Wednesday, May 7, 2008

With or Without Jim Crow

I am attending the University of New Orleans in the Fall, and I want to get familiar with the work of the professors in my department. Our friend in town recently studied under Arnold Hirsch, a historian of urban policy in America, and so I decided to start with him. I have recently heard that his book Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 is fundamental in understanding how racial dynamics has impacted urban planning and led to segregation. As it turns out, that information was learned a little too recently, because I had just purchased another book, Urban Policy in Twentieth-Century America, where he contributes an essay.

I went at this essay with an amateur interest; throughout the years I have been drawn to discuss urban planning with my friends. My travel experiences served to increase this emphasis, as it became clear that the structure of the city plays such an integral role in shaping culture and, ultimately, determining the quality of life. My personal preference is for walking cities and so I tend to enjoy cities that were planned before the automobile--Brugges, Cesky Krumlov, and Chang Mai stand out as particularly pleasant designs.

The essay "With or Without Jim Crow" focuses on the prominent role racism has played in our country's urban planning. Just how overt that role was is shocking. During the early 1900's state laws prohibited blacks from living in certain areas of the city. Where the legislature was unable to strangle diversity, gentleman's agreements and violence finished the job. The Jim Crow laws lasted until the mid 20th century and dominated urban planning through the transparent racism of the national real estate board.

I am familiar with American History and was aware of our legacy of discrimination. The story of racism in urban planning, partly due to my move to New Orleans, enabled that history to step out of abstraction. I can now imagine the victims, the riots, and the powerful lobbies that perpetuated the injustice. In Seattle, the racial aspects of history were weightless. Like the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the tragedy was real, but distance and unfamiliarity precluded a heartfelt response. Lauren and I both feel that we have been given a great opportunity here in New Orleans to re-address racial issues with a fresh perspective.

No comments: