- The Cultural Structure of Postwar Urbanism
American studies has long been driven by interest in what we might loosely call “cultural structure.” Across all the disputes that have marked the history of the movement, there has been an underlying tendency to employ a host of interpretive categories—some invented in-house, so to speak, others imported from neighboring intellectual and political worlds—that collect otherwise isolable phenomenon in overarching conceptual structures designed to sort topics in novel ways. From the long-departed “myth and symbol” days down to more recent concern with the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and sexuality, to transnationalism and empire and many concepts and traditions in between, the recombinatory power of thinking with the “representations” and “discourses” and “social formations” that animate cultural structure provides the field a way to herd various specificities into theoretical generalization and to reshape the way we see “America” and its worlds. If this approach has had the virtue of flushing out and making visible otherwise hidden ideological affinities between diverse topics, that advantage has also meant that individual subjects and the internal contradictions of their particular histories can sometimes fade from view.
Consider, for instance, urban renewal. The attempts by cities in the post–World War II era to remake their downtowns through slum clearance and [End Page 477] modernist tower-in-the park redevelopment projects is a well-thumbed subject for historians and sociologists, but it has inspired little close or sustained interest in American studies proper. When it attracts attention, it is likely to do so as a blip, a line-item entry in a catalog of errors, just another moment in the long-running rage for order that, recent work shows us, has produced racialized exclusions and displacements from the liberal universalism of progress-fueled modernity.
Here, for instance, is George Lipsitz, in a recent account: “From the theft of Native American and Mexican lands in the nineteenth century to the confiscation of Black and Latino property for urban renewal projects in the twentieth century, from the Trail of Tears to the Japanese Internment, from the creation of ghettos, barrios, reservations, and ‘Chinatowns’ to the disproportionate placement of toxic hazards in minority neighborhoods, the racial projects of U.S. society have always been spatial projects as well.”1 Or, in his book on the history of whiteness: “White opposition to the accumulation of assets by African Americans has a long history, one manifest in a broad range of private and public actions, including discrimination in home lending, employment, and education, as well as in racial zoning, restrictive covenants, blockbusting, racially targeted urban renewal, and vigilante violence against people of color who move into white neighborhoods.”2
Whether these sorts of categorical linkages unfurl as civilization-level critique or insurgent materialist history, they recast supposedly unitary phenomena as elements in a longer history of officially sanctioned violence that, whether by intention or outcome, has shaped, constrained, and ruined individual lives. From “racial and spatial projects” to “white opposition to the accumulation of assets by African-Americans,” they make urban renewal just one turn in an analysis that reveals, as Lipsitz puts it, “how racism takes place.” Urban renewal, by these lights, was little more than a function of a “racial project.” It is easy to see why looking closer at urban renewal might appear pointless. What more is there to say?
In part, these accounts are simply following the judgment of a still dimly perceived but consequential group—those community activists who initially resisted urban renewal. Lipsitz quotes Martin Luther King Jr. calling urban renewal “Negro removal”—an epithet popular in the black community by the early 1960s and echoed widely since...