City of segregation

Gibbons A., 2018, City of Segregation, 100 years of struggle for housing in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Verso, 226p.

This review is slightly experimental, as it presents the work of Andrea Gibbons’s City of Segregation by relating it to three other books I have read alongside it over the past year, all of which explore, in complementary ways, the entanglement of space, race, class, gender, sex, family and the carceral system in American cities over the past century:

  • Shabazz R., 2015, Spatializing Blackness: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 153p.
  • Wideman J. E., 2005, Brothers and Keepers: a memoir, 272p, Mariner Books
  • Wolfe T., 1988, The Bonfire of the vanities, Toronto: Bantam Books, 752p.

 


 

  • City of Segregation is the work of a geographer, Andrea Gibbons, who explores how the ideological values of white privilege were enshrined into spatial patterns of land values in Los Angeles, despite civil rights struggles and fights for integration. She aims to show how this relation affects the social and racial makeup of the city nowadays. I encountered this book at its launch during the Royal Geographical Society annual meeting in August 2019. This conference had Rashad Shabazz as one of its keynote speakers.
  • Spatializing Blackness, by Rashad Shabazz, sits at the intersection of human geography, Black cultural studies, gender studies, and critical prison studies. It focuses on the spaces of Black masculinity in Chicago at different points in time, using the carceral framework to understand the various ways in which Black men have been spatially contained (in the Black belt zone of the agglomeration from the end of the 19th century, in the space of their own kitchenettes during the 20th, and in actual prisons in the 21st) and the effects it had on this population.
  • Brothers and Keepers is the work of an academic in Africana Studies who is also a novelist. This book contains an account of his and his bother’s trajectories from their youth in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania to their adult life. The book tries to explain how and why a decisive divergence in life paths happened between them (John Edgar became a university professor and award-winning novelist, whereas his brother Robert served a life-sentence in prison for robbery and murder). Through Wideman’s reflections and conversations with his brother, we are offered a complex picture of the challenges faced by Black youth in 1970s Pittsburg, but also of the spatiality of humiliation during prison visits and of the geographical implications of social mobility. I learned about this book via C. Jaquet’s Les transclasses ou la non-reproduction, reviewed (in French) on this blog.
  • The Bonfire of the vanities is a popular novel of class and race inequality set up by Tom Wolfe in his familiar environment of 1980s New York City. After a wealthy white Upper East Side banker hits a young Black man in the Bronx and runs, the whole city (from the media to the justice system, from Wall Street to the Bronx) seizes this story to reveal its double standard towards race, wealth, gender and space. Over 30 years later, The Guardian reports that the Upper East Side “remains the same” whereas the Bronx is now experiencing social regeneration, gentrification and displacement.

Although the four books differ in their formats, goals and perspectives, I found an interesting relation between them which sheds a complementary light on different time periods (for example, the 1970s and 1980s from the last two are the missing decades of Gibbons’ temporality), different gender groups (Shabazz focuses on masculinity, whereas Gibbons uses strong female leaders and feminist actions to inform her work), different cities (LA, Chicago, Pittsburg, NYC), different points of view (Tom Wolfe clearly tells his story from the point of view of his white characters, whereas John Edgar Wideman’s book stems from his own reflections and his brother’s words on what it means to be a man in a Black family, in a city with a history of discrimination, in groups of Black peers and in groups of white peers, on basketball pitches and university campuses) and different approaches (from academic to auto-biographical to fictional). This diversity only hints at how a wide subject of broad significance racial segregation in US cities is, and how current an issue it remains: “These histories of centuries of racism and segregation have shaped urban geographies to insulate and isolate many whites from the realities faced by residents of poorer segregated communities, whose exploitation and abandonment have been central to a suburban prosperity driven by development and government investment. The opportunities of suburban living have become taken for granted and treated as normal in press and television, while residence in these same suburban neighborhoods insulates families from any kind of challenge to these commonsense feelings of entitlement. This is a key aspect of what I join others in referring to as white privilege. Segregation insulates whites from the knowledge of the ghetto and any disturbing views into poverty, as well as from their own complicity in its continued existence through their support of the status quo.” (Gibbons, 2018, p.9-10).

 


 

City of segregation originates from a double ambition: 1/ understanding how racial segregation survived the efforts and “victories of a vibrant civil rights movement” (p.1), and 2/ using this knowledge to fuel militant organizing work and finally put an end to this segregation. According to Gibbons, segregation “is assuredly nothing natural; it has been built in LA just like it has been built in cities across the US, year by year and decade upon decade, with immeasurable impact on equality, well-being and life itself. Shocking inqualities in wealth – much of it grounded in the homes people own – continue to haunt Angelenos: Mexicans have a median wealth of $3,500, African American of $4,000, and whites of $355,000.” (p.1). After an introduction which sets the context of racial segregation and urban development in Los Angeles, the book is divided into three chronological parts.

The first part of the book takes us from the early 20th century to the landmark year of 1948. It tells the story of the de jure segregation in US cities, whereby people of colour were refused the freedom to choose their place of residence by restrictive convenants, by active opposition from the likes of the KKK and white supremacists, but also by profit-seeking professionals of the housing market (who equated land value with homogenous white space). Black families were contained within the racial boundaries of the ghetto in Los Angeles or of the Black Belt in Chicago, in order to reduce the interactions between Blacks and whites (Shabazz, 2015) as much as to preserve the privilege and value of white homes (Gibbons, 2018). “African Americans and other groups forced the ghetto walls back in two ways: through an unorganized but constant pressure by individuals buying and occupying property against great odds, and through local attempts to organize wider campaigns against covenants” (Gibbons, 2018, p.20), at the risk of harassment, racist attacks, arson and even lynching (Shabazz, 2015). This first part of Gibbons’ book is investigated via a meticulous archive work through several decades of publication by the California Eagle and its editor’s autobiography. “For Charlotta Bass, as editor of the California Eagle, as well as the editors of a second Black-owned paper in LA, the Sentinel (founded in 1933), real estate transactions were a race matter worthy of front-page headlines.” (p.27). Besides acknowleging a feminine figure leading the fight against racial segregation in Los Angeles, this citation shows how much housing and restrictions imposed on Black families were central to the struggle for equality and respect. Indeed, at the start of the 20th century, when zoning became unlawful in the US, property owners “turned to private agreements – the desire for segregated white space being stronger than a court ruling.” (p.23). Within the deeds of their property, they included a clause restricting further sale and transfer to non-white people. Viewed as an act of good “neighborliness” and even patriotism, this provided white homeowners with a control over the makeup of their neighborhood and schools, thus preserving their vision of communities, the monetary value of their homes and white privilege. In the cases where non-covenanted properties were bought by racial minorities, “African American put pressure on [the contradictions of a market driven by white supremacist ideas that equates real estate values with the racial makeup of the neighborhood], but by paying exorbitant prices in areas in which whites had become so desperate to leave that they were selling to speculators at a loss.” (p.30). We find a similar mechanism in Shabazz’s account of the housing situation in pre-war Chicago, where cramped insalubrious kitchenettes rented to single Black workers contrast with the large rent income they bring to white owners profitiring from the housing crisis. “This articulation of race and class prejudice with the social value of space led to a heavy emphasis among practitioners, policy-makers, and academics on the ideal of creating neighborhoods homogenous by class and race as they sought to provide a sound foundation for a scientific and professional approach to real estate.” (Gibbons, 2018, p.25). The most striking consequence on this articulation lays in the constitution of colour-coded maps by the HOLC (Home Owner’s Loan Corporation) based on the racial composition and homogeneity of neighborhood, which informed federal credit lending after the Great Depression:

By providing lenders with risk-free investments, it opened a floodgate of new credit to white first-time homebuyers. At the same time, it categorically denied people of color the same opportunities, defining them as a ‘permanent, calculable risk to stable property values’. HOLC maps were never meant for public use, yet they were accessible to lenders, appraisers, and government officials, and most real estate professionals would most likely have known their content. This could explain why so many realtors were in the forefront of efforts to organise protective associations, blanket neighborhoods with covenants, initiate lawsuits, and protect their own neighborhoods’ homogeneity at all costs.” (p.44-5)

As meetings, pickets and lawsuits by various organisations (such as the Negro Victory Committee or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) secured small victories, the white reaction was as violent as the their fear of losing privilege along with economic value. Finally, “in spite of widespread grassroots opposition and horror, the Supreme Court ruled restrictive covenants unconstitutional on May 5, 1948, in the landmark case Shelley v. Kraemer. […] It was the result of decades of litigation against restrictive covenants by lawyers nationawide, years of specific strategizing by NAACP attorneys, and of course mass action and pressure directed at the federal government through the war, challenging the US’s role as the defender of equality and democracy across the world.” (p.63). However, this end of de jure segregation did not repair the economic segregation it has enshrined in space, nor the sense of identity built by Black men and women in the contained aresa of the ghetto and the kitchenettes (Shabazz, 2015), “it did not remove […] the [white] desire for separation.” (Gibbons, 2018, p.71).

The second part of the book transports us to the post-de jure segregation Los Angeles of the 1950s and 1960s, with the civil rights activists of CORE (the Congress Of Racial Equality) fighting against the remnants of white supremacy and in favour of equality on an ideological and moral level, although by ways of physical direct action when needed. It was counting without a major reality: “Capital’s need for a ‘spatial fix’ – solving the problem of overaccumulation of capital through its massive investment in suburban development intertwined with the new strategies for defending white communities, driving new forms of control and privatisation.” (p.75-6). This part of the book focuses on the housing and testing campaigns of CORE against development Don Wilson, who tried to fragment its market by the skin color of its buyers, isolating/protecting white wealthy developments (as in Torrance) and “abandonning” less prestigious developments with integrated school systems (as in Compton) to Black and minority buyers. White residents’ reaction illustrates a sadly common dynamics in US cities in the 20th century: “they fought to ensure these immediately connected spaces of social reproduction remained white, and when this failed they fled. Neighborhoods became prey to familiar block busting tactics and panic selling, as African Americans moved into a neighborhood and whites became willing to take whatever they could get for their homes.” (p.89-90). This reaction, along with freezing of homeowner taxes and the development of gating and privatisation, ensured that the levels of amenity and public services funding remained unequal, that integration remained limited in schools and neighborhoods, and that urban space and form remained a vector for economic and racial segregation, despite civil rights and legal victories such as the passage of the Rumford Act in 1963. What is more, the white residents of developments being picketed by CORE members for their discriminatory practices against potential Black buyers “recast themselves as a beleaguered minority, their own rights under attack, without making any attempt to try and answer the question of why this might be. This […] shows how they worked to overcome the destabilization of the old ideological certainties of white supremacy that Torrance was founded upon to find new forms of discourse to justify their untroubled enjoyment of its exclusive (and expensive) space.” (p.108). Gibbons concludes that the moral gains of the period, which were tremendous, did not hide the fact that efforts to integrate the different sections of population in cities had failed, creating immediate (such as expressed in Watt’s 1965 riots) and long-lasting frustrations in the Black community. In urban terms, this failure is illustrated by the widespread usage of gated comminities and other privatisation initiatives, which reflected the channeling of surplus capital into suburban developments, still following “the model laid down by HOLC in the 1930s [equating profitable real estate with] new tracts of homogenous housing protected to the greatest extent possible from ‘adverse influences’.” (p.120).

Before we dive into the third and last part of A. Gibbons’ book dedicated to privatisation of Los Angeles’ downtown in the 2000s, Brothers and Keepers and the Bonfire of the Vanities should help illustrate the situation in intermediate decades.

In New York City, T. Wolfe narrates the separation between Blacks and Hispanics in the Bronx and white professionals in Manhattan, with a great deals of fear from whites as they crossed racial boundaries, especially at night or in the subway. The novelist depicts at length the sense of entitlement of a wealthy white banker and his absolute repulsion and sense of injustice when conducted to jail in the Bronx, creating some sympathy and favourable treatment from other whites in position of authority (when it doesn’t go against their self-interest), whereas the position of Black and hispanic youth in the same circumstances is brushed as common. As the Guardian notes 30 years later, “at the end of the Bonfire of the Vanities, Henry Lamb, the young boy injured in the Bronx, is forgotten by every protagonist. He dies” without much attention or publicity, being only a resident of a project in the Bronx, found not to be a criminal but apparently not very worthy either.

In Pittsburg, J. E. Wideman describes the life trajectories of two bothers. The trajectory of the eldest brother (himself) shows social and geographical mobility, through basketball and university although at the expense of a strong sense of belonging and legitimacy. The other trajectory is one of brilliance, drugs and imprisonment, that of the youngest son (his baby brother Robert). He explains the choices his brother made as a way of becoming someone in the shadow of successful brothers and sisters, by becoming rich and famous quickly selling drugs. The geography of street corners and the architecture of the projects play a significant role in this story, along with police partiality and brutality, which culminates with Robert’s experience of serving a life-sentence in prison for murder and robbery. John Edgar narrates the spatial tools of humiliation towards the prisoners’ families, which begins with the parking lot being far from the entrance (and John Edgar’s monthly acts of resistance by parking on the guards parking lot closer to the entrance), continues with searching and waiting in crowded places, unsure whether the visit will be allowed, and ends in solitary isolation of the prisoners themselves. Given the level of mass-incarceration and its very strong racial bias against Black men (corroborated by national figures in Shabazz’s book as well), the negative consequences of this organisation are felt, suffered and resented mostly by Black families.

The third part of Gibbons’ book also touches upon the misuse of mass-incarceration against the fragile population of Skid Row. Skid Row belongs to a part of Los Angeles downtown being redeveloped into luxury lofts after decades of disinvestment by public bodies. “While some of the marketing discourse has changed to focus on selling points such as ‘live where you work’ and the excitement of the big city, in both discourse and practice it has retained key features developed through decades of struggle over residential space: defensible exclusivity, homogeneity, security, narrow definitions of community and responsibility, and increasingly privatized control over public areas. Above all, it has tried to replicate the white spaces so necessary to the social reproduction of white privilege. Unlike the development of the suburbs, however, the creation of such exclusive spaces has entailed the mass displacement of the poor, primarily poor communities of color. What we see today is segregation through an active displacement.” (p.125-6). This development and displacement is achieved through the privatisation of public space, using BID (Business Investment District): “The idea behind the BID is simple: through the self-taxing of business and property owners, they provide a level of service such as trash collection, street cleaning, and secutiry that cash-stripped cities are unable to provide. In Los Angeles this occupation of the public realm by private interests has been greatly facilitated by the city’s financial straits caused by the success of a white homewoner movement in passing Proposition 13 in 1975, which preserved their own assets by freezing homeowner taxes at the time of purchase. This decimated municipal tax bases available for public services.” (p.133). The BID leaders and managers identified the 2000 to 4000 rough-sleepers of Skid Row (predominantly Black and make) as the main threat to the profitability of their investment, and tried to displace them by all means, including state powers (for instance, the Los Angeles Police Department and courts of law). It promoted the passing of bills to “criminalise the activities of daily life for those who find themselves homeless” (p. 156), such as food distribution, public urination or outdoor sleeping. It used private security to promote gentrification and mass displacement. This resulted, with the complicity of LAPD, in a surge in tickets for minor infractions, a surge in arrests for failure to pay tickets from a very poor population, and eventually in the use of prisons and jails as a short-term solution to homelessness in downtown Los Angeles, despite its outright unfaireness. Gibbons relates the organising work from the community group of LA CAN to fight the arrests, monitor and train private security guards, but also bring the dispossession of homeless people by the police to the Supreme Court. She concludes that “Race remains as central to the urban form” (p.177) and that “neoliberalism helped rearticulate a desire and strategy to preserve spatial and racial privilege with an ideology able to justify it in non-racialized terms. […] When the BIDs and the private market proved ineffective in cleasing downtown of its poor, the business associations running them had little hesitation in once more mobilizing and promoting the power of the state. [She] would argue that neoliberalism’s importance as an object of struggle does not change the fact that it remains disposable if it ceases to serve white domination and preserve white privileged space.” (p.179).

 

 

This 200-page book has been very long and hard for me to read, as its writing is dense, intricate – sometimes extremely descriptive and precise -, it articulates very different levels of discourse, various information sources and methodologies, multiple angles and three distinct historical periods. It probably would not have comprehended its structure fully nor identified its main messages so clearly if I had not gone into the laborious task of reviewing it for this blog. However, I now realise how this book (and the three other books reviewed alongside it) forces me to admit that the study of economic segregation cannot overlook the dimension of racial or ethnic dimension of past segregations in western cities. The intertwining and intersection of land value with race and neighborhood composition challenges our models of the economic rationale behind urban segregation as well as our understanding of the spatio-temporal scales at which the housing market operates. Here and time again, schools seem to represent the ultimate reason to justify seeking exclusive and exclusionary urban spaces from privileged families’ residence. Finally, individual and collective activism is exposed and celebrated for its heroic contributions on the route to de facto equality, in an academic book on urban form and segregation.

 


 

Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Other reviews of this book have been published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, and in the Socialist review, as well as on the websites of Shelterforce and Counterfire.

 


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