In Memoriam: Arnold Hirsch (1949-2018), Iconic Scholar of Race and Cities

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By Thomas J. Sugrue

Arnold Hirsch died on March 19, 2018, after a long illness. Few urban historians have been more influential. A student when urban America cities exploded during the “long hot summers” of the 1960s, Hirsch spent his whole career exploring the vexing relationship between race, public policy, and grassroots politics in American cities. When Hirsch put pen to paper, he systematically dismantled conventional wisdom about the crises of cities like Chicago.

Arnold Hirsch's book, Making the Second Ghetto, came out in 1983. It still fresh more than three decades after its publication. Hirsch wrote an excoriating history of the battles over race and turf in his native Chicago, but offered much more. Through his rigorous research, his eye for revealing details, and his utterly original approach to the study of urban politics and policy, Hirsch opened up the subfield of postwar US urban history and paved the way for so many of us to explore the politics and policy and race, urban politics, and segregation. In Making the Second Ghetto, Arnie claimed that in the post-depression years, Chicago was a "pioneer in developing concepts and devices" for housing segregation. 

With candor and rigor, Arnie showed how Chicago politicians and elites, the administrations of the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology, and middle-class and working-class whites successfully divided the city by race, engaging in “massive resistance” to racial equality. Segregation, he showed, was not the result of personal prejudice or individual choices. It was rooted in institutional interests, profit and greed, and the desperate efforts of ordinary homeowners to stem the “Negro invasion” from their neighborhoods, as much to protect their insecure identity as whites as their property values. Apartheid Chicago was the result of political failure at every level, from the grassroots all the way up to the federal government. A decade before American studies scholars discovered "whiteness" in the realm of discourse and representation, Arnie found it in the words of white Chicagoans and, more importantly, in their actions, from zoning decisions to grassroots protests, to keep the city divided by black and white. Making the Second Ghetto made clear—with gripping narrative and painstaking research—there was nothing free about the urban housing market, and little just or fair about federal or local policy about race, even in an ostensibly liberal northern city.

Hirsch's scholarship alone would have left a huge mark on the profession. But he was also unfailingly generous to countless younger scholars. 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. 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.

Most importantly, he inspired those of us who wanted our scholarship to be both rigorous and relevant. When Arnie began his career, many historians shied away from the history of the recent past, lest they be accused of the sins of presentism (writing about history prematurely) or propagandism (distorting the past in service of a current political agenda). Arnie, by contrast, made a powerful case that drawing a bright line between past and present does justice to neither. He wrote with an eye toward contemporary concerns—especially the depth and persistence of racial segregation in American cities-- but never sacrificed rigorous research and attentiveness to the messiness of the past in service of a partisan stance.

If you haven't read Making a Second Ghetto, get a copy. It's still in print after 35 years--a rare feat for an academic book. Every page is an eye opener. Over his too-short career, Arnold Hirsch made inestimable contributions to the study of cities, race, urban politics, and policy, not to mention setting the agenda for a whole generation of cutting-edge work on postwar American history. May his memory be a blessing.

Thomas J. Sugrue is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History, Director of the American Studies Program and Director of NYU Collaborative on Global Urbanism at New York University. He is a winner of the Bancroft Prize, and author of multiple award-winning books, including The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race, and most recently coauthored with Glenda Gilmore These United States: The Making of a Nation, 1890-Present.  He first met Arnold Hirsch in 1987, when Hirsch was a visiting professor at Harvard.