Arnold R. Hirsch, whose landmark study of Chicago illuminated a Northern brand of segregation.
Arnold R. Hirsch, a historian whose landmark study of Chicago documented the role of government policy in creating highly segregated African-American ghettos during the mid-20th century, died on March 19 in Oak Park, Ill. He was 69.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body disease, according to his son Adam.
Professor Hirsch’s best-known book, “Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960,” published in 1983, began as an inquiry into the causes of the urban riots that racked American cities in the late 1960s, including the disturbances that followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Unlike the Kerner Commission and other bodies that focused on the proximate causes of the civil unrest, Professor Hirsch focused on the period immediately after the Great Depression and, in particular, the two decades following World War II. In that period, millions of African-Americans moved from the South to the North in a second Great Migration as transformative as the earlier one, which lasted from 1890 to 1930.
Most ended up in hypersegregated neighborhoods, often in cheaply constructed and poorly maintained public housing that, in the 1970s, would become emblems of urban decay and malaise.
Segregation, Professor Hirsch found, was not a natural process, or the mere outcome of individual prejudice and choices, but was rooted in institutional interests, including profit-seeking.
There was not just one villain: Politicians, business executives, and ostensibly liberal institutions like the University of Chicago were culprits, he wrote, but so, too, were working-class whites, who, manipulated by speculators, reacted with panic, hostility and violence when African-Americans tried to move into previously all-white neighborhoods.
The late 1940s were a period of “hidden violence,” equivalent in scope to that of 1917-1921, when Chicago experienced a racially motivated bombing or arson every 20 days. (Dozens of people died in the 1919 riot in Chicago.)
The Chicago Commission on Human Rights (formerly the Mayor’s Commission on Race Relations), which was established after the June 1943 Detroit riot, urged newspaper editors to play down the discord, including an August 1947 attack on black veterans in the Fernwood Park neighborhood and a November 1949 riot that broke out in the Englewood district over rumors that African-Americans were looking to buy in the neighborhood.
Thanks to television, the violence burst into full view in July 1951, when a crowd of at least 2,000 and possibly as many as 5,000 whites in the suburb of Cicero attacked an apartment building after one black family had moved into one of its 20 units. Later that decade, schools, playgrounds, parks and beaches became the sites of racial conflict.
Ambitious programs, billed as “urban renewal,” in South Side neighborhoods like Hyde Park-Kenwood and Lake Meadows reinforced segregation. Black politicians, like Representative William L. Dawson, the first African-American to be named chairman of a congressional committee, were muted in their opposition to such projects, partly because they were beneficiaries of the patronage of the city’s entrenched Democratic machine.
Meanwhile, the so-called “white flight” to the suburbs deprived cities of vital tax revenues, exacerbating the problems of the poor neighborhoods.
Professor Hirsch likened the process of ghetto creation and maintenance to the “containment” policies that sought to curb communist expansion abroad during the Cold War. He insisted that the urban crises of the 1960s and ’70s had not been the fault of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, which some characterized as liberal excesses, but rather had originated in decisions made a generation earlier.
In “Making the Second Ghetto” (1983), Mr. Hirsch argued that in the years after the Depression, Chicago was a “pioneer” in devising exclusionary housing tactics. University of Chicago Press
“The compounded shortcomings of slum clearance, urban renewal and segregated high-rise public housing resulted not from an unfettered liberalism’s social experimentation during the civil rights era, but, rather, from a conservative reaction more emblematic of the 1950s and the Cold War,” Professor Hirsch wrote in 1997 in a new foreword to the book.
He added: “The ‘second ghetto’ did not just happen. It was willed into existence.”
His other books included two collections he edited, one on creole New Orleans and the other on urban policy in 20th-century America.
Arnold Richard Hirsch was born on March 9, 1949, the younger son of Nathan Hirsch, a businessman, and the former Mollie Shulman, who worked in a bank loan department. He grew up in the West Rogers Park section of Chicago, graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1970 and received a Ph.D. in history, from the same institution, in 1978.
There, he studied with Gilbert Osofsky, the author of “Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto” (1963), who, until his death at 39 in 1974, was a mentor to Professor Hirsch.
Professor Hirsch began teaching history at the University of New Orleans in 1970 and was an emeritus professor there at his death. Along with his son Adam, he is survived by his wife, the former Rosanne Bernover; a younger son, Jordan; and two grandchildren.
Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history at New York University whose landmark study of postwar Detroit was heavily influenced by Professor Hirsch’s work on Chicago, praised him as an “unfailingly generous” scholar.
“He listened to our half-baked ideas, commented on our conference papers, hammered out ideas over lunches and dinners, steered us to great sources, and shared his work without hesitation,” Professor Sugrue said. “Arnie never treated younger scholars, even those of us who built on and challenged some of his arguments, as rivals. He listened and learned and shared and pushed us further.”