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  • Calculating Property Relations: Chicago's Wartime Industrial Mobilization, 1940–1950 by Robert Lewis
  • Mark R. Wilson
Calculating Property Relations: Chicago's Wartime Industrial Mobilization, 1940–1950. By Robert Lewis (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016. xi plus 266 pp. $29.95 paperback, $84.95 hardcover).

During World War II, the Chicago metropolitan area became a giant military arsenal. The city and its suburbs received $1.3 billion worth of new war plant (buildings and equipment), more than any other American urban region. Chicago became home to some of the world's biggest new factories, including two immense aircraft engine plants, operated by Dodge-Chrysler and GM's Buick division. The region also turned out thousands of tons of steel and army tanks; it was a leader in the production of torpedoes and radio equipment.

In this book, the geographer Robert Lewis describes Chicago's industrial mobilization for World War II, as well as its demobilization. In doing so, he begins to address important questions about how the war affected urban geographies, and about how the postwar demobilization was accomplished. Although this book does not fully answer those questions, it begins to offer some important insights.

This is a book in which the beginning is far less interesting than the middle and the end. The two opening chapters offer little substance; instead, they present a repetitive, jargon-filled discussion of the ways in which the war mobilization may have transformed government-business relations and urban space. Especially in these chapters, but also throughout the book, readers are told over and over again that war plants were "calculative objects," shaped by the "calculative decisions" by government officials and business leaders. Created by "calculative knowledge," the war plants in turn added to that knowledge, which was an important element of the twentieth-century American "militarized state." Lewis is clearly impressed by the amount of calculation that went on, but because the book never does enough to explain how the wartime figuring differed from what was happening before and after the war, the jargon remains more self-evident than enlightening.

After a dull start, however, the book becomes much more interesting, especially in its original accounts of the urban geography of war plant construction and the postwar disposal process. Geography is the focus of the book's fourth chapter, which uses a large set of data on micro-level war plant investment to show how that new manufacturing capacity was distributed across metropolitan space. Using maps as well as narrative prose, Lewis shows that most of the new investment went to build large plants in the suburbs. This was true not just in the Chicago region, but in many places across the country. In this chapter, Lewis begins to suggest that historians need to better appreciate the industrial [End Page 985] side of mid-century suburbanization, which seems to have been accelerated by World War II. But this point remains tentative and incomplete. Despite Lewis's expertise on the subject of pre-World War II industrial geographies (which he discussed in previous monographs on Montreal and Chicago), the relationship of the 1940s to the longer run remains unclear. This failure to offer much measurement of the impact of World War II on the suburbanization of manufacturing seems like a missed opportunity. However, Lewis's discussion should provide a valuable launching point for future work on this question.

In the second half of the book, Lewis makes another important contribution, by presenting an original account of industrial demobilization at the local level. This discussion relies heavily on the real property case files of the War Assets Administration, one of the agencies charged with the job of selling off the giant portfolio of government-owned war plants. This disposal job was a giant and sometimes controversial enterprise, which has never been described adequately by historians. Lewis begins to correct this oversight, by using the archival case files on Chicago-area properties to illustrate the complexities of the disposal process. One benefit of this approach is that Lewis highlights the activities of architects, industrial engineering firms, appraisers, and auction companies, all important but little-known players in the making and unmaking of the war economy...


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