Tag Archives: social history

Demolition Means Progress

Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis (Historical Studies of Urban America)Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis by Andrew R. Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The city is not a problem to be solved; it is a story to be told.

I used to dream about getting a fat grant years down the road and taking a leave of absence to start research toward a complete history of the city of Flint, Michigan. There would be so much to it, from the history of technology and the rise of the auto industry, to labor history and the creation of the middle class. I knew race would play a role in this theoretical history as well, though I hadn’t even begun mapping out the implications. It would have been an immense book, one that tapped into several important streams of the larger American drama. It would be in many ways a tragedy as well– a tale of controlled atrophy and downsizing, of a dying city, industrial decay, and the birth of the Rust Belt. That was my nebulous plan, but it was not to be: the book has already been written, and this past week I finished reading it.

Flint and its story fascinates me. I grew up on its nearly all-white suburban margins but with roots running into its history. I have memories of visiting AutoWorld as a child and of my grandparent’s home on Waldman Avenue. My mom and her parents often spoke with regret about what Flint had once been, of the prosperity of the post-War years and the sparkle of downtown before the sprawl of suburban shopping districts. Though I grew up in the suburbs of Flint Township and later Swartz Creek, my mom (and many of the parents of my friends and peers) had grown up in city. Her family came from Missouri looking for work in the factories, and my grandfather built a career on the Grand Trunk Railroad. My dad spent his career working for General Motors, much of it at Buick City before it was closed and he was relocated to Saginaw. I ventured downtown occasionally as a teenager (and it was always clearly a venture), specifically to the Cultural Center and the Longway Planetarium.

Flint’s story shaped me in obvious ways I’m only now realizing. Many of the photographs on this blog, for instance, were inspired by the rich background of texture and decay I grew up on the fringes of. I knew the city’s history in a cursory way and even saw some of it myself. For all these reasons, I wanted a book that dove into this history. In the absence of such a book (though Gordon Young’s memoir– reviewed here previously– was an excellent journalistic step in this direction) I was prepared (one day in the distant future) to attempt to write it myself.

But the book now exists.

I wrote earlier on this blog about Mark Quanstrom’s study on Nazarene theological history and the way it helped me understand the religious context in which I was raised. What Quanstrom’s book did for my theological heritage, Andrew Highsmith’s new study does for my social and urban context. (Note to self: a work exploring the intersection of these two themes, charting the growth and decline of the Nazarene church– which at one time could count at least half a dozen large congregations in the city– would be of interest.) I knew Flint was economically depressed and racially divided. But I never fully understood the depth, origins, and repercussions of “white flight,” a trajectory in which my family participated.

My sister and her husband live and work in downtown Flint. On multiple occasions I’ve biked with my brother-in-law from his restaurant on Saginaw Street, past the former site of Chevy-in-the-Hole, where it looks like giants literally gouged a cement valley along the river into the center of the city, to his house in Mott Park. He’s told me lately he feels most of his work in the city revolves around racial reconciliation and that if we can’t understand race we won’t understand anything about Flint’s story and where it is today.

I think Highsmith would agree. I first learned of his book just days after it was released from my brother-in-law, who passed it along to me with a sort of resignation: “Here’s another academic who thinks he’s figured Flint out.” I don’t know that Highsmith claims to have unravelled any riddles, but he’s begun plunging the depths of the issue, the tangle of politics– many on a national level– that made Flint what it was and is. It’s very much a story of place, rarely focusing long on any particular individual. Highsmith’s Flint is made up of institutions, organizations, politics, and changing demographics. Yet there are enough specific personal focuses, ranging from Michael Moore to the tragedy of the Beecher assistant principle driven to suicide by the intractable problem of de-segregating his high school, to keep it a poignant and human (though a consistently scholarly) read.

Highsmith offers an urban history of Flint from the early 1900s to the present. (Indeed, the epilogue brings the story up to the point of names, organizations, and developments I recognize from my frequent visits home.) In particular, Highsmith wants to understand and outline the institutional and administrative forms of segregation that kept Flint one of the most racially divided cities in America long after the era of Civil Rights. Under the aegis of strong neighborhood schools, for example, the Flint public school system remained effectively segregated until whites were in a clear minority throughout the city.

Highsmith examines the central issue of race and urban policy from several angles over the century. Much of the division began in housing policies at a national level in the inter- and post-War years, in which real estate redlining kept neighborhoods divided and set the foundation for much subsequent de facto segregation. In the era of urban renewal and the coming of the expressways, proponents of development argued for the clearing of predominately black slums like St. Johns, but administrative segregation largely prevented the relocation of these residents (who initially supported neighborhood clearings) from getting much value from their property and finding new homes in an integrated city.

In addition, a ring of largely white suburbs acted quickly to self-incorporate, preventing Flint’s spatial growth and through tough zoning laws blocking the construction of public housing complexes that would result in racial integration (and potentially lower property values). The background to all of this was of course the ebb and flow of the fortunes of General Motors and its complex relationship with the city. If the city of Flint was equated with Buick as the quintessential company town, what happens when Buick dies?

All of this tells a story. It doesn’t give any answers. At the risk of sounding trite though, that’s the point. Highsmith makes the case that America is the story of a thousand Flints, linking the racial and post-industrial challenges of Flint to the nation as a whole. That may be true, but Flint is also importantly unique, enough that its tragedy has a wholly specific resonance, especially to those who grew up in its shadow. This book should be required reading for anyone in or from the Vehicle City, especially anyone who cares about locality and knowing how the place that shaped you was itself shaped.

As T. S. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

A Crooked Line

A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of SocietyA Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society by Geoff Eley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What does it mean to be a professional historian today? What does the landscape of the profession look like? What are the big ideas or transformations over the past half-century or so that have shaped how historians work and think? In A Crooked Line, Geoff Eley, a European historian at the University of Michigan, provides a personal answer to these questions from the perspective of a historian who has lived and worked through the shaping of the profession during this period. A Crooked Line is not quite a memoir, not quite a historiography, and not quite a manifesto for political and social engagement among historians. It is a little bit of all of these things, blending and transcending them to become something quite unique: a historian’s reflective survey of what the field looked like from the vantage point of a young historian just beginning a career in the sixties to what the field looks like today.

As a historian of science—and one who came to the field from outside history—I sometimes feel cut off or at least rather uninformed about the broader debates and transformations that have shaped the historical profession as a whole. I felt a bit out of my depth—or at least out of my fit—at a recent workshop at Bielefeld University rubbing shoulders with historians pursuing a very theory-laden sociological approach to history while I presented a talk on John Herschel’s stellar spectroscopy (or lack thereof). I had only a dim inkling of the importance of the Bielefeld School in the history of history. (On the other hand, the history students I interacted with there only asked whether Herschel’s hesitation toward spectroscopy was evidence of his resistance to a Kuhnian paradigm shift.) Clearly, we did not share a great deal of historiographical ground. I asked my roommate, a Latin American historian, for a good book that would give me a broad overview of historical theory and provide some touch-points for connecting that theory with practice. He recommended Eley’s book.

I’m sure A Crooked Line didn’t go all the way toward addressing my ignorance, but it certainly helped. Eley tells the story from his own perspective as a historian coming of age at the eve of history’s first large shift from building traditional narratives to using the tools of sociology to address large-scale questions of the development of society and class relations. This is the portion of the book he titles “Optimism,” chronicling his own excitement as a historian realizing the possibilities of the social sciences to help answer big questions in history, primarily from a Marxist, materialist perspective. Here, the work that he cites as indicative and exemplary of this approach is Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). British Marxist historians led the way with utilizing the empirical tools of social science to provide an explanatory framework for the evolution and the conflicts in society at large. For a historian, this held the promise of understanding, engaging, and perhaps even shaping social change.

In the second portion of the book, Eley focuses on the particular challenges of German historiography and the ways in which it illustrated the limits of a materialist approach. In particular—and here the section of the book is called “Disappointment”—the historiographical puzzle of Nazi Germany, the failure to explain the atrocities of World War II using the materialist, structuralist tool bag of social history, tempered early optimism regarding this approach. Tim Mason’s studies of Nazism in the 1970s, according to Eley, illustrated the difficulty of building up a complete history of the Third Reich from the foundation of class relations.

In “Reflectiveness,” the third portion of the work, Eley discusses the “linguistic” or “cultural turn” in history that took place in the 1980s as the field of history became influenced (or infiltrated, depending on your point of view) by anthropology, literary and art studies, oral histories, and the prioritizing of the unique, local, or small-scale, resulting in a historical approach much more open to cultural studies. This was tied to the realization that categories such as gender, race, and colonialism could be used in new and important ways for understanding history. Eley touches on the culture wars that resulted, as traditional historians cleaved to more social historical approaches and resisted what they saw as a “dissent into discourse.” Here the keystone text is Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1987). Eley takes a bright view of the efflorescence of such cultural approaches, asking why such tools and methods should not be used to compliment the historian’s work. Cultural studies, he convincingly argues, bring new questions and methods to the table and moreover make heard historic voices that have been silenced in the past.

Throughout the book, in his survey of the two great turns in history of the course of the second half of the twentieth century—first the turn toward the social sciences and then toward cultural studies—Eley wants to map these changes to outside influences, particularly political. One of his primary claims is that history should be politically engaged. Perhaps though because of my own hazy grasp on the political history of the 1960s-80s it wasn’t always clear to me how this was the case, either proscriptively or descriptively. History as an explanatory tool for society, a critical self-remembrance, and as a counterpoint to flawed and potentially destructive global narratives, yes, but Eley seems to claim that the influence was often the other way—the political situation influenced the sorts of questions and methods the historical field itself pursued. I needed these dots connected more clearly for me.

The big omission (for me) in this historiography was the history of science. Where does Eley see the history of science as playing a role (if any) in the turns he’s outlined? Historians of science certainly played a role in the culture wars, and cultural studies of science abound today, as in an earlier generation did social studies of scientists and their research schools. I would love to find a similar survey of the field written from the perspective of a historian of science. The closest thing I know of is Helge Kragh’s An Introduction to the Historiography of Science, which, while helpful, lacks the personal flavor and the evident passion that made Eley’s book such a pleasure.