The Magic of Crabgrass: Thirty Years Later, An Appraisal of Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier (Best of UHA 2014, Part 2)

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"If I had added everything I'd still be writing it," eminent historian of U.S suburbanization and Columbia Professor Kenneth Jackson reflected during the UHA’s 2014 roundtable discussion honoring the upcoming 30th anniversary of his 1985 work, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. A packed house of historians dressed in their “urbanist best” greeted Jackson who admitted to being a bit “overwhelmed by the turnout but pleased for many reasons.” One can take for granted the enormity of Jackson’s most famous work Crabgrass Frontier (CF). Today, it seems common knowledge that federal policy in the form of redlining and racial bias in mortgage infrastructure … [Read more...]

Structured Unrest: The Rumford Act, Proposition 14, and the Systematic Inequality that Created the Watts Riots

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If “you keep telling people that they are unfairly treated and teach them disrespect for the law,” Chief William Parker told reporters in the aftermath of the Watts Riots, then violence is inevitable. Parker’s commentary, an attempt to deflect his own department’s culpability for the civil unrest veered into increasingly racist territory. In Parker’s worldview, trouble only started “when one person threw a rock, and like monkeys in a zoo, others started throwing rocks.” Calls by assemblyman Mervyn Dymally for a civilian police review board were little more than a “vicious canard,” argued the imperious police chief.[1] The legacy of the riots, fifty years old next year, has reverberated … [Read more...]

Diving into Integration: Sammy Lee, Historical Memory, and the Complexity of Housing Segregation in Cold War California

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Even with the clearest of minds, personal and historical memory ebb and flow. Recollections of our own past and that of the society around us often become shaped by current circumstance and selective recall. If one adds dementia to the mix, personal memories become scattered vestiges of our former selves that bound across the mind. Lest one thinks society as a collective operates any better, it does not. You need only point to the occasional survey of American knowledge of U.S. history to know the past might stalk us invisibly at every moment, but as Americans we seem blissfully unaware. When two-time gold medal Olympic diver Sammy Lee disappeared for several days this past April, the … [Read more...]

The Shifting Cultures of Multiracial Boyle Heights

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In a critical scene from the 1997 neo-noir "L.A. Confidential," the ambitious and overzealous Detective Ed Exley (Guy Pierce) escorts rape survivor Inez Soto (Marisol Padilla Sanchez) through the tumult of press coverage upon her discharge from the hospital. Soto's testimony proved vital in convicting four black men of murder at the famous Night Owl diner massacre; a case that led to Exley's promotion and subsequent municipal fame. However, in a brief exchange, Soto reveals that while guilty of sexual assault, the four men never stepped foot in the notorious Night Owl. "I don't know what time they left me, I wanted them dead," she tells Exley in a private moment. "Would anyone care that they … [Read more...]

Home on the California Range: Ranch Housing in Postwar America

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[Editor's note: This is the second of ToM's two part series on vernacular housing. The first, on the Pre-WWII rise of the bungalow can be found here. This article originally ran on December 3, 2013 under the Intersections column for KCET Departures.] "Machines for living," declared modern architecture's most devout practitioners. 1 Indeed, by the 1950s, modernist impulses -- favoring functionality -- and increasingly popular prefabrication techniques, had transformed the home into a commoditized living space. The accoutrements of mid-century suburbia -- new appliances and technologies -- came to define the home as much as the structure itself. The bohemian "Arts and Craft" aesthetic that … [Read more...]

Bungling Across America: The Bungalow in Southern California and Beyond

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[Editor's note: This is part I of ToM's two part series on pre and post WWII  vernacular architecture. For part II, the post WWII rise of the ranch house, see here.  This article originally ran on November 14, 2013 under the Intersections column for KCET Departures.] "This is the thing that strikes the attention of the traveler; not the orchards and the gardens, which are not appreciably different in kind from those of the Riviera and some favored parts of Italy, but the homes, the number of them, their extraordinary adaptability to the purposes of gracious living," gushed Mary Austin in her 1914 work "California: The Land of the Sun." "The Angelenos call them bungalows, in respect to … [Read more...]

The Massive Missed Opportunity

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Tanner Colby wants to use history to rethink liberal orthodoxy on questions of race and racism, but his stories so far reproduce as much rotten accepted wisdom as they challenge. Over at Slate, Tanner Colby is celebrating Black History Month with a series titled “The Massive Liberal Failure on Race.” The premise is simple: despite having been “ceded a monopoly on caring about black people” by the Republican right, liberals “hold on to some really bad ideas about race.” As a remedy, Colby prescribes a dose of history, a retelling of the “liberal establishment’s mishandling of this volatile issue” in order to encourage today’s liberals to “purge outdated orthodoxies, admit past mistakes, … [Read more...]

East of East: Using Vacant Space to Create Place in South El Monte

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[Editor's note: This article originally appeared under the Intersections column for the KCET Departures website, January 31, 2013] When the housing bubble burst in 2008, the fallout scattered widely. California and the metropolitan region of Los Angeles took it in the teeth. In Cleveland and Detroit, where unoccupied housing had long proven to be a drag on local economies and communities, vacant homes and lots accumulated rapidly. Rustbelt inner cities struggled mightily and their sprawling Sunbelt cousins endured crippling retrenchment. Phoenix, Fresno and Orlando witnessed declining economies and rising crime rates as vacant homes and lots proliferated. In "Sunburnt Cities," Tufts … [Read more...]

The Motor City at War: Mobilization, Wartime Housing, and Reshaping Metropolitan Detroit

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“New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie,” commented former Punk rock queen Patti Smith in recent weeks. “New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city."  Today, Detroit usually receives attention for all the wrong reasons: industrial decline, corrupt mayoral administrations, and racial tension to name only a few issues assailing the city.  Add the seemingly ubiquitous spread of ruin porn – photography that tends to capture Detroit as if it were nothing but municipal ruin and squatters – and Detroit’s main attraction seems to be, at the moment, its desperation. Desperate New York of the … [Read more...]

Only Some May Follow: Southern California, Asian Americans, and Housing during the Cold War

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“Years of media abetted conditioning to the possibility of war, invasion, and conquest by waves and waves of fanatic emperor worshiping yellow men,” the late writer Michi Nishiura Weglyn pointed out, “invariably aided by harmless seeming Japanese gardeners and fisherfolk who were really spies and saboteurs in disguise – had invoked latent paranoia as the news from the Pacific in the early weeks of the war brought only reports of cataclysmic Allied defeats.”[1]  Indeed, even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and internment, the U.S. government questioned the loyalty of its Japanese citizens. The F.B.I. and Naval intelligence had performed exhaustive surveillance of the Japanese minority and … [Read more...]

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