Anniversary

It’s been a year since publication of Planning the Home Front. Highlights include the opportunities I’ve had to share my work with audiences of academics, planners, students, and friends and family back home in Wisconsin. I’ve enjoyed sharing the story of Willow Run, fielding questions, and hearing others’ take on the mobilization of the United States for World War II.

A recap of the book talks:

July

“Lessons from the Housing Crisis on the American Home Front during World War II,” Fifth Congress of the Association of European Schools of Planning/ Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning held in
Dublin, Ireland, July 15-19, 2013.

October

“Planning the Home Front: How the Lessons of World War II Apply to Today,” Tuesdays at APA, Washington, DC.

November

Author Event, Books & Company, Oconomowoc, WI

January

“Housing on the Home Front,” National Building Museum, Washington, DC.

February

“Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run,” College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“Housing on the Home Front,” Department of Social Sciences, University of Michigan—Dearborn.

“Housing on the Home Front,” Department of History, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI.

April

“Planning the Home Front: How the Lessons of World War II Apply to Today,” National Center for Smart Growth, University of Maryland—College Park.

Thank you to everyone who helped make these events possible!

Housing on the Home Front Prequel

In August 1941, John Vachon, a photographer with the Farm Security Administration, toured the outskirts of Detroit investigating the housing conditions of industrial workers. Many of the photographs from his trip became part of the official record when the House Select Committee Investigating Defense Migration turned to Detroit on September 23-25, 1941.

With his photographs, Vachon raised an early warning of the inadequate housing conditions that would cause trouble for the Willow Run Bomber Plant and other wartime plants on the outskirts of Detroit.

But he also captured a long-standing tradition of self-build suburban housing. Seeking suburban living, industrial workers and their families built their homes in stages. They often used their own labor or the labor of family and friends. Instead of “buying on time,” they built over time.

In advance of my presentation, Housing on the Home Front, January 27, 2014 at the National Building Museum, I’ve pulled together a selection of Vachon’s photographs from the Library of Congress.

The Willow Run Bomber Plant was still under construction and did not yet have a name. Vachon referred to it as “Ford’s bomber plant near Ypsilanti.” The workers living in tents and trailers nearby were most likely construction workers. Federal officials would not have placed a high priority on finding more permanent housing for temporary construction workers. No alarms sounded (although many plans were made and unmade) until over a year later, when the tents and trailer parks filled with industrial workers and their families.

"Ford bomber plant under construction near Ypsilanti, Michigan, August 1941." Photography by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063725-D (b&w film neg.).

“Ford bomber plant under construction near Ypsilanti, Michigan, August 1941.” Photography by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063725-D (b&w film neg.).

"Tents which rent for five dollars a week to defense workers at Edgewater Park near the Ford bomber plant at Ypsilanti, Michigan, August 1941." Photograph by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063723-D (b&w film neg.)

“Tents which rent for five dollars a week to defense workers at Edgewater Park near the Ford bomber plant at Ypsilanti, Michigan, August 1941.” Photograph by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063723-D (b&w film neg.)

"Real estate office near Detroit, Michigan, August 1941." Photograph by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063715-D (b&w film neg.).

“Real estate office near Detroit, Michigan, August 1941.” Photograph by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063715-D (b&w film neg.).

Vachon’s photos also featured families taking advantage of the work and wages that defense contracts brought to build suburban homes. Signs advertising lots, lumber, labor, and even “move right in” options dotted the landscape.

Summer in Michigan proved a perfect time to get started. A family could live in a tent while beginning construction. By winter, though, they would need to at least have the house “roughed in” or the basement finished with a temporary roof to avoid renting a place in the city or bunking with family until spring. Some even became inventive, re-purposing old rail cars as houses.

 

"Mother and family living in tent beside foundation of house which her husband, a defense worker, is building for himself, August 1941." Photography by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063666-D (b&w film neg.).

“Mother and family living in tent beside foundation of house which her husband, a defense worker, is building for himself, August 1941.” Photography by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063666-D (b&w film neg.).

African American also sought suburban locations. Starting in the 1920s, a community of several thousand had grown around Inkster, with easy access to Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living in a roughed-in house, August 1941. Photograph by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063688-D (b&w film neg.).

Living in a roughed-in house, August 1941. Photograph by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063688-D (b&w film neg.).

"Old railroad car typical of much improvised housing on outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, August 1941." Photography by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063662-D (b&w film neg.).

“Old railroad car typical of much improvised housing on outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, August 1941.” Photography by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063662-D (b&w film neg.).

The construction process continued as a family grew or simply because a family could afford more space. If everything went right, eventually a family would have built themselves a substantial home.

"Defense worker who is on the night shift spends his day working on a new home he is building on outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, August 1941." Photograph by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063681-D (b&w film neg.).

“Defense worker who is on the night shift spends his day working on a new home he is building on outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, August 1941.” Photograph by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063681-D (b&w film neg.).

But self-build home construction was a process of years, not months, and depended on access to construction skills. Do-it-yourself building in one’s free time would not be enough to house the tens of thousands of workers about to descend on Willow Run.

Sources:

In Planning the Home Front, see pp. 44-51.

Andersen, Kurt. The Photographs of John Vachon. Fields of Vision. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2010.

United States House of Representatives, 77th Congress. Hearings before the Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration Pursuant to H. Res. 113, Part 18 Detroit Hearings (Industrial Section), September 23-25, 1941.

Tropics of Meta Review

Ryan Reft, an editor at Tropics of Meta and a doctoral student in the History Department at the University of California at San Diego, offers an extensive examination of Planning the Home Front in the context of the historical literature on Detroit, suburbanization, including working-class suburbs, and the relationship between the U.S. military and local governments. Tropics of Meta bills itself as “historiography for the masses.”

Article excerpt from Ryan Reft’s “The Motor City at War: Mobilization, Wartime Housing, and Reshaping Metropolitan Detroit”:

In addition, Peterson focuses far more [than other studies] on the planning aspects of Willow Run—for the military, Detroit and its municipalities, and the federal government—and what that meant for an expanding metropolitan region overwhelmed with infrastructural needs and migrant labor. Finally, Peterson wades deep into the wonkiness of wartime mobilization and provides, at least for this historian, one of the few narratives regarding the debate around and the creation and implementation of the Lanham Act, which proved so important for expanding housing and infrastructure in places ranging from Detroit and San Diego to Oakland and Norfolk, VA. For historians of public housing, it would be hard to underestimate the importance of Peterson’s work.

Tom Boyd, a reporter at the Rocky Mountain Post and managing editor of communitybuilder.net, included Reft’s article in a thought piece about the lessons Detroit holds for cities of the American West. Links here to the communitybuilder.net’s “Top 6 reads about Detroit, and lessons to take away from the Midwest’s great experiment” and the longer version, “Detroit Future City: Lessons for the West from a city that learned the hard way,” from the Rocky Mountain Post.

Review in Planning

Harold Henderson included Planning the Home Front in the Planners Library section of the October issue of Planning, the magazine of the American Planning Association. (Planning’s online edition is open to APA members and subscribers.)

Excerpt from his review:

Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run, by independent scholar Sarah Jo Peterson, is a lucid account of the planning problems inherent in a World War II defense plant. Peterson skillfully weaves a narrative from the ad hoc, disjointed, and participatory efforts, which included housing for newcomers in an undeveloped exurban region all at once and right away.

On a personal note, I found it gratifying that the first review of my book appeared in Planning, the magazine by and for practitioners. Henderson also quotes what I think of as some of the most important lines in the book. Authors, of course, never know how big the gap will be between what they find important and what readers decide is important. But for my first review, the reviewer and I were on the same page.

Participatory Planning on the Home Front

Planning the Home Front argues that the U.S. federal government used a participatory planning approach to mobilize the American home front.

Over the last six months, I’ve had the privilege of presenting this argument to audiences of urban planners, both in Dublin, Ireland and in Washington, DC. I’ve enjoyed the exchanges with other planners and with people who spend a lot of time thinking about planning. What struck me as I researched the American home front mobilization is how different World War II era “participation” was from contemporary ideas of “public participation.” This came out in many of my discussions with others too.

At the Fifth Congress of the Association of European Schools of Planning/ Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning held in
Dublin, Ireland, July 15-19, 2013, I presented examples of participatory planning as it played out in terms of housing for the workers at the Willow Run Bomber Plant.

Paper Excerpt:

Instead of comprehensive planning, Planning the Home Front argues that the federal government adopted a participatory planning approach to mobilizing the American home front. Total war demanded significant top-down direction, of course, but it is the presence of an equally significant role for the “bottom up” that makes this an interesting and important planning model. As the top-down engaged the bottom-up, national objectives (win the war) joined local objectives for building communities, and interest group politics were harnessed to a national project (total war). For Willow Run, the federal government dictated the goal (produce bombers), but federal policy left many of “the means” to the local level–and often to individuals. Indeed, many of the means implemented at Willow Run would qualify for what Leonie Sandercock calls planning as “community building” or planning as “self-help, community solidarity, and community organizing for social and economic development” (Sandercock 1998, pp. 9-10).

A PDF of the conference paper, Lessons from the Housing Crisis on the American Home Front during World War II, is available here: Dublin Paper Draft.

In October, I presented an extended version of the participatory planning argument as part of the American Planning Association’s Tuesdays at APA speaker series in Washington, DC. The APA website includes links to the slides and audio recording of the presentation and discussion.

In both presentations, I closed by presenting summaries of the pros and cons of the American World War II planning model:

Glass Half Empty

Glass Half FullAnd then turned to discussion with three starter questions for the audience:

  • How is today’s public participation in planning different from the World War II model?
  • Do you see this type of planning at work today? Where?
  • Do you think the World War II model has advantages? Worth emulating?

I welcome your comments and ideas.

Honorable Mention

I’m excited to report that the Society for American City and Regional Planning History awarded Planning the Home Front an Honorable Mention for its Lewis Mumford prize for the best book on American city and regional planning history published over the last two years.

The awards ceremony took place in Toronto on Saturday, October 5, 2013. The prize committee citation reads:

In Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run, Sarah Jo Peterson uses an intensive study of the enormous Willow Run bomber plant and its surrounding communities to illuminate the planning process by which Americans mobilized to prosecute World War II. Success arose from a participatory planning process that involved trade-offs while achieving cooperation and coordination, a form of planning not embraced nationally for two decades after the war.

Congratulations to Elihu Rubin who won SACRPH’s Mumford prize for Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape (Yale University Press, 2012) and the other Mumford prize finalists: Gregory L. Heller for Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania, 2013) and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer for Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (University of Pennsylvania, 2013). SACRPH’s website includes a list of all 2013 award winners.