“The Workingmen’s Colony”: Labor Conflict and Historic Preservation in Campbell, Ohio

In August, I visited the town of Campbell, a former hub of Ohio’s steel industry. Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company established operations there in 1902, on the banks of the Mahoning River. Originally called East Youngstown, the city was renamed in 1926 for industrialist James Campbell, then chairman of Youngstown Sheet & Tube.

Of particular interest to me were the company homes that Youngstown Sheet & Tube built for workers after a 1916 regional strike for wage increases, many of which stand today. In this post, I’ll discuss the historical context in which the homes were built as well as the practical and ideological concerns that shaped their design. I’ll also briefly discuss how the deindustrialization of the Mahoning Valley has impacted the community and the challenges that the Campbell development faces today.

“The Natural Ending of an Intolerable Situation”: The Strike of 1915-16

WWI resulted in increased production in Ohio’s steel mills by late 1915, and unskilled steelworkers–who were often working grueling 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week–were struggling to live on meager wages (19.5 cents/hour for an unskilled steelworker). The influx of new residents had also strained local infrastructure, and workers and their families endured cramped, unsanitary, and unsafe living conditions.

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The January 18, 1916 edition of The Day Book

By early January of the following year, 16,000 Mahoning Valley steelworkers were on strike. Tensions between the steel company guards–who were hired to protect the mills and the employees who continued to work in them–and strikers in East Youngstown escalated on January 7, 1916, when, as the Mayor of East Youngstown later testified, guards lined up on the public bridge that linked the town to the steelworks and fired into a crowd of strikers and their supporters, killing three people: George Get (23), Robert Davis (24), who was struck by a stray bullet while working as a brakeman on the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, and an unknown worker.

In response to the violence, strikers broke into the company administration building and started a fire. For the next 12 hours, strikers burned and looted nearly 100 blocks of business and residences. The arrival of 2,100 members of the National Guard the following day and offers of wage increases from steel company managers ended the uprising, and days later, the strikers returned to work for 22 cents/hour. As part of a grand jury investigation, several steel companies–including Youngstown Sheet & Steel–were charged with conspiring to fix the wages of common laborers in the steel industry (but these charges were later dismissed).

A member of the Ohio National Guard and a member of the Youngstown Fire Apparatus stand amidst the post-riot destruction in this image from the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Audiovisual Archives

Using Housing to Provide For and Control the Workforce

After the strike, Youngstown Sheet & Tube addressed the issue of substandard living conditions for its employees by building a “workingman’s colony” in Campbell. They also built three other housing developments–two in nearby Struthers and one in Youngstown–for different segments of the worker population; the Campbell development was built specifically to house foreign-born and African American workers.

An October 1918 article in The American Architect describes the plans for the development in detail, noting the company’s goal of  “providing everything intellectually, spiritually, socially, and for the material needs of the colony”. The architects, Conzelman, Herding and Boyd, a St. Louis architecture, engineering, and planning firm, wanted to give the neighborhood a “countrylike character” while also reinforcing the importance of the family unit for recent immigrants by separating families and making units small to prevent the common practice of taking in boarders. The public square was the focal point of the neighborhood, with a ‘community house’, a gymnasium, and a school set off to the side. The main playground was near the school and there were several smaller playgrounds throughout the development.

At the time, the ‘colony’ was unique in its construction, consisting of pre-cast concrete units for one, two, and three families, and in the amenities it offered residents. Each unit had electricity, indoor plumbing (with a laundry and shower in the basement so workers could clean up before entering the living spaces of the house), and a small garden in back.  The walls dividing units were 8 inches thick.

In addition to addressing the workers’ practical needs, the East Youngstown ‘colony’ also furthered a variety of ideological goals. Because steel company management believed that foreign workers had been strongly influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World during the strike, a goal of the new development was to isolate the foreign-born worker population from other groups of workers, assume control over their living situations by becoming their landlord, and break up workers into individual family units through careful planning and design. The American Architect article discusses the role of the colony in “Americanizing” the foreign-born workforce and “teaching them American family ideals and standards of living”. The steel companies also organized “Americanization” classes for the foreign-born workers at this time.

The architects “naturally segregated” the African American section of the development by creating a separate entrance and central square for it, and by moving the homes’ front porches to the back, thus reducing the visibility of African American residents from the street and making this section of the neighborhood feel and appear more ‘contained.’ This development also appears to be the only company housing option for African Americans employed at the Campbell Works at the time; whereas Youngstown Sheet & Tube’s other housing developments in Struthers and Youngstown offered opportunities for homeownership to American and foreign-born workers (though in separate developments), African American workers were limited to renting in the East Youngstown development.

Despite (and because of) the goals driving the development’s construction, the Youngstown Sheet & Tube homes created a sense of community and pride, and are remembered by many former residents as a good place to live.

The Deindustrialization of the Mahoning Valley & Present-Day Challenges

Youngstown Sheet & Tube sold the company homes in the 1940s, which some residents felt marked the beginning of the structural degradation of the development. On September 19th, 1977 (known as “Black Monday”), Youngstown Sheet & Tube abruptly closed the Campbell works and furloughed 5,000 workers during a shift change; workers who were leaving were told not to come back and those showing up for work were sent home. Steelworkers and their supporters–including union representatives, local elected officials, and faith leaders–fought back against the closures, traveling to Washington DC to call on President Jimmy Carter to ease regulations and stop steel imports from China and Japan that were hurting the US steel industry. By 1987, however, the Mahoning Valley had lost 40,000 jobs and 50,000 people had left the region.

Black Monday didn’t just precipitate a collapse of regional industry and infrastructure, it had a devastating impact on the culture of Mahoning Valley communities. Just a year later, the Campbell Historical Society, recognizing that the development was in danger, submitted an application to the Ohio Historical Society seeking state historical site status for the Campbell company homes. That request was granted and the homes were eventually declared a National Historic Site in 1982. In the following decades, however, many of the units were abandoned and experienced vandalism, scrapping, and absentee ownership. The homes were placed on the Endangered list in 2011.

Today, Iron Soup Historical Preservation Company owns more than 20 of the remaining 179 homes and is working to acquire and (eventually) renovate all of them for use as housing for US veterans and other Campbell residents in need of affordable housing. The organization has also renovated one unit as the Company House Museum to show visitors what the inside of one of the homes would have looked like in 1918.

Postindustrial Landscapes, Communities, and Heritage

I’m excited to be in New Orleans this week for the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology. Dan Trepal and I are chairing a session entitled, “Post-industrial Landscapes, Communities, and Heritage,” and we have a diverse group of presentations lined up, to be followed by comments from our discussants, April Beisaw and Melissa Baird.

Check out the full presentation line-up and abstracts here, and come see us in Gallery 2 this Thursday!


Squatting and Concepts of Property Ownership in the Netherlands vs. Detroit

Yesterday I spent the afternoon in Rotterdam with a friend who is a local and a part-time Detroiter. I learned a lot about housing policy and the long, complex history of organized squatting in the Netherlands. In this post, I’ll provide a (very) brief overview of squatting in the Netherlands and how it contrasts with concepts of property ownership and housing policy in the US, particularly in the state of Michigan.

‘Kraken’ in the Netherlands

Squatting, or living in/occupying a property that one does not legally own, became popular and socially acceptable as a viable housing option in the Netherlands in the years after WWII, as the country experienced a severe housing shortage. Despite the lack of available and affordable housing, many property owners were holding on to vacant homes, waiting for the market to improve before selling or renovating them. Squatting had/has both a practical and political purpose: squatters needed a place to live, but they were also protesting the capitalist concept of homeownership that allows property owners to monopolize and exploit available housing stock for purely financial gain.

Squatting (‘kraken’ in Dutch) received legal protection in 1971, when the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that ‘the ‘house right,’ which protects homes from being entered against the will of the occupants, also applies to squatters. In order to (legally) evict a squatter, a building’s owner must take them to court, which is a lengthy process. The squatters movement gained momentum after this ruling and into the 1980s, when up to 20,000 people were living in homes they did not have legal title to. The documentary “Die Stadt Was Ons” (‘The City Was Ours’), released in 1996, focuses on the experiences of participants in Amsterdam’s squatters’ movement from 1975-88 (embedded below).

From 1994-2010, squatting was legalized in the Netherlands on a “use it or lose it” basis that allowed anyone to occupy a structure that had been vacant for a year or more, provided they did not enter the building by force. Under this law, squatters had to inform a building’s owners and the police that they were occupying the structure, and to prove that the building was inhabited, squatters needed only to supply a bed, a chair, a table, and a working lock on the door (Delta).

The Netherlands enacted a controversial and widely protested ban on squatting in 2010. But housing is still considered a human right here, protected under the Dutch Constitution, and keeping a property vacant purely for speculation (at least when squatters are involved) is still illegal. A court ruling in 2012 also made it illegal for an owner to evict squatters in order to demolish the building; to evict a squatter, an owner must provide a plan for the future use of the structure.

2017-03-25 14.56.38‘Anti-kraak’ (anti-squatting) agreements have helped to find a middle ground that recognizes and respects owners’ rights while recognizing that there’s an affordable housing shortage that vacant buildings can help alleviate. When would-be squatters enter into an anti-kraak agreement with a building’s owner, they agree to immediately vacate the premises once an owner decides to sell, rent, or demolish a property. This way, people who need homes and workspaces have them and a property is protected against vandalism and decay while an owner decides what to do with it.

Anti-kraak agreements are controversial because they occupy a legal ‘gray area’ and do not guarantee an occupant the rights of a renter. For instance, in addition to the “immediate eviction” provision and the sense of instability and stress that comes with knowing that you can be immediately removed from your residence at any time and for any reason, anti-kraak agreements often allow owners to legally enter the premises without advance notice to the occupant. Owners can also set unreasonable restrictions on residents, something that they would legally be prevented from doing if the occupant were paying rent.

‘Anti-kraak’ agreements are not viewed as a long-term solution to the country’s affordable housing problems. Many housing collectives and organizations have stepped in to advocate for squatters’ rights as a way to bridge the gap between housing need and availability. Organizations like Stad in de Maak, for example, focus on “temporary vacancy management” while working towards the long-term goals of creating affordable housing/workspaces and securing collective property ownership and management.

Squatting in Detroit

The Dutch approach to squatting contrasts with housing policy and anti-squatting laws in the US, where the law generally privileges and protects property owners (though many landlords would disagree with me on this), and holding on to properties for speculation, including keeping them vacant and letting them fall into disrepair, is not against the law; and even where it is against the law, as in the case of blight violations, it’s often just a fineable offense that is inconsistently enforced.

The legal difference reflects the different socio-cultural perspectives at play: whereas in the Netherlands, housing is considered a fundamental human right and squatting was and is considered to be a viable housing option, in the US, housing is generally not treated or discussed as a human right protected by law, and squatting is not a socially acceptable housing option.

Statutes enacted in September of 2014 in the state of Michigan, for example, criminalized squatting, making it punishable by fines and jail time, and did away with a previous law that required a property owner to file an eviction action to remove occupants even if they didn’t have a valid lease. Owners can now legally change the locks and remove a squatting resident’s personal belongings. Physically removing an individual is still not permitted; only law enforcement can legally use force in this situation. But this doesn’t stop landlords from using various intimidation tactics and/or illegally using force to remove a squatting resident, generally without consequence.

Prior to September 2014,  squatting was not a crime in Michigan, and the state still has ‘adverse possession’ laws on the books that allow trespassers to obtain title to a piece of land if certain requirements are met; these requirements, however, are pretty strict. The restrictions, coupled with the privileging of property owners’ rights and the social stigma attached to homelessness and squatting, make occupying a property that isn’t legally yours very difficult.

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This home in Rotterdam was slated to be demolished before a squatter collective stepped in to occupy it

Michigan’s anti-squatting laws were likely passed to benefit Detroit’s (new) property owners in particular, and perhaps as the result of one high-profile case. In 2012, a squatter (who was a former tenant) refused to leave a home in the city’s Boston-Edison neighborhood that was legally owned by someone else, and the owner involuntarily lived with the squatter as a roommate while she began eviction proceedings.

The owner had purchased the home in 2010 for $23,000 and had rented it out to the tenant until the structure failed a city inspection and could no longer be legally rented out. At that point the owner asked the tenant to leave, and rather make the necessary repairs to bring the house up to code, she left the city for a year, moving home to California. When the owner returned, she found that the squatting resident was still living in the house and that she had changed the locks, reworked the plumbing, replaced the appliances, and put a lien on the house. She had also filed paperwork with the city that stated that the house had been abandoned.

The former tenant wouldn’t leave, insisting that she had invested in the property and had a right to live there. The owner disagreed and was shocked to learn that she had to go through legal channels to evict her ex-tenant, which was surprising, because this process is very common and landlords in the city would be familiar with it. When asked if she was afraid of the person with whom she and her child were sharing the house, the owner said, rather oddly (and tellingly), “We’re afraid of her mindset of entitlement“.

Whereas the squatting resident’s position of wanting to continue occupying a home that she thought had been abandoned and in which she’d invested money and energy, would make sense on a cultural level in the Netherlands, in Detroit, where 1 in 3 homes are vacant and it’s the celebrated right of a property owner to keep a structure empty and dilapidated for as long as she likes, this was referred to in various local media stories as “2012’s most absurd news story” and “the height of insanity.” Commenters on different news pieces described the squatter as “unstable” and “a crazy-ass freak” and blamed her “black-socialist mentality” for her sense of entitlement. Commenters also publicly circulated the squatter’s personal contact information and links to her social media pages, urging others to go to her Facebook profile and “tell her she sucks so that everyone can see.”

A media frenzy ensued wherein the squatter was repeatedly referred to as a “criminal” by local reporters despite the fact that squatting was not a crime at the time (her actions were most often compared to theft). The squatter eventually left the house as a result of all the harassment and negative attention she was receiving, not because she’d been formally evicted. Just four months after the tenant left, the owner of the home put it back on the market because the reality of life in Detroit wasn’t what she had expected, and she strongly criticized the city in the home’s listing.

Detroit’s Affordable Housing Crisis

Despite the thousands of structures that have been demolished by the city since 2014, tens of thousands of structures still sit vacant and decaying, awaiting renovation or demolition. And yet there’s a shortage of affordable housing in Detroit. For the first time since 1950, renters outnumber homeowners, and half of those renters are low-income residents who will spend 30%-50% (or more) of their income on rent. Despite this, the state criminalizes squatting, even though it could potentially help with the housing shortage and can be a successful strategy for maintaining a property and protecting it from vandalism and scrapping, to the point that some neighborhoods in the city actively recruit squatters.

Local writer and activist Michele Oberholtzer advocates for a “homestead” program that would allow the current residents of homes owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) to buy their homes. The DLBA, created in 2008 in the absence of a viable private property market in Detroit, is the largest holder of public land in the city and holds title to 93,000 vacant parcels of land and occupied/unoccupied homes. The city currently has programs–such as the Building Detroit auction and the Occupied Buyback Program–to sell vacant homes at low prices (starting at $1,000), but these programs have strict eligibility requirements and unrealistic expectations for how quickly a house can be renovated, brought up to code, and continuously occupied.

The DLBA’s official policy is to not formally evict former owners/renters from its properties (sometimes it just skips that step and illegally demolishes people’s homes while they’re still living in them). But even if that’s the case, simply not evicting people from the homes they occupy doesn’t address the structural issues (eg. property speculation, unconstitutional property tax assessments leading to widespread foreclosure, lack of rental code enforcement) that have created Detroit’s housing crisis. Oberholtzer argues that the dearth of effective programs in place to facilitate and expedite homeownership works to passively evict residents who do want to own and take care of their homes, and this, in turn, hurts the city as a whole:

“To understand the problem, consider the perspective of a person living in a home owned by the DLBA. Most were lawful occupants—including owners or renters—whose homes cycled into public ownership through tax foreclosure. Many of them do not even know who owns their home. There’s a toxic uncertainty that comes from not knowing who owns your home, how long you will get to stay there, or on what terms. While it’s nice not having to pay rent, this situation is tenuous for both person and property.

“Basic human psychology dictates that residents in these conditions will withhold emotional and financial investment in their home. A person is unlikely to paint the walls or plant a garden, let alone repair the leaking roof. Occupants of these properties exist in a sort of purgatory until disrepair, inability to access water without a current lease, or fear drives them out. Without a direct path to legitimate occupancy, gentler indirect forces provide a ‘passive eviction,’ leaving residents to scramble for new housing, and vacant homes to join the unabated queue of demolition fodder and scrap material.”

While I want to emphasize that this not a “passive” process driven by “gentler indirect forces”, the resulting instability and fear that Oberholtzer describes is very real and widespread, and residents who have lost their homes to foreclosure need a direct path (back) to homeownership. Legislation and the various protections offered by law are just one set of tools we can use in this fight.

Oberholtzer is the director of The Tricycle Collective, which works with the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC) to help Detroiters living in foreclosed homes to buy the homes they already live in at auction. In 2016 alone, they raised $30,000 to help more than 50 families across Detroit to stay in their homes. The Collective, UCHC, and many other community organizations (including the Detroit Eviction Defense, Moratorium NOW!, Property Praxis, the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures, and many others) work to address different issues that cause and contribute to housing insecurity and instability in the city.

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This mural was made by artists Ellen Rutt, Ouizi, and Jonny Alexander, in collaboration with the Tricycle Collective, to raise awareness of the many occupied homes being sold at auction across Detroit. Photo credit: Marissa Gawel

Again, these are not permanent solutions, nor are they meant to be. An organization like the Tricycle Collective may step in to help a family buy their home back once it has been foreclosed on, but the conditions for the home entering foreclosure in the first place aren’t being addressed. A legal and social shift of the kind that Oberholtzer is proposing, where the city prioritizes keeping long-term, low-income residents in their homes, would have to stem from changes in the way we view property ownership and the bundle of rights, privileges, and responsibilities associated with it in Detroit and in the US more broadly. Private property in settler colonial states like the US operates as a mechanism to take and divide up land and resources in accordance with societal beliefs about who is deserving of and entitled to them, and those criteria are inextricably linked to an investment in the cultural logics of whiteness.

For more information about the politics and history of squatting in the Netherlands and the impact of the 2010 ban on squatting, see “Squatting & Criminalisation in the Netherlands,” published in 2016 by the SQUASH (Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes) Campaign and “Squatting in Europe” by Hans Pruijt (2004).