The Power of Public Shaming: Cartographies of Protest in Boston and PR Stunts for Public Housing in the ATL (Best of UHA 2014, Part 3)

All roads ... ok at least one road leads to Philly and UHA 2014
All roads ... ok at least one road leads to Philly and UHA 2014
All roads … ok at least one road leads to Philly and UHA 2014

In part three of ToM’s UHA coverage, the role of media in shaping advocacy and protest occupies center stage. Whether advocating for Atlanta public housing or protesting Massachusetts’s plans for new highway construction, politicians and activists cannily manipulated media to their own ends. Refreshingly, in each case, agency was rewarded with victory or, in the case of Katie Marages Schank’s talk on Maynard Jackson and the Bankhead Court Project, a temporary reprieve.


Karilyn Crockett, “Maps, Newspapers, Press Releases and the Anxiety of Movement Building: Struggles within the Boston Anti-Highway Movement, (1966-1987)

“Pack up, I’m strayed, Enough/Oh, say, say, say say…. Wait, they don’t love you like I love you, Wait, they don’t love you like I love you, M-a –a – a-p-s.” Though meant as an ode to a past love affair, when Karen O belted out the early-aughts hit “Maps” for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, she could have been singing as Massachusetts planning officials of the 1960s and 70s whose constituents rebelled against highway plans of the same period. People love maps, but when a map reveals something less celebratory, such as a highway bisecting a local community, the response is less effusive. “It’s a long day living in Reseda / There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard,” Tom Petty sang on “Free Fallin,’” suggesting that automobility only appeared promising from a great distance.

In her talk, “Maps, Newspapers, Press Releases and the Anxiety of Movement Building,” former MIT postdoc fellow and current Director of Economic Policy and Research for the City of Boston Karilyn Crockett demonstrated how a fragmented, jagged movement of disparate groups came to challenge Massachusetts highway construction and the role that “radical maps” or what ToM likes to think of as a “cartography of protest” came to play in the process. Though scholarly history points to solidarity and unity as the calling cards of successful protest, the “cleavages and fractures” that normally separate groups based on race, class, or ethnicity, actually fueled the Boston anti-highway movement or, as Crocket noted, “made it generative and drove it forward.”

In the 1950s and early 1960s, highway construction and urban renewal seemed like indomitable forces.  Conditions in Boston appeared little different from elsewhere. The 1948 Master Plan for Massachusetts envisioned an eight to ten lane elevated road connecting downtown Boston to New Hampshire to the North and Connecticut/Rhode Island to the South.  With the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956, a highway running through Boston seemed inevitable, and later maps, such as the 1962 plan from the Massachusetts Department of Public Works, appeared to confirm this fact. Yet, in Boston, a diverse group of protesters, divided by race, class, age, and religion refused to accept the new highway without a fight.

The Inner Circle Plan for Boston by the Metropolitan District Commission circa 1950s
The Inner Circle Plan for Boston by the Metropolitan District Commission circa 1950s

When hundreds of people showed up at the Massachusetts State House steps on January 25, 1965 to protest the pro-highway governor’s plans few actually believed they would succeed. In fact, in Crockett’s interviews with over 40 people involved in the larger anti-highway movement, to a man and woman, nearly all admitted they never expected to win. Nonetheless, in the face of real differences, activists found ways to consistently stonewall and influence construction.

Maps played a critical role in building opposition. MIT urbanists and others appropriated various plans and mapped onto them alternate geographies that demonstrated how communities would be affected. “High detail maps and slides,” activist Jerry Riordan told Crockett in an interview, highlighted local intersections and communities. When shown the slides or maps, neighbors would say “What? That damn thing is going to be close to me?!” Reprinted in newspapers, the maps and slides proved an effective tool for educating, politicizing, and rallying residents to action. “We began talking about how Cambridge was being screwed,” activist Fred Salvucci reflected.

In order to encourage locals to consider redistribution of land and capital, protesters occupied properties cleared and designated for construction. At one site, the resurrection of a community information house symbolically and materially asserted that Bostonians wanted to “use the land for their own development.” In further demonstration of the diverse nature of the protest, the Black Panthers set up a health clinic while the Urban League established a jobs center, both adjacent to the community house. Leaders such as Chuck Turner wielded slogans like “People Before Highways.”

Despite their own skepticism, the anti-highway movement in Massachusetts made real achievements. A provision in the 1973 Highway Act designated federal dollars for public transit for the first time in history. Boston became the first city to draw down money and convert land to mass transit while attending to and updating older lines. The same legislation included an interstate withdrawal substitution program, which ultimately contributed to the removal of 343 interstate roads from the federal highway register. While it might have been heartbreaking for Massachusetts state planners, the fact of the matter, as Karen O so excitedly pointed out, was that most communities, thanks in part to these “alternative cartographies” simply didn’t love highways like they did: “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you/Maps/Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.”

Bankhead Court circa 1974

Katie Marages Schank, “Taking a (Grand)Stand for Public Housing: Maynard Jackson, Racial Politics, and Atlanta Public Housing in the 1970s”

In recent years, the proverbial capital of the “New South,” Atlanta, has been the subject of increasing attention by historians. This year’s UHA featured several talks on the ATL including Edward A. Hatfield (Emory University) on public transit and race, Michan Connor (University of Texas-Arlington) on 1990s tax revolts, and Mark Barron’s (University of Maryland) on the same in mid-century Cobb County. George Washington University American Studies doctoral candidate Katie Margages Schank added to this mix with her evaluation of Mayor Maynard Jackson’s manipulation of media and public housing tropes to rally support for Atlanta’s tenants and projects.

The 1970s proved a difficult decade for public housing. To many observers, the demolition of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe Projects in 1972 symbolically represented collective failure. Meanwhile, Oscar Newman’s work on defensible space unwittingly provided ammunition to public housing critics and Nixon’s moratorium on federal public housing construction epitomized general attitudes at the time.

Of course, in recent years, historians and documentarians have pushed back against this narrative. The compelling documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (covered here by ToM) demonstrated that while the project struggled mightily with crime, drugs, and disinvestment, it also, in the vein of works by Sudhir Venkatesh, Amy Howard, and Rhonda Williams, created social networks that were vital to tenants economically, socially and politically. Likewise Nixon’s moratorium has been placed within a new context by scholars like Bruce Schulman, who argues that Tricky Dick’s retreat from public housing had as much to do with politics as policy. Nixon wanted to disaggregate the knotty liberal alliances that had developed as result of federal public housing construction. “[W]henever possible, the Nixon administration redirected funding from specific projects and contracts to block grants,” according to Schulman. “The new system encouraged squabbling for shares of the allocated money. Nixon also shifted resources from building and maintaining public housing to handing out rent subsidies, so poor tenants could rent from private landlords. This policy defunded the liberal network; the money would not flow freely to builders, the unions, the housing administrator, and they no longer faithfully rewarded liberal Democrats with their support. But urban democrats could hardly oppose policy that put more aid directly in the hands of poor tenants.” (29) Nixon’s denouement did more to hurt liberals the anyone realized at the time.

Jackson at the opening of the Pittsburgh Civic League Apts, 1974
Jackson at the opening of the Pittsburgh Civic League Apts, 1974

Yet, as Schank explained, nine months after becoming Atlanta’s first African American mayor and in the face of such narratives, Maynard Jackson dedicated himself to rescuing the city’s public housing by spending a weekend in a unit at the troubled Bankhead Courts just east of Cobb County. While Jackson picked his away around open sewage and refuse, he told reporters: “We want people to see on TV, hear on radio, and read in newspapers how people have to live.” Hoping to rehabilitate the image of public housing and connect its fate to that of metropolitan Atlanta, Jackson built on earlier arguments by white politicians who had framed public housing as an essential tool for the well being of all metropolitan residents. However, instead of focusing on its strengths, as white reformers had in previous decades, Jackson highlighted its problems. The decline of Atlanta’s public housing was not inevitable; things could be done, Jackson repeatedly told Atlantans, but its problems needed to be addressed in order for the city to move forward. During his run for mayor, Jackson had delineated an eight point plan to improve existing housing and those built in the future. While not a “panacea,” the plan addressed “critical housing needs” and provided direction for future development. Better public housing for tenants made quality of life better for all Atlantans, Jackson argued.

The Bankhead Courts and its 2,400 predominantly black residents sat just across the way from suburban Cobb County so it held a visible presence in the lives of both white and black Atlantans. When one woman ended up in the hospital in critical condition after having concrete dropped onto her car from a nearby overpass, it seemed Jackson’s fulminations had come to fruition. The problems of Bankhead Courts could not be contained and had to be addressed. Jackson’s stay provided a compelling narrative and his manipulation of the media impacted the city’s always image-conscious business and political elite. President of the Bankhead Court Tenants Organization, Rose Harper, hoped that due to Jackson’s efforts, “maybe now people will see our problems are real problems not just complaints.” Care had to be taken in conveying this message, Schank noted; after all, too many problems might make projects like Bankhead Courts seem beyond salvation. Jackson needed to prevent his advocacy from infecting locals with paralyzing fatalism. Moreover, as commentator Lawrence Vale (MIT) pointed out, some might suggest Jackson failed in his effort as “champion of the poor” and instead succeeded in showing that as a middle class businessman he too did not belong in public housing. In such a context, white Atlantans might simply begin “blaming the victim,” in this case tenants themselves.

Accused of grand standing by some and by reifying the decline of public housing narrative by others, Jackson undoubtedly prolonged the lifespan of Atlanta’s public housing. One week after his stay the city began removing abandoned cars, cleared garbage, and addressed flooding problems. Jackson would drop in periodically on board meetings of the Atlanta Housing Agency (AHA) as a means to quietly reassert his attention to these issues. As one journalist noted, “no way [anyone] could make this a national story without the mayor spending a weekend” in Bankhead. Indeed, appealing to arguments from earlier eras, Jackson had convinced Atlanta that public housing, at least for the 1970s, mattered for everyone. As Vale concluded, “public shaming is still the oldest and most powerful tool” for inciting political change.

For more of ToM’s conference coverage, check out our ongoing series Academics in the Wild. Part I of ToM’s UHA 2014 coverage can be read here and Part II here.