'THE SEARCH FOR NEW FORMS" Black Power and the Making of the Postmodern City
Brian D. Goldstein
In the landmark manifesto Black Power, Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton titled their final chapter “The Search for New Forms.” In it they called for African Americans to take control of their schools, reclaim their homes from negligent absentee landlords, insist that local businesses reinvest profits in their communities, and reshape the political institutions that served them. “We must begin to think of the black community as a base of organization to control institutions in that community,” they wrote, capturing the ideals of “community control” and neighborhood self-determination at the center of the radical shift in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. In invoking “forms,” the authors had in mind ways that those goals could be put into practice: through independent political candidates or through parents demanding authority over local school districts. Yet the term forms was also quite apt for its physical connotations, as Black Power was a movement with fundamentally spatial origins and ambitions (Carmichael and Hamilton 1967,164-177).
Indeed, physical space played an essential role in the rise of Black Power. The movement grew from the historical process of urban spatial segregation, which had produced the sorts of racially homogeneous communities that inspired and incubated it. In such communities, Black Power proponents saw the possibility of racial autonomy, a dream fueled by the recent history of African decolonization. As activists explained in the late 1960s, spatially distinct places such as Harlem were akin to colonies, without adequate representation and vulnerable to the whims of outsiders. “Colonial subjects have their political decisions made for them by the colonial masters, and those decisions are handed down directly or through a process of‘indirect rule,’” wrote Carmichael and Hamilton. Like colonies, too, such “ghettos” bore the power to seize control over their fate, to become engines of self-governance (Carmichael and Hamilton 1967,6).
Scholars have acknowledged the critical function of space as a metaphor and a foundation for the self-conception, philosophy, and goals of Black Power (Self 2003, 1, 217-233; Sugrue 2008, 313-355). Yet, as this essay will explain, space also played a material role in the Black Power movement. The fact of spatial segregation gave rise to Black Power, but urban space and the built environment also served as the medium through which Black Power adherents expressed their vision of the alternative future that would follow from racial self-determination. Community control would not only provide democratic participation and self- reliance in neighborhoods that had lacked both, it would also, activists argued, produce a better, more humane city that valued local decision-making, existing inhabitants, and their vibrant neighborhoods and everyday lives.
This idea unfolded as a reaction to the large-scale, clearance-oriented urban redevelopment strategies that had reshaped American inner cities in the postwar period.These practices, known as “urban renewal,” typically followed the belief that urban transformation required the excision of existing residents in predominantly poor, majority-minority neighborhoods. The Black Power movement suggested the possibility of a different mode of development, however, that rested fundamentally on the persistence of the very residents that modernist redevelopment had sought to displace. This vision grew out of the larger context of the movement, with proponents arguing that civil rights gains depended not on the thus far elusive goal of racial desegregation but on tapping the intrinsic power of predominantly African American communities. Black radicals inspired by Carmichael and Hamilton’s appreciation of “the potential power of the ghettos” saw the African American residents in communities such as Harlem, Watts, and Chicago’s South Side not as the cause of the urban crisis but as its solution. They placed blame for widespread poverty and daily misery on the decisions that outsiders had imposed on neighborhoods, including the urban renewal projects that had reshaped such communities in broad strokes of vast clearance and monumental reconstruction. In confronting officials who backed that approach to neighborhood change, Black Power advocates argued that residents could do a better job themselves by controlling the full spectrum of decisions that affected them, including those regarding education, political representation, and, crucially, the built environment (Carmichael and Hamilton 1967,177).
Interpreting Black Power through the lens of the built environment, specifically through architecture and urban planning, and interpreting the architectural and urban history of this era through the lens of the Black Power movement yields several insights into both Black Power and the built environment. First, such interpretation extends the cultural history of the movement into a new sphere. Historians have uncovered the influence of racial self-determination on the visual arts, theater, music, and literature but so far have yet to examine how those professionally and personally invested in shaping the built environment translated Black Power’s theoretical ideas into new conceptions via the medium of urban space. Second, understanding the breadth of this vision provides yet more evidence that Black Power was more than a negative denouement to a heroic civil rights movement or simply a reactive, violent break from that movement. Utopian ambitions marked a proactive vision of a better world that valued people often taken for granted, displaced, or ignored by urban development. Lastly, bringing the history of Black Power into conversation with the history of architecture and urbanism broadens, expands, and diversifies the picture of the participants who not only took part in the project of criticizing and rejecting modernist conceptions of the built environment but also in proposing postmodern alternatives to them. Among many other sites, postmodern urbanism was born in the social history of predominantly African American neighborhoods in this decade, in the people who inhabited them, and in the work of the architects and planners who came to their aid; these origins historians have yet to explore.1
Harlem provides a particularly vital terrain on which to examine these issues. Segregation assumed different forms across regional contexts, and, as such, Black Power’s visions and ambitions also took different forms. Yet Harlem’s history proved especially influential. As the most mythologized African American community, Harlem offered a symbolic and physical space that attracted and inspired activists who sought to articulate the parameters of a black utopia and actualize goals of autonomy and self-determination.This essay focuses on one exceptionally significant effort toward those goals. When the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem (ARCH) opened in 1964, it became the first community design center - a new vehicle for citizen participation that would soon proliferate across all major American cities. Over the latter half of the 1960s, ARCH assisted Harlemites who sought to resist and revise official urban redevelopment plans, even as the organization transformed amid the changing racial politics of the era. The architect J. Max Bond Jr., became the first African American director of ARCH in 1967, shifting the organization’s work toward the radical aims of Black Power. With Bond at the helm of ARCH, activist planners and architects and their community partners joined in the effort to trace Black Power’s spatial implications. In Harlem’s streets and communities, they articulated an alternative future in the language of the design disciplines.
Carmichael and Hamilton admitted the undeniable utopianism that suffused such a “search for new forms,” asking, “If these proposals ... sound impractical, utopian, then we ask: what other real alternatives exist?” The answer, they explained, was that “there are none” (Carmichael and Hamilton 1967, 177). Yet an irony of the search for new forms, at least in the realm of urban space, was that very often those forms were not new. In keeping with Black Power’s appreciation of majority-minority communities, architects and planners inspired by community control celebrated and sought to preserve the traditional streetscape, mixed land use, and eclectic built environment of places such as Harlem. Moreover, the spatial vision that proponents advanced was as much concerned with the people who lived in Harlem’s buildings as with the built form itself. Activist architects and planners idealized and strove to maintain the everyday life of those communities, insisting that such places be rebuilt by and for the benefit of their existing residents. If this effort to preserve the landscape and people of Harlem marked a certain restraint in activists’ vision, however, the idea remained quite radical in its refutation of the social and physical ambitions of modernist redevelopment. Indeed, their vision helped end modernist urban renewal and usher in a new emphasis on the human scale and traditional urban fabric that characterized postmodernism. Yet the twofold nature of their formal vision, concerned equally with buildings and the people who inhabited them, and the seeming contradiction in focusing on preservation but for radical ends, would also be unintended obstacles to fully realizing the utopian ambitions of Black Power.