Arts & Culture

At GSD, UPenn’s Thomas Sugrue talks about ‘civil rights and the metropolis’

4 min read

For the first time in a generation, urban policy is back on the national agenda.

Advocates for the nation’s cities have been thrilled by the announcement that the Obama administration will include a White House Office of Urban Policy.

This is “electrifying news,” Thomas Sugrue told his audience at the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s (GSD) Piper Auditorium Nov. 25. Sugrue is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and a Bancroft Prize-winning chronicler of race and racial discrimination in mid-20th century American cities. His latest book is “Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.”

He was at the GSD to speak on the topic “Planning for Justice: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Metropolis.”

In his lecture, Sugrue expressed the hope that the new administration would learn from the failures of the last effort at comprehensive urban policy — from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. These failures, Sugrue said, resulted from what he called a “policy mismatch” — a reliance on small-scale local solutions to problems whose causes were ultimately regional, national, or even global.

Sugrue identified two urban policy camps during the 1960s and ’70s — what he called “activist planners” and “community activists.” “These two traditions coexisted and interacted only with some mistrust,” he noted, adding that they were “often at loggerheads.”

The activist planners had affinities to integration and to post-New Deal modernism. And they responded to a “hopeful new reality”: the increased numbers of white Americans who were willing to have black neighbors — or so they told opinion researchers, anyway.

The activist planners pushed for zoning changes, sought to scatter public housing outside the inner city, and tried to get the lines of school districts redrawn. Their goals were “de-ghettoization” of the black community and the integration of metropolitan America.

The community activists, on the other hand, were aligned with the black power movement. They were “oriented to process, not outcome,” Sugrue said. “Participatory politics were an end in themselves.” These activists believed in bottom-up planning.

The two camps “had widely divergent views of community itself,” Sugrue said, adding that “community” was a term that came into use in a particular sense in the 1960s.

For the activist planners, community was seen as inherently exclusionary, tied to the “spatial isolation of groups” and the delineation of boundaries.

Community activists, on the other hand, drew on deep traditions of localism and local identities, of building and reinforcing communities. Leaders such as Stokely Carmichael said that integration would destroy the black community. Community activists saw an agglomeration of African-Americans as a power base. And however “radical” these leaders might have seemed to white suburbanites, their movement was “basically conservative,” Sugrue asserted.

In the end, the community activists generally prevailed. The Community Action Program, for instance, launched during the Johnson administration, was short-lived, but left its mark in the policy community with its requirements for public participation in urban planning.

Richard Nixon was a staunch advocate of what he called “black capitalism,” according to Sugrue, but much preferred small-scale approaches. He opposed what he called the “forced integration” of the suburbs and resisted efforts to spread affordable housing across metropolitan areas. This focus on what Nixon aide William Safire called “national localism” left urban policymakers ill prepared to cope with what was going on in the larger world, Sugrue suggested.

“The urban crisis worsened in the 1960s and 1970s with the hemorrhage of jobs and capital and ongoing white suburbanization. The root causes of the urban crisis in the 1960s and 1970s were national and, increasingly, global in scope. But the solutions were small in scale.

Sugrue, noting that one of the lessons of the last major wave of urban policy is that neither the top-down nor the bottom-up approach alone will suffice to solve “the problems of metropolitan inequality,” had this suggestion for the incoming Obama administration: “A revitalized urban policy must break out of the binaries that were set in place in the 1960s.” It needs to synthesize the best of both camps. “Planning needs to be participatory and democratic if it is to be just. We need to think small and big at the same time.”

“This is a potentially exciting moment in that the president-elect has put urban policy back on the agenda,” Jerold Kayden, Frank Backus Williams Professor of Urban Planning and Design and co-chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design, commented after Sugrue’s lecture. “It hasn’t been on the agenda in a robust way since the end of the Carter presidency. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”