Racial Patterns of Urbanization #3

This is the third response paper for my Racial Patterns of Urbanization class:

Witchhunt: How Integrated Housing in Los Angeles was Destroyed

This article provides insight into the housing situation in L.A. during the 1920s and into the 1950s. The author contrasts the Watts Rebellion with the historical context of how L.A. was supposed to have integrated housing. According to Wilkinson (1991), “there was once a comprehensive housing program that set out to make Los Angeles the first city in the United States free of slums and would have provided decent low-rent integrated homes for all the citizens of Los Angeles” (p. 5). The housing program was deliberately hampered and “destroyed” by the “real estate lobby, [L.A.] Police Chief William H. Parker and the Los Angeles Times” (Wilkinson, 1991, p. 5).

L.A. slums were largely inhabited by African-Americans. In the 1930s, about 12% of L.A. consisted of slums. Wilkinson (1991) states that “even though the African-American population was small, four times more African-Americans than whites were forced to live in unfit dwellings” (p. 5). The need for quality public housing was apparent. Several organizations and “progressive” individuals called for “slum clearance and low-rent housing projects” (Wilkinson, 1991, p. 5). I think that one of the interesting aspects of this coalition was that they argued for an integrated housing policy. This is the first time that I have read about folks, who I can assume were predominantly white (and in positions of power), who were advocating for social justice. This was one of the first programs which sought to racially integrate public housing. The program was successful even though it was created “five years before restrictive covenants were outlawed, and 12 years before Brown vs. the Board of Education” (Wilkinson, 1991, p. 5).

One of the model housing villages was the “Hacienda Village.” It was very diverse in its racial makeup. The village was “about one-third African-American, one-third Mexican-American, and another third Anglo” (Wilkinson, 1991, p. 5). The innovative nature of the public housing projects allowed for the emigration of African-Americans from the ghetto to “integrated community-living.” Interestingly, World War II provided a nudge for further integrated housing projects. “Emergency war housing,” which used the same model as the L.A. projects, provided living spaces for both African-American and white families.

At the end of World War II, the progressive mayor L.A., Mayor Bowron “asked the city council to appropriate money for a giant post-war slum clearance program” (Wilkinson, 1991, p. 5). This started a conflict between progressives and the L.A. real estate lobby. The tactics of the real estate lobby were despicable. To combat misinformation that there were no slums in L.A., the Housing Authority “organized massive bus tours that exhibited the slums to more than 10,000 community leaders” (Wilkinson, 1991, p. 5). The situation in L.A. was soon recognized by the federal government. According to Wilkinson (1991), “L.A. became the first city to qualify” for the “federal Housing Act” (p. 5). The city planned on creating “thousands of new homes, most in areas outside the African-American ghettos” (Wilkinson, 1991, p. 5). Proponents of the new housing plans, the L.A. city council, were vehemently opposed by the real estate lobby and the Los Angeles Times. It is disturbing to read about the rampant racism that permeated this situation. Council members were attacked and a “[white] property owners committee” attempted to push through anti-housing legislation.

The L.A. police, led by Chief William H. Parker, tried to prove that “juvenile delinquency was higher in the projects than in adjacent slum areas” (Wilkinson, 1991, p. 6). Activists for public housing were able to discredit the L.A. police by showing that “[Chief] Parker’s men had chosen ‘adjacent areas’ that had been cleared of all housing six months earlier” (Wilkinson, 1991, p. 6). I am uncertain about Parker’s motivations. They seem to be a combination of racist, capitalist, anti-communist thinking/action. I am fascinated with the role of public relations and urban history. The medieval spinmasters of old continued to flourish in 1950s L.A. Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation was involved. Parker (who apparently was in league with L.A. slumlords) partnered with the F.B.I. in an effort to discredit several progressive individuals including the author of this piece. It seems to me that rich white people in positions of power utilized their clout to perpetuate a fear of communism to mask the inherent racism of their acts.

After the defeat of Mayor Bowron by the L.A. Times sponsored Norris Poulson, the public housing projects were canceled and/or negatively modified. According to Wilkinson (1991), it was “symptomatic of the racism that was the real driving issue all along, only the projects within the ghetto were allowed to proceed, where African-Americans would not be allowed out into white neighborhoods” (p. 6). I think this scenario really showcases the power of institutionalized racism. The federal government, including the House of Representatives and the federal bureau of investigation; the L.A. Police Department; the L.A. Real Estate Lobby; and the Los Angeles Times contributed to the systematic downfall of integrated housing in L.A. The L.A. ghettos exist because of institutionalized racism perpetuated by the dominant paradigm.

The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women

The first chapter in Elizabeth Wilson’s The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women consists of an introduction to the experiences of women in the city and the gendering of the urban environment. Wilson writes about the difficulties that she and her mother had in traveling within the city. According to Wilson (1991), “we waited for buses that never came, were marshaled into queues that never grew shorter, [and] walked down endless streets in the hot sun” (p. 1). Her mother attempted to act as if the city was not affecting her. However, Wilson (1991) “felt the vulnerability of her pretensions exposed” and that “together we seemed so insignificant and lost” (p. 1).

The zoo and the park provide ample contrast for Wilson. In the park, Wilson finds nature and “tranquility,” while the zoo is a place of “jostling” and crowds. According to Wilson (1991), “fear mixed with an obscure or suspect pleasure lay at the heart of the city’s secret courtyards and alleyways” (p. 2). The city is compared to the labyrinth with a “Minotaur’s chamber.” Wilson (1991) states that “this recurring image, of the city as a maze, as having a secret centre, contradicts that other and equally common metaphor for the city as a labyrinthine and centreless” (p. 3). The reader is then presented with imagery of the city as “an endlessly circular journey” in which one retraces “the same pathways over time” (Wilson, 1991, p. 3). Contrasting this is the concept of “flux and change” which creates fresh pathways to traverse. Wilson (1991) states that “the city is in a constant process of change, and thus becomes dreamlike and magical, yet also terrifying in the way a dream can be” (p. 3). The ebb and flow of the city is described as being “one of the most disquieting aspects of the modern city” (Wilson, 1991, p. 3). Wilson seems to struggle with her inner fears of the city. She writes of the expected “permanence and stability” of the city. I agree with Wilson when she states that the city has a “patina of durability.” It is a myth, but it is threaded into our psyches. The modern day city is constantly changing. The “constant destruction and replacement” which Benjamin (as cited in Wilson) writes reminds me of the movement of life. Skin cells are brushed off to make way for new ones.

Wilson begins to reminisce about the London of her childhood. The reality of London in the 1990s is fraught with “gentrification, redevelopment and the commercialization of leisure” (Wilson, 1991, p. 4). Wilson writes about her development of an “urban consciousness” and of the contrast between “skyscrapers” and “shanty towns.” It is in this new consciousness that her values are inverted. According to Wilson (1991), “what was once seen as marginal becomes the essence of city life and that which makes it truly beautiful, even if its beauty is a beauty of ugliness” (p. 5).

Wilson (1991) begins her treatise into feminism by stating that “this sophisticated urban consciousness, which, as we shall see, reached a high point in central Europe in the early twentieth century, was an essentially male consciousness. Sexual unease and the pursuit of sexuality outside the constraints of the family were one of its major preoccupations” (p. 5). According to Wilson (1991), “this in itself made women’s very presence in cities a problem” (p. 5). Women are vilified and identified as “disruptive elements.”

The urban masses are “invested with female characteristics” and are described in “feminine terms” such as “hysterical” and instable. Referencing the aforementioned labyrinth, Wilson (1991) states that “at the heart of the urban labyrinth lurked not the Minotaur…but the female Sphinx, the ‘strangling one’, who was so called because she strangled all those who could not answer her riddle: female sexuality, womanhood out of control, lost nature, loss of identity” (p. 7). Interestingly, Wilson reconsiders the city and its place for women. According to Wilson (1991), “the city offers women freedom. However, there is a struggle which exists between the female and the male “principles.” “The city is ‘masculine’ in its triumphal scale, it towers and vistas and arid industrial regions; it is ‘feminine’ in its enclosing embrace, in its indeterminacy and labyrinthine uncentredness” (Wilson, 1991, p. 7).

Patriarchy, prostitution, and the paradox of urban life are presented in this first chapter. The city provides women with an environment that is both challenging and emancipating. I appreciate Wilson’s (1991) statement on how we need a “radically new approach to the city” (p. 9). The perception that the city is a “dangerous and disorderly zone” for women strips away the agency of women. The city culture must embrace both men and women. Wilson (1991) triumphantly states that “women are placed at the centre” of her argument because “it is time for a new vision, a new ideal of life in the city — and a new, ‘feminine’ voice in praise of cities” (p. 11).

City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles

The prologue to City of Quartz is an introduction to the past of Los Angeles which includes the socialists who attempted to create a new vision and the capitalist undercurrent of anti-environment corporate developers. California’s Antelope Valley is introduced as a region which was once a desert used by the military. The sparsely inhabited valley has been the stage of a massive urban sprawl. According to Davis (1992), “the militarized desert has suddenly become the last frontier of the Southern California Dream” (p. 4). Davis (1992) refers to this as part of a “pattern of urbanization” that was once called “an ecology of evil” (p. 4).

Ecologically unfriendly developers create environments that are not sustainable without “artificial” rivers. The bulldozers of capitalism are stripping the desert of its Joshua trees. The violence of the situation is reflected in Davis’ labeling of the attitudes of the developers. According to Davis (1992), the “malice toward the landscape…is not surprising” (p. 6). “The discarded Joshua trees, the profligate wastage of water, the claustrophobic walls, and the ridiculous names are as much a polemic against incipient urbanism as they are an assault on an endangered species” (Davis, 1992, p. 6).

The reasons for this expansion into the desert are explained by the increases in “social polarization.” The “middle range” has “collapsed.” Continuing this week’s theme of shoddy/corrupt housing in L.A., Davis (1992) states:

Decades of systematic under-investment in housing and urban infrastructure, combined with grotesque subsidies for speculators, permissive zoning for commercial development, the absence of effective regional planning, and ludicrously low property taxes for the wealthy have ensured an erosion of the quality of life for the middle classes in older suburbs as well as for the inner-city poor (p. 7).

Interestingly, the oasis of new developments in the desert have adopted the violence of urban L.A. The “bulldozers and gunfire” seem to represent the flux and change of urban life in the new valley atmosphere.

The section on the L.A. Socialists is a fascinating look at an alternative to capitalism. I was shocked to see how capitalism seemed to seep into the structures of Llano. It’s almost like the freezing and thawing of water on a highway. The “negative impact of wartime xenophobia and the spleen of the Los Angeles Times” wreaked havoc “upon Llano’s viability” (Davis, 1992, p. 11).

Davis ends his prologue with a meaningful interaction that he had with two Salvadorian building laborers. I think that these men are correct when they compare L.A. to “volcanoes, spilling wreckage and desire in ever-widening circles over a denuded countryside” (Davis, 1992, p. 14).

Resources

Davis, M. (1992). City of quartz: excavating the future in los angeles. New York: Vintage.

Wilkinson, F. (1991). Witchhunt: how integrated housing in los angeles was destroyed. Heritage, Spring 1991, 5-6.

Wilson, E. (1991). The sphinx in the city: urban life, the control of disorder, and women. London, England: University of California Press.