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

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Crabgrass Frontier: A Whiter Shade of Pale (Eighth in a Series)

In discussing the growth of the suburbs after World War II, I have so far attempted to explain the appeal of leaving urban areas in impressionistic terms, seeking to explain the nature of the general yearning rather than the collection of individual motives actually involved.  Thus my use of Professor Kenneth Jackson’s term “the crabgrass frontier” and the cultural allusions pedaled by Madison Avenue supposedly drawing on traditional American characteristics.  I also mentioned that people’s motives for making the move underwent a change during the process.  The previous post in this series introduced you to another, larger migration that had been underway much longer than that to the crabgrass frontier, and in fact was in full swing when this new frontier first opened.  I used the word “clash, and now we begin to discuss in more detail why I chose that word.

To do so, we must get past post-war yearnings and Madison Avenue slogans and examine how things really went down.  First, “frontier” was a buzzword to sell stuff.  The reality was quite different, and in considerable contrast to every other “frontier” in American history.  For starters, the crabgrass frontier was neither wild nor ungoverned.  No one had to blaze any trail; the roads already existed, making the journey both short and comfortable (another considerable contrast).  Drivers had more to fear from law enforcement than from any savages they might encounter along the way (which was good, as this trek was a twice-daily thing).  The only ones to stake out any claims were the developers, who purchased the land in large batches, then proceeded to clear it and stake out a number of individual parcels within it, to sell individually.  The pioneers of this migration may have lined up a la the rush to the Oklahoma Territory, but the line was in front of the development’s sales office, not the land itself, and everybody waited their turn.  In other words, plenty of Boomers, but no Sooners.

All this was all done under the (more or less) watchful eye of local governments.  They were good at protecting their new residents from those people that in Woody Guthrie’s classic phrase, would rob you with a six-gun, but were often in league with those who rob you with a fountain pen.  One result of this was that the developers were largely left to decide which of the many queued up outside the front door they were actually going to allow into their new frontier community, and here is where the problem came in.

Those lines were overwhelmingly filled by white people, of course, clutching evidence of their financial qualifications.  But from the very beginning, here and there, a darker face appeared among the applicants.  African-Americans had benefited from the huge demand for labor caused by the war, but as usual they had benefitted the least.  Still, some saved enough to allow them to seek this new version of the American dream.  They were joined by African American veterans, eligible under the G.I. Bill, and together they reached for this new interpretation of the American dream.  Then came the bitter reality.

A few posts ago I introduced William Levitt, who was to the post-war housing revolution what Henry Ford was to the automobile revolution, for much the same reasons.  He introduced mass production to the housing industry and reaped massive profits, making him was the example others followed.  He brought affordable housing to the masses, but he was also a racist, of that most malignant type, one who fully understood the problem, and decided to profit by it, all the while stoutly claiming that he was doing no such thing.  He also came by his racism in the usual way: he inherited it.  His parents (ironically, Jewish refugees from discrimination in Russia), resided in Brooklyn until the first black family moved into their neighborhood.  They immediately moved to the Long Island suburb of Manhasset.  The father of the interloping family was a district attorney, but no matter. 

William Levitt deflected the many accusations of racism by employing a time-honored tactic: separate and compartmentalize two interlocked issues, then claim that you are only addressing one and simply not involved with the other.  Deciding that America had both a race problem and a housing problem, and ignoring their obvious interrelationship, he decided he could solve only one of them, and simply ignored the other.  Or so he claimed.  When under fire for his policies, Levitt stoutly maintained that race was just not a factor in what he was doing.  For William Levitt, it was only an economic issue: when a black family moved into a neighborhood, it would be followed by others, causing the value of nearby white-owned property to go down.  “I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 or 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community,” he said.

Thus it was that a sales prospectus for the first Levittown assured potential buyers that:

"No dwelling shall be used or occupied except by members of the Caucasian race, but the employment and maintenance of other than Caucasian servants shall be permitted.”

Ah, the good old days.  Levitt’s imitators largely followed his example, because they were allowed to.  Local governments joined in, using the same economics-only logic, and together they build a web of interlocking roadblocks for African Americans seeking to join the migration to the crabgrass frontier.  African-Americans, even veterans, found that such local “restrictive covenants” and tacit behind-the-scenes agreements virtually shut them out of the new suburbs. 

The N.A.A.C.P. and other groups fought to break the several forms of restrictive covenants on the sale of crabgrass frontier properties that developers, local governments and real estate organizations had jointly established for their mutual economic benefit.  In a great oversimplification of a complex historical reality, the Federal Government declined to intervene.  This should not have happened; a 1948 Supreme Court ruling had outlawed precisely such covenants as Levitt and his imitators inserted into their deeds of sale.  The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), however, decided on a tactic that is both still employed and still referred to as “a narrow interpretation of our responsibilities” (the Supreme Court employs it frequently).  The FHA decided that its role was only technical, and while it ensured that the accounting was on the up-and-up, refused to rule against any “social” covenants local authorities might employ.  This is, of course, merely a variation of the compartmentalization logic employed by Levitt and the others to establish such restrictions in the first place, but it held, at least for a while.  Such restrictive covenants would be overturned after persistent legal effort, but by then Levitt and the others had worked out more subtle means of achieving the same thing, and continued to practice them.  To put it simply, those overseeing the migration to the crabgrass frontier simply closed the doors to African Americans (other minorities were affected also, of course, but none to the same degree).  The result?  With but very few exceptions, the new suburbs were white.  This is why the city residents I spoke of last time—who would leave when black people began to appear in their neighborhood—could be sure that their relocation to the suburbs would be worth the effort.

This is also part of what I meant by “clash,” but only part.  The effect of closing the doors to the new suburbs was to force those African Americans who had so far followed--and succeeded at--the American Dream to largely remain within the older urban areas that had been their original destination.  As The Great Migration brought even more African Americans into these older, established urban areas, they provoked a variety of reactions.  One of these was to spur a new wave of migrants to the crabgrass frontier, seeking to hide behind those closed doors.  This became the third wave of the urban exodus, and the virtual uniformity of motive quickly gave it a title:  “White Flight.”  We will take a closer—and more personal—look at this phenomenon next time.

(All Quotations from Tom Lewis, Divided Highways.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Expressway Isn’t The Only Way

My personal focus in urban studies is transportation, both intra and inter urban.  I am all about alternative transportation, particularly in towns and cities, as my research has led me to believe that there is a fundamental contradiction between the urban grid and the automobile.  Nonetheless, I can only promote alternative transportation within the Delaware Valley on a very occasional basis, largely because many localities within it simply have no alternatives; it’s either use a car or stay at home.

There are, however, locations where conditions actually favor alternative transportation, for reasons that range from cost through convenience to health.  One of them is the floodplain of the Schuylkill River from Philadelphia to its northwest.  The utilization of this stretch of land long predates the automobile, and thus the term “alternative transportation.”  People traveled along it in several different ways over the centuries before the invention of the gasoline engine.  In fact, from the dawn of the 20th century to about 1960, it was the automobile that was the alternative transportation along the Schuylkill corridor.  Travel by railroad dominated along this stretch, and had since the middle of the 19th century.

In 1960, the Schuylkill Expressway opened along its full length, connecting Philadelphia to communities along the river’s right bank.  In the same year, the Pennsylvania Railroad cancelled its parallel commuter rail service along the river’s left bank.  The two events are connected by more than a coincidence of dates.  The completion of a highway along the Schuylkill signaled the imminent end for the private railroad companies that used to dominate the route, as passenger use of both of the parallel railroad lines had been declining for years.

In the long run, however, this actually opened up a second inducement to alternative transportation, one that had not been previously considered for the corridor:  bicycles.  Thus, not only are there still two alternative routes to the Schuylkill Expressway, they are utilized today by two very different forms of alternative transportation.  One is the SEPTA Regional Rail line to Norristown, and the other is the Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bikeway.  They are very close neighbors, as unlikely as that seems in theory.

Whatever people may think about bicycles and commuter trains, few would consider them within the same concept, let alone link them.  They are about as different as means of transportation can be.  Bicycles are the ultimate in individualism; not only piloted under individual control, but also under individual propulsion.  One can leave according to one’s individual desire, travel at a speed that is individually determined, and go exactly as far as one wishes to go, all in the open air.  It’s great exercise, undertaken largely by people who don’t need it, and who don’t mind wearing distinctly unflattering clothes.

The train, in marked contrast, is group transportation; others decide its schedule and you have to accept it.  You simply sit within a steel cocoon whose course is fixed, traveling at a speed determined by someone else; individual participation is decidedly unwelcome.  Clothing is irrelevant, as is the weather outside, up to a point, although that point is distinctly further along than that for bicycles. 

Of course, contact between the two modes of transportation is to be avoided at all costs, for obvious reasons.  The need to avoid contact between bicycles and trains doesn’t mean they can’t travel close to one another, however, and if you travel along the lower Schuylkill via either means, you can see what I mean.  The route of the Norristown commuter line parallels the Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bike Trail, sometimes coming with a few yards of it.  That closeness remains until Norristown, where the train tracks cease but the bike trail continues.

There is no small irony in how two such divergent means of transportation can coexist so well so closely together.  Today these two diametrically opposed means of transportation share their closeness with considerably more grace than did the occupants when both were trains.  The SEPTA Norristown Line follows the track of the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown (P.G.&N.) railroad, an early railroad pioneer.  The P.G.&N.’s first runs were between Philadelphia and Germantown (then different locations) and were powered by horses.  A steam engine powered the first trip all the way to Norristown, in 1835.  The P.G.&N. was taken over by the newer, much better financed Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, which dropped the Philadelphia part of its name to become the Reading Railroad of considerable memory, and a component of a game of Monopoly to this day.

That second, very close track bed occupied today by the Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bikeway is a legacy of the era of unregulated capitalism and the “robber barons.”  The Reading Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad were two of the dominant corporations of the period, and intense competitors.  The “wars” between them were fundamentally financial and legal (well, sort of legal), but when they actually crossed paths—or, in this case, tracks—the ground often took on the look of a real war.  The Reading had dominated traffic along the Schuylkill corridor since taking over the P.G. & N. in 1870.  Then, in the early 1880s, the Pennsylvania decided to mount a direct and very close challenge.  It proposed to construct a line up the Schuylkill River floodplain directly adjacent to that of the Reading.  And so it did, its path hewing closely to the Reading's, with the parallel tracks on occasion coming quite close.  The Pennsylvania’s work was obstructed in every manner that Reading executives could dream up.  Much deception and skullduggery took place, and that was just using the law.  The close proximity of both rights of way led to frequent fights between groups of rival workers.  Eventually, the work was completed, with no actual loss of life recorded, as far as I am aware.

The two train lines could not get along, but today the train and the bicycle most definitely do.  I would even call them friends.   Why?  It’s one of the oldest—and one of the most consistently applied—rules of human behavior:  “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Advocates of the automobile consider both bicycles and trains to be the enemy, and rightly so.  That alone should make them friends, or at least allies.  Why the animosity?  Because, if you ride either a bicycle or a train to work, or just a portion of either route for recreation, you are not driving your car along the Schuylkill Expressway, consuming gasoline, wearing down tires and counting the days until the next required inspection.  In other words, you are not supporting the automobile companies, the automotive parts industry or the oil industry; you are not consuming at the rate desired by our current culture.  Oh, and you are also not polluting the air.  You are being downright un-American.  Good for you.  I encourage you to utilize either path and means whenever possible (and not just along the Schuylkill), and the next time you are riding along either one, give a silent salute to those traveling along the other.  By avoiding the Expressway you are both doing good, each in your own way.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Norristown Missing Financial Records? The “Good Old Days” Were Worse

People in Norristown—and elsewhere, I’ll bet—are talking about the town’s finances, spurred by two rather unusual events, probably related.  In November of last year, police escorted Finance Director Richard Zawisza out of his office; he has been variously described since as being “on leave,” or “on vacation.”  Then last month came the news that the Municipality of Norristown never received the annual audit reports (required by law) for five years in a row, from 2008 through 2012.  This was discovered by new Municipal Administrator Crandall Jones shortly after he was hired last August.  There is reason to suspect that the two events are connected, because Municipal Council is now paying more to the audit firms that did not complete their reports the first time.   Why?  Because, as Jones admitted, “they never completed those audit reports, through no fault of their own.”

This is disturbing, and has given ammunition to those critical of Norristown municipal administration, particularly because the law surrounding “personnel matters” allows—no, mandates—little release of details to the public.  Municipal critics are right to be concerned; we are talking about the public tax dollars here.  There may be much more to this, or there may not.

What this event should NOT do is add to the already pervasive attitude of suspicion and worst assumptions that permeates the social media today, at least about such small municipalities as Norristown.  This is an all-too common problem, particularly when it is frequently fed horror stories, such as that little town in Florida that seems to have not just practiced corruption, but institutionalized it.  I’ve attacked this concept before, as “the wrong attitude,” arguing that it is simply not justified to believe that things are worse now than they used to be, back in “the good old days.”  People carry around this myth that back then, honest administration kept employment up, taxes low and crime down because we “didn’t need no welfare state, everybody pulled his weight,” and all the rest of that nostalgic nonsense.  If you think that today’s Norristown has incompetent administrators and Council, let’s return to those “good old days” for a lesson in historical context.

Back in “the good old days” of 1975 (not so very old, but before both Section 8 and Deinstitutionalization, remember?) Norristown’s financial condition was far worse than just some missing audit reports.  Norristown Borough Council, caught between a collapsing tax base and a political refusal to raise taxes, had failed to pass a 1975 budget by January 1 of that year, as required by law.  At the March, 1975 meeting, Councilman William Lessig, who had been appointed chairman of the Finance Committee the previous year, shared with his colleagues some of the singularly unpleasant things he had discovered during his brief tenure.  Running a municipality requires complex and reliable financial records, and Lessig summarized the state of things in Norristown quite succinctly:
“In a very short period of time, it became apparent to me that the record keeping procedures employed by the borough fell into one or more of three classifications.  They were either inaccurate, inadequate, or non-existent.”

Mind you, Borough Council had every reason to see the crisis coming, long before it arrived.  Back in April, 1974, Council realized that no Tax Collector’s Report had so far been submitted to it for that year, and resolved to write a letter asking the Borough Tax Collector to please do his job and prepare a report for each monthly meeting.  The May meeting arrived but the Tax Collector’s report didn’t.  Council girded itself and wrote another letter asking for a report by the June meeting.  The June meeting convened, but again, no Tax Collector’s Report.  When pressed, Borough Manager James Coyle stated that he had talked to the Tax Collector by phone, and would send him another letter immediately.  The July meeting convened, only to discover that…wait for it…no report had been prepared.  There is no mention in the Council meeting records whether anyone went so far as to speak to the Tax Collector in person, or to take other such drastic measures in later months, but to wrap up this part of the story, the Norristown Borough Tax Collector did not file a single report for the entire year of 1974.

Councilman Lessig also offered evidence that the Tax Collector’s report was by no means the only problem, and that the problems were anything but new.  Such things should have been reported during the annual audit and, as it turned out, the auditors had done exactly that.  Lessig produced a series of statements by previous auditors that had pointed out the Borough’s lack of even the most basic elements of financial oversight.  In other words, the auditors weren’t at fault this time either.  Here is a brief selection of those statements, going back to 1969 (the even better years, right?):

1969:  We are signing this report under protest.”  The borough had no official competent in the field of finance, the Treasurer had signed blank checks, and the Petty Cash account was “impossible to audit, figures were written over, erased or illegible.”
1973:  The borough kept no books at all for its secondary funds, bank statements were missing, and there were no controls on investments.
1975:  The General Fund, receipts and disbursements, has not been reconciled with the cash in the bank.  In other words the books are not in balance.”  There isn’t any list of delinquent real estate tax receivables for all prior years up to and including 1974.”

I’m not even tempted to make the obvious “the more things change…” reference about this matter, because I believe it would be a rhetorical cheap shot, and unjustified.  The full story behind the missing audit reports and the dismissal of the Finance Director has yet to come out, and given the strict controls over “personnel issues,” it might never.  But unless someone uncovers something rather more substantially wrong than uncompleted audits, there is really no comparing Norristown government today to Norristown government then, in financial matters or on any other subject.  The borough structure of members elected from different wards had long since reduced both Council and administration to competing mini-empires utterly unable to even visualize what was good for the entire town, let alone act on it.  The Mayor had little real power, and the Borough Manager had none (the office was a revolving door for several years, as optimistic managers arrived and frustrated ones left).  The problem was not one of individuals (although many certainly contributed), it was systemic.  In other words, whether it is lack of "vision" or lack of several other characteristics desirable in municipal leaders, those of Norristown today can't hold a candle to those of Norristown yesterday.  Anyone who looks back with nostalgia on “the good old days of Norristown” and includes local government in that rosy remembrance does not know what he or she is talking about.

So, whatever you may feel regarding how today is worse than when you were growing up, try to accept that this "things have been going to hell since [insert your specific favorite here]" is part of the human condition; every generation feels it.  It is not history, and we really must understand and deal with with tendency if we want to know the truth, not some collection of self-serving myths.  Things really have changed, and this one, at least, for the better.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Clash of Two Migrations (Seventh in a Series)

     The move to the periphery of our traditional urban areas began with the wealthy, before the Second World War.  It gathered momentum during the late 1940s for reasons already introduced in this series of posts.  Just as it began to be called a “migration,” quite early in its historical arc, it encountered another migration, one both larger and of longer duration.  “Encounter” is not exactly the right word; the two migrations clashed, with results that were both unfortunate and unequal. This clash altered the nature of both migrations, and for the worse.  In an example of opposites repelling, the migration to the suburbs consciously strove to exclude these other migrants from joining them, directing it instead to the urban areas the migrants were vacating.  We are talking about opposite races, of course, white and black.  In the major cities where numbers and density allowed reactions other than flight, those whites who had not joined the migration to the suburbs sought to direct the new black arrivals to some other neighborhood than their own through a variety of tactics, many of them illegal and all of them questionable morality, at the very least.

     This clash was a complex and controversial component of modern American history, and I will spend some time on it.  But before I introduce some specifics, about which most people think they know a lot, I want to establish the deeper context, about which few know anything at all.  There are always levels within reality, and thus within history.  This is an important one.

     The other migration that would so affect that to the crabgrass frontier had begun earlier, encompassed larger numbers spanning a longer period of time and produced such fundamental consequences that scholars refer to it as “The Great Migration.”  The phrase describes the movement of over six million African Americans (voluntarily, this time) out of the South, where the vast majority of their ancestors had been taken generations earlier.  Historians also divide it into two phases (a third, “reverse” phase is underway), with 1940 as the approximate dividing line.

    This migration deserves the appellation “Great,” both for its extent and its close-to-countless results.  At the dawn of the 20th century, over 95% of African Americans were living a rural existence in the “Old South.”  As the greater industrialization of the northern states produced a greater and still greater need for labor, these areas experienced a labor shortage even with the enormous number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe that were arriving at this time.  Thus was born an opportunity for the people who had for long been bound to the land, in one way or another.  They were technically free to move, but the economic slavery of the sharecropping system gave few the means.  The need for labor in the north was so insistent that several of the larger corporations that had already sent representatives into the Southern states to tout the jobs available up north, began to make special arrangements to move northward those who could do the work, even if they could not afford the journey.  The original arrangement—and its original beneficiary—was the Illinois Central Railroad, which welcomed a passenger influx that did not require much improvement of its services.  The railroad brought them up from the Mississippi delta, and Chicago was the original destination for most, but by no means the final destination for all.  The jobs beckoned across the industrial middle and northeast, and these migrants did exactly as America’s migrants have always done and traveled to where the jobs were, settling largely in the cities that hosted industries.  The First World War provided a major impetus; with workers leaving for the army, the need for labor became even more pressing.  When those soldiers returned, of course, those new African American workers discovered a reality about their industrial jobs: “last hired, first fired.”  The fact that they were not white did not exactly hurt, either.

     The Great Depression effectively stemmed the flow of this migration, but only temporarily.  After 1940, rearmament and then war first increased the demands on industry and then removed a great many of the workers needed to meet those demands.  The result was a labor shortage of a much greater dimension than in World War I.  The response came from African Americans and women; we celebrate the latter, as “Rosie The Riveter.”  Greater demand for industrial labor in the North brought greater migration of African Americans from the South, often along new routes.  Whereas some 1.5 million African Americans migrated during the first movement, another 5 million followed during the second.  By the 1970s and 1980s, however, the transformation of the Industrial Belt into the Rust Belt brought the migration to an end.

     The result was profound; by the 1960s almost half of African Americans were living in the northeast and north central regions of the country, and the vast majority of those had settled into the cities.  We all know the result; today, the word “urban” is a euphemism for “black,” particularly when followed by such words as “music” or “culture.”

     This Second Great Migration, occurring as it did during and after the Second World War, neatly overlapped with the migration to the crabgrass frontier.  As a result, each had an effect on the other.  By the end of the war, the Great Migration had added substantial African American components to the industrial workforce, and therefore to the population of those urban areas where industry was concentrated.  They had begun at the lowest levels of work, of course, and had occupied the lowest-quality housing.  Many still did, but others had found opportunities and had seized them, gaining job skills sufficient to propel them into America’s expanding middle class.  Then there were the African American veterans, back from a war where they had suffered discrimination, been forced to join segregated units, and almost uniformly set to performing menial tasks, but where each had made his contribution to the war effort has best he could.  This combination of hard-earned opportunities meant that some descendants of the Great Migration attempted to join the migration to the crabgrass frontier.  In other words, African Americans began to look for ways to leave the pasts that exhibited little good and partake in the new adventure, just as white veterans and those white laborers who had acquired skills and a middle class outlook were doing, at the same time.  The result was, all too often, not pleasant.  The two migrations clashed, fiercely resisting attempts by African Americans to merge them.

     We will return to our focus--our urban areas--when I discuss the initial arrival of African Americans in the better neighborhoods of our cities and town, and the reaction they provoked.  Before that, however, we need to examine the situation out on the crabgrass frontier itself, specifically why the better-off African Americans did not join that migration until well after it was underway.  I other words, when those people I introduced last time--those who would leave because a black family was moving onto their block--did so, why were they so sure that their relocation to the suburbs would be worth the effort?  They clearly would move only to those suburbs where they would encounter no African Americans, and they were able to do just that.  Why will be the subject of the next post in this series.