In his new book, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, Davarian Baldwin identifies an “increasingly parasitic” relationship between universities and the cities they occupy. Looking at Hartford, Phoenix, Chicago, and New York, Baldwin examines the hope and harm that comes with higher education’s growing control over housing costs, low-wage labor, policing practices, and political power; or what he calls “the rise of ‘UniverCities.”
Baldwin's latest work expands upon his research on urban spaces and the Black diaspora. His previous publications include Chicago's New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life and a collection of essays co-edited with Minkah Makalani, Escape From New York! The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem. His Phenomenal Works recommendation, highlighting a 1945 ethnography of Chicago, offers an early look at the use of different methodologies to study and describe Black community formation, race relations, class, and social structure in urban America.
Baldwin currently serves as Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College.
Even 75 years later, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton Jr.’s 1945 tome Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in the Northern City remains my aspirational model for social scientific scholarship. Written by two graduate students, with an introduction from their comrade and friend Richard Wright, the text uses interdisciplinary methods strategically to offer a rare materialist analysis of urban inequality and community formation. Their work disrupts the dominant human ecology vision of the day, led by their mentors of the “Chicago School,” which argued that the organization of cities emerged from an organic process dictated by the cultural tastes and temperaments of racial groups, instead of being driven by the accumulation of socioeconomic power. Drake and Cayton’s work directly challenged those who not only controlled their immediate professional fate, but also scholars who propped up the segregationist outlook of both the private industry of real estate and public policymakers in the Federal Housing Administration.
Coming in at just under 800 pages, it’s easy to lose site of the pathbreaking methodological brilliance found in Black Metropolis. For example, Drake and Cayton drew from South Side activists in the 1930s to offer one of the first academic uses of the term “ghetto” as an analytic for engaging the state-sanctioned racial segregation of African Americans in cities. Their “Black Ghetto” chapter overwhelms the dominant human ecological paradigm of their Chicago forbearers with detailed sociological data to document the existence of racial disparities in housing, labor, health, income, and other metrics that challenged any claims about the organic structure of cities. Before US politicians and scholars turned their eyes to Nazi Germany, Drake and Cayton used the term “ghetto” to shed light on municipal policies like racially restrictive housing covenants, white vigilante violence, and financial divestment from Black communities to argue that the racial organization of urban space looked not like a human ecology but fascism. Still, the authors immediately place this sociological rendering of “Black Ghetto” in conversation with an ethnographic account of what residents called “Bronzeville.”
The shift between the statistical and the ethnographic informs how Drake and Cayton present a multilayered analysis of the racial and class dimensions of the same neighborhood. The “Bronzeville” chapter spatially reads the racialized economic homogeneity imposed on the community alongside the “non-economic factors” of the Black lived experience, to provide a more nuanced understanding of class relations. They found that occupation, income, or even one’s relationship to the means of production inadequately measured how class was lived—especially in a community where many residents shared similar economic restrictions. Drake explains, “two stockyard workers getting the same wage are both proletarian in the Marxist sense, but one might be middle class” based on where they attended church, their social club affiliation, leisure pursuits, dress, and/or public behavior.
Drake nor Cayton dismissed the fundamental force of productive relations, but in their study of Black life, they knew they needed to delve deep into the cultural practices and associational life that shaped socioeconomic experience. This attention to both the political economy of everyday life and the cultural meaning of productive relations foreshadowed a similar shift by Marxist social scientists in the 1980s. This social and historical approach to racial hierarchy also found Drake and Cayton quickly dismissing the concept of “caste” in ways that anticipated today’s fascination with the concept by authors like Isabel Wilkerson.
Black Metropolis was certainly not perfect. The book relied on heavily gendered ideas about “normal” and “deviant” community structure, especially when evaluating the social lives of Black women. In retrospect, Drake laments their failure to engage in a more complex discussion of working-class urban culture while remaining silent about the “disreputable” behavior of the middle class. Yet, even with these limitations, the book’s awe-inspiring mixture of statistical data, ethnographic texture, and cultural criticism was far ahead of its time and has still rarely been surpassed.