Microcosms of democracy: imagining the city neighborhood in World War II-era America.
In 1943, the left-wing screenwriter Herbert Clyde Lewis dropped by his boyhood neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant in central Brooklyn, following an absence of several decades. After a string of minor successes as a novelist, Lewis had recently moved to Hollywood, where he would eventually garner recognition as author of scenarios for films such as the 1947 Yuletide heart-warmer It Happened on Fifth Avenue. During World War II, however, he enlisted in the cadre of journalists all around the country composing essays on the ubiquitous "why-we-fight" theme. (1)
The record of Lewis's trip, published in the Los Angeles Times, fused these wartime morale-building tactics with a celebration of the old city neighborhood as the very basis of the nation's moral stamina in a time of threat. After describing his hunt for childhood friends and visits to a few fondly remembered shopkeepers, Lewis proceeded to link this little space with the outcome of the war, the strength of the nation, and the triumph of American ideals of diversity and tolerance over fascism. In this view, the old neighborhood becomes "the greatest miracle that had ever visited the earth," a place where "people came from all the corners of Europe, the Near East and China," where they "lived side by side, rubbed shoulders in the streets, and--wonder of wonders!--managed to get along." The robust durability and heterogeneous quality of Lewis's old neighborhood are here turned to account as symbol of national character and will: this is "what we were fighting for ... a wav of life the whole world could adopt and profit by." (2)
Lewis's writing, in some ways so characteristic of boosterish wartime journalism, nonetheless distilled a new set of ideas about, the role of the neighborhood in American life, employing language that would color discussions over the remainder of the decade. As Robert Westbrook argues, U.S. propagandists typically urged support for the war not by calling for loyalty to the political state but by inviting Americans "to discharge a set of essentially private moral obligations," chiefly those to neighbors and family (3) Onto this appeal to local connections, artists and commentators welded a frequently Utopian rhetoric of neighborhood, one that self-consciously--indeed, almost obsessively--worked to connect the intimate, semi-private realm of the stoop and corner with grand, public matters of war and peace, fascism and democracy, ethnic conflict and national pluralism. Constructing neighborhoods of the imagination out of words, images, festivals, and songs, these figures invented a distinctive wartime language of place.
In this essay, I explore the rise and tall of that language, surveying the neighborhood as an idea and an ideal that unfolded over the 1940s through a variety of fictional and nonfictional texts. While numerous scholars have tracked concrete home-front experiences in individual communities, here I focus particularly on Americans who introduced new ways to describe its worth, set forth fresh benchmarks by which ordinary city residents might understand their own spaces, and championed sometimes-divergent platforms for the role that the neighborhood ought to play in the nation's broader cultural and political life. The arts of all kinds both scripted and enacted this process of place-making, and while many of this volume's contributions examine the emplacement of the arts--how artistic objects and institutions interact with specific environments--I assess instead the manner in which artistic forms can bring new notions of "place" into being. For, while liberal journalists, social critics, and political propagandists sketched the outlines of this imaginary space, a range of arts workers amplified and elaborated their vision. And it is in these forms of representation that we can best see the tensions and contradictions built into this vision, unfolding on that busy intersection of high, popular, and folk arts that converged around a particular construction of place. As the foregoing suggests, this edifice is not a castle in the air, but an instance of the manner in which the artistic imagination grounds itself in the material and the social.
Along the way, I make two related arguments. First, I suggest that, as an ideological and imaginative construct, the city neighborhood sat at the heart, of wartime understandings of the nation, acting as a discursive counterweight to perceived changes in U.S. patterns of urban development, sociability, and community formation. For, despite its centrality to public discourse, the idea of neighborhood--much less the physical reality--has never been a settled concept. "Probably no other term is used so loosely or with such changing content," complained sociologist Roderick McKenzie in 1921, "and very few concepts are more difficult to define." (4) Yet while researchers like McKenzie have spent over a century devising a succession of definitions, a vast fleet of artists, writers, and commentators have used the term as if it were completely transparent, signifying not quantifiable matters of size or population, but rather elaborate territories of the imagination. This creative "place-making" then insinuates itself into the language and imagery of the journalistic, the sociological, and the more overtly artistic renderings of neighborhood during the period. As Julia Foulkes notes in her introduction to this volume, the arts often "reside between the public and private," and here that liminal terrain, though often bearing only the loosest relationship to a specific geographical place, took on a topography of its own, where Americans could map a set of larger social issues surrounding class, race, community, and collective memory.
Whatever the empirical realities, as an abstract idea the city neighborhood came in operate as favorite wartime surrogate for a long check-list of values: solidarity and participation, the melting pot and intergroup fraternity, street-level democracy and the heroism of common people. This celebration of such spaces as robust and vital social institutions is somewhat of an anomaly in twentieth-century American thought, where narratives of neighborhood decline tend to predominate. On one hand, such renderings offered a implicit challenge to the longstanding suburban ideal, that "pervasive fondness for grass and solitude" described by historian Kenneth Jackson. (5) On the other, they countered an ascendant sociological tradition--built off of Ferdinand Tonnies's Gemeinchaft/Gesellschaft distinction--in which close-knit urban neighborhoods were understood as mere historical remnants. In this latter view, authentic community relations might be temporarily preserved in the industrial city by village migrants or unassimilated foreigners, but they were doomed to eventual extinction by the atomizing forces of modernity. (6) For a brief moment, though, an alternative vision took the field, with such face-to-face urban communities imagined as moral engine for democratic citizenship, ethnic tolerance, and global peace.
The timing is no surprise. The most sustained idealizations of the neighborhood as a socio-cultural form generally come at moments of perceived crisis, at times when the nation's shared values, social fabric, or urban landscape appear to be facing severe threats. In speaking to such anxieties, these renderings usually follow one at two strategies. In the first, they form part of a declensionist narrative, offering an elegiac glance back at a set of neighborhood values located in a supposedly faded golden age. In a second, more optimistic version, Utopian visions of neighborhood life are conjured up as path for overcoming present-day crises, with neighborly values offered as potent antidote to diseases of the wider body politic. During the war years and immediate aftermath, this latter version predominated, as artists, novelists, and composers joined journalists and planners in constructing versions of the neighborhood as template for a better form of national community. This language rippled through legal, planning, and policy circles as well--infusing the court battles to overturn racially restrictive housing covenants, featuring in a renewed enthusiasm for Clarence Perry's "neighborhood-unit" scheme of community planning, and under-girding self-help campaigns against neighborhood blight that preceded the mass urban-renewal demolitions of succeeding decades.
My second argument relates to the role of arts in place-making. If these wartime sentiments infused propaganda and social commentary, they found their most compelling expression inartistic forms, ranging from jubilant novels of local solidarity to urban musical pageants, cross-cultural community arts festivals to didactic radio plays. Connected as it was to personal memory and collective history, to ground-level experiences and idealized dreams, neighborhood was a natural medium for the arts, serving as both setting and symbol, an art in place and an art of place. All these works, whatever the genre, engage in storytelling that unfolds in some kind of imaginary time and space. Like their journalistic counterparts, however, the artists and arts activists I consider understood themselves as participants in a broader debate over what "neighborhood" should mean, what values it promulgated, and what part it might play in the creation of a better postwar world. The differences in narrative mode both reflect and mediate the multiple versions of that space that emerged in the 1940s. Yet just as the war effort itself temporarily cobbled over some of the structural fault lines in American society, so this construction of the neighborhood as American democracy writ small promulgated a consensus at best provisional and even contradictory in its claims. As is often the case, the arts registered the tremors soonest, here in their efforts to compress recalcitrant social realities into aesthetic form.
This essay, then, delineates the provenance and extent of a form of imaginative "place-making" in wartime U.S. society and, by engaging with a handful of the richest and most elaborate products of that effort, attempts to uncover some of the ambivalences, contradictions, and erasures embedded within this newly conceived space. In an opening section, I establish this discourse's framing elements, outlining the intersection of wartime patriotism and urban space in popular journalism and social criticism. Next, I turn to the manner in which several prominent novelists, scriptwriters, and arts activists built out this space, focusing particularly on their preoccupation with questions of ethnic relations, cultural assimilation, and forms of interpersonal community. Finally, through an account of the creation and critical reception of the 1947 Broadway show Sired Scene, I explore some tensions over the meaning and fate of the working-class, ethnic-accented neighborhood that emerged as the wartime consensus exhausted itself. In doing so, I hope to reveal the momentary convergence of popular cultural forms, artistic works, and social-science discourse around a progressive yet conflicted, pervasive yet ultimately fragile, vision for urban life.
I. Wartime Rhetorics of Neighborhood Revivalism
The exigencies of international conflict exerted powerful pressures on the fabric of the nation's urban neighborhoods. Though the built environment of U.S. cities had remained substantially unchanged since the depression's onset, during the early 1940s urban populations went through great upheavals, with approximately one-fifth of all Americans making major relocations due to military service or moves to production centers. (7) Meanwhile, city residents struggled to cope with disruptions wrought by rationing, unfamiliar regulations, economic tumult, new racial and ethnic frictions, and separation from family and longtime neighbors. In a typical expression of trepidation, the Cleveland Federation of Settlements warned in 1942 of "days of confusion, bewilderment and incipient danger for the agglomeration of races and nationalities in the congested areas of our city." (8) During a conflict that was, as William Graebner puts it, "intensely isolating and individualizing," Americans learned to accept what Perry Duis calls a "'substitute culture' of temporary replacements for artifacts, institutions, and social relationships." (9) But even as ordinary residents developed strategies to deal with everyday hardships--from victory gardens to alternative childcare arrangements--commentators and artists, too, responded to these constraints by trumpeting the cultural worth of the close-knit city neighborhood, whose denouement had heretofore suggested an inevitable drift into oblivion.
Taken as a whole, these descriptive strategies had three defining ingredients. First was a fervently revivalist rhetoric: while commentators generally accepted sociological arguments about the decline of community sentiment over preceding decades, they also trumpeted a vigorous contemporary reinvigoration of that spirit. For many observers, this upsurge marked a return of qualities that, though recently forgotten, had characterized a virtuous pre-industrial past. Thus, in wartime homages to the city neighborhood, writers constantly relied on the language of Jeffersonian democracy and nineteenth-century labor republicanism, peppering their prose with analogies to New England's colonial town meetings, to the camaraderie of the frontier west, or to the hardy little institutions that held together sparsely populated rural communities. Describing his city's 1940 scheme establishing neighborhood councils, a Cincinnati official called it "a movement which is strengthening democracy at its roots, for it is bringing back the old colonial institution, the town meeting." (10) Even as such comparisons reversed a "lost-golden-age" angst of previous years, they also exemplified a strategy whereby the city is praised when it is least characteristically urban, at least in the sense that urbanity had traditionally been described: densely populated, fast-paced, volatile, and anonymous.
A second ingredient was a pervasive attempt to connect the local with the national and global, even when carried out in rather strained cause-and-effect terms. As the neighborhood goes, according to such claims, so goes America. Numerous essayists fixated on the smallest of neighborhood acts both as key to the war effort, and as the sine qua non of American moral superiority over foreign enemies. For national settlement leader John Elliot, isolationist sentiments regarding the war stemmed from citizens' isolation from their next-door neighbors, and could be combated by cultivating "local community life and face-to-face relations." (11) Likewise, a Washington Post essayist opined that "We can't be a friendly neighbor to nations unless we are friendly neighbors in our own little corner of the country," insisting that the cordial exchange of victory-garden produce signaled the return of national traits "which have gained for us the trust and confidence of other nations." (12) This casual leap from a neighborly gift of fresh-picked tomatoes to the grand international alliance against fascism captures the essence, and the extravagance, of these descriptive strategies. Some intellectuals went even further, seeing the efforts to produce local-level neighborliness, if multiplied a thousand times over, as holding the potential to usher in a brotherhood of man in a strife-torn postwar world. As Eduard Lindeman, the pioneering social-work theorist, asked rhetorically in 1944, "[D]oes it seem likely that Democracy can survive and take on new vitality if it is not founded firmly upon small groups of the friendship variety ? (13) The fate of the nation and an eventual world peace, it seemed, rested on the everyday actions of millions of individual Americans in thousands of individual neighborhoods.
The third element of this revised-standard version grew out of an official wartime antiracism, wherein cultural and policy elites joined Popular Front calls for Americans to set aside ethnic and racial divisions in favor of a united front against fascist foes abroad. As NAACP official Roy Wilkins put it, Adolf Hitler had "jammed our white people into their logically untenable position": opposition to Nazism, like it or not, entailed public disavowal of Hitler's racial-supremacist doctrines--and thus, at least in theory, rejection of discrimination at home. (14) Recognizing this contradiction, organs of officialdom cast such prejudices as incompatible with a struggle against fascism. Journalists and novelists, government publicists, and liberal organizations promoted this vision in a host of multiethnic dramas--from military "platoon" stories of Demskys and Romanos and O'Shannons banding together under the stars and stripes to homilies of home-front communities forging a more inclusive "Americanism." In the 1945 propaganda film The House I Live In, for example, a young Frank Sinatra chides a gang of neighborhood youths for tormenting one boy because of his religion, asking how American fighters could ever defeat Japan if they allowed similar prejudices to divide them. (15) Of course, this strategy had its own contradictions. Not only were such pieties often simply ignored--as with the racial segregation of the armed forces, the continued existence of Jim Crow, or the internment of Japanese Americans--but they also countenanced a near-complete erasure of African Americans from film and other representational media, a tactic which evaded the explosive question of their inclusion in the body politic. Still, as in Lewis's essay, such impulses formed a powerful element of this neighborhood vision, with the nation's block-level communities frequently cast as the word of ethnic diversity made flesh and contrasted with the fascist quest for purity.
While notions of urban neighborhoods as potential small-scale democracies had been championed by Progressive-Era intellectuals such as John Dewey and Mary Parker Follett, these ideas had fallen out of currency during the 1930s. (16) But by 1942, even the renowned sociologist Louis Wirth--who only four years earlier, in his classic essay "Urbanism as a Way of Life," had theorized the rise of an impersonal, atomistic urban society--was marveling at a "new birth of community consciousness." The depression, he argued in retrospect, had alongside privations sparked a "rekindled sensitivity ... of the inhabitants of every community to the conditions of life and the problems of their neighbors." And now, urbanites who for years had lived side by side as strangers were engaging in social intercourse; tinder the "unifying influence of the patriotic motive," civilian defense work was "for the first time making neighbors our of 'nigh-dwellers.'" Such an upsurge in community solidarity, Wirth felt, held dramatic prospects for the postwar period: it might spark "the building of a more genuine democratic order than we have known since the days of the American frontier." (17)
This fervor--so at odds with educator David Snedden's dire 1926 account of the "sociability starved" denizens of a city without neighborhoods, with sociologist Niles Carpenter's dismissive 1932 description of the "insignificance of the neighborhood," or even with Wirth's own 1938 evaluation--resounded through the popular press. (18) In one typical example, a Christian Science Monitor editorial enthused that wartime restrictions on transportation were bringing about "a new appreciation of the importance of the neighborhood," billing this development as nothing less than a "contemporary folk movement." A series on community war efforts, running in the Los Angeles Times magazine, explained, "It is a big country we live in ... But when we say we live in America, what most of us think about is a community, a neighborhood, a part of the whole America where the houses, the streets and the people are as familiar as your own home. That is where you can really see the spirit of America in action." in similar fashion, the Washington Post brushed aside critics who jeered that the nation's capital lacked neighborhood pride. "What the country store is to Vermont, the [air-raid] warden post had become to Washington," it claimed; "Where there were no neighborhoods, it had created them." (19)
Even the remaining Jeremiahs agreed with many of these premises. In his best-selling 1941 book America, for example, New Deal polemicist David Cushman Coyle linked a decline in community sentiment at home with looming perils abroad. Under the influence of radio, motion pictures, and the automobile, he claimed, "the neighborhood has dried up"--a process that, in turn, represented a direct threat to national security. "We may lose our freedom and come under the terror of the Nazis," Coyle fretted, "unless we can give each other the satisfaction of belonging and standing together." (20) No matter what the take on the issue--either democracy bolstered by an upsurge in neighborliness or, as one magazine headline warned, "Democracy Threatened by Lack of Neighborliness"--few observers denied the existence of a newly vital link between these small-scale communities and the survival of the nation's most fundamental political values. (21)
Still, while journalists might describe this spirit as a "contemporary folk movement," as if it had simply welled up unhidden from some hidden fountainhead of national identity, these ideas were actively promulgated by powerful elites, including the U.S. government, for whom they performed important cultural work in rallying wartime support. The federal Office of Civilian Defense highlighted, first, the link between individual neighborhoods and the success of the overarching war effort, and, second, the vital necessity for transcending street-level ethnic or class divisions in service of national security. This orientation is apparent in a widely distributed series of civilian-defense pamphlets, instructing citizens on the "block plan" for local defense activities. Each took care to stress the importance of the smallest residential units to the largest geopolitical struggles. As one explained, "Overseas they are fighting block by block, from house to house"; hence, in the U.S., "Each home must be a fighting squad; each block or neighborhood a fighting battalion." (22)
Ironically, though, for each neighborhood to become a "fighting battalion" entailed the recovery of a set of distinctly un-martial qualities. Defense bureaucrats took as a given the sociologists' gloomy thesis that primary groups had been whittled away, especially in urban areas. "[M]any close neighbors in large cities do not even know each other," one defense handbook complained, and thus "have little inclination to help each other." To achieve war objectives required reversing this apparent disintegration of primary ties. As such, defense publications overflowed with tips on personalized canvassing approaches that might activate "a neighborly-spirit of cooperation." Officials also stressed the "importance of keeping the Block Leader Service democratic in objectives and leadership," suggesting that, for reasons both philosophical and practical, the smallest units of society must emulate the majoritarian practices of the nation itself. The defense of democracy abroad would presumably be validated by the hundreds of block-group election meetings at home. (23) Far from seeming a mere technical matter, one dealing with orderly distribution of information or efficient execution of scrap drives, the plan inspired journalists to wax lyrical, emphasizing its role in harnessing the intimacy of an imagined pastoral past toward the challenges of a chaotic global crisis. "The block plan is a means of putting democracy into practice," exclaimed one pseudonymous national columnist, describing her own neighbors reclined cozily around a fire, crunching apples and debating questions of war and peace. "It harks back to the New England town meeting where neighbors discussed the issues at stake before deciding the right course of action." (24)
In federal officials' estimation, however, it was a sense of obligation across racial and ethnic lines that would truly bring the plan into "harmony with the democratic principle." Branding the task of home defense "too huge, too embracing" to be undertaken by "groups handed together by any ties less than that of being Americans," the government urged block organizations to surmount, or at least suspend, local animosities dividing communities into "factions, sects, cliques, or racial groups." It block committees were truly representative of their local constituents, "the cooperation of industrial, racial, and foreign-born neighborhoods will be found ready and steadfast." (25) Such exhortations from officialdom drifted free from social realities on the ground, clouding the underlying causes of ethnic and racial frictions in service of a lazily self-satisfied vision of neighborhood unity. Yet this rhetoric was part and parcel of contemporary descriptive strategies, casting these neighborhood spaces as the physical site where national obligations could dilute outdated parochialisms.
Utopian rhetoric about the small-scale community in turn depended on the existence of its most storied protagonist, the "common man." During the war years, both journalistic and fictional accounts resuscitated such figures, whose honest character and uncomplicated aspirations could presumably stand proxy for the nation itself. These "everyman stories," as historian Judith Smith explains, used working-class and frequently immigrant, protagonists to provide "a template for working out the terms of an expanded postwar citizenship." (26) The radical language of depression-era dissent, with its celebration of a highly politicized working-class identity, could be absorbed and domesticated to fit the needs of the home front and imperatives for postwar reconstruction.
These visions of a democratic, inclusive citizenship were mobilized most markedly in idealized descriptions of the city neighborhood, with everyday, "authentic" neighborhood characters rewritten as the true home-front heroes. This played out both in the types of stories Americans told themselves, and in the ways that critics evaluated the social function of these stories. In one iteration of a persistently recycled storyline, a settlement worker, in a 1942 Survey Graphic essay, described organizing a defense show in Cleveland's "teeming East End," whose many Hungarian and Italian residents presumably had "natural emotional barriers" to participation. But while youths scoffed, Chizzie, the cynical proprietor of an Italian confectionary, lent his efforts wholeheartedly to the show. By setting up his own consumer-education display, Chizzie "unwittingly was instrumental in convincing the 'hard-boiled guys' of the neighborhood that the whole home defense show was pretty much all right." Though he might fulminate against local do-gooders, his un-coerced contribution and gritty patriotism ensured the festival's success. (27) Furthermore, to many middle-class observers, the mere telling of this brand of neighborhood story lent vitality to the overarching campaign. The prominent Manhattan psychiatrist Louis Berg, who spent much of his time decrying the "corrupting" effects of radio's "suppurating serials," nonetheless discovered a "perfect answer to well known Axis propaganda" in the sentimental chronicles of The Goldbergs, a top-rated radio sitcom dramatizing Jewish life in the Bronx. By presenting a "little world which lives by loving its neighbors," he insisted, the program served as "a force for decency and the democratic way of life." (28)
In such anecdotes, the significance lies not so much in defense shows and "hard-boiled guys," but rather in the manner in which writers of all kinds use the neighborhood as a lens through which Americans could bring into focus broader questions of community and national identity. This sort of writing represents a quest for legitimacy and authenticity, one effected by sentimentalizing the close-at-hand, the small-scale and everyday--often as stand-ins for grand abstractions of global affairs. If democracy were to have meaning in the postwar world, such texts suggest, it would he through its enactment in the spaces where such average people actually lived: not just in the halls of the new United Nations, but also in the streets of Hamtramck and Highlandtown, Woodlawn and Williamsburg. These images of the close and familiar served as proxies by which Americans could negotiate anxieties over large-scale issues of ethnicity, modernity, and democratic life.
II. The City Neighborhood as "Garden of Nations"
Even in the ostensibly factual accounts described above, neighborhood as symbolic space is constructed by a kind of narrative sleight of hand wherein the purportedly empirical transforms magically into the ideal. More self-consciously imaginative renderings, in turn, could use the rhetorical strategies of the editorial or the soapbox. During this period, overtly fictional neighborhood stories were often intended not only as aesthetic objects but also as instruction manuals for citizens in actual districts: the neighborhood was both subject and setting, the fictive object of a new kind of community and the location where such imaginings might play out. In this communal narrative, the representational and material, the national and local, ate conjoined in a way that made it almost impossible to discern which provided sustenance to the other. Through a messy mixture of fact and fiction, imagination and advocacy, artistic depictions at once sketched out an idealized vision of what neighborhood relationships should mean and challenged residents to duplicate that ideal on the ground.
In the iconic renderings of neighborhood retailed by fiction, drama, and even visual art, no issue was as central, and none as fraught with contradictions, as that of ethnicity and inter-ethnic relations. Elsewhere in this volume, Mark Tebeau traces a similar war-era debate, in which ethnic leaders of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens strained to "demonstrate ethnic pride and 'Americanism' at the same time." Addressing the same quandary, progressive chroniclers of the urban neighborhood searched for ways to place socially diverse blocks and streets into an overarching narrative of a distinctively American pluralism. Their claims proved markedly incongruent with much of the fiction and sociological theory of preceding decades. Even as the ethnic literatures of the depression had frequently emphasized the foreignness, unassimilability, and proletarian anger of the immigrant neighborhood and shop floor, urban sociologists of the 1920s and 1930s had found remnants of neighborhood living only in closed, homogeneous ethnic communities. For Louis Wirth, in his classic 1928 study The Ghetto, Chicago's insular Jewish enclave represented "as near an approach to communal life as the modern city has to offer." (29) Where transplanted villagers congregated in the American city, face-to-face intimacies might survive for a time, even as assimilation and the "invasion" of dissimilar groups chipped away at local solidarities.
Texts of the World War II era, though, often reversed this formulation, stressing ethnic cosmopolitanism as the very basis for neighborhood sentiment. For a number of popular writers addressing ethnic relations--figures such as Sholem Asch Rachel Davis DuBois, and Louis Hazam--the very diversity of the city neighborhood, with its haphazard mix of races and nationalities, supplied the nutrients for community and national health, but only when blended according to a particular recipe. The period from 1920 through 1940, explains historian Matthew Jacobson, saw a collapsing of ethnic distinctions among European immigrants and their descendants, as cultural explanations for difference began to replace genetic or biological explanations. This turn, in a seeming paradox, only sharpened the distinctions between African Americans and European Americans, as ethnic whites--albeit gradually and incompletely--dissolved into an undifferentiated mass. (30) Though much wartime writing takes pains to stress the multiethnic basis of the new neighborhood spirit, the ethnic cosmopolitanism of the war years was deeply suspicions of particularist solidarities, betokening a powerful ambivalence about neighborhood diversity.
In reconfiguring the position of ethnicity in the neighborhood, liberal writers of the 1940s played out a number of options: the replacement of particularist notions of ethnic identity by a self-conscious yet incomplete cosmopolitanism; the substitution of an often sentimental individualist analysis of ethnic relations for a more rigorous structural one; and the outright erasure of ethnic difference posited as cultural necessity. Three clusters of texts put these respective strategies into play. The first is exemplified in a popular group of "looking-backward" tales, historical novels set against the backdrop of World War I and dealing with assimilation and neighborhood, works such as Sidney Meller's Home Is Here (1941), Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), and Sholem Asch's East River (1946). In a striking revision, these works reformatted older stories of the exotic enclave into tales of a grassroots American pluralism. Second is the vision of "cultural democracy" on the neighborhood level, developed in the early 1940s by community-arts workers such, as Rachel Davis DuBois, and aimed at using neighborhood cultural traditions to generate a new kind of urban pluralism. And third is the increasingly dominant move toward casting difference itself as a form of similarity, one exemplified in works by commercial artists such as the radio writer Louis Hazam. The latter mirrored the impulses leading to the human-relations approach toward neighborhood-level interactions in the urban North.
The manner in which novelists who treat these subjects mediate the connection between the empirical and the imagined is often exemplary rather than exhaustive in the style of their naturalistic precursors. Among the many wartime novelists trying to make sense of the urban neighborhood, the renowned Yiddish writer Sholem Asch stands out. His critically acclaimed and nationally bestselling East River (1946) is worth examining in some detail, both for the heightened spiritual and reflective register with which it voices day-to-day urban community life, and also for its self-conscious reversal of older narratives of escape from the suffocating ethnic ghetto. (31) Although once the most popular writer of the Yiddish-speaking diaspora, Asch bad been knocked from his pedestal after a raucous backlash by the Yiddish literary establishment toward his 1930s "Christological" novels, which had emphasized the kinship between Judaism and Christianity. With the emergence in Europe of what Asch called the "Satanic" powers of Nazism and Stalinism, the writer's imagination was fired less by the Zionist dream than by his vision for a spiritual alliance between, the two religious traditions. Believing this common destiny could be realized only in a pluralistic United States, Asch in East River turned away from the homogeneous Jewish enclaves that had provided the setting for many of his and other Yiddish writers' earlier works, instead using a multiethnic quarter to foreground immigrant communities working out the terms of their new relationships in America. (32)
The novel focuses on a working-class Manhattan tenement block of the 1910s, overflowing with first-and second-generation Irish, Poles, Germans, and Italians. This intimate New-World neighborhood--where residents "knew one another, loved or hated one another, but belonged together" dramatized the potential for spiritual rapprochement via the homely virtues of neighbourliness and mutual aid. Here the "sharp tang of gefullte fish or boiled beef from a Jewish household joined with odors of a stew from an Irish home or the spaghetti and meat balls of an Italian family." And here, residents gather in a local yard to plant vegetables or flowers from the old country, with the Germans' potatoes, the Italians' fig tree, and the Poles' nasturtiums blending to form a "literal garden of nations." This serene vision is but a momentary interlude amidst the miserable working lives of the block's tenement-dwellers. And yet, as critic Dan Miron suggests, the opening sequence serves as a "model of potential harmony among people of different national and religious affiliations," with the subsequent plot development representing "the quest for the realization of this vision." (33)
The complex, winding story that follows centers on a struggling grocery store owned by a devout Orthodox Jew, Moshe Wolf Davidowsky. The narration tracks the parallel trajectories of Moshe Wolf's two sons: Irving, an entrepreneurial striver who becomes a wealthy magnate in the garment industry; and Nathan, a pensive intellectual, crippled by polio, who develops into an inspiring labor polemicist. Driving the novel are two primary conflicts, one spiritual and the other social, each of which is resolved by drawing on resources indigenous to the neighborhood.
The first conflict comes with Irving's marriage to Mary McCarthy, a local Irish-Catholic girl who had befriended the Davidowskys despite injunctions from her anti-Semitic father. After his son's marriage to a Christian, Moshe Wolf no longer acknowledges Irving, choosing instead to continue backbreaking labor at his failing grocery even as Irving and Mary move to a palatial apartment near Riverside Drive. But, when her marriage dissolves after she has their child baptized against Irving's wishes, Mary shucks off her coldhearted materialism to return to the East River neighborhood--back to "where her real family was; Moshe Wolf's family." Taking in his homeless Catholic daughter-in-law and grandchild, Moshe Wolf's fatherly instincts gradually overcome his rigid disapproval of their presence in his dwelling-place, and here a sort of religious synthesis occurs. Mary's and Irving's agnostic experiment in the outside world has failed, but, back in her old neighborhood, Mary and her father-in-law achieve a transcendent appreciation of one another's spiritual commitments, a respect that trumps any similar accommodation that the secular world can offer. (34)
The novel's other central conflict grows out of Irving's abusive industrial practices. In opposition, his brother Nathan draws from resources of his neighborhood in order to synthesize religions faith and concern for the oppression of workers. After discovering that local tenements have been converted to degrading sweatshops for Irving's cut-rare piecework, Nathan abandons his law-school studies, deciding that now, for him, "the neighborhood was the university." He develops a social vision increasingly indebted to his father's pious religious devotion; where once he had seen "blind fanaticism," he now detects "the logic and intelligence of an entire history and civilization." Shedding his bitter, nihilistic detachment, Nathan appears in his wheelchair to give rousing speeches at union halls. But, melding socialist-inspired labor analyses with a newfound religious sensibility, Nathan preaches views that are "nothing but arch heresy" to the union's doctrinaire Marxisr chieftains: "there can be no social justice without faith in God," he asserts, and America is not "a temporary haven, until the sun of the revolution rises in Russia. America is our spiritual home." (35)
Both of these plotlines abandon the traditional are of earlier ethnic-ghetto accounts. In novels such as Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers (1925), for example, protagonists struggle Co depart from the stifling, homogeneous enclave into the cosmopolitan, secularized outside world, perhaps returning sentimentally at the end to scoop tip a few mementos that will help salve the wounds inflicted by a materialistic, tradition-eroding modern America. (36) Likewise, for Louis Wirth, the ghetto's chief drama was the psychic struggle of the inhabitant who tentatively drifts outside the community's orbit, and then either scurries back to the protective fold or "metamorphoses into a new being." (37) In both, the main polarity is between the religiosity, ethnic identification, and close-knit family life of the Old-World neighborhood, and the broad-minded, secular cosmopolitanism of the New World outside, with inhabitants struggling to resolve this tension. But war-era narratives such as East River follow an entirely different strategy. Here, protagonists have no need to synthesize the gesellschaft practices of the outside world with the gemeinschaft comforts of the old neighborhood. Instead, as Asch's idyllic opening suggests, these local communities already possess all the resources that their inhabitants will need. Even East River's Irving, when he finally sets foot back in the old neighborhood, vows to settle amicably with the garment union and reconcile with his Catholic wife. In fictional renderings through the war years and immediate aftermath, the tight-knit ethnic neighborhood no longer represents a remnant of older ways, under siege from modernity and destined for extinction. Rather, it is frequently imagined as the chrysalis for a humane and pluralist national future in the face of totalitarian threats from abroad.
Though W H. Auden might have written in 1940 that "poetry makes nothing happen," many liberal critics of the day held to a more instrumentalist view of the arts, especially with reference to the fictive construction of neighborhood themes and values. (38) Children's author Sterling North, for example, enthusiastically predicted that Asch's novel might "help to blow cleat the carbon monoxide of race prejudice" from city streets. (39) But if neighborhood as the subject of art seemed able to promote such social ideals, then neighborhood as setting for the arts could serve as real-life stage on which to enact visions of community. With this in mind, a number of progressive intellectuals turned to applied folklore, intercultural-relations experiments, and community arts projects as tools with which to realize similar aspirations. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, vigorously urged the inclusion of community arts programs in civilian-defense volunteer work, despite OCD director Fiorello LaGuardia's ridicule of these non-protective activities as mere "community singing and basket weaving." (40) In the face of such skepticism, one of the most influential, yet conflicted, efforts in this direction was the Neighborhood-Home Festival, an approach to local-level intercultutal relations developed during the war by Rachel Davis DuBois. A progressive educator and leader in the 1930s intercultural-education movement, DuBois championed her festival as a "scientific" approach to overcoming ground-level animosities by engaging ethnically diverse local communities in crafts, vernacular arts, ceremonies, and group discussions focused on their unique heritages.
Born to a New Jersey farm family in 1892, DuBois was a dedicated Quaker and a staunch pacifist during World War I. After the war, as a schoolteacher in her home state, she developed her "Woodbury Plan," a controversial curriculum meant to enhance appreciation for the cultural "contributions" of the nation's various subgroups. (41) DuBois rejected both the melting-pot ideal and an extreme pluralism that she imagined to be clannish and divisive. Her alternative was a model for intergroup cooperation that she dubbed "cultural democracy," one melding her idealistic religious impulses with a "scientific" apparatus drawn from psychological and sociological literature. This path depended upon Americans making "creative use of cultural differences" rather than either suppressing or fetishizing them, thereby allowing minority groups to overcome feelings of inferiority and exclusion. (42) To disseminate this approach, she founded the influential Service Bureau for Intercultural Education in 1934, though the bureau's board squeezed her out during the buildup to overseas conflict, intent on downplaying programming that might appear to undermine national unity. (43)
By this point, however, DuBois had begun promoting the neighborhood as primary arena for addressing contemporary prejudices. Her clearest statement of this vision came in 1943 with the publication of a lengthy instructional book, Get together Americans: Friendly Approaches to Racial and Cultural Conflicts through the Neighborhood-Home Festival. Here, she advocated vernacular arts as instruments capable of uniting neighborhoods across ethnic and religious lines while not erasing the heritage of each group. The scheme involved gathering a diverse ser of neighborhood residents to share folk songs and crafts, seasonal feasts, family histories, and stories of their own holiday customs, thereby learning respect for other traditions and a sense of their common humanity. Participants might concoct ceremonies to follow, based around non-sectarian dates such as harvest time or winter solstice, and incorporating dances, poetry performances, and decorative arts. In this model, neighborly feelings on one hand would be built on ethnicity, with chasms bridged by sharing unique facets of one's culture, and on the other hand would come about through the dilution of ethnicity, with particularist solidarities loosened in favor of a cosmopolitan whole. DuBois constantly toggled between the intimate level of the neighborhood and the vast realm of world events. Just as Franklin Roosevelt--with the metaphoric naming of his Good Neighbor Policy and Four Policemen concept--framed foreign affairs as an extension of the local and familiar, so did activists like DuBois imagine each American neighborhood as, in her words, a "microcosm [of] the problem our statesmen call the problem of world unity." Because the nation's polyglot urban communities brought historically separated cultures into contact in the most intimate of settings, they seemed to offer the most immediate route toward this unity. Perhaps, by developing cultural democracy at home, individual neighborhoods could make the United States "teacher to the world." (44)
Through the 1940s, DuBois and her colleagues spread the festival across the Northeast while vigorously promoting its use in the pages of mass-market periodicals. (45) This new approach was one grounded in the immediate and close-at-hand. American culture was continually evolving, DuBois stated, and "[e]ach person, each home, each neighborhood has an opportunity to make it richer." The title of one of her magazine articles--"A Tension Area Becomes a Neighborhood"--hints at her conception of neighborhood. The term here had little to do with architecture, boundaries, or key businesses and institutions. Instead, it was a space based almost entirely on sentiment--one that came into being when tensions melted away, with local "antagonism and suspicion" yielding to "appreciation and friendliness." In urging Americans "to recapture their tradition of neighborliness," DuBois suggested that somehow the small-town characteristics of another age--reciprocity, goodwill, mutual aid--could he dredged up in order to meet the challenges of the heterogeneous and depersonalizing modern metropolis. (46)
This enthrallment with bygone neighborhood virtues emanated, in part, from DuBois's model of racial and ethnic division. She steered decisively away from issues of political power or economic enfranchisement, believing that the nation's "fundamental problem" was one of "personal relationships." (47) Not surprisingly, then, Get together Americans omits mention of such local irritants as restrictive covenants, mortgage discrimination, employment segregation, or inequitable provision of municipal services. Empowerment for DuBois was primarily psychological in nature: minority groups learning to discard shame in their differences. Such an orientation extended even to permissible topics at the festival itself. As Arthur Katona, an Ohio sociologist who promoted DuBois's methods, instructed in Common Ground: "[C]ertainly the Neighborhood Party is not the place or time for discussion of social problems. ... If someone should begin a serious discourse ..., a committee leader can gently nip it in the bud." (48) This emphasis on prejudice or chauvinism rather than racism or discrimination drove the festival's therapeutic design.
However, it is precisely within such a "personal-relationships" framework that everyday neighborhood interactions could seem so essential. In this way, DuBois's scheme represented an uneasy mix of cosmopolitanism and gemeinschaft, an attempt to combine an expansive appreciation for difference with the intense intimacy that, in the consensus of sociologists, occurred only in the rural village or insular enclave. Such a preference for the personal over the structural, the experiential over the theoretical, and indigenous sentiment over imported strategy runs through writings by a variety of wartime intergroup activists. When the liberal Common Council for American Unity hosted a series of "nationalities parties" in New York neighborhoods, for example, it touted the fact that the program involved "no fancy theories" but rather simply "the experience of knowing firsthand our next door neighbors." (49) Likewise, the Good Neighbor Committee--a national organization of community leaders supported by Eleanor Roosevelt--dedicated itself to "rebuild[ing] those smaller democracies" by enhancing that "understanding which comes only from personal relationships." (50) This insistence on the interpersonal roots of community discord often erased fundamental economic and political causes of the racial tensions that were then exploding violently in cities like Detroit and Los Angeles.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
DuBois's cultural-arts strategy, claims historian Shafali Lal, hews to an "heirloom-conservation approach to racial equity," reducing culture to the quaint and curious. (51) This assessment is borne out, in Get together Americans, through essentialized accounts of various groups' "contributions"--the work ethic of "old-stock" Americans, the spicy gaiety of Italian life, and so forth. But DuBois's vision for local cultural democracy breaks down more drastically when she outlines her festival's concluding phase. At the finish came a party, and, here, "all traces of antiquarianism, all memories of racial and cultural specialties are abandoned. ... The group has stepped out of the past. Now it consists of just modern Americans amusing themselves in current style." It was the very "sharpness of this transition from the past to the present," she insisted, that was "essential" to the event. (52) Here, then, the very identities that the festival was designed to sanction are relegated to a musty past. Ironically, although DuBois abhorred the melting-pot imperative, this passage from "racial and cultural specialties" to a resting place as "just modern Americans" inadvertently emulates the elaborate melting-pot dramaturgies of Henry Ford a generation earlier, in which the automaker's foreign-born workers symbolically shucked off their national garb inside a mock-up of a giant pot. In fact, DuBois's essentialized descriptions of mothballed cultures, as well as the notion of periodically pulling them out of the trunk for display, all suggest the neighborhood as a sort of museum of ethnic cultures.
Each of these instances--whether Asch's romantic union of creeds emanating from the everyday life of the street corner or DuBois's project of a local-level cultural democracy through shared vernacular arts--puts artistic vision into service as ideological vehicle. And these more rarified modes of representation quickly extended into more commercially oriented imagery, as well. Like their highbrow counterparts, the popular media served up the notion that the intimacy of the neighborhood could smooth the frictions of a diverse nation and give birth to a new kind of Americanism, but only by simultaneously identifying and reducing diversity.
For a variety of reasons, the intercultural education approach championed by DuBois gave way over the 1940s to so-called "human-relations" strategies. (53) Where the former emphasized distinctiveness and the integration of various cultural strands into a larger whole, the latter aimed to mitigate intergroup divisions through educating residents about their essential sameness. While writers and artists in this camp often co-opt the neighborhood tropes described above, they frequently downplay or dilute the progressive visions of figures such as Asch and DuBois. One example among many may serve to illustrate this strategy: the NBC radio works of Louis Hazam, a scriptwriter who would go on to a distinguished career producing television documentaries. (54) The son of a Lebanese refugee, Hazam began his career freelancing as writer for radio ads and soap operas. In 1946, he finally nailed down a steady job as scriptwriter for NBC radio's domestic series, Home Is What You Make It. There, Hazam churned out dozens of homilies on the theme and problem of democracy, explored through didactic dramas emphasizing the values of the home and neighborhood. (55)
In much of Hazam's work, the confluence of neighborhood and ethnicity is couched in language far different from that of DuBois. Take, for instance, a 1947 episode entitled "Story without Accents." Narrated by the fictional Gwen Taylor, the drama described how Gwen's "mind was cleared of the unhealthy cobwebs of prejudice through the understanding and appreciation of her neighbors." At the opening, postwar housing shortages have forced the Taylor family to make its home in the undesirable Center Street neighborhood, a district teeming with eastern and southern Europeans. As the downcast, Gwen narrates, "[I]t was almost more than I could take. It wasn't just the unpainted houses; it was the people." From the shawl-clad Mrs. Petrovich, who totes along a housewarming gift of sauerkraut while looking "like a picture out of the National Geographic," to the scruffy Scandinavian workman Pete Balsen, to a former Greek shepherd who keeps a goat in his yard, the neighbors' exotic appearances and easy familiarity leave Gwen unnerved and standoffish.
Gwen's problem is the very set of values in which she is immersed. "It wasn't a bad neighborhood. It was just that everybody wanted to be your friend," she laments; "I was New England reared, and in New England we liked our privacy." But when, in the final act, Gwen suddenly takes ill with appendicitis, the suspiciously foreign neighbors rush her to the hospital, care for her children, and organize a welcome party upon her return. This display of impeccable neighborly virtues spurs Gwen to realize, "If it didn't begin with us, in our everyday relationships with our Mrs. Petrovichs, Pete Balsens and Mr. Stephanos, it would never take root at all--the one peaceful world we wanted would never be anything but a dream." The leap from Gwen's understanding of Mrs. Petrovich and Pete Balsen on Center Street to mutual understanding in the global arena perfectly typifies contemporary tropes of neighborhood as surrogate for the world.
These sentiments come into focus in a short final scene, in which Gwen's husband receives a long-awaited offer of an apartment in an upscale neighborhood. Now, though, Gwen will have none of it; she insists that the family "stay here among good friends and neighbors," where her children can learn "to be less shy of foreign names and less conscious of accents than I was." But, wait: less conscious of foreign accents? Throughout the script, stage directions indicate that Mrs. Petrovich speaks with "no accent," that Pete Balsen and Mr. Stephano speak with "no accent"--the script's title, after all, is "Story without Accents." The neighborhood initially seems a space of difference, but eventually emerges as the most suitable locale for Americans to realize their sameness. The neighborhood here is merely a milestone along the road to complete assimilation, rather than--as DuBois preached--a space where differences themselves, when properly managed, could encourage neighborly interaction. Hazam is unable to suppress the contradictions that his work contains; like many of his contemporaries, he never satisfactorily mediates the impulses of assimilation and particularity, a divergence lurking in many of the fictional renderings of neighborhood "feeling" in the 1940s. (56)
Ironically, with their fixation on questions of religion, European nationality, and cultural assimilation, the neighborhood texts described above overlook the dramatically hardening racial lines of the 1940s industrial city. Even as writers and artists promoted neighborhood unity itself as a catalyst for love across ethnic lines, many white city residents were forging a different kind of unity. Not only were opponents of racial, integration forming new homeowners' associations and block clubs at an unprecedented pace, but, as historians Thomas Sugrue and John McGreevey have established, these groups most frequently mobilized against black "invasion" based on a shared whiteness rather than shared European ethnic origins. (57) To racial liberals of the 1950s, faced with the violent consequences of that "unity," the previous decade's romantic narratives of neighborhood solidarity would seem increasingly naive. (58)
III. Mediating Neighborhood Visions in Street Scene
Measured against the contradictory depictions of the working-class, ethnic-accented neighborhood emerging in the post-war years, the January 1947 Broadway premiere of the musical drama Street Scene stands as more than simply another opening of another show. More visibly than any other contemporary work, it embodies the difficulties in depicting the neighborhood as a source of unity rather than division, of cross-community solidarity rather than particularist insularity, of far-reaching engagements rather than retreat into the purely local. Michael Denning ascribes one source of the eventual failure of Popular Front musical theater to its "inability to resolve formally and musically its central antinomy: the relation between African American musics, particularly jazz, and the operatic tradition." (59) Street Scene in its own way exemplified that divergence. However, in this work those aesthetic dilemmas are closely linked with incongruities in the representation of urban space itself. Hovering uncertainly between celebration and social critique, between purely commercial entertainment and "serious" art, its Janus-faced attitude replicated a gradual shift in discourse about the neighborhood and its place in American thought and culture. Here the often-mismatched cultural and ideological constructs of neighborhood were deployed in their most self-conscious fashion as the piece struggled to merge the competing visions of its creators.
Charting out his lyrics for the show, Langston Hughes attempted to balance rival demands from his two artistic collaborators. Elmer Rice, distinguished playwright and utopian socialist, vehemently insisted that his 1929 play by the same name--the basis for the musical--remain virtually unchanged: a sharp critique of urban deprivation, conveyed through an intense, naturalistic narrative of twenty-four hours in a tenement district. But Kurt Weill, the German-born modernist composer who had fled the Nazi regime before taking up American citizenship, aimed to use Rice's original play more loosely, as scaffold for an entirely new kind of "serious" musical theater, one that would meld Broadway and American-folk forms to high-art opera. (60)
This dispute, though explicitly centered on aesthetics, played out in the staging of the neighborhood itself, contributing to the ambivalent tone of the work as a whole. The musical version retained the gritty setting of the Rice original--a street fronted by a dilapidated apartment house in "a mean quarter of New York"--and this dismal scene was "right down my alley," as Hughes explained in the Chicago Defender, since "I have lived in plenty of tenements myself." (61) But though Hughes cited as model the poverty and despair of tenement life, many of his lyrics moved in a dramatically different direction. Amidst voluminous drafts, he composed one short fragment that, while eventually left unused, epitomized a more idealistic neighborhood vision: dubbing the street the "heart of a history book," the song text festively elaborated on the show's humble setting as "the whole world in one block, from the corner store to the corner bar." (62) Veering sharply away from the grimly deterministic urban landscape of Rice's 1929 play, Hughes's early summation set the small-scale city community at the center of the nation's historical narrative in an unlikely multiethnic blending, "the whole world in one block." For this reason, the show seemed to capture some of the anti-fascist energy of the war years. As Hughes gleefully predicted before a subsequent staging in Dusseldorf, Germany, Street Scene--with its black and Jewish co-creators and its multiethnic neighborhood setting--would undoubtedly leave "some old Nazis ... turning over in their graves." (63) The 1947 musical would take in only disappointing profits: competition from the smash hits Finian's Rainbow and Brigadoon chased it off Broadway after a mere 148 bows. (64) Nonetheless, Street Scene stands among the most telling and powerful urban "performances" of the decade, one that seemed translatable far beyond its Manhattan setting. Although New York critics somewhat narcissistically embraced the work as a paean to their own particular city, it functioned in a more general way as a portrait of urban neighborhood life at mid-century, brimming with little incidents, as a Cincinnati journalist insisted, that "could happen in any large city east of the Mississippi River." (65)
The show assembled an unusually large cast of sixty actors to evoke the workaday bustle of its polyglot neighborhood--a "shabby warren," as New York's Daily News put it, "into which are crowded the races, the lovers, the haters and the big and little events of city life." (66) In the course of the somewhat melodramatic plot, Anna Maurrant, an unhappy housewife, carries on an affair with the local bill collector. Meanwhile, her daughter, Rose, embarks on a star-crossed romance with Sam Kaplan, a poetic Jewish law student from the apartment house. In a sensational conclusion, Anna's alcoholic, bigoted husband walks in on her extramarital tryst and shoots his wife to death. These carefully interwoven plotlines, however, often feel almost extraneous: many of the musical numbers serve simply to dramatize the day-to-day life of the neighborhood. In a staging that pulsed, as one reviewer enthused, with "earthy detail, gay or sad to the ear," neighbors exchange formulaic complaints over the summer heat, tipsy young lovers jitterbug along the sidewalk, sharp-tongued gossips crane out of windows, and an expectant couple publicly frets over the arrival of their first child. (67) Amidst a frenetic flow of milkmen and delivery boys, schoolchildren and dog walkers, tramps and bullies, the street is animated by the chatter of time-passing debates in which everyone feels entitled to weigh in: Which nationality's mothers raise children best? Is a pregnancy harder on the husband or the wife? Capitalism or socialism? Did Columbus or Leif Ericson discover America? In fact, this elevation of the every- day was so pronounced as to draw sardonic barbs during the Philadelphia previews. As a local reviewer sarcastically opined, Weill's orchestration was "grotesquely disproportionate": one neighbor lady "works up quite a warble because she is going to cook a chicken," while the lowly ice-cream cone serves as topic for "quite a concerted operatic episode." (68)
The problem that critics couldn't quite identify rests in part on the authors' incomplete effort to represent the vitality, solidarity, and agency of the urban working classes without romanticizing their economic suffering--or, as Weill put it, "to find the inherent poetry in these people and to blend my music with the stark realism of the play." (69) All the while, the text of Rice's original play underlay the finished musical, focusing on an underclass excluded from the prosperity of the 1920s. In that version, the neighborhood had seemed primarily a space of misery and monotony: one "as gauntly impersonal as vital statistics," in a contemporary critic's words, "merely a place where there are people and births, and marriages and deaths forever in endless succession." (70) After a preliminary audition, Weill had insisted that "all the political parts of the  script sounded quite outdated ... and should definitely come out." (71) But the updated version contained its own politics, one expressed through a kind of celebratory realism in which the minor details of working-class neighborhood life were transformed into colorful ornaments on the nation's democratic tree, offering an uplifting counterpoint to the squalid urban setting.
In this way, the 1947 musical demonstrates an almost schizophrenic nature--one apparent both in Weill's sometimes-unwieldy mix of "serious-opera" gestures with conventions of popular musical theater, and also in the competition between Rice's central plot and the lighthearted grab-bag of trivial incidents that surrounds it. Indeed, two entirely separate dramas seem to emerge: one a tragic, naturalistic urban narrative about jealousy, alcoholism, adultery, and murder, all driven by poverty and other environmental factors; the other a restive melting-pot pageant, replete with anthems celebrating the solidarity and pleasures of community existence. Every scene that points toward an escape from the neighborhood as desired end is juxtaposed with a gesture in the opposite direction. Sam's signature aria, "Lonely House," laments anonymity and isolation in the big city; Anna sings of the wrenching disappointments of growing up on streets "dark with mis'ry and distress"; and Sam fruitlessly begs Rose to come away with him to "build a house to shelter us/beneath a happier sky." Yet the trammeled hopes and the dreams of flight in these arias and duets are consistently countered by zestful ensemble numbers that reinforce the communal joys of neighborhood living: declaiming the pleasures of corner-drugstore meals and ice-cream cones ("Hallelujah and Hosanna/when it comes to banana!"); flaunting the frivolity of the children's street games, in which they wickedly parody the pretensions of snooty debutantes and industrial magnates; and expressing shared delight at the "good news and glory" brought by the block's recent high-school graduates." (72) Throughout, the drama oscillates between intimations of a "happier sky" beyond the shabby neighborhood and affirmations of the block's familiar confines as the epitome of contentment.
Both contemporary reviewers and present-day scholars, uncomfortable with this divergence, have consistently privileged one of these aspects over the other. While a New York Post columnist grumbled that only the "bright and delightful" neighborhood ensemble numbers seemed successful, recent academic critics generally take the opposite view. (73) For historian Larry Stempel, these Broadway-style "melting-pot episodes" serve mainly as distracting interruptions to the momentum of the central plot, while musicologist Ronald Taylor argues that the wide-ranging variety of "street scenes" work chiefly to "trivialise the events of the unfurling drama." (74) But, whether or not this dual nature is an artistic flaw, the very tensions embedded in the show encapsulate a broader range of social ambivalences, delineating a divided impulse over working-class city life at mid-century. The show's makeshift construction extends not just to the incomplete elision of Rice's metonymical projection of urban labor, but also to the attempt to negotiate competing visions of the ethnic-accented tenement neighborhood as either doorway or dead end, nursery or necropolis.
This ambivalence left critics split not only over the work's aesthetic unity but also over whether the down-at-the-heels setting exemplified the overall rottenness of American city life or the miniature beauties and democratic potential inherent in the nation's neighborhood spaces. While a Washington Evening Star critic, adopting the first interpretation, saw in Street Scene mainly a "malignance expressed in gossip, the pathetic, ironic games of the children, racial and religious bickerings, and the crushing force of poverty," a far more optimistic and politically oriented reading emerged from liberal intellectuals such as John Lovell, Jr., the Howard University literary scholar. (75) "The Stage Teaches Democracy," declared Lovell in a cover review for the NAACP's flagship publication, The Crisis. In his estimation, the artists bad crafted a brilliant example of how "the basic understandings of the American melting pot as a force for democracy are most effectively displayed," thus offering a didactic model for future productions. Indeed, their most significant accomplishment, Lovell argued, was a demonstration that "the particular hammer under which all these people live daily molds them into characters a great deal more alike than different. Thus democracy is shown in the fruitful sharing of ordinary, everyday experiences of pleasure, pain, and struggle, which foolish discriminations try to prevent." (76) If democracy, as the Council for Democracy had affirmed in a wartime defense handbook, was not just a "form of government" but also a "feeling in the mind and heart," then artistic summations of that "feeling" such as Street Scene held a definite political, as well as aesthetic, significance--one expressed most forcefully through a vision of the nation epitomized on the most local scale. (77)
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
Yet if Lovell sounds oddly sanguine about the "particular hammer" under which the tenement-dwellers live, then the dark humor of the final ensemble--a reprise of the opening number, "Ain't It Awful, the Heat"--complicates his easy optimism. Here, the sensational violence of the past day simply fades from sight as listless neighbors launch anew into their standard complaints over soaring temperatures, conveying "the feeling," as Hughes instructed the production team, "of all the crowded life of the street carrying on as usual." (78) In a time of rapid social transformation, Street Scene positions the neighborhood as the primary source of stability, ultimately structured not by upheaval but by familiar rhythms and cyclic repetitions. Stability and timelessness, however, can also he read as suffocation, numbing monotony, and brutality ignored or forgotten. In this sense, the Street Scene collaboration stood simultaneously as one of the last landmarks of a Popular Front communitarian vision of the American neighborhood, and as harbinger of a new era during which the working-class urban neighborhood would once again be portrayed as an entrapping and backward-looking space.
"Back Home" was the title of Herbert Lewis's 1943 essay documenting his return to his boyhood neighborhood. "It was growing dark as I left," Lewis narrated in closing. "Men returning from work were entering their houses, and some kids were playing their final game of ball against the curbstone. I could almost hear the distant booming of guns, the desperate commands of soldiers, and the bewildered cries of women and children on the road. But I was not afraid for my old neighborhood. I knew it would withstand the hardest blow of the enemy, and grow stronger in the years to come." (79) The saccharine conclusion seems designed to reassure, but the coming of a new geopolitical order and a postindustrial urban age would soon spark a wide-ranging reevaluation of the role that such older neighborhoods, with their primary ties and long-standing loyalties, might play in a newly mobile and consumerist America.
The chilly winds of the cold war soon swept the anti-fascist, multicultural ideologies of the depression and war years from the cultural landscape. This backlash had concrete effects in the realm of neighborhood-level politics, resulting in a sharp decline in progressive community organizing. (80) But even narrators of this earlier neighborhood vision faced a new indifference or outright reprisals. Though Sholem Asch, for example, had quickly sold the East River film rights for the impressive sum of $225,000, MGM eventually scratched production with the oblique explanation that "there have been enough pictures dealing with anti-Semitism for the time being." (81) Rachel Davis DuBois, meanwhile, was made to answer for her intergroup-relations efforts before Joseph McCarthy's Senate subcommittee. (82) As high-profile congressional investigations into communism and organized crime interrogated and ultimately stigmatized the prominence of ethnic working-class culture, the language of democratic idealism so frequently applied to the American urban neighborhood was partially extinguished. (83)
With the dawning of the cold war, William Graebner relates, World War II-era "emphases on the group and democracy" haltingly gave way to a new "emphasis on the individual and freedom." (84) Already by 1952, sociologist Morris Janowitz was influentially arguing that contemporary neighborhoods were best understood as "communities of limited liability"--spaces with which residents identified only to the degree to which they derived demonstrable benefits, and merely one way of locating oneself in the world. (85) "Community" and "belonging" in this view more nearly resemble consumer goods: picked out, made use of, and discarded at will. If this definition seemed to describe quite well a nation where increasing numbers were choosing new residences in the suburbs, then it also framed older urban neighborhoods as spaces where longstanding community bonds reigned in rather than enabled free choice. During this period, the most prominent chroniclers of the old ethnic neighborhood--from Alfred Kazin to Gertrude Berg to Gian-Carlo Menotti--spoke in a language of self-doubt and reluctant nostalgia. (86) At the same rime, suggests scholar Lynn Spigel, postwar suburban culture offered a new discursive framework "through which the family could mediate the contradictory impulses for a private haven on the one hand, and community participation on the other." (87) Here, though, the language of neighborhood had been stripped of its multicultural and grassroots elements, reformatted instead around individualist themes such as home ownership and personal privacy.
Artistic depictions of the local urban community, such as Street Scene, took shape at a time when the very idea of the neighborhood was in flux, and when the outline of the postindustrial city was just coming into view--a "new" place which would be dominated in the popular imagination by visions of suburban flight, racial clashes, and rising crime. Even as wartime renderings promulgated a theory of imagined citizenship--neighborhood as synecdoche for the nation, and interpersonal relationships as the primary vehicle of citizenship--they submerged deeper structural problems of class and race. As upwardly mobile white ethnics and laborers departed the city, leaving behind increasingly concentrated poverty, a discursive cultural cosmopolitanism was revealed to be no answer to unequal access to economic and political power. Over the succeeding decade, commentators and artists gradually jettisoned their formulations of the old neighborhood as miniature melting pot or microcosm of democracy, instead drawing distinctions between the city's older, inflexible forms of "neighboring" and ostensibly newer and more malleable types of community in the suburbs. The neighborhood street as "the whole world in one block" would shortly seem not only nostalgic but suffocating.
For their helpful suggestions, I am grateful to Conevery Bolton Valencius, Michael Denning, Julia Foulkes, Amanda L. Izzo, Matthew Frye Jacobson, Mark S. Looker, Sue Taylor, and participants in the Rockefeller Archive Center's Arts in Place workshop.
(1.) "H. C. Lewis, Novelist, Writer of Scenarios," New York Times, Oct, 19, 1950, p. 31. Lewis drifted alone, the fringes of the Popular Front, and his 1940 novel Spring Offensive earned praise front Ralph Ellison for illustrating the "nuances of American class struggle." Ellison, "Anti-War Novel," New Masses, Jun. 18, 1940, pp. 29-30.
(2.) Herbert Clyde Lewis, "Back Home," Los Angeles Times, May 23, 1943, p. G2.
(3.) Robert B. Westbrook, Why We Fought: Forging American Obligations in World War II (Washington, 2004), 28.
(4.) R. D. McKenzie, "The Neighborhood: A Study of Local Life in the City of Columbus, Ohio," American Journal of Sociology 27 (1921): 344-45.
(5.) Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York, 1985), 296.
(6.) For several late-1930s examples, see National Resources Committee, Our Cities: Their Role in the National Economy (Washington, 1937), 56-57; Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (New York, 1937), 188 n.81; and Stuart Alfred Queen and Lewis Francis Thomas, The City A Study of Urbanism in the United States (New York, 1939), 312.
(7.) John W. Jeffries, Wartime America: The World War II Home Front (Chicago, 1996), 69-71.
(8.) Cleveland Federation of Settlements, "Program to Meet the War Situation," typescript, May 1942, National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers records (hereafter NFS), SW1, Box 14, Folder 123, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.
(9.) William Graebner. The Age of Doubt: American Thought and Culture in the 1940s (Boston, 1991), 5-6; Petty R. Duis, "No Time for Privacy: World War II and Chicago's Families," in The War in American Culture: Society end Consciousness during World War II, ed. Lewis A. Ehrenberg and Susan E. Hirsch (Chicago, 1996), 32.
(10.) Lester H. Robb. "Small Towns in Large Cities," American City, Jun. 1940, p. 80.
(11.) John L. Elliot, text for speech at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, Oct. 12, 1941, p. 3, NFS, SW1, Box 9, Folder 67.
(12.) Katherine Barrett Poser, "Victory Garden Plan Now Shows Results," Washington Post, Jun. 28, 1942, p. L12.
(13.) Eduard C. Lindeman, "Democracy and the Friendship Pattern," Adult Education Journal 3 (1944): 22-23.
(14.) Wilkins quoted in Cary McWilliams, "What We Did about Racial Minorities," in While You Were Gone: A Report on Wartime Life in the United States, ed. Jack Goodman (New York, 1946), 94.
(15.) The House I Live In, dir. Metvyn LeRoy, 1945.
(16.) Douglas Yates, Neighborhood Democracy: The Politics and Impacts of Decentralization (Lexington, 1973), 17-18.
(17.) Louis Wirth, "Urbanism as a Way of Life," American Journal of Sociology 44 (1938): 1-24; Louis Wirth, "The New Birth of Community Consciousness," in Community Life in a Democracy, ed. Florence C. Bingham (Chicago, 1942), 11-12, 20.
(18.) David Sneddon, "Neighborhoods and Neighborliness," Social Forces 5 (1926): 236; Niles Carpenter, The Sociology of City Life (New York, 1932), 241.
(19.) "New Appreciation of Neighborhood." Christian Science Monitor, Jul. 24, 1943, p. 7; Pence James, "Neighbors in Action," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 12, 1943, p. E12; Christine Sadler, "Defense Activities Bring out Neighborhood Spirit," Washington Post, Apr. 12, 1942, p. B2.
(20.) David Cushman Coyle, America (Washington, 1941), 79-84.
(21.) "Democracy Threatened by Lack of Neighborliness," Science News Latter, Feb. 28, 1942, p. 133.
(22.) U.S. Office of Civilian Defense, Note That You Are a Block Leader (Washington, 1943), n.p.
(23.) U.S. Office of Civilian Defense, The Neighborhood in Action (Washington, 1943), 25-27; U.S. Office of Civilian Defense, The Block Plan of Organization for Civilian War Services (Washington, 1942), 4-5.
(24.) A.M.Y. (pseud.), "Block Meetings: Neighbors in a Democracy," Christian Science Monitor, Apr. 3, 1943, p. 9.
(25.) O.C.D., Neighborhood in Action, 6, 13; U.S. Office of Civilian Defense, Civilian War Services: An Operating Guide for Local Defense Councils (Washington, 1943), 1.
(26.) Judith E. Smith, Visions of Belonging: Family Stories. Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy 1940-1960 (New York, 2004), 3.
(27.) Geneva Mathiasen, "Window Show," Survey Graphic 31 (1942): 359-61.
(28.) Suppurating Serials," Time, Mar. 23, 1942, p. 44; Louis Berg, "Entertainment Programs and Wartime Morale: Radio's Ten Best Morale Building Programs," pamphlet, Jan. 18, 1943, Gertrude Berg papers, Series II, Box 1, "Goldbergs" folder, and Louis Berg, letter to Gertrude Berg, Feb. 15, 1943, Gertrude Berg papers. Series 1, Box 5, correspondence scrapbook. Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Library, Syracuse, N.Y. Psychiatrist Louis Berg was no relation to the show's writer, Gertrude Berg.
(29.) Louis Wirth, The Ghetto (Chicago, 1928), 290.
(30.) Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, 1998), 110-113.
(31.) Sholem Asch, East River: A Novel, trans, A. H. Gross (New York, 1946).
(32.) Dan Miron, "God Bless America: Of and around Sholem Asch's East River," in Sholem Asch Reconsidered, ed. Nanette Stahl (New Haven, 2004), 186.89.
(33.) Asch. 5, 16-17, 24; Miron, 191-92.
(34.) Asch, 297, 351, 353, 388.
(35.) Ibid., 299, 304, 307, 340, 403.
(36.) Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers: A Novel (Garden City, 1925).
(37.) Wirth, The Ghetto, 290.
(38.) W. H. Auden, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" , in Auden, Collected Poems (New York, 1976), 197.
(39.) Sterling North, "'East River' Is Strong Medicine," Washington Post, Oct. 27, 1946, p. S6.
(40.) Laura McEnaney, Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties (Princeton, 2000), 17-18.
(41.) O. L. Davis, Jr., "Rachel Davis DuBois: Intercultural Education Pioneer," in "Bending the Future to their Will": Civic Women, Social Education, and Democracy, ed. Margaret Smith Crocco and O. L. Davis, Jr. (Lanham, 1999), 169-84.
(42.) Shafali Lal, "1930s Multiculmralism: Rachel Davis DuBois and the Bureau for Intercultural Education," Radical Teacher 69 (2004): 18-22; Rachel Davis DuBois, Get together Americans: Friendly Approaches to Racial and Cultural Conflicts though the Neighborhood-Home Festival (New York, 1943), 4, 6-7, 12-13.
(43.) Nicholas V. Montalto, A History of the Intercultural Education Movement, 1924-1941 (New York, 1982), 218-267.
(44.) DuBois, Get together Americans, xii, 3, 13, 86. On Roosevelt's neighborhood metaphors for foreign policy, see Richard A. Melanson, American Foreign Policy since the Vietnam War: The Search for Consensus from Nixon to Clinton, 3rd ed. (Armonk, 2000), 156, and Amy Spellacy, "Mapping the Metaphor of the Good Neighbor: Geograpby, Globalism, and Pan-Americanism during the 1940s," American Studies, 47 (2006): 40.
(45.) Rachel Davis DuBois and Marjorie Barstow Greenbie, "Try a Neighborhood Party." Parents' Magazine, Sept. 1943, pp.28-29, 81; Rachel Davis DuBois, "A Tension Area Becomes a Neighborhood," Journal of the National Education Association [38 (1949)]: 114-15.
(46.) DuBois, Get together Americans, xi, 11; DuBois, "Tension Area."
(47.) DuBois, Get together Americans, 2.
(48.) Arthur Katona, "Start the Semester with a Neighborhood Party," Common Ground 7 (1947): 89-90.
(49.) Rosalie Slocum, "What's Cooking in Your Neighbor's Pot?," Common Ground 4 (1944): 79-81.
(50.) Good Neighbor Committee, by-laws, 1940, NFS, SW1, Box 9, Folder 67.
(51.) Lal, 21.
(52.) DuBois, Get together Americans, 57-62, 79.
(53.) Montalto, 270-276.
(54.) David Bird, "Lou Hazam Dies," New York Times, Sept. 9, 1983, p. D18.
(55.) Louis Hazam, oral-history transcript, Apt. 23, 1976, Library of American Broadcasting, College Park, Md.
(56.) Louis Hazam, script for Home Is What You Make It, episode 131, broadcast May 17, 1947 on NBC radio, emphasis in original, William Schaden collection, Library of American Broadcasting, College Park, Md. For reasons of clarity, I have made minor alterations to the script's original punctuation.
(57.) Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, 1996), 211-214; John T. McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (Chicago, 1996), 109-110.
(58.) For a typical example, see Reginald Rose's 1954 television play "Thunder on Sycamore Street," an allegory on residential integration, in Rose, Six Television Plays (New York, 1956), 59-104. Here, racial justice comes about not through neighborhood unity, as with many 1940s presentations, but rather through a lone individual standing up against a united neighborhood.
(59.) Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London, 1997), 319.
(60.) Elmer L. Rice, Street Scene: A Play in Three Acts (New York, 1929).
(61) Kurt Weill, Street Scene: An American Opera, piano/vocal score (New York, 1981), 5; Langston Hughes, "Here to Yonder," Chicago Defender, Dec. 21, 1946, p. 14.
(62.) Langston Hughes, miscellaneous Street Scene composition scraps, n.d. 1946, Langston Hughes papers (hereafter LHP), Series V, Box 157, Folder 5742, Beinecke Rare Rook and Manuscript Library, Yale-University, New Haven, Conn.
(63.) Langston Hughes, press release draft, n.d. 1955, LHP, Series V, Box 357, Folder 5746.
(64.) Jurgen Schebera, Kurt Weill: An Illustrated Life, trans. Caroline Murphy (New Haven, 1995), 319.
(65.) John P. Rhodes, "Street Scene': A Show To Be Remembered," Cincinnati Enquirer, n.d. 1950, Kurt Weill/Lotte Lenya papers (hereafter KWP), Series XIII, Box 88, Folder 63, Gilmore Music Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
(66.) John Chapman, "Musical 'Street Scene' a Splendid and Courageous Sidewalk Opera," Daily News, Jan. 10, 1947, p. 47, KWP, Series XIII, Box 88, Folder 61.
(67.) William Hawkins, "'Street Scene' Has Opera Touch," publication unlisted. 22 Mar. 1947, KWP, Series XIII, Box 88, Folder 61.
(68.) Linton Martin, '"Street Scene,' Musical, in Premiere at Shubert," Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 17, 1946.
(69.) Weill quoted in Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, vol. II (New York, 1988), 108.
(70.) John Anderson, commenting on Rice's 1929 play, quoted in "Saying It with Music," Saturday Review, Feb. 1, 1947, pp. 24-26.
(71.) Kurt Weill, letter to Langston Hughes, May 15, 1946, LHP, Series I, Box 168, Folder 3081.
(72.) Weill, Street Scene, 44-59, 71-91, 99-112, 115-119, 178-193, 212-225.
(73.) Richard Watts, Jr., "A Lone Voice on 'Street Scene,'" New York Post, Jan. 25, 1947, p. 12. See also Elinor Hughes, "'Street Scene' Becomes an Opera with Striking Results," Boston Herald, May 4, 1947.
(74.) Larry Stempel, "Street Scene and the Enigma of Broadway Opera," in A New Orpheus: Essays on Kurt Weill, ed. Kim H. Kowalke (New Haven, 1986), 333; Ronald Taylor, Kurt Weill: Composer in a Divided World (New York, 1991), 299-300.
(75.) Jay Carmody, '"Street Scene Now Set to Music," Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), Mar. 8, 1947, p. B14.
(76.) John Lovell, Jr., "Singing in the Streets," The Crisis 54 (1947): 172-74, 188.
(77.) Council for Democracy, Defense on Maim Street (N.p., 1941), 18, emphasis added.
(78.) Langston Hughes, memo to production staff, Dec. 21, 1946, LHP, Series V, Box 357, Folder 5745.
(79.) Lewis, "Back Home."
(80.) Robert Fisher, Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America, 2nd ed. (New York, 1994), 70. For the effects in one particular neighborhood, see George J. Sanchez, '"What's Good for Boyle Heights Is Good for the Jews': Clearing Multiracialism on the Eastside during the 1950s," American Quarterly 56 (2004): 633-661.
(81.) Hedda Hopper, "Looking at Hollywood," Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug. 22, 1946, p. 28; A. H. Wetter, "By Way of Report," New York Tuna, Feb. 1, 1948, p. 5.
(82.) Rachel Davis DuBois, with Corann Okorodudu, All This and Something More: Adventure in Intercultural Education (Bryn Mawr, 1984), 155-166.
(83.) Denning, 257.
(84.) Graebner, 9.
(85.) Morris Janowitz, The Community Press in an Urban Setting (Glencoe, 1952), 222-224. On this concept's currency in 1950s understandings of the neighborhood, see Zaire L. Miller. "The Role and Concept of Neighborhood in American Cities," in Community Organization for Urban Social Change, ed. Robert Fisher and Peter Romanofsky (Westport, 1981), 18-24.
(86.) For example. Kazin's memoir A Walker in the City (New York, 1951); Menotti's opera The Saint of Bleecker Street (1955); and Berg's 1955 chronicle of her characters' move from the Bronx to the suburbs on television's The Goldbergs.
(87.) Lynn Spigel, Welcome to the Dreamhouse; Popular Media and Postwar Suburb (Durham, 2001), 32.
By Benjamin Looker
Saint Louis University
Department of American Studies
St. Louis, MO 63108