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Race and Housing in the Postwar City: An Explosive History

Raymond A. Mohl

In the half century after World War II, powerful forces of change dramatically reshaped the American city, none more explo­ sively than racial change. The central cities began a long decline by the late 1940s with the decentralization of population, manufactur­ ing, and retailing, but surrounding suburbs grew exponentially. Massive migrations of rural southern blacks to the new "promised land" of urban America soon altered the racial character of the cities. Moreover, the bifurcation of metropolitan America between center and periphery had an unmistakable racial dimension, with blacks and other minorities increasingly concentrated in the cities and whites dominant on the suburban fringes. These potent demograph­ ic shifts ultimately brought enormous changes to city politics, urban economies, and neighborhood residential patterns. Indeed, a close look at the patterns and outcomes of postwar urban change clearly suggests the centrality of race in modern U.S. urban history.

In many respects, history is the study of how things change over time, and certainly this has been true for the history of American urbanization. Big demographic shifts and new economic trends speeded up the transformation of urban America after 1945. Massive suburban migrations and the "deindustrialization" of the cities had devastating consequences, including job losses, deteriorating neigh­ borhoods, concentrated poverty, and more intense patterns of racial segregation. Federal policies on slum clearance, urban renewal, pub­ lic housing, and interstate highways initiated new forms of govern­ mental action at the local level, but not always with positive results. Redevelopment and urban renewal, for instance, brought major physical changes to central cities, shifting land uses, destroying entire neighborhoods, and damaging community. At the same time, the powerful forces of suburbanization sucked the life out of older residential neighborhoods, which in turn experienced rapid racial transitions.1


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