Friday, April 9, 2021

Reactionary Politics in the April Clean-Up of 1921

You may recall that Chinatown was condemned back in 1903. Not quite a generation later, there was another episode of "cleaning," again keyed to the "buildings of Chinese." 

This time, at least in the press, its motivation and its organization are more modern. It may not be possible to situate it exactly, but we can see how it was related to the post-WWI culture more generally. It is adjacent or related to the militarism and patriotism associated with the war, to increasing nativism and white supremacy, to social hygiene and eugenics, to  the growing surveillance state, and to new tendencies to sort-and-separate in zoning ordinances. All of it is oriented to new ideas of scientific management. It's also aligned with the reactionary, right-wing politics of the American Legion. There are all kinds of subtext and context here.

April 5th, 1921

April 5th, 1921

It's hard to say whether the American Legion had been agitating behind the scenes, but once it was public, they took the lead. It is no coincidence that the front page of the morning paper on April 6th featured them in two pieces, one with a military metaphor for the clean-up project, the other about "prohibiting orientals from holding land." The "dirt" was in no small part organized along racial boundaries.

April 6th, 1921

The new Boy Scout movement eagerly embraced the project. The survey would also be a kind of surveillance. The year before an editorial on cleaning up called for mobilizing peer pressure: "Make public opinion too hot for those who will not help."

April 7th, 1921

April 9th, 1921

And of course business saw it as an opportunity for cleaning supplies, paint, and other new and shiny things.

April 12th, 1921

 The next day on the 13th the inspectors reported

Residents of the city who stable horses and cows in town [were] the worst offenders....But few are said to have complied with the city ordinance which insists that stable refuse be placed in boxes and screened.

The press is mostly about cars other modern conveniences, and so it is interesting here to be reminded that carts, wagons, and buggies were still in use, and livestock still kept in town. The newspapers still reported crashes with buggies periodically.

February 11th, 1921

After a few days the Legion called to "continue the crusade against dirt for several weeks more." It is both medicalized under the health code, and made religious and moralized by the metaphor of crusade.

April 15th, 1921

One group that discussed often in the context of beautification, and belongs here generally, but interestingly is not highlighted specifically in this episode, are the floral societies. Earlier in the year one had proposed a beautification and planting project.

February 13th, 1921

And we have seen how this impulse led directly to the first zoning scheme.

May 10th, 1927

Previously on the current rhetoric and symbolism we use in talking about "cleaning," which are less on racial lines and more about "the hobo element" today:

And a couple of notes on the City Beautiful movement and the politics of patriotism:

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