Urban history has undergone a dramatic shift in scope and scale over the last two decades, as studies of the city have expanded to incorporate suburbs, exurbs, and what remains of the countryside. This spatial turn has enriched and enlarged the history of the urban crisis, pushing beyond simple accounts of “white flight” to illuminate the broader confluence of state policy, structural constraints, and economic transformations. In some respects, Surrogate Suburbs offers an intensely local counterpoint to this metropolitan narrative. Focusing on a handful of outlying neighborhoods in Cleveland, Todd M. Michney recovers a complicated history of race, space, and class, showing how these “surrogate suburbs” became focal points of black middle-class life and ambition in the half century that followed the Great Migration. Initially small in number and scattered in settlement, these enclaves swelled during and after World War II, as southern black migrants overwhelmed the city's traditionally black Cedar-Central neighborhood. Drawing on census data, newspapers, and city regulations and deploying tables and maps, Michney uses the methods of a traditional community study to address newer questions about the intersection of capital formation, home ownership, and racial inequality. Yet the heart of the book is both narrower and more ambitious. Beyond detailing demographic transformation and probing political conflicts over housing and zoning, Surrogate Suburbs offers a social, cultural, and intellectual history of the city's black middle class. Michney argues that contradictory currents of racial solidarity and class cleavage guided African American aspirations and activism. Driven by a desire to escape the decline of inner-city neighborhoods, these upwardly mobile but ever-anxious black pioneers carried ideas about individual success and social mobility that shaped relations both with their new white neighbors and with would-be black successors. The richest parts of the book are those detailing community organizing. Beginning in the late 1940s and extending through the 1970s, Michney shows, community councils mobilized to improve public services, restrict “unsavory” businesses, and block housing conversion and subdivision (p. 76). When citywide efforts failed, neighborhood groups pressed landowners to renovate apartment buildings, created janitorial cooperatives and low-cost custodial services, conducted trash cleanup and rat abatement campaigns, and rehabilitated aging homes. While poorly positioned to tackle broad structural challenges that transformed Cleveland, these efforts helped preserve pockets of modest affluence within the city through the 1970s. In some ways, however, the fate of the islands is clearer than that of the sea. The intense focus on neighborhood struggles overshadows the tectonic shifts that remade the rust belt in the second half of the twentieth century. Deindustrialization and the growth of the service sector receive only passing treatment, as the book's initial attentiveness to the urban economy (including its gender dynamics) fades in the final chapters. The groundbreaking mayoral administration of Carl Stokes (1968–1971) mostly operates as a backdrop for community activism, leaving critical questions about class dynamics unexplored. The fiscal crunch that led to the city's 1978 default is left out of a narrative that mostly wraps up by the early 1970s. Still, Michney has recovered an often-overshadowed black middle class and showcased its complexity and contradictions, providing an important foundation for future work on local activism within the American metropolis. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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