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February 12, 2010 9:23 AM   Subscribe

Jo Guldi writes a fascinating entry about social engineering and geography in the 1970's. "The geographers located answers in American zones of isolation and hopelessness. Bill Bunge organized his fellow professors into the Detroit Geographical Expedition, leading frequent trips to document the slums of Detroit and later Toronto. Their findings were equally provocative. In 1968, the Society published a map entitled “Where Commuters Run Over Black Children on the Pointes-Downtown Track.” Life and death, they argued, were not merely the commodities available to any hard-working American, but hung upon the thread of a special kind of privilege, the privilege of safe territory." Guldi is a historian at the Harvard Society of Fellows.

"Brian Berry of the University of Chicago was even more explicit, announcing to the Annual Conference of the Institute of British Geographers in 1970 that in the new world of “meritocratic élites,” geographers found themselves servants to the “needs of public policy.” He imagined a world where geographers would project the cities of the future that were “most likely to emerge in the future with and without public intervention” and so help functionaries decide and find the tools to shape the most preferable community possible.

This was hardcore social engineering: the idea was that geographers, like psychologists and other social scientists, would aid the twentieth-century state in helping poor people and people of minority races to assimilate, or failing that, in Berry’s words, to “monitor” contemporary developments and so apprise authorities of outbreaks of danger before they happened."
posted by cashman (10 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yay for Jo Guldi! She is one of the more interesting voices in the digital humanities movement.
posted by LarryC at 9:26 AM on February 12, 2010


Yay for Jo Guldi! Sh is my school chum!
posted by liketitanic at 10:03 AM on February 12, 2010


I lived in Grosse Pointe Woods in the mid-1970s and I don't recall any rash of commuters running down black pedestrians. I also don't remember that many commuters using Mack Ave or Charlevoix or even Jefferson as a route to get downtown. It was faster and more direct to take I-94 from that side of town. What I do remember about living near Detroit in the 1970s is more in line with this writer's report:

The summer of 1976 was shocking even by Detroit standards. Looting became an everyday sport: In one neighborhood, shop owners reported replacing plate glass windows as often as twice a week. Against this background of daily robberies and muggings, a handful of grisly crimes stood out. A popular priest was robbed and brutally murdered in his rectory. A legal aid lawyer's leg was broken when an auto thief ran over him in his own car. But most terrifying were the teenage gangs that flourished that summer. Groups called the Errol Flynns, the Bishops, and the BKs (short for Black Killers) waged open warfare in the neighborhoods. They also ventured occasionally into the central business district to prey on shoppers and one evening rampaged through the posh Pontchartrain Hotel. Coming by chance on a private party, 20 youths tore through the opulent dining room, overturning tables, stealing purses, and screaming, "Black Killers! Black Killers! It's all about the Black Killers!"

This lawlessness had less to do with poverty and oppression than with Mayor Coleman Young and his laissez-faire attitude toward crime in the City.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:10 AM on February 12, 2010


Oriole Adams, none of what you cite there happened in Grosse Pointe, right, where you actually lived? So I imagine that what you remember is news reports. Can't imagine that violent crime by a racial Other was reported to a greater extent than the deaths of children of color! No chance the media over-reported to create a sense of threat?

If you seriously doubt the structural evidence of poverty and oppression in Detroit I'd take a look at some redlining maps or check out Thomas Sugrue's book The Origins of the Urban Crisis.
posted by liketitanic at 10:21 AM on February 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


From the article:

By 1990, however, Peter Gould had glimpsed another use for his mental maps. He had been watching over thirty years how his classes of eighty to a hundred people responded to seeing him explain the vast differences of experience between growing up in a black ghetto and a white suburb. They stopped in their tracks, he wrote, to realize that “their location in geographic space seemed to determine to a high degree the information they had.” As the undergraduates learned to understand their aesthetic tastes and political attitudes as a reflection of where they grew up, he wrote, they began to ask where they were located “in ‘ethnic space,’ ‘religious space,’ and ‘gender space.’”

The question, at base, as he formulated it, was actually a question most provocative when aimed at his privileged, white undergraduates: “How free really were they when they were trapped by their locations in these other spaces?”

posted by whimsicalnymph at 10:54 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Grosse Pointes have a particularly bad relationship with open housing and racial integration; it was home to the point system that rated potential homebuyers by "degree of swarthiness" as late as the early 1960s. Blacks and asians could never qualify for a home there; eastern european applicants were held to a much higher standard than Anglos or Western european immigrants.
posted by ofthestrait at 11:32 AM on February 12, 2010


Liketitanic, I don't quite understand your point. Is it that I never personally witnessed said crimes? Or are you saying the media only printed stories of black criminals and not of black pedestrians being targeted by white commuters? (I'm not being a smart-aleck, I'm truly confused.) Whether one lived in the Grosse Pointes or East Detroit or Warren or Harper Woods or the city of Detroit itself during that time, everyone was very aware of the escalating crime rate of that era. Both our daily newspapers were based in downtown Detroit at the time (by the way, even they eventually moved their headquarters out of the city due to crime) and were very pro-Coleman Young and pro-Detroit. Had there been an unusually high amount of pedestrian accidents in any particular area (especially if the majority of victims were children - that sort of story definitely sells papers) it would've received major press coverage. But the unspoken fact of life in that era was that crime was out of control in Detroit. A lot of major employers still had offices downtown in the 1970s, and there was some disgruntlement behind the scenes because (for example) Michigan Bell or Blue Cross workers doing X job in a Detroit office received $2-$5 more per hour than employees doing the same job in suburban offices. The higher per hour was always officially explained away as a means of covering parking fees, but those who worked in the City knew that the company provided free parking and that the additional salary was referred to by insiders as "battle pay." There was a definite need to entice qualified workers to risk the drive to downtown (an area that is relatively safe today, but was still sketchy in the 70s) and hope that they didn't get a flat tire en route, as it was very common for thugs to lurk along I-75 and I-94 and prey on stranded motorists in those pre-cell phone days.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:32 AM on February 12, 2010


Some of both, I think--and I don't really mean to be smart alecky either, which I think I did. But you use a lot of phrases that suggest some hearsay to me---unspoken fact of life, disgruntlement behind the scenes, additional salary was referred to by insiders as "battle pay." , very common for thugs to lurk along I-75 and I-94 and prey on stranded motorists in those pre-cell phone days.

I'm not saying those things aren't true or didn't happen, but I want some evidence for them--especially given your contention that This lawlessness had less to do with poverty and oppression than with Mayor Coleman Young and his laissez-faire attitude toward crime in the City. Because what you're suggesting is that a) there was a lot of black-on-white crime, and that b) whatever the reported structural causes might be, you don't take them particularly seriously.

Further--

Had there been an unusually high amount of pedestrian accidents in any particular area (especially if the majority of victims were children - that sort of story definitely sells papers) it would've received major press coverage

I just don't know that I believe that--are you saying the data used to produce the map linked above was completely fabricated? I am not a historian of Detroit but I've read enough about Rust Belt cities, and looked at the data linked in the OP, to want more evidence for the things you're presenting as common, albeit insider, knowledge.
posted by liketitanic at 8:42 PM on February 12, 2010


did sound smart-alecky. ugh.
posted by liketitanic at 8:42 PM on February 12, 2010


Or, let me put this another way that sounds less accusatory. What I am really saying is that the truth, such as it is, is probably in the middle of your memories and the findings of the geographers in the OP.

I would not at all be surprised to find that news media overreported violence by African American perpetrators to a greater degree than similar acts by whites, in part because white communities--and the businesses and politicians that supported them--in suburban rings around declining inner cities had a significant vested interest in paying greater attention to such stories and remembering them more clearly. Or that race would be a prejudicial factor in the way those stories were remembered at a time when whites claimed to feel under assault, figuratively; the historian Robert Self found that, through the 1960s and 1970s, any time African Americans moved into a predominantly white community, no matter how close or far it was from the urban core, no matter if every other zoning, tax, or political structure remained the same, white residents pretty much invariably started throwing around the word urbanized. So I'm not saying your memories are "wrong," but that they may have been manipulated to a degree that I can't judge by others' political priorities.
posted by liketitanic at 9:15 PM on February 12, 2010


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