Thursday, May 7, 2015

Redevelopment and Legal Liberalism

Western Addition Redevelopment Site, c. 1967
(Source: SF Redevelopment Agency/FoundSF)
A large part of Forging Rivals describes the political and legal fights over fair employment practices in San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, there were other racialized political issues percolating through city politics at the time. Indeed, it is doubtful that the city’s African American residents saw the battle for fair employment practices as separate from these other issues: school desegregation, fair housing, or police violence, for example. One of the most controversial of these issues was redevelopment.

Like most major American cities, San Francisco created a redevelopment agency in the late 1940s in order to access federal money for building housing and infrastructure. The agency’s early projects were uncontroversial. They involved developing essentially uninhabited areas within the city, thus creating more housing without displacing existing residents. In the late 1950s, however, the agency turned its attention to eradicating urban blight through “slum clearance.” Under the leadership of Justin Herman, the agency designated over 60 square blocks in the predominantly African American neighborhood just west of City Hall for redevelopment. It was one of the largest urban renewal projects in the West.

Prior to the Second World War, this neighborhood, originally known as the Western Addition, had been settled by successive waves of immigrants: Jews, Filipinos, Mexicans, and, particularly, Japanese. Indeed, on the eve of World War II, it was one of the largest Japanese-American neighborhoods in the United States. Obviously, this changed during the War, as internment stripped the neighborhood of its Japanese-American population. At the same time, tens of thousands of African Americans moved to the Bay Area to work in war industries. Prior to the War, San Francisco had a tiny black population: no more than 5000 souls. By the end of the War, there were ten times as many. By 1950, there were almost 90,000 African Americans living in the city, making up almost 15% of the city’s population. With its recently vacated housing stock, the Western Addition became the home for many of these black arrivals. A dynamic African American neighborhood, known as the Fillmore, thus arose from the ashes of internment.

In retrospect, few people would say that the Western Addition urban renewal projects were a success. Thousands of residents of the Fillmore were displaced. Hundreds of gorgeous, but aging, Victorian homes were demolished only to be replaced with ugly, depressing, low-income housing that was insufficient to rehouse all the people who were driven from the neighborhood in the first place. The city was unable to attract businesses to the large commercial projects that the redevelopment agency envisioned. Accordingly, large swaths of the Western Addition sat as empty, rubble-strewn lots well into the 1980s. The final redevelopment lots were not developed until the 2000s.

Not surprisingly, the politics surrounding redevelopment were poisonous. Conflicts were frequently drawn along racial lines: African American community activists against white downtown interests. Local community groups sprang up in generally unsuccessful attempts to block the projects. (Indeed, the Western Addition Organizing Committee (WACO), which plays a prominent role in Forging Rivals as the plaintiff in a lawsuit designed to protect the rights of black workers within majority-white unions, focused the lion’s share of its attention on redevelopment issues, not fair employment practices.)

Redevelopment also divided the city’s black community. Justin Herman consistently courted African American leaders like Terry Francois and Wilbur Williams, the latter of whom he hired to run the Western Addition’s redevelopment projects. In doing so, he drove a wedge between an older group of politically connected black leaders, and younger, more community-oriented activists.

One of Forging Rival’s main themes is that postwar liberalism’s policies with respect to the law of the workplace were riddled with contradictions that, ultimately, made them less effective than they might have otherwise been. I imagine that a closer investigation of redevelopment would reveal a similar phenomenon. Justin Herman was no Robert Moses. He seems to have been genuinely committed to an inclusive vision of redevelopment. But redevelopment was implemented according to one particular version of liberalism. It was a centralized, top-down, expert-driven attempt to promote economic egalitarianism. As such, it clashed with the more community-based, anti-authoritarian strand of liberalism that developed in the 1960s. Surely it highlights one of the dismaying ironies of postwar political and legal history that community organizations (such as WACO) funded by one liberal federal program (the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964) were locked in heated combat with redevelopment authorities funded by other such programs (the Federal Housing Acts of 1948 and 1954). For more about these contradictions, see Suleiman Osman’s great book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York. For more about the Western Addition/Fillmore District, see KQED’s documentary on the neighborhood, "The Fillmore."

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