American Babylon

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Robert O. Self. American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. Pp. xiii, 378. $25.11 (Paperback): ISBN 0691124868.


Robert O. Self believed suburban overdevelopment and urban underdevelopment represented the most significant spatial transformation that characterized America’s post-war period. However, he felt that scholars had incorrectly examined both issues as separate entities in relation to the other, producing generalizations like “white flight” and “black power.” Self sought to use his study to correct a methodological mistake, believing that an inter-connected analysis on suburban and urban history offered a valuable opportunity to demonstrate “the centrality of metropolitan history to postwar American history” (2). Building off of Thomas J. Sugrue’s analysis in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Self used Oakland as the backdrop to argue that conservative, neo-populist homeowner politics developed in tension with black power politics of community defense and empowerment, setting the stage for a battle over urban space and metropolitan distribution that highlighted the inequalities between suburban growth and urban decay (2, 10-3, 17-20).

Post-war Oakland experienced a decline that characterized Detroit and other Rust Belt cities. Whereas decentralization provided the driving force behind the Rust Belt’s decline, decentralization represented the solution designed to improve Oakland’s fortunes. Self noted that Oakland’s major commercial channels of Broadway, Franklin, Washington, and Webster streets experienced diminishing property values. In fact, “property values declined more than 50 percent between 1925 and 1955.” Downtown’s decline transcended regional boundaries across the United States, but, in Oakland, the Chamber of Commerce sought to use decentralization as a solution to downtown’s commercial problems. As Self showed, the Chamber of Commerce developed the Metropolitan Oakland Area Program (MOAP), which established relationships that would connect suburban industries to downtown, while also facilitating universal homeownership in both the suburbs and the city. In essence, MOAP sought to facilitate the harmonious and simultaneous growth of both suburbs and city (25-6).

Yet, MOAP’s efforts did little to improve Oakland’s fortunes, nor the fortunes of the city’s African American population. Self noted that new commercial centers in Hayward, San Leandro, and Walnut Creek hindered Oakland’s downtown business district. From 1955 to 1960, downtown land values declined by fifty percent. Moreover, as a banker informed the Central Planning Commission in 1962, “[t]he purchasing power of the area is declining each year” (138-9). The employment situation compounded matters. As downtown property values declined, employment redistribution resulted in an employment and poverty crisis. The city, for example, lost 10,000 manufacturing jobs between 1961 and 1966. Like Detroit, discrimination characterized Oakland’s employment problem. The city’s unemployment rate rested at eleven percent, but, for the city’s African American population, the unemployment rate stood at twenty percent (170-1). To add insult to injury, urban renewal projects designed to revitalize the city harmed black residents. Lola Bell Simms hoped that urban renewal projects would maintain the area’s suitable homes, as many black residents had invested their savings into their properties. However, by 1966, Oakland lost between 6,600 and 9,700 housing units, forcing the relocation of approximately 10,000 people (137-8, 155). Yet, the plight faced by black urbanites did not match the circumstances enjoyed by white suburbanites. The post-war years represented a period where suburban whites experienced low property taxes, social mobility, and racial homogeneity. The Veterans Administration (VA) and Federal Housing Authority (FHA) solidified the racial homogeneity in suburban communities by underwriting segregation through low-interest loans and mortgage guarantees (42, 97). While government agencies fostered spatial segregation, white suburbanites played an active role as well. In San Leandro, citizens successfully implemented racial covenants and neighborhood associations designed to protect community integrity. The town also attracted industries, notably General Foods, Dodge, and Chrysler. By 1966, the Wall Street Journal estimated that San Leandro added approximately $200 million to the property tax rolls, facilitating a decrease in homeowner property taxes (107, 111). Fremont, meanwhile, lacked San Leandro’s industry, but, by 1970, the town had the highest median income in Alameda County at $11,933 and the highest median housing price in the country. Given Fremont’s affluence, only 400 African Americans lived in a town of 100,000 people. Fremont, if anything, highlighted the economic and racial disparities that existed between the suburbs and the city (127).

The disparities between the suburbs and the city set the tone for the conflict that characterized the 1970s. By the late-1960s, Oakland’s African American population lost faith in liberalism, opting instead for community empowerment. The Black Panther Party, for instance, argued that Oakland represented an “urban plantation” exploited by the “white mother country.” In response, the Black Panthers advocated community empowerment in order to liberate the black community and, by extension, the black nation (217, 219-20). The Panthers’ program emphasized racial pride and supported groups like the Oakland Economic Development Council (OEDC), which allowed community control over federal projects. By 1977, community empowerment helped Lionel Wilson become the city’s first African American mayor (203-5, 233-7, 312-5). The suburbs, meanwhile, started to experience problems to their tax base, as the corporations they recruited either refused or could not pay their taxes. As a result, white suburbanites strongly supported Proposition 13, which placed limits on property taxes. Black urbanites conversely opposed it, leading Self to conclude that“[i]t is thus best to understand the tax politics in late 1970s California as both an indication of growing opposition to liberalism and a structural product of segregation, including suburban overdevelopment and urban underdevelopment” (316-8).


Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

Self’s analysis contained the problematic omission of crime and law enforcement. During the 1960s, violent crime in California significantly increased, a trend that also existed in Oakland. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, reported on the rise of serious crime in California in a July 1, 1968 article. Comparing the first three months of 1968 with the first three months of 1967, the piece indicated that Oakland experienced a 31.2 percent increase in serious crime, second only to Berkeley. Self’s analysis does little to examine crime and law enforcement, which is troubling given the tension that existed between white suburban and black urban politics. When Self examined crime, his analysis highlighted his sympathy to black activists like the Black Panthers. To illustrate, in examining the Black Panthers’ encounters with police, Self noted that “[t]he Oakland police department, long a bastion of both racial paternalism and virulent racism, responded to the Panthers with nothing short of guerrilla warfare – no less than three black men were killed by the Oakland police in the spring of 1968 alone” (229). The inference here showed that the Panthers represented wronged activists as opposed to criminals, with Self doing little to refute or support the point.

Nonetheless, Self offered a valuable study that presented a new way of examining the racial interactions in the post-war city. He thrived when he examined the role African Americans played in trying to improve their plight in a decaying urban landscape. Here, Self differentiated himself from the analysis offered in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, where Sugrue showed how young African Americans in 1960s Detroit resigned themselves to accept the city’s limited economic prospects. Self, however, showed African Americans playing an active role in trying to improve their future. For instance, the black community empowerment that emerged in mid-1960s Oakland illustrated how blacks lost faith in the political elite and liberal establishment (219). African Americans, as Self showed, could not rely on the government to improve their standing. Instead, they had to rely on themselves, taking action into their own hands in order to facilitate positive change. Self thus offered a valuable study that raises new historiographical questions on power, while simultaneously shifting the focus on race relations away from the South and onto the West.

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