The Archaeology of Cities and Race

Last week, I started to revise the penultimate chapter of my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience and like most of my revisions, my reviewers chided me more for sins of omission than sins of commission. As a result, I’m working to beef up some sections of my book and to incorporate more recent scholarship. 

Chapter 7 considers how archaeology of the contemporary world has contributed to the archaeology of cities, protests, and industrial ruins. You can check out the first draft of that chapter here, if you want. Below is the first part of the section that I added over the last week which focuses more on race and urbanism in recent work on the archaeology of post-war America.

Mullins’ work elsewhere in Indianapolis provides greater context to the emergence of Black suburbs in this city. The establishment of the Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) in the city in 1969 led to the destruction of neighborhoods occupied by African American families. Efforts at urban renewal led city leaders to designate many of these neighborhoods slums in the post-war decades and to authorize their demolition as part of the university’s expansion. Archaeological work by Paul Mullins and colleagues, demonstrated that this blanket designation overwrote the complex history of these neighborhoods and supported narratives that reinforced negative view of Black urban residents. At the turn of the 20th century, the ethnically and racially diverse community succumbed to more racially segregated housing practices which resulted in these neighborhoods becoming the home to a growing population of Black migrants to Indianapolis. The reluctance of white city leaders to extend utilities and services to these neighborhood and the neglect of absentee white landlords resulted in the continued use of outhouses to serve a population swollen by war time migrants to the area. Mullins archaeological excavations of boarding houses, residences, and privies beneath the IUPUI campus along side archival and oral histories demonstrated that despite the material poverty of these neighborhoods, there continued to be vibrant social life, creative economic strategies, and ongoing aesthetic investment in these communities (Mullins 2003, 2004, 2011). By revealing the dynamics of life within these communities in the mid-20th century, Mullins work demonstrated how their identification by city leaders as blighted slums reinforced the legacy of racial inequality and overwrote both the processes that led to their material poverty and the resilience of the groups who made these neighborhoods home.

Krysta Ryzewki’s work on Detroit perhaps provides the most fully realized example of the potential for the archaeology of American cities to trace the range of experiences encountered by their residents. In earlier chapters, we discussed how her work to document the iconic Detroit music scene revealed the economic, social, spatial, and performative dimensions of the Blue Bird jazz club and the Grande Ballroom. Her urban excavations and survey projects throughout Detroit followed many of the same processes that Mullins documented across Indianapolis. Her excavations at Gilded Age mansion the Ransom Gillis house, for example, revealed more about the home’s subsequent history as a boarding house and a grocery serving a diverse range of white immigrants than its more glamorous past. Its renovation in the early 21st century as part of a larger gentrification project in the neighborhood which restored the mansion in ways that evoked its early 20th century history at the expense of its later life. Ryzewski’s work at Gordon Park, which now stands at the epicenter of the 1967 Detroit uprising, further revealed the ways in which the city and its communities negotiated the sometimes painful history of racial animosity. Gordon Park today stands at the site of the Economy Printing building where the Detroit uprising began and the city constructed the park as part of its larger effort to remove the damaged, ruined, and vacant buildings in the aftermath of the riots. Ryzewski’s field work demonstrated a history of local ambivalence and neglect at the park itself which reflected the complex attitudes associated with understanding the racial history of the city and its uprising. The pain associated with the 1967 uprising only gave way some 50 years after the event when Gordon Park received a thoughtful renovation in an effort not only to commemorate the painful legacy of racial tension in the city but also to provide a space for the local community to gather, reflect, and socialize.

Mullins’, Matthew’s, Ryzewski’s work highlights the complex legacies of urban renewal, racial tension, and violence in the American past and demonstrates how archaeological work can produce more complex and inclusive narratives from sites characterized as blighted, slums, or ruins. Recent work to expand our understanding of the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa destroyed by the US government in 1921, for example, has emphasized its economic vitality. Recent work to excavate and repatriate the remains of Black residents discovered in an unmarked mass grave has emphasized the human scale of the massacre. The 100th anniversary of the race massacre coincided with growing protests against racially motivated police protests to bring to the fore the long history of officially sanctioned violence against Black Americans particularly in US cities. Edward González-Tennant’s efforts to document the site of the black town of Rosewood, Florida which was destroyed by white rioters in 1923. His work placed the nearly contemporary Tulsa riots within a broader context of racial violence in the first quarter of the 20th century. While these events fall earlier than the main periods of study in this book, there is no doubt that the destroyed lives, wealth, and community had reverberations throughout the 20th and into the 21st century.

Historical archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have increasingly come to recognize the intersection of race and urbanism in the US often involved identifying artifacts that reflect the transnational character of many of these communities. Recent work by Edward González-Tennant, Barbara Voss, and Laura Ng have demonstrated that understanding the place of Chinese immigrants in contemporary urbanism requires the same kind of transnational attention as understanding borders and migrants, the archaeology of the Cold War, and the character of contemporary consumer culture (González-Tennant 2011; Voss 20xx, Ng 2021; see Rose and Kennedy 2020 for a survey of Chinese diaspora archaeology in the US) . Laura Ng’s recent dissertation on the archaeology of early 20th century Chinatowns in Riverside and San Bernardino, California, for example, reveals a material culture and social strategies that developed as much in mainland Chinese communities with long traditions of transnational migration as in an American context (Ng 2021). Ng conducted surveys in two Chinese home village associated with Southern California Chinatowns and demonstrated not only the transpacific circulation of ceramics vessel types, for example, but also the construction of religious shrines with ties to home villages in China that supported both communities’ hope for agricultural prosperity. Barbara Voss and Edward González-Tennant likewise noted that multisite methods supported more nuanced and sophisticated understandings of Chinese urban communities which found economic and often extralegal ways to maintain ties with their home villages. These ties continued to shape Chinese material culture and architecture in American cities even as American efforts sought to homogenize Chinese immigrants according to race and to make movement between China and the US more difficult. While this kind of transnational work remains relatively new in historical archaeology, the work of the historian A. K. Sandoval-Strausz on neighborhoods in Chicago and Dallas with high number of Mexican immigrants demonstrates the significance for these approaches for understanding the changing nature of American urbanism. He argues that these neighborhood with their small businesses, hight rate of home ownership, and tight knit communities have adopted economic and social patterns consistent with communities in Mexico (Sandoval-Strausz 2019). Thus, new urbanist fantasies anchored in nostalgic views of life in American cities have given way to the often more informal realities of transnational forms of urbanism.

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