A WORLD MORE CONCRETE: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida. By N.D B. Connolly. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2014.
With its emphasis on Miami, Florida, this timely work is an important addition to a number of books focusing on the relationships between urban planning and African American communities throughout the twentieth century, among them June Thomas’s 1997 study of postwar Detroit, Redevelopment and Race, and Charles Connerly’s The Most Segregated City in America: City Planning and Civil Rights in Birmingham, 1920–1980 (2005). At a time when the long-term consequences of both Jim Crow and urban renewal are still painfully evident across the United States’s urban landscape, studies such as A World More Concrete help understand how the contemporary structures of white supremacy and power came into being in the first place. Throughout Connolly’s work, it becomes very evident that urban planning decisions do not only change the physical structure and outlook of the city (in this case Miami) but also the way in which spaces can be and are inhabited and used in the everyday sense of the term.
A World More Concrete points to the strong links between property ownership and power, between planning and culture, and between social class and practices of placemaking throughout the twentieth century. The text provides an insight into how social class created a gap in Miami’s black community from rather early on in the twentieth century, finally enabling a situation where liberalism and racism did not necessarily exclude each other (87); as becomes evident in the study, a growing black middle class in Florida, increasingly found strategies to assure their own property rights with the help of the Jim Crow State. Even in the postwar years, when eminent domain helped white people remain in power, the fact that the black middle class also gained in some ways from such policies made it harder to fight them.
Connolly’s study discusses the case of Miami, in eight very comprehensive chapters, preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion, as well as by extensive notes making evident that the subject has been thoroughly investigated. Miami, is a very interesting site to conduct research on the interrelation between real estate and race as it is not only a place of great diversity in terms of migration, but a significant tourist destination that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century, and thus a city that had a reputation to lose. Additionally, as the study shows, policy decisions made in Miami spread from the local to the regional and national levels; from Greater Miami, the so-called “color line” was essentially written into national policy (76). Property ownership is an important focus for such a study as it is central to ideas of U.S. national identity as it emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With ownership becoming a cultural as well as an economic concept, property—defined as a cultural practice going decidedly beyond factual real estate ownership—and progress are inextricably linked.
A World More Concrete is not only focused on building projects or urban renewal as the title may at first suggest. Rather, it accomplishes something much larger—it makes visible Jim Crow’s connections not only to violence and racism, but also to property and real estate. The text follows the constant re-appearance of apartheid in twentieth-century Florida and the workings of Jim Crow and his many different faces. As is argued, “Jim Crow’s political culture was the culture of property owners. It dictated that segregation was not anathema to civil rights, and that civil rights conversely, did not necessarily mean ending segregation” (202). This study provides plentiful new insights into the intersections of race and place in twentieth-century Miami, but also points far beyond that. The rejection of established ideas of this intersection will certainly lead to new readings of the workings of Jim Crow in the United States at large.
Julia Sattler (Technical University of Dortmund, Germany)
This book review also appears in print in American Studies 54.2 (2015) and is available via Project Muse.