Segregation: A global history of divided cities

Nightingale, C. H. (2012). Segregation: A global history of divided cities. University of Chicago Press, 536p.

I came across this book repeatedly while writing the introduction for a book on the relationship between cities and inequality (edited with D. Pumain, 2021). I was reviewing the literature, looking for morphological and social details of cities divided on racial grounds during colonial empires and sanitarian waves. This book appeared to provide a chapter on exactly this subject regarding Delhi, with ample context and  illustration material. I later looked for other examples of institutional separation of cities and the book seemed to offer such a chapter on Johannesburg. In fact, it kept coming to my bibliographical attention even in unrelated articles dealing with contemporary linkages between economic segregation to economic inequality. Those were good enough signs to suggest a thorough read.

“Segregation, A global history of divided cities” is an impressing book published in 2012 by Carl H. Nightingale, a specialist of world and urban history as well as critical race theory, currently professor at the department of transnational studies at the University of Buffalo. The book sits precisely at the intersection of these three topics: it tells the story of how cities came to be divided by race, from the moment when race as a concept became central in world politics onwards. It also reveals how city-splitting techniques spread and interacted between cities all over the world, in particular within three key institutions: governments, intellectual networks, and real estate markets. C. H. Nightingale not only exposes the overall picture and its main logics, but also dives into a dozen of specific case studies to show the singular entanglement of individual motivations, interpersonal connexions, particular interests and local resistance at play in the city under study. This leads both to a global picture of synchronous segregation trends between 1700 and 1960, but also to nuanced portraits of urban histories from Asia, Africa, America, Europe and Oceania. It shows how the world urban history is full of connexions (intellectual, personal, political), borrowings (of idea, of methods, of legislation), imitations and exchanges. In doing so, C. H. Nightingale is able to compare cities from very different geohistorical contexts, and to conclude for example that colonial cities were never strictly segregated (because of the self interests of merchants and users of domestic servants for instance), or that Chicago could be considered even more segregated than Johannesburg in the 1940s, but that early experiences in city-splitting developed the segregationists’ toolbox by proof-testing the instruments which would make systemic division possible and effective in later contexts. The book has received the 2012 Jerry Bentley Prize in World History from the World History Association and the American Historical Association. 

 


 

It consists of twelve chapters distributed over five parts, a general introduction and an epilogue.

The book opens on a Baltimore preacher’s words in 1910, soon after the city passes its first segregation ordinance, i.e. a piece of legislation identifying areas for the residence of black people and areas of the residence of white people. This is a defining moment in the history of American segregation, but the premise of the introduction is that it is by no means a beginning in the history of urban segregation by race:

experiments with legalized urban color lines arose in the mid-1800s in cities in China and around the Pacific Rim; they were designed to keep Chinese people from living in the white sections of cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong and San Francisco. The word ‘segregation’ itself was first used for techniques of racial isolation in Hong Kong and Bombay (today’s Mumbai) in the 1890s. […] From there it inspired a nearly worldwide spread to what I call ‘segregation mania’ across Asia, Africa, and the Atlantic world. The mania even resonated in Latin American cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, where distinctions between black and white were typically murkier than elsewhere. Monumental segregated colonial capitals went up in places like Rabat, in French Morocco, and New Delhi, in British India, signalling new arrogant ambitions for urban planning based on separate racial zones. The most radical of all forms of urban segregation arose during these same years in two rapidly industrializing white settlers societies[: South Africa and the United States].” (p. 2-3).

Even earlier than the 19th century (or even the 18th when “black”, “white” and “race” entered the urban conversion in colonial parts of India), the author traces the history of city-splitting back to its non-racial origins in ancient civilizations. The first part is therefore dedicated to such earlier examples of merchants, foreigners, Christian rulers and jewish communities living in separate quarters according to local clan, class, craft, ethnic or religious principles of urban segregation. The introduction ends on a description of the three institutions within which racial segregation subsequently flourished: the government (as it gets to decide who gets rights and privileges and who is able to cross boundaries, in the  state as well as in the cities), intellectual  and scientific networks (responsible for the “invention” of race as well as its diffusion through dense networks of exchange) and the real estate market (complete with agencies, surveyors, registrars and financial institutions in their role to assess and protect property values). This book attempts to bring all these political dramas of urban racial segregation […] into a single, wide-ranging, always changing, and always paradoxical narrative. In a kind of geographical counterpoint, it asks us to watch the theater of segregationist politics on many stages at once, by continually switching from wide-angled lenses, to various kinds of telescopes and binoculars, to highly focused microscopes. Meanwhile the narrative also moves chronologically across time, retelling the sweeping story of human history with the politics of urban segregation at its center” (p. 14).

The first part of the book covers “seventy centuries of city-splitting“, starting in Eridu (Mesopotamia) with the separation of gods’ monumental quarters from humble human residence in 5000BC. According to C. H. Nightingale, this is one of the earliest instances of introduction of an inequality (in this case between humans in the service of the gods and the other mortals) which then translated into spatial forms, at a time where equality was pretty much the norm in urban societies. From Mesopotamia, the monumental division of cities spread and developed to ancient Egypt, Persia, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. Another source of early segregation is identified in the “citadella” of Christian crusaders, initially defensive hilltop fortresses to protect new conquest in the Holy Land, later exported across the world to house and protect christian colonial settlers. A third type of ancient segregation is that of (foreign) merchants districts, present “throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean” but also in West African cities and later colonial ports. Fourth, ancient segregation manifested itself in terms of religion, and the account of Jerusalem’s history (p.30) illustrates the complexity of some cities’ such splitting. Finally, the author identifies class and wealth segregation as a fifth driver of ancient segregation: “The story of class segregation – defined broadly as the impulse to separate those with power over a society’s economic resources from those with little power over those resources – is the most complex and widespread of these dramas and is connected to all the others. Sacropolitical districts, city walls, merchants’ quarters, and scapegoat ghettos all contain elements of class segregation” (p. 39). Once again, this dynamic of segregation is presented as a consequence of the large increase of wealth inequality in modern cities. To conclude this part, “for about seventy centuries – arguably since the invention of cities themselves – we have repeatedly committed acts of inequitable and forcible city-splitting. Along the way, we have justified our actions in the name of just about every other concept of human difference imaginable, marking off separate residential territories for different classes, clans, castes, crafts, nations, religions, civilizations and even sexes” (p. 19).

The second part of book tells the story of how colour and race entered the scene in world politics in general, and in city-splitting in particular. As such, the turning point is 1700 and it is linked to two main influences: the legacy of American slavery on the one hand and the productions of Enlightenment philosophers and ethnologists on the other hand. Indeed, prior to the 18th century, segregation was mainly based on religious or “national” grounds, as in Manila or Batavia (today’s Jakarta) for example, where Portuguese and Dutch colonial settlers separated Chinese, Japanese or Javanese dwellers in separate quarters or villages, distinct from European or “christian” towns and sometimes separated by a wall. In America at that time, segregation was scaled down to individual properties: “As New World cities became increasingly enmeshed in the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation economy, local officials had to institutionalize their suppression of what they saw as slaves’ nearly constant insubordination. […] To control a ‘slave city’ internally, authorities preferred a technique that went back to ancient times: the forced slaves to live in the households or on the properties of their masters” (p. 52-3). The use of colour categories to refer to separate neighbourhoods appears in the city of Madras  (today’s Chennai) in 1711. “Black town” in this context, according to C. H. Nightingdale, refers to a derogatory representation of Indians by British colonial officials, rather than to the association between blackness and slavery which starts to appear in America. However, “white town” seems to derive from American circumstances, where the christianisation of slaves introduced a confusion in the former association between christianity and freedom, requiring a new term to refer specifically to  free european christians. “Race” itself came acquire its modern meaning in the 1680s in European erudite circles, providing “a system to categorize different strains of humankind based on their skin color” that would “soon arrive in Asia and Africa, whether through London, Paris and Amsterdam, or along the increasingly direct trans hemispheric connections between all colonial cities. In that way, divided colonial cities transformed from places where color lines largely arose from needs for defence and control to cities consumed by the grander ‘natural’ obligation to separate the races” (p. 73-4). Once of the most important routes through which ideas, practices, money and people used to flow is the “London-Calcutta connection” (chapter 2). The innovations that arose within the London-Calcutta connection were due as much to the differences in the two cities’ politics as to their connection. Put much too baldly, the politics of urban space in London began with differences between classes. The city was the site for the world’s first use of government-protective legal instruments – restrictive covenants – to divide neighborhoods for the rich and ‘respectable’ (the West End) from the poor, the ‘paupers’, and the ‘unrespectable’ (the East End). In Calcutta, by contrast, color was the driving edge of the political theater, and after 1770, race” (p. 78). One of such “innovations” in the area of racial city-splitting is the introduction of institutions and ideologies of racial zoning, in the form of exclusive imported architectural style from London in the “white town” or the sanitarian ideologies aimed at tackling public health of the poor through urbanism. Their effect was limited in Calcutta itself but would later permit “the replication – and the increasingly coercive politics – of white and block town systems across the world” (p. 83). Finally, “London land speculators invented the driving intellectual principle of class segregation, the idea that having poor people as close neighbors brought down the property values of the rich. The same speculators also invented a tool to prevent the invasion of wealthy neighborhoods by unrespectable elements, namely the restrictive covenant in title deeds” (p. 96). This instrument would later allow racial segregation to reach heights in South Africa and the United States.

The third part of the book narrates the “surges of segregation in the colonies“, using the stations Raj in chapter 4 and the Pacific settlers cities in chapter 5 as archetypical examples, then extending the analysis of this “segregation mania” to the rest of European colonies in Asia and Africa in chapter 6 and 7. The stations Raj in India, and Simla in particular, represented the first instances of new cities designed with racial separation in mind: “Colonial authorities in India designed these strange quasi-cities – some one hundred seventy-five of them, from Afghanistan to the Malay peninsula – with spatial, social and even mental distance in mind. Part military base, part Victorian suburb, part resort, part provincial capital, part Indian market town, part open sewer […]. An important subcategory of stations, the hill stations, functioned as the Raj’s hot-season resort capitals and were meant to be even further removed from Indian life. Most of them were built in remote places in the mountains, precisely to distance themselves from their cousins in the Indian mufossil, as the dusty, hot, flatland districts and their teeming Indian cities were called” (p. 113). They provided precedents to colonial officials on which to pitch their next attempts at fuller urban segregation, developing for instance narratives around European children’s health and women’s purity to justify the separation of people from different races in space. These narratives were later reused and refined in Hong Kong, South Africa and America. In the case of the Pacific wave of segregation following the forced opening of the Chinese empire by the British empire, C. H. Nightingale explains that:

As the tide of white imperial expansion crashed into the tide of Chinese migration in Asia and the Pacific, urban racial segregationist politics expanded to new shores and spawned two new variations. One of these variations played out in new colonial cities like Singapore, Shanghai, and Hong-Kong. […] In some ways, segregationist practice in these cities resembled that of Calcutta and the stations of the Raj. But imperial and sanitary justifications for segregation grew more elaborate in East Asia, and they were supplemented by some of the earliest theories linking race and property values. […] The second new strand of city-splitting politics arose in cities in Australasia and along the west coast of North America. There, urban populations were the reverse of those in Asia: white settlers were in the majority and their intention was to remain permanently in their new towns, to raise families and future generations. […] The goal of the first race-based immigration-restriction laws was to prevent Chinese people from moving across the Pacific to the coasts of North America and Australasia.” (p. 135-7)

In all these cases, the color lines eventually became blurred under opposing interests (for example: benefitting from the economic contribution of Chinese migrants vs. keeping settlements all-white). In chapter 6, the author associates the “segregation mania” with the spread of the plague from 1894 in Hong Kong. The epidemic and how it was handled by colonial authorities meant that suddenly segregation became justified under the pretence of public health. “Race mattered: the main goals was to protect Europeans, and local Asian people got the roughest treatment. Tens of thousands of natives fled town, in part from fear of the plague, but more from fear of segregation itself” (p. 159). Once again, governments and intellectual networks (of doctors and epidemiologists this time) worked hand in hand to propagate techniques of isolation and segregation throughout the colonial world. In the years between 1914 and 1923, segregation mania peaked across tropical Africa, signalling a slow end to the strategy of segregation based on plague and malaria worldwide” (p. 185). Meanwhile, a third institution came to the rescue of segregationists: the real estate market. In chapter 7 (“the outer limits of colonial urbanism”), the author traces the influence of Paris and London’s urbanists on the planning of two new colonial capitals: Rabat and Delhi, two cities telling “similar stories about the inequality of the races and the civilizations” (p.193). In Rabat for instance, the use by Lyautey of Haussmann’s principles of monumentality and beauty coupled with expropriation schemes and planning restrictions led to the building of a mostly dual city without even having to resort to explicitly racial restrictions. Yet, “unless Moroccans were willing and financially able to buy Torrens-title land and build European-style houses, they would not be permitted to live in the ville nouvelle” (p. 216). 

The fourth part of the book is dedicated to “the archsegregationists“, i.e. the usual suspects of racial segregation urban studies: South Africa and the United States, with extensive historical focuses on Johannesburg and Chicago. Interestingly, the author shows that most urban segregation tools which were used by archsegregationists from the 1930s onwards had already been developed (racial restrictive covenants, migration control, planning restrictions, narratives around the preservation of white women and children’s innocence and health, etc.). What archsegregationists introduced in South Africa during apartheid is a complete racist system, aimed at keeping black, indian and coloured workers in the city (to provide cheap labour in the mines and domestic services) while pushing their residence ever more at bay to limit encounters, but also fiscal separation, distinct welfare systems and mobility restrictions to enforce the coincidence between economic inequality and racial inequality (which was not that strong prior to the apartheid regimes, as Boer farmers tended to be much poorer than English settlers, whereas Black artists and entrepreneurs were able to buy property until they were forbidden to do so). In Chicago and the United States, the camouflaged introduction of racist considerations into the official machinery of property valuation and mortgage lending (through redlining and the selective dissemination of HOLC maps) had the same enduring consequence of creating wealth inequality from racial prejudice. Once again, C. H. Nightingale insists on the crossed influence of segregationists in the two countries. Both systems also used grass-root as well as state violence on top of the enabling institutions of segregation (government, intellectual networks and the real estate markets). In both countries, the peak in segregation coincided with the rise of the individual automobile, resulting in an additional way by which cities split into even more distinct parts: wealthy white suburbs relying on cars and publicly funded expressways on the one hand and black impoverished centres reliant on run-down public infrastructure and transportation on the other hand.

Part 5 of the book (“fragmented legacies“) first tells the story of the global revolution of de-colonisation and de-segregation, highlighting the role of high profile activists as well as ordinary residents. However, “we can map out three routes by which urban segregation outflanked the global racial revolution. First, though opponents of urban segregation achieved their greatest successes by attacking government-imposed residential color lines, they were unable to stop the worldwide diffusion of economic incentives for race and class segregation that were first built into capitalist land markets in the seventeenth century. Second, though the Cold War provided political room for the world’s racial liberation movements to fight against racial segregation in cities, it also severely limited the scope of the egalitarian revolution. […] Third, and most important, beginning in the last 1960s and culminating in the years after 1980, a nearly all-white ‘New Right’ counterrevolution swept into power, most notably in the United States and Britain” (p. 386). The resort to discourse around the preservation of local prestige, school quality and property values provided new “color-blind” avenues for urban segregation under conservative governments in western Europe and the US, and so did the much less color-blind anti-crime and anti-immigration policies of recent years. The chapter closes with an overview of on-going segregation processes in Jerusalem and Belfast, noting the contemporaneity of the problem still.

The epilogue is dedicated to a review of policies and initiatives which reduce racial and class segregation (such as reducing inequalities, focusing on  affordable and sustainable housing, stopping slum removals), and to the activists which work relentlessly to push them to the front of national and international agendas.

 

The richness of ideas, details and stories of the book is reflected somewhat by the length of this summary. I have found it a most enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking read. One of its main strengths in my opinion lay in its study of the exercise and the contesting of power by urban actors with differing interests. One of the main ideas I take away from it are:

  1. the argument that segregation derives from inequality: “Even in the absence of major spatial changes, the fight for more just workplaces and for government policies that redistribute wealth more fairly across racial and class lines can create more equality between all urban neighborhoods.” (p. 423)
  2. that it is first a class-based phenomenon:Remember that the biggest problem with urban racial segregation is not that it separates different types of people into different neighborhoods. It is that it does so unequally – creating a maldistribution of resources that disproportionately disfavors those racial groups that the color line also helps to subordinate politically. Racial segregation, therefore, was not only dependent historically on techniques of class segregation. It is a kind of class segregation – and it nefariousness arises principally from that fact.” (p. 225)
  3. that it is maintained and amplified most effectively nowadays by the real estate institutions: “Land-markets are the one capitalist institution in which race-infused economic interests became consistently and increasingly important to the division of cities, even arguably becoming the single most important segregationist force in cities today” (p. 7).

A weakness from the book is, to me, its focus on and generalisation from only large and capital cities. There is obviously no human way to conduct a world history of urban division in all cities, but a few examples or trends from smaller and less connected cities could have provided an insight into the different spatiality and temporality of such places (too small to be divided? too late to enter the segregation mania?). Other reviews of this book have criticised this statement: “We should always hesitate before we equate the spatial tactics of antiracists movements with ‘voluntary’ segregation – let alone assert the ‘goodness’ of any form of ‘self-segregation’ – even if it creates successful cultural havens” (p. 11-12), referring to C. Peach (1996) for instance. I find however that C. H. Nightingale does a convincing job throughout the book to demonstrate the validity of this introductory remark. His analysis of San Francisco’s Chinatown for instance shows how the neighbourhood was created by white settlers’ intolerance and maintained by white mobs violence and then accused of separatism by the local press. The  allegedly ‘voluntary’ character of some subsequent segregation thus proceeds from an initially defensive strategy, a sequence also described by Yuan (1963) for New York’s Chinatown.

Finally, in relation to my project of modelling urban economic inequality, I was challenged with C. H. Nightingale’s argument that “real people, not mechanical processes, make segregation, and the ideas, interests, and practices people mobilize for or against segregation are complex. The political dramas that result never stop to rest in one spot; they are always dynamic, shape-shifting, unpredictable, and internally contradictory” (p. 10). While this is undeniably true, I think it can argue for an improvement of dynamic models of inequality and segregation, rather than their dismissal, in order to better encapsulate the qualitative processes highlighted in books such as this one, but also to pay attention to local variations and appreciate the status of singularities which will always remain out of the modelling scope.

 

  • Peach C., (1996) Good segregation, bad segregation, Planning Perspectives, 11(4), 379-398.
  • Yuan, D. Y. (1963). Voluntary segregation: A study of new Chinatown. Phylon, 24(3), 255-265.

 


 

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 Environment and Planning A, the Journal of Planning research and education, Urban History and the American Historical Review, as well as on an LSE blog.

 

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.