[URBANTH-L]REV: Wilson on Connerly, _The Most Segregated City in
acjancius at ysu.edu
Mon Mar 6 12:12:20 EST 2006
[cross-posted from H-Urban]
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu (March 2006)
Charles E. Connerly. _The Most Segregated City in America: City Planning
and Civil Rights in Birmingham, 1920-1980_. Center for American Places
Series. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005. xvi + 360
pp. Maps, notes, index. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8139-2334-4.
Reviewed for H-Urban by Bobby M. Wilson <bmwilson at bama.ua.edu>,
Department of Geography, University of Alabama
Race and Planning Practices in Birmingham
For the first time, in _The Most Segregated City in America_ , an
historical connection is delineated between civil rights and planning
practices in Birmingham. Author Charles Connerly demonstrates in detail
how planning practices were used to maintain the racial status quo. It
is not coincidental that a city that became known as the most segregated
city in America and the place for one of the most significant battles
for civil rights in America, also was the South's most industrial city.
For the early part of the twentieth century, a significant part of
Birmingham's labor force consisted of blacks who migrated from the black
belt region of the South to work in the coal and ore mines. These new
inhabitants needed housing and Birmingham planners made sure that white
housing was segregated from that for black people.
Birmingham had applied the logic of protecting property values (that
propelled the zoning movement in America) to the legal separation of
black and white neighborhoods. In the 1940s, black homeowners launched
the struggle for civil rights by violating the city's racial zoning
ordinance, which had been adopted in 1926. Not until 1951 was
Birmingham's racial zoning declared unconstitutional by the Supreme
Court, resulting in "the South's longest-standing racial zoning law." (p
Connerly poses a critical question: why did it take so long to declare
the city's zoning law unconstitutional, when the courts had already
declared racial zoning in many southern cities, including Atlanta,
unconstitutional? In answering this question, Connerly distinguishes
the planning practices in Birmingham from other southern cities. Racial
zoning ordinances were often prepared by planners. To challenge
Birmingham's racial zoning was to challenge the city's comprehensive
plan. But more important, black citizens of Birmingham who wanted change
were impaired by the intimidating strength of the white power structure,
the organizational weakness of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the absence of black voting
power. Not until after World War II did the NAACP take up the zoning
issue. The city also made wide use of the "separate but equal" doctrine,
which remained legally intact until the 1954 _Brown_ decision. By
invoking a "separate but equal" clause in its zoning enabling statute,
the city took advantage of the fact that the Supreme Court had not ruled
that doctrine unconstitutional.
Although the city invoked the "separate but equal" clause in its zoning
statute, there was no equality in racial zoning. The uniqueness of lots
and neighborhoods made them inherently unequal, reinforcing inequality
between black and white neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods were more
likely than white neighborhoods to be located in or near flood-prone
areas and industrial sites and were four times more likely than white
neighborhoods to contain heavy industry. Birmingham argued that its
racial zoning only restricted access to the property, not the purchase
and ownership of the property, and therefore the rights of an individual
to participate in the marketplace were not violated. But such legal
reasoning on the part of Birmingham was not consistent with what the
court said in _Buchanan v. Warley_ (1917), which tied the right of
ownership to the use and occupation of the property.
Connerly argues that racial zoning undermined urban housing markets and
this eventually led to its downfall. The 1926 zoning code provided only
one black neighborhood for single-family housing and little or no new
housing opportunities for black citizens. There was no "filtering" or
"trickle down" of houses and neighborhoods from whites to blacks. As
early as 1923, Birmingham prevented the entry of blacks into white
neighborhoods, resulting in a dual housing market, one black, one white.
After 1945, neighborhoods zoned for blacks could not accommodate the
growth of the black population.
Urban renewal provided Birmingham with the means to relocate blacks (p.
103), a capability that racial zoning had not offered. The city had no
problem in identifying neighborhoods with blighted conditions that fit
the federal government's requirement for urban renewal. Highway
development reinforced racial boundaries. Interstate 65, for example,
became a buffer between the city's west side black neighborhoods and the
central business district. Connerly is quick to note, however, that
there is no evidence that city leaders, including Bull Connor,
deliberately used highways as buffers between black and white
neighborhoods. Yet, the effect of highway development was to reinforce
some of the boundaries on the 1926 racial zoning map, such as part of
the I-65 corridor. Due to significant dislocation of the city's black
population by urban renewal and highway development, racial change in
neighborhoods began to take place in the 1960s. By 1980, the majority of
the city's inhabitants were black, the opposite of what white residents
The black community did not remain passive toward these racialized
planning practices. As agents, blacks were capable of doing things that
made a difference, that is, to exercise some sort of power and
self-reliance. In his discussion of the black planning tradition and
neighborhood empowerment in Birmingham, Connerly might have found Michel
de Certeau's _The Practice of Everyday Life_ useful to put his
historical discussion into a theoretical framework . In analyzing
everyday practices, de Certeau made a distinction between "strategy,"
which requires its own space, and "tactic," which lacks its own space.
Black citizens in Birmingham often did not have the means to keep to
themselves, to withdraw and plan a general strategy. Blacks were
intimidated in their neighborhoods and churches. There was no space to
withdraw to for strategizing. In exercising power, blacks, therefore,
had to operate tactically, manipulating and diverting the space of the
other, the white-dominated space. We learn that Birmingham's history of
terrorist bombing began with blacks' tactical resistance to racial
zoning. Connerly explains that black leaders and the NAACP waited for
the right test case to end racial zoning, the legalized landscape of
segregation. De Certeau would have called this a tactical move, playing
by the rules to divert the white-dominated space for one's own use.
In exercising power, blacks also attempted to produce their own space,
where they could strategize responses to threats from the white power
structure. According to de Certeau, to have a strategy is to postulate a
place that can be delimited as one's own and serve as a base from which
targets or threats from the outside can be managed.
Neighborhood-based civic leagues, which had existed in Birmingham since
the 1920s, provided this space for blacks. These civic leagues chiefly
relied on two strategies for improved services: petitioning local
government and self-help.
With adoption of the 1974 Citizen Participation Plan, Birmingham
developed one of most comprehensive neighborhood-based citizen
participation programs in America, reversing "the city's longtime
tradition of denying its black citizens the opportunity to participate
in the planning process" (p. 241). From these Citizen Participation
Program neighborhood associations, blacks were able to develop a
political strategy that led to the election of Richard Arrington as the
first black mayor of Birmingham.
Readers not familiar with the local history of Birmingham may get lost
in some of the details provided in this work, but students of race and
planning will come away with a better understanding of how planning
practices constructed and reinforced race-connected practices in
Birmingham, "America's Johannesburg."
. Michel de Certeau, _The Practice of Everyday Life_, trans. Steven
F. Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 36.
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