Hope and Struggle for the Inner City: Race, Crime, and Urban Revitalization in the Metropolis

Endorsed by the Agricultural History Society (AHS)

Friday, April 3, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Crime and Violence; Gender; Labor and Working-Class; Politics; Social and Cultural; Social Welfare and Public Health; Women's History


These papers examine political anxieties surrounding crime, drug use, and land foreclosure in the urban United States from the 1960s through the 1980s. By asking how communities and policymakers responded to the structures of race, gender, and disinvestment that produced urban poverty in the United States, they examine conflicting visions for the city. These visions pitted rehabilitation against incarceration, social uplift against policing, and self-help against communal care. By bringing these struggles over urban futures to life, these papers can help historians to understand how hope for the city was both a response to and an engine of national politics in the late-twentieth century.

Papers Presented

Safe Streets, Inc.: The "Hustle" to End Black Gang Violence in Philadelphia, 1969–1976

From 1962 to 1968, gang stabbings and murders in Philadelphia drastically increased, inspiring Philadelphia district attorney Arlen Specter (1965–1973) to establish Safe Streets, Inc. in August 1968—a nonprofit, antigang program designed to reduce gang violence, end turf wars between rival gangs, and provide social services such as job training and academic tutoring to juveniles. Because the program came into existence amid the civil rights movement, numerous cases of police brutality, and over 200 race riots in postindustrial cities, the yearly Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) grant from the federal government offered to cities under the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 appealed to liberal and conservative politicians alike. Many conservative city officials often conflated civil rights protestors, rioters, social activists, and gang members into a single entity that was a constant nuisance to the police. Additionally, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, War on Poverty, and War on Crime led liberals and conservatives to debate how to reduce crime with the LEAA grant. Conservatives argued police departments should receive the grant funds to spend on strengthening its crime-fighting methods. Liberals lobbied for the funds to finance local social-uplift programs that would gradually rectify the issue of urban poverty and reduce crime. Although the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968 federally enforced desegregation and equal opportunity employment, voting, and housing, respectively, several conservative politicians such as like Mayor Frank L. Rizz) refused to believed that curing the social ills of poverty, unemployment, and school dropouts would dramatically reduce crime in major cities such as Philadelphia. From 1969 to 1976, Specter competed with Mayor Rizzo for funding to rehabilitate youth at Safe Streets, Inc., centers in the predominantly black neighborhoods of North and West Philadelphia, while Rizzo proposed to utilize the grant to strengthen police crime-fighting techniques. The battle over federal funding between liberal and conservative politicians influenced police-community relations in the 1970s when violence between police and citizens in Philadelphia was at its highest since 1930.

Presented By
Menika Dirkson, Temple University

"The Most Lasting Bonds": Detroit's Farm-A-Lot Program and the Reconfiguration(s) of Reproductive Labor under Deindustrialization

Speaking at a congressional hearing on the proposed National Gardening Act of 1977, Rep. James A. Burke (D-MA), saw fit to quote a founding father: “Thomas Jefferson, a famous farmer, knew the joys of working the land when he said, ‘Cultivators of the Earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.’” Of course, Burke failed to mention that the “lasting bonds” to which Jefferson referred evoked cultivators—enslaved black people—whom he owned and who worked his land. This paper argues that Burke’s emphasis on self-help through an agrarian ideal reflected an increasingly racialized and gendered dichotomy of deserving/undeserving poor in the context of deindustrialization. I examine the spatial politics of state-sponsored urban gardening programs in the postwar United States, specifically Detroit’s “Farm-A-Lot” program. I attend to the transformation of “vacant” space—lots under foreclosure that overwhelmed the Detroit area office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—through the reestablishment of a series of quantifiable, exchangeable units that Farm-A-Lot participants would keep green and tidy until the mayor’s office reclaimed them for development. In the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. policy makers increasingly delegitimized cash assistance programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children and the Food Stamps Program, demanding that black workers in places such as Detroit embrace their economic necessity—indeed find liberty—by forming “lasting bonds” with the soil. Farm-A-Lot served black Detroiters by doubling down on an institutional racism rooted—quite literally—in the history of slavery. This paper draws on sources such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual reports, memos from HUD, congressional hearings about gardening programs, and newspaper coverage of Detroit’s Farm-A-Lot program. I argue that the Food Stamp Act of 1977 and ideas of subsistence through self-help converged on the issue of land use in 1970s and 1980s Detroit. Historians of urban gardening in Detroit have suggested that struggles against capital flight were an “economic” response to deindustrialization while urban gardening was a “cultural” response. Such characterizations both reify the notion that labor and capital only meet in the workplace and assume that the economic and the cultural are readily separable. This paper is part of a larger project in which I argue that while studies of deindustrialization have tended to understand this period through spaces of production such as the plant and the union hall, approaching deindustrialization through spaces of reproduction such as the household, the community, and the welfare office can help historians to understand the post-1967 reconfiguration of the U.S. welfare state. I also ask whether the so-called crisis of care might be understood less as an event contained in the late twentieth century and more as a sustained and constitutive structure of capitalist accumulation. By invoking Jefferson’s “lasting bonds,” commentators such as Burke revealed not only their cultural understandings of the postindustrial city but also political-economic immobilities that constrained social reproduction.

Presented By
Robert Ramaswamy, University of Michigan

Geeking and Freaking: Public Perceptions of the Women Addicts of the 1980s Crack Epidemic

Americans may have feared the men who engaged in any drug-related activities, but they detested women drug users because they were an affront to the often-“romanticized” notions of femininity and motherhood. As a result, pregnant crack cocaine addicts risked losing everything, from their children to ownership of their bodies, in particular, their reproductive health. New laws criminalized their pregnancies and demanded jail time rather than treatment and rehabilitation. The rehabilitation available at this time often reflected the needs of men and ignored the struggles of women drug addicts. When taken in combination with the already-negative media portrayals of drug abusers that slanted public opinion against these women, laws that labeled crack-addicted mothers as child abusers garnered intense public antipathy. Not only were the reproductive rights of drug-addicted women on the line but their ability to nurture and mother their children was also called into question. This research explores the intersection of race, class, and gender to demonstrate how inner-city crack-addicted women, in particular mothers, were seen by the American public as the antithesis of the traditional conservative family values that emerged in the 1980s. American women addicted to crack cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s were objects of public contempt and as a result, faced harsh criticism and systemic mistreatment. Through an examination of a variety of media outlets, legislation and political agendas, as well as scholarship from fields such as public health, sociology, and criminology, this work orients the treatment of women crack addicts within the historical context of both the backlash against women’s rights and the desire to cling to conservative family values established in postwar America.

Presented By
Adrianna Finamore, Temple University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Max Felker-Kantor, Ball State University

Presenter: Menika Dirkson, Temple University
Menika Dirkson is a PhD History student at Temple University. She received her Master’s in History and Bachelor’s degree (triple majoring in History, Cultural Studies, and Latin American Studies) from Villanova University. Her research focuses on Race, Culture, Crime, and Policing in post-1968 Urban America. Dirkson is currently studying the tense relationship between Philadelphia’s black community and the police from 1970-1979. With a 2018-2019 fellowship from Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for Public Service, Dirkson plans to investigate how politicians, community activists, and Police Athletic League (PAL) centers eased violence between police and African Americans in the 1970s.

Presenter: Adrianna Finamore, Temple University
Adrianna Rosamilia is a graduate assistant and PhD student at Temple University specializing in 20th Century American urban and social history and earned a MA in Public History from St. John’s University. Her research interests include race relations, politics, and gender. She was the Allen F. Davis Fellow at the Philadelphia History Museum from 2017-2018, placed second for a paper in American History at Temple University’s 23rd annual James A. Barnes Conference 2018, and is currently serving as a member of the conference planning committee for the 24th annual James A. Barnes Conference.

Presenter: Robert Ramaswamy, University of Michigan
Robert Ramaswamy is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He completed his M.A. in American Studies at the George Washington University (2016) and his B.A. in American Studies, with distinction, at Yale University (2012). His proposed dissertation project is in conversation with with black and Third World feminists' theories and histories of care work, labor history's examination of how labor regimes produce race and gender, and the "new" history of capitalism's analyses of deindustrialization. The project asks whether approaching deindustrialization through social reproduction can help help historians to understand the post-1967 reconfiguration of the U.S. welfare state. It also asks whether the so-called "crisis of care" might be understood less as an event contained in the late-twentieth century and more as a sustained and constitutive structure of capitalist accumulation as such.