The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Can we still learn from a selective reading of history?

Daniel London considers the charges laid down this week by Jamaal Green that the settlement house movement of the 19th century is marked by an undercurrent of racism and assimilationism. That may well be true, he concedes, but argues that there are still lessons to be derived and work to be continued from the nobler intentions and activities of the movement.

Daniel London

Cities: Chicago, New York-Newark

Topics: Participatory governance, Community organisation, Social conflict

Neighborhood House in Yesler Terrace, Seattle, an institutional descendant of Seattle's original settlement house, and evidence of the resilience of the model throughout several periods of changing social values. Photo: Joe Mabel (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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I appreciate Jamaal Green's comments to my call for civic unity last week, and believe they are worth responding to in some depth. His first objection, that I under-played the degree of racism exhibited by settlement house workers, is true. Jane Addams and her peers were certainly guilty of that charge — as well as ethnocentrism, sexism, and all the other -isms we can think of today. She was a product of her time, just as we are products of ours.

Nonetheless, do the misapplications of an idea automatically invalidate that idea? Absolutely not. Racism represents a betrayal of Adam's broader understanding of deliberative democracy and civic virtue, and I believe we can appropriate the latter without reviving the former. No democracy has ever been perfect in terms of the quality or quantity of its participants — the most we can ever do is pass the torch forward, expanding our definition of "we the people" a bit further in every generation, knowing full well that our efforts will always be incomplete. Addams did this in her generation, and we can learn from her while doing it in our own.

Jane Addams and her peers were certainly guilty of that charge--as well as ethnocentrism, sexism, and all the other -isms we can think of today. She was a product of her time, just as we are products of ours.

I would also object to characterising the settlement house as purely an assimilation project. Jane Addams stated on many occasions that the American WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) middle-class had much to learn from immigrants, and Hull House in Chicago was a site where eastern and southern Europeans — despised and feared by the majority of Americans — were free to stage the religious, cultural, and recreational activities of their homelands. We might consider this rather uncontroversial today, but it bears emphasising that this was taking place at a time when prominent social theorists were encouraging an outright ban on European immigration. Social centres and settlement houses were conceived of as sites of mutual learning and growth — and again, just because they fell short in this regard does not invalidate the premises of those goals.

Finally, Green's argument that civic unity can derail or smother legitimate social conflicts within a community is insightful and well-taken, but with an important caveat. A unity constructed through bottom-up communication and compromise is different from a unity imposed in the absence of dissent and debate. Deliberation is a messy affair, with different groups laying out particular grievances, but transcendence can occur because of the realities of urban interdependence — that the grievances of one group can relates to the grievances of another. The poverty of the 19th-century working class impacted the middle class as well, as Jane Addams realised when her sick sister died on a train held up by a strike. The disenfranchisement of African Americans represented a disenfranchisement of every American, as thousands of white students realised in the 1960s.

Both working-class neighbourhoods and newly arriving students have a shared interest in keeping housing affordable and stopping the total gentrification of large cities like New York and London, but this axis of similarity — of both group's shared "right to the city" — is hidden when we are surrounded by a binary discourse  of "modernising yuppies" versus "NIMBY locals".  To frame politics from the beginning as an us-versus-them question is fallacy, because we do not always know who "us" is until we start talking to "them". Expanding and deepening the three c's of communication, commonality, and community-building can help form a more expansive, pluralistic, democratic sense of "us" — this is the keystone of civic unity. The progressives were amongst the first to consciously begin this process, and I believe we should keep it going.

Of course there will be times for social conflict in this model. I would argue, however, that these are occasions when the path to the three C's are blocked — when the powerful refuse to engage in dialogue with the powerless, when the  nationalist cannot bear to sit across the table from the immigrant. When this dialogue is unable to occur, social groups might need to form in opposition to the people and practices that prevented it. Nonetheless, the end result of these campaigns  is the all important moment of communication — when both sides come to the table to work out a better shared future. I hope that this particular moment of communication between Green and myself has clarified some of my positions, and that on this basis we can create a degree of "civic unity" of our own.


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