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 fate at 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-à-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.
The reconfiguration of race and space in postwar America and the accompanying transition from public to private modes of entertainment anticipated the formation of a new political culture that gestated in suburban Southern California as far back as the late 1940s. That seemingly apolitical sites such as theme parks, freeways, ballparks, and motion pictures evidenced a changing political sensibility becomes clearer in the following chapters, in part through the recurring presence of a man who spearheaded the assault on what is now commonly described as the New Deal order. In the midst of his political metamorphosis from New Deal liberal to tax-cutting conservative, Ronald Reagan mastered new media technologies to affiliate himself with the spectacles of Southern California's new "new mass culture." He appeared on live television to advocate the building of Dodger Stadium in the Chavez Ravine; he aided the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in its search for subversive influences in Hollywood; he emceed the televised ceremonies for the opening of Disneyland in 1955; and a recently completed freeway in suburban Los Angeles bears his name. In his thirty-year ascent to the White House, Reagan espoused patriarchy, privatization, patriotism, law and order, hard work, and self-help, modeling a new political subjectivity set against the tenets of New Deal liberalism and personifying the values incubated within the spaces wrought by suburbanization, urban renewal, and highway construction.
Each chapter of this book explores an aspect of the new "new mass culture" to understand the formation of an inclusive suburban "white" identity after World War II and its political sensibility. Chapter 2 considers the setting: Los Angeles in the decades between 1940 and 1970. Though Los Angeles harbored its own versions of the new mass culture that dated back to the turn of the century, the region's accelerated pattern of suburban development after World War II sanctioned a new set of cultural institutions that marked a clear departure from, if not an outright rejection of, the heterosocial experiences of industrial urbanism. For several reasons, Los Angeles provides an ideal context for studying the post-World War II formation of (sub)urban popular culture. First, although suburbanization profoundly transformed the nature of urban life throughout the nation, Los Angeles debuted as the "it" city of postwar America, accommodating a vast influx of newcomers and garnering a disproportionate share of federal investments. In the decades following World War II, Los Angeles became the prototypical example of the postwar urban region, exhibiting a broader pattern of Sunbelt urbanization taking shape in the South and Far West. Second, the unique social mix of Los Angeles, conditioned by its proximity to Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, provides a fascinating context for understanding how diverse peoples—midwesterners, Jews, Italians, "Okies" and "Arkies," Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, Native Americans, African Americans—confronted the racial binary that shaped the reality and representation of the postwar urban region. Third, the rise of Los Angeles in the early decades of the twentieth century coincided with the national ascendance of the new mass culture, while the development of a powerful "culture industry" profoundly shaped the texture of urban life in twentieth-century Southern California. These factors sited an emerging political culture that upheld a privatized, consumer-oriented subjectivity premised upon patriarchy, whiteness, and suburban home ownership.
Chapters 3 and 4 explore the dialectic between inner-city decline and suburban growth through the lens of popular culture. Just as whiteness has historically defined itself relative to blackness, the cultural manifestations of vanilla suburbs relied on the lurid imagery of chocolate cities. Chapter 3 explores the relationship between urban identity and cinematic representation, focusing primarily on representations of Los Angeles in film noir. Although noir's seductive style and aesthetic innovations have drawn much attention from film scholars, few have situated noir in a sociohistorical framework. As white flight and industrial decentralization denuded the physical and social landscape of the inner city, Hollywood marketed spectacles of urban decline as mass entertainment. Set amid the littered streets, dark alleys, and decaying buildings of the downtown, film noir represented the postwar crisis of the public city through its narratives of social disorder and psychological malaise. Translated literally as "black film," film noir anticipated the "racial turn" that informed the white suburban backlash against New Deal liberalism in the 1960s. Its implicit and explicit racial connotations dramatized popular anxieties about the "blackening" of the postwar American city and underscored the imperative for what became a central tenet in the ideology of the New Right: law and order. This chapter concludes with a consideration of the urban science fiction film, which posited a menacing vision of urban chaos. Its portrait of aliens invading and annihilating Los Angeles alludes to the racialized "imagination of disaster" that informed popular perceptions of urban life during the postwar period.
If noir dramatized the postwar crisis of the public city, Disneyland encapsulated the utopian aspirations of the suburban society, which brings us to chapter 4. The amusement park marked a cultural focal point of industrial urbanism, but Walt Disney reinvented it based on his dissatisfaction with Coney Island and its generation of amusement parks. Disney's selection of Anaheim as the site for building Disneyland suited the burgeoning culture of suburban whiteness that during the postwar period inundated places such as Orange County, a region that favored the political likes of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater during the 1960s. For a suburban public deeply unfamiliar with its new environment, yet seeking alternatives to the modern city and its culture, Disneyland provided answers to troubling questions about identity, community, and city that preoccupied postwar Americans. Through its emphasis upon race as a central "theme," its regimented ordering of space, its insistence on family entertainment, and its privileging of a small-town midwestern sensibility, Disneyland repudiated the slums of noir imagination, supplied a usable past, present, and future for Southern California's transient and mobile population, and modeled popular idealizations of race and space in the age of white flight.
The remaining chapters take up the simultaneous debut of other cultural institutions of the postwar urban region, exploring how they embodied some of the more complex negotiations that ensued in that decentralized social landscape. If Disneyland and film noir reflected and reinforced the formation of a suburban white consciousness, the construction of Dodger Stadium and the implementation of a freeway system revealed the subtle tensions embedded within that process. Chapter 5 explores the arrival of the Brooklyn Dodgers in Los Angeles in 1957 and the subsequent construction of Dodger Stadium in the Chavez Ravine to consider the relationship between popular culture and another salient feature of postwar urbanization: urban renewal. Like suburbanization, urban renewal hastened the racial and spatial polarization of postwar Southern California, and the imposition of Dodger Stadium upon a working-class Chicano community nourished the regional development of a racialized political culture. The westward migration of the Brooklyn Dodgers signified the shifting paradigms of race and space in postwar America, as racial succession dislodged the Brooklyn Dodgers from Ebbets Field and racial dislocation under the guise of urban renewal placed them in Los Angeles' Chavez Ravine. As the nation's first racially integrated ball club, the Dodgers elicited the patronage of various racial and ethnic groups, but the substitution of Dodger Stadium for Ebbets Field reveals not only the westward drift of cultural capital, but also how the spatial culture of postwar suburbia redefined the public experience of spectator sports as well as that of the inner city itself.
The substitution of Dodger Stadium for Ebbets Field was part of a larger transformation in the experience of public life, not unlike the way in which the postwar displacement of streetcars by freeways introduced a new way of moving through the city. Chapter 6 begins with a brief consideration of the disappearance of the streetcar from the streets of Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s and then considers its substitution by a unified network of freeways. A chapter on freeways in a book about popular culture may seem anomalous, but, designed to accommodate popular demands for autonomous mobility, the freeway became a defining cultural experience of the postwar urban region. Unlike the streetcar, which promoted contact among urban dwellers and provided a window onto the city's distinct neighborhoods, the freeway severed the commuter from his urban context and furthered the distance, literally and figuratively, between chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs. The freeway's production, however, elicited a complex reaction from an expanding public. Within the expansive terrain of the dominant culture, the freeway joined theme parks, shopping malls, and housing developments as a centerpiece of a new suburban good life, celebrated for its progress and modernity. Working-class communities of color, however, utilized a more meager set of cultural resources to posit a countervision of freeways, which prefigured the outrage that informed the social movements among blacks and Chicanos during the 1960s.
These cultural shifts—from Coney Island to Disneyland, Ebbets Field to Dodger Stadium, streetcars to freeways—paralleled two other cultural developments that are beyond the scope of this study. First, television rose as a powerful cultural phenomenon during the postwar period, and it fit squarely within the spatial culture of postwar suburbia. Recent scholarship has situated television in the cultural context of postwar America, and this study draws upon those insights. As postwar suburbanization encapsulated American consumers within the private space of the home, television offered a simulation of public experience minus the risks that accompanied an evening out on the town. Moreover, by placing an electronic box at the center of domestic space, television reinforced the cultural emphasis on the nuclear family that resonated throughout the cultural milieu of postwar America. To reiterate Marshall McLuhan's insistence that "the medium is the message," the private experience of watching television reinforced the postwar retreat from public life not unlike the way in which theme parks, freeways, and ballparks removed suburban audiences from the landscape of daily life in the city.
Second, the debut of the shopping mall after World War II introduced a new consumer realm that removed shoppers from the city's bustle. Between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, the experience of shopping underwent a major transformation similar to that explored in the following chapters. The introduction of the department store during the late nineteenth century reinforced the centralization of consumer culture, as retailers concentrated their activity within the central business districts of American cities. The advent of suburban shopping malls, however, followed the accelerated pattern of decentralization of urban life after World War II and weakened the commercial life of the nation's inner cities. Shopping malls, like theme parks, offered a more particularized notion of community that appealed to white suburban consumers. As with the cultural institutions explored in this book, Lizabeth Cohen argues that the shopping mall "sought perhaps to contradictorily legitimize itself as a true community center and to define that community in exclusionary socio-economic and racial terms."
Although television and shopping malls are not the focus of separate chapters, their presence in the making of postwar popular culture is referenced throughout this book, which emphasizes the overlapping experiences of decentralized urbanization. Although various aspects of the history of theme parks, films, ballparks, and freeways have been explored elsewhere, they have not been considered as part of a larger (sub)urban cultural system in which each constituent part implies a relationship with the others. Viewed alongside one another, the seemingly disparate cultural institutions of the decentralized urban region provide a window onto how the postwar American public experienced and understood the manifestation of chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs in multifaceted ways.
White City, White Culture, White Consciousness
To a certain extent, the following chapters convey the genealogy of American popular culture as they articulate the many "family resemblances" between the institutions of the new "new mass culture" and their antecedents. An important precedent that illuminates the relationship between urban form and popular culture is Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, more familiarly known as "White City." Scholars of White City brought the insights of cultural history to urban history and, in doing so, provided a framework for understanding the "mythography" of the city—a set of cultural representations that present an idealized portrait of urban life through architecture, literature, photography, and film. By exploring the myths, spectacles, and fantasies of urban life that resonate throughout the history of American culture—from John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" to Daniel Burnham's White City to Universal Studio's City Walk—urban historians can begin to understand how urban practices, policies, and politics are entangled in a web of cultural convictions.
White City debuted in Chicago in 1893, and it attained national prominence amid the westward drift of American culture and society, but its latter-day incarnation shifted further west to Los Angeles, where national resources and global capital gravitated during the postwar period. Like White City, Disneyland, Dodger Stadium, freeways, and movies offered a set of spatial fantasies that asserted what city life should (and should not) be and upheld traditional models of social order after an extended duration of economic turmoil and global conflict. Unlike White City, however, the fantasy was not confined to the fairgrounds. Freeways insinuated themselves into the daily lives of every Southern Californian who possessed an automobile. They debuted in miniature as one of Disneyland's many attractions. Main Street, USA, became a template for a new generation of suburban shopping malls, while Hollywood crafted its noir look upon the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Whereas White City contrasted sharply with the disorder of the "real" Chicago, Disneyland, Dodger Stadium, Hollywood, and freeways modeled a new sociospatial order that took shape along the suburban periphery of Southern California urban centers.
White City also had its sideshow counterpart, the Midway Plaisance, which offered a dizzying array of carnivalesque distractions as a concession to the public's appetite for fun and amusement. The stark juxtaposition of the White City and the Midway symbolized a key tension within American culture at the turn of the twentieth century, when the Victorian insistence upon uplift and refinement began to give way to the titillating sensations of the new mass culture. Cultural historians generally regard the Midway as a harbinger of a twentieth-century mass culture that eventually displaced the didactic model of urban culture associated with the Victorian metropolis, but the cultural institutions of the postwar urban region revealed how elements of both White City and the Midway could be channeled into a singular cultural experience, synthesizing disciplined order and exuberant chaos, didactic idealizations and physical sensation. Walt Disney, for example, made certain compromises in response to the public's craving for sensational distractions, but he avoided the rampant sensuality of the new mass culture by subordinating the carnivalesque within a spatial regime dominated by more earnest ideals such as progress, patriotism, and patriarchy.
By subsuming the Midway's ruckus within the White City's order, Disney and his counterparts helped to resurrect a racialized vision of suburban modernity, one that dominated the promotional imagery of Southern California as far back as the Progressive era. Progressive reformers such as Dana Bartlett idealized Los Angeles as "the Better City," positing a vision of the young metropolis as both a suburban retreat from the polyglot congestion of the modern city and a more respectable alternative to the degraded culture of industrial urbanism. Much to their chagrin, however, Southern California's growth during the Progressive era coincided with the denouement of a new consumer culture that emphasized leisure, gratification, and sensual experience, while the rise of Hollywood as that culture's dominant institution brought to Los Angeles the corruptions and excesses that typified modern life. Nathanael West made this shrewd observation in his 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust, which presented a caustic indictment of how the pretension and moral laxity of Hollywood had poisoned Southern California's cultural milieu.
West's bleak vision of Hollywood and Los Angeles prefigured the arrival of film noir, which tendered a cinematic eulogy to the Progressives' notion of a "better city" in Southern California, but the postwar suburban boom offered a second chance for such a vision. Initially, suburbanization in Southern California remained the privilege of elites and the city's burgeoning middle class, but the decades following World War II witnessed mass suburbanization on an unprecedented scale and rekindled earlier aspirations to a social order based on class harmony, suburban respectability, and racial homogeneity. For the engineers and entrepreneurs of the new "new mass culture," Southern California's suburban boom signaled the opportunity to finally realize the sociospatial order that men such as Dana Bartlett had only dreamt about. No less hostile to cities like New York and Chicago, no less suspicious of their culture, and no less obsessed with order, respectability, and tradition than turn-of-the-century Progressives, Walt Disney and his ilk undertook the responsibility of restoring Southern California's "Better City."
Popular culture played no small part in that effort. Popular culture has somewhat different connotations than mass culture, but within the history of the United States, both implicate the market as the mediator between cultural producers and the consuming public.< The problem with popular culture—especially in the Southern California context—is not its definition but its interpretation. How the market has shaped the regional culture is the subject of much debate and some distortion. A leftist tradition finds clues to the absolute power of capital everywhere in Southern California's built environment. One variant of this perspective regards the city as a junkyard of cheap commodities ruled by the developer's imperative to build according to the proverbial bottom line, while another holds that ruling-class hegemony is safely guarded in the city's militarized landscape. Whether it is seen as the Frankfurt School's administered world, Herbert Marcuse's one-dimensional society, or Mike Davis's carceral city, Los Angeles provides the Left with a textbook example of capitalist domination. Beginning in the 1960s, however, a new generation of urban theorists, most notably Reyner Banham, introduced a much different perspective, drawing inspiration from Robert Venturi's famous maxim that "we can all learn from Las Vegas." Banham and his disciples shed a more appreciative light upon Los Angeles, discerning a democratic brand of urbanism that catered to popular tastes and values. The unbridled course of the market economy, it followed, bestowed a greater freedom of choice on the consumer, obliterating established cultural hierarchies and validating vernacular traditions.
Both perspectives entail their own pitfalls, yet both convey some important truths about Los Angeles and its culture that make their way into the following chapters. Overemphasizing capitalist hegemony ignores the participatory process by which consumers shape the production of culture through the very act of consumption and negates the possibilities for resistance to and the refashioning of mass-produced objects. On the other hand, reading Los Angeles entirely in the vernacular invites a false optimism that misinterprets popular as democratic and overlooks the hierarchies of power embedded in all cultural forms. The mass cultural landscapes explored in the following chapters reveal popular values, attitudes, and reactions, and their very popularity suggests a shared set of assumptions among producers and consumers about the identity of the city and its public. In this capacity, the success of Walt Disney, Walter O'Malley, and Ronald Reagan as men of their time (and place) rested upon their ability, as well as their privilege, to market a set of values that appealed to an expanding suburban public in search of new meanings by which to identify themselves and their unfamiliar environment.
But on what grounds? Southern California's pattern of suburban decentralization during the postwar period reinforced race as a common denominator in the dialectic between the production and consumption of the new "new mass culture." It enabled Walt Disney to inundate Disneyland with stereotypical representations of Mammies and Indian "savages." It allowed Walter O'Malley to build his stadium atop a working-class Chicano community. It granted the imposition of freeways in the middle of expanding ghettos and barrios, and it empowered men such as Ronald Reagan to mobilize white suburban homeowners as a political constituency. The whiteness of Southern California's version of White City was both literal and figurative, and it took shape through a set of cultural practices and material processes that birthed a new paradigm of race and space in the postwar urban region. Whereas the planners of the Columbian Exposition sought to sublimate the class tensions that plagued industrial urbanism in an architectural syntax of order and harmony, the cultural custodians of postwar Los Angeles innovated a spatial order that obfuscated, albeit momentarily, the simmering racial tensions of the postwar urban region.
Typically, white flight describes a structural process by which postwar suburbanization helped the racial resegregation of the United States, dividing presumably white suburbs from concentrations of racialized poverty. But the cultural corollary to this development has been overlooked. White flight entailed a renegotiation of racial and spatial identities, implying a cultural process in which an expanding middle class of myriad ethnic backgrounds came to discover itself as white. Unlike previous accounts of white flight, which take for granted a broad category of white people who suburbanized after World War II, this book utilizes recent advances in critical race theory, showing how a heterogeneous public embraced a classless but deeply racialized fantasy of suburban whiteness, and focusing upon the texts and spectacles that licensed broader access to that newfangled identity.
White flight structured the contours of postwar popular culture as a kind of master narrative, and no city seemed better suited for that structure than Los Angeles. Like New York, Los Angeles evidenced the familiar pattern by which "white" ethnic groups abandoned older inner-city neighborhoods for newer suburban communities. Jews, for example, who initially established themselves in the city's Eastside neighborhoods during the 1920s, moved to newly developed portions of the more affluent Westside a generation later. Unlike New York, however, whose white population actually declined during the 1950s, Los Angeles garnered an influx of westering Americans during the '40s, '50s, and '60s, and the city itself became a suburban refuge for those in search of more prosperous alternatives to the modern city and its culture. As the dominant icons of a Southern California way of life, Hollywood, Disneyland, Dodger Stadium, and the freeway repudiated the slums of the noir past and was a birthplace of the culture of suburban whiteness that enveloped a generation of diverse Americans who sought their place in the California sun.
Recent explorations in the history of white racial formation describe the process by which ethnic and racial identities change over time, but how such identities change across space remains relatively unknown. The racially and ethnically heterogeneous culture of the industrial metropolis at the turn of the twentieth century, for example, encouraged European immigrants to imagine new identities. Whatever parochial and regional loyalties survived the trans-Atlantic voyage, they soon coexisted alongside newly constructed national self-definitions. In New York, Boston, Chicago, and elsewhere, people from County Galway and County Kildare became Irishmen; those from Mecklenburg and Wurttemberg became Germans; and those from Calabria and Campania became Italians. But what happened to these broader identities in the course of moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific? Were they broadened even further in the course of westward migration? Did the distinctions among Italians, Jews, Germans, and Irish endure in cities such as Los Angeles, with its multiracial mix of peoples from Mexico, Asia, and the American South? That the Jewish film magnate Jack Warner could maintain a staunch whites-only hiring policy at Warner Brothers, for example, suggests how Southern California's brand of whiteness was sought by Europe's most denigrated ethnicities.
The reassertion of space in critical social theory designates how social identities are situated within a set of spatial practices. In the period of white flight, the reorganization of social space reconfigured American race relations, a process with as yet unresolved consequences. White flight did not extinguish the traditions, values, and practices of distinctive Euro-American cultures, but it privatized them, secluding them within the detached and cellular spaces of the suburban landscape. While the streets of the modern industrial city provided a conspicuous setting for public expressions of social and sexual identity among ethnically distinct groups of European immigrants and their descendants, the interior settings of the postwar urban region—homes, shopping malls, theme parks, freeways, automobiles—minimized the visibility of (or perhaps necessity for) such expressions. White flight entailed an exchange of the heterosocial public world of the modern city, in which Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants imparted distinct markings of their culture to the urban landscape, for the mass-produced, uniform, and what some critics decried as monotonous landscapes of the 1950s suburbs. In that process, the landscapes of American cities became identified less by ethnic heterogeneity and more by the racial distinctions that characterized chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs.
This book combines spatial and racial ways of thinking to articulate the complex relationship between racial segregation and racial representation. Exactly what role did the Other play in the postwar formation of a white suburban identity? Of course, he upheld dominant racial hierarchies through his savage, subservient, or otherwise inferior representation, and his presence in Southern California's new "new mass culture" recalled the myriad ethnic notions that white Americans have adopted in their claim to whiteness. He did more than that, however. A new generation of race-conscious cultural historians has begun to illuminate the ways in which images of the Other helped to resolve some of the ideological dilemmas that accompanied the process of becoming white. If, as Richard Dyer argues, whiteness "is emptiness, absence, denial or even a kind of death," racial representations in postwar popular culture often served to fill some kind of spiritual vacancy or emotional void in the soulless landscapes of suburbia. In an age of organization men and lonely crowds, the Other and its representation could bring a modicum of relief, perhaps even comfort, to a rapidly expanding white middle class uncertain about its new identities and communities.
In the chapters that follow, therefore, we shall discover the Janus-faced role the Other played in a burgeoning white suburban consciousness: from "savage" Indians posing a stark contrast to the progress of modern freeways, to "authentic" Indians greeting visitors to Disneyland; from black "mammies" serving pancakes in restaurants mimicking Southern plantations, to black athletes dazzling white audiences with their athletic skills. Popular culture in the age of white flight also voyeuristically dwelled on the spaces of racial Otherness. Mysterious Chinatowns, African jungles, Mexican pueblos, and decrepit slums held a distinct fascination for an expanding category of white Americans who ensconced themselves within the racially homogeneous spaces of suburbia. The sum of these representations does not present a tidy portrait of white hegemony, but rather exhibits a range of conflicting emotions—admiration, curiosity, envy, fear, contempt, condescension—that people felt about the changes that engulfed postwar American society.
Race, of course, cannot be understood apart from other social configurations such as gender and class. Elaine Tyler May has illustrated the domestic implications of containment, a principle that guided American politics and culture during the Cold War. If film noir successfully indicted the American city for its failure to contain the subversive energies of women, blacks, and Communists, then suburban development provided an insular space where such energies could be kept at bay. As urban modernity had weakened traditional racial and sexual boundaries, postwar suburban development reinstated the gendered distinctions between private and public life that had withered under the forces of urbanization, and it created a market for a new brand of family entertainment that surfaced at places such as Disneyland and Dodger Stadium. The following chapters illuminate how the cultural configuration of suburban whiteness upheld the patriarchal white nuclear family as a social ideal and how this ideal accompanied popular notions of racial hierarchy.
Suburban popular culture also included a powerful fantasy of classlessness that supported representations of racial and sexual hierarchy. For the cultural custodians of Southern California's postwar urban region, like their Progressive predecessors, class tensions were anathema to their conception of the American Way. A wave of labor unrest during the mid-1940s unsettled any aspirations to class harmony in the United States, but the postwar democratization of suburban home ownership sanctioned the rise of an expanding white workforce that enjoyed the fruits of an expanding consumer society. In the consumer fantasies entertained by a new generation of suburban homeowners, class and class conflict disappeared from the popular vocabulary. Although a handful of intellectuals decried the development of a "mass society" during the postwar period, Disneyland, Dodger Stadium, and freeways accommodated an even broader mass of consumers, proffering an illusion of classlessness that not only obscured the distinctions between wealthy suburbs and working-class suburbs, but also obfuscated the darker shade of an inner-city working class that subsequently turned to race as a rallying point for social justice.
As the following chapters illustrate, the classless fantasy that underlay the construction of suburban popular culture not only focused on a shining vision of suburban homeownership, but also fixated on a distinctly noir vision of the slums. Film noir, of course, offered the most tangible representation of the urban slum in postwar popular culture, but streetcars, amusement parks, and nickelodeons all comprised a broader "slum tradition" in the suburban imagination. They provided a vivid and often unnerving counterpoint to the disciplined landscapes of postwar suburbia; they embodied the potential for subversion, disorder, and social breakdown; and they offered a metaphor for what was left behind in the age of white flight.
Culture, like war, is politics by other means, and as race surfaced as a primary basis of political conflict in Southern California and, ultimately, the United States, it attained a heightened saliency in the representational realm of popular culture. By the postwar period, Los Angeles had finally shed its notorious identity as an open-shop town, but the racial violence that had marred the regional landscape since the Mexican-American War only intensified. Though a long history of racist practices precipitated the formation of a black ghetto in postwar Los Angeles, the Watts riots of 1965 brought a violent climax to the region's "racial turn," in which Southern California's political culture evidenced a primary struggle between urban nonwhite peoples and suburban white homeowners. Conditioned by such racial distinctions, postwar suburbanization spawned a social movement based on what George Lipsitz describes as a "possessive investment in whiteness," in which white home ownership became the basis of a new political identity that materialized in suburban Southern California after World War II.
The idea that culture harbors a set of myths that have powerful meanings and real effects rests upon a set of theoretical formulations that support the following exploration of urban development in Southern California in the decades following World War II. As a set of collective representations, popular culture in the age of white flight maintained a symbolic world of meaning that nurtured the development of a white suburban consciousness. Such consciousness, in turn, provided the basis for the development of an "anxious, tightfisted conservatism" that revolved around a sequence of racialized social issues. This political constituency practiced the kind of identity politics typically associated with African Americans and Chicanos, but white suburban homeowners predicated their struggle against fair housing legislation, busing, immigration, welfare, and affirmative action on the very whiteness of their communities. Materializing within the new spaces wrought by urban renewal and suburbanization, the new "new mass culture" provided a mythic space where this constituency could first imagine itself into being.
Ultimately, it is the struggle to dominate, not the domination itself, that provides our analytical focus. Politics, whether in city halls or dance halls, connotes struggle, and popular culture in the age of white flight encompassed a set of struggles to define the identity of the postwar urban region and its scattered communities. Urban planners, civic officials, corporate executives, law enforcement, media moguls, housing developers, suburban families, and inner-city minorities (at least those who comprised a "minority" back then) are among the competing social interests that populate the following narrative, and their clashing efforts to define, defend, or defy the hegemony of suburban whiteness reverberated throughout Southern California's sprawling cultural landscape. Using popular culture as evidence about the sociospatial transformation of postwar American society offers a glimpse into the more subtle interplay of conflict, contestation, and even consensus, allowing for a greater degree of complexity than that which informs dominant accounts of Southern California's distinct brand of (sub)urbanism. In the tradition of Carey McWilliams and Mike Davis, the following chapters acknowledge the city's uneven distribution of power and emphasize how such inequalities structured the reality and representation of postwar Los Angeles. But the exertion of power from above always incites resistance from below, and the presence of alternative visions, discourses, and subjectivities within postwar popular culture illuminates the highly contested cultural terrain of the postwar urban region. The dynamic tension between domination and resistance—as well as between conflict and consensus—has been largely absent from historical and contemporary perspectives on Los Angeles, but as the city emerged as the world capital of popular culture during the postwar period, such tensions surfaced in striking and unexpected ways.