Crime in the City and the Curious Case of Philadelphia: Part II of the 2012 UHA

“Is their such a thing as Philadelphia exceptionalism?” asked one observer at this year’s UHA.  Undoubtedly, over the past two UHA’s (2010, 2012), Philadelphia has enjoyed the attentions of more than a few historians. With this in mind, ToM correspondents provide a glimpse at some of the work being done on the City of Brotherly Love.  Crime and policing emerged as another area of increased interest at this year’s conference.  San Francisco’s Chinatown, New York’s Washington Heights, and yes, West Philadelphia provide case studies focusing on crime’s influence on political mobilization, urban renewal, race relations and community activism.

For part I of ToM’s 2012 UHA coverage click here 

Panel – Communities, Crime, and Social Change in the late 20th Century American City


Black Bottom neighborhood circa 1947

Eric Schneider – Race and Murder in the Remaking of West Philadelphia

In recent years, scholars have begun to examine the role of higher education in shaping urban environs. Margaret O’Mara (for her recent talk at the Policy Conference see here), John Findlay, Joel Schwartz, ToM, and others have explored the effect of universities on economic development, local politics, and suburbanization. Eric Schneider adds crime to the discussion as he explores the intersection of race, violence, and urban educational institutions in West Philadelphia.  In this regard, Schneider uses homicide as a means to excavate the city’s larger history. Looking more at persistence and continuity than change, Schneider wants to know what explains the relationship between persistent levels of crime adjacent to the University of Pennsylvania and its inability to truly improve public safety through its own urban renewal efforts

The murder of In Ho Oh, an international student at the University of Pennsylvania in 1958, shocked Philadelphia and raised international temperatures.  Attacked by a group of 18 – 20 African American youths, Oh was brutally murdered. The incident sparked national and municipal outrage and even prodded the state department to issue an apology to Oh’s family and the Korean government.  The Philadelphia press expressed a unified revulsion and predictably, the city’s paper of record, blamed African American youth more generally, more or less accusing all young blacks of dysfunction.  Unfortunately, in the era of West Side Story and despite no apparent evidence, the media filtered the incident through the prism of Sharks/Jets street gangs.  Letters poured into the Mayor’s office expressing regret, feelings of victimization, and yes, racism. Even though interracial crime accounted for less than 10% of all murders, 7% to be more exact, many Philadelphians viewed the event through a racial prism. Schneider correctly points out that crime exerted an influence on racial conflict and that scholars need to attend to these issues when documenting change in race relations and community.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the incident regards the reaction of Mayor Richardson Dilworth.  Elected as part of a Democrat-led progressive movement, Dilworth came into office in 1951 as district attorney on a platform promising charter reform, urban renewal, and civil rights. In 1955, he won election as mayor and rather than demonize Black youth in the wake of the murder, Dilworth instead used the incident to highlight racial and economic inequality while also chastising African Americans for simply “blaming whites” for their problems.  Clearly, as Schneider argues, Dilworth delivered a speech that was “guaranteed to please no one.”   Whites in Philadelphia viewed the speech as too soft on crime and would eventually turn to  leaders like Mayor James Tate, who in turn was eclipsed by former police chief Frank Rizzo, who took over as mayor in 1972.   Needless to say, as Timothy Lombardo notes in his presentation (see below), Rizzo’s relationship with Philadelphia’s Black community can be described as problematic.

Progressive Philly: Joseph Clark and Richardson Dilworth circa 1962

Crime spurred the University of Pennsylvania into action as well. Like most urban institutions, Penn desired more land. One month after Oh’s murder, the University purchased an area of land to the north known as “Black Bottom”, a departure from its previous developmental efforts, which focused on expansion to the west.   The Black Bottom community had transitioned from predominantly white in 1930 to largely African American by 1945.   UPenn pursued a two-pronged strategy, both ostensibly to deliver public safety.  First, it cleared much of the land, removing large parts of the community.  Second, it funded local community groups to help refurbish middle class pockets.   Unfortunately, despite these efforts three Penn students were murdered in the 1960s.  Even with expanded security, similar incidents persisted into the 1990s, though by that point, Penn employed “soft” urban renewal: funding commercial districts and charter schools as a means to improve security, further demonstrating a chronic inability to reduce homicide in the area.

Washington Heights Bodega 2007

Rob Snyder – Washington Heights since the Crime Drop: Media, Culture, and the Limits of Urban Recovery

Over the last couple of years, some filmmakers have turned their attentions to the lives of Dominicans – at home and in their home away from home Nueva York. Sugar and Raising Victor Vargas provide two examples, yet, none of these efforts have examined the most recognizably Dominican community in New York City: Washington Heights.

Long a home to immigrants, in the 1930s-1940s German Jews settled in the Heights, but by the later decades of the 20th century, Dominicans and Dominican Americans had become synonymous in the area. However, in the 1980s and early 1990s, violence tailed an active drug trade into the community, leading to shocking levels of crime and homicide. In 1990, 103 murders were reported north of 150th Street. Understandably, many residents retreated to their homes, abdicating public spaces in the interest of their own safety.

Due to this period of struggle, many New Yorkers, and perhaps even some Washington Heights residents, came to stereotype the community as crime and drug ridden.  However, by the early 1990s new developments had taken root. Structural changes in the drug industry, more aggressive police tactics, and the almost pre-natal development of a public sphere within Washington Heights led to marked reduction in homicides. By 1998, the same area above 150th Street reported only 15 homicides. Yet, despite these visible reductions, the community remained anemic in terms of a public presence. No one hung out in parks, nobody sat on their stoop.  A study conducted by Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, an institution often considered by locals to be blissfully uninterested in Washington Heights’ problems, demonstrated that residents reacted to local conditions in one of two ways: 1) hide or 2) run.  Many members of the community believed activism to be ineffective.   The report suggested increased support for victims of crime, better police-community relations, job creation programs, and public health initiatives to address drug use.

Since better community relations served as one plank regarding reforms one must ask, how did residents view New York’s finest? The answer to this question proved complicated. For many residents, the police occupied two contradictory positions: protector and perpetrator.   When asked to explain violence in Washington Heights many officers blithely ascribed blame to neighborhood apathy that prevented residents from reporting crimes or taking action. Unsurprisingly, Washington Heights community members held a more nuanced view, crediting police with reducing crime with more aggressive efforts but also resenting what they saw as sometimes heavy handed and insensitive policing.

Changing the community’s perception about itself remained a challenge.  A 2003 survey reported that 51% of polled Washington Heights residents felt vulnerable in their own communities as compared with 32% citywide.  Though the community lacked extensive political reach, community members responded with cultural efforts that improved public sphere dynamics but also may have spurred gentrification, which penalized many lower income residents.  The creation of the bilingual Manhattan Times in 2000 helped to establish a public voice for the community, advocated for its base, and promoted the local art showings and public events.  Organized by local artists in 2003 and later taken over by the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA) in 2008, the Uptown Art Stroll drew middle class and urban professional types. In 2009, the uptown collective website emerged as an effort to define and transform Washington Heights’ image.   Perhaps, the most famous cultural contribution regarding the image of the Heights occurred in 1999, when Lin-Manuel Miranda (son of Luis Miranda who started the aforementioned Manhattan Times) penned the now famous musical In the Heights, which highlighted the diversity of the community (home to more than Dominicans), interracial romance, and the pressures of neighborhood change.  In sum, these efforts cast Washington Heights in a far different light than its late 1980s stereotype.  Of course, like other areas attracting “creative class” types, gentrification soon followed and many residents who endured troubling years of crime while helping to create a new public sphere in the neighborhood, find themselves unable to afford the “new Washington Heights.”

Megan Stubbendeck – The Golden Dragon Massacre as a Golden Opportunity: Asian American Mobilization in San Francisco, 1977 – 1990


On September 4, 1977, an alleged hit between rival San Francisco Chinatown gangs, the Joe Boys and Wah Ching, went horribly awry.  Instead of targeting only gang members the assailants killed a total of five people, two of which were tourists and injured 11.  The Golden Dragon Massacre represented a challenge to model minority tropes about Asian Americans.  The shooting challenged not only the obvious stereotype of passive and non-violent Asian Americans, but the outcry and political mobilization it spurred, pushed back against ideas regarding the apolitical nature often ascribed to the Chinatown community and Asian Americans more broadly.

Much like Eric Schneider used the killing of In Ho Oh to examine political responses by Philadelphia citizens, government, and the University of Pennsylvania, Stubbendeck uses the Golden Dragon Massacre as a means to explore Asian American political agency.  Additionally, like Robert Snyder, Stubbendeck also explores how minority communities mobilize in the face of violence and how they articulate an anti-crime agenda. Ironically, though minority and poorer populations remain subject to greater levels of crime than more affluent and often whiter communities, many historians have focused exclusively on white working and middle class responses.

Occurring five years before the infamous murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit, the Golden Dragon Massacre differed in some important ways. First, the Chinatown shooting resulted from Chinatown gang violence rather than negative racial feelings as captured in the Chin example or even perhaps In Ho Oh.  Second, the concentration of Asian Americans in San Francisco when compared to Detroit enabled the community to more directly articulate its political grievances, many of which focused on its own political institutions, namely the long established Six Companies.

Unsurprisingly, the shooting resulted in declining tourism revenues for Chinatown, with some estimates suggesting a 50% loss in revenue in the months that followed. Chinatown’s traditional political elite, the Six Companies (often referred to as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association or CCBA), had long served as the intermediary between local government and the community’s citizens. Since 1854, elites of the Six Companies controlled Chinatown politics and provided aid to its constituents.   After the Golden Dragon Massacre, these elites, worried over tourism profits and Chinatown’s public safety image, focused exclusively on recouping these losses.   Working with the Chamber of Commerce, the Six Companies promoted cultural festivals but largely ignored the victims of the shooting or real attempts at improving public safety.

Residents resented the focus on profits over safety.  East West, a bilingual newspaper lambasted the Six Companies for ignoring these issues and the needs of constituents.  One resident labeled Six Companies’ efforts “totally disgusting”.  The shooting prodded Chinatown residents and other Asian Americans in the city to challenge community elites on several issues.

The convergence of the shooting with municipal political developments also played a role.  In 1977, city elections followed the massacre by six weeks. Fresh in the minds of the city’s Asian American population, it served as a reminder of the need for political agency.  However, 1977 municipal elections proved critical for a second reason: the city shifted representation from at large bids to by district representation, meaning now all city council members would have a geographic constituency.  In Chinatown, District 3, crime and public safety emerged as the central issue, but even in other districts middle class Asians marshaled the incident as a means for political expression and mobilization. District One’s Gordon Lau became the first Asian American elected to the board in part due to his focus on crime and safety issues.  In this manner, candidates around the city directly addressed Asian voters.  In relation, Chinatown residents lobbied government for more services, a role in the past played by the Six Companies. Parks, gang programs, and job training all came to the fore leading to the state appointing a Chinatown Task Force to address demands.

Political representation and critiques of local elites represent only two ways residents mobilized. In addition, the Chinatown community challenged police procedures and policies, demanding greater attention from the SFPD.  When the police chief blamed the community for abdicating control of crime in Chinatown and allowing for wayward Chinese youth to join gangs, even the Six Companies condemned the comments. This apparent police indifference, its lack of community relations, and its failure to recruit Asian American officers (the police had only 13 officers of Chinese descent and none could write in Cantonese or Mandarin though four could speak one of the two languages haltingly) led to Chinatown bringing a suit against the SFPD with the Department of Justice.   The city’s police force responded quickly adding more patrols, boosting representation within the organization, and providing greater out reach. The combination of increased government aid and police attention contributed to a 90% decline in gang homicides over the next decade.

Far from apathetic or unorganized,  Asian Americans mobilized around the incident. In a city in which Asian Americans made up 1/3 of the population, the importance of this development is hard to overestimate.  In general, the panel’s discussion regarding the “politics of crime” suggests that issues regarding policing and community violence have too often been seen from the vantage points of whites and not often enough from other communities, notably those most deeply affected.  Moreover, though crime impacts urban renewal, race relations, the public sphere, gentrification, and political mobilization, too few scholars have endeavored to document its cascading effects.

Part II – Illy Philly Half Life


Panel – Race, Politics, and Commerce in Twentieth Century Philadelphia


Struck by the luck of the draw/Real life preservation/What I’m hustling for
My name black thought/The definition of raw/I was born in South Philly
On a cement floor/I had nothing at all/Had to knuckle and brawl
They swore I’d fall/Be another brick in the wall
Another life/Full of love/That lost/That’s silly/This Philly

– Black Thought of the Roots on “Long Time”

Matthew Smalarz – We Are Living in a Material World: Commercial Whiteness in the Suburban Marketplace of Northeast Philadelphia, 1954-1964

The Roots have long been the standard bearer for late twentieth and early twenty first century Philadelphia. When Black Thought rhymed “Another life/Full of love/That lost, That’s silly/This Philly” he encapsulated the very direct and unfiltered image that Philadelphians have come to represent for many Americans.   Yet, if one looks at the work of Matthew Smalarz and Tim Lombardo, Black Thought’s image also represents, in the minds of many of the city’s white blue collar and middle class residents, the city’s problems. Race and class lay on the surface of mid-century Philadelphia politics and these two papers focus on these very issues.

In “We Are Living in a Material World,” Matthew Smalarz examines the role of race, class, proximity, and consumerism in the growing Northeastern section of Philadelphia. In the 1950s, aspiring blue collar and working class residents relocated to the “quasi-suburban” space of Northeast Philadelphia, embracing FHA and VA home funding and the mass consumerism of the period. Residents resisted efforts by City Hall to revitalize the central business district (CBD), instead choosing to spend their income at nearby shopping centers, symbolic of postwar consumerism and often located in adjacent suburbs. What these suburban centers symbolized proved equally important: they demonstrated residents’ new middle class standing and defined them in terms of class and race.

In 1951, the city planning commission built commercial shopping centers in Northeast Philadelphia as an attempt to stem the tide of white flight.   The hope was to build a commercial nexus around which white Philadelphians would organize their lives and hopefully reengage with the city through the CBD.  Head of the city planning commission, Ed Bacon attempted to hash out some sort of compromise with residents but his efforts proved ineffectual. The new homeowners of the northeast held little regard for the city and in fact wished to distance themselves along racial and ethnic lines.  Downtown commercial refurbishment remained more an item for PhD holding elites like Bacon than this burgeoning middle class. Bacon himself acknowledged his own plan’s futility, admitting to some extent that the development of adjacent suburbs, notably their commercial districts, would influence residents more than city planning efforts. The spatial realignment of Philadelphia, enhanced by FHA policies that inscribed race into land ownership (see David Freund and to a lesser extent Matthew Lassiter or Kevin Kruse), could not be undone through commercial redevelopment especially with a population that used the new layout to emphasize their white middle class nature.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the connection between Northeast Philly’s vision of commercial development aligned neatly with those of outlying suburbs. Regional shopping centers developed around foundational stores like Gimbels. In the early 1960’s, shopping complexes like Bustleton Cottman opened with public endorsements of consumerism. Local celebrities and civic leaders extolled the shopping centers underlining their centrality in local identity. These expressions of middle class wealth and consumerism expressed a belief in a whiteness based on safety, security, and commerce, a whiteness in which Northeast Philadelphians heavily invested.


Timothy Lombardo – Conservatism in the Urban North: Frank Rizzo’s Blue Collar Populism and the Breakdown of Urban Liberalism

When one thinks of imperious working class urban white ethnic mayors, names like Richard J. Daley come to mind.  Daley famously presided over a late forming Democratic machine that balanced Chicago’s ethnic and racial communities by favoring white ethnics over their Latino, Black, and Asian counterparts. As documented in American Pharoah and by Slate reviewer Andrew O’Hehir, Daley believed that integration threatened to drive the middle class whites from the city.  In the end, notes O’Hehir “rapidly suburbanizing Northern white ethnics became the bedrock constituency of the Reagan revolution and the Republican congressional majority.” Having been in power for over 20 years, Daley died in 1976 just as these changes accelerated and his machine began to weaken.  In contrast, Frank Rizzo rose to power in 1972 capturing the hearts of minds of Philadelphia’s white ethnic communities and the ire of its African American community.

Born and raised in mythical South Philadelphia, Rizzo made “women swoon,” reported one Philadelphia newspaper, celebrated his union connections and sometimes said truly offensive things. He appealed to what Lombardo labels a “blue collar conservatism”; an ideology that rebuked the “liberal urbanism” stretching from the New Deal through the 1960s, and played simultaneously to racial and populist appeals.  More complex than simple “backlash” explanations, Rizzo’s example highlights the means by which urban working and middle class whites interacted with the rising New Right. Throughout his ascent, Rizzo played up his humble roots, the plight of the common man, masculinity (google Rizzo and Attila the Hun) and the importance of family, ethnicity, and neighborhood, all dog whistles for whiteness to his constituents.

Critically, class occupied a key place in this blue collar identity.  Rizzo picked fights over school integration with Dr. Mark Shedd, Harvard PhD and school commissioner selected to desegregate Philadelphia’s schools, and eventually booted him from his position. In his 1971 Mayoral campaign, Rizzo employed Shed as a proxy for liberal urbanism as a whole.   The former police chief intended to protect blue-collar institutions like local schools from the machinations of liberal elites like Shedd.

Mark Shedd Phd, desegregationist and pointy headed liberal

Though studies by Matthew Lassiter, Kevin Kruse, Lisa McGirr, Robert Self, and others have contributed valuable insights to the influence of suburban whites on late twentieth century conservatism, fewer scholars have fully accounted for their urban contemporaries or for the Northeast.  With its long history of liberal causes – like the reform governments of Joseph Clark and Richardson Dilworth – and the dominance of the Democratic Party in municipal elections (no Republican Mayor since 1948) Philadelphia, Lombardo argues, makes the ideal case for a study of blue collar conservatism.  The good government, New Deal-inspired governments gave way to Rizzo’s populism, which saw liberals waging class war on urban working and middle class communities.  Frank Rizzo wouldn’t stand for it and throughout his two terms in office, he tried to prove it.