Steel Towns, Motor Cities, and Cuban Refugees: Part III of the 2012 UHA Conference

Welcome to the third installment of ToM’s four part coverage of the 2012 UHAs.  You’ll detect a clear bias in favor of aged/renewed rust belt cities with a flourish of transnationalism at the end via the Cuban Revolution and post WWII Miami.  If you missed Part I click here and for Part II here.

Panel – Rust Belt Cosmopolitanism

Joshua Akers – Settling the City: Urban Homesteading and the Construction of Markets in Detroit

“It stands out on the highway like a creature from another time/

It inspires the babies’ questions for their mothers as they ride/

But no one stopped to think about the babies or how they would survive/

We almost lost Detroit, this time.”

– Dale Earnhardt Jr., “We Almost Lost Detroit”

One could be forgiven, if after watching Dale Earnhardt Jr’s attempt to celebrate 21st century Detroit’s rebirth, he or she believed the Motor City to be inhabited by African Americans and mustachioed hipster men and peasant blouse bohemian white ladies. Add to it the Eminem soundtracked car commercials emanating from Chrysler – emphasizing both its grit and its sense of luxury – and one might see a Phoenix rising from Midwestern ashes, more than a couple stones throws from B-Rabbit’s world in 8 Mile.  In his recent work, Joshua Akers pulls back the curtain to demonstrate that Detroit’s current state remains less triumphant than some media reports suggest, thus aligning more with new takes by filmmakers and artists that avoid the “ruin porn” so popular among some observers, replacing it with a clear eyed look at the policy of homesteading and its ramifications.

By now Detroit’s urban problems seem almost over determined. Classic books like Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis have highlighted the city’s sharp decline.  Peak 1950 Detroit consisted of 1.85 million people, in 2010 it dropped to below half that number, approximately 714,000 residents. According to Akers, homesteading unfolded in three distinct eras all with different purposes. In its first rendition, Federal Urban Homesteading 1974-1989, the federal government attempted to download the 20,000 to 40,000 vacant units in the city to the state and city, thus reducing its own economic burden but increasing the city’s. In its second iteration, Michigan Urban Homesteading 1999, state officials tried to stem chronic decline by generating more private investment while providing housing for Detroit’s working poor.   It achieved neither goal, though it did spur the private market to reevaluate such programs.  If 40,000 vacants plagued Detroit in 1972, by 2010 the number doubled.  (For anyone wondering why vacants bedevil cities so much see Cleveland 2009.) In 2010, Detroit’s residential vacancy rates reached nearly 28%.   The answer some argued lay in urban homesteading, which the New York Times summarized succinctly in 2010: “tantamount to country living in the city, the plan says, with homeowners enjoying an agricultural environment and lower taxes in exchange for disconnecting from some city services like water.” In this way, properties would be refurbished, through private funding, and city services not overburdened.

Though it sounds wonderful in theory, Akers asks two important questions: where did these homesteading bills come from and what have they accomplished?  Writers for the American Enterprise Institute and elsewhere developed the idea in the 1970s.  Homesteading, some suggested, would enable residents to regain ownership over vacant lots and give them a firmer stake in the community. The same inspiration served as midwife to similar ideas like enterprise zones that advocated for designated business areas free of regulation that would spur privatized investment.   Economic effects would cascade down into society, reducing felonies and improving credit ratings (i.e. promoting less debt).  However, the means by which individuals and others acquire these homesteads, critics argue, serve as little more than privatized land grabbing.

Homesteading in SW Detroit

Writing in March 1999, Hudson Institute Fellow Jeffrey Rosen commented that the state’s homesteading proposal at the time “far from closing the door on the private sector, the current proposal blows the door wide open.”  Indeed, though some have applauded what they argue are transparent tax foreclosure auctions used to facilitate homeownership, opponents allege these attempts have done little to improve matters.    Auction results could be manipulated, as private sector buyers often waited out first auctions, where property taxes often accrued to higher levels for the second auction, which radically reduced these fees.

The end result amounts to a land grab, argue many observers.  Some buyers have accumulated lands less to develop or homestead but to build political clout to oppose government ownership or local projects; witness opposition to the bridge to Windsor.  Others point out that far from preventing speculation, tax foreclosure auctions have actually accelerated as some purchasers look to “flip” houses for a quick profit. Akers points to a transnational aspect as well, since numerous limited liability corporations continue to purchase land and then sell these new properties as an “ethical investment” in various markets internationally.

In the end, the reality of Detroit is that most economic development remains largely from the public sector. Urban homesteading and tax foreclosure auctions have limited discussions and undermined chances at larger public investment.  When Dale Earnhardt Jr. sings about saving Detroit “this time,” one wonders what that means and how soon next time rears its head.

Tracy Neumann – Rebranding Steel City

Few images endure like Steel Town USA.  Along with Terry Bradshaw’s four time Super Bowl champion Steelers and the magical Pirates teams of the late1970s,  the aging smokestacks of steel factories remain indelible symbols of the city’s rise and fall.  Yet as Tracy Neumann demonstrates well before the 1970s, civic and city officials had begun to implement an ambitious plan to reshape Pittsburgh’s image and economy from a city of working class laborers dependent on industrial production to an intellectual, medical, and scientific service sector hub filled with white-collar professionals.  When Rand McNally’s designated Pittsburgh as America’s most livable city, it confirmed corporate and political elites faith in their new vision of urban Western PA: “Dynamic Pittsburgh.”

1970s Steel Town – the teams were winning but the city was losing

Writers like Frances Couvares  and Barbara Ferman have demonstrated the link between industrial and corporate elites and Pittsburgh urban and regional planning.  Established in 1944, few organizations exert the kind of influence that the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD) casts.  Richard King Mellon and Robert Doherty (then President of Carnegie Mellon) organized local business leaders to develop a planning commission and with the cooperation of Mayor David Lawrence set upon defining the city’s development along non-electoral lines.  From the mid 1940s to the early 1970s, Renaissance I, the title given to this early planning phase, the ACCD and city focused on improving environmental conditions, building on Pittsburgh’s CBD, referred to locally as the “golden triangle,” and renewal in the predominantly African American Hill District.  In essence, the city adopted a corporatist structure that established public-private institutions (ACCD) and public authorities to administer redevelopment. For much of Renaissance I,  Pittsburgh and its coal mining/steel making hinterlands enjoyed a mutually dependent relationship, but by the 1960s, unemployment in these surrounding areas, notably in coal mining, crept upward.  The city’s corporate elite decided Pittsburgh needed a more diversified set of economic functions and must separate itself from what it saw as a nineteenth century development patterns.  Leaders knew a fair amount of this burden would fall on steel, oil, and coal workers and the towns in which they resided.

Still, though the milltown smoke stack had come to represent decline, some leaders used it as a means to spur reform.  Behind the leadership of Mellon Bank President James Hager, organizations like Penn Southwest encouraged development away from steel toward research and technology and a reordering of Pennsylvania corporate tax structures. Hager wanted to transform Pittsburgh in the image of the Sunbelt: pro business and low taxes. The collapse of the steel industry simultaneously represented a cautionary tale about industrial investment and an opportunity to reshape local economies.

When Renaissance II took effect in the mid 1970s, the golden triangle remained a point of interest, but this new initiative added neighborhood stabilization and economic development outside of the traditional CBD.  Hoping to satisfy the needs of young white collar types, the new plan encouraged gentrification of blue collar communities, university expansion, and the transformation of the city’s warehouse district into a hub for local artists.

As Neumann argues, this extended to conceptual renderings of the city as well.  The ACCD and others sought to rearrange the public’s cognitive map of Pittsburgh. In recent years, works like Empire Falls and American Rust have attempted to depict the social dysfunction emanating from the effects of deindustrialization, but even in the late 1970s and early 1980s, popular culture associated declining mill towns with movies like All the Right Moves, albums like Nebraska, and songs like “Allentown.”  Corporate elites and city officials recognized this all too well and attempted to erase mill towns from popular conceptions of Pittsburgh.   A 1977 “Living in Pittsburgh” promotional brochure seemed targeted at middle aged executives and middle management. Sparkling upscale neighborhoods, ballet, and friendly locals abounded. Yet, as noted earlier, officials realized that they needed to target younger demographics and in part, used the old steel town image to do so. By the 1980s, brochures promoted the city as a college graduate alternative to New York, Boston, and San Francisco.  The new economy, a tangential urban feel, gentrified neighborhoods and a city populated by lawyers, artists and professionals replaced earlier conceptions. When industry was highlighted, officials made sure that they avoided emphasizing actual industrial aspects. For example when depicting National Steel, brochures focused on robotics and partnerships with local universities and colleges rather than steel manufacturing.

Pittsburgh circa Renaissance II

With the Rand McNally designation in 1985, the “Dynamic Pittsburgh” public relations campaign appeared to be a success.  National media outlets largely bought into the city’s message of progress and modernization. Washington Post, US World News Report, and the New York Times all published articles on the city’s effective redevelopment, spreading the vision of rust belt cosmopolitanism far and wide.

Patrick Vitale – “Research and Renewal:  The Figure of the Scientist in Cold War Era Pittsburgh”


“This is a city where a pair of morning DJs made a living for many years by brilliantly mocking the collective voice of their own fan base. This is a city where “yinzer” — the term for a hard-core Pittsburgher, derived from “yinz,” as in “Yinz wanna go dahntahn and drink some Ahrn City” — is tossed about with both pride and revulsion, in the same way “hipster” is utilized in Brooklyn. Put it this way: All those years of Rust Belt struggle made the people of this town pretty self-aware about how they are perceived”

Michael Weinreb

As evidenced by Tracy Neumann, Pittsburgh’s rebirth unfolded in a fairly public way.  The declining industrial base came to be more important as a backdrop for young college grads searching for employment and a slight, but real gritty urban reality.   Long time residents and native born Burghers would have been blind to ignore the popular conception of steel town in the deindustrial era, a point Grantland’s Michael Weinreb highlighted in his article on the city’s long struggling baseball team, the Pirates.

This sense of self-consciousness developed not simply out of media portrayals but also through local efforts, as the city sought to create a new population and image for Pittsburgh’s labor force. Patrick Vitale explores this aspect of Iron City in his work and along with Neumann establishes a clear trajectory for post WWII urban renewal efforts in urban Western PA.

According to Vitale (and supported by Neumann in her work), from the 1950s on, observers ascribed two states of being to the city: death or rebirth. Obviously, ACCD leaders and city officials desired the latter rather than the former and in an effort to cement this idea into the minds of local residents issued a series of children’s books (with titles like Pittsburg Is a Good Place to Live and Homes in Pittsburgh) focusing on the very subject. Vitale’s examination of these publications proves surprisingly arresting as they collectively endorse four major principals:

1) Pittsburgh’s intense renewal is for the public good

2) Everybody needed to do their part to create a better ordered city

3) Renewal would bring progress and modernity

4) The young white middle class suburban family emerged as the archetype for future Burghers.

Tellingly, the books utilized images of traditional workers and the legend of Joe Magarac – a prototypical steel and foundry worker – as a means to illustrate the transition from this traditional Pittsburgh workforce to its new white collar image.  Jon Magarac, Joe’s more modern descendent, traded in the brawn and manual labor of Joe’s life for a slide rule and glasses.  In the Cold War era, Jon represented a chance at securing defense money and federal contracts.  Clearly, Joe lacked these kinds of contacts.  Men like Jon, in the minds of ACCD and city officials, embodied a more useful figure, one that cared only about science and progress and unbeholden to politics and mayors. City elites promoted a vision of post-industrial Pittsburgh to secure corporate power in renewal and deindustrialization planning.

Joe Magarac – Pittsburgh archetype

In addition to looking at cultural productions like promotional children’s books, Vitale documents other efforts to attract funding and white collar employees.  For example, Westinghouse produced brochures advertising Pittsburgh’s cultural amenities and portrayed industry as a thing of the past that ultimately tarnished the city’s image.   Titles like Suburban Living in a Metropolitan Area demonstrate this tendency.  Building on the idea of scientists and engineers as potentially better citizens, these brochures emphasized that Pittsburgh might be a scientific city but also a “pleasant place to live.”  Interestingly, some of the brochures seemed aimed at a female audience as one noted that Pittsburgh offered all this and “a husband who’s an engineer.”

Vitale also looks at failed attempts at “scientific renewal.”  University of Pittsburgh’s Chancellor Edward Litchfield hoped to use the city’s wealth to transform it into a research hub.  As part of this vision, Litchfield attempted to turn the traditionally African American neighborhood known as the Hill District into a key node for science and engineering.   The community, argued Litchfield and others, would provide the perfect site for new campus development.   Describing it as “desolate” and a “wasteland,” development organizations argued scientists and engineers could create community, but that the city, county, and suburbs must cater to their needs. Pittsbugh Magazine argued cities must attract capital and the “educated man.” Ultimately, the project failed to come to fruition in part due to the Litchfield administration’s own struggles at the University and resistance to urban renewal more generally.

Clearly, the interests of scientists stood equal to Pittsburgh’s own elite in this era.  Cold war business leaders crafted the figure of the scientists and engineers as individuals that would also promote the same interests the city’s boosters lauded: scientific advancement, financial capital flows, and research investment.  As Tracy Neumann demonstrated and as Vitale argues, Pittsburgh’s vision of itself and its urban renewal, for better and worse, came to be a leading developmental paradigm among regional development.

Panel – Resident Foreigners: Communities of Refugees, Immigrants, and Expatriates in the Metropolis

 [Editor’s note: our correspondent remarked that the panel featured several great papers from Lawrence Chua, Analise DeVries, and Annika Marlen Hinze]

Mauricio Castro: “Casablanca of the Caribbean: Refugees, Race, and Federal Policy in Miami, 1959 – 1984”


Has any immigrant group come to be associated with Republicanism like Miami’s Cuban Americans? Granted, one of this year’s shining stars at the GOP convention hailed from Texas, but Teddy Cruz left no question about his Cuban roots or his love for Republicanism in Tampa. Nor did Miami area native Cuban American, Congressman Marco Rubio whose speech introducing Mitt Romney was regarded by many observes as one of the convention’s better moments.  As result of these kinds of political connections that seem so naturalized today, Mauricio Castro’s intervention into Cuban American history raises several interesting questions regarding the alignment between Cuban Americans and the Republican Party.

Castro reminds us that in the early years, many viewed the burgeoning Cuban exile community in Miami as a temporary state of affairs.  Naturally, the US would eventually depose Castro and the displaced Cuban population could return home.  When Cubans refugees began trickling into the city in 1959 (roughly 1000 at the time) local officials and media outlets worried about the city’s resources.  In 1959, Miami struggled through recession, new arrivals heightened local residents sense of potential privations. Notably, the Miami Times, one of the city’s African American weeklies, expressed a marked concern over these issues, signposting future tensions between what would become Miami’s Cuban American population and its traditional Black communities.

Cuban refugees Miami circa 1961

At the federal level, presidents from Eisenhower on saw Cuban refugees as more than exiles: they were symbols of Communist failure and U.S. benevolence. Ike believed the Cuban Revolution to be temporary and in the name of Cold War solidarity, granted exiles immediate entrance into the U.S. JFK and LBJ followed suit and from 1959 to 1962, over 200,000 Cuban exiles arrived. By 1966 Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which essentially gave Cuban refugees immediate citizenship since they qualified as communist exiles. However, Eisenhower did not just admit or parole arriving exiles, he also established the Cuban Refugee Program (CRP) which appropriated millions in mutual defense funds to pay for social services tailored to the new arrivals including health care and student loans.  Critically, the CRP provided language certificates for Cuban doctors, vocational training for women, and enacted a public relations program to encourage local employers to hire émigrés and landlords to house them. Amounting to 1.5 billion (as of 1967) in today’s dollars, the CRP pumped capital into Miami, in the process reinvigorating the economy and creating a new source of skilled labor and not infrequently white collar workers (over 1/3 of the early Cuban wave of exiles were professionals).

With the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, U.S. policymakers and others recognized the permanence of the new population.   By the 1970s, rates of residency and citizenship rose but so too did a creeping resentment from the metropolitan areas white and black communities.   African Americans worried that Cubans now competed with them for employment and wondered aloud why Cuban Americans deserved federal money and attention more than Black communities?  Some observers blamed the 1968 Liberty City Riots on these tensions and Castro more specifically.  Predictably, these tensions simmered throughout the century’s final decades.

Undoubtedly, the presence of Cuban and Cuban Americans in the city’s economy helped to consolidate Miami as a South American business hub. South American tourists and business people visited the city in greater and greater numbers topping half a million annually by the late 1970s. However, declining municipal revenues stretched city budgets. As result, some whites expressed hostility toward the expanding Cuban American population. To these individuals, sites like Maximo Gomez Park (commonly referred to as Domino Park- see here) came to symbolize their resentments. The image of Cuban American men playing dominos while on the federal dole – at least according to one letter writer – violated a certain sense of decency and fiscal responsibility.  Cubans, he argued, were draining the city and federal government of needed resources only to sit around Little Havana playing games.   The Mariel Boatlift of the 1980s and the plight of Haitian refugess did not help matters and probably facilitated an uptick in anti- immigrant and -Latino attitudes in and around Miami.  Whites viewed Cuban and Cuban Americans as benefiting from federal largesse they had not earned while blacks viewed exiles as a minority group unfairly getting a leg up while they continued to endure discrimination.  Granted, the kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric lobbed at Cubans and Cuban Americans at this time differed from the kind one hears directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans.   Miami’s Cubans, through their own initiative and government funding, had ascended to a position of economic and political power in the city.   Resentments targeted the legitimacy of their power, not the usual trope for nativists. Along with work by Julio Capo Jr, Robin Bachin, Chanelle Rose, and Melanie Shell Weiss, and others at the UHA, Castro adds depth to our knowledge of postwar Miami and provides further evidence of the complex forces of transnationalism.