- The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950–1972 by Christopher Lowen Agee
Christopher Lowen Agee’s book is an important intervention that connects liberal politics and urban policing, two topics that have been remarkably neglected by historians of the post–World War II era. The dearth of studies of how big-city police departments developed in the mid- and late twentieth century represents a major gap in postwar historiography, making this book a welcome contribution. That the gap has persisted for so long is all the more remarkable since, as Agee’s study illustrates, policing is an ideal site for examining the state from the bottom up while attending to the actions and motivations of a range of agents. His emphasis on street-level policing recognizes the gulf between policy pronouncements and the behavior of cops on the streets, emphasizing that it is often the latter—which is of course harder to study—that was at the heart of urban conflicts. It joins Andrew J. Diamond’s study of Chicago as one of relatively few works that examines everyday police practices outside the specific context of tensions between police officers and black and New Left protestors.
Deeply researched and elegantly argued, The Streets of San Francisco deserves a wide readership among political and urban historians. The core argument of the book is that “cosmopolitan liberalism” represented a departure both from what Agee calls “traditional liberalism,” premised on the maintenance and reproduction of the New Deal welfare state, and from the “managerial-growth liberalism” that business elites advocated in the postwar period and that drove much of the redevelopment in the nation’s urban downtowns with the support of subsidies sanctioned by the Housing Act of 1949. Traditional liberals tolerated police corruption, while managerial growth liberals wanted to stamp it out, and cosmopolitan liberals instead articulated a nascent defense of pluralist urban culture. Beginning in the [End Page 508] 1950s, Agee shows, they sometimes invoked the concept of harm in order to critique the unchecked discretion that many police officers—not to mention businessmen and politicians who sympathized with them—viewed as their prerogative. In thematic, loosely chronological chapters, Agee uncovers the varying ways in which specific social and political movements approached this new idea. All of this added up to a consequential variant of urban liberalism that forced city governments to attend to the concerns of rebels and outsiders who migrated to cities alongside factory workers and white-collar strivers.
The book is also a pioneering work of LGBT history. The chapter on San Francisco’s “gayola” scandal of 1959–60, which Agee says in the acknowledgments was the genesis of the project as a whole and which overlaps with an article he published in this journal, is revelatory. Historians, including John D’Emilio, Marc Stein, Nan Alamilla Boyd, and Robert Self, have worked to piece together how ordinary gays and lesbians experienced police harassment in the postwar period. In California, Boyd and others have pointed to the 1955 creation of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) as a watershed that led to intensified police harassment of San Francisco’s gay bars. Agee helps explain how and why this new regulatory regime widened the gulf between the experiences of gay and straight bar patrons. For example, one way California’s ABC discriminated against gay bars was by concealing the ABC’s investigations from bar owners, in contrast to the department’s practice of issuing warnings to straight bars and allowing them to bring patrons’ behavior within acceptable bounds (87).
Reversing the usual angle from which LGBT historians approach surveillance and bar raids, Agee is interested less in the patrons than in the cops. More than any previous account, this book embeds the police surveillance of gay bars in its political context. San Francisco’s police underwent a complex process of professionalization that incorporated some aspects of the earlier, machine-oriented regime while...