Transnational Routes of the Post-War Urban Crisis and Global American Capitalism

Endorsed by the BHC and LAWCHA

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Postwar; Urban and Suburban


The urban crisis has long loomed large, as a descriptor, and, sometimes causal force, for the large-scale political, cultural, and spatial transformations of the post-World War II era. The urban crisis has likewise featured prominently as a crucial transformative moment in the history of American capitalism. Thus, some historians have linked the urban crisis to the rise of new patterns of consumption and production centered in the post-World War II American suburb, while others have examined the place of the urban crisis in facilitating new modes of extraction. Until recently, much of the scholarship on the urban crisis has centered in the United States. This panel, by contrast, investigates the transnational routes of the post-World War II urban crisis and asks what they reveal about this moment in global American capitalism. It does so through re-thinking the geography of some of the key phenomena associated with the urban crisis, including suburbanization, deindustrialization, and financialization. Alongside Levittown, Detroit, and Wall Street–all familiar places in the history of the urban crisis–the papers look to places like San Juan, London, Rio de Janeiro, and Nairobi to explain the causes and effects of the urban crisis in the United States. While tracing capital flows to reveal a new geography of the urban crisis, the papers also gesture backwards in time to highlight connections between late twentieth-century global American capitalism and histories of slavery and colonialism.

Papers Presented

From Urban Crisis to Imperial Crisis: Levittown, Puerto Rico and the Question of US Suburban History

Scholars and residents of the US often associate the name “Levittown” with the influential Northeastern tract developments of the 1950s that symbolized the post-war American dream. This American dream, as historians have noted, was a flip side to an urban crisis fueled, in part, by white flight, federally-sponsored urban disinvestment, and racist predation. The last Levittown, however, does not fit this mold and is seldom discussed in US urban historiography. It was begun in 1963 outside San Juan, Puerto Rico. This paper uses Levittown, Puerto Rico to explore the adaptation and translation of American suburbanization to both Latin American and US imperial contexts. Though the developer Levitt and Sons was the same, the hallmarks of post-war suburbia took on different iterations in the Commonwealth. Levittown was the product of a related but distinct crisis of US imperial policy as Operation Bootstrap caused rapid urbanization and economic restructuring, triggering mass migration. As a result, the development, whose English slogan was “where the good life begins,” served not as a first home for upwardly mobile white veterans, but as the neighborhood of choice for migrants returning from the mainland, drawn by its advertisements as a place donde la vida buena comienza. On one hand the work of mainland suburban developers reconfigured how inequality became spatialized and lived. On the other, the difference between Levittowns emphasizes the hemispheric connections between policy, people, and capital, pointing to new directions in the study of housing development and narratives of crisis.

Presented By
Paige Glotzer, University of Wisconsin-Madison

General Motors Kenya, Africa, and the “Post-Industrial” Landscape of Global American Capitalism

The early 1970s were a volatile period for the U.S. automobile industry. In March 1972, tensions at General Motor’s Lordstown plant boiled over into a strike that cost the world’s largest automobile manufacturer $150 million. Lordstown has often drawn attention as a spectacular, if momentary, display of worker power preceding American labor’s crushing defeat at the hands of conservative politicians and de-industrialization. Far less remarked on is what happened at another GM factory not long after, one located in Nairobi, Kenya. This paper uses the launch of GM Kenya coinciding with the company’s retrenchment in the U.S. as a lens through which to explore, and reassess, the history of deindustrialization, highlighting its links to a much longer history of U.S. corporate imperialism. At the time of its launch in 1975, GM Kenya promised to deliver new industrial jobs and high-tech production to Kenya. Yet, as in other global South locales which experienced the expansion of U.S. manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s, the Nairobi factory quickly morphed into a site reminiscent of earlier waves of U.S. corporate imperialism in Latin America and Asia. When a Canadian journalist visited the plant in 1985, he described a “low-tech factory” with Kenyan workers engaged in back-breaking manual labor overseen by white American managers from Detroit. Through revealing the multiple geographies and trajectories of U.S. auto manufacturing, this paper raises questions about whether “post-industrial” is the correct frame through which to describe late 20th century American capitalism.

Presented By
Jessica Ann Levy, Purchase College, State University of New York

Geographies of Financialization: The Bronx and Its Triangular Trade in Risk

Historians and social scientists typically associate late-twentieth-century financialization with landscapes like Wall Street or Chicago’s Loop. But the geography of 1970s financialization in the United States was not limited to the central business district. The where of financialization was lower Manhattan, yes, but it was also in a place like Morrisania in the Bronx; more to the point, it was in the uneven flows between the two. This paper revisits the story of landlord arson in the 1970s Bronx by tracing the transnational financial circuits that spread its losses across an increasingly global network of reinsurance. A declassified FEMA memo from 1980 provides a map of tens of millions of dollars in insurance and reinsurance transactions from one large arson-for-profit scheme in the Bronx to a Florida-based shell insurance company, then to the underwriting room of Lloyd’s of London, and finally to IRB, a Rio de Janeiro-based reinsurance firm. What emerged from these dizzying routes was a postwar triangular trade, offshoring risk from the Bronx to Britain to Brazil. The hazards confronting a Bronx tenement reverberated over continents and across oceans, redistributing the risks forged in the crucible of post-Fordist racial capitalism. Like the triangular trade of earlier centuries, this one reworked the relationship between race, space, and finance. In 1979, it came to a crashing halt when the Brazilian reinsurer refused to reimburse Lloyd’s for the fraudulent claims, convulsing the international insurance market and precipitating the first bankruptcy in a Lloyd’s syndicate since its founding in the seventeenth century.

Presented By
Bench Ansfield, Dartmouth College

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Destin Jenkins, Stanford University
Destin Jenkins is an assistant professor of history at Stanford University. He is the author of The Bonds of Inequality: Debt and the Making of the American City (University of Chicago Press, 2021), and co-editor of Histories of Racial Capitalism (Columbia University Press, 2021).

Presenter: Bench Ansfield, Dartmouth College
Bench Ansfield is an American Democracy Fellow at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. They are writing a book on race, financialization, and landlord arson in the 1970s, entitled Born in Flames: Racial Finance and the Underwriting of Incendiary Cities. Their work has appeared in the Journal of American History and American Quarterly, and they worked as a researcher on the documentary Decade of Fire, which aired on PBS in 2019.

Presenter: Paige Glotzer, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Paige Glotzer is Assistant Professor and John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Chair in the History of American Politics, Institutions, and Political Economy in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of History. Her first book, How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890-1960 received the Kenneth Jackson Award for Best Book in North American History and was a finalist for the Hagley Prize in Business History. It charts how suburban developers ushered in modern American housing segregation with the help of financiers, real estate institutions, and policymakers. Her work has been featured in both peer reviewed journals and popular outlets, including the Journal of Urban History, CityLab, and Time magazine. She joined the University of Wisconsin after a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard University Joint Center for History and Economics. Dr. Glotzer received her Ph.D. in History from Johns Hopkins University.

Presenter: Jessica Ann Levy, Purchase College, State University of New York
Jessica Ann Levy is an Assistant Professor of History at Purchase College, State University of New York, where she teaches courses on modern U.S. history, the history of capitalism, race and racism, and U.S. & the world. She is currently writing her first book, Black Power, Inc.: Corporate America, Race, and Empowerment Politics in the U.S. and Africa, examining the transnational rise of black empowerment politics after World War II. Levy’s writing has appeared in a variety of scholarly and popular venues, including Enterprise & Society, the Journal of Urban History, The Washington Post, Public Seminar and Black Perspectives. She is the host of Who Makes Cents?: A History of Capitalism Podcast.