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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 297-304
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Exploring Babylon and Unveiling the "Mother of Harlots"
Rhonda Y. Williams
A city, a garden city, a modern city, a rich city, a city of culture, an excessively wicked city, an evil city, a spiritually bereft center of power, an empire built upon the subjugation of people, or the United States of America—the definitions of Babylon have multiplied for centuries.1 And, yet, at the same time there have been consistent themes. In 539 B.C. a letter written on a clay tablet to the King of Persia read: "Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world. It is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we are away from all the noise and dust." Babylon may have represented progress, but it still was not the optimal expression of beauty due to its noise and dust. Instead, this letter writer described his "property" as "the most beautiful in the world" because it combined "the best of both farm and city." As Kenneth T. Jackson argued almost two decades ago, this centuries-old document conveyed "the first extant expression of the suburban ideal"—and arguably the first critique of city life.2
In American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, Robert O. Self revisits this age-old city-suburb narrative by exploring its contemporary manifestations in the post-World War II period. Focusing on the complex interplay between Oakland and its suburbs, Self illuminates the evolution of physical spaces, the ideas that gave them form and meaning, and the racial and class politics that exploded within their boundaries. Spatial, economic, and political descriptors drive this study, as we are introduced to the intricate and interconnected history of postwar urban and suburban transformation: Industrial gardens (a twentieth-century version of the 539 B.C. suburban ideal) and urban "plantations," overdeveloped suburbs and underdeveloped cities, growth and containment, affluence and poverty, apartheid realities and liberal [End Page 297] inclusive ideals, suburban neopopulist conservatism and urban black power radicalism. As Self aptly states: "Oakland embodied the seeming contradictions of the postwar American metropolis" (20).
American Babylon succeeds most admirably as a work of synthesis. Although at times the thick description obscures the narrative, Self has put a plethora of voices and historical narratives in dialogue for the first time. In doing so, American Babylon provides readers a chance to witness the coming together of new paradigms in urban history. Most notably, American Babylon builds on studies that have charted the economic, political, and spatial development of cities and suburbs, like the 1980s classics—Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier on the suburban ideal and Arnold R. Hirsch's Making the Second Ghetto on post-1940 urban residential segregation—as well as the more recent Thomas J. Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis. However, Self moves beyond the black-white binary of many urban and suburban narratives by touching on the experiences of Spanish-speaking communities (mostly Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants) in his narrative. In addition, Self adds to our understanding of post-World War II history with his regional focus on the American West; his examination of the effects of capital and market imperatives on working-class people's lives, labor, and politics; and his inclusion of suburbs as part of the urban history narrative.3 Self, however, missed an opportunity to provide insight into how gender, alongside these other factors, shaped the metropolis and the goings-on within it. Such an analysis would have been a much-welcomed addition to this already multilayered study.
His book is divided into three parts. The first section, "Urban and Suburban Politics and the California Dream, 1945-1964," discusses the dilemmas accompanying the development of metropolitan Oakland, the assembly and failure of a progressive liberal coalition, and the...