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The Revolt Against Cultural Determinism and the Meaning of Community Action: A View from Cincinnati

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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Since the 1920s, the discourse about American urban culture has suggested the appropriateness of organizing metropolitan life around territorial subcommunities in two distinctive ways, each of which yielded a distinctive period in the history of professional city and social welfare planning. During the first period, which persisted into the 1950s, the planners focused on the problem of forging a coherent sense of metropolitan community among cultural groups conceived of as separate but equal (or potentially equal). To achieve this goal, they emphasized the role of experts in analyzing the forces controlling urban culture and in devising schemes to segregate, assure the integrity of, and foster mutual understanding and respect among cultural groups whose characteristics stemmed from forces beyond the control of experts or group members. During the second period, which began in the 1950s and persists in our own time, planners abandoned cultural group determinism and the quest for a segregated yet coherent metropolitan community of separate but equal groups in homogeneous neighborhoods. Instead they decided they could control the future of the metropolis by persuading individuals to create heterogeneous neighborhoods through a process of “community action” in which neighborhood residents would define their culture (“lifestyles”) by participating in the design of the social and physical environment of the neighborhood of their choice. This new pattern of thinking about urban culture, which centered on “individualism” and neighborhood rather than groups and metropolitan community, involved a revolt against cultural group determinism, the notion that individuals carry an identity determined by the accident of their membership in the group with characteristics determined by the experience of a group in a social and physical environment created by “outsiders” and or impersonal “forces.”

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2. According to recent accounts, the idea of community action sprang from an experiment with juvenile delinquency in New York City funded by the National Institute of Mental Health in 1958. With the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964, community action then became a federal antipoverty program that triggered an immediate political furor and consequently met an early demise. See Patterson, James T., America's Struggle Against Poverty, 1900–1980 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 99157Google Scholar; Fox, Kenneth, Urban Life and Urban Policy (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1966), pp. 96, 198207Google Scholar; Leibey, James, A History of Social Welfare and Social Work in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), pp. 315, 318–19, 337–38Google Scholar; Gelfand, Mark I., A Nation of Cities: The Federal Government and Urban America, 1933–65 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 347Google Scholar; Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 1008–12Google Scholar; Schlesinger, , Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), pp. 4046, 637–39Google Scholar; and Friedman, Lawrence M., “The Social and Political Context of the War on Poverty: An Overview,” in A Decade of Federal Antipoverty Programs: Achievements, Failures, and Lessons, ed. Haveman, Robert H. (New York: Academic Press, 1977), pp. 2147CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Michael Katz, however, presents the standard account of the origins of the federal community action program while stressing its links to the civil-rights movement and the reaction against urban renewal. He also emphasizes its role in stimulating a persisting “new citizen movement.” Katz does not, however, acknowledge the local origins of community action during the 1950s within both social and city (urban renewal) planning. See Katz, Michael B., In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (New York: Basic Books, 1986), pp. 252–61Google Scholar, esp. pp. 259–61 and pp. 272–73. The invention of the argument that the provision of opportunities is the best way to combat poverty is usually attributed to Cloward, Richard A. and Ohlin, Lloyd E., Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs (New York: 1960)Google Scholar. It should be noted, however, that Cloward and Ohlin's argument grew out of a concern for juvenile delinquency as an expression of community disorganization and not out of a concern for poverty per se. Cloward and Ohlin also argued that violence and retreatism flourished among youths when the local situation frustrated those individuals who desired to make a choice about their lives, the choice to pursue by legitimate or illegitimate means upward social and economic mobility. See esp. pp. 103, 105, 106–7, 202, 210–11. Boyte, Harry coined the phrase “new citizen movement” in The Backward Revolution: Understanding the New Citizen Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980)Google Scholar, which is not concerned with community action as we have defined it. For other accounts of the “new citizen movement,” see Fainstein, Norman I. and Fainstein, Susan S., Urban Political Movements: The Search for Power by Minority Groups in American Cities (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974)Google Scholar; and Clavel, Pierre, The Progressive City: Planning and Participation, 1969–1984 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986)Google Scholar, the latter of which focuses on the continuing commitment of several city governments to citizen participation.

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7. Major selections from the work of the Chicago school in the 1920s appear in Park, Robert E., Burgess, Ernest W., and McKenzie, Roderick D., eds., The City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925)Google Scholar; and Burgess, Ernest W., ed., The Urban Community: Selected Papers From the Proceedings of the American Sociological Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1926)Google Scholar. On race-based cultural determinism at the turn of the century, see Miller, Zane L., “Race-ism and the City: The Young Dubois and the Role of Place in Social Theory, 1893–1901,” American StudiesGoogle Scholar (forthcoming).

8. Park, Robert F., “Community Organization and the Romantic Temper,” pp. 115–16, 119ff.Google Scholar; and Burgess, Ernest W., “Can Neighborhood Work Have a Scientific Basis?” pp. 144–55Google Scholar, esp. pp. 146–47 and 153–55, in Park et al., The City.

9. In the 1920s, the Chicago school sociologists suggested these political tendencies without discussing them explicitly. In 1938, however, Louis Worth crafted an elegant statement of the theory of modern urban growth that articulated them explicitly. See Wirth, Louis, “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” American Journal of Sociology 44 (07 1938): 124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10. Cincinnati City Planning Commission, Official Plan of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, 1925)Google Scholar. For the development of the comprehensive city planning movement in Cincinnati, see Fairbanks, Robert B., Making Better Citizens: Housing Reform and the Community Development Strategy in Cincinnati, 1890–1960 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988)Google Scholar, chs. 2–3; and Kornbluh, Andrea Tuttle, Lighting the Way: The Woman's City Club of Cincinnati, 1915–1965 (Cincinnati: Young and Klein, 1986), 1522.Google Scholar

11. The process of denning the city in terms of the basin (the old city) and an outlying and newer area with a different character began in the mid-19th Century and became a convention by the turn of the century. See Miller, Zane L., Boss Cox's Cincinnati: Urban Politics in the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 36, 26, 54, 221Google Scholar. For an account of a similar process in American cities generally, see Jackson, Kenneth T., Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)Google Scholar, esp. chs. 1–8.

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16. See, for example, Cincinnati Better Housing League, A Tenement House Suruey (Cincinnati, 1921)Google Scholar, which delineated four different housing sections in the basin according to the culturally denned characteristics of each section's inhabitants.

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19. Social Engineering in Cincinnati, p. 3Google Scholar. For an analysis of the theory and practice of community organization during the 1920s and 1930s, see Austin, Michael J. and Betten, Neil, “Intellectual Origins of Community Organizing,” Social Service Review 51 (1977): 155–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

20. Social Engineering in Cincinnati, p. 59.Google Scholar

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24. For a list of books symptomatic of this shift, see Miller, Zane L., Suburb: Neighborhood and Community in Forest Park, Ohio, 1935–1976 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981), pp. 250–52Google Scholar. For other contemporary articulations of the revolt against cultural determinism, see Riesman, David, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950)Google Scholar; Ellison, Ralph, Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1952)Google Scholar; and Wilson, Sloan, The Man in a Gray Flannel Suit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955).Google Scholar

25. The new assumptions had significant implications for all post-1950 efforts to reconstruct metropolitan areas, including central business district and suburban planning. See Miller, Zane L. and Giglierano, Geoffrey, “Downtown Housing: Changing Plans and Perspectives, 1948–1980,” Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin 40 (Fall 1982): 167–90Google Scholar; and Miller, , Suburb, pp. 69241Google Scholar. On the historical study of neighborhoods and community organization, see Melvin, Patricia Mooney, “Changing Contexts: Neighborhood Definition and Urban Organization,” American Quarterly 37 (1985): 357–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

26. Council of Social Agencies, The Cincinnati Report (Cincinnati: Council of Social Agencies, 1952), pp. 6, 23Google Scholar, This analysis of the appraisal process owes much to Andrea Tuttle Kornbluh, , “‘The Bowl of Promise’: Cincinnati Social Welfare Planners, Cultural Pluralism and the Metropolitan Community, 1911–1952” (Ph.D diss., University of Cincinnati, 1988).Google Scholar

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30. The Cincinnati Report predates Mobilization For Youth, the experimental delinquency program in New York City, by six years and Cloward and Ohlin's Delinquency and Opportunity by eight years.

31. The Cincinnati metropolitan plan of 1948 laid out the programs subsequently written into the federal urban redevelopment and renewal legislation of 1949 and 1954. In both the rehabilitation and conservation programs of that document, the planners urged the City Planning Commission to provide “guidance” to the residents of renewal neighborhoods so that they would take measures to keep up their properties to assist the city's rehabilitation and conservation activities. Indeed, the master plan suggested that “conservation is a field in which civic associations might well take the leadership, with staff guidance from the City Planning Commission” (see Cincinnati City Planning Commission, Residential Areas: An Analysis of Land Requirements for Residential Development: 1915–1970 [Cincinnati, 1946], pp. 4250, esp. pp. 46, 47)Google Scholar. But this document does not, as the emphasis on “guidance” suggests, present a program of coordinative planning on a neighborhood basis as it took shape in the late 1950s and early 1960s-that is, a program involving maximum feasible participation in planning and implementation of all public and private agencies and residents concerned with a particular neighborhood.

The residents of one slum neighborhood, the Queensgate 11 section of the West End, did choose clearance and redevelopment. See Miller, Zane L. and Jenkins, Thomas H., eds., The Planning Partnership: Participants' Views of Urban Renewal (Beverly Hills, Cal.: Sage, 1982)Google Scholar; and Davis, John Emmeus, “In the Interest of Property: Group Formation and Inter-Group Conflict in the Residential Neighborhood” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1986).Google Scholar

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36. The phrase “community action” can be found in the Avondale-Corryville General Neighborhood Renewal Plan, p. 20.Google Scholar

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59. This kind of decentralization is not to be confused with a similar impulse characteristic of the period between 1920 and 1954 that expressed itself in a tendency toward horizontal schemes of organization coordinated by a central office or representative committee. See Kornbluh, Andrea Tuttle, “The Cultivation of Public Opinion: The Women's City Club of Cincinnati, 1915–1925” (M.A. thesis, University of Cincinnati, 1983), pp. 3151Google Scholar. For an analysis of this “new urban politics” in Cincinnati by a political scientist, see Thomas, , Between Citizen and City, esp. pp. 155–69Google Scholar. Since the 1880s, neighborhood organizations had lobbied city council. After 1954, however, community councils not only lobbied city council, but also developed connections with the city manager's office and other agencies of city government besides the City Planning Commission and the Department of Urban Development. In this way, the community councils hoped to influence the formulation and administration of policy, including the preparation of fhe annual city budget. This development comprised the novel role of community councils in the “new urban politics.” See Miller, Zane L., “The Role and Concept of Neighborhood in American Cities,” in Fisher, Robert and Romanofsky, Peter, Community Organization for Urban Social Change: A Historical Perspective (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981), pp. 332Google Scholar; Miller, and Jenkins, , The Planning PartnershipGoogle Scholar; and Davis, , “In the Interest of Property,”Google Scholar which deal with community council activities in Cincinnati's West End during the 1960s and 1970s.

60. The preoccupation with autonomous individuals and the revolt against cultural determinism were not the property of a particular ideological perspective. See, for example, Fisher, , Let the People DecideGoogle Scholar; Boyte, Harry C., Booth, Heather, and Max, Steve, Citizen Participation and the New American Populism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986)Google Scholar; Miller, Zane L. and Melvin, Patricia Mooney, The Urbanization of Modern America: A Brief History, pp. 201–52, esp. 235–52Google Scholar; Miller, Zane L., “Scarcity, Abundance, and American Urban History,” Journal of Urban History 4 (02 1978): 149–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Miller, , Suburb, pp. 250–55.Google Scholar

61. Miller, Zane L. and Tucker, Bruce, Planning and the Persisting Past: Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine Since 1940 (forthcoming).Google Scholar

62. In 1969, Daniel Patrick Moynihan traced the origins of the federal community action program to the intellectual and academic world of New York City in the 1950s and identified its therapeutic content. In our judgment, however, Moynihan misunderstood the theoretical underpinnings of community action by associating Nisbet, Robert A.'s The Quest for Community (1953)Google Scholar with Goodman, Paul's Growing Up Absurd (1960)Google Scholar and depicting both as conservative tracts against the social consequences of the creation of autonomous individuals. Moynihan also suggested that some critics of community action in the 1960s saw it simply as therapy. We prefer to note that it had a therapeutic component, but also involved, when applied to poor neighborhoods, an insistence on public expenditures to provide the poor with money, decent homes, and better schools. See Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (1969; rept. New York: Free Press, 1970), pp. xxxxi, 919Google Scholar. Moynihan also strikes us as curiously parochial when he argues that Goodman “wrote in a radical, Jewish, intellectual tradition, addressing himself to problems of personal fulfillment,” and contends that Norman Podhoretz in Commentary popularized the main thesis of Growing Up Absurd. See Moynihan, , Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, pp. 1718.Google Scholar

63. For an analysis of some of the problems inherent in this kind of planning, see Miller, Zane L., “Self-Fulfilment and the Decline of Civic Territorial Community,” Journal of Community Psychology 14 (10 1986): 353–643.0.CO;2-R>CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Miller, , “Role and Concept of Neighborhood,” pp. 2428Google Scholar; and Miller, , Suburb, pp. 227–41.Google Scholar

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