An Interview with Todd Michney about “Surrogate Suburbs”

By Todd Michney & Thomas Lodato

Dr. Todd Michney is a visiting assistant professor in the School of History and Sociology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a member of the research team of the Center for Urban Innovation, and now the author of “Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900–1980” available in March 2017 on The University of North Carolina Press. The following is an interview with Dr. Michney about his forthcoming book.

Thomas: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about your book. The title of the book is really intriguing, and seems like a good place to start the conversation. What you mean by “surrogate suburbs”? What does surrogate connote in this context, and how do these neighborhoods differ from typical suburbs?

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Todd: Our understanding of “how the suburbs happened” -– with federal, state, and local policies like redlining and zoning shaping unequal access on the basis of race –- has grown dramatically in the past two decades. Small pockets of African American settlement did exist on the suburban periphery from the early twentieth century on, a phenomenon explored by historians like Andrew Wiese. However, the vast majority of African Americans were prevented from living in suburbs, which actually became more exclusive with the advent of mass suburbanization in the 1940s and 1950s, when large numbers of middle and working class whites were enabled to become homeowners through preferential financing arrangements like FHA- and VA-insured mortgages. Therefore, for nearly the entire period I cover in the book, upwardly-mobile middle class blacks searching for better-quality housing outside of crowded, inner-city neighborhoods gravitated to the “outer city,” peripheral neighborhoods that took on significance as what I call “surrogate suburbs.” Arriving as early as 1900 and initially settling in compact enclaves, they strove to build sustainable communities and expanded into previously all-white areas in the decades after World War II. Many such outlying city neighborhoods contained recently-built, single-family housing, further underlining the significance of these places for middle-class African Americans as “surrogate suburbs.” This situation continued until the civil rights reforms of the 1960s began to open up at least some bona fide suburbs to black homebuyers, a dynamic that gained momentum by the late 1970s. Today just over half of African Americans live in the suburbs, and while a middle-class (often elderly) remnant still lives in the outer-city areas I study, many are disproportionately burdened with foreclosures and other challenges also facing some “inner ring” suburbs since the Great Recession.

Thomas: Your book offers a counter-narrative to how many historians explain the experiences of black people during this period of urban change and discriminatory planning practices. Could you briefly contextualize who and what you are responding to, and why you think these accounts are insufficient?

Todd: The policies I mentioned earlier -– along with federally-funded urban redevelopment plans and interstate highways that displaced large numbers of mostly poor, nonwhite urban residents while facilitating white suburbanization -– have been explicated by historians like Arnold Hirsch and Thomas Sugrue as determinative: these scholars argued that African Americans were essentially powerless in the face of large-scale structural forces, which were compounded even further by institutionalized racial discrimination in employment and the antagonism of white residents –- who in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and yes, Atlanta, not infrequently resorted to violence in attempting to maintain racial segregation. This scholarship was incredibly important, and extremely valuable because it served to counteract popular narratives blaming the racially-polarizing 1960s (and black residents themselves) for urban “decline.” However, I argue that this rendition underestimates the agency and ability of upwardly-mobile African Americans to formulate creative strategies for acquiring land, financing, and housing, and for building and maintaining communities at the urban periphery. In Cleveland, which is my case study, some such methods included securing financing through black-owned insurance companies, tapping the expertise of African American building tradesmen, allying with politically-progressive whites and lobbying the city administration for equal protection (in securing access to public swimming pools, for example), and leveraging white fears about property values to generate rapid turnover of newer, desirable housing. Some such strategies proved controversial, and even middle class blacks faced discrimination and the creeping effects of disinvestment that eventually reached these outer-city neighborhoods. However, African American residents of these areas maintained their viability at least until 1980 and surely did not imagine them as what Arnold Hirsch termed a “second ghetto” enabled by racially discriminatory housing policy.

Thomas: I know you are a native Clevelander. Beyond living in the area, how did your experience growing up in Cleveland influence your research in terms how you understand black upward mobility or the particular angle you present?

Todd: Probably my most formative early experiences here came through my father who worked as a teacher and guidance counselor in the Cleveland Public Schools, specifically in the overwhelmingly-black East Side neighborhoods that I would ultimately come to study. Two of his older co-workers who became dear family friends were typical of the home-owning black middle class I profile in the book: dual-income families with working wives, which was actually an economic strategy upwardly-mobile African Americans pioneered before it became mainstream. One of the husbands had been a chauffeur starting in the 1930s, a service job but well-paid with considerable responsibility entailing proximity to wealthy and powerful whites; driving for the local gas company, he purchased stock shares that along with his wife’s work as a teacher’s aide cemented their economic security. I also attended a Catholic grade school for three years which was about one-third black, being located in Shaker Heights, nationally known for its race relations initiatives since becoming a destination for upwardly-mobile African Americans in the late 1950s; and, I grew up in the suburban Orange School district which has a historic African American enclave in Woodmere, as well as a large Jewish population. In Cleveland among other cities, Jewish neighborhoods frequently transitioned to become black ones, a dynamic that was especially pronounced because Cleveland not only had one of the largest Jewish populations of any major city, it had the second-highest percentage of Jewish population after New York.

Thomas: As you mention, the book provides an account of black upward mobility that does not simply paint black residents as victims of structural forces, such as the well-known practice of redlining. Instead, you seek to historicize how black residents navigated the social, political, and financial landscape of Cleveland to own land, establish neighborhoods, and countermand segregation. As such, agency is an important concept for you, and comes to the fore through a host of strategies and tactics employed by residents. Could you provide a few instances of how residents both exercised and understood their agency?

Todd: Before answering the question, I want to provide a little background for where the evidence came from. Besides my conventional training as a historian, I benefitted from nearly five years’ work as an archivist, which made me proficient at using organizational records and personal papers; my source base for the book is quite a bit more “manuscript intensive” even than many other similar 20th century historical monographs. I also learned to conduct oral histories, which allowed me to ask questions of informants about topics not covered in the written record; in all, I conducted about seventy-five interviews with current and former neighborhood residents. Working at the Western Reserve Historical Society also familiarized me with doing genealogical research and specifically sources like the U.S. Census, city directories, and marriage and death records; becoming interested in how African Americans acquired land and property, I went further and taught myself to use public records like deeds, mortgages, and building permits that can reveal the contours of ordinary people’s lives. Learning to use GIS, I used these data sources to map African American settlement and homeownership patterns with unprecedented precision. It also allowed me to illustrate black homeseekers’ agency and visualize their housing choices which might not otherwise have been so readily apparent.

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I found numerous examples of African Americans exercising agency in various ways, over nearly the entire course of the 20th century. These included purchasing land before race-based deed restrictions could be applied, and tapping all available financing streams –- even profit-minded whites willing to issue them mortgages. Researching the individuals involved, I concluded some of these transactions came through face-to-face work and business relations –- the wife of a white dentist with offices in Cleveland’s main, inner-city black residential district lending to (presumably) one of his clients for a house in an outlying African American settlement, for example. A number of black men used creative self-employment –- purchasing a truck for hauling being a notable one -– to circumnavigate the racially-discriminatory job market. And in the decades after World War II when the neighborhoods I study became overwhelmingly African American, organized middle-class residents formulated an intensely local, nearly all-encompassing reform agenda based around quality-of-life issues, chalking up some notable successes such as restricting the availability of liquor and winning traffic safety and infrastructural improvements.

Thomas: As you well know, Atlanta has complicated racial history, much of which is still evident in the current shape of the city, from roads abruptly changing names to placement of highways and parks. One current controversy deals with the BeltLine, a light-rail line that will circle the city that the New York Times recently referred to as “a glorified sidewalk”. From the beginning, many have criticized the BeltLine because of its “lopsided investment” that neglects historically black neighborhoods. Recently two prominent figures in shaping the BeltLine stepped down because of the lack of affordable housing initially-planned-but-seemingly-forgotten as a priority. Given your research and recent move to Atlanta, could you reflect on this current development project in light of your book?

Todd: One theme to emerge from my research is the value African Americans have placed on green space (parks, playgrounds), as well as the idea that recreation could provide a healthy outlet for youth who otherwise might resort to “unwholesome” activities. This older middle-class worldview may seem a bit naïve and outdated now, but there is a line of reasoning with continuity to today’s understanding of the BeltLine as providing an unqualified good in terms of recreational space and green infrastructure. Gentrification in Cleveland (as compared to Atlanta) is limited to certain neighborhoods having historical cachet, and does not result in the same degree of population displacement because there is still a substantial oversupply of housing in the city and metropolitan area as a whole. The neighborhoods I cover in Surrogate Suburbs are not seeing a substantial influx of younger, more affluent buyers, although there are a few developments of rehabilitated historic properties and new townhouses that are attracting mainly young black professionals. There is also a push to install more bicycle lanes as an eco-friendly form of transport that may constitute a parallel to what we’re currently seeing in Atlanta.

Thomas: This summer prominent Black Lives Matters supporter, political activist, and rapper Michael Render (aka Killer Mike) advocated that people move money to black-own financial institutions, such as Citizens Trust Bank (based in Atlanta) in order to put pressure on governments, politicians, and the private sector to address claims of systemic injustice (including police violence) targeting people of color. In your book, you mention the role of black financial institutions in breaking down de facto segregation. Could you explain how these financial institutions fostered such change?

Todd: Excellent to mention the example of Citizens Trust, which put up the money to build quite a few Atlanta subdivisions for black middle-class buyers.  In Cleveland, African American-owned financial institutions also provided crucial lifelines to a small but significant portion of the community despite being somewhat fragile. There were several black-owned Cleveland banks and mortgage companies in the pre-Great Depression era, one of which purchased a large tract of land in the city’s southeastern corner that offered African American buyers better life opportunities, not to mention its significance in setting the future vectors of black population expansion into the metro area’s southeastern suburbs. Although these institutions went under as a result of the Depression, a more stable one (Quincy Savings & Loan Co.) emerged in the post-World War II era, which made many loans that helped expand black access to new neighborhoods, including in suburbs like Shaker Heights. Black-owned insurance companies in Cleveland and elsewhere also frequently financed mortgages when mainstream banks were unwilling to do so. Interestingly, these companies typically saw themselves as business-minded and not necessarily obligated to attack the segregated housing market of the time. Quincy’s bank director, asked whether that institution might refuse to do business with white-controlled banks in order to leverage fairer lending practices, said “we’re not trying to do any race relations job,” but rather to make a profit for their investors. In other words, he was confident that the purchasing power of the African American buyers whose home loans they approved, as well as the investors who purchased stock in the company could not help but contribute toward rectifying the situation. Although this seems overly optimistic in retrospect, it was a common mentality among upwardly-mobile middle class blacks during the period I study, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s. It also did not preclude civil rights activity –- another one of Cleveland’s black city councilmen, who introduced a fair housing ordinance, also sat on Quincy’s board of directors at the time.

Thomas: Now that you have finished this book, what’s next? How are you carrying over your research interests into new projects and publications?

Todd: In completing the book I became especially intrigued by Southern-trained black building tradesmen, many of whom migrated north starting in the World War I era and who encountered discrimination in the white-dominated building trades, yet still provided hundreds of homes plus built institutions like black churches and fraternal lodges. In my next project, I expect to explore the kinds of training they received at historically-black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and how black builders and developers successfully operated in the racially-segregated housing markets of the pre-civil rights era. One of the country’s most successful black builders was based right here in Atlanta: W.H. (“Chief”) Aiken. I recently learned of an African American-owned construction firm, founded in the 1950s, that built numerous homes in the Bankhead area, and I hope to interview family members who still run a successor firm.

Thomas: Todd, thanks so much for taking time to answer my questions.