Little Rock, Big Impact: Centering Small Cities in U.S. Urban History

by Monica N. Campbell

Check out the guest post by Monica N. Campbell who participated in this year’s Spring Academy at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies:

View of the Arkansas River and downtown Little Rock looking west from the Clinton Presidential Library, 2018, credit: Monica N. Campbell

Between 1950 and 1966, the majority of federally funded urban renewal projects in the United States were carried out in municipalities with populations of 50,000 or less, yet the influence that these cities had on national policy has been largely overlooked (Digital Scholarship Lab 2018). The literature on post-World War II urban renewal highlights the ways in which policies meant to clear “slums” actually deepened inequality and gave downtowns a boost. However, existing work assumes that this federal program was most influenced by decisions made by local elites in big cities. This project challenges this emphasis by showing that one small city, Little Rock, arose as a pioneer in urban renewal by replacing urban ghettos with business centers and served as a model for similar programs elsewhere.

My research uses a rich but neglected set of archival sources in Little Rock to chart the implementation of wholly market and private sector based urban planning policies through the city’s Metroplan urban renewal program in the 1950s/60s. I examine how Little Rock’s urban renewal strategists adapted neoliberal policies – including the destruction of public housing, the public-private coalition of city government and private investors, and gentrification – decades before they appeared in larger cities (see: Hackworth 2007; Harvey 2005; Hohle 2015; Jones 2012; Pinson/Morel Journal 2017; Weaver 2016). I argue that, although on the national periphery and controversial in the 1950s, Little Rock’s urban renewal policies helped redefine the center ground of American political economy twenty years later. Close examination of this moment in urban history illustrates how smaller cities served as laboratories for urban renewal plans that centered around business and pro-growth politics to revitalize city centers, rather than escape them, together with state anti-labor policies that would inform the emergence of third-way liberalism in the 1970s. Exploring these aspects, not only in Little Rock but on a regional and national level, highlights the role of smaller cities in the postwar era.

Image 2: Map of Little Rock, credit: Faigl.ladislav

Little Rock is a particularly useful case study. In the summer of 1957, local city planners presented their answer to America’s mounting urban crisis to a national audience at the annual meeting of the American Planning and Civic Association in Little Rock. Inspired by examples of decaying business districts in “other cities,” and concerned about early signs of decay in Little Rock, local Housing Authority Executive Director Knox Banner developed the Central Little Rock Project (CLRP) as a preemptive renewal plan that emphasized market-based policies to fend off an urban crisis in Little Rock and make the central business district a bustling economic mecca by 1969 (see: National League of Cities/U.S. Conference of Mayors 1972; Sugrue 2005; Cohen 1996). Specifically, the CLRP emphasized the retention and return of white businesses and consumers in the central business district. This June 1957 model became the basis for urban renewal in Little Rock from that point on.

The Central High Crisis, which erupted that fall after Brown v. Board had mandated the desegregation of schools, momentarily stalled urban renewal and industrialization efforts in Little Rock. However, those interested in urban renewal used the fallout from the racial crisis to promote their market-based plan to bolster the city center. Banner quickly moved to present the CLRP to local business interests as the only available tool for building a new image for the city in the wake of the school crisis, and many local businessmen and bankers were keen to participate. Convinced that the CLRP provided such an image, Little Rock’s Urban Progress Association and Metroplan joined with the Housing Authority to provide “the institutional underpinning” for the project, and recruited Arkansas Gazette reporter Jason Rouby, who would become executive director of Metroplan in 1966, to direct the project’s promotional campaign. Additionally, thanks to the political maneuverings of the local elite, Little Rock and North Little Rock both enjoyed the ascendance of strong, business-centered civic leadership in early 1958. Following his success in recruiting local business support for the CLRP, Banner spent the next year lobbying in Washington D.C. The work on the ground in Little Rock and D.C. led to the amendment of national legislation in September 1959 to allow cities to develop urban renewal projects that included the entire commercial area of the central business district (National League of Cities/U.S. Conference of Mayors 1972). Little Rock was the first city to design and implement such a project. As such, Little Rock served as a laboratory where city planners could experiment with this new approach to urban renewal.

Image 3: Downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, September 7, 1958, credit: Thomas J. O’Halloran, photographer

By the 1960s, Little Rock emerged as a national example of successful downtown urban renewal for cities throughout the country. Many cities sent delegates to examine Little Rock’s urban renewal programs first hand. The Little Rock Housing Authority (LRHA) also employed spokesmen like leading businessman Raymond Rebsamen to promote the Little Rock model elsewhere. During his public appearances, Rebsamen lauded the city’s urban renewal program as “a product of close co-operation between all public agencies and private organizations” and insisted that the city’s emphasis on urban renewal as public investment rather than public expense was key to the program’s success (Scherer 1961; Lausch 2017). Additionally, Jason Rouby presented on the CLRP in D.C. in December 1961 and accepted an invitation from the Omaha Chamber of Commerce in May 1962 “to move to that city and initiate and manage a program of downtown urban renewal, metropolitan planning, and other activities” (National Urban League 1961; Rouby 2000). In the meantime, Knox Banner accepted a position as executive director of D.C.’s Downtown Progress where he became “the evangelist of delivery from urban decay” (The Washington Post 1994).

The CLRP was nothing short of a physical manifestation of a national conversation that called for the development of public-private partnerships in urban renewal. Importantly, these arguments, advanced by both private groups and federal housing officials, emphasized that urban renewal was “primarily a private enterprise operation […] facilitated by local government” (Follin 1955). Such arguments presented urban renewal implemented through public-private partnerships as essential for strengthening cold war citizenship. This reasoning became an important element in Presidents John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon B. Johnson’s domestic policies, with Kennedy telling Congress in March 1961, “Increasingly, community development must be a cooperative venture through the common goals of the metropolitan region as a whole. This requires the establishment of an effective and comprehensive planning process . . . embracing all major activities, both public and private, which shape the community” (Kennedy 1961). Three years later, HUD director Robert C. Weaver declared such public-private partnerships a “key device” through which Americans could “forge the high quality of living for all citizens which will be the hallmark of [Johnson’s] Great Society” (Weaver 1964).

This research project is largely based in under-utilized archival collections, the most important of which is the Metroplan Collection, held at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture. These records open a whole new perspective on this issue that is not only about Arkansas, but about cities across the country. No one has used these records. My initial discoveries suggest that doing so begs for a fundamental reevaluation of urban policy in post-war America. In addition to examining the ways in which Little Rock’s urban renewal policies in the 1950s helped redefine American political economy in the 1970s, my research explores grassroots opposition to these plans, particularly among labor and civil rights organizations. One of the key collections for this part of my research is the records of Arkansas AFL-CIO leader Jerome B. Becker. During his tenure (1964-1996), Becker won key victories for Arkansas labor at the legislature and oversaw important agreements between local labor unions, the state of Arkansas, and out-of-state companies. This newly available collection is an important source of previously unexplored materials concerning the work of labor in anti-union, right-to-work Arkansas. At the same time, local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League challenged urban renewal policies that did not equally benefit the African American community.

Along with these newly available and little-used collections, I use more commonly utilized sources, like the Newsweek Atlanta Bureau records at Emory University, the Arkansas Council on Human Relations papers at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, the Department of Housing and Urban Development records at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the National Urban League records at the Library of Congress in innovative ways. While other scholars have used, and continue to use, these sources to further our knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement, the centrality of suburbanization and grassroots mobilization in the rise of new conservativism, and intellectual analyses of neoliberalism, my project employs these sources in a new way to highlight the urban roots of neoliberalism (Aalbers 2017) by exploring the real-world application of neoliberal ideas in the postwar era.

References:

Aalbers, Manuel B. 2017. “The pre-histories of neoliberal urbanism in the United States.” In Debating the Neoliberal City edited by Pinson & Morel Journel, 96-118. New York: Routledge.

Cohen, Lizabeth. 1996.“From Town Center to Shopping Center: The Reconfiguration of Community Marketplaces in Postwar America.” The American Historical Review 101, 4 (Oct.): 1050-1081. ProQuest.

Digital Scholarship Lab, “Renewing Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, accessed April 13, 2019, http://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/renewal/#view=0/0/1&viz=cartogram&text=about.

Follin, James W. “Urban Renewal is Good for Your Business – And Good for Your Community.” November 9, 1955. Box 1:C13, Folder 3. National Urban League Records. Library of Congress.

Hackworth, Jason. 2013. The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hohle, Randolph. 2015. Race and the Origins of American Neoliberalism. New York: Routledge.

Jones, Daniel Stedman. 2012. Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kennedy, John F. 1961. “Text of the President’s Message to Congress on Housing.” New York Times. March 10, 1961, 2. Box I:C1, Folder 4, National Urban League Records, 1900-1988, Library of Congress.

“Knox Banner.” The Washington Post, April 15, 1994. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1994/04/15/knox-banner/e7874015-f9f8-45c5-8ca6-f7053207f41f/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3c082cdf512a.

Lausch, Shannon Marie. “Metroplan.” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, August 2, 2017. Accessed April 16, 2019, http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?search=1&entryID=7994#.

National League of Cities/United States Conference of Mayors. 1972. “Site Visit Report: Little Rock, Arkansas Economic Development Management Project.” April 1972. Metroplan Collection, University of Arkansas Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

Pinson, Gilles & Christelle Morel Journel, eds. 2017. Debating the Neoliberal City. New York: Routledge.

“Report: Meeting of Local Group Associations of ACTION, INC. Washington, D.C. – Dec. 11 & 12, 1961.” Box 1:C1, Folder 5. National Urban League Records. Library of Congress.

Rouby, Jason. 2000. Interview by Jerry McConnell. Arkansas Gazette Project, The David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, December 22, 2000. Transcript, 3. http://pryorcenter.uark.edu/project.php?thisProject=2.

Scherer, Leo. 1961. “Put on Citywide Basis, Renewal Called Good Business,” The Lincoln Star, November 1961, 17.

Sugrue, Thomas J. 2005. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Weaver, Robert C. 1964. “Draft Material for State of the Union Address.” 1964, 2. Central Files Subject Correspondence 1964; Central Subject Correspondence Files, 1961-1965; Record Group 207: General Records of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1931-2003, Record Group 207; National Archives at College Park, MD.

Weaver, Timothy P.R. 2016. Blazing the Neoliberal Trail: Political Development in the United States and the United Kingdom. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Image 2: Map of Little Rock, credit: Faigl.ladislav

Image 3: Downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, September 7, 1958, credit: Thomas J. O’Halloran, photographerImage 4: Map of urban renewal projects in Little Rock with statistics showing family displacements between 1950 and 1966, credit: Digital Scholarship Lab, “Renewing Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers. (Screenshot by the author).

About the Author

Monica N. Campbell is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Mississippi. She received her B.A. in History from the University of Central Arkansas (2010) and her B.A. in Sociology (2013) and M.A. in Public History (2015) from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. Her research focuses on mid-twentieth-century American urbanization, specifically the role of small cities in shaping national urban renewal policy.


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