Race Poverty and the Humane Metropolis

Carl Anthony

The truth is, I hadn't thought much about William H. Whyte for almost a decade until Rutherford Platt came to my office to discuss a conference on the humane metropolis, celebrating Whyte's life and work. I explained to him that I have long been dismayed that most writers I had read on urban design seemed to have little understanding of the role that issues of race had played in the shaping of the nation's cities and land policies. I told him that I had been enthusiastic about the writings of Holly Whyte over the years. I did not, however, see how one could have a contemporary conference about the "humane metropolis" without considering issues of race and environmental justice as set forth brilliantly in the book Sprawl City, edited by Robert Bullard and others (2000). A review of Whyte's writings reveals that his work on environment and development from the mid 1950s until his death seemed to move him progressively closer to embracing the challenges of racial diversity. His insight about the importance of containing sprawl and reinvesting in cities helps lay the ground work for a new narrative that brings together the claims of racial and economic justice with those of ecological integrity as essential parts of the quest for a humane metropolis. To incorporate these claims fully, however, we need a larger framework than Holly Whyte developed.

In his influential book, The Organization Man, Whyte criticized the homogenizing influence of large corporations and other organizations on the quality of suburban life in the 1950s. He advocated more scope for individual initiative, both within the workplace and in suburban neighborhoods. He was also alarmed by suburban sprawl and advocated passionately for conservation of open space surrounding our metropolitan regions. In his 1957 essay "Urban Sprawl," he criticized the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 and its explicit intention "to disperse our factories, our stores and our people; in short to create a revolution in living habits." (quoted in LaFarge 2000, 132). He complained that affected communities have little to say about how the program, almost entirely in the hands of engineers, would be implemented.

The Exploding Metropolis (Editors of Fortune 1957) was perhaps the first book to raise concerns about postwar "urban sprawl." Essays by Whyte, Jane Jacobs, and others discussed suburban sprawl, transportation, city politics, open space, and the character and fabric of cities. "In this second decade of post war prosperity," Dan Seligman writes in one of the less-remembered essays, "in a time of steady advancing living standards, the slum problem of our great cities is worsening."

As noted in the introduction to this volume, Seligman also wrote the laconic statement, "The white urban culture they [poor nonwhites] might assimilate into is receding before them; it is drifting off into the suburbs" (Editors of Fortune 1957, 97). "Drifting off" is certainly a nonjudgmental way to describe the process of white flight in response to the pull of government incentives for suburban development and the reciprocal push of central city neglect. See also Ray Suarez, The Old Neighborhood (1999).

In The Last Landscape (1968), Whyte suggested in great detail a number of practical ways to conserve suburban open space, including the use of police powers, outright purchase, conservation easements, taxing policies, greenbelts, physiographic studies, cluster development, the design of play areas and small spaces, and scenic roadway design. He argued eloquently for increasing the density of urban and suburban communities to reduce costs, improve efficiency, and improve the quality of life of its residents.

In his magnum opus, City: Rediscovering the Center (1988), Whyte examined the social life of public plazas, streets, atriums, galleries, and courtyards, with detailed attention to what makes such spaces attractive or uninviting to the people who use them. He conducted detailed, empathetic investigations of the needs of street people, including vendors, street entertainers, people who hand out pamphlets, bag ladies, beggars, political activists, shopkeepers, postal carriers, and sanitation workers. In his observations and recommendations for improving the quality of street life, Whyte acknowledged those who are often left out of official planning consideration, which he termed "undesirables" (as deemed by society, not by him), by which he meant "winos, derelicts, people who talk out loud in buses, teenagers, and older people" (p. 156). Clearly, this new work was moving in the direction of helping city builders understand, acknowledge, and embrace the challenges of urban economic and racial diversity.

Although Holly White did not focus on race, his major works were written against the backdrop of an expanding consciousness about the importance of race in U.S. cities. I was seventeen years old in 1956 at the time that Whyte published The Organization Man. I lived in Philadelphia not far from Chester County, where Holly Whyte had grown up. The old road that connected Philadelphia to Chester, completely built up with residences, stores, and apartment buildings, was a block from our house. A trolley ran along Chester Avenue, and the street itself served as a sort of dividing line between our neighborhood, which was changing, and the all-white neighborhood on the other side. As the blacks from the South were moving into our neighborhood, the whites were moving out to the cookie-cutter suburbs that Holly White described in his case study of Park Forest, Illinois, in The Organization Man.

Whyte noted that the suburban community of Park Forest was an economic melting pot in the 1950s, a place for "the great broadening of the middle, and a sort of 'declassification' from the older criteria of family background" (Whyte 1956, 298). The suburbs, he observed were, compared with the residents' original communities, places of religious and social tolerance, provided one had the minimum economic wherewithal to rent or purchase. "This classlessness," Whyte notes, in the only paragraph I found about racial issues, "stops very sharply at the color line. Several years ago, there was an acrid controversy over the possible admission of Negroes. [For many Park Forest residents who] had just left Chicago wards which had just been 'taken over,' it was a return of a threat left behind. . . . But though no Negroes ever did move in, the damage was done. The issue had been brought up and the sheer fact that one had to talk about it made it impossible to maintain unblemished the ideal of egalitarianism so cherished" (Whyte 1956, 311).

Whyte stops short of speculating on the effect of this exclusion on the black families that were not allowed to join Park Forest. Nor does he develop the theme that huge public subsidies were beginning to support a new pattern of racial segregation in the metropolitan regions that by the end of the century were to become the dominant pattern of the nation. (The subsequent history of Park Forest, including its racial and commercial metamorphosis during and after the 1960s, is recounted in a recent video film by James Gilmore titled Chronicle of an American Suburb.)

I left home in 1956 and traveled through the American South. Separate drinking fountains and separate seating areas for colored and white were everywhere. Elvis Presley had hit the top of the charts, and Martin Luther King had not yet been elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, where he was to lead the bus boycott that made him famous.

If The Organization Man came to dominate some part of the national psyche in the 1950s, then the 1960s were dominated by its "shadow side": rejection of large organizations and male white chauvinism. By 1968, when The Last Landscape was published, the fury of the civil rights movement was reaching its peak. That was the year Martin Luther King was shot. America's metropolis was seething. Insurrections broke out in 168 cities. Rioting and looting claimed the lives of hundreds of people and resulted in billions of dollars of damage from Newark, New Jersey, to Los Angeles, California. It was the year the Kerner Commission reported that the United States was becoming two societies, one white and one black, separate and unequal. Whyte did not explicitly mention the theme of race in The Last Landscape, but by 1968, the dynamic of urban abandonment related to suburban sprawl was already well under way.

By the beginning of the 1990s, shortly after City: Rediscovering the Center appeared, the environmental movement in the United States had reached the peak of its influence, but most environmentalists were in denial about cities and race. On March 15, 1990, 150 civil rights organizations wrote a famous letter to ten of the largest environmental organizations, complaining that the environmental movement was racist. They pointed out that the memberships, staffs, and boards of these organizations included no people of color. Most important, was that environmental groups framed issues in a way that excluded and often went against the interests of communities of color. The disproportionate siting of hazardous waste facilities routinely placed in communities of color was ignored as an environmental issue by environmental groups (Sierra Club 1993).

Despite the advances in race relations during the previous four decades, environmental justice advocates pointed out, residential segregation based on race was more widespread than at any earlier time in U.S. history. The consequences of segregation had devastating effects on families in communities where more than 40 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Employment opportunities were bleak. Education was poor. All these issues had environmental implications unnoticed by established environmental organizations.

Race, Ecology, and Cities

These issues call for a new narrative that integrates ecological awareness, issues of race, and patterns of metropolitan development. On one hand, advocates of ecological integrity must treat more systematically the concerns of social, economic, and racial justice in our metropolitan regions. On the other hand, proponents of social, economic, and racial justice must help build a shared understanding of the role of space, place, and ecological resources in the issues they care about (Bullard, Johnson, and Torres 2000).

For example, the conventional wisdom about people and nature in North America ignores the experience of communities of color. African American history illustrates why and how we must grapple with a more profound understanding of these relationships. Over the past several centuries, the ancestors of African American populations now living in cities have contributed to urban development and have been alienated from the natural world in many ways (Glave and Stoll 2006).

From the fifteenth century on, African American ancestors in Africa were brutally uprooted from a village context grounded in well-understood ways of life related to the stars and the seasons and adapted to climate, fauna, and flora. They were transported across the ocean and forced to work the land in North America, confined to rural plantations, without receiving the benefits of their labor. Although most blacks were kept away from the cities, the capital extracted and accumulated from their labor helped build the great world metropolises of Lisbon, Amsterdam, and London and, later, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

After the American Civil War, blacks were emancipated and promised enough land to be self sufficient: "forty acres and a mule." Although a few ex-slaves were able to re-create their traditional African cultures on the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, this promise never materialized for most. Instead, the federal government redistributed hundreds of millions of acres of land acquired from native people to railroad corporations and to new immigrants arriving from Europe. The majority of blacks, legally prevented from migrating to the cities, continued to work the land as sharecroppers and tenant farmers under a regime of state-sponsored terror. The wealth accumulated from their labor supported urban intermediaries in both northern and southern cities.

Finally, in the twentieth century, a combination of crop failure, mechanized agriculture, the boll weevil, and the lack of civil rights forced blacks off the land. Within a single generation a population, which for fifteen generations had been predominantly rural, became predominantly urban.

This journey of African Americans from rural areas to the cities is in many ways unique. Between 1940 and 1970, five million African Americans left the rural South for the urban North in the greatest mass migration in U.S. history. They left behind sharecropper shacks in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas for factory jobs and housing projects in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, and Oakland, California. African Americans arrived in the cities en masse at the moment when the bottom was dropping out of the manufacturing economy. Middle-class whites were leaving in droves and taking their resources with them, abandoning the cities as a habitable environment.

In other ways, this migration of African Americans from rural areas to the cities is typical of people all over the world. The Irish, the Eastern European Jews and Catholics, Italian Americans, and Greeks were migrants who came through Ellis Island. Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Latinos have also been recent migrants to the city. Indeed, the majority of the world's population has migrated from rural areas to the cities. This story tells us that if we wish to re-create a healthy relationship between people and the natural world, then we must pay attention to the similarities and differences in urban population groups and the continuing challenges of justice and immigration.

The New Metropolitan Agenda

Today, we are living through a remarkable time with unprecedented opportunities to reenvision the way we live in cities. I believe, however, that issues of race and poverty, social and environmental justice, must be central to the way we envision a truly humane metropolis, bringing together people and nature in the twenty-first-century city. In this new century, we need a new narrative that defines the claims of racial and economic justice and ecological integrity as essential parts of the quest for a humane metropolis. As I see it, the humane metropolis must be a process through which major urban settlements made up of multiple centers of cities, towns, and villages can be redesigned, rebuilt and reinhabited based on principles of compassion and consideration. We must have compassion and consideration for both the human and larger living community from which it draws sustenance. From this perspective, advocates of the humane metropolis must think not only about conservation issues, regional greenspaces, working landscapes, and urban gardens, but also about the challenges of poverty and racism, which are consequences of an uncaring, overly materialistic society.

During the past three or four decades, awareness of the metropolitan regions as a focal point for public policy, governmental corporation, physical planning, and economic strategies has been growing. Beginning with the early work of Holly White and his colleagues who wrote The Exploding Metropolis, an increasing number of environmentalists, urban planners, and activists have alerted the nation about the squandering of land and energy resources, the traffic congestion, and the pollution of air and water resulting from conventional suburban development practices.

In the 1998 elections, according to Myron Orfield (2002), 240 state and local ballot initiatives dealt with land use and growth, including coordinated comprehensive planning, state land trusts, and moratoriums on new growth. Voters approved more than 70 percent of these issues. In 1999, 107 of 139, measures, or about 75 percent, passed. In 2000, growth-related ballot initiatives numbered more than 550, and 72 percent were adopted. What is extraordinary is that private citizens in the most affluent sectors of society are going outside the normal decisionmaking process to implement controls on conventional land development practices (Orfield 2002).

In recent years, many businesses have expressed a renewed interest in metropolitan-level coordination and planning of land use and development. They are looking to find new ways to address traffic congestion, the jobs-housing balance, housing affordability, and workforce training. Typically, corporations use the language of competitiveness to argue for more effective patterns of metropolitan regional decision making. In 1993, the Congress of New Urbanism, made up of well-known designers and developers, was formed to curtail sprawl, redevelop vacant parcels in cities, provide housing for all, and plan for public transit. The group advocated pedestrian-friendly communities and creating healthy places to live and work.

Urban and suburban elected officials are beginning to see the connections between current patterns of metropolitan development and problems of discrimination, social isolation, environmental damage, and economic difference. State legislators, county supervisors, and suburban mayors are learning that the suburbs are not monolithic. They are beginning to see that issues of poverty and race are challenges in the older inner-ring suburbs built in the 1950s and 1960.

In this context, there is an extraordinary opportunity for advocates of social and racial justice, and advocates of ecological cities. To achieve a humane metropolis in the coming decades, the central cities and the older suburbs must be rebuilt. The emerging metropolitan agenda is an extraordinary opportunity for bringing together the claims of racial and economic justice with ecological concerns to support a humane metropolis for everyone (figure 1).

There are important lessons about the relationship between people and nature in this discussion. First, we must development the habit of seeing the cities in their larger ecological context. Just as the cities of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries were built through the exploitation of slave labor and degradation of land-based communities around the world, so also are our cities reshaping the hinterland. This effect goes beyond global warming and destruction of the rain forest to include the uprooting of traditional societies, causing mass migrations across the planet.

Second, issues of race and poverty are central to the construction of the humane metropolis. People of color have a long history with burdens of urban development. They have long suffered from urban geographic and institutional constraints imposed by racism.

Third, people of color have agency. Their energy and creativity can contribute to urban solutions, but this strength must be acknowledged. Just as Africans Americans historically escaped the plantation to create maroon societies, developed gardens within the confines of the plantation system, and created schools and churches for community survival and development after the Civil War, community development corporations, churches, and social movements within communities of color today have important roles to play in rebuilding the humane metropolis.

Finally, there is an old saying in the environmental field: "Everything is connected to everything else." The farms, the small towns, the suburbs, and inner cities are all connected (figure 2). The humane metropolis must find new ways to balance and reinforce qualities unique to each context. This job is a social, economic, and political task as well as an aesthetic one worthy of all our talents and creativity at the beginning of a new century.

Under the old narrative, we saw that European Americans conquered the North American continent. The natural world was seen as a vast and infinite resource that could be raided for more production and consumption. If there were problems with the cities, then we could pack up and leave, throw them away, build new ones, and "Devil takes the hindmost!" Knowledge was organized around the needs and experiences of the European American middle class. Anything outside these needs and experiences simply did not exist. In short, the world of Ozzie and Harriet was flat. If you ventured too far out, then you would fall off the edge.

Today, ecologists and others are feeling the pangs of guilt and remorse for destroying the ecological basis of life. Many people are beginning to believe that the universe is alive, and this insight has important implications for the ways we design, build, and inhabit or cities. In the ecologist's story, however, people of color do

Figure 1 Schmoozing in a downtown minipark in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by R. H. Platt.)

Figure 2 Cooperation in community regreening, New Haven, Connecticut. (Photo courtesy of Colleen Murphy-Dunning.)

Figure 2 Cooperation in community regreening, New Haven, Connecticut. (Photo courtesy of Colleen Murphy-Dunning.)

not exist. Their experience, insight, and creativity are not acknowledged as a resource for addressing the challenges of our farms, cities, and suburbs.

At the beginning of this new century, we need a new narrative to bring together claims of racial and economic justice with those of ecological integrity as essential parts of the quest for a humane metropolis. Holly Whyte has made an important contribution to this new story. His studies of the organization man first alerted us to the negative effect of social homogeneity on the quality of suburban life. He outlined the social disintegration caused by the "exploding metropolis." He gave us tools to protect remaining, vulnerable suburban landscapes. He redirected our attention to the importance of rediscovering the center of our public life in the cities. If he did not deal explicitly and wholly with issues of race and poverty, then he helped lay the foundations for a new narrative into which solutions to these challenges can be incorporated.

As Thomas Berry once wrote in his remarkable book, The Dream of the Earth (1988, 123):

It is all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story. Our traditional story of the universe sustained us for a long time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purposes, and energized action. It consecrated suffering and integrated knowledge. We awake in the morning and we know where we were. We could answer the questions of our children. We could identify crime, punish transgressors. Everything was taken care of because the story was there. It did not necessarily make people good, nor did it take away the pains and stupidities of life, or make for unfailing warmth in human association. It did provide a context in which life could function in a meaningful matter.

An agenda for the humane metropolis at the beginning of the new century must not only include the rivers and trees, wetlands, and working landscapes. It must also include the whole of the human community.


Berry, T. 1988. The dream of the earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Bullard, R. D., G. S, Johnson, and A. O. Torres. 2000. Sprawl city: Race, politics, and planning in Atlanta. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Editors of Fortune, 1957. The exploding metropolis. New York: Doubleday.

Glave, D. D., and M. Stoll. 2006. To love the wind and the rain: African Americans and environmental history. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

LaFarge, A., ed. 2000. The essential William H. Whyte. New York: Fordham University Press.

Orfield, M. 2002. American metropolitics: The new suburban reality. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Sierra Club. 1993. A place at the table: A Sierra roundtable on race, justice, and the environment. Sierra (May-June): 51-58, 90-91.

Suarez, R. 1999. The old neighborhood: What we lost in the great suburban migration, 1966-1999. New York: Free Press.

Whyte, W. H. 1956. The organization man. New York: Simon and Schuster. Republished, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

-. 1968. The last landscape. New York: Doubleday. Republished, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

-. 1988. City: Rediscovering the center. New York: Doubleday.

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