The Politics of Place

While I was still in undergrad and spending a summer in Connecticut, I caught wind of some proposed legislation that would divert funds from cultural resources. I believe the intent was to push that money toward defense or security (this would have been the summer of 2002). I can’t quite recall, at this point. But for all that I don’t remember about the impetus, the letter that I wrote to the sponsoring representative sticks with me. Not because it was the first time I engaged democracy (it wasn’t) but because it was the first time I’d been forced to consider that architectural history and historic preservation were inherently political.

I asserted, at the time, that diverting funds from cultural resources in the name of patriotism was inherently flawed: what IS your country beyond the people and sentiments that separate it from any other country? It’s a void. A potential space. An empty canvas that could take on any of a million+ forms of expression.Without space and history, there is no there there. What we celebrate when we celebrate patriotism always comes back to ideals. Ideals belong to people. People shape spaces and create documents and it is those spaces and documents that teach us about our history and give us something to be patriotic about. Historians and others who curate, protect, and interpret those leavings are gatekeepers of patriotism.

This is not a foreign concept to conquering parties, or rising religious majorities. It’s the reason the Basillica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva stands on the site of three prior pagan temples, including one dedicated to Isis, and why, just a stone’s throw away, the Pantheon was converted from Roman temple to Christian Church; it’s why Mohammed appropriated and repurposed a pagan shrine in Mecca, making the Kaaba a revered site of pilgrimage; it’s why the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan; and it’s why ISIL/Daesh has committed to the destruction of Palmyra, to cite just a few examples.

Places have memory, and memory provides a tether to the past and to a shared heritage. That tether, in turn, lends power to those connected by it. Destroying, appropriating, and repurposing sites of cultural significance is a direct action against what may very well be the only thing linking otherwise disparate people. If you disconnect people, or make them feel dissociated from both one another and their shared past, it becomes much easier to conquer them for the simple reason that “them” becomes less tangibly defined. Symbolically, appropriation and rededication assert a new dominant paradigm in a very direct and visible way: “What was here is gone or changed; the hegemony associated with what is gone is replaced. We deny you physical remembrance.”

Places also, obviously, politicize their people. We’re seeing that very clearly in Trump’s selectively applied Executive Order banning immigrants (and, so far, even lawfully vetted residents) by virtue of their place of origin. Somalia-born Mo Farrah is now questionably legal in his home state of Oregon. Why? Because of a place he left when he was 8.

Whether geopolitical or cultural, Place is political. Therefore, places are political.

When we discuss banning people because of place, and the dominant religions associated therewith, we are engaging in selective politicization. We prioritize the “otherness” conferred by the place over the shared humanity of Place. We choose to see only (a flawed and insulting interpretation of) Islam, instead of the incredible cultural achievements that Islam has given to the world. Sana’a. Aleppo. Bosra. Samarra. To say nothing of the cultural achievements that predate Islam in the places of Islam. Instead of looking at these monuments to humanity and ascribing that humanity to the people–people who are descended from those that inhabited these places for thousands of years–we see only a conveniently-created and superimposed ideology.

This upsets me as a human and a historian.

As a human, I recognize the humanitarian crisis that this presents. As a historian, it rankles because of its selective inaccuracy. But I can do my small part to refute that incomplete vision by presenting information on the cultural legacies of the middle east. And it is toward that end that I will dedicate February March to the architectural and urban marvels of the Places of Islam.

I will make it as difficult as I can, in whatever meager way I can, for people to exclude the shared humanity of Place.

The G.I. Bill: A Story of Buildings

Source: Wikimedia Commons

All good government stories start with a Washington, DC hotel, and the G.I. Bill–72 years old today–isn’t much different. From it’s humble beginnings on napkins and stationery, to the desk of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, as it was known, is very much a story of buildings.

Prior to WWII, the dream of homeownership was just that for most average Americans. A dream. And for returning veterans, it may have seemed an impossible one, at that, until Harry W. Colmrey, a Kansas lawyer who’d had his own difficulties transitioning back to civilian life after WWI, took up the issue of veterans rights while staying in the Mayflower Hotel. Over the course of five months, Colmrey hand wrote the draft of the G.I. Bill on hotel stationery and napkins. Within a year of his initial draft, President Roosevelt signed it into law.

The Mayflower Hotel. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The provisions of the G.I. Bill were relatively straightforward: provide educational and training opportunities for servicemen returning from WWII; increase their access to home, farm, and business loans through federal guaranty; and provide unemployment pay. With oversight of the Veterans Administration, the programs flourished–especially the loan guaranty, which backed almost than 2.4 million home loans for WWII veterans between 1944 and 1952.

That’s a lot of homes. Specifically, that’s a lot of new suburban construction. And, although the true measure of the G.I. Bill’s impact on suburbanization is a matter of some debate, the legislation signed into law 72 years ago today almost certainly contributed momentum to a national population redistribution. In an era of rapid movement from the city to new and increasingly far-flung suburbs, Veterans were responsible for 20% of new home purchases.

Although the program was initially aimed at WWII vets, and was highly restricted, a series of expansions and extensions in the later Twentieth Century opened benefits up to more veterans, for a longer period of time. Whereas the initial terms of the Bill were limited to a 5 year scope, an early revision in 1945 gave servicemen ten years to take advantage of their new benefits. Expansions in the 1950s and 1960s increased the loan guaranty from the initial 50%, not to exceed $2,000, to a 60% guaranty capped at $75,000. In 1966, the so-called Cold War G.I. Bill extended benefits to post-Korean War veterans.

While the G.I. Bill is frequently credited with helping to usher in an era of considerable prosperity, the effects of the suburban flight it helped to sustain were not without dire consequences. When combined with the later Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the increased mobility of white, middle-class strivers left cities inhospitably divided by roadways and inhabited only by those who couldn’t afford to move: in many cases, poor people of color.

Neither was its application flawless. Black veterans were all but excluded from the housing benefits of the Bill, as banks routinely refused to make loans to people of color, even with a federal guaranty. Further, many suburbs included deed restrictions that forbade black homeowners even if they could find a willing lender. No provisions in the G.I. Bill, or in immediate succeeding legislation mandated housing fairness for veterans, and without such provisions innumerable black veterans found themselves entirely without benefit. And the arguably greater gift of the G.I. Bill–concessions which allowed for the accumulation of wealth by a middle class previously excluded from such accrual–was reserved only for veterans with the appropriate skin tone. The demographics of entire swaths of suburban and exurban America were thus set.

As we celebrate the 72nd Anniversary of this piece of legislation, we do so in a landscape, in part, of its own shaping–from the development and population of outer ring suburbs to the very populations they support. Much of the way our suburbs look–for better and worse–can be traced back, in some part, to a carefully drafted consideration of veterans needs, scrawled on stationery in room 570 of a DC hotel.


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