Friday, June 25, 2010

Baltimore Bigotry

"These epochal demographic changes will spawn unpredictable consequences for all aspects of human interaction. Neighborhood succession will continue, but new patterns will emerge..."

Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City

It's too bad this great book peters out with a sentence like this. The great strength of Pietila's book is his relentless description of the ways in which racism shaped Baltimore's urban settlement patterns and influenced how housing and neighborhoods were built, torn down, and rebuilt. For the most part, he maintains the strength of this analysis through the mid 1970s.

He probably should have stopped with the demise of Spiro Agnew and Dale Anderson and the demise of suburban black communities through "expulsive zoning." To cover the last quarter of a century would have required a major research effort -- not a few tidbits.

The book is problematic in two other ways. First, we get more coverage of the bad guys than the good guys. In part this is because the bad guys seemed to have prevailed in most cases. But we do get strong insights into Baltimore Neighborhoods, the NAACP, Activist's Inc., etc. And Pietala offers his own somewhat inacurrate and limited history of community organizing in Baltimore. What was learned from all this fighting back?

Second, this book offers an atheoretical description of bad guys using race to maintain the "color lines" and to make lots of money. We finally get a brief mention of David Harvey in the last quarter of the book -- but there is no sustained effort to understand why the interplay of race, housing, and neighborhoods is so deeply ingrained in the ways we build cities, especially Baltimore.

I think Pietila could have succeeded with skipping these topics if he just offered his reflections about our propensity to exclude and exploit based on race, ethnicity, and religion. Is this our fate? Have we made any progress? What does the Baltimore story ultimately tell us about American city-building for the 21st century?

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