- The Political Complexities of Development
In writing urban history, a history that assumes that space matters, the challenge is to properly acknowledge influences emanating from multiple geographical scales. An appropriate balance has to be struck between events and decisions occurring at the regional, national, and global scales and those happening within the city. Write too little about the former and these factors become “black boxes” with little meaning for the reader. Write too much about them and the story shifts to higher levels, and local actions and conditions become mere epiphenomena. Consequently, the whole purpose for writing about “the urban” is defeated.
Sociologist of science John Law1 has proposed that we think of this problem as involving a choice between two types of complexity, one romantic and the other baroque. Romantic complexity asks us to believe that the world is built from the bottom up, with each activity or condition lower down making sense only as it comes together with others above it. We look to the higher scales for the forces that shape what occurs beneath them. Baroque complexity is its opposite; the world exists in the proverbial “grain of sand.” If we want to know how things happen, we look down. There, we find everything that we need to make social science knowledge. From this baroque perspective, globalization, neoliberalism, modernization, urbanization, and war take on meaning only when they settle into a specific landscape. [End Page 161]
Most urban historians do not want to choose. They want access to international events (for example, European immigration to the United States in the early twentieth century), national trends such as industrial decentralization, and the mediations of local actors and conditions. Being purely romantic or purely baroque seems too constraining. The Depression was an international phenomenon and its solution could not have been forged solely in Seattle or Montgomery. Yet it mattered because it was experienced by the unemployed, homeless, and business owners in these places and was used to justify local decisions about relief and evictions.
Exemplary in this regard is Sarah Jo Peterson’s Planning the Home Front, her thoroughly enjoyable and informative history of the intergovernmental relations surrounding the massive Willow Run facility constructed in the early 1940s to produce B-24 bombers. Owned by the federal government and operated by the Ford Motor Company, the plant was located approximately twenty-five miles west of Detroit and was initially projected to have a labor force of 100,000 people. (At peak production, it reached 42,000 employees.)
Workers had to be recruited and, faced with a shortage of white males, accommodations had to be made for African Americans and women. Workers who would live nearby, either alone or with their families, had to be housed. An expressway and parking lots had to be built for those commuting from Detroit by automobile or bus. Railroad lines and access roads were needed to bring in parts and to ship out plane assemblages. An airport had to be constructed so that the bombers could be flown to military bases. Scarce materials and labor had to be distributed across industries and, specifically, between war production and the construction of new housing, water and sewage infrastructure, roads, and recreational facilities. Policies to enable these activities had to be legislated, funding allocated, and programs staffed and managed. Which level of government—federal, state, or local—would make these decisions? How would decisions be negotiated and coordinated with Ford, labor unions, local charity organizations, elected officials, and municipal departments? What would happen to these communities when the war ended and the country...