TT with HD: Matt Lassiter
[Ed. note: Mentioned below are a couple of research papers written for Professor Lassiter's course History 364.
One is about sidewalks and the other is about fair housing in Ann Arbor. Also
there's an op-ed piece mentioned, which was co-authored by Professor Lassiter three years ago, which is worth reading (again) even
HD: Okay, here we go. So from what I understand, you were recently promoted to associate professor, which means you have tenure now?
HD: Which means you are on 'Easy Street'!
ML: [laugh] I think that's one of the myths. It's true that if you don't do anything else for the rest of your career, you won't be fired. But you get promoted again to full professor if you produce another book. And maybe there's an element of professional shame, if you just start coasting ...
HD: ... if you retire as an associate professor?
ML: Right. So maybe you can take a break, but it's not quite like you don't have to do anything. I just got named the Director of Graduate Study, which is a bureaucratic responsibility now, too. That was my reward for getting tenure, I think.
HD: So does that position have to go to a faculty member with tenure?
HD: Well, speaking of 'Easy Street', here in Ann Arbor, we actually have a street named Easy Street, you know.
ML: Where is it?
HD: It's just east of Buhr Park. They were slated to have sidewalks built along their street, and the neighbors successfully opposed this proposal before Council. I'm not sure exactly how it works, but it was this week actually, and they finally wrapped it up in favor of the neighbors who didn't want the sidewalks. And I thought, How appropriate that you were coming to teeter totter, because you had a student last year who wrote a research paper on sidewalks.
ML: Oh, did you find that on my web page?
HD: Yeah, the research archives. Do you remember that paper?
ML: Yeah. I mean, I didn't grade it, but I ask students to send them in, post them, and read them. I feel like neighborhoods are against almost everything. Or somebody will be. I was just out in Portland, Oregon, and they were having a big fight about a new neighborhood built by a train track. They wanted to built a wall so that people couldn't hear the trains' whistles as well. And half the neighbors fought the other half, saying that they wanted to hear the whistles, because that was part of the ambience ...
HD: ... part of the charm of having a train run by your house?
ML: Right. They were having a big showdown about that. So what was the argument? Why wouldn't you want sidewalks?
HD: I think that the real argument had to do with who was going to pay for them. The neighbors were going to be assessed as special property assessment in order to fund at least part of it.
ML: This is an older neighborhood? Or newer? In a lot of new developments, they require the developer to pay for that, or assess the fee when they do the zoning. If it's not a heavily trafficked street, like your street, you don't need sidewalks.
HD: Actually, I would say we do, because there's just a tremendous number of people who walk their dogs along this street, who don't live on the street.
ML: There's not a lot of traffic, is there?
HD: No, there's not a lot of vehicular traffic, but I think you would absolutely wear a path. Unless you walked in the road. I guess that would be an option.
ML: I'll walk along my road on my street, instead of the sidewalk, because there's not a lot of traffic, but also I like for my dog not to pee in other people's flowers ...
HD: ... so you're a good citizen in that regard?
ML: Well, I feel like people don't want to look out their front window and see my dog in their front yard. I'd rather let him get all the way to the park before he 'gets busy'. So I tend to avoid the sidewalks when I have the dog, for that reason.
HD: People have resorted to making handmade signs along our street, warning people not to let their dogs piss on the bushes.
ML: See, you just walk down the middle of the street, and you just avoid the controversy. Plus a lot of people now don't have grass. Like out in front of your house, you have flowers. I figure nobody wants a dog tromping through their flowers.
ML: But sidewalks are still a good idea. I'll probably go look at that street, because I've taken a lot of photographs of scenes like this for my class I teach about suburbia ...
HD: ... this is 3-64?
ML: Right, History 3-6-4. There's places, for example, out Dexter-Ann-Arbor Road, where you'll have a sidewalk that just ends abruptly into nothing. They've actually put a bike lane on it now, so it's better than it used to be, but it used to be, you'd walk along the sidewalk, hit nothing, and then you'd have to step into the busy road. It just made little sense: sidewalk, sidewalk, end. It's part of the larger anti-pedestrian bias on those streets.
HD: Now you said that you didn't personally grade that research paper about sidewalks. That's left to Graduate Assistant Instructors, or whatever they call them at the U?
ML: Right. It's a large lecture course that I teach. I teach one a semester that has a minimum of 150 students. So the typical format is, I lecture twice a week. Then the students, in groups of 25, meet in discussion sections. Graduate students teach those and they do the grading.
HD: So the grader has interacted with the students in a more intimate setting.
ML: Right. There's a lot of criticism of this model. But first of all, it's the only way you can really make it work at a public university with a large student body. I did it myself when I was a graduate student. And I really think that, for the most part, the system works pretty well. You get to know the graduate student instructor really well. They tend to be, ideally at least, pretty expert in that field, or that's the field they're training in.
HD: Are you able to hand-pick the graduate student instructors, or are they essentially just assigned to your course?
ML: We have a committee that makes the assignments. But someone who is working with me on their dissertation is pretty likely to be assigned to my class. My Suburbia class tends to get graduate students who are going to write a dissertation in urban history, political history, that sort of thing [Ed. note: HD's cell phone rings]
HD: That's me ringing, I don't know who might be calling. I should get a special outgoing announcement that says, Now tottering, don't disturb.
ML: You don't have a sign here that says, Please turn off your cell phone while ...
HD: ... no, I don't. People have taken calls while they've been tottering.
ML: They have? Have you ever had anybody call this a see-saw?
HD: Yes. A woman from South Carolina.
ML: There you go.
HD: She said, you know, we didn't call these 'teeter totters' growing up, they were 'see-saws'.
ML: It's true. I grew up in Atlanta, and we had see-saws in Atlanta.
HD: But you meant this, right?
ML: Oh yeah, definitely the same thing. A lot of my friends, whose dads had maybe moved down for work from Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, there were a few words that I learned from them. Like 'pop'--you never called Coca-Cola 'pop', it was maybe a 'soda'. And 'teeter-totter'. Then I went when I went to Charlottesville, which is a semi-Northern city, and then I taught in Maine for a while and learned 'pop'. I didn't learn 'teeter-totter' quite as much, because I didn't do it a lot, when I was in graduate school!
HD: Right. So for 'pop' in the South, what is it? 'Cold drinks'? Is that the catch-all term?
ML: Well you know Coca-Cola is really big down in Atlanta and ...
HD: ... so you have to say the first and the last name?
ML: It depends maybe on your generation. I grew up saying, 'Coke', but my grandfather, who worked for Coca-Cola, actually, would have said 'Coca-Cola'. Still does.
HD: Let's see, where were we going before we got sidetracked?
ML: We were talking about graduate students?
HD: Graduate students ... hmmm ... the um, uh, that research paper archive? Are all those papers A-papers, or is it just basically students who are willing to have them posted that's the main thing?
ML: That's the main thing. Actually, it originated as an idea from a couple of students in the class. The course, the History of American Suburbia is structured loosely around a book that I'm in the process of researching. Also I'm really interested in what students are working on. So I'll ask at the end of every semester. Whoever wants to, can send me their research papers. And a couple of students got in touch with me and said, If you're getting to read all of these research papers, we'd also be interested in seeing what other people have written! It's a voluntary thing. You might have seen on the web page, I have a little note, but I'm a little worried that it may be providing a free research paper for ...
HD: ... oh yes, I saw the warning, These are not intended as a substitute for an assignment, or something like that.
ML: You could Google it and find it pretty easily on the web, but if somebody just turned it in at some university somewhere else, it'd be very unlikely to be caught. But what are you going to do? The web has made cheating a lot easier.
HD: But I think it's also made it easier to identify cheating as well. Because essentially the same tools available to cheaters are available to people who might want to catch them.
ML: That's true.
HD: Actually, something I had wanted to ask you anyway was, does the University provide professors with a software package or web-based tools that you can run submitted papers through, just as a cursory check to make sure that it's not something truly egregious?
ML: No. I think the University should, but they don't. It's a really tricky situation. The only thing I don't like about my job is dealing with plagiarism. On the one hand, you don't want to create an adversarial environment from the beginning of class and give students the impression that you assume that they're going to cheat. But on the other hand, plagiarism is, I think, fairly common along with other forms of cheating. Every year, probably I deal with six or eight cases of academic dishonesty. And the odds are that ...
HD: ... it's only a representative sample.
ML: Well, the people we catch tend to be the people who are careless. Or who cheat in ways that aren't that sophisticated.
HD: Care to give an illustration?
ML: Well, I'm not a student basher. You know, most students are honest and do good work. The more common cases of academic dishonesty that we catch are actually just flat-out lying to graduate students. The biggest example is: I wrote the paper and I turned it in; you must have lost it. If any students are reading this, don't make that excuse! Because then we say, Well, why don't you send it to us immediately, go home and email it? Well, my computer crashed! My view is, if A, we lost it and B, your computer crashed, the odds of both things happening on one paper are pretty small. So it's that sort of thing, where students are over-committed and maybe panic a little bit.
HD: You mentioned Dexter-Ann-Arbor Road and the sidewalks that lead nowhere. I had this guy on the totter who lives along Dexter-Ann-Arbor Road, not far from where the new Busch's grocery store is going in. You know where I'm talking about? Just before you start to enter Dexter?
ML: Out where all those new developments are and that new elementary school? Is that where you mean?
HD: Hmmm, I'm not sure about a new elementary school, but there's already a grocery store. And right across the road is where Busch's is building their new store.
ML: Right, I know where you're talking about. Not surprising, that area is booming.
HD: Well, he lives right down the road from there, in a very modest ranch house. I think he said it was something like 1000 square feet. And he built a big sign in his front yard protesting the increased water and sewer rates as a result of the new sub-divisions. Last I talked to him, he was planning move to Clinton.
ML: So he'll have 10 years or so before he'll be making the same complaints about the newest subdivisions being built.
HD: Could be. I wonder, when you look at a situation like that, for a guy in his situation, other than just saying, Okay, I'll just move, what do you see as a reasonable constructive approach?
ML: For him?
ML: Well, I try to look at it first from everybody's perspective. So you have people moving in to some of those new subdivisions out there. Maybe from an Ann-Arbor, more elitist perspective, you think these people just want to live in sprawl. But a lot of people can't afford to buy a house in Ann Arbor.
HD: Or for the same money you get just a way bigger house.
ML: Although there are also some extremely expensive places out that way. There's a development off Miller, with a sign out front that says, Starting from the $550,000's. So there's that. And we talk a lot about White Flight and escaping cities, but people are also drawn to suburban living by cheaper housing prices and by the incentives that local governments, state governments, federal government will put in, like water and sewer. And the general tax payers pay a lot of that. In that sense, your friend has a legitimate complaint, which is that people who are already living there and people who are living in Detroit and Ann Arbor and Flint and other built-up areas, their taxes are subsidizing sprawl. The general principle is that the core subsidizes growth on the periphery. And then the politics of the periphery tends to be against the city, against the core. Suburban home owners pay not nearly enough in taxes to support the cost of the infrastructure.
HD: I think though, that probably the impression of the average-bear suburban homeowner is that they paid for it, and what they're getting, they actually earned.
ML: That's true. But this is one of the interesting problems of American politics. We tend to see a check that a mother with dependent children gets as 'welfare', even though it's actually pretty small. You'd be surprised if you looked up what you get in Michigan on welfare if you have two children. It's less than what a lot of people in Ann Arbor get for their mortgage-interest tax deduction on their houses. So there's different forms of welfare. And one of the things I'm going to draw out in my book, and in my last book I just published about the South, and what I talk about in the class, is: why don't we think of things like the enormous amount of money we spend on the highway system, or bringing water and sewer lines to a newly developed areas? This is a type of welfare, too. But people tend to think of that as: this is growth and growth is good; we're investing in the future. But when we talk about re-investing in cities, or in mass transit, then: well, this is a wasteful program; what's going on here is for people who aren't paying taxes like we are. So there's this real misperception at the center of suburban political culture about who pays for what, and where your tax dollars go.
HD: You mind if we talk about Accessory Dwelling Units for a bit?
ML: Sure, I guess!
HD: I have a very selfish motive. We replaced the old shed that used to be right back there behind you, with a new garage. And we put a loft above the garage. The builder said, I'm going to make this so that nobody could even possibly imagine that somebody wanted to live above the garage, because it will sail through all the inspections that much easier. So the access, in fact, is attic pull-down stairs. He said, You know, if I put in a fixed stair in there, it might cause somebody to wonder, Gosh, why do you really need a fixed stair, Dave, you're not thinking about trying to have somebody live up there, are you? And frankly, yes I am. What I would like to be able to do when I get to be a crazy eighty-year-old man, and am no longer able to take care of myself, I would like to be able to hire a nurse who could live up there. Maybe even in exchange for medical care, the nurse gets housing, some kind of arrangement like that. Or for heaven sakes, a student renter to take the edge off the property taxes. That's what I would like to be able to do. I can't currently do that. And I know that three years ago, there was a proposed ordinance of some kind that City Council considered--the City is redoing their website, you know, and I couldn't find it. What do you think it would take to get something like that ordinance passed now?
ML: I wrote an editorial about it with another professor, Rick Hills, during the whole Greenbelt debate when density re-appeared on the agenda in a major way. In my view, there's just no reasonable argument against Accessory Dwelling Units. And the proposal that came before City Council was so modest. If you had one here, you would have had to provide a certain amount of parking. There was a limit on how many you could have in any given area. The campaigns against it were based on, I think, fear and bias against students, and a real misunderstanding about who was likely to live in an Accessory Dwelling Unit. People all had in their mind, I think, fraternity keg parties. I think what you're more likely to get is a quiet graduate student, or an in-law, an older person, or somebody to help you out. The kind of person who would want to live in somebody's backyard is probably not the kind of person who's going to be raising hell and upsetting the neighborhood. It would be modest in terms of overall questions about sprawl and density. But I felt like it was a really disappointing result, because it suggests that if you can't get something this modest through because of neighborhood opposition, then there's a lot of other things that are really going to be super-difficult. And my own view was--I don't want to speak for them--but I think that the opposition on City Council was more about reacting to the campaign against Accessory Dwelling Units from certain neighborhood associations, rather than having a real sense that it's a bad public policy. It's a good public policy. I would like to hear a rational argument against it, based on evidence. I haven't seen it yet.
HD: When Dave DeVarti was here, he was saying that there's a legitimate concern that people have, that landlords might try to take advantage of whatever loopholes might exist, to escalate the population of a house from six to twelve or something along those lines. Not being familiar with the specifics of the wording of that particular resolution that Council considered, I have no idea whether such a loophole might exist. But I think the easiest way to respond to that is to say, Alright, let's contemplate a specific scenario where this loophole might exist, an actual kind of property where the language of this proposed ordinance would allow something like that to happen. And then you ask if that kind of property exists in Ann Arbor, or even could exist.
ML: Exactly. I think a lot of the fear was that the City wouldn't be able to enforce its regulations. And you would have an Accessory Dwelling Unit and there'd be four people in there and the City inspectors wouldn't be coming by to check on it every month or so. But there's plenty of houses in Ann Arbor, where seven people live in them. If a landlord buys a house and puts it on the rental market, there's so much that goes on that's not well regulated. There's so many issues about safety and fire codes that the City also doesn't enforce, but you don't see a lot of homeowner anxiety about that. When we were talking about this a few years ago, Doug Kelbaugh said when he was living in Washington, they were trying to get this through in Seattle and they couldn't get it through at the local level. They did it at the state level. That might be the way to go, if this is ever going to happen, that the state legislature could simply mandate it. I doubt it will happen in the Michigan State Legislature. There's more important things facing the City, but again, I just thought it was discouraging that this couldn't get through. I think it became a vehicle for broader anxieties about neighborhoods flipping, rental properties moving into homeowner neighborhoods, and less about the Accessory Dwelling Unit itself. Because it's also a great way for somebody who can't maybe quite afford a house in Ann Arbor, to buy a house and subsidize their mortgage. There's so many good benefits to it.
HD: Along this street, if they were allowed in Ann Arbor, you might have renters above a garage in the backyards, it would give this street a more interesting texture than what it now has. It's now, I think, all single-family owner-occupied homes. And a lot of people would say, That's exactly what we want, Dave! All people exactly like you! But I kind of miss the house across the street when it was a rental property. Every season you'd get three or four musician- or student-kind of people and they added some interesting texture to the neighborhood that's missing now.
ML: I think we often don't think about the way that zoning policies are biased toward couples. We still have this idea of: families with kids, that's what neighborhoods should be. But saying you want to live in a single-family neighborhood is about exclusion, not just about inclusion. It's really hard, for example, for a single professional, who's making a modest salary, say a new assistant professor at the University, to even be able to afford a home in Ann Arbor. It takes two incomes for a lot of people to be able to buy a house here.
HD: I think a lot of people assume erroneously that professors of any kind at the University, they can afford anything.
ML: Well, I think I'm pretty well compensated, considering the kind of job I have, the kind of freedom I have. But the starting salary for an assistant professor is a fair amount less than a teacher in the Ann Arbor public school system. I'm not complaining, I want to make that clear. But it was less than my friends who graduated and got jobs at prep schools were getting paid. So it's not out in the stratosphere. I was making less than my sister, who graduated from Princeton and took a management consulting job. There's other perks in this besides pay. But a lot of college towns are really expensive to live in.
HD: So when's the first day of class?
ML: Day after Labor Day. Tuesday, the 5th.
HD: So you've got that lecture prepared and ready to go?
ML: I'll tweak it. I always tell myself that this is the year I'm just going to give the same lectures over and over, but for my Suburbia class, which I'm teaching this fall, I do a lot with popular culture ...
HD: ... yeah, you get to watch movies!
ML: Yes, we watch movies. One of the things I talk about on the first day of class is, How is the way we think about the suburbs shaped by culture? And there's always been a couple of new television shows since the last time I taught the class that I have to bring in. Last year it was Desperate Housewives and the Laguna Beach show on MTV. There's always new sources to bring into the class.
HD: So not 24 with Jack Bauer?
ML: How would that work in the class?
HD: I have no idea, but I figure if you put your mind to it, you might be able to figure out how.
ML: I teach another class, usually in the winter semesters, U.S. History Since 1945. It's a lot about the Cold War and I give a lecture toward the end about the middle East, and the war on terrorism, and Iraq. If I work that  in anywhere, it would be that class.
HD: Got it. So the first day of class is not going to be one of these abbreviated deals where you show up, hand out the syllabus, and tell everybody to come back next time?
ML: No, that's a waste of a class period to me. And it's a boring way to start the semester. I like to start it with a bang. I'll start the class with--you know the movie Blue Velvet?
HD: Oh yeah! There's a small body part that goes missing and gets found near the beginning, an ear or a finger?
ML: An ear, I think. I start the class with a clip from Blue Velvet where there's an older man mowing his grass, and then he has a heart attack or something, he staggers and he falls onto the ground. The camera zooms in on him and then it focuses on him lying there. Then it goes beneath the grass and it shows all these ants and bugs attacking each other. Which is supposed to be a window into the idea that beneath the placid, small-town suburban landscape, there's all this pathology, dysfunction going on, which the movie then proceeds to show in vivid detail. So I start the class with that clip and say this is basically the whole semester in a nutshell: the surface image of suburbia that we have as the greatest place to bring up your children--the safe schools, the security--exists right along with this other image we have, in Hollywood films especially, in almost every novel of beneath-the-surface dysfunction, of all sorts of pathology going on. A lot of the course is trying to untangle this question of how we put together the way we celebrate the suburbs politically--the hard-working middle-Americans and the sort of nostalgic 50's ideal--with this other counter-narrative that this is the worst place to live.
HD: Anything else on your mind today?
ML: Just in general? It's a beautiful day. I'll probably go for a bike ride.
HD: This morning you seemed to have been working on the course homepage? Is that right? Because it's down.
ML: It is??!!
ML: Oh, oh. Not my whole webpage, but the coruse webpage?
ML: I took it down a couple of days ago, because we're close enough to the beginning of the semester that I don't want students who are taking the class in the fall to find it and look up last year's lecture outlines and last year's assignments. I'm going to put new ones on next week. Sorry, if you were trying to do a little research! It wasn't an effort to sabotage you so that you couldn't ask me any questions! [laugh]
HD: No, I just contented myself with what I had already found. I had already done most of the prep. It's just that this morning when I went back to the page, I thought, Man! What's going on?!
ML: Tell me what you were looking for that you didn't find.
HD: I was looking for the list of movies, actually. I only remembered that American Beauty was on the list, and I couldn't remember any of the others.
ML: I'm changing it up a little this year. I start with Happiness, Todd Solondz's film, and I end with American Beauty. It's a deliberate strategy, because most of them have seen American Beauty, and there's a general sense that it was a great film. I mean, it won the Best Picture Award. I think it's a terrible film that plays into every cliche, and every character is a cartoon character. But I don't want to hit the students with that at the beginning of the semester. I want them to come up with their own impressions. But I feel like after taking the class, they might watch American Beauty and come away with a different perspective than at the beginning. Todd Solondz has a really dark vision of suburbia. He's done Welcome to the Dollhouse ...
HD: ... that's a disturbing film.
ML: Well, Happiness is probably more-so. It's designed to be little bit of a shock. In my other class, I start with Natural Born Killers. So I figure, just lay it out on the table right at the beginning. I tell the students that the film's R-rated, but American history ...
HD: ... is X-rated?
ML: Or at least R-rated for lots of violence, for sex, and for obscenity. So we'll watch those two, and then I'm going to use a new film. One of the things I'm trying to get around in the class is how the cultural image of suburbia is so much about white upper-middle class suburbs. Westchester County or north of Chicago, John Hughes' area, stand in for what the suburbs are. So I'm really trying to focus on themes of diversity and how many African Americans, Asians, Latinos, now live in the suburbs, working-class suburbs, and the like. I'm going to use a novel near the beginning, written about a working-class suburb south of Detroit. Then the second film I'm going to use is the film made from the Lorraine Hansberry play, A Raisin in the Sun, to set up this question: if all the novels and films about white, upper-middle class suburbia in the 50's are about how miserable everybody is, then why is this black family wanting so badly to be able to move up and out into this neighborhood? Then I'll use The Graduate, Ordinary People, and the film, Thirteen.
HD: So do you find yourself attracting to this class a category of student who hears, Oh yeah, man, Matt Lassiter's class, he's so cool, he has you watch movies! And they decide that'll be a fun class to take, and so they sign up and discover that there's actually quite a bit of work, he makes you interview people like your parents or grandparents about their experiences growing up and then there's this research paper. Do you find that there's any number of students who fit that description?
ML: Well, a lot of history classes now use films. So I think maybe we're beyond the idea that watching a film is not academic, that it's more for fun. I do say you should be taking notes, the films are fair game for the exams, this isn't just to entertain you. The films I choose are films that were produced in the period that we're studying. It's another type of document about the 50's, or about the 70's. I wonder about this sometimes, because I use a lot of film clips in my class and there definitely is an entertainment factor. I don't think it's a boring class in any way. At the same time, you have to write a research paper, there's a final exam. It's not designed to be an easy class. It gets mostly seniors in it and a substantial number of them, maybe a third, from metropolitan Detroit. This is the fourth time I've taught it. When I first taught it, the general sense of a lot of students who grew up in largely white upper-middle class suburbs was, We didn't even realize that we had a history! So much of what we think about the suburbs is not historical. It's whatever the latest film or television shows present. When students take classes, when they learn about race, then they learn about Detroit, or they learn about the Civil Rights Movement in the South. One of the things that I talk about in the class, for example, is that Martin Luther King Jr. came to Detroit in 1963 and gave the I-Have-a-Dream speech--an early version--before he gave it at the March on Washington. And he said, among other things, that the color of your skin shouldn't prevent you from being able to work wherever you want or live wherever you want. Detroit and its suburbs were intensely segregated, but that's not taught in a lot of schools. I think you can grow up in Oakland County and you can learn about Mississippi and Alabama more than you learn about the way that the Civil Rights Movement affected your own neighborhood. So that's another goal of the class. I try to use the cultural material to draw students in and then get them interested, and then focus a lot on public policy and planning and political stuff.
HD: Well, speaking of your own neighborhood, you know there's another paper in that research paper archive that deals with where we are right now, the very heart of the Old West Side Historic District.
ML: Oh yeah. That was a good paper.
HD: I certainly learned something from reading it. I thought it was an interesting idea that historical preservation might have been way to introduce color-blind rhetoric that had, as an effect, the exclusion of public housing in the District. It's a part of the origins of the Old West Side that ...
ML: ... not everybody knows.
HD: Well, it's not highlighted. Although I have to say that now, right at the end of this street, there's public housing. And right off of 7th, I think, I believe that is also public housing. So at some point maybe the city turned the corner on that.
ML: That was a really interesting paper. Maybe your neighbors will go online and read it. There was some speculation involved, if I remember correctly, because a number of the documents were sealed and that student couldn't get to everything that is in the archives of the University, but ...
HD: ... seems like it was the language of the deeds with restrictive convenants that were sealed?
ML: Well, your neighborhood probably had a racially restrictive convenant when it was built. Most neighborhoods in the United States developed between 1900 and the mid-1940's had convenants that restricted blacks, often restricted Jews, restricted Asians. That's really common. That's another part of especially inner suburbs and older neighborhoods, that has been lost: how many of them had these formal restrictive convenants. One of the things that the student was suggesting in that paper was that the development of the historical district was related to the ending of formal racial discrimination in Ann Arbor's housing market. And especially the concentration of the black community not far down the road here. And that this was, in part, a way to preserve property values. It's really tricky. Getting back to your earlier question about Dexter and sprawl, we historians try to complicate things more than clarify them ...
HD: ... thank you!
ML: Yeah. So you're against sprawl, right? And you can think of that in terms of being a good environmentalist, and you're against big developers coming in and messing up your neighborhood, and you're against pollution and all that. But then you can also be against sprawl and it's about protecting your property values and about freezing things like they are, which has an element of class exclusion. Same thing about historical districts. It's a great idea in a lot of ways, but as a public policy it's really very flexible. Not just in Ann Arbor but around the country, historical districts have often been used as a way to protect property values, as a way to prevent multi-family housing or more density, which is about keeping people out of your neighborhood, not just keeping it the way it is. And it's not that either one is all bad. NIMBY-ism has become a bad word. There's progressive and reactionary elements to what we call NIMBY-ism, I think. And probably the same thing about historical districts and zoning itself. Zoning can be a really progressive policy tool, and it often has been in this country one that has preserved racial segregation and class segregation.
HD: How about we let that be the final word. Okay with you?
HD: Thanks a lot for coming to ride the teeter totter. I know you've got a lot to do with the beginning of the semester.
ML: Well, I'd call it a see-saw, but I'm not really a Southerner anymore!
HD: Don't you think teeter-totter is just more fun to say, though? It's got four whole syllables.
ML: Well, I was thinking about this when I was coming over, because if you say it with a Southern drawl, it can take as just as long to say see-saw ...