Housing Inequality: The Working-Class Struggle for a Home

Endorsed by LAWCHA

Friday, March 31, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Labor and Working-Class; Urban and Suburban


This panel examines working-class housing across the long-twentieth century, from the rise of the industrial bungalow suburb, to New Deal policies, to white-flight and deindustrialization. Homes and housing, as sites of labor and social reproduction and as objects of political contention, illuminate the intersecting class, racial, and gender experiences for men, women, and children in working-class communities. Struggles over, and within, working-class homes reveal profound changes in the spatial and social organization of inequality across the twentieth century.

Papers Presented

Scaling the Modern Household: Class, Patriarchy, and the Rise of the Industrial Bungalow in the United States and the United Kingdom, 1880-1930

This paper explores the rise of the modern household in the US and UK, examining the gendered labor of social reproduction which occurred within homes, the rise and spread of new household technologies, and the reshaping of class inequality through household organization. Instead of approaching households as either economic assets or political objects, this paper treats housing as sites of authority and work in order to trace changes in class, gender, and racial inequality from the 1880s to the 1920s. Using archival research from two UK cities - Sheffield and Liverpool - and two US cities - Pittsburgh and Baltimore - the paper contrasts the rise of industrial bungalow suburbs in the leading steel and port cities of the United States and Britain. In Liverpool and Sheffield, government subsidized housing increasingly forged new connections between previously fractured segments of the working class: skilled and unskilled, Protestant and Catholic. In contrast, in Pittsburgh and Baltimore private housing development deepened fissures within the working class. Whites-only development in new working-class neighborhoods left African Americans confined to segregated ghettos. In contrast to the UK, where housing provided a new terrain for working-class solidarity, in the US the rise of the bungalow industrial suburb left the working class even more deeply divided.

Presented By
Rudi Batzell, Lake Forest College

Jane Jacobs, Meet Mexican Chicago: Latino Housing, Stockyard Deindustrialization, and Urban Expertise in the Prevention of White Flight

As noted urbanist Jane Jacobs researched the case studies that would become part of her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), she set her sights on the old packinghouse district of Chicago known as the Back of the Yards. There she explored the themes of white working-class sweat equity and a plucky spirit of community control that had rejected intrusive federal slum clearance programs in favor of homeowner-led conservation campaigns to stabilize and “fix up” an old neighborhood in the throes of deindustrialization. Guided by her friend, Saul Alinsky, another urban expert, both concluded that this type of do-it-yourself rehabilitation work would and could prevent whites from fleeing to the suburbs and save the neighborhood. But this urban expertise privileged one development over others, in particular, how the neighborhood had become a laboratory for techniques in the spatial containment of Mexican housing. In the 1940s and 1950s, sudden demographic changes emerged on the doorstep of the shuttering packinghouses, where a Mexican enclave took root that repurposed working cottage homes, survived stockyard closures, and challenged the harmful urban expertise that rendered them invisible in some cases and quite visible in others.

Presented By
Mike Amezcua, Georgetown University

A Violent Tradition? Move-In Violence, White Flight, and the (Un)Making of Black Philadelphia

On July 26, 1918, a Black woman named Adella Bond moved into a home in a white South Philadelphia neighborhood. It did not take long for a white mob to gather outside, and four days later, two people lay dead and sixty people arrested. Bond’s story represents one of the first of many instances of anti-Black move-in violence in twentieth century Philadelphia. These instances only grew in frequency as more Black migrants moved to the city from the South, as whites violently challenged African Americans’ increasing presence before leaving for the suburbs. This paper tells the story of Black community building at key stages during the formation of Black Philadelphia: during neighborhood integration, in the wake of heightened racial tension and violence, and finally during and after white flight. National, municipal, and local Black-led organizations aimed to help African Americans build and sustain lives in Philadelphia. For example, the Armstrong Association, the Urban League of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations helped new Black residents find jobs, integrate into neighborhoods and public housing projects, and establish support systems in the North. In addition, the paper considers Philadelphia’s violent reputation and approaches historic instances of move-in violence in the postwar period as a lens to understand patterns of intra-community violence and racial violence in present-day Philadelphia. GIS map overlays render patterns of mid-twentieth century move-in violence and contemporary gun violence in Philadelphia highly similar. Overall, the paper provides an anti-racist social history of violence in Philadelphia.

Presented By
Sarah Elizabeth Coffman, Rutgers University

A Failure of Imagination? Race, Gender, and Tradition in the Greenbelt Towns of the New Deal

Among the New Deal’s myriad programs to improve housing for struggling Americans, the Resettlement Administration’s Greenbelt towns were among the most ambitious and expensive. Pitched to President Roosevelt as a way to clear away slums and provide low-cost working-class housing, the program seemed fairly radical: new towns complete with swimming pools, movie theaters, and ample recreation, all built by the federal government. Yet this “radical” concept, in the end, produced neighborhoods catering not to the neediest of the working class, but to upper-working-class and lower-middle-class white families with narrowly defined gender and family structures. This paper explores how and why the program fell short of its potential to fully imagine and reshape working-class community and family life for the future.

Presented By
Julie D. Turner, University of Cincinnati

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Thomas J. Sugrue, New York University
Thomas J. Sugrue is Silver Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History and affiliated faculty member in the Wagner School at NYU. A specialist in twentieth-century American politics, urban history, civil rights, and race, Sugrue was educated at Columbia; King's College, Cambridge; and Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1992. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the New York Institute for the Humanities, and the Royal Historical Society. He is an elected member of the Society of American Historians, and past president of both the Urban History Association and the Social Science History Association. He taught from 1991-2015 at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was David Boies Professor of History and Sociology and director of the Penn Social Science and Policy Forum.

Presenter: Mike Amezcua, Georgetown University
Mike Amezcua is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Georgetown University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification (University of Chicago Press, 2022) published in the Historical Studies of Urban America series. In his book, Amezcua examines how federal policies of urban renewal and mass deportation intersected in the lives of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans as they navigated real estate boundaries, business development, and eventual gentrification to remake Chicago’s neighborhoods. His writing has appeared in multiple scholarly and popular outlets, including The Washington Post, The Journal of American History, The Sixties, and The Abusable Past. He was recently named the Co-Winner of the Arnold Hirsch Award for Best Article in Urban History by the Urban History Association. Before joining the Georgetown faculty, Amezcua was an Assistant Professor at NYU. He teaches and writes about US history, Latinx history, urban studies, race, politics, and immigration. You can follow Professor Amezcua on Twitter at @DrMikeAmezcua.

Presenter: Rudi Batzell, Lake Forest College
Rudi Batzell grew up in the rural midwest of Michigan and Wisconsin, near the towns of Milan and East Troy. He graduated from Columbia University with a double major in History and Sociology in 2009. He then attended Cambridge University, Clare College, as a Kellett Fellow, where he completed an Mphil in Economic and Social History. He received his PhD from Harvard University in 2017. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Lake Forest College and lives in the City of Chicago in the Rogers Park neighborhood. His interests are in the social history and politics of inequalities, extending across the intersection of racism, gender, and class formation. He is currently completing his first book manuscript, Making Modern Inequality: Class, Patriarchy, and Racial Empire in American and British Capitalism, 1870-1930.

Presenter: Sarah Elizabeth Coffman, Rutgers University
Sarah Coffman is a history PhD student at Rutgers University. Her research concerns white violence against Black homeowners and renters in Chicago and Philadelphia who moved into traditionally white neighborhoods in the post-WWII era.

Presenter: Julie D. Turner, University of Cincinnati
Julie Turner has taught at several universities in the Cincinnati area, most recently as an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati’s Blue Ash campus. Her book Best-Laid Plans: The Promises and Pitfalls of the New Deal’s Greenbelt Towns (University of Cincinnati Press, 2022) explores a program sold to the public as an innovative way to raise the working class out of their dismal housing environments, and by doing so, to lift them into a more respectable middle-class lifestyle. The reality of the completed towns, although successful as planned communities, fell somewhat short of the original plan.

Dr. Turner earned her doctorate from Miami University of Ohio. Her research interests lie in the first half of the twentieth century, with a focus on social and cultural history as well as material culture and design. In addition to the Organization of American Historians, she is a member of the Urban History Association.