Book Review: Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City

Katherine McKittrick famously wrote that “Black matters are spatial matters” in Demonic Grounds, and Brandi Summers demonstrates that in two interconnected ways in Black in Place: how blackness is employed in placemaking while Black bodies are removed from that same place. These simultaneous processes drive the production of space in the process of gentrifying H Street in Washington, DC. I really enjoyed this book and got a lot out it; I would highly recommend it for urban scholars of any background.

Black in Place | Brandi Thompson Summers | University of North ...
University of North Carolina Press.

Summers’s book was an interesting companion to David Wilson’s book on Chicago that I read earlier this year. Wilson looked at blues clubs and the tension between their role as community centers and their growing importance as tourist attractions, with gentrification looming on the horizon. Summers addresses a very similar concept in the case of H Street, but she develops an analytical tool to understand it: black aesthetic emplacement. Redeveloping H Street means keeping just enough of its African American heritage visible to make it “cool” and “diverse” and a little bit edgy, while brushing aside the lived history and current inhabitants of this place. She points out the importance of “authenticity” and notes that it’s usually attached to things and experiences, but not people. So a neighborhood is “authentic” if its built environment evokes a certain kind of past, or if newcomers can eat certain ethnic foods, but interacting with the people who produced that built environment is not important.

Black aesthetic emplacement for Summers functions as a kind of diversity indicator, because diversity itself is an aesthetic. Diversity is on the surface, appearing to take in all comers in a harmonious whole, but it ignores the histories and social processes underlying the presence of different groups and what they’re allowed to do in that space. On H Street, Summers argues that Irish and Jewish pasts were unearthed and put on display to demonstrate that this had not always been a Black neighborhood, but that African Americans were just one of many groups who had lived here over the years. That makes it okay for white gentrifiers to move in as just the latest group to inhabit an ever-changing, always-diverse space.

The flip side of black aesthetic emplacement is Black displacement. Actual Black people don’t drive up property values and increase the coolness factor the same way that a black aesthetic does. So as H Street has been redeveloped for white suburbanites to move back into the city, that process has pushed out existing residents not just through higher rents, but through the elimination of the businesses that had managed to remain through decades of disinvestment. Summers shows how city programs to develop small businesses explicitly exclude Black-owned businesses like hair salons and convenience stores in favor of “innovative” shops like Pilates studios and dog boutiques. Unlike my vague, passive voice above about “being redeveloped,” Summers therefore identifies the specific mechanisms by which commercial gentrification occurs.

What I was most interested in, of course, was the relationship to mobility. While the H Street streetcar isn’t a main focus of the book, Summers does discuss the ways in which formal and informal surveillance work to police Black mobilities along H Street. “Diversity” still benefits from the presence of some Black people, but not too many, and only if they’re in motion on the bus rather than socializing on the sidewalk. This comes back around to the aesthetics argument in my favorite line from the book: “Urban should not look suburban but can feel suburban in its visual representation of safety” (p. 116). As a white child of the suburbs who grew up afraid of cities and who acknowledges that even today, I’m only comfortable in some kinds of urban neighborhoods, this really hit home. Actually, the whole book made me think a lot about my past and present relationship to cities, above and beyond its excellent critique of specific elements of gentrification and placemaking.

Below is a scan of my mind map of the book, if that might be of interest. I try to do this for most books that I read, either chapter by chapter or for the whole book. (The line down the middle is just the center of the hand-bound book.)

VRAIL Stage 22

Whee, I get to run down a (virtual) hill! This stage descends into the Sangamon River valley (the river is where the trees are in the distance) and just across the river. That’s a total of, um, 50 feet downhill. Based on news accounts, there seems to be a day or two every spring when this road is closed for flooding.

I found some references to this area and the last several stages as belonging to the “Pecan Bottoms” area of central Illinois. We usually associate pecans with the southern U.S., but they’re native in Illinois and Indiana in river bottoms. In fact, the botanical name of the pecan is Carya illinoinensis! The growing season is fairly short, so they don’t get very large in this part of North American, which is why commercial pecan production takes place farther south.

VRAIL Stage 21

This was a short stage; it’s been hot and humid lately, and I’m really missing being able to run indoors at the campus rec center. But this stage heads towards a crossing of the Sangamon River, here heading northward and unchannelized.

Continuing south past this point, you’d end up in Petersburg, the county seat and a little bit farther south, Lincoln’s New Salem. I have very vague memories of going there as a kid with my grandparents, but it’s the kind of place that most Illinois schoolchildren ended up going to at one point or another. New Salem was founded in 1829 as a milltown on the Sangamon, but as a previous post noted, the Sangamon was really hard to navigate with its sand bars and frequent flooding.

Lincoln only lived here for a few years, and by 1840, the village was abandoned after Petersburg was chosen as the county seat. Time passed, and Lincoln became more and more important as a one-time resident of this short-lived town. In 1906, William Randolph Hearst (yes, that William Randolph Hearst) bought the land the former village sat on and gave it to a private association who later transferred it to the state of Illinois. The village was reconstructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, and today it’s a big tourist attraction in central Illinois and a State Historic Site.

Image from of the store where Lincoln worked.

VRAIL Stage 20

This stage brings me up to 98.85 miles; almost a hundred miles under my belt this summer!

Today’s four miles involve the most serious altitude increase so far: 100 feet over 4 miles. (I know, right?) The topographic map below shows another kind of evidence for the unnatural form of the Sangamon River in the northwest corner: the county border between Menard and Mason Counties follows the original course of the Sangamon before it was channelized.

The town of Oakford with population 300 is on the Illinois & Midland Railroad, which carried coal from the southern Illinois coal fields to the Illinois River to be shipped by barge to coal-fired power plants around Chicago. Based on the pics below, they prefer simple names for their commercial establishments in Oakford. Also, I love the tiny false front on the Oakwood post office.

Book review: The Heartland: An American History

I’ve been trying to start my new book project on the Kankakee-Des Plaines confluence, and when I was telling someone on campus about it, they asked if I’d read this book. My description of my project as being about the different layers of transportation and flow that have swept through this one particular Midwestern place made them think of Hoganson’s book on how the Midwest has always been global. Finally, I sat down to read it. The Heartland: An American History eBook: Hoganson ...

Kristin Hoganson is a history professor on our campus, and her main argument is that the “Heartland” myth of an interior, protected space within the North American continent that is isolated and unchanging belies that this has long been a lively, vibrant space intertwined with the wider world in many important ways. She notes that the “Heartland” moniker only came about during WWII, even though it relies on an understanding of this place as timeless and central to U.S. identity. She argues that it has actually been a dual borderland, both between east and west as the frontier of white settlement, and between north and south due to agricultural flows between Mexico, the U.S., and Canada.

I learned a lot about the place where I live from this book, because Hoganson bases her work on Champaign-Urbana. For example, I had no idea that this used to be a major center for raising cattle and hogs; we think of the corn-and-soybean landscape as having always been here, but in the late 1800s, cows and pigs were driven here from points further south and then fattened before final delivery to the stockyards, thanks to the Illinois Central. Beyond agriculture, the chapter on airspace discusses “flyover country,” wired and wireless communications, weather forecasting, early attempts to understand the ecology of birds, and early aviation and the development of Chanute Air Force Base.

I also had no idea that many of the Kickapoo people (some of the original inhabitants of this land) went to Mexico and their descendants remain there today. This was the best chapter of the book as far as I was concerned, arguing that “In affixing security to this particular place, the heartland myth has attached it to particular people, at the cost of detaching it from others.” The tension between the mobile lifestyle of the Kickapoo and the settled lifestyle of the settlers is well-known, especially in terms of its implication for the land, but Hoganson takes it farther by discussing the multiple times the Kickapoo were displaced, including across the Mexican border.

One reason for this specific choice of place, of course, is the ease of conducting research when you live near the archives you need. Hogan argues that since “no single place in the heartland could serve as a microcosm for such a vast and variegated whole,” “Champaign seems as good a starting point as any” (p. xxv). And the book is definitely based on this singular place, though it expands outwards as needed to incorporate Champaign County or east-central Illinois as a whole.

However…I’m not convinced. True, other cities in central Illinois are atypical in their own ways: Springfield as the state capital, Decatur as the headquarters (until recently) of ADM, Bloomington-Normal as the headquarters of State Farm Insurance, etc. But to use a city with a major research university to argue that it’s surprising how global this place actually is concerns me. And then, Hoganson undermines her entire argument about how the heartland isn’t that insular and isolated with the story of an international student who arrived on campus from India in 1906 and said, “The general outlook of the students…was extremely narrow and parochial in this Middle West University. There was nothing of the freedom of mind and spirit of adventure which is generally associated with Universities” (p. 186-7).

Now, Hoganson argues that this does not mean the heartland was isolated, since there was all of this international contact taking place. But it brings to mind life in 2020 in Champaign, where increasing numbers of international students moving to town mean we have more bubble tea shops and international grocery stores, but also suspicious locals complaining about foreign drivers and writing into the local paper about the need to test Chinese students for COVID-19. We are globally-connected here, but those very connections are seen as a threat by people who have a few generations’ history on this land. Hoganson addresses this to some extent when she discusses how hogs were prized for their origin if they were from Britain, but not if they were from Mexico. But I would argue that a place which comes into contact with distant places without really engaging with them, is, in fact, a place that is isolated and inward-looking.

At any rate, the book is very readable and provides an interesting model for the same kind of broad-ranging study on a specific place that I want to do myself, including the “archival traces” at the end of each chapter that highlight key quotations from the archives to illustrate points in the chapter. The writing style is straightforward and non-jargony (it’s from Penguin, after all), and there’s a ton of illustrations. I would get into more detail about the notion of “place” and the relationship to transportation and mobility, but then, I’m a geographer and not a historian!

VRAIL Stage 19

Even though this stage is less forested than the last few, you can see where the Sangamon River floodplain ends so clearly: look at the patterns of the creeks that drain into it. They go from being the branched features in the southern half of the image to the straight, channelized lines across the floodplain. Again, that’s mainly to drain the land in the floodplain so it can be used for agriculture, with the result of course being that flooding is more severe in the Sangamon and downstream in the Illinois River.

Here’s the view along the way: table-flat to the north, a little bit of a rise with some distant trees to the east.

This stage crossed into Menard County, my fourth county of the journey. Its website proclaims that the county seat of Petersburg has the county’s sole traffic light. Because of its proximity to Sangamon County (which it used to be part of), home of the state capital of Springfield, Menard is the first “metropolitan” county my route passes through. It is 97.5% white. It includes one of my favorite Illinois place names: Fancy Prairie.

The county was named for Pierre Menard, the first lieutenant governor of Illinois, who was added to the ticket to appeal to the Francophones who made up about half of the state’s population at its inception. Menard never lived in this county–the predominant white settlement here came from Germany–but in the Francophone region of the state south of St. Louis.

VRAIL Stage 18

I’ve been running but not posting, so I have some catching up to do!

Stage 18 passed through Chandlerville and turned off the main road to take a more direct route east. I neglected to note in the last stage that I was passing north of a settlement called Jules, which is my aunt’s nickname for me, so shoutout to Jules. 🙂

I could not find much to say about Chandlerville, except that it has an annual Burgoo. To my mind, that’s a Kentucky thing, but I’ve seen it argued that this part of Illinois is in the Upland South, so it makes sense. Burgoo is an event as much as a food: a huge pot of stew made with a wide variety of meats and vegetables, intended to feed a crowd. Here’s one recipe from Gun & Garden magazine. No one quite knows where the name came from, though it’s a good guess that it’s the Americanization of an original French term. Anyway, Chandlerville recently decided to cancel this summer’s Burgoo for the same reason pretty much everything is canceled this summer.

Chandlerville does still have a post office, but when the Google StreetView car drove through in 2013, literally the only establishment that was open in the two-block downtown was the post office. Here’s hoping things have gotten better for them since then.

VRAIL Stages 16 and 17

Combining stages again, one of 5K and one of 10K, since the scenery doesn’t change much along the way! These stages are along the very edge of the Sangamon River Valley, pretty clearly delineated in the terrain. Given the width of the floodplain, do you see anything…unusual about the Sangamon River?

Stages 16 and 17 along the floodplain’s edge. Super flat.

In a previous post, I talked about all of the drainage that had to be done to get this part of the state ready for agriculture, via tiles beneath the surface that direct water into ditches and rivers. As we can see from the Sangamon, even the rivers themselves were sometimes heavily modified to maximize the agricultural land available–and to make the rivers navigable. No other than Abe Lincoln (he had to appear at some point, this is central Illinois!) had a history of difficulties getting up and down the Sangamon from the state capital of Springfield to the Illinois River and parts south. In fact, he advocated channelizing the river to make it easier for boats to use (though that didn’t happen until 1949), and he even invented an inflatable device to help ships get unstuck from sand bars, based on his experience traveling on the Sangamon. More details can be found here.

VRAIL Stage 14 and 15

I’ve gotten behind a little bit, so I’m combining two 5K stages into one. My virtual route has taken me out of Beardstown and onto the incredibly flat floodplain of the Sangamon River, whose confluence with the Illinois is just above Beardstown. If you look on the very leftmost edge of the image below, you can see the tiny green curve of the route of the former bridge across the Illinois. I mentioned last time that Beardstown was founded as a ferry town; that was later replaced by a bridge, not the railroad bridge that still exists, but the toll bridge that used to lead right into downtown. The Illinois State Museum explains that when U.S. 67 was built around the town, there was no further need for the toll bridge, and it was dismantled.

Zooming in on the confluence, we see something that would interest my geomorphologist colleague Bruce Rhoads: Google Maps continues to label the Illinois and Sangamon Rivers separately because their waters clearly don’t mix right away.

You can also see the railroad bridge crossing the Illinois. This river can get some very high floods, given the wide river valley and the occasionally intense spring and summer storms here and upstream. I found this picture from 2015 of flooding that nearly went up to the bottom of the bridge:

The old toll bridge fared worse in its day: here’s a photo from 1926 showing the entire downtown underwater. Levees now surround the town and kept it dry in 2015.

VRAIL Stage 13

On this stage, my path crossed the Illinois River, putting me into my fourth county and into the largest settlement so far, and the oldest one I’ll encounter on the path: Beardstown.

Beardstown is old for an Illinois city, founded in 1826 by, you guessed it, Mr. Beard. Apparently this was a good place for a ferry crossing, though it’s hard to tell today with all of the modifications to the riverscape that have happened. The Illinois State Museum claims that Beardstown was known as Porkopolis because of its major industry, and it still has a pork processing plant on the outskirts of town. There was also the Beardstown Fish Company, and in the late 1800s, mussel and pearl fishing developed to feed nearby button factories.

Looking at Beardstown on a satellite image, the scar of the former railroad land is really remarkable. The topographic map up above shows multiple lines, but now there’s only the one. But the land is still vacant (probably still owned by the railroad), about a block wide running through town. Most notably, you can see the half-circle shape of a roundhouse still present, just about in the center of this image. If you look at the railroad crossing on 4th Street, there’s clearly the old train station that was recently a restaurant/bar.

Freighthouse 704, which appears to have closed last fall.
Now that’s a post office!