“The Plan Keeps Coming Up Again”: Conspiracy Theories, Policing 1970 D.C., and Creating Model Neighborhoods in Model Cities (Best of UHA, Part 4)

Come for the metropolitics, stay for the heart disease

Today’s post wraps up our coverage of the Urban History Association’s Seventh Biennial Conference in Philadelphia.  You can find overviews of other great panels on everything from “cartographies of protest” in Boston to the Mafia-like dark arts of the PTA here, here, and here.  If you want to check out Kenneth Jackson’s bikini bod, though, you’ll have to settle for TMZ.

Kwame Holmes, “Paranoia as Prescience: The Plan, Black Conspiracy Theory and the History of Black Displacement in a Post-Civil Rights Chocolate City”

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you,” wrote Joseph Heller in the novel, Catch 22.  Few places reflect this reality like 1970s Washington D.C. University of Colorado-Boulder Professor Kwame Holmes explores the dynamics of African American conspiracy theories in Black D.C. and the ways in which they serve as a response to the austerity politics of the 1970s. Holmes argues that it was during this period that ideas about worthy and unworthy citizens developed that depended less on black/white or gay/straight binaries but rather revolved around an individual or group’s beliefs regarding economic development and “rationality,” the latter often hinging on the monetization of land. Those invested in economic development and land speculation saw themselves as rational arbiters of the city’s growth and the broader public good, while those failing to align with such interests were viewed as politically, economically, or sexually deviant.

“The Plan keeps coming up again/The plan means nothing stays the same/But the plan won’t accomplish anything/If it’s not implemented.” If one did not know better “The Plan” off Built to Spill’s appropriately titled 1999 album Keep It Like a Secret could be the side-eyed musical accompaniment to 1970s Black DC’s fears of displacement. Based on previous experiences, such as the urban renewal of the SW quadrant in the 1950s which wrought neighborhood deterioration for working class communities serves as just one example.[1]  In the mid-1970s, some African American residents accused local and federal governments of falling under the thrall of a white cabal that aimed to draw the middle classes back to the city at the expense of D.C.’s black population. The conspiracy theory came to be known as “The Plan” (sometimes also referred to as “Master Plan” and “2000 Plan”) According to its proponents, leaders hoped to shift the city’s demographics from majority black to “90% white and 10% black by 1990,” Homes noted. In some cases, observes invoked comparisons to Indian Removal policies of the nineteenth century displaying a palpable cynicism regarding Black Washington’s history.  All that said, with home rule having been established in 1974 and the ascension of African American politicians into seats of local power, race alone failed to explain the situation.

Going as Planned?

For Holmes, “The Plan’s” importance lay not in its accuracy but what it tells historians about urban politics in the post-civil rights era. Several leading figures in the city’s Black community took the theory, if not as a reality, as a legitimate viewpoint. D.C. columnist Lillian Wiggins, Reverend Douglas E. Moore, Petey Greene, various Black nationalists, and local cultural institutions all engaged, if not its main arguments, its symbolism.

Critically, support for the plan had been driven in part by liberal reforms designed to eliminate discrimination in employment, rental housing and the distribution of credit, but which tightened urban land markets at the expense of low-income families and the elderly.  For example the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and Washington Metro Area’s number 1 ranking for women’s pay during the 1970s meant that the D.C. government and private developers began courting a generation of land consumers, unmarried women and a growing gay and lesbian community.  Amidst the austerity of the Nixon and Ford Administration’s, and the large share of tax exempt land in the Constitutionally determined city limits, the D.C. government’s desire to draw this burgeoning class of potential taxpayers middle class undermined their attention to larger low-income black families.  Rather than distributing housing to the poor, the District government sold hundreds of lots to private developers in 1974.  Reports released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that in 1978, the city housing authority, the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency, the National Planning Commission and the federal office of Housing and Urban Development held over 7,000 vacant lots, even as the demand for public housing grew.  The gentrification of Adams Morgan, Capital Hill, and Dupont Circle, where housing values spiked in relationship to  government incentives provided black renters physical evidence of the black-run city government’s disinterest in their residential security.

White journalists dismissed the theory as evidence of black political pathology.  Elected and appointed black politicians expressed little support for The Plan. The Urban League called it paranoia.  In effect, notes Holmes, the “respectable black middle class” distanced itself from the poor, reinforcing the Plan’s saliency among working class and low income blacks who believed the white cabal had their thumb on African American leaders.  As one audience member noted, the parallel to South Lake Shore in Chicago and elsewhere seems obvious. After all, cities undoubtedly embraced neoliberal, business friendly economic development solutions that might not have been explicitly racial but nonetheless impacted communities based on race. “If everyone agrees the plan exists, but dismisses the conspiracy,” the audience member asked, “what does this tell us?” A good question to which Holmes responded that numerous voices, from black D.C. councilmembers, to suburban based real estate developers, and urban studies scholars at George Washington University all predicted that the black poor would be eliminated from the city during the 1980s and 1990s. “Only those who believed in “The Plan,” were framed as engaging in irresponsible and irrational rhetoric,” he noted. In the midst of austerity, the urban neoliberal turn subsequently narrowed the “affective terrain of black politics.” It’s not paranoia if someone’s after you … or your land.

Lauren Pearlman, “A Tale of Two Policing Initiatives: The D.C. Crime Bill and the Pilot Precinct Project”

Before the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, many observers believed Washington D.C. to be “riot proof.”  The combination of a Black middle class that jealously guarded its prosperity (it ranked first among the nation in African American professionals per capita among U.S. cities) and the numerous military installations located around the capital meant that violent destructive riots would never occur. Though the 1968 riots sparked by Martin Luther King’s assassination might have shocked some observers, tensions between the black community and municipal police had long been simmering.

In this context, Lauren Pearlman, Professor of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point, examines how “federal policymakers, local authorities, and residents clashed over crime policy in the wake of [LBJ’s] Great Society.”  Prior to home rule in the mid-1970s, D.C. municipal government often reflected the interests of Congress rather than locals. Many politicians treated the city as a laboratory for their pet ideas.

It’s not the cherries everywhere in bloom, it’s not the way they put folks on the moon, no no no

The city as “laboratory” model did not serve local interests as crime rose consistently in the 1960s. From 1964 to 1968, crime haunted D.C. environs. General rates increased 200 percent in this period with violent crime doubling. The 1968 riots demonstrated the mistaken image of a “riot proof city” and, predictably, sparked renewed interest in suppressing crime. However, while many Black residents undoubtedly wanted safer communities, how they were policed remained a sticking point. After all, in 1967 D.C. police shot and killed 13 black citizens. The May 1st shooting of 19 year old Private William Rull increased tensions between black Washington and the municipal police force.

Though the riots reflected a troubled relationship between African Americans and Washington police, Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign emphasized “law and order” issues and cited D.C. as evidence of the nation’s need to recommit itself to policing. While Nixon promised to expand the police force by 25 percent, he also made detention of criminal suspects prior to trial legal and implemented “no knock” search warrants for law enforcement. Judging from asset forfeiture policies in many metropolitan police forces today, in which local authorities can seize property of alleged criminals and their conspirators with impunity, one can look to Nixon’s 1970s law as preview of practices to come. “[N]o president had used the ‘war against crime’ to curb Washingtonian’s civil rights as did Nixon,” points out Pearlman.

Many black Washingtonians refused to accept the status quo. A series of public hearings on police community relations conducted by an umbrella organization that gathered local black leaders and organizations known as the Black United Front resulted in demands that included the resignation of the police commissioner and increased community control of local law enforcement. As a result, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) financed the Pilot Precinct Project (PPP) for 1.4 million dollars along with funding from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which hoped to improve police – community relations in D.C.

As part of the Great Society and its maximum feasible participation policies, the PPP sought to create local citizen’s advisory committees, establish decentralized police stations in local storefronts that would share space and authority with social service agencies. While the U Street corridor, long home to Black Washington and one of the most devastated by the ’68 riot, was designated for the PPP, wrangling between militants and moderates in the black community over who got to manage the program stalled any progress. Not until City Council Vice Chairman and local Urban League director, Sterling Tucker brought the PPP back to prominence in 1970 did the program get its shot at crime prevention and police community relations. Tucker’s support of the PPP differed from Nixon’s “law and order” rhetoric. Instead of stricter punishments, court reorganization, or an expanded police presence, Tucker advocated the PPP’s “community oriented approach.”

Unfortunately, in the view of many black Washingtonians, the PPP’s implementation failed to live up to expectations. Reorganization by the city council in 1969 led to a consolidation of police precincts. The 13th precinct was soon folded into the new Third Police District which amounted to two times the territory and population. Many black observers took this as yet another sign of the local government’s attempts at undermining African American involvement since this organizational decision dispersed power throughout the Third District. Moreover, officials only enacted the policy training provisions of the PPP thereby ignoring the delivery of social services and the creation of a youth patrol, both seen by residents as integral to reform. Local Community Action Planning agency, the United Planning Organization (UPO) refused to support the PPP arguing that if failed to adequately improve citizen participation. Mirroring similar developments in other cities, the OEO ended up funding the very organization that opposed the PPP.

No story about 1960s/1970s D.C. is complete without an appearance by one Marion Barry Jr. In the classic journalistic account of post 1945 D.C., Dream City, Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood, depicted Barry as an astute, if fairly cynical, political operator able to glide between the city’s white and black leadership. “When the city rebuilds the riot corridors,” he would repeat on several occasions to local white leaders, “if you don’t let my black brothers control the process … it might just get burned down again.”[2]

With the PPP, Barry would once again bend with the political winds. Though he described the police as an “alien occupying army”, Barry initially opposed the PPP, believing that without adequate community control the program amounted to very little for residents. Realizing the PPP was likely to be implemented with or without widespread community approval, Barry quickly maneuvered to improve his own position. He ran for chairman of the citizens’ board and argued for the board’s control over PPP funding and staffing. Barry emerged victorious winning election as chairman. The future D.C. mayor championed the program as a “cause-celebre.” When Barry organized a slate of candidates to run for all 28 positions on the board, this “People’s Party” slate provides one of few examples, prior to home rule, of municipal electoral contests.

Despite Barry’s leadership, the PPP never really delivered on its promise. Challenges from Congressional leaders, OEO threats of increased oversight, limits on Citizens’ Boards’s authority, and complaints by militants that the PPP operated as a sort of Trojan horse facilitating surveillance of Black communities by the white power structure, undermined its results. Financial crises provided the felling blow and in November of 1973, after five inconsistent years the PPP ended.  Black leaders, appointed by Nixon, made compromises that reduced PPP effectiveness while  “local struggles for federal dollars” resulted in a less than unified black community. Nixon successfully rolled back community agency and local control thereby entrenching the White Houses’ role in D.C. politics. In the end, federal oversight undercut local agency demonstrating the limits of “local activism under federal rule,” concluded Pearlman.

Maki Smith, “Mapping Poverty and the Multiple Scales of Model Cities: From Ghetto Visits to Model Neighborhoods”

The War on Poverty turns 50 this year. Judging from September’s conference on the same, also held in the city of Brotherly Love, the results remain under debate. “Presenters had more in mind than giving the War on Poverty another black eye,” ToM correspondent Merlin Chowkwanyun wrote in late September, “and instead the talks anchored a discussion of its limits in larger questions about the post-WWII period and how we conceptualize it.”  University of California President’s Dissertation Fellow, Maki Smith (UCSD) dove into the debate with his evaluation of the Great Society’s Model Cities program and its methods for mapping poverty in target “Model Neighborhoods.” “I am really interested in the ways that federal and municipal officials drew boundaries – boundaries of acceptable political participation and the physical boundaries of pathologized urban space,” Smith told a packed room.

UHA 2014.pptx

In particular, Smith examines an oft-ignored aspect of Model City planning: Ghetto Visits in which administrators travelled to “troubled neighborhoods” and reported back their findings.   Alongside sociological studies, Ghetto Visits accounted for much of the “institutional knowledge” that undergirded Model Cities initiatives and interventions into the nation’s metropolises. Focusing on the neighborhood or community, Ghetto Visits helped to define the very “scales used [for intervention] during the Model Cities Program and into our current moment,” noted Smith.  Model Neighborhoods could be no larger than 15,000 residents or 10 percent of a city’s population. This led many cities to dissect themselves into smaller units, creating what Smith argues were distortions of actual local communities. . Model Neighborhoods needed to be troubled, but not too troubled such that interventions would be fruitless. “In other words, a Model Neighborhood needed to be pathological, but not so exceptionally so that there was no hope for the future,” Smith pointed out. Model Cities didn’t address the problems of cities but rather “abstracted spaces” and pathologized communities in its interventions.

The narratives written and submitted by visiting bureaucrats established the circumscribed boundaries for urban space and community. Rather than use existing communities, Model Neighborhoods created “physical abstractions meant to define just who and what was in crisis” that established the parameters for the kind of training officials believed locals required and the boundaries of “normative political participation.”  Much like nineteenth century reformers, these bureaucrats “conflated blight and decay with cultural pathology,” which had the effect of determining symbols and criteria of urban poverty and the associated cultural and social representations. In mapping poverty, bureaucrats focused disproportionately on race, ethnicity, and family structures rather than joblessness caused by deindustrialization or housing segregation in and outside city centers.

UHA 2014.pptx (1)

One might add Model Neighborhoods ignored political structures as well. After all, as pointed by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor in their biography of Richard J. Daley, American Pharaoh, in places like Chicago funding rarely reached the most distressed communities: “Daley and the machine siphoned off much of the Model Cities money before it could reach the needy.” A 1972 report by the Chicago Tribune discovered that half of the $53 million that came to Chicago that year had been eaten by “dubious” administrative costs.[3]

“When I left the comfortable parts of the downtown and suburban U.S. cities which I know best, and entered into the ghettos, it was almost like visiting a deprived foreign country,” wrote bureaucrat Sherwin Markman during his visit to Chicago. Broken windows, unattended garbage, and other forms of blight were laid at the feet of residents, “No one picks it up. No one cares,” reflected Markman.  The effect of such visits was to give family structure a special “explanatory power” that outweighed racism, segregation, and deindustrialization.

The Model Neighborhood approach worked for some cities and not others. For example, Oakland successfully found ways to map West Oakland into the program where city leaders were able to include the “worst cases of poverty and racial segregation” in the metropolis. In Los Angeles however, when the city attempted to address the problems of a real community, Green Meadows South, rather than one created by administrative abstractions, Washington officials passed them over. Only after identifying two “new Model City Neighborhoods” – The East/Northeast and the Greater Watts Model Neighborhoods – did L.A. receive funding. Officials even admitted that Greater Watts lacked any “homogenous community” or “residential identification with the environment,” yet this sort of abstracted unit of organization succeeded in securing federal monies. In this context, planners need to create urban spaces that were recognized as pathological and requiring intervention. Middling communities like Green Meadows (which was later folded into Greater Watts for Model Cities purposes) “a neighborhood of median disadvantage” and limited urban blight did not meet federal expectations.  These interventions would place critical role in the production of “racial knowledge of space.”

Smith’s paper sparked a vigorous discussion of his conclusions and the Model Neighborhood program.  Heavyweights like CUNY’s Marta Gutman weighed in during the Q and A session suggesting that historians have only begun to scratch the surface of LBJ’s War on Poverty.

Honorable Mention:

One of the UHA’s final panels, the dreaded 10:30 A.M. slot on Sunday, proved one of its most insightful. In ”Decolonization and Urban Activism”, New York University’s Alaina M. Morgan and Jeannette Estruth and Haverford’s Andrew Friedman, gave prensentations that suggest new insights regarding the transnational turn in urban history ranging from the 1960s and 1980s D.C. to 1960s and 1970s Silicon Valley.  Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties ToM was only able to cover one of the talks and this was only possible in abbreviated form. Nonetheless, we feel that even this shorter account provides a glimpse into this great panel. We recommend scholars keep their eyes peeled for all three historians in the future.

Alaina M Morgan, “From Discourse to Action: American Centered Anti Imperialism, Third World Solidarity and Urban Community Mobilization in Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, 1979 – 1989”

Excuse me, flows just grow through me
Like trees to branches, cliffs to avalanches
It’s the praying mantis, deep like the mind of Farrakhan
A *&(($*%& rap phenomenon

– Notorious B.I.G., “The What,” Ready to Die

Has any black leader of the late twentieth century garnered as much attention as 1980s and 1990s Louis Farrakhan? As the iconic and deeply controversial leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI), Farrakhan frequently critiqued federal policies that he argued maintained a “permanent black underclass” in the U.S. in part through aggressive policing and the expansion of the military industrial complex.

Let me clear my throat

Yet, Farrakhan’s political discourse often drew on ideas relating to Third World Solidarity movements that harkened back to 1960s black nationalism and Chicanoism. Calling President Reagan’s War on Drugs a “war on freedom”, the NOI leader depicted the inner city as a modern “police state” imposing “genocide on black youth.” Farrakhan connected domestic polices to U.S. interventions  n places like Haiti and Central America.  U.S. officials backed dictators and used the War on Drugs as excuses for military interventions abroad and a heavy police hand at home. While the War on Drugs increased the number of black men imprisoned, it failed to prevent drug distribution in those same communities and in essence, criminalized urban space so as to remove African American men from local neighborhoods, which of course had its own deleterious effect.

The anti-imperial discourse used to draw attention to U.S. policy making was then grafted onto NOIs own anti drug program in 1988, Dope Busters. Using the NOI paramilitary known as the Fruit of Islam, Farrakhan launched Dope Busters in D.C. in an effort to “remove the blight of drugs” from the city’s black communities. Twenty-four hour drug patrols, physical intimidation of drug dealers along with the rhetoric of war, invasion, and national security were all aspects of Dope Busters. Portraying local police response as inadequate, Farrakhan further critiqued urban policies while black media highlighted the NOI program’s application and results.

[1] Blair A. Ruble, Washington’s U Street: A Biography, (Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Press, 2012)

[2] Harry S. Jafe and Tom Sherwood, Dream City: Race, Power and the Decline of Washington, D.C. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 86.

[3] Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, American Pharaoh: Major Richard J. Daley and His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2000), 490 – 492.