international war. Once a thriving city of international trade and transportation, Shanghai soon fell under a full warfare between China and Japan. As the outburst of the state-led fascism and the imperial expansionism was finally brought to an end in August 1945, Shanghai restored its post-war status as a city that belonged to China. However, the city was forced to confront an uncomfortable postwar reality that was radically different from that of its glorious past few decades. Following the unprecedented experiences of its unconditional surrender and occupation by Allied troops, the Great Japanese Empire ceased to exist. As the flow of newfangled agendas, such as the progress of liberalism and democracy, aspirations for peace, and the promotion of postwar recovery made an appearance in public, Shanghai faced a tremendous turning point in its modern era. Exhausted by the Second World War, western nations could not reclaim their past properties and interests in Shanghai, and a severe economic recession and social upheaval soon followed. Throughout the immediate postwar era, labor unions had relentlessly declared strikes against the already-incapacitated government, while Maoist guerillas and the KMT police forces constantly engaged in urban skirmishes. Facing political struggles and radical social upheavals demanding change, the polarized society of postwar Shanghai eventually witnessed the rise of the Chinese Communist Party as a sole legitimate ruler of the country as well as the city. 

Shanghai’s WWII Memorial


It is widely known that the Maoist communists largely defeated the KMT-Republican government in 1949. Only after years of guerilla warfare and tremendous casualties, the China Communist Party (CCP) was able to gain the control of China. However, one can observe a striking continuity in the urban planning and architecture of Shanghai throughout the KMT and the CCP rule of the city. Both claiming their legitimacy as a liberator of Chinese people from past oppression (the KMT rebelled against the ailing Qing Dynasty in 1911, which was overthrown by the CCP in 1949), the KMT and CCP both concentrated in constructing buildings that ostentatious displayed their political authority. In order to glorifying the new era of China, which the both regimes continuously claimed to represent, the seemingly disparate political ideologies of the KMT and CCP did not matter much.

The Municipal Government Complex of Shanghai…


…and People’s Square: looks similar? – An extensive public space in the vicinity of grandiose buildings.

As of the contemporary era, precipitous international circumstances, including the dissolution of the communist bloc in the nineties, the unclear future of the hegemonic position of the United States, and the proliferation of the worldwide economic crisis, are throwing the question of where the responsibility and future direction of Shanghai lie. Regardless of the mixed past of the last century, Shanghai has become an affluent city that has played a substantial role in global politics and worldwide economic development. Not only has Shanghai operated as a successful participant in global trade, but it also has offered an alternative growth path to the world under the names of the China Model and the Beijing Consensus, an export-oriented industrialization based on a strong role of government in allocating investment resources toward those industries that are the most critical in attaining high returns. That being said, while considering Shanghai’s past full of ups and downs with a persistent economic foundation in international trade, it is crucial to ponder what stance and sense of mission contemporary Shanghai should embrace. Looking into the future, facing tasks and directions of Shanghai vis-à-vis its progress is to broaden its insights and understandings of modern history from an impartial perspective and to design a more balanced development to accommodate those who have been economically marginalized, and politically oppressed under the strict rule of the CCP. Furthermore, Shanghai should reform its social welfare policies and environment regulations to become a worldwide city that represents material prowess, social welfare, and environmentally-friendly development.   

Hometown Glory - Swat Cities Meeting Tonight
9.21.12 / 6:30 PM / Trotter 315
Hello friends,
Please join us for our second Swat Cities meeting of the year! This evening we will be talking about hometowns.
The conversation can go anywhere and everywhere. When I think of a hometown, I think of My New York, my favorite children’s book about my beloved home. But we can look more closely too. What makes a location a home, and is it strictly the act of living there, being born there, or even growing up there? What kinds of feelings do these places instill; Why might we love them, and why might we not? How do they reveal particular relationships between place, space, family, history, identity? And how might these relationships be challenged by new forces like globalization and plurality? 
All in all, it will be fun and low-pressure. We hope to see you tonight!!!
Matthew & Andrew

Hometown Glory - Swat Cities Meeting Tonight

9.21.12 / 6:30 PM / Trotter 315

Hello friends,

Please join us for our second Swat Cities meeting of the year! This evening we will be talking about hometowns.

The conversation can go anywhere and everywhere. When I think of a hometown, I think of My New York, my favorite children’s book about my beloved home. But we can look more closely too. What makes a location a home, and is it strictly the act of living there, being born there, or even growing up there? What kinds of feelings do these places instill; Why might we love them, and why might we not? How do they reveal particular relationships between place, space, family, history, identity? And how might these relationships be challenged by new forces like globalization and plurality? 

All in all, it will be fun and low-pressure. We hope to see you tonight!!!

Matthew & Andrew

Not in Kansas Anymore

Indeed Kansas City, MO, is not in Kansas at all. I challenge you to remember the last time you thought about Kansas City. Maybe the Royals come to mind, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this mid-sized city, geographically as far from the coasts as possible, has no place in your imagination at all. (When people think “cities in Missouri,” St. Louis, itself not so glamorous, surely come first.)

My family had the rare privilege of visiting Kansas City in May. We like to take off-the-beaten-track trips, but even we only stopped by because it was on our way to Kansas’ beautiful Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

View of downtown Kansas City from near Crown Center; Union Station in foreground

But Kansas City was great.

Lively, interesting, and full of history, Kansas City seemed to me to be a very down-to-earth and welcoming town. My family stayed in Crown Center, a typical-enough 1970s superdevelopment just beyond downtown. The Center—an attempt by the Hallmark Corporation to create a second downtown, fit for the 20th Century—is impressive and comfortable. The downside of such a monolithic development is obvious: the hulking set of buildings is focused awkwardly inward, designed for easy access by car and not by foot, and closed to the boring and unsightly neighborhood around it, which is filled not with people but with other towering institutions and the scar tissue that is a busy freight railroad.

Still, the Center also offers easy access to some of the main cultural/tourist attractions, like the fabulous train station, described by some as the nation’s best (think Philadelphia’s 30th Street, but grander), which is now a children’s museum, and the new performing arts center by the starchitect Moshe Safdie. The very impressive art museum, which has a recent addition, is just down the street as well. It’s clear that Kansas City has been throwing money at the sort of amenities it believes will best attract the well-educated, worldly people that are considered necessary to prevent decline. Keep in mind that Kansas City is also a pro-business town; throwing money at cultural institutions is a more popular hobby than throwing money at local programs to help the downtrodden.

Will such a strategy work? Kansas City is certainly not a global city like London. But listen to the story of my mom’s first job interviews after graduate school. She had a choice of two jobs: one was with Hallmark, the flagship company in Kansas City; the other was with Hershey, the flagship company in, of course, Hershey, PA. At the time she’d preferred the opportunity at Hershey, but telling the story now, she made it clear that Kansas City would have been the perfect town for her, a Midwestern girl looking to make friends and start a career. Kansas City was and is an enjoyable, easy-going place to live a sophisticated, urban life. My mom (from suburban Detroit) was afraid to move to New York City on her own, and she’d even had reservations about Chicago. Hershey however, was on the other extreme. She says that she’d found little to do in Hershey, which is a small town outside of Harrisburg. Her male coworkers took it for granted that hunting was the thing to do on weekends, and she had trouble breaking into social circles that revolved around extended family and local roots. Kansas City strikes a balance, and it’s a balance that must still appeal to many young professionals today.

On our trip, my mom, to her great pleasure, even found the building where she’d considered renting an apartment—a building she hadn’t thought about in thirty years. It was, in fact, right across the street from Country Club Plaza, which, as my mom hadn’t realized, is famous for being the very first American shopping center built for the car. The contemporary term “lifestyle center” probably evokes an accurate mental image. It sounds like a pretty gross urban planning concept—the Plaza’s slightly gaudy Spanish architectural theme doesn’t help—but it turns out to be an incredibly pleasant place to walk around.

An artistic rendition of Country Club Plaza's main drag

Granted, my Kansas City experience was brief and largely confined to the interior of a car, but over the course of my two days there, a long line of very appealing neighborhoods seemed to reveal themselves. This series of neighborhoods runs in a long line from Downtown, through the Crown Center, and all the way to Country Club Plaza, which is near the art museum. The linear series is reinforced by the new express bus line, which uses creatively designed, well-advertised bus stations to give the city a symbolic (and practical) backbone*.

So, it seemed to me, Country Club Plaza, while a far cry from the country’s über-trendiest neighborhoods like Williamsburg or Wicker Park, is an altogether decent place to have fun. Laid out on a grid, with lively streets and sidewalks, the Plaza would probably escape the failing grade Jane Jacobs gives most planned shopping centers. It wouldn’t get an A+ from her either—no purpose-built concentration of chain restaurants and stores ever will—but the neighborhood as a whole has matured into a veritable mixed use mini-city. There are beautiful parks, including river with fully-landscaped banks, a couple schools, and at least one very beautiful church.

Observing the foot traffic, it was apparent that the area attracts a rather diverse population, as well. One of the farthest south cities in the Midwest, Kansas City has large black and latino populations. I can’t claim to have paid much attention to interracial relations, and I presume that Kansas City, like many 20th-century industrial powerhouses, is quite segregated. And Kansas City is not an immigrant town. But at least a mix is present.

I don’t think Kansas City has a secret sauce, but it more than exceeded my expectations. In a nation where many cities struggle to create job growth, raise living conditions for hundreds of thousands of urban poor, retrofit decades-old infrastructure that’s long since been out-of-date, or grasp flailingly at the seeds of an artistic renaissance, Kansas City seems relatively unfazed by any major problems and relatively successful at creating a high quality of life.

Put Kansas City on your radar. It may not make many top lists, but it is a strong example of how a city that doesn’t have anything special going for it can nevertheless keep its heart beating and generate something worth checking out, even if just for short family vacation.


*A similar rapid bus line in Cleveland, which connects downtown to the university and medical districts, has been praised for its pioneering design. Many civic leaders hope these bus lines can provide a jolt of positive energy into bland, decaying urban areas. Cheaper than metro lines and almost as exciting, rapid bus lines are certainly a smart solution to try. But transportation can only augment the positive forces that already exist in a city, and both Kansas City and Cleveland know they have work to do.

Hey all!
I hope everybody’s summers are great, and that we are all exercising our rights to relax, travel, and SLEEP.
For those of you whose summer activities (relaxing, traveling, or sleepwalking) bring you to New York City next week, I’m writing to share a really cool event taking place on Monday, June 11 at the Museum of the City of New York. I am working at the Museum this summer, and I am very excited for this program.
In conjunction with the acclaimed exhibit, The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011, curator Hillary Ballon will be giving the third in a series of illustrated talks about the creation of Manhattan’s numbered system of streets and avenues - perhaps the city’s quintessential structural feature. In this presentation, Dr. Ballon will be focusing on adaptations to the grid over time, such as Central Park, Broadway, and the twentieth century development of superblocks with skyscraper anchors. The New York grid is, in fact, remarkably flexible and has changed continuously with the changing needs of the city.
This underscores a chief concept in the study of cities, which should fascinate us as participants in Swat Cities but also as observers of the whole world around us: the city’s street grid defines it, as it’s singular template for human activity. Therefore it is more than a shell, it is an embodiment of the life of the city.
The Museum of the City of New York is located on the far Upper East Side of Manhattan, 1220 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 103rd St. Reservations are required, and there is a small cost to be paid in advance. You can register and find more info here:
Have a great rest of the summer everyone, and stay tuned for some more posts by Andrew and myself soon.

Hey all!

I hope everybody’s summers are great, and that we are all exercising our rights to relax, travel, and SLEEP.

For those of you whose summer activities (relaxing, traveling, or sleepwalking) bring you to New York City next week, I’m writing to share a really cool event taking place on Monday, June 11 at the Museum of the City of New York. I am working at the Museum this summer, and I am very excited for this program.

In conjunction with the acclaimed exhibit, The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011, curator Hillary Ballon will be giving the third in a series of illustrated talks about the creation of Manhattan’s numbered system of streets and avenues - perhaps the city’s quintessential structural feature. In this presentation, Dr. Ballon will be focusing on adaptations to the grid over time, such as Central Park, Broadway, and the twentieth century development of superblocks with skyscraper anchors. The New York grid is, in fact, remarkably flexible and has changed continuously with the changing needs of the city.

This underscores a chief concept in the study of cities, which should fascinate us as participants in Swat Cities but also as observers of the whole world around us: the city’s street grid defines it, as it’s singular template for human activity. Therefore it is more than a shell, it is an embodiment of the life of the city.

The Museum of the City of New York is located on the far Upper East Side of Manhattan, 1220 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 103rd St. Reservations are required, and there is a small cost to be paid in advance. You can register and find more info here:

Have a great rest of the summer everyone, and stay tuned for some more posts by Andrew and myself soon.


MEETING n. 6 Tomorrow

Hello world,

We hope everyone has been well, despite the gloomy weather and the onset of papers and exams. It is still a wonderful time of year so let’s all be happy. 
Indeed, happiness comes standard when there’s a SWAT CITIES MEETING to attend! Attendance dipped a little bit last week, which is okay. But the previous week, when Kassandra launched our discussion about post-industrial cities, we had the largest crowd (13!) and possibly the most engaging conversation yet. So let’s try to achieve the same this week:
Friday 4.27.12
7:00 PM
Trotter 315
Haydn Welch will be facilitating a conversation about race and cities. It will be intelligent, honest, and very relevant to contemporary American life. 
Note: We understand we’ll be competing with the LSE. We are totally okay with a slightly shorter meeting, let’s say to conclude by 8:00, so people can head over there after. 
Have a wonderful day, and we better see you tomorrow!
Matthew and Andrew

Two weeks ago - yes, it’s been a while, but good things come at annoyingly long intervals. anyway, we apologize - our member Kassandra facilitated Swat Cities’ largest conversation so far, and one of its intellectually strongest for sure. Kassandra’s discussion focused on the meanings and the life of post-industrial cities in the United States, building from a cogent opening presentation featuring her home town, Scranton, PA. We endeavored some very fruitful articulations of what makes post-industrialism, and what made cities industrial in the first place. Thus emerged a working web of economic, social, ethnic, and cultural categories associated with the industrial era phenomenon of place-as-resource and resource-as-place and the subsequent fall of this model.

In traditional American industry cities, nature generated raw capital and human labor at various levels then harnessed it to market. These men and women were usually trained vocationally rather than, or more seriously than, academically; their skill and productive value were tethered to the resource at hand and to their role in making it profitable. These factors, which endowed cities profound robustness and importance when the broader industrial matrix relied on them, are also what encoded their staggering falls from grace - the failure of economies, proliferation of unemployment, and environmental souring we attribute to now post-industrial cities like Detroit, Gary, Scranton-Allentown-Bethlehem, Toledo, and others. From the start, the purpose and the productivity of these urban environments were liked principally to the product itself rather than the human population; meaning, that population assembled and evolved over several generations to explicitly reflect the industry that supported it. Especially intriguing is the notion Alison drew upon, that even primary education in the U.S. reflects an industrial town consciousness of work, time, relaxation, and mind. Therefore, when the lifeline industry scales back operations in a city or region, the human beings that remain face an acute risk of becoming stranded from sustainable livelihood. Skill sets, corporate affiliations, lifestyle benefits, home prices, are among the myriad fundamental pieces of everyday life that can no longer be applied or exist as they had for in some cases one hundred years. It was resounding clear to all thirteen members in our room, the industrial city was - and any model like it today *is* - patently unsustainable as a human community.

Indeed, there are models that look like it today. This became one of Swat Cities’ most fascinating conversation threads yet. Slowly, we began to float a basic logical likeness between a coal, oil, or steel region in Pennsylvania and the Silicon Valley in Northern California. Both archetypes show a unique and large-scale communion of place and industry. Here emerge some provocative inquiries: what happens when a technology, or even just a methodology, we cannot today perceive - just as it would have been difficult to perceive a decrease in coal production or a glut of outsourcing 75 years ago - mutes the present vigor of nanotechnology in California? Thinking through this question quickly illuminated that however fun it might be to liken these two molds, it is even more fun to realize how they are different: technology is a very different resource than oil or coal. We explored meanings of technology as a renewable resource, the idea that the same intellectual and physical modules that produce Google search algorithms will be useful even in a future where Google is streamed to the brain and personal computers do not exist. Further, we looked at the differences in socioeconomic and educational background associated with an oil city and a technology city and found even more dramatic differences between them, not only in basic nature but in community sustainability - individuals with advanced degrees will be more able than those trained only to a trade, to switch jobs in the event that a company or industry leaves town.

We grabbed wonderful footholds in a truly diverse range of topics during this one conversation, and those above are only a fraction. We also discussed the responsibility of the government to diversify monopolized communities, the role of arts in post-industrial revitalization, and the nascent - or not so - role of race in today’s big push for a creative class to invigorate ailing cities.

This was a superstar conversation, and we excitedly await our next.


Swat Cities is officially chartered!
In a casual meeting this afternoon with representatives from StuCo, Matthew and Andrew made the case for a Swat Cities charter. Explaining our group, as we always have, as a discussion forum for those interested in cities, we told StuCo how impressed we’ve been with student turnout and with the initiative members have taken in facilitating meetings themselves. Needless to say, the jury was out for less than twenty seconds.
As part of the chartering process, we were asked to give an estimate of our 2012-2013 budget. What we told StuCo is as follows:
2 speakers, one per semester                 = 2 * $500
food, for speakers and other events       = $200
transportation, for our events                 = $300
TOTAL                                                    = $1500
We’re looking forward to seeing everybody again Friday at 7:00 in Trotter 315, just like last time and the time before. The only difference: now we’ll all have that warm feeling in our bellies that comes with recently being chartered…

Swat Cities is officially chartered!

In a casual meeting this afternoon with representatives from StuCo, Matthew and Andrew made the case for a Swat Cities charter. Explaining our group, as we always have, as a discussion forum for those interested in cities, we told StuCo how impressed we’ve been with student turnout and with the initiative members have taken in facilitating meetings themselves. Needless to say, the jury was out for less than twenty seconds.








As part of the chartering process, we were asked to give an estimate of our 2012-2013 budget. What we told StuCo is as follows:

2 speakers, one per semester                 = 2 * $500

food, for speakers and other events       = $200

transportation, for our events                 = $300


TOTAL                                                    = $1500

We’re looking forward to seeing everybody again Friday at 7:00 in Trotter 315, just like last time and the time before. The only difference: now we’ll all have that warm feeling in our bellies that comes with recently being chartered…