Everything is Blight, or:
How One Planner Learned to Start Worrying and Hate Urban Diversity
1 If my recollection is correct, that industry ended up being a post office and a trucking company. Wheeling was not saved
2 Churchill, Henry S. Germantown: A Planning Study. 1956, p. 2.
4 A well-trained planner today hopefully would pose him- or herself this question. I would imagine, however, that a 1950s planner was less inclined to interrogate his own subjectivity.
A collection of mixed-use buildings in Germantown, Philadelphia in the mid-20th century.
Source: Historic American Buildings Survey. Folwell House, Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA. n.d.
16 Ibid., 67. ; Evidently, a settlement house is not an interest group. Or perhaps only in Churchill’s estimation is it not.
Two years ago, while serving as a research assistant to a professor of economic development, I made a trip to Wheeling, West Virginia. I travelled there to examine the planning strategies used by the City in its attempt to combat industrial decline during the twentieth century. Authorities and business interests in Wheeling employed urban renewal — typically the clearing and redevelopment of urban land — in hopes of shoring up the city’s economy. One plan targeted a small African-American neighborhood, which was razed to create space for industry.  Documentation of the effort does not explicitly mention race as a determinant of which neighborhood would meet the backhoe. Nevertheless, I have little doubt that race and class were factors, as they were in many renewal plans across the nation.
Henry S. Churchill, the author of one such plan, did not leave his prejudiced attitudes implicit when writing about the Germantown neighborhood for Philadelphia’s Planning Commission in 1956. According to Churchill, Germantown in the 1950s was an “exceedingly attractive residential area.” The neighborhood’s 66,000 residents benefited from easy access to Center City, and its commercial district drew clientele from the surrounding area. Industry pushed up on residences, residences on commerce, commerce on industry — in other words, it was a city neighborhood. However, a mixture of uses, as well as a growing non-white population, was cause for concern in Churchill’s view. He thought that the built environment and social composition of Germantown needed to be fixed if the neighborhood were to remain strong.
To save Germantown, Churchill believed that blight, or characteristics thrown under the umbrella of “blight,” demanded elimination. This powerful yet ambiguous label was capable of defining vast swaths of a city out of existence. Single-family houses converted to multifamily use? Blight. Old buildings? Blight. To be fair, Churchill’s definition included more traditional criteria, like dilapidation or a lack of running water. But the arbitrary nature of these criteria makes one wonder if any truly objective standard of blight existed. The consultant’s description of it often veers into the pathogenic. Buildings perceived as dilapidated “should be eradicated to prevent the remainder of the block from deteriorating.” And those multifamily conversions? They “may prove extremely undesirable…it may presage the area’s decline into a transitional neighborhood…the first stage of blight.” The consultant is quite clear on what, to him, constitutes a “transitional” area:
"This area has one problem, it is in transition. With the migration of white families, which up to this time had been middle class white collar workers, the area may tend to change character completely with infiltration of the Negro population, which are mostly of the labor class."
At the time of the report, some Germantown residents -- particularly families -- were moving to the suburbs. Churchill believed difficulty would be had in “[retaining] Germantown as it is today,” unless it could “[attract] the same kind of people that live there today.”[8,9] Thus, the neighborhood’s character needed to be maintained, and proposed physical modifications were framed in the language of preservation and influenced by race and class prejudice. Churchill proclaimed that “the past is part of the present,” yet only that which he deemed “stable and generally unblighted” could remain. Among what Churchill considered unwanted “blight” were a “Negro pocket of substandard housing” and a proud Italian community, whose “section…should be considered for certification…as a renewal area.” Blight, it seems, meant those who did not conform to the middle - or upper - classes, white vision the consultant had for Germantown. Preservation, the remedy for blight, was a rationalization for practicing a sort of urban eugenics. Churchill wished to excise natural diversity to create artificial homogeneity, making Germantown’s built environment and social composition subordinate to an idealized past of dubious existence.
Churchill interviewed community members for his report, “in hope[s] of obtaining the residents’ opinion…to tie in the desire of the population with the proposals for the future” of Germantown. This overture to community engagement, however, was insincere. Churchill writes that he valued the opinion of one man, from the local settlement house, but of others he claims: “The rest of the interviews served only to air the ideas of the various interest groups.” One would expect that, if working in a neighborhood described by Churchill himself as having a “heterogenous nature,” a planner must incorporate a diversity of community perspectives. His disdainful tone regarding the “interest groups” suggests he thought otherwise.
An air of dismissiveness towards certain demographics is also evident when Churchill turns his sights on the Morton section of Germantown. The consultant describes, at some length, the community-led rehabilitation of the area, home to a mixture of African Americans and “Italians.” Italians, incidentally, are the only ethnicity other than “Negroes” explicitly named. Presumably, some number of residents were in fact “Italian-American,” or perhaps just “American,” but the author’s choice of the descriptive, “Italian,” indicates the lens of otherness through which he likely viewed the demographic. In any case, these Italians’ work, writes Churchill, “seems adequate to the Neighborhood Council.” But, unmoved, the planner breezily rejects the improvements. “This private rehabilitation is a decided step forward,” but “it is felt that some of the structures are not really worth saving.” Through his use of passive voice, Churchill obfuscates his own subjectivity. One gets the impression that the verdict is divinely ordained, rather than Churchill merely suggesting the structures should not be saved.
References to the larger socioeconomic factors which affect the condition of the built environment are absent from the Germantown report. The oversight is glaring, given the deleterious effects of housing, wage, and employment discrimination commonly experienced by marginalized groups in the 1950s.
Such oversights are illustrative of the narrow scope of urban planning during the era. In Churchill’s case, his prejudice, combined with an intense focus on physical structure, resulted in discriminatory planning that threatened racialized sections of Germantown. Even if city authorities were surgical in their interventions -- Churchill does not call for mass demolition in the style of Boston’s West End, for example –-the plan devised still was exclusionary: a neighborhood for some at the expense of others.
Top-down planning was in full swing in late 1950s Philadelphia, as evidenced by Churchill’s Germantown report. So, how much has changed in sixty years? Have we left the not so happy days when planners autocratically sought “to organize the parts of the urban environment into a coherent whole,” as Michael Brooks succinctly put it? Are we finally in the postmodern era, where planners “[express] the local and particular interest of our constituents?” Do planners, if not operating in a plural planning framework, at least acknowledge “opposition or alternative plans?” After all, Churchill nearly was a practitioner of “enlightened” postmodern planning, acknowledging that community engagement should be part of the process. Yet philosophically, he was a man of his time, rooted in his own certainty.
It is here that I believe planning as practiced today differs -- in the role of certainty. I believe that, as a discipline, urban planning has come to understand that it works in an undefined space with vague edges. It recognizes the need to understand that much is unknowable, and it comes to terms with that uncertainty. As such, planning can today be more open, nimble, responsive, and with luck, effective.
Maxwell Johnson is a first-year Master of City Planning student, with a concentration in Housing, Community, and Economic Development. His areas of interest include revitalization strategies for “legacy” communities and examining the historic, geographic, and socioeconomic factors that shape communities. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia, majoring in American Studies and Anthropology.
By Maxwell Johnson
5 Ibid., p. 83.
6 Ibid., p. 22.
7 Ibid., p. xxviii.
8 Ibid., p. 35.
9 Though this line was written referencing the need for recreational facilities and green space in Germantown, it nevertheless betrays a central theme of the report: preventing and reversing a change in the composition of neighborhood residents.
10 Ibid., p. 8.
11 Ibid., p. 7.
12 Ibid., p. 4.
13 Ibid., p. 67.
14 In this way, Churchill’s plan, though somewhat small in scale, largely rides the wake of Le Corbusier’s authoritarian obsession with interlinked social and physical order.
15 Ibid., p. 7.
Henry S. Churchill pictured in 1936 while working on a project in New Jersey for the federal government.
Source: United States Resettlement Administration, Mydans, Carl, photographer. Henry S. Churchill, Washington, D.C., Principal Architect of the Bound Brook, New Jersey, project, Suburban Resettlement Division. 1936.