My current research project examines Harlem, perhaps America’s most famous neighborhood, during a period of tremendous change. I connect the ambitious, often radical social movements that arose in Harlem in the 1960s with the increasingly privatized and economically gentrified reality that marked the neighborhood by the turn of the millennium. Harlem’s mid-century urban crisis and its so-called “second renaissance” of the late 1990s and early 2000s were not discrete moments in the neighborhood’s history but the endpoints of a thread that helps to explain the nature of urban development in the aftermath of large-scale, federally-funded urban renewal.
I explore the history of community development corporations, little-known community organizations, self-help housing efforts, and an array of imaginative residents who acted as their own architects and planners – in many cases without professional training. Inspired by calls for community control of political institutions, schools, and the built environment that arose from the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s, Harlemites demanded new influence over their neighborhood. The community-based institutions they formed in this pursuit subsequently served as the crucibles in which residents offered and debated competing conceptions of what Harlem should look like and who should occupy its streets. Through a social, political, and architectural history of their struggle to determine the future of one place, I explain the broader story of the emergence of local actors as major players in contemporary urban development; the changing ideas of what it meant to improve a community; the lasting, often ironic spatial consequences of 1960s demands for participatory democracy; and the unexpected, often radical roots of the phenomena that today characterize the neoliberal city.
This project builds on my earlier efforts to consider the ideas and people vying for influence as the liberal project of state-led urban redevelopment declined in the 1960s; the intersection of race, architecture, and planning; and the many levels at which the city takes form. For example, using the example of the Yale School of Art and Architecture, I have examined resistance to urban renewal in architecture and planning schools at the same time that social movements against urban renewal reached a fever pitch in American streets (research published in the Journal of Urban History). Students training to become architects and planners in the late 1960s identified with the broader frustration among those who were uprooted by top-down planning. In the process of demanding a more “relevant” design pedagogy, they helped shape the postmodern city.
Similarly, I have considered the expansive, often idealistic economic development vision of New York City mayor John V. Lindsay, who governed America’s biggest city at a moment of both rapid deindustrialization and peak resistance to the public sector-driven policies of mid-century liberalism. Despite these phenomena, Lindsay argued that New York must work for the benefit of all of its citizens no matter their race and class. Likewise, he insisted that government must be the driving force behind that outcome. Lindsay faced obstacles that were simply too big for even a big-city mayor. Yet while his policies did not all succeed, his generous vision for the power of government gives pause in an era of increasing inequality. This research will appear in a forthcoming edited volume on Lindsay.
Among professional architects, too, the 1960s proved a decisive moment of both opportunity and rapid transition. In considering the extensive work that architect Paul Rudolph completed in partnership with urban renewal dynamo Edward Logue (to be published in a forthcoming volume on Rudolph), I have examined the unique partnerships that a younger generation of modernists forged with the public sector, the creative freedom that resulted from their work reconstructing cities at a large-scale, and the complex consequences of these partnerships. As urban renewal declined in the late 1960s, so did the star of Rudolph. Professional architects and planners, like architecture and planning students and the residents who inhabit American urban places, have constantly faced the reality that their spatial visions of the future are inextricably embedded in and contingent on a complex and fluid social, political, and economic context.