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Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles

Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles

by Eric Avila

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Los Angeles pulsed with economic vitality and demographic growth in the decades following World War II. This vividly detailed cultural history of L.A. from 1940 to 1970 traces the rise of a new suburban consciousness adopted by a generation of migrants who abandoned older American cities for Southern California's booming urban region. Eric Avila explores expressions


Los Angeles pulsed with economic vitality and demographic growth in the decades following World War II. This vividly detailed cultural history of L.A. from 1940 to 1970 traces the rise of a new suburban consciousness adopted by a generation of migrants who abandoned older American cities for Southern California's booming urban region. Eric Avila explores expressions of this new "white identity" in popular culture with provocative discussions of Hollywood and film noir, Dodger Stadium, Disneyland, and L.A.'s renowned freeways. These institutions not only mirrored this new culture of suburban whiteness and helped shape it, but also, as Avila argues, reveal the profound relationship between the increasingly fragmented urban landscape of Los Angeles and the rise of a new political outlook that rejected the tenets of New Deal liberalism and anticipated the emergence of the New Right.

Avila examines disparate manifestations of popular culture in architecture, art, music, and more to illustrate the unfolding urban dynamics of postwar Los Angeles. He also synthesizes important currents of new research in urban history, cultural studies, and critical race theory, weaving a textured narrative about the interplay of space, cultural representation, and identity amid the westward shift of capital and culture in postwar America.

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University of California Press
Publication date:
American Crossroads , #13
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Barnes & Noble
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2 MB

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Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight

Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles
By Eric Avila

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-24811-2

Chapter One

Chocolate Cities and Vanilla Suburbs

Race, Space, and the New "New Mass Culture" of Postwar America

In 1964, the New York Times published an article titled "Coney Island Slump Grows Worse," drawing attention to the plight of the long-standing amusement park. Amid empty roller coasters and deserted bingo parlors, an "air of desertion" permeated Coney Island, whose patronage had declined steadily since World War II. The Times identified a number of factors that had facilitated the park's decline, including "unsafe subways," "young hoodlums," and "bad weather." One problem, however, stood out. "Concessionaire after concessionaire" reported that "the growing influx of Negro visitors to the area" was the most critical obstacle to Coney Island's resuscitation. African Americans, who comprised "half the weekend tourists" at Coney Island by the early 1960s, aroused suspicion that their prominence "has discouraged some white persons from visiting the area." Three years later, the first of Coney Island's great amusement parks, Steeplechase Park, became the last, closing its doors forever.

Chicago's Riverview Park met a similar fateat roughly the same time. Billed as "the world's largest amusement park," Riverview stood on 140 acres of land on the city's northwest side. Whereas Riverview enticed an ethnically diverse array of pleasure seekers throughout its sixty-four-year popularity, the amusement park could not withstand the changing demographics that ensued in the era of racial desegregation. As African Americans began to integrate themselves into Chicago's public life, Riverview Park lost much of its appeal. By the 1960s, Riverview began a rapid decline as the park became the grounds for racial and gang violence. Shortly before Riverview Park shut down on October 3, 1967, the Chicago Tribune later reported, the park's "natural defenses began to crumble. Racial tension increased in Chicago and soon ran rampant inside the park."

Amusement parks were not the only venue for popular entertainment that fell by the wayside during the post-World War II period. Urban baseball parks that grew alongside amusement parks such as Coney Island and Riverview Park encountered similar crises. Philadelphia's Shibe Park, for example, once hailed as the crown jewel of ballparks, lost much of its appeal among baseball fans during the 1950s. In 1970, Bob Carpenter, owner of the Philadelphia Phillies, removed his team from its inner-city locale. The owner based his decision on his conviction that baseball was no longer a "paying proposition" at Shibe Park and that the park's location in "an undesirable neighborhood" meant that white baseball fans "would not come to a black neighborhood" to see a ball game. Similarly, Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers had resided since 1913, underwent demolition in 1960. In 1957, the Dodgers' owner, Walter O'Malley, had announced his infamous decision to move his team west to Los Angeles, blaming an uncooperative city government in New York for his decision. While many Brooklyn residents despised O'Malley for taking away their beloved Dodgers, others understood his decision as part of a larger neighborhood transformation. "I guess O'Malley was like everyone else," recalled one former Brooklyn Dodgers fan. "As long as you're not my neighbor ... it was okay. But once [blacks] started to live in the neighborhood, it was time to move out."

Ebbets Field, Riverview Park, Coney Island, and their counterparts in other American cities all depended on the streetcar to bring a steady influx of pleasure seekers and sports enthusiasts, but that too became a relic after World War II. The mass adoption of the automobile began during the 1920s, but by the postwar period, public and private agencies concentrated their resources on the construction of an elaborate network of highways, leaving streetcars to fall into disrepair. The disappearance of the streetcar undermined the popularity of urban ballparks, amusement parks, and other urban cultural institutions whose inner-city location lost favor with a new generation of motorists whose daily activities became increasingly dictated by the availability of parking space. As the iron tracks of the streetcar gave way to the concrete ribbons of freeways within the nation's cities, Americans parted with yet another cultural venue that had served the needs of a heterogeneous urban public.

What does it mean that these institutions began to vanish from the American cultural scene at roughly the same time? And what does it mean that people used race to explain their declining popularity? What cultural institutions emerged in their place, and how did they surmount the racial tensions that overcame places like Coney Island and Ebbets Field? To approach an answer to such questions requires an understanding of the larger spatial and historical contexts in which these landmarks surfaced. The amusement park, the ballpark, and the streetcar belonged to a generation of urban cultural institutions that surfaced during the second half of the nineteenth century. Their unique development unfolded under the purview of the modern industrial city, which came of age during a distinct moment within the history of capitalist urbanization. In the United States, New York debuted as the modern city's most vibrant incarnation, but Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and, further west, Denver and San Francisco also rose to prominence as major urban centers during the nineteenth century. These cities reflected the stage of technological development that delimited the spatial organization of the modern city, with its centralized pattern of urban development and its intense concentration of people and wealth.

In this context, a heterogeneous urban public forged a new kind of culture. Streetcars, amusement parks, ballparks, parks, museums, world's fairs, department stores, nickelodeons, and, later on, the movies constituted the "new mass culture" that drew on available technologies to create a set of new sensations and experiences that satisfied the changing cultural appetites of an expanding urban public. Recently, a generation of urban cultural historians identified the contours of this new mass culture, emphasizing the ways in which it mirrored the transition from a Victorian cultural order that insisted upon the strict separation of classes, races, and sexes to a new cultural order that sanctioned promiscuous interactions among a heterogeneous assortment of urban strangers. The agglomeration of men and women from all classes and ethnicities, otherwise known as the crowd, within the city's venues of work and play created a "heterosocial" world of urban strangers that came to characterize urban public life well into the twentieth century.

The inclusiveness of modern city culture, however, was predicated on the strict exclusion of African Americans and, to a lesser extent, other racial groups. European immigrants to the American city at the turn of the twentieth century converged on the shared spaces of work, housing, and leisure, but African Americans encountered rigid racial barriers that blocked their access to white neighborhoods and jobs in cities of both the North and the South. Their exclusion extended to the public venues of the new mass culture. Blacks sat in the balconies of movie theaters, just as they sat in the back of streetcars. The operators of amusement parks, nickelodeons, dance halls, and ballparks typically adopted a whites-only policy, forcing African Americans to pursue their appetite for diversion in separate and sometimes inferior cultural facilities. When African Americans did appear in such venues, it was generally through a set of vicious misrepresentations that emphasized the innate degeneracy of "darkies" and "coons." The cosmopolitan culture of the turn-of-the-century metropolis was thus achieved only by aggressively excluding and stereotyping African Americans and by upholding entrenched patterns of racial segregation. In short, the new mass culture reinforced a mutually constitutive relationship between public and white.

A century later, however, the reconfiguration of the American city initiated the decline of both the new mass culture and its urban context and inaugurated a new paradigm of race and space. The New Deal and the subsequent outbreak of World War II profoundly unsettled the spatial and racial organization of American society. The intersection of technological innovations, government policies, demographic upheaval, and other factors linked not by causality but rather by coincidence anticipated the arrival of the postwar urban region, which did not fully materialize until the 1950s and 1960s. Suburbanization, a mode of urbanization in which cities extend outward rather than upward to accommodate the spatial appetites of homeowners, retailers, and industrialists, reached a pinnacle in the years between 1945 and 1970. During the 1950s, for example, suburbs grew at a rate ten times faster than that of central cities, while the nation's suburban population jumped from 35.1 to 75.6 million between 1950 and 1970. Under the patronage of a federal government that subsidized residential and industrial decentralization through an elaborate set of policies, the modern industrial city and its concentrated panoply of factories, tenement houses, and streetcars began to give way to the "postindustrial" urban region and its scattered array of industrial parks, detached single-family homes, automobiles, and freeways.

Postwar suburbanization sanctioned the formation of a new racial geography that spatialized a starker contrast between "white" and black. Jim Crow effectively blocked black access to public life at the turn of the century, but the wartime convergence of economic opportunities in urban centers incorporated nonwhite social groups into the public spaces of the American city on an unprecedented scale. In particular, World War II initiated yet another mass migration of African Americans into the nation's cities, arguably the most significant demographic shift of the twentieth century. Fleeing a legacy of poverty and racism in the South, millions of African Americans converged on urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and Far West, where the wartime economy was at its most vibrant. Black migrants to the cities met substantial hostility there: a spate of race riots during the early 1940s signaled the intense level of competition among racially diverse peoples in search of steady employment and affordable housing.

If black became increasingly synonymous with urban during the war years and thereafter, suburban development after World War II sanctioned the formation of a new "white" identity. The gains won by labor groups during the 1930s and 1940s created the basis for a postwar truce between labor and capital, ensconcing workers and their families in the comforts of a thriving consumer economy that centered on suburban home ownership. Federal lending agencies such as the Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration underwrote the largest mass-based opportunity for home ownership in national history. But as a racial privilege sustained by redlining, blockbusting, restrictive covenants, and municipal incorporation, as well as by outright violence, federally sponsored suburbanization removed an expanding category of "white" Americans from what deteriorated into inner-city reservations of racialized poverty. The collusion of public policy and private practices enforced a spatial distinction between "black" cities and "white" suburbs and gave shape to what the Kerner Commission, a presidential commission appointed to assess the causes of the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, identified as "two societies, one black, one white-separate and unequal."

Less than a decade after the Kerner Commission had issued its grave assessment of postwar segregation, George Clinton, the virtuoso leader of the theatrical funk ensemble Parliament, offered a more flavorful account of that same process. In 1975, Clinton wrote the song "Chocolate City" to construe black urbanization as a "takeover" of the nation's cities: "There's a lot of chocolate cites around. We've got Newark, we've got Gary. Somebody told me we've got L.A., but you're the capital, D.C." In what became his signature funk sound, Clinton delivered a wake-up call to white America to signal that it could not maintain its distance from black America much longer: "Movin' in and on ya, gainin' on ya! Can't you feel my breath, heh ... All up around your neck, heh heh." Striking a chord of defiant pride, "Chocolate City" envisioned black urbanization as nothing less than a national insurrection led by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and other luminaries of Afro-American culture. In contrast to the disparaging and often dehumanizing portraits of the racialized inner city issued by the nation's leading social scientists, "Chocolate City" asserts the strength of the black ghetto as a bulwark against the hostility of a racist society: "A chocolate city is no dream It's my piece of the rock and I dig you, God bless Chocolate City and its (gainin' on ya!) vanilla suburbs."

"Chocolate City" reflects one discursive (and indeed subversive) response to the spatial and racial polarization that defined urban life after World War II, but there were many others. Whereas Parliament's hit provides a cultural clue to the urbanization of black identity after World War II, this book explores the cultural expressions that mirrored the suburbanization of white culture and consciousness during the postwar period. Through a tradition of racial segregation, chocolate cities have been present throughout various stages of urban history in the United States, but vanilla suburbs did not become a broadly inclusive way of life until the decades following World War II. Postwar suburbanization nurtured the development of a more expansive "white" identity, one that extended to various social groups who removed themselves from the racialized spaces of the inner city vis-a-vis home ownership. What role popular culture played in the formation of a suburban white identity, and how that identity was created, consumed, and contested by various social groups, is the subject of this book.

As the civil rights movement gathered steam and the challenge to racial segregation inserted African Americans and other nonwhite social groups into the public spaces of industrial urbanism, a new "new mass culture" took shape, one that reflected and reinforced the burgeoning racial order of the postwar urban region. Movies, theme parks, freeways, ballparks, television, and shopping malls highlighted the cultural landscape of chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs and shaped the development of a racialized political culture in a period of intense social change. In the process of developing land on the perimeter of the metropolis, an expanding generation of suburban Americans exercised their preference for a landscape that epitomized homogeneity, containment, and predictability, one that marked a safe contrast to the heterosocial, unpredictable, and often dangerous cultural experiences of industrial urbanism. These values underlie the new spatial culture of suburbia: in enclosed theme parks that directed the movement and gaze of its public, in self-contained housing subdivisions planned according to the disciplined lines of the grid system, and in freeways that channeled the flow of traffic along a uniform line of movement, above and around the inner city.


Excerpted from Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight by Eric Avila Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Eric Avila is Assistant Professor of Chicano Studies and History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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