"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Saturday, February 22, 2014

It’s About the Benjamins, Remember? (Fifth in a Series)

     So far, we have identified a significant psychological motive for people to leave our urban areas after the Second World War as well as several Federally-funded financial incentives that enabled them to do just that.  As these two forces interacted, America began a shift to a suburban culture, first homes, then shopping centers and then the jobs themselves.

    There is a great deal to the story of how thing changed in our urban areas, and a much has been written on the subject.  The vast majority of the histories that trace the rise of the suburbs at the expense of cities and towns are organized along racial and/or ethnic lines.  This approach does well presenting what happened because it employs common, familiar groupings.  However, it is susceptible to misuse by those who are predetermined to view race or ethnicity as causal factors.  Such a discourse can be used (and often has been) to perpetuate division and discord.

    I’ll have more to say on the subjects of race and ethnicity (trust me), but I am asking you to view what happened through a different prism.  I won’t be avoiding race or ethnicity, but will consistently suggest a different form of analysis, one that is much better if your goal is not just to understand what happened, but why it happened.  If you have been reading my posts, you probably already suspect how I am going to approach the subject.  It’s about the Benjamins, remember?

    Here’s some evidence to introduce my treatment of this controversial topic:

    In 1962, the University of Pennsylvania published in book form The Norristown Study, selected academic research articles together with an editorial overview of Norristown history between 1900 and 1950. An interdisciplinary graduate school research project had blanketed the borough, researching its documents and interviewing its residents.  The project produced several Ph.D. dissertations, some of which were abstracted in the book.  The project’s supervisor also offered general conclusions to tie the papers of the study together.  One of those conclusions was that, by 1950, virtually all of Norristown’s business and social leadership had already moved out of town, so many that, as the study proclaimed, “Norristown proper lacks a resident upper class.”

     Two quick observations to begin the process of avoiding simplistic stereotypes:

   First, they did not leave for the new automobile suburbs (in 1950, Levitt’s company had not yet purchased the land for its Pennsylvania Levittown).  They had been the owners of the DeKalb Street mansions and the fine houses of the upper north and west ends.  They were not about to move to anything new and prefabricated.  Those that moved to the suburbs more than likely moved to those on the Main Line, an address much longer established and far more valuable.  They also appear to have begun this move well before the Second World War.

     Second, they did not leave because black people were moving into their neighborhood.  Black people had lived in their neighborhood for generations, as their servants, occupying the shacks in the alleys behind their upper DeKalb and western Main Street mansions.  They certainly hadn’t bought any of the fine houses the “resident upper class” had abandoned.

    This amply established fact suggests another way to view those who left the urban areas, one that gets beyond motives.  To seek solely the motives for why people moved is to miss a significant point.  While there are a great many different reasons as to why these people left, once we move beyond individual motives, we can focus on the one thing they all had in common: they left because they could afford to.  The best off left the earliest, to the most prestigious destinations.  The loss of Norristown’s “resident upper class” testifies to this.  The less well off followed, to the less expensive Levitt-inspired suburbs, once they could afford to.

     If that’s what happened in Norristown, what about in your community?  It’s quite unlikely that Norristown was an isolated case, so here’s a subject worth researching about your town.  Had your town’s “resident upper class” also left by 1950?  Remember, we are not talking about closing their well-known business or even their professional office, just whether they had moved their residence.  And 1950 is by no means a cutoff date when we are speaking of net financial loss to your town.  It’s a subject community historians would do well to look into.

     Here’s my point:  if you are going to judge the effect of population exchange on an urban area, use a financial calculation.  Establish a sliding scale: at one end, place people who contribute the most, while requiring the fewest services; at the other, those who make no contribution to the community and who require the most services.  Rank those who left and those who arrived along this scale.  Did the exchange result in a net benefit or a net loss to your community?  This is the truly important question.  Using the example from The Norristown Study, the borough’s “resident upper class” contributed much (including civic positions at no salary), but required few services.  Those who replaced them prior to 1950 cannot possibly have ranked as high, regardless of ethnicity, race or occupation.  In other words, this exchange of net value to the community began in the negative.  The ratio would only get steadily worse in the following decades, but by 1950, the exchange had already removed those who would have rated the highest on any scale of contributions made vs. services required.  If you judge the post-World War II history of our urban communities by this scale, race and ethnicity remain informative, but cease to provide by themselves any explanation for what happened.  It’s about the Benjamins; it always has been.

     Once we accept that people left our urban areas as they could afford to, then we can apply the same analysis to those who replaced them.  This will bring us up smack dab against perhaps the most pervasive--and pernicious--myth of recent American urban history.  I'll begin to tackle that whopper when this series resumes.

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