Four books

bill cunningham

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 1—Here is a short review of four recent books that are about issues that affect us and our communities every day. They are Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law, Karilyn Crockett’s People Before Highways, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and Mike Turk’s New Cast to Urban Economics. Let’s take a look at them.  

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law

Rothstein’s book shows that the rule of “White Supremacy” did not lead straight to residential segregation everywhere in America. “White” and “Black” people in the early 2oth century often lived on the same blocks, even in the South, particularly in working-class neighborhoods. This never ended in places like Cambridge, but Cambridge is not as unique as our officials like to pretend.

“Scientific” racism became the political and academic mainstream by the beginning of the twentieth century. It was camouflaged in the zoning laws that were encouraged by the Federal government and adopted throughout the country in the 1920s. It was  institutionalized in the practice of “redlining” minority and mixed neighborhoods where the Feds refused to ensure mortgages and later, in the practice of destroying such neighborhoods through urban renewal and highway programs. The banks, universities, and real estate business played their part in all this, but government’s role was the keystone that held it all together.

Public housing doesn’t seem like a segregation program but at the outset it definitely was, at least in its Federal version. In the 1930s Rothstein writes, “the newly created U.S. Housing Authority [claimed] to respect existing neighborhood racial characteristics while in practice creating new racially homogeneous communities.” The first public housing project in Cambridge, Newtowne Court, was built on the cleared site of a very diverse working-class neighborhood where lots of Afro-Americans had lived. But when it opened Washington reserved it for “white” people only.

The movements of the 1960s forced Washington to abandon the policy of segregation but in many ways the reality did not change: today we still have to deal with White Supremacy in the context of increasing class inequality that affects everyone, regardless of “race.”

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Karilyn Crockett, People Before Highways

Beginning in the 1950s urban renewal was supposed to solve our housing problems by demolishing slums and giving the cleared land to private real estate developers. Often the developers worked with city officials to transform the centers of cities in the interest of university expansion. Even more neighborhoods were demolished to clear a path for highways leading out to new suburbs. “Whites” were encouraged to move to these suburbs and “Blacks” were prevented from moving there.

Most of the neighborhoods targeted for the highways were either Black or “mixed.” People soon began to resist these highway plans—the part played by Cambridge has often been told. Crockett recalls the almost-forgotten story of Boston’s part in the highway resistance, led by the Black United Front, Operation STOP, and the Black Panthers. She notes their connection with the housing movement for rent control and public housing reform. 

“Local control offered an ideological base camp for residents’ growing belief in their ability to create better political and environmental conditions for themselves than would the state and federal government.” That vision allowed them to oppose “the specialized semiotic coding of urban planning [that] renders the field all but impervious to nonprofessionals.… neighborhood-based decisions to seize political power by asserting independent and local acts of self-determination define a critical aspect of late twentieth-century resistance to expert-led transformations of land and polity.”

Eventually the “maturing political ideology of community control,” together with new environmental laws, would even guide future development to some extent.

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Matthew Desmond, Evicted

Desmond lived for two years in Milwaukee, in the places he writes about—a “Black” neighborhood on the city’s north side and a “white” trailer park in the south side. He explains the concrete choices made by landlords—one who grew up in the north side herself and the absentee who owned the trailer park—and tenants who can barely afford to keep a leaky roof over their heads. 

This is a work of compassion, not condemnation, but rightly most concerned about the tenants. Desmond’s detailed, personal account gives depth to the stark image of women struggling to keep their families together through repeated evictions. In the 1990s mass gentrification and mass incarceration took hold at the same time. “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” 

Desmond believes that “decent, affordable housing should be a basic right… without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.” He thinks every low-income family should be able to have a housing voucher and that landlords should have to accept them. However “expanding housing vouchers without stabilizing rent would be asking taxpayers to subsidize landlords’ profits. Today, landlords overcharge voucher holders simply because they can.”

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Michael Turk, Historical Narrative, Urban Space, and a New Cast to Urban Economics. 

Mike Turk is an economist who taught for many years at Fitchburg State while also serving as a leader of the Cambridge Tenants Union. His book is aimed at a more specialized audience than the others reviewed here—it’s made up of essays written for academic conferences and journals. But Turk makes the kind of points that are sadly ignored by most economists. His thinking is informed by decades of thought and advocacy dedicated to tenant rights and housing policy, especially around rent control.

Most economists have no use for rent control except to illustrate the supposed ignorance and selfishness of ordinary people. They like to point out that controlled rents and just-cause eviction encourages people to stay where they are, as though that were a bad thing. “Mobility” is their unquestioned policy goal—and we hear the same thing from critics of public housing. Turk counters that “one of the central goals of housing is something often highly prized, namely housing security, which depends upon the virtues of immobility.” Indeed too much mobility undermines community and therefore the possibility of a democratic republic. 

The rents we pay in public housing are set on the basis of our incomes. But in what is called the private market, Turk says “rents are not strictly or typically set on the basis of costs of provision. Instead, income levels are driving rents far more directly.” In a place like the Boston area, that means that all rents are pulled upward by an influx of highly-paid professionals. This in turn leads the Federal government to pay landlords a higher per-unit subsidy for vouchers, meaning there are fewer vouchers to go around.

I offer this as an example of what Mike Turk calls “the social nature of housing… what one might term a reflexive externality, in which third parties both influence and are influenced by individual exchanges, be they sale or rental.” 

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I would like to draw a common theme from these four books.

To change the future we need to recall our history. Flaws were built into the foundations of zoning, public housing, transportation policy and the economics profession. But institutions can be and are bent and adapted to serve new priorities. Usually the bending and adapting is done by “the usual suspects,” the same sort of people who set up the institutions in the first place. Institutions like zoning still retain their founding biases. But we, low-income and working class people, can also read, organize, and act to change the way such instituions work and how our dwelling is provided. We may even do a better job of it than “the usual suspects.”

 

• Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. W.W. Norton 2017

• Karilyn Crockett, People Before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making. University of Massachusetts Press 2018

• Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Crown 2016

• Michael Turk, Historical Narrative, Urban Space, and a New Cast to Urban Economics. Common Ground 2018