Black Citymakers: How The Philadelphia Negro Changed Urban America by Marcus Anthony Hunter. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 304 pp. $35 Cloth. ISBN: 978-0-1999-4813-0
Article first published online: 10 APR 2014
© 2014 American Sociological Association
City & Community
Volume 13, Issue 1, pages 88–90, March 2014
How to Cite
Smith, P. H. (2014), Black Citymakers: How The Philadelphia Negro Changed Urban America by Marcus Anthony Hunter. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 304 pp. $35 Cloth. ISBN: 978-0-1999-4813-0. City & Community, 13: 88–90. doi: 10.1111/cico.12055
- Issue published online: 22 APR 2014
- Article first published online: 10 APR 2014
In Black Citymakers Marcus Hunter wants the reader to focus on the agency of black political actors in shaping the development of Philadelphia throughout the twentieth century. In his study Hunter attempts to convey the impact of black political actions through what he calls “critical junctures”: historical moments of economic and political crises during which the inner workings of Philadelphia's political economy are laid bare. These historical moments include the failure of two black-owned banks in the 1920s, the collapse of a tenement building and subsequent housing reform in the 1930s, the proposal to construct a highway through the black sections of the Seventh Ward in the 1950s, and the rise of the black mayor in the 1980s. Using W.E.B. DuBois’ Philadelphia Negro as a point of departure, Hunter claims that the “Black Seventh Ward,” as the “origin of black life in Philadelphia,” was the site for many of these pivotal moments during which black political actors made their imprint on the future shape and direction of Philadelphia. In this way, Hunter argues that the Black Seventh Ward not only encapsulated influential black political actions, but also reflected the larger political struggles of the city during the last century. This argument is an important advance for scholars who expect residents of black neighborhoods, especially those who are working class, to have had little structural impact on their cities.
A major strength of this book is that Hunter does not assume “black political agency” is homogeneous in ideology or interests. Following DuBois, he emphasizes the heterogeneity of black political subjects along regional, cultural, class, occupational, and partisan lines. However, Hunter deliberately chooses to focus on culture and region, rather than class, as the main lines of intraracial divisions. While this exploration of political pluralism within the black community offers richly textured case studies of internal political contestation, his otherwise impressive account suffers from a failure to identify coherent patterns of intraracial political alignments and durable interests of black political actors across these “critical junctures.”
Hunter's chapters on housing reform and urban renewal clearly lay out the political disputes among different black actors in the national and local context of the Great Depression and postwar eras. In this context Hunter situates the contests among black political actors that parallel and overlap with white political actions in structuring Philadelphia's political economy. Hunter's particular achievement in these chapters is in capturing the politics of working class blacks as they fought for housing reform and struggled against the city's plans to eviscerate the Black Seventh Ward. He shows how the spontaneous protests that emanated from black working class neighborhoods in the Seventh Ward helped to fuel the militant Tenants’ League and the local chapter of the National Negro Congress in their fight for federal public housing.
Black working class politics also came into play when black neighborhood organizations led the protest against the city's plans to construct an expressway through the Black Seventh Ward. In this signature chapter, Hunter is able to show how a black-led protest was able to thwart the building of this roadway by exploiting tensions between the corporate and housing reform wings of Philadelphia's progrowth coalition. This case perhaps best supports his argument that black working class actors were citymakers by virtue of disrupting the city's urban renewal plans and thus altering the structure and direction of development in Philadelphia. However, in his admirable effort to paint poor and working class blacks as more than either victims who evoke sympathy or dysfunctional persons who invite scorn, he overstates his case. The limits of black activists’ power are illustrated by the fact that eventually market-led and state-supported gentrification squeezed the Black Seventh Ward into an island of affordable housing for black residents, while reducing the “black presence” to cultural markers such as an annual African diasporic-theme festival that the author describes as a “project of urban black memory.” For Hunter these represent victories in a city where black residents have experienced too few. However, we must weigh these achievements against the vast social needs of the most vulnerable population in the city at this time in order to gauge their real significance.
In his study, Hunter astutely depicts the multiple ways in which black political actors frame consensus issues. He is critical of black elites who use “consensus” to rally the black community behind their particular interests while suppressing discontent in the process. On the other hand, he lauds black working-class actors for their ability to frame the issues of affordable housing within black Philadelphia and then later in the urban renewal struggle as consensus issues. The latter case is instructive because black activists were able to build upon and go beyond race-based arguments to include environmental inequality and defense of neighborhoods as a way to build a “city-wide and multiclass” opposition to the expressway. In fact, Hunter argues that black working class activists had to seek white allies because the impact of urban renewal on the Black Seventh Ward was not a priority on the agenda of black political elites. However, whereas Hunter sees the framing of these issues as cultural, it seems clear that a class-inflected politics within black Philadelphia informs the political agendas, alliances, and interests of various black strata.
Overall, Hunter's “critical junctures” methodology blinds him to the persistence of a class-inflected politics that is evident as early as the black bank failures of the 1920s and black elites’ decision to pursue political incorporation over affordable housing in the 1930s. This blind spot becomes even more evident in the last two chapters of Black Citymakers, when Hunter's depiction of heterogeneous black interests seems to fade. We see here a “black growth coalition” representing “black interests” in an attempt to gain the mayoralty. What Hunter avoids for most of the book by conveying the heterogeneity of black agency, he ultimately succumbs to by talking about the political interests of black people in unitary terms at the end of the book. We are to assume that the race-based consensus constructed by black elites that Hunter has criticized up until this point emerges uncontested in the post-civil rights black political community. Though Hunter argues that post-civil rights black leaders advocated for neighborhood development, in contrast to the postwar progrowth coalition's emphasis on wholesale demolition, we are given little evidence to support this claim. Because we are left to evaluate post-civil rights black leaders once they are in power through the limited cases of an affordable housing project in the Black Seventh Ward and an African Diasporic cultural festival, we are unable to determine whether the development priorities of this black leadership helped to marginalize or strengthen the very constituency that helped it to gain power in Philadelphia. In the end, Hunter's monochromatic portrayal of post-civil rights black leadership undermines his rich and textured treatment of black working-class agency in contesting power within and outside of black Philadelphia.