Washington DC was Not a Swamp

To incite some argument, I’ve crafted a short article hat refutes (I think) the popular myth that Washington, D.C. was established in a “swamp.” For my suggestions that Washington was no swampier than most other river cities, you can go to either The Conversation or AtlanticCityLab.

How Scanners Democratize History

How Scanners Democratize History

Upstairs at the Rialto Poolroom Bar and Café in downtown Portland, Oregon hip young adults are eating, drinking, and occasionally shooting pool. Downstairs another fifty people are eating, drinking, and listening to me lecture about the Lewis and Clark Exposition, the world’s fair staged in Portland in 1905. The audience includes a few students, some history buffs, and a meet-up group of 40ish and 50ish singles. I click away with my PowerPoint, they eat nachos and sip wine, and we all have a good time.

It’s June 21, 2011, and the first in a monthly series of Stumptown Stories sponsored by the Oregon Encyclopedia, an online project to create a reliable peer-reviewed reference on Oregon history. The encyclopedia’s editors are advocates of public history who see this sort of event as a way to generate ideas for entries, interest potential contributors, and inform the community. Speakers in the series have discussed topics like the Portland Longshore Strike of 1934 and lesbian communes in 1970s Oregon. The presenters have been academics, journalists, students, and history aficionados.
And that’s not all. The Oregon Historical Society sponsors a monthly History Pub lecture at McMenamins-Kennedy School, a trendy bar-restaurant-hotel-theater located in a 1920s elementary school building. McMenamins is a chain of brewpubs that likes to recycle old buildings and has its own skilled historian on staff. The Oregon Encyclopedia has its own arrangements for lectures in two other McMenamins locations in Portland and another series in the central Oregon city of Bend. Portland Monthly, a slick lifestyle magazine, sponsors a monthly discussion in another downtown club on urban design and planning with periodic invitations for local historians to provide historical context for such issues as downtown redevelopment.

Give much of the credit to the folks who developed optical scanners and yes, I hate to say so, PowerPoint for this explosion of historical activity. There has always been an appetite for local history. We might even call it a gateway drug for an interest in wider historical topics (along with the Civil War, of course). What’s new is the ease with which anyone with a computer and internet connection can access scanned documents and images—or perhaps scan their own—and join the public conversation as a blogger, lecturer, web site maven, or gadfly.

Scanners—the machines and the people who like to use them—are democratizing history, opening new opportunities for academic historians like me to reach new audiences and to interact with people producing and consuming history.

Scanners Democratize Access

Like many historians, I have somewhat fond memories of sitting in real archives on very hard wooden chairs paging through old books and opening folders stuffed with potentially fascinating letters and memos. The Newberry; the Huntington; the Library of Congress; local history rooms in public libraries in Washington, Norfolk, Denver, and other cities—they’ve all contributed to my historian persona.

But isn’t it nice to call up documents on screen? From the National Archives to university special collections departments, from state historical societies to custodians of archeological sites, keepers of historical information are scanning vast quantities of documents and images for their web sites. What historian of the United States hasn’t clicked into the American Memory site of the Library of Congress or other similar web sites to grab a map or picture for a lecture, identify documents for class assignments, or find an illustration for a book? And more to the point, what “amateur” history blogger hasn’t done the same, with exactly the same access and ability to dig up gems as someone who used to be privileged with access to academic archives?

I’ve written two studies of the development of cities in western North America, each peppered (or spiced?) with visual images.1 For the book that I wrote in the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to receive a small university research grant that let me visit photo archives around the West—the University of Washington Special Collections, the Montana Historical Society, the Denver Public Library, the Los Alamos Historical Society. Fifteen years later, I sat at my computer and clicked through menus of scanned images helpfully posted by the same historical organizations and many others. It was a great road trip the first time around, but the new technology would now allow anyone to replicate my search without putting expensive miles on their car.

Private collections of images and letters as well as the contents of public archives can now be made readily available. I recently wrote an overview history of Portland for general readers.2 Half the pictures came from private collectors who have assembled thousands of images: One buys up the files of defunct photographic studios and newspapers. Another scours garage sales and used book stores. These collectors have digitized their photographs for quick sharing with students, bloggers, and other people with the history bug. One of them commented that he simply wouldn’t be able to inventory and share his materials so generously if they weren’t in electronic form.

One of my students, Tanya March, recently drew on these same private collectors in researching her doctoral dissertation about the construction and social life of a World War II housing project for shipyard workers in Portland. She also monitors eBay for relevant images and creatively tapped new sources by sponsoring reunions of residents—who of course were children in the early 1940s. Many of them brought out photo albums from their attics. Tanya borrowed and scanned photos, posted some on a web site that attracted more people for interviews, and thus uncovered more images to scan and post. Her scanner was an important tool of research that helped to make the former residents co-producers of the community history.

Scanners Improve Lectures

Does PowerPoint make for more engaging lectures than a carousel of 35-millimeter slides? A few years ago I was skeptical, particularly after reading Edward Tufte’s denunciation of PowerPoint as a cognitive straitjacket.3 Now I’m converted for the simple reason of ease and richness of imagery. One of my special interests is the history of the Columbia River Gorge, its development for tourism, and its regulation as a National Scenic Area. Last year when I did one of those McMenamins lectures, I put the presentation together by scanning some black and white glossy prints that have been in my files for 20 years and pulling other images from half a dozen different web sites (special appreciation to the staff historians at the Oregon Department of Transportation). The message was my own interpretation of the role of “imperial” urban centers in the development of tourism, but the medium was a PowerPoint drawn from open access websites.

We can generalize. Our local proliferation of lectures and history nights wouldn’t be possible without the wealth of images on the web. Some of the presenters have their own collections. Others pick and choose from the millions of images online. Audiences come to learn from words, but they also expect pictures—and lots of them. When I talk about Portland’s changing neighborhoods, do listeners come for the carefully gathered statistics on ethnicity from the 1900 census that I find so interesting? Or do they come for the pictures of vanished houses and turn-of-the-century trolley cars? The whole, I hope, is more than the sum of its parts, but it is the abundance of scanned images that grabs the attention.

The availability of images is a great equalizer that smooths the disconnect between academic and popular approaches. It’s one thing for me to talk about Henri Lefebvre in a graduate seminar, another to use “before and after” images of a vanished African American neighborhood to help an audience think about Lefebvre’s “right to the city” without necessarily using those words. Moreover, audiences at the various presentations find it hard to tell the difference between university historians, public historians, and community historians if we all have decent PowerPoints.

A Website of One’s Own

Web sites and blogs are easier than old-fashioned self-publishing. If you have amassed interesting information that you couldn’t fit in your MA thesis, post it on a website. If you want more than a dozen people to read your actual thesis, post it as well—a good alternative to going through the scholarly publishing routine if you are not aiming at an academic career. This sort of posting, of course, is far more attractive if it includes lots of scanned images and documents. Graduates of Portland State’s MA program in public history sometimes supplement their thesis with a web site.4 While she works on shaping her dissertation research into publications about the history of childhood, Tanya March maintains a web site on her housing project.5

People who have never been interested in a graduate history degree can also take their collection of postcards, scan them, and put them up. If you are fascinated with old buildings or old neighborhoods, put up pictures and scan in old documents… blog about what you know… invite comments to fill in details and start a discussion. Portland has half a dozen interesting history blogs, all relying on scanned images for much of their impact. They’re not always interested in how the details fit into larger narratives, but they repeatedly teach me new things about a city I’ve been studying for three decades.6 They’re also a reminder that I need more pictures for my own web site where I’ve largely been posting op-ed columns and shorter magazine writing.

Historians All

here is even more community history going on, of course. As I write, historic preservation activists have just completed a neighborhood National Register Nomination to which I’ve contributed. Community historians have recently published several solidly documented architectural and neighborhood histories. Graduates of Portland State University’s public history program are preserving documentaries made in the 1970s and presenting them with framing commentary by architects and historians—sometimes with their own sets of scanned images. Historical walking tours are available in flavors from traditional to twenty-something hip. Residents and tourists can visit not only the Oregon Historical Society but also the Architectural Heritage Center (which has its own public programs), Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, and Oregon Jewish Museum (which recently cooperated on very cool programming about Mel Blanc, the Portland native who voiced Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig).

Carl Becker delivered my favorite American Historical Association presidential address eight decades ago, reminding his audience that we are all historians in the most basic sense of constructing temporal stories from the chaos of events:

Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history.7

Becker was thinking in theoretical and political terms about the production and validation of knowledge, but the ubiquitous scanner is now helping to give concrete form to his point about the democratic basis of historical understanding. Scanners are an active technology for research and dissemination of historical information. They are also a metaphor for a changing world in which the historical enterprise is increasingly available for everyone. The result, at least in my city, has been burgeoning popular consumption and production of history. I find it exciting. Without abandoning specialized academic and monographic history, we have great opportunities to encourage, cooperate, and partner with the non-academic and community historians to help history do its work in the world.

1. The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993); How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).
2. Portland in Three Centuries: The Place and the People (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2011).
3. Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, 2003).
4. Sarah Paulsen. ” The Oaks in the Progressive Era.”
5. Tanya Lyn March. “Guild’s Lake Courts.”
6. Examples from Portland include the very interesting blog Cafe Unknown, the extensive Historic Photo Archive, and the historic photo blog Vintage Portland.
7. Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian,” American Historical Review, 37, no.2 (January 1932): 234.
Copyright © American Historical Association

College football and American regions

I recently published a blog on the way that the lure of BCS dollars has undermined the historic connection between college athletic conferences and traditional American regions.

See it at http://hnn.us/articles/why-penn-state-playing-football-midwest-anyway.

The Greatest Hits in Urban Theory

A couple years back, the somewhat opinionated website Planetizen asked its readers to nominate “top urban thinkers” and compiled the resulting list of votes from Jane Jacobs at Number 1 (no surprise here) to Henry Ford at Number 100 (his “thought,” presumably, being to sell Model-T’s cheaply).

There’s nothing scientific about the poll. It was subject to the peculiar tastes of the respondents and, possibly, to vote packing like the old system for choosing the baseball All-Star team. In retrospect, were fans paying attention in 1955 when they picked Don Mueller and Del Ennis to start in the outfield ahead of Willie Mays and Henry Aaron (I’m fine with Duke Snider in center)?

There are plenty of curious omissions to complain about—Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Christopher Wren, Jean Gottmann, Catherine Bauer, Jane Addams, and Saul Alinsky to name a few. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. got votes but not his brother John Charles Olmsted. For my own taste as a historian, the list is excessively present-minded. There are too many transportation planners and urban morphologists and not enough activists of the Addams or Alinsky sort, almost no historians of cities, and curious omissions from the social sciences such as Louis Wirth.

It is also tempting to rant about the rankings. Should Clifford Alexander’s neo-Platonic ideas about idealized and abstracted design principles really outpoint the practical wisdom of Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham, with their rich experience of actually making urban spaces? Should polemicist James Howard Kunstler, who is stronger on sound bites than analysis, or parking specialist Donald Shoup, whose excellent ideas have yet to be implemented, come in above the hugely influential Ebenezer Howard?

It’s more instructive, however, and much more fun, to use the juxtapositions in the list as thought experiments.

My own Congressman Earl Blumenauer, an effective advocate for rail transit and compact cities, comes in one notch above Thomas Jefferson. I personally prefer Earl’s pro-urban ideas to Tom’s anti-urban bias, but the ex-president has surely been the more influential over the centuries—there is not yet a Mount Blumenauer or Blumenauer County in Oregon or a Blumenauer High School in Portland. Maybe we need to run Earl for President so he can catch up.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant comes in just above George-Eugene Haussmann. Well, they were both French, and both helped to shape national capitals, but we have to admit that Haussmann got more done and almost certainly influenced more city planning and reconstruction than L’Enfant. If Haussmann, moreover, perhaps the list also needs Albert Speer.

I see some battles shaping up if we were to think of the list as a queue of experts waiting to get into an urbanology convention. The patrician top-down designer Edmund Bacon would find himself standing next to radical rabble-rouser and critic Mike Davis. It would be fun to listen in on their argument. Equity planner Norman Krumholz would be sandwiched between global theoretician Saskia Sassen and Frank Lloyd Wright. Could Norm’s arguments for equity penetrate Wright’s enormous armor of ego?

And what about numbers 58 through 63. Think about gathering Walter Benjamin, Walt Disney, Buckminster Fuller, James Rouse, Henry George, and Wendell Berry (how is he an urban thinker???) around the same table. Would Disney and Fuller strike up an alliance of the technocratic utopians? Jim Rouse and Henry George both shared the goal of social justice, but what would the real estate developer have to say about a single tax on land? And wouldn’t it be fun to hear what Benjamin might have to say about Euro Disney. S.C.A. and the possibilities for the flaneur at Disneyland Paris?

We haven’t exhausted the possibilities. In fact, I’m thinking about a new way to organize my class on the “History and Theory of Urban Studies” around the debates implicit in the next-door neighbors on the list: Jacob Riis versus Prince Charles, Henri Lefebvre versus Richard Florida, Paolo Soleri versus Anthony Downs, Robert Moses versus Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio versus Ernest Burgess. Let them have at it, in English or in Latin.

Edward Glaeser channels George Tucker

In his new book The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, the crackerjack economist Edward Glaeser makes an eloquent case for cities as the keys to creativity. They are the intersection points where the intensity of communication unlocks innovation. “Cities enable the collaboration that makes humanity shine most brightly,” he writes. Because humans learn so much from other humans, we learn more when there are more people around us. . . . Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.”

Glaeser is an extremely successful academic, who’s University of Chicago Ph.D. has led him to a job at Harvard and plenty of side projects. The Triumph of the City draws on hundreds of recent of scholarly books and articles that have probed cities as economic and social systems. It is a new synthesis, but it also channels the work of another academic superstar who wrote nearly seventeen decades earlier.

That scholar was George Tucker, who penned a very Glaeseresque phrase in 1843, writing that “The growth of cities commonly marks the progress of intelligence and the arts.”

A Virginia politician and intellectual who appreciated cities as engines of progress, Tucker was one of those public intellectuals who act as a commentator and synthesizer for a generation, well known in their lifetimes but rapidly fading from memory as issues change and their contributions look broad rather than deep. If he were working in the twenty-first century, he’d be an op-ed columnist and blogger. In his own time, he was an essayist and pamphleteer.

He spent his career in Virginia and Pennsylvania, the two states that were the center of gravity of the early republic. Born in Bermuda, educated at William and Mary, and resident of Richmond and Lynchburg, Tucker served three undistinguished terms in Congress and then had a stroke of fortune when Thomas Jefferson asked him to be professor of moral philosophy at the brand new University of Virginia. He lectured there from 1825 to 1845 and ended his career in Philadelphia, writing and publishing a four volume history of the United States.

Before and after Charlottesville, Tucker kept his pen busy with ten books plus scads of articles and pamphlets. The Valley of Shenandoah (1824) unsuccessfully imitated the novels of Walter Scott. A Voyage to the Moon (1827) used the premise of a fantastic voyage to satirize contemporary society (calling it science fiction is too big a stretch). The rest of his output was nonfiction—philosophical essays, political and economic commentary, history, a laudatory biography of Jefferson, and, relevant for this book, Progress of the United States in Population and Wealth for Fifty Years, as Exhibited by the Decennial Census (1843).

As his title indicated, Tucker believed in progress, as scientific discovery fueled economic development and allowed the fuller development of human capacities. The United States, with its natural resources and open politics, was more progressive than Europe, as shown by its extraordinary growth since the adoption of federal government. His 1822 essay “On Density of Population” argues that people in concentrated numbers, not isolated Jeffersonian farmers, are necessary to generate progress in science, literature, and the arts and stimulate the economy through competition. Two decades later he expanded his analysis, acknowledging urban problems but celebrating urban potential.

If these congregations of men diminish some of the comforts of life, they augment others; if they are less favourable to health than the country, they also provide better defenses against disease, and better means of cure. . . . . [t]hey are more prone to innovation, whether for good or evil. . . ..Whatever may be the good or evil tendencies of populous cities, they are the result to which all countries, that are at once fertile, free and intelligent tend.

Ed Glaeser, as far as I know, has yet to try his hand at science fiction or to author another Ivanhoe, but his agreement with George Tucker in the realm of moral philosophy is deep and lasting. Cities, they both understand, are where ideas happen.

Seattle Public Library

The Koolhaas Kage

I recently characterized the new Seattle public library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, as a “disasterous” structure. Is the adjective over the top? Perhaps, but I want to counter what was the initial response among architectural critics, from the New York Times to my home paper the Oregonian, which I would describe as over the top adulation.

I think it is great that Seattle invested in a new downtown library that is more striking than the uninspiring box it replaced, and also great that the library is well used. I’ve observed people lining up by the dozens waiting for it to open, as well as packing its banks of computer terminals. I suggest as a thought experiment, however, that any well equipped central library would get the same use in our current economy and information ecology. Certainly Portland’s central library does, in a renovated building from the 1910s.

The Koolhaas exterior is a matter of taste. It doesn’t excite me, but it is interesting in a relatively bland downtown, and it does have to cope with one of Seattle’s steeply sloping blocks.

It is interior arrangements that I fault. The lower level entrance spaces and reading room spaces are strike me as poorly arranged for efficient circulation and ease of finding the standard library components (checkout, reference services, and the like). From the entrance spaces to the stacks you ride an escalator up past an isolated, mysteriously color-coded middle floor whose access and purpose are hard to read. Get to the top of the building (nice views, of course) and it is difficult to get from one level of the stacks to another without convoluted maneuvers. The stacks themselves were built to show off an architectural conceit rather than designed to be easy to understand. Elevators and stairs are hard to find. I’m sure that regular users figure out the tricks, but a building of this sort should be easy to use, not a puzzle box.

I’m told that the librarians who work there are some of the most critical of the building’s users.

Charles Glaab: Framing US Urban History

Framing U.S. Urban History: Charles Glaab and The American City: A Documentary History (1963)

In the early 1960s, Americans were rediscovering cities as objects of intellectual inquiry as well as targets for public policy.

The single year 1961 saw publication of Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, Jean Gottmann’s Megalopolis, and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. These books took different intellectual stands, but all of the authors agreed that modern cities were phenomena that required fundamental rethinking/new thinking about current trends. Cities weren’t decentralizing properly said Mumford. Cities were killing their centers said Jacobs. Cities were growing into new forms that neither Mumford not Jacobs quite understood said Gottmann.

The next year came the book that I judge to be Glaab’s intellectual foil, namely Morton and Lucia White’s The Intellectual Versus the City.

Morton White was a professor of philosophy at Harvard and an expert on the American tradition of pragmatic reform and its failings. His landmark book was Social Thought in America (1949) with an examination of John Dewey, Charles Beard, and Thorstein Veblen. He grew up in the intellectually intense and politically charged environment of interwar Manhattan. He was an intellectual historian for whom ideas were fascinating in themselves, and who was therefore interested in the thinkers who occupied what were commonly recognized as the loftiest peaks of intellectual endeavor. The protagonists in The Intellectual Versus the City were men like Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Henry Adams, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

The general impression that a new graduate student took away from the book a few years after its publication was that cities were unlovable—perhaps necessary, but little to be admired. According to the back cover of my 75-cent 1964 paperback, “Our nation’s most distinguished artists, leaders, and intellectuals have proclaimed open hostility toward the city. Unlike the Englishman’s London or the Frenchman’s Paris, they have found nothing to love in the sprawling American metropolis. This significant and thoughtful study analyzes for the first time the major intellectual reactions to urbanism . . . .and offers some provocative conclusions as to why our cities have been the traditional object of prejudice, fear, and distrust.”

The Whites wrote their book from the academic citadels of Cambridge and Princeton and acknowledged advice from luminaries like Carl Schorske, Perry Miller, John Burchard, Lloyd Rodwin, and Arthur M. Schlesinger among others.

Charles Glaab came out of a very different environment—born in Williston, North Dakota, educated at North Dakota University and then the University of Missouri, employed first in Kansas, then Wisconsin, then Ohio. His monographs dealt with places very much different from New York or Cambridge—Kansas City, Neenah-Menasha, Toledo. As someone who still, after years in Oregon, considers the Miami Valley of southwestern Ohio to be the garden of the world, these are choices after my own heart.

The documentary history that Glaab assembled and edited from his base at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has fundamental merits as a text that still gives it a place on my bookshelf, its cover substantially assisted by duct tape. Its organization and categories are clear. Its excerpts are drawn heavily from magazines and popular journalism, and thus readable and accessible for novices. The selections are substantial enough to be helpful to instructors and researchers as well as students. Richard Wade assigned the book when I took his course in urban history at the University of Chicago in 1967. Ray Mohl reports that Bayrd Still assigned it in his urban history class at NYU in 1964.

Apropos of my argument, The American City is also an antidote to the Whites.

Reading through the selections, we get a much better feel for popular ideas as well as elite critiques. The intellectual protagonists in its pages are the sorts of civic leaders who tried to keep up on events and solve problems while leading otherwise busy lives. They are the travelers and journalists who want to explain phenomenal cities to their readers (or perhaps to titillate them). They are the reformers who addressed practical problems while trying to understand the urban dynamics

I count only one author—the interminable Henry James—who held himself completely above the fray. Other “intellectuals” were also politicians (Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson) or activist/practitioners (Daniel Drake, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jane Addams)

We also get a balanced view. Readers encounter fearful and negative evaluations, for where would a course in urban history be without The Dangerous Classes of New York or The Shame of the Cities? However, there are also evaluations that are variously excited, positive, and hopeful. European visitors with unhappy views of American cities (Alexis de Tocqueville, Rudyard Kipling) are balanced by those more sympathetic (Michael Chevalier, Anthony Trollope rather than his cranky mother). We get the views of important social scientists like F. J. Kingsbury, Adna F. Weber, Richard Ely, Paul Kellogg, and Graham Taylor. There are reformers and critics aplenty, but also indefatigable promoters like DeWitt Clinton and Jesup Scott and John S. Wright.

And Glaab’s selections introduced me to two of my favorite commentators: George Tucker, one of the founding faculty from Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia writing The Progress of the United States in Population and Wealth in the 1840s, and the Urbanism Committee of the National Resources Committee writing in the 1930s. Without Charles Glaab, how long would it have taken me to encounter Our Cities: Their Role in the National Economy?

As much as anything, The American City: A Documentary History sketches out a comprehensive intellectual history of American urbanization that recognized that, as George Tucker wrote, “whatever may be the good or evil tendencies of populous cities, they are the result to which all countries, that are at once fertile, free, and intelligent, tend.”

The book that turned Turner inside out

[This is a retrospective review of Richard Wade’s The Urban Frontier, originally published on H-Urban.]

As the United States entered the 1950s, highway engineers were eagerly completing plans for Middle Western toll highways and anticipating national freeway system. Automobile stylists were turning Studebakers into rocket ships and dreaming of ways to turn rear fenders into tailfins. Meanwhile, Richard Wade was determinedly following the route of the early Ohio River boatmen. His itinerary took him downriver from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Louisville and then to St. Louis on the Mississippi, with side trips
to Lexington and the limestone soil of the bluegrass country. His stops over several years of research were the local history rooms of public libraries, city and state historical societies, newspaper archives, and dusty rooms full of early municipal records in the
city hall basements and municipal annexes. At least in Pittsburgh, home of political boss and king-maker David Lawrence, Wade’s budding career as a Democratic Party activist helped to open records that were still carefully guarded after 150 years.

The result of sweltering summers of note-taking and writing was a Harvard University Ph.D. dissertation for the elder Arthur Schlesinger, published by the Harvard University Press as The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities, 1790-1830 in 1959. In the 1960s it entered the paperback world as The Urban Frontier: Pioneer Life in Early Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville, and St. Louis. In 1996 University of Illinois Press has reissued this American history classic under its original title with a valuable preface by Zane L. Miller, one of Wade’s most accomplished and influential students.

The Urban Frontier propounded a simple and startling thesis. Cities were the spearheads of the Anglo-American frontier. Frederick Jackson Turner had gotten the order of events mixed up. Urbanization didn’t follow the farmer–it made the development of
agriculture possible. On successive frontiers in the Ohio Valley, around the Great Lakes, at the margin of the Great Plains, on the Pacific Coast, and in the western mountains, urban settlements provided the necessary foundation for intensive resource
development. They processed and marketed crops, timber, and minerals; they furnished merchandise and supplies; they mobilized capital and management expertise to build roads, canals, and railroads; they provided the refinements of civilization that westering Anglo-Americans so desperately wanted.

Obvious as this point may seem to H-Urban subscribers, it contradicted the strongest trend in regional history in the 1950s. A few years before The Urban Frontier, R. Carlyle Buley won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period, 1815-1840
(Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1950). Buley’s book is a thick, nearly unreadable compendium of tidbits about farm life and pioneer society in the early Middle West. It assumed that Middle Western history was rural history and it romanticized the quaint practices of the folk. For fiction readers, Ross Lockridge’s immensely popular Raintree County (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948) offered the same message in a novel set in the Cincinnati hinterland of southeastern Indiana. The full title of the Lockridge book shows the power of the romanticizing impulse: “Raintree County … which had no boundaries in time and space, where lurked musical and strange names and mythical and lost peoples, and which was itself only a name musical and strange.”

The Urban Frontier in this context was a wakeup call. “Get real!” it says. Take a look at social and economic realities. Look at the way that cities expressed and promoted the commercial capitalism that lies at the heart of the American experience. Wade’s study
thus extended the historical understanding of American growth that was being outlined in Louis Hartz’s brilliant Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt Brace 1955), David Potter’s equally powerful People of Plenty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1954), and the studies of state economic development policy by Oscar and Mary Handlin, Hartz, and others.[1]

Wade’s insight rang true for me when I read the book as an undergraduate who wanted to be a historian but was not quite sure what to study. Wade was writing about my part of the country, for I was a fifth-generation Ohioan. He was also writing about my ancestors, who had been townspeople–storekeepers, telegraph operators, artisans, clerks, land speculators (quite unsuccessful, I might add). I decided then, and still believe, that Wade managed a great conceptual feat. The book confirms that Fred Turner asked the right questions about the process and meaning of American expansion, but just needed his answers turned inside out.

A key concept in The Urban Frontier is “urban imperialism.” A term originally used by Wade’s mentor Arthur Schlesinger in his classic essay “The City in American History,” urban imperialism is a historical-geographic framework for understanding the ways in which urban commercial networks organize and develop hinterlands through trade and investment. The concept has been applied successfully in other regions from Texas to California. It resonates with geographer James Vance’s model of a mercantile pattern of settlement and it underlies William Cronon’s recent sophisticated analysis of Chicago’s interactions with its region.[2]

The concept assumes that the United States was born in commercial capitalism. In Wade’s Old Northwest we find no gradual coalescence of rural subsistence society into a more complex economy. Rather the Great West grows as an outpost of New York, London, and Hamburg, striving from the start to reach distant markets and fertilized by
investment and migration. The mentalite of this Middle America was improvement, not stasis. As has been true for two centuries, the battles were over the right sharing of the fruits of growth, not the possibility of economic modernization.

Also basic to Wade’s interpretation is the role of cities in the transit of culture. Wade’s Cincinnatians and Louisvillers were a conservative bourgeoisie, interested in recreating the society that they left behind. They borrowed street names from Philadelphia, filled churches and meeting halls, and looked for guidance to east coast communities. Here Wade’s interpretation extended Daniel Aaron’s previous study of Cincinnati society and complemented Earl Pomeroy’s argument about the social and cultural conservatism of far western settlement.[3]

Like most other historians of the 1950s, Wade looked for patterns in the written record. In using public records, newspapers, and published documents, he engaged in very traditional historical research. He did not explore quantitative data sources, the built
environment, or other sources of information that could have enriched his interpretation–although he certain encouraged his own students to do so and later used such sources to great effect in Chicago: The Growth of a Metropolis (University of Chicago Press,
1969), co-authored with geographer Harold Mayer. Nor did he explicitly test social theory in the way that his second book, Slavery in the Cities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964) would test sociological generalizations about the effects of
urbanization on social institutions and individual freedom.

Covering forty years of growth in five cities, Wade’s study is necessarily broader than it is detailed. It is a sketch map of a vast intellectual territory drawn from the most accessible sources. An explorer like Henry Schoolcraft or William Clark, he mapped broad contours and described large patterns that later intellectual surveyors and entrepreneurs could fill in. Those broad patterns, however, included all of the core topics of urban development, from economic growth to the differentiation of social classes to the creation of political and cultural institutions.

Wade’s study triggered a vast literature including case studies of individual western cities and comparative discussions on other urban frontiers and imperial realms. A generation of urban historians learned that the way to do urban history was to explore a theme across a multitude of cases. The result was outstanding studies by Ken Jackson, Howard Rabinowitz, Blaine Brownell, David Goldfield, Don Doyle, Timothy Mahoney, and many others.[4]

The Urban Frontier is a study of the public city–that is, the ways in which early city builders conceived and promoted their communities as economic engines and civic entities. The book describes ethnic differences, the presence of free and enslaved
African-Americans, and the stirrings of class divisions, but these are secondary to the theme. Many questions that we would now pose about the roles and experiences of women went unasked. Nevertheless, Wade’s book remains the most accessible study of the founding of an urbanized nation. It still carries the excitement of intellectual discovery that has made it so influential.


[1]. Oscar Handlin and Mary Handlin, Commonwealth: A Study of the Role of Government in the American Economy: Massachusetts, 1774-1861 (New York: New York University Press, 1947); Louis Hartz, Economic Policy and Democratic Thought: Pennsylvania, 1776-1860 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948).

[2]. Arthur Schlesinger, “The City in American History,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review (June 1940): 43-66; James Vance, This Scene of Man: The Role and Structure of the City in the Geography of Western Civilization (New York: Harper’s College Press, 1977); William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: Norton, 1991).

[3]. Daniel Aaron, Cincinnati: Queen City of the West, 1819-1839 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992); Earl Pomeroy, “Toward a Reorientation of Western History: Continuity and Environment,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review (March 1955): 579-600.

[4]. This lesson I learned in Wade’s University of Chicago seminar and tried to apply in my dissertation. Published as Boosters and Businessmen: Popular Economic Thought and Urban Growth in the Antebellum Middle West(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981), it was a self-conscious effort to take Wade’s study into the next generation of Middle Western history.

Urbanizing the Sunbelt

From “Dallas” to “Designing Women,” from “Baywatch” to “Miami Vice” to “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” images of sunbelt cities have been prominent on prime time television for the past generation. With their depictions of a cities full of fast-paced, colorful, sophisticated and sometimes dangerous city people, they offer powerful correction to that other television Sunbelt inhabited by Andy Griffith and the folks of Mayberry, by the “Dukes of Hazzard,” and by “Walker: Texas Ranger.”

No matter which measure you choose, sunbelt cities now dominate urban growth in the United States. If we look at simple size, five of the twelve largest metropolitan regions in 2000 were located in the Sunbelt states of California, Texas, Georgia, and Florida.[2]

Deeper economic changes lie behind the regional rebalancing: the defense economy, globalization, the leisure economy, and industrial innovation. These are points that I develop for western cities in The Metropolitan Frontier, but they apply as well to the Southeast.

During World War II and after, the Sunbelt became the most military-dependent part of the United States. Military planners concentrated bases and training facilities in places with warm climates. Between 1940 and 1990 it contained three of the nation’s premier military cities with Honolulu, San Diego, and San Antonio.[3] Military bases and employment were a powerful presence in many smaller cities such as Corpus Christi, Texas, Pensacola, Florida, or Fayetteville, North Carolina. War production brought new workers to Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, New Orleans and confirmed the importance of sunbelt cities in airframe production. Nuclear weapons production fueled the growth of Albuquerque, Las Vegas,and Denver.

A second factor has been the internationalization of the United States. Sunbelt cities have been leaders in reintroducing the United States to the world. Caribbean, Mexican, and Asian immigration soared after the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 effectively ended the national quota system that had favored immigrants from Europe. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, approximately 40 percent of documented immigrants have come from Asia and another 40 percent from Latin America. For both groups, southern and western cities have been the major points of arrival. Mexicans constitute the largest immigrant group in the cities of Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California. Temporary workers, shoppers, visitors, legal migrants, and illegal migrants fill neighborhood after neighborhood in El Paso, San Antonio, San Diego, and Los Angeles, creating bi-lingual labor markets and downtowns.

The same cities have been in the forefront of changing patterns of foreign trade and investment. The value of American trade across the Pacific passed that of trans-Atlantic trade in the early 1980s, with impacts felt especially by the vast port complex of Los Angeles-Long Beach. Maquiladora manufacturing in northern Mexico since the 1970s has created “twin” cities divided by the U.S.-Mexico border, such as El Paso-Juarez and San Diego-Tijuana, a pattern that has been accentuated by the North American Free Trade Act of 1993. Sunbelt cities have also engaged the world economy as the sources for industrial expertise (Houston and the petroleum industry) or locations for foreign investment in production for the American market (Spartanburg, South Carolina).

Third, the impact of the American leisure economy is obvious in many sunbelt cities. Family tourism, business and fraternal conventions, and retirement all contribute. Disneyland helped to transform Orange County, California into a vast urbanized region; Walt Disney World has had a similar effect on Orlando. Good introductions to the creation of the two Disney complexes are John Findlay, Magic Lands, and Richard Foglesong, Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando. No developer would build a “Blizzard City” retirement town outside Buffalo and expect to compete with places such as Sun City outside Phoenix. Meanwhile, the sometime forgotten sunbelt city of Honolulu looked to Asia as well as the continental United States for business and tourism

Finally, the sunbelt has benefited from the expansion of manufacturing in two ways.[4] On the one hand, American corporations began to shift the routine production of standardized products from the expensive northeast core to alternative locations: smaller sunbelt cities, northern Mexico, and overseas. On the other hand, sunbelt cities were innovation centers for new high technology aerospace and electronics industries. The U.S. space program has been a sunbelt program centered in Melbourne-Titusville, Florida, Huntsville, Alabama, and Houston, Texas. Efforts to devise weapons control systems triggered the takeoff of the postwar electronics industry in the “Silicon Valley” between San Francisco and San Jose in the 1950s. As the industry moved on to civilian applications, advanced semiconductor and computer production diffused to new industrial complexes around Austin, Phoenix, Dallas, and Albuquerque. Because the Pentagon has been the single best customer for the aerospace, nuclear, and electronics industries since the 1940s, this final point brings us full circle to the importance of the defense budget for sunbelt cities.

The Sunbelt Catches Up

From the 1950s into the 1970s, scholars understood the growth of sunbelt cities in terms of the “catch up” thesis. That is, the West and South were viewed as regions whose development had retraced that of the Northeast, but with a time lag of a generation or more. Their rapid growth beginning with the 1940s suggested that they were finally closing the gap and catching up to the rest of the nation.

For the West and Southwest, the lag was described in economic terms. In the 1930s, writer Bernard DeVoto had called the West a “plundered province” that was little more than a colony of New York and Chicago, shipping out raw materials from mines, farms, and forests and buying them back from eastern factories. Since the 1940s, however, western cities, and especially those of California, enjoyed a steady shift of economic power. By developing local production of manufactured goods and accumulated their own sources of capital, they catching up with the industrial core.

For the South, the catching up was seen more broadly as a process of modernization. The South in 1930s had been poor and culturally different, but rapid urban growth would help the region become richer, more middle class, less isolated, more ‘American.” This interpretation stressed the ways that World War II had reduced regional differences by mixing people from all regions in the military and in war production work. The civil rights era of 1950s and 1960s, during which South dismantled racial segregation by law and thus became more “northern,” also supported the idea of convergence. So did the moderating voice of the business community in many southern cities (for example, Atlanta’s reputation as a “city too busy to hate). The interpretation helped to shape much scholarship on southern politics and society and framed some early efforts to look systematically at the history of regional urbanization (see volumes from the later 1970s and early 1980s by Jacoway and Colburn, Goldfield and Brownell, Abbott, and Bernard and Rice).

Continuity as Well as Change

In more recent years, scholars have emphasized continuity as well as transformation in the development of sunbelt cities. World War II and the postwar boom may have accelerated economic changes, for example, but the changes built on foundation from previous decades. In the South, postwar economic development efforts extended work already underway in many states and cities, as examined in James Cobb, The Selling of the South. For the Southwest, Roger Lotchin in Fortress California demonstrates that city leaders had long courted military bases, and that the militarization of a city like San Diego crowned efforts begun in the 1910s Los Angeles had similarly emerged as a major manufacturing city early in the twentieth century, creating deep roots for its postwar boom.

David Goldfield’s important summary of southern urbanization, Cottonfields and Skyscrapers, notes the continuities of southern culture and values that keep southern cities distinct from northern counterparts. He finds that southern cities have been marked by continuities of a rural life style, by the prominent role of religion, and by racial division. He shows how urban social institutions were adapted to preserve a biracial system and argues that the neglect of public services in many southern cities has reflected the influence of evangelical religion and rural values.

Students of racial and ethnic relations in cities across the Sunbelt increasingly emphasize continuities from before to after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ron Bayor, Howard Gillette, and Chris Silver and John Moeser have all shown the ways in which decisions about black-white relations made in the early twentieth century continued to shape the politics and society of southern cities until its end. Similarly, political and economic gains of Mexican Americans in Texas and California cities in recent decades have built on long years of institution-building at the community level, political organizing, For Los Angeles, for example, see George Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American and Edward Escobar, Race, Police, and the Making of an Ethnic Identity: Mexican Americans the Los Angeles Police Department.

In short, the Sunbelt did catch up, but in their own ways. Its cities have converged economically and demographically. But they remain culturally distinct. Los Angeles is not Boston, New Orleans is not Chicago, San Antonio is not Cleveland, Tampa is not Baltimore.

Special Places/Leading Edges

Several sunbelt cities stand out as representing important trends in contemporary urban growth.

Atlanta shows the classic themes of American city-building with a sunbelt twist. The power of business leadership in U.S. cities is a well-told story, but Atlanta adds the twist of a delicate balancing act between growth politics and racial politics. Its patterns of development are a model of urban sprawl–indeed, one of the most extreme in the nation. And its economy demonstrates the continuing power of transportation. If nineteenth century Atlanta was a city make by railroads (one reason it was such a prize during the Civil War), the city of the later twentieth century has prospered because it is the hub for Interstate Highways in the Southeast and because it has become a national and international air travel center. It has thus consolidated its role as the center of a fast-growing region (a sort of new Chicago) and used direct European air routes to become a headquarters center for international businesses and organizations (an alternative to New York).[5]

Across the continent, the Los Angeles city region elicits strong loyalties and excites deep antipathies. It is variously viewed as emblematic and exceptional, as the pattern for twentieth century urbanization and the model for the urban future. As featured player in scores of movies and backdrop in hundreds of others, Los Angeles takes much of its imagery from the film writers and directors who call it home. Critics who don’t like what they see in Los Angeles “prove” their point with references to the dark dystopia of Bladerunner, the violent alienation of Falling Down or Pulp Fiction, and old and new noir of The Big Sleep and Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Those of who are taken by the metropolis find the choice a bit more strained: Speed as a parable of social cooperation, Clueless as a more appealing vision of everyday life.

For many scholars, Los Angeles has been the representative city for the twentieth century. Historian Sam Warner used it as such in The Urban Wilderness and geographer James Lemon in Liberal Dreams and Nature’s Limits. A readable but highly opinionated introduction to Los Angeles politics is Mike Davis, City of Quartz, which frames the city’s history as the work of an economic elite. Davis’s polemic can be balanced with the case studies of land development in William Fulton, The Reluctant Metropolis.

For other scholars, the city is the prototype for the twenty-first century. A “Los Angeles School” of urban analysis argues, essentially, that the vast southern California metropolis a new urban form and dynamic that is post-modern. Its cityscape, economy, and society all described as fragmented, flexible, and fluid. There is the political fragmentation, industrial flexibility, and racial variety that makes Los Angeles a laboratory for examining the complex interactions of Anglos, African Americans, Mexicans, Central Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, southeast Asians, and many others. Good introductions to these ways of thinking are the essays in Rob Kling, Spencer Olin, and Mark Poster, eds., Postsuburban California, and Allen J. Scott and Edward Soja, eds., The City.

Miami is another city that has been testing new international connections and patterns of ethnic relations since the 1960s.[6] The arrival of more than 800,000 refugees from Cuba (as well as large number of refugees from Haiti) fundamentally altered traditional patterns of black-white relations. In the three-sided tension of white, black, and Cuban, the latter group have achieved political dominance and substantial economic power, as explored in Alex Stepick and Alejandro Portes, City on the Edge. As transnational politics intrudes into daily life, Miami has become the major economic contact point between the U.S. and the Caribbean. Many Cuban Americans now argue that their presence and entrepreneurship have made Miami a global city that handles $6 billion of trade with nations to the south.

And then there is Las Vegas, fast emerging as the nation’s next supercity. Hal Rothman, Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century and Hal Rothman and Mike Davis, eds., The Grit Beneath the Glitter, trace the evolution of Las Vegas from sin city to diversified metropolis. Entertainment and real estate development for retirees and second homes have replaced gambling as the economic drive wheel; while major banks and pension funds rather than mob money finance the new fantasyland casinos. Far from a deviant sideshow, Las Vegas is increasingly a mainstream city wrestling with labor-management conflict, sprawl, and ethnic conflict. At the same time, it may be a precursor of a new pattern of urban growth in which isolated centers function together as a single dispersed metropolis (Las Vegas being in many ways a detached piece of greater Los Angeles).


[1] The figure is seven of twelve if we include San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose and Washington-Baltimore, both of which lie north of the commonly accept sunbelt boundary but which share many characteristics with other sunbelt cities. All of the statistics in this section are based on that same boundary that starts along the North Carolina-Virginia border and extends along the same latitude to Monterey Bay. A number of cities that lie north of the line share many economic and demographic patterns with sunbelt cities. Examples include Norfolk-Virginia Beach and Richmond in Virginia, Colorado Springs and Denver in Colorado, and Reno in Nevada.

[2] The total was fifteen for the two leagues, accounting for shared markets. MLB played in nine sunbelt cities.

[3] The fourth major military metropolis, Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Newport News, is contiguous to the commonly understood sunbelt boundary.

[4] Economists talk about the product cycle. A cluster of innovations creates a new set of products that stimulate a complex of new companies in a particular region, such as Detroit’s automobile complex or aircraft in Los Angeles. As new products gradually become standardized, their manufacture can be shifted to other locations for cheaper land and labor or better access to customers. In the last half century, sunbelt cities have benefitted both from the decentralization of older product manufacturing (such as automobile assembly) and the fortuitous location of new, fast-growing industries like electronics. In Texas, for example, El Paso has grown for the first reason and Austin for the second.

[5] A good source on Atlanta for classroom use is a set of eight half-hour videos made by historians Dana White and Tim Crimmins on “The Making of Modern Atlanta,” available from the Georgia Humanities Council.

[6] Comparisons between Miami and Los Angeles are pursued in a special “Orange Empires” issue of the Pacific Historical Review, 68 (May 1999), edited by William Deverell, Greg Hise, and David Sloane.


Abbott, Carl. The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993

_________. The New Urban America: Growth and Politics in Sunbelt Cities. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

Bayor, Ronald. Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Bernard, Richard, and Rice, Bradley. Sunbelt Cities; Politics and Growth since World War II. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Cobb, James. The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade form Industrial Development, 1936-1980. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Verso, 1990.

Escobar, Edward. Race, Politics and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900-45. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999.

Findlay, John. Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Foglesong, Richard. Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Fulton, William. The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles. Point Arena, CA: Solano Press Books, 1997.

Gillette, Howard, Jr. Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Goldfield, David. Cottonfields and Skyscrapers: Southern City and Region, 1607-1980. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Goldfield, David, and Brownell, Blaine, eds. The City in Southern History. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1977.

Jacoway, Elizabeth and Colburn, David, eds. Southern Businessmen and Desegregation. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Kling, Rob, Olin, Spencer, and Poster, Mark. Postsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County since World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Lemon, James. Liberal Dreams and Nature’s Limits: Great Cities of North America since 1600. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Lotchin, Roger. Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Welfare to Warfare. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Lotchin, Roger, ed. The Way We Really Were: The Golden State in the Second Great War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Rothman, Hal. Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Rothman, Hal and Davis, Mike, eds. The Grit Beneath the Glitter. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Sanchez, George. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-45. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Scott, Allen, and Soja, Edward. The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Silver, Christopher, and Moeser, John. The Separate City: Black Communities in the Urban South, 1940-68. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

Stepick, Alex, and Portes, Alejandro. City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. The Urban Wilderness. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Understanding the Kelo Case

At the turn of the twenty-first century, New London, Connecticut, was a city in trouble. Hammered by deindustrialization and the closure of military facilities, it suffered from high unemployment. Locked into its boundaries by surrounding towns, it had a high proportion of tax-exempt land despite its reliance on property taxes.

In 1998, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer began to construct its Global Research Facility adjacent to the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, a waterfront district of 90 acres with 115 residential and commercial parcels including a sewage treatment plant and junkyard. The city directed the New London Development Corporation, a development agency under city control, to develop redevelopment plans for Fort Trumbull that could capitalize on Pfizer’s investment and presence. The plans included a resort hotel and conference center, office and retail space, a new state park, and residences. The Development Corporation purchased 100 of the parcels from willing sellers, but needed to use the power of eminent domain to acquire the other 15 parcels. New London’s effort depended on $70 million in state money, and it was the state that suggested the city should acquire Fort Trumbull under legislation authorizing economic development efforts, rather than a different statute relating to removal of blight.

Homeowner Susette Kelo and several other reluctant property owners challenged the acquisition with the argument that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibited the city and its agents from forcibly acquiring property from one private owner simply to transfer it to another private owner or entity (the New London Development Corporation and any future owners who might purchase from it). The argument hinged on the proper definition of “public use” (as possibly distinct from “public purpose”). The case made its way through the Connecticut Supreme Court to the Supreme Court of the United States, which heard arguments on February 22, 2005, and issued a five-to-four decision upholding the city on June 23, 2005.

The decision unleashed a wave of criticism, since the majority sided with large impersonal institutions rather than individual property owners. The decision became an organizing point for property rights advocates. President George W. Bush in 2006 issued an executive order prohibiting federal agencies from using eminent domain “merely for the purpose of advancing the economic interests of private parties to be given ownership or use of the property taken.” Several states–including New Hampshire, Florida, and Oregon–moved quickly to prohibit such takings within state law, whether or not there was a record of abuse.

The majority decision (John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer) was judicially conservative. It relied on precedent, particularly the landmark case Berman v. Parker from 1954. In that case, a small business owner in the southwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., challenged the use of eminent domain to acquire his property as part of a massive urban renewal project that turned a mixed neighborhood into middle-class housing, L’Enfant Plaza, and new federal office buildings (ironically for HUD and DOT), and made Washington a national example of the possibilities and pitfalls of large scale clearance and redevelopment projects. As Clarence Thomas noted in dissent on Kelo, the overwhelming majority of residents affected by the Berman decision were African Americans.[1]

In Berman the Court unanimously accepted an expansive view of public use. “It is within the power of the legislature,” wrote William O. Douglas, “to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled.” Fifty-one years later, a very different Supreme Court membership declined to break from the precedent and articulated the view that a carefully prepared and comprehensive redevelopment plan was strong evidence that a local jurisdiction, such as New London, had adequately defined a public purpose justifying the application of eminent domain.

Although property rights advocates attacked the majority decision as “judicial activism,” it was anything but. It was judicially conservative not only in deferring to frequently reiterated precedents, but also in its deference to the states. The Court declined to second guess the local and state policy-making process in its particulars. At the same time, the majority showed some unease with the substantive results of the New London policy by inviting states to put their own houses in order: “Nothing in our opinion precludes any State from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings power. Indeed, many States already impose ‘public use’ requirements that are stricter than the federal baseline.”

The minority (Sandra Day O’Connor, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas) were in this case the judicial activists. It is likely that the Court took Kelo, its first major eminent domain case since Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff (1984), because some members hoped that it would an opportunity to probe behind the surface of plans and precedents to scrutinize the content of New London’s actions. In effect, they were hoping to do for property rights what Brown did for school integration by looking at the real world effects behind legal formulations.

Although they failed to shake loose a fifth vote, the minority were vigorous in mobilizing the examples of urban history. They made the argument–in a nutshell–that the use of eminent domain to promote private land development almost inevitably favors big government and big business, and victimizes poor people and minorities. Jane Jacobs offered an “amicus” brief that reiterated her belief in the problems of large-scale planning schemes. John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and now executive director for the Congress for the New Urbanism, argued that subsidies to attract corporate investment into distressed cities were nearly always flawed interventions in the market. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference argued that urban renewal had a long record of burdening the poor and disrupting their lives, and that current neo-renewal efforts have the same very strong tendency. The policy debates of the 1960s lived again with citations to Martin Anderson and Herbert Gans.

The most frequently cited comparison was to Poletown, the low-income neighborhood that the city of Detroit leveled in order to create an in-city site for a new Cadillac plant for General Motors. The goal of the city, of course, was to bring living-wage jobs back to the city and to increase its tax base. The project cleared 1500 homes, sixteen churches, and 144 businesses. The long, failed resistance by the neighborhood has been well-documented in books and documentary film and has long been a staple topic in urban studies classes.[3] Dissents in the Michigan Supreme Court case upholding the action, Poletown Neighborhood Council v. City of Detroit, have been a fertile source for property rights analysis, now expanded by its use as an example by Justices O’Connor and Thomas in an additional dissenting opinion.

New London, of course, is a victim of its context. The effort to redevelop Fort Trumbull is one more example of the distorting effects of tax-base competition. Where cities rely on property taxes, they seek to replace low-value and high-cost uses (i.e., rundown neighborhoods with lots of children) with high-value, low-cost uses (i.e., offices, and condos for empty nesters). Where they depend on sales taxes, every city wants a new shopping center just inside its boundaries, where tax revenue flows to city hall but traffic crowds streets in the adjacent town.[4] In the New London case, city officials were trying to rebalance a regional development pattern that has put the growth of tax base outside the city but burdens the inside (for the education of children of low-wage service workers.)

For urban policy specialists, the Kelo case illustrates the concept of an urban regime, or alliance of elected and appointed officials with a specific set of private economic interests.[5] As Justice O’Connor recognized, in most comparable property takings, “the beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.” The redevelopment plan clearly met Pfizer’s needs for a hotel and condos to house visitors and employees, for removing eyesores, and for “doing something” about the low-income neighborhood. In the regime context, big projects such as large new mixed-use developments or convention centers not only benefit large private interests, but also make the reputations of public professionals and give elected officials something to point to in re-election campaigns. They are like playing Earl Weaver baseball, always waiting to be saved by a home run rather than playing for singles, steals, and bunts.

Susette Kelo’s case grounded the abstractions of property rights in the everyday community life. Public officials may have expertise and information on their side, but they remain talking heads behind office desks or in front of law books. In contrast, Kelo was able to tell her story with the help of emotionally powerful language and imagery. She grew up in the neighborhood and returned to her roots in mid-life. In interviews she was able to speak from the comfortable interior of her home, which she bought and fixed up, and describe herself as a “working class person.” She has expressed a special animosity toward the president of Connecticut College, who stated a desire to make New London a hip city (meaning a place for high-income people, in Kelo’s version). Kelo had repainted her house pink as she fixed it up, bringing to mind John Mellencamp’s populist lyrics in his 1983 song “Pink Houses”:

Oh but ain’t that America for you and me
Ain’t that America somethin’ to see baby
Ain’t that American home of the free
Little pink houses for you and me.

There is much to ponder in the way that both the majority and minority on the Supreme Court understood and mobilized urban history. The majority used legal precedent, deferred to local judgment, and presumably saw a range of quality in the actual projects: they were conservative and non-activist. The minority were more fully steeped in the troubled history of urban renewal and revitalization efforts, and less willing to cut slack for one more big redevelopment project with ambitious goals to “reinvent” part of a city.[6]


[1]. Howard Gillette Jr., Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

[2]. Martin Anderson, The Federal Bulldozer: A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal, 1949-1963 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964); Herbert Gans, The Urban Villagers: Groups and Class in the Life of Italian Americans (New York: Free Press, 1962); and James Q. Wilson, ed., Urban Renewal: The Record and the Controversy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1966).

[3]. Armand Cohen, Poletown, Detroit: A Case Study in “Public Use” and Reindustrialization (Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1982); Poletown Lives (Detroit: Information Factory, Inc., 1992); and Jeanne Wylie, Poletown: Community Destroyed (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990). Poletown even makes an appearance in Elmore Leonard’s crime novel Split Image (New York: Harper Torch, 2002).

[4]. William Fulton, The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Growth in Los Angeles (Point Arena, CA: Solano Press Books, 1997).

[5]. Clarence Stone, Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1968 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989).

[6]. For more on Kelo from legal perspectives, see Dwight H. Merriam and Mary Massaron Ross, eds., Eminent Domain Use and Abuse: “Kelo” in Context (Chicago: American Bar Association Section of State and Government Law, 2006).