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Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

African-American History Month and (Urban and Transportation) Planning

February is Black History Month and it's a good opportunity for the planning profession to focus attention on African-American issues and cultural history in terms of land use planning, transportation planning and transit, and parks planning (among other disciplines).

Planning and the Black Community is one of the membership divisions of the American Planning Association.  COMTO, the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, is a support and training association focused on strengthening the presence and success of people of color within the transportation field.

Environmental Justice.  The Environmental Protection Agency is a national leader and resource in the Environmental Justice movement, which addresses racial and economic disparities in environmental issues, laws, and regulations (such as locating undesirable land uses such as dirty manufacturing plants or landfills in minority communities).  EJ is one of the bases in the developing field of equity planning.

White privilege/structural racism.  There was a good op-ed piece in the Washington Post on white privilege ("This is what white privilege is").  I hate to admit that it took a long time for me to reboot my own way of thinking about this.
Bus Carrying "Freedom Riders" Burns.
A Freedom Riders bus went up in flames when a fire bomb was tossed through a window near Anniston, Ala. Ambulance drivers refused to take injured black riders to area hospitals. AP file photograph.

Recently, there have been some good articles about the reality of structural racism, which many people choose to not see.

-- "The dangerous myth of the 'missing black father'," Washington Post
-- "Ben Carson's Denial of Reality," New York Times

And I was crushed to learn about structural racism in the 1950s at my alma mater, the University of Michigan as mentioned in an obituary on Dr. Jewel Cobb ("Jewel Plummer Cobb, 92, Dies; Led a California Campus," New York Times.

From the article:
After graduating from high school, she attended the University of Michigan but, because black students were not allowed to live on campus there at the time, soon transferred to historically black Talladega College in Alabama.
I never knew.

If they even notice it, too many people take that kind of structural racism for granted, as a kind of natural law, and these days, because that happened "so long ago," as not a problem relevant to today.

Policing, crime, criminal justice, and public safety.  One element of urban planning is public safety and policing, although usually the traditional "Office of Planning" doesn't interact all that much with a police department, even though typically police departments have research units and they may have planners on staff.

Obviously, with the #BlackLivesMatter movement calling attention to the reality of police officer killings of civilians, while I have been writing about this issue for some time, how this issue is being addressed is changing.

Pieces I've written about LA's Community Safety Partnership and the Advancement Project and Richmond, California capture some of my thinking on the topic as do the writings of Elijah Anderson.

Driving while black.  Many of the police killings of civilians have involved African-Americans being stopped for infractions that might have been ignored had they been white.  See "Philando Castile killing: Officer charged with manslaughter," CNN; "Photo contradicts key claim made by Tulsa police in unarmed black man's fatal shooting," Denver Post.


Image from DownTrend.

Related would be various Black Lives Matter protests conducted in a manner which halts traffic on roadways ("Black Lives Matter protesters block highway in Minneapolis," ABC-TV; "'Black Lives Matter' protesters block I-64 in downtown St. Louis," FoxTV2, and "Why highways have become the center of civil rights protest," Washington Post).

(Note with regard to the latter, during my student protest days in college, I used to say we shouldn't bother taking over the Administration building, which is more about visibility, but taking over the parking garage across the street, where their cars were parked, and the university's two computing centers.)

Transit.  The history of the Civil Rights Movement is intimately linked to transportation access, segregation on transit and in transit stations, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Riders, etc. PBS had programs on the Freedom Riders a few years ago.  It'd be nice for them to do repeat showings (although at least some PBS stations did run a number of such programs on Martin Luther King Day).

A number of transportation authorities are doing special programs on desegregation of transit.  For example the Hillsborough Area Transit Authority has been running a video ad on the local Tampa city cable channels.

It focuses on the "Freedom Riders," the people who pushed the federal government to enforce public accommodations laws concerning inter-state transportation.  It highlights Tampa Bay residents who participated and the book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, by Raymond Arsenault, a professor at University of South Florida.

But I think transit authorities ought to compile local histories of transportation and transit including race, public accommodations, environmental justice and other considerations.

For example in DC, transit wasn't segregated (although restaurants and other public facilities were at the time).  But the transit company did discriminate in terms of hiring.

And there may have been issues with inter-state transit, although back then most surface transit services were offered on an intra-city or intra-county basis and didn't cross state lines. This kind of history should be codified, interpreted and presented, during Black History Month and throughout the year.


I can't imagine that transit in the Tampa area was free of discrimination before say 1965, and if so, that history needs to be acknowledged and communicated as much as the "Freedom Riders."

Transportation history and the automobile.  Because restaurants and hotels were segregated, automobile travel could be problematic for African-Americans too.  The "The Negro Motorist Green-Book" was a guide for African-American travelers, providing directions to those places which would accommodate them in otherwise segregated communities ("An atlas of self-reliance: The Negro Motorist's Green Book (1937-1964)," Smithsonian Museum of American History).

The history of urban freeway construction is equally problematic.

The routes for freeways through cities typically disrupted communities, displaced residents, and destroyed neighborhoods.

Mostly, with some exceptions like Philadelphia, the people most likely to be displaced and the neighborhoods wrecked were African-American.  Also see "How railroads, highways and other man-made lines racially divide America’s cities," Washington Post.

-- "Moving to equity: Addressing inequitable effects of transportation policies on minorities," Harvard Civil Rights Project
-- "From racial zoning to community empowerment the interstate highway system and the African American community in Birmingham, Alabama," Journal of Planning Education and Research, 2002
-- "Back of the Bus: Mass transit, race and inequality," Transportation Nation

Transportation Technology.  An African-American, Garrett Morgan of Cleveland created the three-position traffic signal, adding the middle phase "yellow," to what had been two-stage stop and go signals.  COMTO chapters sponsor "Garrett Morgan Days" as a kind of career planning event and introduction to the transportation field.

Granville Woods invented the device that allowed for the transmission of electricity from catenary to the streetcar through a pole and wheel roller.

Biking.  Major Taylor was an African-American cycling racer active in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Today's Major Taylor Clubs (Seattle)promote cycling in African-American communities.

Land Use.  Segregation and racism marks many US center cities.  Segregation through zoning was introduced in Baltimore in the early 1900s and spread very quickly to other places.  Race-based deed restrictions were another way to restrict African-American access to neighborhoods.  So were race-based underwriting standards in the federal mortgage guarantee program--restrictions that were not lifted until the late 1960s.

Urban renewal.  The Urban Renewal redevelopment movement starting in the 1950s frequently targeted African-American and other minority neighborhoods for change, with the residents left on their own for relocation.  DC's Southwest quadrant was one of the pilot locations for testing the program.

I recently came across a fascinating presentation, called the Bulldozer and the Rose, with before and after photos in Southwest DC, by someone contemporary with the process.

Housing and gentrification.  A complicated issue that I have covered many times.

Community Economic Development and Poverty Interdiction.  This is a topic on which I plan to write a position paper on at some point.  In the meantime, Charlotte-Mecklenberg, Dallas, and Richmond have interesting initiatives that bear further inspection.

Parks and recreation.  Historically, parks, recreation facilities and public spaces were also segregated.  Many communities had separate facilities, public and private (such as amusement parks, clubs, etc.) for blacks and whites.  That changed with the Civil Rights laws.

The National Park Service has an initiative focused on increasing the number of African-Americans visiting national parks.  See "National Parks Reach Out to Blacks Who Aren't Visiting," New York Times.

Theresa Brown, Le Droit Park, Washington, DCTheresa Brown, now deceased, was a leader in DC's historic preservation movement and led the effort to create the Le Droit Park Historic District.  Washington Post photo.

Historic preservation.  The National Park Service is also home to the federal government's historic preservation program.  The cultural resource management program of the organization has extensive programs focused on preserving African-American heritage.

Of course, just as urban renewal was called "Negro removal," historic preservation is criticized as a method of reproducing and repositioning space in a manner which displaces low income residents.

Many African-American neighborhoods have been historically designated across the country.  Sweet Auburn comes to mind in Atlanta, Sugar Hill in Harlem, U Street in DC, and the Eatonville Historic District, where Zora Neale Hurston grew up, in Florida come to mind off the top of my head.

History and cultural interpretation/Civil rights history.  Last year the Associated Press reported ("Some civil rights sites at risk of being lost to history) on how there isn't a systematic program on a national scale to preserve places significant to the nation's history of civil rights.

Part of the problem is that there isn't one organization, public or private, to lead the charge.  A counter example would be the Civil War Preservation Trust, which aims to preserve sites significant to Civil War history, or how a number of states have a joint effort to coordinate Civil War history trails across their respective states.

I have suggested that this should be done for African-American history more generally, and could be done for civil rights history as part of that.  Ideally, a national organization like the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture could take the lead on such an initiative.

History and cultural interpretation/Memorials and Monuments of the Confederate Cause.  There has been a lot of discussion about monuments and memorials to people who were ardent segregationists.  Monuments to segregationists have been defaced in many places across the country as a protest.   Many institutions are changing their policies and practices as a result of this renewed discussion.

For example, South Carolina has stopped flying the Confederate flag--a symbol of opposition to civil rights--at the State Capitol and in other public places.  The University of Maryland has renamed its football stadium ("Maryland Got Rid of a Racist Name… Is It Really That Hard, Pigskins?," Unobstructed View column, Washington City Paper).

Officials in Slocum, Texas unveil a marker that offers a brief account of the Slocum Massacre. (Dylan Hollingsworth/For The Washington Post).

I was impressed by a Washington Post article, "Texas marks racial slaughter more than a century later," about a community finally acknowledging its history of racial violence through the state's historical marker program.

Museums and cultural planning. The Association of African American Museums is one resource. Getting more people to visit and helping such museums become more successful are key issues.

Last September marked the launch of the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, DC ("Smithsonian opening African-American history museum on Sept. 24," AP).

Schools.  There has been an incredibly missed opportunity to deal with racial and economic disparities in student outcomes.

DC's focus on testing hasn't done a lot to improve the circumstances of students from impoverished families.

There is a model program in Toronto that sadly wasn't accessed when developing "improvement programs" in DC.  TDSB also has great programs on social inclusion for immigrants.

-- Model Schools for Inner Cities, Toronto District School Board
-- "Model Schools empowers marginalized students — and their parents, too
Poverty throws many barriers in the path of learning; practical supports like cheap lunches and taxi chits can help knock them down
," Toronto Star

I have also been influenced by Marion Orr's Black Social Capital: The Politics of School Reform in Baltimore.

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