Review of A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida

When it comes to understanding the physical formation of greater Miami A World More Concrete by N. D. B. Connolly was incredibly insightful. The Magic City, so called because of its transformation from frontier town to urban region was by far the fastest of its time. Marketers of the Magic City sought to advertise it, justifiably so, as a Caribbean city for elites to leisure upon. However at variance from the other islands within the temperate climate band – such as Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba – it didn’t have the preponderance of poor blacks that this class found unsettling. Not that they weren’t present, just that they were visible only as help. White terrorism, apartheid passes and Jim Crow police enforcement kept blacks from coming onto the beaches so favored by economic elites. Contestation of such treatment was limited by this as well as conflict between Caribbean and American-born blacks while cultural expressions of resistance to this – as well as the colonial and slave history, such as the Junkanoo parades in the area that would come to be known as Overtown – were geographically distanced far from major tourist areas.

Connolly examines the economics of segregation and the various forms of legal frameworks used to perpetuate racial segregation. Constitutional language – specifically property rights – was the primary means of perpetuating and expanding Jim Crow and New South government policies. While real estate was also a means of creating a Civil Rights political discourse, for taxpayers ought to have the same access to goods (like beaches) and services (like schools), it was not an inherently progressive framework.
Describing in fascinating detail the rhetorical tropes used to perpetuate Jim Crow, Connolly rejects the simplistic narrative that pits the black struggle for civil rights against a white defense of property rights. He limns why and the manner in which class caused propertied and property managing African Americans to embrace the logic and laws of real estate for their own ends. Connolly’s interpretation specifies the creation of class alliances between ruthless white exploitation and the black middle-class. To varying degrees, entrepreneurs, landlords, elected officials, and self-styled urban reformers all participated in eminent domain and land control schemes through mechanisms such as housing associations that helped to take advantage of the black poor. To what extent were poor blacks ruthlessly exploited? As an investment, from the 1930s to the early 1960s, black housing was the most profitable real estate investment that one could make. While rental housing for white Americans would fetch an average rate of return around 6%, for blacks it was an astonishing 27%! Blacks would often pay per week what whites paid per month for rent and it would be significantly lacking the amenities and quality of construction of the types of homes that whites lived in.

Landlords preyed on the fact that blacks had limited capital available to defend their cases in a court system that had not yet taken much account of renters rights, that tenant organizing could be meet with counter-resistance from better financed, organized and politically connected landlords, that a politics of respectability and conference decision making with community leaders determined policy rather than recourse to democratic procedures and that all class conflict would be framed as racial and thus would perpetuate racial sentiments. Landlords as a category was not limited to native-born whites. Blacks, Cubans, Seminoles, Haitians, and other Caribbean groups all invested in segregation to the point at which home ownership within communities vacillated from 10% to 20%. Whites were clearly the predominant holders of capital investment in real estate, while “credit’s to their race” that engaged in similar investments like M. Athalie Range and Luther Brooks gave a gloss of legitimacy to it.

Historiography on urban racial segregation must be embedded within the larger framework of the history of capitalism. Connolly’s close analysis of primary sources allows the reader to expand their understanding of the close and mutually constitutive relationships among liberalism, capitalism, and racism by placing real estate at the center of all. Conflicts over the value of land shaped Miami, indeed all American cities, in ways that social movements, local policy reforms, and legal arguments could not undo. There is almost a perverse creativity to the opportunistic alliances and deceptive actions that informed the geospatial and georacial composition of modern Miami. Eminent domain could be used to dispossess poor blacks of real estate at a lower than market price desired by whites, to force the government to purchase real estate for a higher than market price for housing no longer seen as a desirable investment and to condemn housing that was seen by white homeowners as existing too close to their neighborhoods.

Connolly’s focus on the enduring power of the racist social order and property rights at the heart of Jim Crow sheds new light on the limits a civil rights movement could have when predicated on property-rights. Unfulfilled economic promises and public-private chicanery was not the outliers but the norm. Capitalism and the profit motive thus not only underwrote urban governance and preserved Jim Crow, but also put real estate at the center of Miami’s race relations. The neighborhood case studies of Overtown, Liberty City, Good Bread Alley, Allapatah, Nazarene, Liberty Square, Railroad Shop, and Para Village show how local entrepreneurs were able to exploit the racism underlying the practices of the Federal Housing Authority, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, the Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Federal National Mortgage Association for self-enrichment.