Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 16, 2019
Brian D. Goldstein The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. 400 pp.; 42 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780674971509)
Angel David Nieves An Architecture of Education: African American Women Design the New South Rochester: University of Rochester Press and Boydell & Brewer, 2018. 256 pp.; 36 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (9781580469098)

Architectural historians have reason to welcome The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem and An Architecture of Education: African American Women Design the New South. Brian D. Goldstein, an architecture, urban, and planning historian, and Angel David Nieves, an architecture and urban historian with expertise in the digital humanities, tell important stories that enrich our understanding of architecture and planning in relationship to race, racism, gender, and grassroots social movements in the United States. The focus on the built environment in each case study, one of postwar Harlem and the other of the Jim Crow South, pays off in that it exposes the specificities of antiblack racism, the achievements of African American activists, and the compromises that were made with the white power structure in each place.

The Roots of Urban Renaissance opens in the 1960s when Harlem was “America’s best-known ‘ghetto’” (5). In six chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion, the book traverses the outpouring of activism during the urban crisis that started in the sixties and deepened in the 1970s and 1980s and ends when the startling revival of this neighborhood was underway in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Dubbed Harlem’s “Second Renaissance” (hence the title of the book), observers pointed to streets lined with renovated brownstones, a new theater and shopping center, a dramatic drop in crime, and an uptick in the population of middle- and upper-middle-class residents, many of them white. Goldstein insists that this assessment, in its emphasis on a phoenix-like rebirth, is misleading in that it fails to account for competing visions, the unanticipated causes of gentrification, and the Harlemites who directed its outcomes.

Goldstein shows that Harlem’s second renaissance was decades in the making and that residents shaped its material outcomes when faced first with the urban crisis, entrenched poverty, then federal abandonment of central cities, and subsequently with the structural changes in the global economy that rendered center cities appealing to middle-class residents. One startling lesson of The Roots of Urban Renaissance is the extent of grassroots activism in Harlem; another one is that the hallmarks of urban neoliberalism (economic gentrification, free markets, and private-sector development) developed in Harlem out of grassroots activism, not in opposition to it. The seemingly contradictory outcomes resulted from the residents’ deeply held convictions: the belief that Harlem was an important place, one that deserved investment so that it could be lived in and enjoyed; and that the plans for its redevelopment should be crafted by those who lived there, making Harlem an example of black power, black self-determination, and the efficacy of black capitalism.

Activists forged common cause in their desire for black empowerment and out of the widespread distrust of white people and anger and frustration with institutional racism, but this solidarity did not translate into a shared spatial agenda. It’s not surprising that activists disagreed about how best to intervene on behalf of low-income people of color in Harlem. The architecture and planning professions were in disarray in the late sixties (although Goldstein doesn’t emphasize this point), agreeing only that high modernism had failed, spectacularly for people of color in center cities. Contentious debate is also a hallmark of grassroots social movements, and it comes with benefits that include testing competing strategies for action. To his credit, Goldstein doesn’t downplay the disagreements among the many African American actors who are featured in this book. The details count, and Goldstein excavated many of them, combing archives, interviewing activists, reading newspapers, and the like. This is impressive research even if some details are missed and some proposals are idealized.

Take the example of the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem (ARCH), organized in 1964 by C. Richard Hatch, a liberal white architect, and taken over by J. Max Bond, Jr., Kenneth Simmons, and other black radicals in 1967. They included Preston Wilcox and Isaiah Robinson, fresh from the victorious boycott of IS 201 in East Harlem. Wilcox, an outspoken advocate of community control, called the windowless school a personal affront, an example of colonialism in design. The new leaders kicked the white professionals out of ARCH and discarded their reform agenda in favor of black power and advocacy planning. No urban renewal parcel was more important than the site at the northeast corner of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue. This intersection, storied in Harlem’s history, had been cleared for a controversial new state office building designed by a team led by the establishment African American architecture firm, Ifill, Johnson, and Hanchard. Prompted by militant high school students, marching through Harlem to memorialize Malcolm X on the anniversary of his murder, activists occupied the block in 1969.

ARCH worked with other groups to make this place, renamed “Reclamation Site # 1,” an example of “Black Utopia.” They erected a tent city, displayed black nationalist symbols, and offered a trio of proposals to ignite a conversation about the future. ARCH posted the designs on billboards and invited the community to vote—to declare a preference by studying the drawings that African American architects executed depicting African Americans in public space and that addressed the pressing need for infill housing, education, and health care in Harlem. Goldstein praises the modernist designs for restoring the streetscape and offering mixed uses, but the architectural expression shared some qualities with the despised Harlem State Office Building. Proposed in 1966, construction halted in 1969 during the occupation of Reclamation Site # 1 and resumed after Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the police to empty the site; bulldozers were used to wipe it clean. The building, completed in 1973, was named after Adam Clayton Powell in 1983.

Was this “ruthless defense of the urban renewal order” (111) a defeat? Goldstein argues not completely, although he recognizes that it proved very difficult to translate democratic planning principles into built projects in Harlem. Shortly after the tent city was demolished on 125th Street, Rockefeller and Edward Logue, the developer, formed the Harlem Urban Development Corporation (HUDC) and invited African Americans to be involved, especially middle-class moderates who were pro-development. A consensus between critics of urban renewal and supporters of state-sponsored intervention could not be forged, but HUDC, the Harlem Commonwealth Council (HCC), and many other organizations discussed in the book did rely on this new institutional structure, the community development corporation, to deliver private capital to Harlem and to empower black professionals by hiring them. Bond’s firm, Bond Ryder James, designed a proposal for one of the open sites on Reclamation Site # 1, Robinson joined HCC, and other African Americans, preservationists, politicians, and church leaders, benefited too. There were holdouts, most notably Wilcox, who never abandoned his commitment to black power and self-determination, and repeatedly criticized capitalism, the reigning political economy, for sustaining the color line rather than dismembering it.

As The Roots of Urban Renaissance moves toward the present day, it exposes the inequalities that Wilcox insisted are intrinsic to capitalist urban development and the enduring power of money and men in New York City real estate. Goldstein steers clear of moral judgments, but his sympathies are obvious by virtue of the stories that he elected to tell. The remarkable women who figure in his book include Alice Kornegay who lived in the East Harlem Triangle north of 125th Street and east of Park Avenue and organized a community association on learning that the City Planning Commission intended to rezone this part of Harlem as an industrial park. With Kornegay in the lead, the planners retreated, and ARCH was commissioned to design a new plan for the East Harlem Triangle (featured on the book jacket). The plan wasn’t executed, but Kornegay persevered and redirected her attention to providing “a good supermarket” (256) in East Harlem. The skeptics included Wilcox, Latino bodega owners who were concerned about competition, and funding agencies who believed that Kornegay’s “scrappy” group lacked administrative skills. The forced marriage with Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC), affiliated with the church and led by Calvin O. Butts (the church’s pastor and representative of the new pragmatic generation of Harlem developers), resulted in the construction of a Pathmark supermarket at the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. It opened in 1999, receiving a warm welcome from women in the community although sadly Kornegay didn’t live to take part in this triumph.

Kornegay also missed the betrayal of her vision by ADC. Pressed for cash, it sold the site in 2014 to a commercial developer and didn’t share any of the profit with East Harlem constituents. The Whole Foods supermarket that opened recently, located further west on 125th Street, serves an entirely different clientele. This sobering story is an example of Goldstein’s main point that “Harlemites themselves played a crucial role in creating this seeming renaissance on their streets” (6)—one that offered opportunities to some Harlem residents and ruthlessly disenfranchised others.

In the end, Goldstein’s argument—that the grassroots social movements of the 1960s were a starting point, a generator of change that empowered at least some residents of Harlem—holds up and challenges assumptions about the urban crisis, gentrification, activism, and black power. There are minor errors in The Roots of Urban Renaissance (West Harlem wasn’t referred to as Hamilton Heights until very recently), some activists aren’t mentioned (I especially missed Mary Dowery’s role in ARCH), and some actors are idealized (Bond among them). It is also a challenge to keep track of the dizzying array of agencies, referred to by abbreviations, as they intersect with various actors and development projects across time. And while I respect the decision to move forward from the 1960s and to focus on planning history, these choices come at some cost. I wanted to know more about architecture—about the designs of buildings (the supermarket for example), and their relationship to contentious debates in architecture and planning circles about identity, power, space, and representation, and I longed for discussion of important themes in black history and the history of philanthropy that appear in the narrative and aren’t contextualized or historicized. Self-help stands out, mentioned in the otherwise excellent chapter on urban homesteaders, but not dissected critically as a changing, contested historical construction.

Self-help is a central theme in An Architecture of Education: African American Women Design the New South. This book is important because the author, Angel David Nieves, introduces to architectural history the work of two remarkable African American women reformers of the Progressive Era—the institution builders Elizabeth Wright who established Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina, in 1897, and Jennie Dean who opened the Manassas Industrial School in Virginia in 1893 on the leveled Civil War battlefield. The philosophy of self-help and racial uplift permeated the campuses of both schools where students studied academic subjects and learned practical skills in purpose-built structures that included some designed by black architects. Wright studied at the Tuskegee Institute where she absorbed Booker T. Washington’s self-help philosophy, while Dean, formerly enslaved, did not receive a formal education, although I imagine that self-help, with its roots in slave culture, is very likely to have shaped her outlook on activism.

Nieves argues that the architectural and social accomplishments of these race women disrupt the accommodationist narrative that so many other historians insist runs through schools influenced by Washington’s work at Tuskegee. Like Goldstein does for Harlem, Nieves invokes the concept of black utopia to characterize the places that activists constructed in South Carolina and Virginia. However, the title of the book is misleading in that it suggests that the focus is on race women and their designs for schools in the Jim Crow South when three of the six chapters address other topics—the lost cause and monument making in the South, the impact of the 1893 exhibition in Chicago on African American place making, and the Tuskegee Institute in relationship to monumental American campus planning and black nationalism. Nieves draws on established, recognized secondary sources in these chapters, and while they set the stage for the second half of the book, the discussion is repetitious and should have been compressed with editing.

This is because Wright, Dean, and the schools, which these race women envisioned, raised funds for (including from white benefactors) and built, deserve pride of place in the book. The architectural documentation is impressive (I know from my own research that it is very difficult to reconstruct the institutional settings that women of color and other marginalized groups built in this period), but the rambling style-based architectural analysis is disappointing. It is remarkable that women of color managed to erect commanding purpose-built institutions for black students on large campuses in the Jim Crow South when many other women couldn’t extract funds from stingy male benefactors to repurpose a standing structure such as an orphanage. Nieves offers the production of space as a framing analytic but stops short of applying it to the school buildings and classrooms or relating the designs of these settings to the pertinent topics of childhood, reform schools, philanthropy, and education. Terms like “vernacular” and “industrial schools” are used loosely. These disappointments notwithstanding, An Architecture of Education opens doors to new actors, places, and topics in architectural history—ones that architectural historians should take note of, learn from, and pursue.

Marta Gutman
Professor of Architecture, City College of New York and Professor of Art History and Earth and Environmental Science, CUNY Graduate Center