Broken City: Race, Property, and Culture

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Broken City: Race, Property, and Culture is an interdisciplinary study situated within the fields of urban history, African American Studies, and ethnic studies that examines Baltimore City during a period that roughly spans the late-nineteenth century to the mid-1950s. Using archival sources and close readings, this study examines city law, newsprint, popular culture artifacts, public health periodicals, reform publications, and social scientific production to narrate how, during this period of massive urban growth, theories of black life and culture manifested in city policy around the question of property and its regulation. This dissertation’s contribution to similar studies around the question of black geographic exclusion and containment is to highlight the ways that property controls—and the bases of municipal power itself—were bound up in the intentional criminalization, pathologization, and destruction of black communities, all of which were justified by persistent cultural critiques of black fitness for civil life centered on gendered and sexualized assumptions.

The dissertation’s interrelated local investigations narrate social dramas that both exhibited culturally-specific interpretations of black life and precipitated institutional mandates guided by—or reproductive—of those interpretations. One investigation analyzes the discourses of black deviance that animated Baltimore’s crusade against the “cocaine evil” in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century to demonstrate how municipal power grew during this period to account for Jim Crow-era investments in disciplining black Baltimoreans and white desires to justify residential exclusion. Another investigation charts how, in the city’s racial covenants, black people became indexed as “nuisance,” a legal maneuver that allowed developers and white homeowners to categorize black people as a hazardous land use whose exclusion was protected under property rights. All told, these investigations demonstrate how, in Baltimore, the basis of municipal power and development, rooted in the protection and maintenance of property, was and continues to be based in the containment of black life through cultural prescriptions of black deviance.