Race, Space, and History: Power Relations in Government Policy

The intersection of race, space, and history in local government policies and politics illustrates the profound impact of spatial arrangements on the reproduction of systemic inequalities. As Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin point out in Two-faced Racism: Whites in the Front Stage and the Backstage (2007) significant research supports the argument that much of the social space in the United States is highly racialized.

Two articles provide significant insight into how such racialization occurs within the context of the efforts of cities in California to reconfigure historical neigborhoods and nullify and erase the presence of dominant ethnic identities from the landscape. Wendy Cheng’s perceptive article entitled “’Diversity’ on Main Street? Branding Race and Place in the New ‘Majority-Minority’ Suburbs” (2010), describes two redevelopment campaigns in the Los Angeles West San Gabriel Valley cities of Alhambra and San Gabriel that epitomized the struggle for white economic, social and political dominance over Asian American and Latino pasts.

In an area in which Asian immigrants and Asian Americans constitute half the population and Latinos represent more than a third of the population, the polarization of the city of Alhambra is reflected in residential patterns, with the largely white northern area reporting a median household income 50 percent higher in 2000 than the southern area comprised of a heterogeneous mix of working-class to middle-income Mexican-Americans and Asian Americans.

Cheng documents how the redevelopment of Alhambra’s Main Street involved high-pressure tactics by the city to excise small Chinese businesses and replace them with new “mainstream” businesses. For example, the city gave Starbucks a “tenant improvement allowance” using $136,000 of HUD money and bought an 8,000 square-foot building for over $1 million with an additional $350,000 in upgrades to lure Tony Roma’s to open a restaurant on Main Street, after the chain restaurant had refused several overtures. And the redevelopment agency literally gave Edwards Theatres a 43,000-square-foot parcel of land and $1.2 million form a HUD loan to construct a movie theater. To cap these efforts, the merchants in the Downtown Alhambra Business Association invested in a diversity branding effort with banners that included an older blond white woman, a young Latina woman with freckles and dark hair, a middle-aged Asian man, and a young blue-eyed, blond white woman.

Similarly, in his article entitled, “From ‘Blighted’ to ‘Historic’: Race, Economic Development, and Historic Preservation in San Diego, California” (2008), Leland T. Saito chronicles how the determination of historic designation in the city “favored Whites and overlooked the history of racial minorities” (p. 183). The city commissioned studies on the Chinese Mission, Douglas Hotel, and Clermont/Coast Hotels, three properties associated with Asian American and African American history, and concluded they were not historically or architecturally significant. The Chinese Mission, established in 1927, was a major social center for the Chinese American Community. The Douglas Hotel was the most important entertainment venue for African Americans when it was established in 1924 and the only hotel that would accept African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. The Clermont/Coast Hotel also had significance for the history of the African American Community.

It was only through the lobbying efforts of the Chinese American community and the African American community that the Chinese Mission and Clermont/Coast Hotel were preserved and received historic designation. Due to the lack of a major lobbying effort, the Douglas Hotel was demolished. Saito concludes from these examples that

“public policy is an important site of struggle over the meaning of race” (p. 168) and that “race remains significant in the formation and implementation of development and historic preservation policies” (p. 182).

Community groups, however, can play a key role in counteracting the racial consequences of public policy.

Both these articles present evidence of how space is intertwined with race and history in the identity of place and underscore the importance of community activism and minority participation on city councils. Such activism and solidarity are critical in overcoming divided racial, economic, and geographic interests, ensuring the voice and representation of minority populations, and changing the dynamics of power relationships within municipal governments.