Race and Housing in the Postwar City: An Explosive History

Article excerpt

In the half century after World War II, powerful forces of change dramatically reshaped the American city, none more explosively than racial change. The central cities began a long decline by the late 1940s with the decentralization of population, manufacturing, and retailing, but surrounding suburbs grew exponentially. Massive migrations of rural southern blacks to the new "promised land" of urban America soon altered the racial character of the cities. Moreover, the bifurcation of metropolitan America between center and periphery had an unmistakable racial dimension, with blacks and other minorities increasingly concentrated in the cities and whites dominant on the suburban fringes. These potent demographic shifts ultimately brought enormous changes to city politics, urban economies, and neighborhood residential patterns. Indeed, a close look at the patterns and outcomes of postwar urban change clearly suggests the centrality of race in modern U.S. urban history.

In many respects, history is the study of how things change over time, and certainly this has been true for the history of American urbanization. Big demographic shifts and new economic trends speeded up the transformation of urban America after 1945. Massive suburban migrations and the "deindustrialization" of the cities had devastating consequences, including job losses, deteriorating neighborhoods, concentrated poverty, and more intense patterns of racial segregation. Federal policies on slum clearance, urban renewal, public housing, and interstate highways initiated new forms of governmental action at the local level, but not always with positive results. Redevelopment and urban renewal, for instance, brought major physical changes to central cities, shifting land uses, destroying entire neighborhoods, and damaging community. At the same time, the powerful forces of suburbanization sucked the life out of older residential neighborhoods, which in turn experienced rapid racial transitions.1

In the largest sense, persistent residential segregation remained at the heart of postwar urban change and conflict. Black migration to the central cities produced intense demands for additional housing. Consequently, newer "second ghettos" sprouted across urban America, as blacks pushed out of their original settlement areas. Second ghetto development was marked by the "turnover" of white residential communities and the construction of massive and densely packed public housing projects.2 Through the use of restrictive covenants that prohibited sale of property to African Americans, a practice that was especially common in Chicago, the real estate industry played an important role in the maintenance of the color line in urban housing. In many places, especially in southern cities, the practice of racial zoning divided up urban space in such a way as to keep blacks and whites separated. Equally important, the discriminatory practices of mortgage bankers and property insurers limited black housing options. Court decisions and policy shifts between the 1940s and the 1960s increasingly outlawed or circumscribed long-established discriminatory practices in the urban housing market, but somehow housing segregation persisted and seemed immune to change. As sociologists Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton have noted in their powerful book, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (1993), "racial segregation became a permanent structural feature of the spatial organization of American cities in the years after World War II."3

Patterns of Postwar Urban Change

In retrospect, the war years between 1941 and 1945 set the stage for later transformations. Millions of Americans shuttled around the nation for military training and military service. More than five million rural dwellers pursued wartime job opportunities in urban-based defense industries. For instance, over 500,000 people moved to the San Francisco Bay area between 1940 and 1945 for shipbuilding and other defense work; at least that many moved to the Los Angeles area for work in military aircraft factories and other defense production. …


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