Monthly Archives: May 2014

Burn Draft Cards, Not Cities

So reading Dale Winling’s and Andrew Kahrl’s posts on their work has inspired me to get my blogging started by putting a dispatch out there on my own “new” research, which will be the focus of a summer trip back east when I load up my family in our minivan at the end June.  First, to introduce myself, I am Michelle Nickerson, a women’s&gender/political/urban historian and recent transplant to Chicago.  I grew up in New Jersey, received all of my education on the East coast, but lived and worked in Texas for ten years before moving with my family here, where we lived in an ice cave this past winter.  The first part of my research career focused on conservatism among middle-class suburbanites in the Sunbelt.  But for all kinds of reasons I’ve been inspired to study a very different place and different people for the next part of my career.

from pbs site: http://www.pbs.org/pov/camden28/
from pbs site:
http://www.pbs.org/pov/camden28/

My second book project looks at Catholic radicals who burned draft cards to protest the Vietnam War. I am writing a monograph about the Camden 28, a group arrested and put on trial in the early 1970s for burglarizing a Federal Building in the most poverty-stricken enclave of Southern, New Jersey. The activists damaged 700 draft files and office equipment, creating what the Selective Service supervisor estimated to be $13,500 worth of property damage. This action was the final such raid perpetrated by the “Catholic Left,” a network of nuns, priests, ministers, students, lay Catholics and non-Catholics mostly who destroyed (in their estimate) over a million conscription records between 1967 and 1972. They targeted draft boards in economically distressed cities because they identified military conscription as a mitigating factor in the urban decline. As Father Michael Doyle declared in his closing remarks at the trial, “Camden is a casualty of the war.”  Unanticipated, though not surprising, was the racial uprising that happened simultaneously with the raid in downtown Camden.  Several of the 28 couldn’t even get into the city because buses would not get off the freeway during the so-called “Puerto Rican Riot” that erupted in response to police brutality.

from pbs site: http://www.pbs.org/pov/camden28/
from pbs site:
http://www.pbs.org/pov/camden28/

One reason I am interested in the Camden 28 is because I take this history personally.  I was born in Camden 6 months before the August raid.  As a youth I would take the speed-line train into Philadelphia with my friends, which passed over Camden, where we never got off.  It looked then like it does now–like Dresden after the war, bombed out.  No one can seem to fix this problem.  Camden was also the verbotten land when I was growing up–that scary place.   Part of figuring out this “scary place,” I think, is figuring how how it has been forgotten…how people forget, what they forget and why.   I was raised Catholic in South Jersey, less than 20 miles from the Federal Building, but nobody told me about the raid or the trial.  It was never drummed into me as part of MY heritage as a Catholic.  This is not surprising because I grew up in the Era of Pope John Paul II and the conservative Catholics who dominate the region took minimal interest embracing radicalism as “their” heritage.  But there is more to this, which I need to figure out.

One last thing:

Kathleen "Cookie" Ridolfi and Rosemary "Ro Ro" Reilly entering the Camden Federal Building, August 1971.  Photo take by FBI
Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi and Rosemary “Ro Ro” Reilly entering the Camden Federal Building, August 1971. Photo taken by FBI.

I was also inspired by a fantastic documentary (see http://www.pbs.org/pov/camden28/) by another local of my generation.  Filmmaker Anthony Giacchino, a first-rate historian himself, left a voluminous archive of his sources, including FOIA records, behind in Swarthmore College’s Peace Collection.

So that’s where I will be in July–combing through Giacchino’s collection, doing oral histories, eating water ice, and hoping to get down the shore.

The Case for Repair, Part 2

A Guest Post by N. D. B. Connolly.  See Part 1 Here.

Policemen Choking African American Rioter

So, what do we do? With ‘nuff respect for all the bandwidth Coates has burned through making the case for racial justice over the years, and with a tip of the hat to the work of Congressman Conyers, Randall Robinson, and many others, I offer these recommendations for reframing old issues and marshaling new ones in the name of repairing a racist government, in the name of making reparations.

First, I believe we need to use the history of white supremacy to revise, fundamentally, the rules of capital accumulation, racial segregation, and violence that continue to fuel the wealth of nations, ours and others. We need a new blueprint, at a policy and political level, that reverse engineers the state-sponsored taking of black people’s futures, one that halts social processes that have made it in every group’s interests not to be black, look black, talk black, learn black, or live black. Putting the “repair” into reparations essentially means using constitutional amendments, political organizing, and the courts to restructure the very government that has enabled the wretched and enduring history that Ta-Nehisi Coates so vividly details.

Continue reading The Case for Repair, Part 2

The Case For Repair, Part 1

A Guest Post by N. D. B. Connolly.

Segregation Theater

In honor of his string of excellent essays over the past several years and out of special respect for what many have called his best work to date, I went out and bought a hardcopy of The Atlantic at my local Whole Foods. I bought a chai latte at my area Starbucks, and I posted up to read, in full, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” [1]

Ok. As a synthesis of housing discrimination, property-based white supremacy, and family history, Coates is on fire, as usual. Without question, the historical profession has likely had no better evangelist that Ta-Nehisi Coates, certainly in the last three years and perhaps ever. The essay demonstrates his trademark chronological range. As an actual case for reparations, though, I found myself strangely unsatisfied. Continue reading The Case For Repair, Part 1

Summer on My Mind

It is somewhat ironic that I plan to spend this summer holed up in my cramped home office writing about, well, summer.  Rather than making plans to go to the beach, my plan is to write a book about a beach.  Perhaps fittingly, though, it is a beach that I would have had a hard time gaining access to, anyway.  I am referring to the sandy shores of Connecticut’s Gold Coast, home to some of the wealthiest zip codes in the U.S., and, not coincidentally, some of the most exclusive—and exclusionary—beaches in America.

Writing about summer life at the town beaches and private clubs along this suburban shoreline in the 1960s and 1970s might, at first glance, seem to mark a departure from my primary research interests: urban black America, race and real estate, and environmental injustice.  Indeed, the vast majority of the people who lived and spent their summers along this shoreline at the time would have agreed, and, moreover, denied that the privileges they enjoyed (and jealously guarded) were in any way linked to the “long, hot summers” of discontent that annually gripped urban black America.  And yet, as I soon found after I began to explore this subject several summers ago, the privatization of public space along this and other suburban shorelines in post-World War II America was inextricably tied to the deterioration of urban environments during those same decades.

The corner of W. Roosevelt Rd. and Loomis St. on Chicago's West Side, where a dispute over police officers' shutting off a fire hydrant neighborhood kids were using to cool off sparked three days of civil violence in July 1966.  Several of the mass uprisings that swept across urban America in the 1960s and early 1970s were sparked by a dispute over recreational space or access to water.
The corner of W. Roosevelt Rd. and Loomis St. on Chicago’s West Side.  Here, in July 1966, a police officer’s decision to shut off a fire hydrant that neighborhood kids were using to cool off sparked 3 days of civil violence.

More than a few at the time said as much.  Edward T. “Ned” Coll, a tireless, bombastic activist and founder of the Hartford-based social welfare agency Revitalization Corps,  spent over a decade protesting against local ordinances and private practices that had rendered the state’s coastline (despite being public land) effectively off-limits to the poor.  For Coll, the private and resident-only beaches that lined the state’s coast, when contrasted with the dilapidated parks and dangerous, polluted waterways that snaked through the impoverished neighborhoods of Hartford’s North End, exemplified the ways in which, in the words of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, “white society [was] deeply implicated in the ghetto.”  Taking to heart the Report’s dire warning that, without immediate action, America was in danger of becoming “two societies, one white, one black—separate and unequal,” Coll fought tirelessly to open these beaches to the underprivileged children from Harlem, Hartford, and New Haven, and facilitate positive interracial contact in places of leisure. Continue reading Summer on My Mind

Universities and Cities

This summer I will be working on revisions for my book, Building the Ivory Tower, and submitting the manuscript to my publisher, the University of Pennsylvania Press. In it, I examine the role of universities as urban developers in the 20th century. As I wrap the major part of this project up, it’s useful to reflect on how I came to this research, my origins story as a scholar.

In college at Western Michigan University, there were two main student neighborhoods, one east of campus, older and more urban on a traditional street grid; the other west of campus, lower density and more suburban. My senior year of college there were two big block parties that got out of control, drawing in police who were then repelled with rocks and bottles.

As a crowd mills in the street, a local reveler throws a door onto a blazing fire in the Knollwood neighborhood of Kalamazoo, MI, 2001.  Photo from the Western Herald.
As a crowd mills in the street, a local reveler throws a door onto a blazing fire in the Knollwood neighborhood of Kalamazoo, MI, 2001.

Both of these happened, about 6 months apart, in the western student neighborhood near the 7-Eleven where I worked. These were such striking events, prompting severe political responses by city politicians, that I began to think about both the built environment as a significant factor in the life of college towns and about the political relationship between the city of Kalamazoo and the university. After taking an MA with a focus on public history and vernacular architecture I applied to grad school and was lucky to find myself in the midst of the spatial turn in history, including examination of geography, planning and architecture that probably would not have been possible five to ten years earlier. This initial inquiry has sustained me through numerous career twists and turns but the questions essentially remain, what are the spatial relationships between universities and their surrounding communities? How did they come about? And what are the politics of space in those higher education communities?

Some of the works with the greatest influence on me were Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto, along with Margaret O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge. Combining critical investigations of space with policy history has informed nearly all of my work for the last 10 years. Especially going over Hirsch’s work on Chicago, where we share an interest in the University of Chicago and Hyde Park, I’ve realized again and again how richly detailed his book was and how difficult it is to capture, in concise prose, months and years of archival work with an interesting narrative. It’s a tough standard to live up to.

LaDale Winling is assistant professor of history at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is working on a book project examining the role of universities as urban developers in the 20th century. He also blogs at Urban Oasis.

Welcome to the Urban History Blog

This blog is the brainchild of Tom Sugrue, president of the Urban History Association, and, at the outset, the work of the digital subcommittee of the UHA board. It is an effort to bring the work of urban historians to the public, to keep scholars in touch with one another outside of conferences and publications, and, most of all, to shed light on the history of cities. Our initial contributors are Lily Geismer, assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College; Andrew W. Kahrl, assistant professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Virginia; Michelle Nickerson, associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago; and LaDale Winling, assistant professor of history at Virginia Tech.