Bed-Stuy, the Illuminati, and the Importance of Fungus Identification: Best of AHA 2014, Part 1

I went to the AHA in DC, and all I got was "dangerously low temperatures"
I went to the AHA in DC, and all I got was “dangerously low temperatures”

Going to conferences is one of the great mixed blessings of the academic life.  On one hand, it offers the chance to get away (to New York or LA, or sometimes even exotic destinations like Richmond, VA) and travel, like an Actually Important Person (AIP), sometimes with your department or university picking up the tab.  We get to reconnect with old friends and have more than the appropriate number of drinks–on the pretext, of course, of “getting a feel for the city” (or in Richmond’s case, not).

On the other hand, there is the actual conference itself–a dreary procession of monotonously recited presentations, ranging from the navel-gazingly esoteric to the merely boring.  And if it’s your field’s main conference for the year, there is the relentless tug of gravity exerted by the emotional and financial black hole of the job market.  (Who needs a drink?)

It was never supposed to be this way, but few have come up with a better alternative to the 3-or-4-paper-&-a-commentator mode of communicating scholarship.  (To be fair, there have been some promising efforts to shake up the formula, such as the AHA’s relatively new poster sessions.)  Conferences were supposed to be about intellectual interaction and cross-pollination, learning about the latest innovative work in your field and sharing your own ideas and work with others.  Despite our own acidic cynicism toward conferences and academia in general, we here at ToM must concede that there are some good papers out there, and there are even some good panels, where each contribution fits into a whole that’s greater than its parts, tying together diverse themes and making the bigger picture clearer for everyone present.

The ultimate aphrodisiac

Each time one of our correspondents attends a conference, we ask them to keep an eye out for great projects, and we like to bring attention to papers that stood out or in some way challenged our thinking.  We share these with our readers so they can find out about this new and evolving work despite not having the time or money to make it to the AHA, UHA, etc.  Past conferences can be found under the tab “Academics in the Wild” above, or by clicking on the category for “Conferences” at the bottom of this post.  As always, we ask that readers recognize that these reports are assembled from hastily-scribbled notes by people with occasionally poor hearing.  If you are one of the presenters and you feel like we have misstated the facts or inaccurately portrayed your argument, please do not hesitate to contact us at  We are more than happy to make changes.  Otherwise, enjoy!

Brian Purnell, Unmaking the Ghetto: The History of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation

As the 1990s came to a close and urban America moved into the twenty first century, politicians, city planners, urbanists and others eagerly embraced the public private model of the Community Based Organization (CBO) led Community Development Corporations (CDC).  Economic development and latter day urban renewal – this time more influenced by local residents and financed in part by private corporations/business and guided by organizations like LISC – promised so shake the nation’s poorest “ghettos”, overwhelmed by the forces of deindustrialization and white flight, from stagnation to a new vibrancy in the new century.  However, as noted by each contributor to the panel When the Ghetto Is Not Enough, or in Some Cases, Too Much: New African American Urban Identities for the Great Migration and Beyond, the trajectory of the CDC and its interactions with CBOs remains a oversimplified and understudied subject.

The CBO CDC, while certainly successful in moments, also obscured many negatives regarding the process of economic development in late twentieth and early twenty first century American cities.  Often, large scale redevelopment took precedence over smaller more people oriented efforts favored by other local groups and organizations.  Such approaches helped lay the groundwork for the kind of multiracial/multiethnic redevelopment that modern day Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn exemplifies as evidenced by media reports like this 2009 New York Times article which described the neighborhood as consisting of “well-kept houses fetch[ing] prices no one ever thought possible in the days of the crack epidemic of the 1980s.”

Indeed, Bed-Stuy’s size, over 100,000 residents living within its designated borders, and history as a African American community that struggled through the 1960s and 1970s only to emerge again in the late 1990s and 2000s as a new “transitional neighborhood” makes it a perfect case study generally.  Yet, Bed-Stuy also serves as a key site to explore the ways in which the CDC trope of economic development flattens the “multiple narratives,” as noted by commentator, Craig Steven Wilder (a professor at M.I.T. and author of A Covenant of Color: Race and Race and Social Power in Brooklyn, among other works), that existed in Bed-Stuy’s long “rebirth”.

With this in mind, Bowdoin College’s Brian Purnell reevaluates the creation of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC), which established in 1967 became the first and now the oldest CDC in the nation, and how the narrative around it has muted the voices of local, female led activists embodied by the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council (CBCC). Perhaps the key to Purnell’s insights regard his ability to demonstrate the ways in which the BSRC sought to reshape Bed-Stuy and how gender, black nationalism, and top down decision making colluded to marginalize black female activist voices.

Beginning with the 1966 Bedford Stuyvesant Conference held at P.S. 305, Purnell demonstrates how actors like Robert F. Kennedy inserted themselves into Bed-Stuy politics in order to combine “ the best of community action with the best of the private enterprise system.”  CBCC members had always viewed RFK with a health amount of skepticism.  As the flagship local CBO, the CBCC wanted to promote new economic development but also a democratic and inclusive process that incorporated local interests and empowered residents. Storefronts, churches, street corners, or basically, anywhere that locals gathered proved effective sites for CBCC efforts. In this context, RFK seemed an afterthought but CBCC leaders conceded Kennedy’s presence might draw attention to the struggles of central Brooklyn.  Here Purnell also illustrates the shifting political winds that slowly changed direction from Harlem to Brookyn. Today, Black New York’s political center can be found in Brooklyn not Harlem, but at the time this process was still in flux and the Unity Democratic Club established by Thomas Jones still commanded the attention of New York power brokers across the city and RFK.  Before such efforts, only Harlem received large-scale redevelopment efforts.

But, rather than team with the CBCC, RFK aligned with Jones and the UDC.  Together the two leaders and their organizations promoted a “bifurcated” approach in which a corporate dominated board carried out development plans and community based board focused on social issues. Hoping to churn out economic development projects quickly and no doubt with great publicity, RFK wanted to attract business and create an example of public private redevelopment.  In this way, RFK, Jones, and the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC) expressed less interest in direct local action.

At the 1966 Bedford Stuyvesant Conference at which RFK spoke, CBCC leaders demanded to know how they might redirect the attentions of political leaders and others to bring more aid to central Brooklyn.  When RFK suggested yet another social science study of the area, one CBCC leaders expressed a pervasive resentment toward such responses: “We’ve been studied to death…We need brick and mortar.”

As noted, from the outset, the CBCC’s leadership challenged RFK and Jones to take a more localized approach, but neither man nor his followers wanted much to do with the CBCC. According to Purnell, Jones and RFK leaked stories to press about domineering “middle aged black women” being difficult to work with and confirming stereotypes regarding “power of matriarch” in urban communities.  Therefore, the creation of BSRC also served as a means to undercut these women and the coordinating council. BCCC leaders sensed their “control threatened” simultaneously by new sources of power in community and from the “white world.” Jones and others depicted Bed-Stuy’s female activists as reactionaries, unable to adapt to new realities: “A new ballgame came to town and the women were only good at the old one.” Ironically, though local black nationalists found plenty to critique regarding such initiatives as “colonialist” but ultimately found the threat to black masculinity, in the face of widespread emasculation and discrimination by whites, of greater significance.   CBCC’s female leaders, in the eyes of many black nationalists, struck them as “pure obstructionists” lacking any agenda.

Purnell credits the BSRC with temporary successes such as the establishment of an IBM plant (it lasted twenty years before closing it doors), but in general the pro-business, masculine economic development approach failed to halt decline brought by deindustrialization and the nation’s retreat from Great Society social programs. In fact, the BSRC’s most successful efforts drew upon the very localized approach promoted by the CBCC. The Home Improvement Program (HIP) trained local residents in construction, organized communities around “collective rehabilitation”, and required local labor.  As result, homes numerous homes received new paint jobs, welding repair, fixed sidewalks, and refurbished facades.  Some workers gained entrance in to construction/craft unions which, along with the emphasis on local labor, stimulated Bed-Stuy’s economic fortunes. Many historians and urban planners credit HIP with “forestalling material decline” of the community in the 1980s and 1990s.[1] No one ever credited CBCC members with their role in the creation and embrace of such programs by the BSRC, but as the CDC’s most successful initiative Purnell argues, reflected the very economic development approach the CBO aggressively promoted.

Michelle Nickerson, The “New World Order” Conspiracy in American Politics from the Second Red Scare to the Great Recession of the Twenty-First Century

Nickerson, an associate professor of History at Loyola University Chicago, offered a refreshing take on a perennial bogeyman—the “New World Order.”  With the rise of birtherism, Tea Party paranoia, and an increasingly violent and unhinged Sovereign Citizen movement, Nickerson’s paper could not be more timely (we hope, anyway).  As the presenter pointed out, a recent poll showed that nearly a third of Americans believed in a globalist conspiracy whereby a powerful elite controlled world affairs.  (13% believe President Obama is the Antichrist.)  The New World Order theory, which fringe-types like Alex Jones continue to parrot today, is often assumed to have emerged in response to President George H.W. Bush’s statement about building a “new world order” in the aftermath of the Cold War.  However, as Nickerson shows, aspirations to reorganize world affairs on a new and unified footing stretch back to the early twentieth century, even if they were articulated in slightly different terms—take for instance, Woodrow Wilson’s vision of the Fourteen Points and the League of Nations.  Nickerson stressed that pervasive fear of secret global conspiracy only really coalesced in the early Cold War, amid the Second Red Scare of the early 1950s.  Particularly, she cites William Guy Carr’s Pawns in the Game (1954) as a key influence in kickstarting a theory about an odd cabal of European financiers, Communists, and Satanists. “Though Americans today do not fear ‘reds’ as in Communists,” Nickerson argues, “the fear of authoritarian forces conspiring to accumulate economic power and overwhelming force has reemerged,” from the inchoate paranoia of The X-Files in the 1990s to widely accepted conspiracy theories about the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

Katrina Lacher, “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth”: Earth First!, the Round River Rendezvous, and the Culture of Monkeywrenching

In this fascinating paper, the University of Central Oklahoma’s Lacher faced the question of how to write about a different group of extremists—not right-wing militias or hardcore Illuminati conspiracists, but radicals of the Left, about whom many liberally-minded historians might be inclined to give a gentler treatment to than psychologically unhinged elements on the Right.  Lacher tried to thread the needle as best she could, although a degree of sympathy or respect for the most hardcore of environmental activists could still be detected in her presentation, which touched on the Earth Liberation Front, Animal Liberation Front, and Earth First! (the exclamation is part of the name—much to the chagrin of copyeditors, she said).  Lacher centered on the origins of these groups in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly the influence of The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey.  Not surprisingly, some environmentalists were uneasy with the increasing acceptance of the Sierra Club and other leading groups by the mainstream political establishment; it was Nixon, after all, that established the EPA, Earth Day became a regular observance in the 1970s, and the environmental movement itself increasingly became a political constituency that politicians paid attention to.  In the switch from activists to lobbyists, the movement’s leaders threatened to cozy up to power too much and lose sight of the urgency of their cause.

That was, at least, what more militant environmentalists began to fear by the early 1980s, which led them to launch new organizations on the movement’s left flank.  These groups demanded a total overhaul of society and insisted that industrial, consumer capitalism could simply not be tinkered with around the edges.  These groups sought to replace anthropocentrism with biocentrism, placing equal value of all forms of life, and prompted interest in themes such as biodiversity and deep ecology.  Stylistically, they adopted a much antagonistic stance toward mainstream society—what Lacher refers to as a “warrior mentality.”  Many activists increasingly developed an interest in the culture and symbolism of pre-Christian Europe (“paganism with a question mark,” as Lacher puts it), and they exploited the media through guerilla theater and other forms of spectacle, such as the notorious “cracking” of the Glen Canyon dam in 1981.  Annual meetings such as the Red River Rendezvous bring together activists to learn about “fungus indentification” and other topics that are/would be important for a truly post-(or is it pre?) industrial way of life, although, as Lacher noted, not all members eschew modern technology.  All in all, Earth First! and its radical allies are part of a spectrum of political militancy in the US, as groups on the Left and Right since the 1960s found support among small slivers of society for ideologies that reject compromise with the system and see the status quo as nearly unredeemable.

[1] The Business of Black Power: Community Development, Capitalism, and Corporate Responsibility in Postwar America, Eds. Laura Warren Hill and Julia Rabig, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2012), pg. 151.