American History · gender

on housing, Miami and Zora

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I am still tinkering with my Zora Neale Hurston paper for SEWSA, which addresses the acclaimed novelist’s time in Miami during the winter and spring of 1950. As I write, my thoughts overlap with ideas being introduced in today’s Great Depression lecture in my “American Civilization Since 1865” class.

I’ve already addressed in class how the government increasingly plays a role in our lives following the 1929 economic downturn, which left many homeless and jobless, and how new housing was designed especially for poor people – black and whites ones. The late historian Raymond Mohl does a good job of investigating this issue as it relates to communities in the South including Miami.

I also explained to my undergraduates why some people are still associated with “the projects” that sprung up all over the country more than other people. The students will soon learn about how many factors figure into this dynamic including the arrival of interstates, the “suburbs,” the GI Bill and ongoing hostility across the color line. Hovering around these issues will be our  concern with the government’s growing power, but also the lasting legacies of earlier periods we have studied.

Speaking of which, we have addressed consumer growth during the 1920s and how advertising figures into that development. I was struck by how the language in the postwar advertisement above compares to the language in the brochure below and how such language plays a part in how we sell products, in this case, homes to people of African descent. img_1740.jpg

The one high up is for the very first neighborhood I called “home” in Miami. It’s a community called “the Projects” in Coconut Grove. Private developers deliberately targeted people of African descent for this  neighborhood in the late 1940s.’

They did the same by the sixties for Liberty Estates, a subdivision initially settled by whites about 20 miles north in a community that was then called Carol City (if you have ever visited Hard Rock Stadium, where professional and college football games are played, you have visited a community once called Carol City). This area was supposed to be for working class whites, or a counterpart to the more posh Coral Gables farther south. In fact, it was initially called “Coral” City, but Coral Gables reportedly sued because of fears that this area being settled by blacks would be associated with their city.

The eventual white flight in “Carol” City during the sixties and seventies poses tensions in The Good Times Are Killing Me, our second assigned reading, which concerns the fraying friendship between an African American girl and her white friend whose family apparently did not have enough money to leave their Seattle community when “others” arrived.519Et4CkYZL

Interestingly,  the decision to call the Carol City subdivision “Liberty Estates” amid white flight was one way to associate the area with the people of African descent in Liberty City, an increasingly black community closer to the city center. I now know that many first time homebuyers left Liberty City for Liberty Estates. Changes in redlining practices permitted such a move.

But not everyone got to leave. Even today, some people live in despair in this part of Miami. Football is one way out for a few of them. It is said more NFL players came out of Liberty City, which is presently gentrifying, than any other community in the country.

I am hoping that as my students watch the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary on “The U,” which chronicles the initial rise of the UM football program (and partly using student-athletes from Liberty City who got to live in Coral Gables where the private university is located) they will see many of these backstories tied to New Deal era legislation. One 1930s-era initiative led to the 1937 construction of Liberty Square the country’s first black housing project. The community that would be called Liberty City sprung up around this housing project.

Liberty Square. Liberty City.

Coral Gables. Coral City.

It sounds confusing – if you don’t live in Miami or have never lived in Miami. But all of these names point to deliberate placement of people on the basis of the color of their skin. Even to win football games. As a proud alum, I can still present this difficult history.

And then comes Hurston, an African American woman of note, who upsets the racial and spatial dynamics here. Notably, Hurston spent part of her sojourn in Miami during the winter and spring of 1950 in Liberty City. But first, she initially lived on a boat she thought was headed to the Honduras where she planned to do research. It was docked on the MacArthur Causeway off the coast of Miami Beach where only whites lived.

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Sometimes Hurston would leave the Challenger, the boat where she briefly lived off the coast of Miami Beach in late 1949 and early 1950, to eat a coconut or starfruit on nearby trees.

The boat was unsuitable for travel. She moved further inland to ghost write a book and aided a political campaign before returning to the coast to work briefly as a maid. Evidently, she was mostly seeking peace to complete her own work because she returned inland again and briefly resided in two other homes, one in Hialeah and next, Liberty City, before leaving for New York on business.

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How often did Hurston pass the Liberty Square Housing Project, a.k.a the Pork N Beans projects?

I wish I knew more about what all she saw while in Miami. Her accomplishments enabled her to cross paths with people the average person of African descent would never meet. She made some bold moves for a woman in that day.

Indeed, she also had plans to coordinate a folk festival with a UM professor in the stadium (likely the Orange Bowl) that was almost certainly still segregated.

I am relying on surviving documents for clues about her movements. Circling around these documents are my lesson plans, research, but also personal memories of growing up in South Florida in the late sixties and throughout the eighties

But today, it’s all about the New Deal. I am hoping my students will also be mindful of how the roaring 20s that preceded the Great Depression witnessed unprecedented consumer growth due in part to the arrival of credit, chain stories, but also the glitzy advertising like the kind that heralded Coral Gables, where UM opened its doors in 1926, and Miami as fun places for certain people to live, as Julio Capo Jr.’s research reveals. This was the case even after a devastating hurricane that signaled a depression in Miami long before it hit the rest of the county. Advancements in approaches to design figure into the ads and brochures on this blog posting – even the ones below announcing a UM game against the University of Havana in 1926.

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Postscript: speaking of home and Miami, digging Solange Knowles’ arrangements in her newly released album When I get Home.

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Her repetitive lyric in “Things I Imagined” makes me thinks of one of the five things that figured into the Great Depression: the psychological downward spiral (i.e. failure feeding itself as was also true during the 2008 financial downturn). Since the students only recently turned in their mixtape playlist essays that interrogated some aspect of American history while engaging musical lyrics, I will mention this song in class today.

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