Planning, Difference, and Dislocation in the Black Americas: Atlanta, Port-au-Prince, and São Paulo

AHA Session 94
Society for French Historical Studies 1
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Flatiron (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Guadalupe García, Tulane University
Guadalupe García, Tulane University

Session Abstract

This panel will explore how forms of difference, such as race, ethnicity, and class, informed urban development and shaped the built environment of the diasporic world. Drawing on extensive research on late-twentieth-century São Paulo, Port-au-Prince, and Atlanta, the panelists trace the complex social, political, and economic motivations behind city-backed urban transformation schemes. These interventions, carried out in the name of progress, often entailed the erasure of black neighborhoods or a transformation of the built environment that endangered the most marginalized of urban dwellers.

Centering the material transformations redevelopment entailed, the panelists demonstrate how city leaders, of all races and ethnicities, chiseled inequality into the built environment. Together, the three papers will reveal how twentieth-century urbanization in the Americas turned cities into critical arenas where enduring historical conflicts over race and class were rearticulated as struggles over space and belonging.

Andrew Britt explores the production of urban space and race/ethnicity in São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous and ethnoracially-diverse city. In the nineteenth century, São Paulo was the provincial capital of one of formal slavery’s final frontiers in the Americas. By the mid-twentieth century, city boosters and many residents described it as an ethnically immigrant and white metropolis, distinct from the supposed true hubs of Africa in Brazil (Salvador and Rio de Janeiro). Britt excavates the neighborhood-level demolitions, reconstructions, and dislocations involved in the reproduction of the city’s racialized/ethnicized geography. In this paper, he focuses on the material and cultural significance of asphalted roadways in concretizing ethnoracial difference in the 1970s.

Claire Antone Payton provides a case-study of urbanization in Haiti to analyze the origins of a disaster that is increasingly shaping life across the planet: chronic flooding. By examining patterns of urban growth in Port-au-Prince in the 1970s, Payton demonstrates how politics, class, race, and environment interacted to generate a crisis that disproportionately affected the city’s poorest communities. Payton traces the specific geographic dynamics of a boom in construction in the Haitian capital to show how chronic flooding in Port-au-Prince has its origins in an elite-driven construction boom that disrupted the city’s watershed. In the process, the paper challenges mainstream narratives of “urban crisis” that focus on rural-to-urban migration as the primary cause of declining living conditions in cities in the global south.

Danielle Wiggins investigates how Atlanta’s black working class and poor took on the city’s biracial growth regime in the late 1980s. As city leaders sought to use large-scale development projects to incentivize private investment the urban core, residents protested the projects, which threatened to destroy their neighborhoods, disturb their quality of life, demolish historic African American institutions, and cost them additional tax dollars. They formed diverse coalitions to challenge the city’s imperative of unending growth. In doing so, they sought to reshape the built environment to align with their vision of African American advancement.

Taken together, these papers link the experiences of black urban dwellers throughout African Diaspora. Heeding the call for transnational urban histories, they provide insights into the spatial production of race, power, and inequality globally.

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