From the late nineteenth century to the 1960s, a diverse group of Boiseans called River Street home. Interviews with some of the neighborhoods current and former residents revealed a community where persons of all races and creeds were judged based on the content of their character. In this place where Boise’s “others” were permitted to live, River Street residents found a way to get along and interact against a backdrop of a less permissive society.
Here are highlights from some of River Street’s former residents’ reminiscences. The complete audio recordings of these interviews will be available for public viewing at the Idaho State Historical Society’s Archives in Boise.
Click Here if you want to see a summary of the oral history interview with Dick Madry
Click Here if you want to see a summary of the oral history interview with John Bertram
Click Here if you want to see a summary of the oral history interview with Lee Rice, II
Click Here if you want to see a summary of the oral history interview with Warner Terrell, III
How River Street Helped Create Whiteness in Boise, Idaho: An Anthropological Interpretation
River Street was integral to the creation of whiteness as a distinct racial identity in Boise. It may have been inhabited by multiple races and ethnicities, but the role of this neighborhood was to create a distinctly separate place where non-Euroamerican people could live without having integrating into the rest of the city. Racial mores for most of the twentieth century forced Americans to live in a segregated society. Much of this was designed to maintain white privilege, but it also had the side effect of creating self-contained, close-knit ethnic communities. In Boise, River Street was occupied by whites, blacks, and other non-Euroamericans; however, it functioned as a container for the “others”– people that were not allowed to be considered part of Euroamerican Boise.
My experience and education as an anthropologist gives me a unique perspective on this process. One of the most interesting aspects of this project is examining the way the River Street Neighborhood helped create whiteness in Boise.
City governments across the United States found reasons to embrace “urban renewal” during the mid-twentieth century. The roots of urban renewal can be found in the Housing Act of 1949, which provided an unprecedented public funds commitment to the physical and economic restructuring of American cities. During the 1950s and 1960s, as much as $10 billion in tax dollars were used to fund over 2,100 renewal projects. Renewal focused on “blighted” neighborhoods that, oftentimes, were occupied by non-Euroamericans— especially African Americans. The huge swaths of the urban landscape that were demolished to make way for new urban construction quickly caused a public uproar. Boise, Idaho was no different than hundreds of other towns in their zeal for removing blight with a wrecking ball. Renewal in Boise also focused on the town’s only African American neighborhood (Demo 2006). By the 1970s, African Americans and preservation-minded, middle-class Americans had joined forces to stop the demolition (Reichl 1997). Much of Boise’s African American neighborhood had been destroyed by then.
Urban renewal was as much about reconfiguring urban spaces as much as it was reconfiguring the urban social fabric. The 1960s African American uprising against discrimination that was called the Civil Rights Movement had its roots in urban African American population centers. Designed and executed by governments that were overwhelmingly Euroamerican, urban renewal focused on poor, non-White neighborhoods and prioritized the creation of a highway system that allowed an escape from urban life while simultaneously destroying the fabric of non-White neighborhoods (Cashin 2008:57). This was certainly the case in Boise.
Urban Renewal severely damaged black neighborhoods across the country and many of these were permanently destroyed, as was the case in Boise. While other researchers have covered the effects of renewal (Fullilove 2009) and gentrification (Hyra 2008) on black neighborhoods in other parts of the country, no one has investigated the effect of this process on smaller black communities in the American West. The River Street Neighborhood became part of Boise’s urban landscape between the 1890s and 1923 and was the site of a diverse, multi-ethnic community where African American, Basque, Euroamericans, and immigrants from other European nations were able to buy and rent homes (Demo 2006:13–18, 5–27). It was home to the folks from the “south side of the tracks”— the “others”. This small enclave of minority groups composed an important social category that allowed the existence of Euroamericans because they were part of the “other”, a hierarchical social designation that enabled the demarcation and social privilege of Euroamericans as a race.
Today, the River Street Neighborhood exists in the memory of its former residents, in documents curated by local archives, and on the landscape. Social dynamics caused by the racialization process between River Street Neighborhood residents and Euroamericans residing outside the neighborhood have already been revealed in existing stories and interpretations of the neighborhood (Demo 2006; Buckner 1981; Hayman 1980; Stewart 1980). Other aspects of racialization in Boise will undoubtedly be revealed in the upcoming oral histories. In the United States, racial hierarchies serve to reinforce class affiliations that were intended to guarantee economic and social benefits for one particular race—Euroamericans. Researchers of whiteness as a racial ontology point out that while racial designations exist, race is actually lived in class-specific ways that can be seen in places like historical Boise, Idaho (Epperson 2004; Hartigan 1997:498; Mullins 1999).
The Creation of Whiteness and Racial Privilege in Boise
The history of racialization in Boise is complex; however, the dialectic between African Americans and Euroamericans can fittingly be examined by positioning Boise within a larger, worldwide capitalist system. The status of social groups in hierarchical capitalist systems is situational and highly entangled. Anthropologists can only analyze social groups, including races, while also simultaneously considering neighboring groups in society because no social group lives and operates in isolation. Wolf writes in the introduction to his landmark book Europe and the People without History, “…there can be no ‘Black history’ apart from ‘White history’, only a component of common history suppressed or omitted from conventional studies for economic, political, or ideological reasons.” (1997:19). This statement comes on the heels of a seven page section where Wolf excoriates twentieth century anthropologists for focusing on individual case studies at the expense of cross-cultural comparisons that include societies with clear hegemonic groups at work.
Wolf understood the way social structures form networks that bind communities together in such a way that individual social groups cannot be easily separated from each other. In the case of River Street, white Boiseans needed non-whites in order to establish themselves as a distinct social group. This distinction was created in part by the racialization process which uses real or perceived physiological characteristics to create social groups or subgroups. These differences are also used to place distinct social groups within the wider hierarchy that exists in that culture. The aim for whites is to place themselves in a privileged position in order to aggrandize power (Hartmann et al. 2009).
In order to understand the role racialization is played out for Euroamericans, it is important to understand the role racial identities have played in the historical, social, political, and economic landscape of the United States. Most importantly for the analysis of racial identities in River Street, anthropologists must remember that racial identities are fluid and context specific. Racial identities are purely ideological concepts that are a means of separating human populations and are principally created by those who play a role in the formation of social hierarchies. Central to the racialization process is the use of real or perceived physiological differences to strategically create a hierarchy in which some races are judged to be superior to others (Orser 2007, 2004:115–118). In the United States, this hierarchy has been structurally designed to define and maintain social relations between various racial groups, most prominently Euroamericans versus “the other”; and to control access to goods, political power, economic strength, and overall life opportunities (Hartmann et al. 2009; Orser 2007).
Whiteness, thus, is a state of mind, an ideological construct that becomes perpetuated through discourse, practice, and daily behaviors of which most people are unaware but which nonetheless perpetuate racial identity (Hartmann et al. 2009). Ruth Frankenberg (1997:1) argues that white studies in the social sciences focus on three core theoretical positions and hypotheses: 1) whiteness is a location of structural advantage of race privilege; 2) it is a standpoint from where white people look at themselves, others, and society, and; 3) whiteness refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed (Hartmann et al. 2009:406).
Race is central in the creation and maintenance of social power structures. Issues of power inherent in capitalist societies was also observed by Wolf. Throughout his Introduction, Wolf frequently mentions the trans-Atlantic slave trade— an activity that forcibly moved Africans to the Western Hemisphere and transformed them into enslaved workers. Wolf notes that understandings of the growth of world economic systems must relate history and theory in order to reveal the processes that effected populations around the world. The resulting historically informed theory must be able to account for outcomes of processes that affected populations in a specifiable time and space (1997:21).
African Americans in Boise are descendants of African slaves brought to the United States; however, the racialization of both Euroamericans and African Americans is predicated upon racial mores developed during the period of American slavery (1619–1865). Following the abolition of slavery in the United States, African American identity continued to be plagued by negative connotations and were placed in a permanent working class status within the American social hierarchy. This proletariat status was a necessary element of American capitalist society that requires workers to perform all manner of tasks. White discrimination kept blacks in a proletariat caste and this social position was replicated in Boise’s social and geographic landscape (Demo 2006).
Power differentials created through race and class differentiation are similar to descriptions of social power dialectics originally outlined by Marxist theorists in the social sciences. The Marxist dialectic is particularly useful in the case of River Street because it simplifies the interplay of two principal racial categories in historical Boise: Euroamericans, who strove to maintain social, economic, and moral control of the community, and the diverse array of social groups categorized by Euroamericans as the “others” who worked to dismantle their stigmatization. The “others” category specifically targeted African Americans but frequently included other non-Euroamericans and Euroamericans that were stigmatized because they lived alongside and interacted with the “others”.
River Street as a Historical Landscape of Segregation
In Boise, the most visible material manifestation of racialization is the urban landscape of the River Street Neighborhood. While porous and constantly subject to change, the preeminence of Euroamerican identity had long been intact in American society by the time Boise was created and, certainly, by the time African Americans moved to River Street (Hartigan 2005; Jacobson 1998:31–38; Roediger 1991). The social construction of race generally entails the segregation of space along racial categories; subsequently, racially homogeneous groups construct their own places and develop a sense of place to fulfill social and cultural needs and obligations. In Boise, River Street served to reinforce racial segregation, which, in turn, served to maintain Euroamerican hegemony by creating a place of contrast— the geographic home of the others (White 2014).
This geographic segregation also played an important role in the economy of Boise, especially with regard to real estate values. Racism played a significant role in the character and perceived value of real estate. Neighborhoods with African American and other non-Euroamerican residents were considered less desirable places to live and properties in these places were valued at a lower price. Euroamerican homeowners in the rest of Boise had a strong motivation to keep African Americans in a discrete geographic area in order to prevent the racist devaluation of their own homes due to the presence of African American neighbors (Demo 2006; Stewart 1980).
In addition to creating a place where African Americans could be “contained”, Euroamerican real estate speculators were also creating a neighborhood dedicated to speculation. Archival documents explain that the area that became the River Street Neighborhood was once a farmstead that was sold to real estate speculators in advance of the arrival of the railroad. From the 1890s–1920s, these investors and a small number of private property owners built prefabricated, single-family houses with the intention of renting the dwellings out to working-class employees of the nearby railroad warehouses and in downtown Boise. The neighborhood’s location south of the tracks geographically separated River Street from the rest of Boise and quickly became known for its African American residents who arrived as railroad employees (Demo 2006; Osa 1981). From its inception, River Street was considered a place for financial gain but, due to its geographic location and black residents, it became a lynchpin in maintaining white hegemony in Boise.
Racial designations in the United States were an outgrowth of the global expansion of capitalism. The racialization process (i.e. exploiting divisions between different social groups based on physiological differentiations) was used and perpetuated in order to hierarchically place social groups within the greater society. In Boise, the social hierarchy was dedicated toward preserving Euroamerican preeminence which allowed this group to claim an inordinate proportion of political, social, and economic power; however, as evidenced in Wolf’s introduction, the relationships between social groups and motivations for action are tightly entangled. Euroamerican real estate speculators intended on using River Street for financial gain, but they were also able to use the neighborhood to maintain social structures that game them privileges because of their racial affiliation. The materiality of these activities is intrinsically linked to the manifestation and maintenance of a hierarchy of social groups. River Street and racialization in Boise can be viewed as a single case study in the complicated ways race-based hegemony played out in the United States.
(Click Here if you want to know more about River Street as a landscape of memory or memoryscape)
Race and Class Struggles: A View from the River Street Neighborhood
Racial dynamics that lead to the creation of the River Street Neighborhood always served to reinforce class divisions and ensure the position of Boise’s Euroamerican elites. It also provided an opportunity or financial gain. The neighborhood was created in anticipation of the 1893 arrival of the Oregon Short Line Railroad. Real estate speculators, all of whom were Euroamerican, quickly bought and subdivided parcels along the south side of the railroad tracks. The goal was to provide jobs and housing for the warehouse workers and other working class service industry employees in nearby downtown Boise. Sandwiched between the railroad, a warehouse/ industrial strip and the Boise River, the neighborhood became a prime location to house Boise’s “others”. From the 1920s to the 1960s, River Street was primarily occupied by blacks and poor white families (Demo 2006).
African American newcomers were housed in River Street for a number of reasons. Idaho was a free territory and a free state meaning African Americans that came to the state could not be enslaved. Most African Americans that arrived in Boise at this time were railroad workers or employed in various restaurants, hotels, and service industry businesses in downtown Boise. As illustrated in Figure 2, the proximity of River Street to railroad warehouses, railroad-related businesses, and downtown made it a prime location to house this new demographic. Additionally, the River Street neighborhood remained newly platted and not completely infilled when African Americans began to arrive. Undeveloped lots remained until the 1920s. River Street was a speculative venture and most properties were always intended to be rentals. The geographic segregation of the neighborhood from downtown and the rest of Boise made it an excellent place for segregation. As non-Euroamericans arrived to town during the early twentieth century, they were forced to live in River Street due to segregation (Demo 2006).
Boise’s Euroamericans went to great measures to keep River Street as the home of the “others”. African Americans were the primary target of their discrimination, but poor whites were oftentimes negatively affected by racialization efforts. Euroamerican elites enlisted intellectuals in the local government and business groups to maintain real estate and economic sanctions that prevented blacks from renting or buying houses outside the neighborhood and unevenly taxed their businesses (Demo 2006; Stewart 1980).
Territorial Stigmatization for River Street’s White Residents
The quest to maintain white hegemony in Boise sometimes affected other whites. Poor white residents of River Street were stigmatized because of where they lived and were, thus, bypassed by job promotions and other economic opportunities. This process, which also effected African Americans, has been called “territorial stigmatization” by Loïs Wacquant. Territorial stigmatization creates a social and economic, self-fulfilling prophesy where residents of places like River Street have decreased opportunities because of the negative connotations associated with being residents of a neighborhood with a bad reputation. Describing the way territorial stigmatization is reinforced by the surrounding community, Wacquant (2010:218) explains:
“…on the external front, spatial stigma alters the perception and skews the judgments and actions of the surrounding citizenry, commercial operators, and government officials. Outsiders fear coming into the neighborhood and commonly impute a wide range of nefarious traits to its in habitants. Businesses are reticent to open facilities or to provide services for customers in “no-go areas.” Employers hesitate to hire job applicants who, coming from them, are unreflectively suspected of having a lax work ethic and lower moral standards, leading to pervasive “address discrimination.”
In the case of River Street, both white and black residents found themselves stigmatized because of where they lived, even though Euroamerican River Street residents were phenotypically members of the race that benefitted most from hegemony. Both blacks and white neighborhood residents were limited to low-wage work and homes that were perceived as lower quality housing; however, former residents are quick to note that owner-occupied houses were a symbol of pride and better maintained than rentals (Stewart 1980). White neighborhood residents may have had other opportunities if it was not for the place where they lived because of their physiological characteristics, but there is no data to support that assumption. While a number of businesses operated in the neighborhood, it was bypassed by much of the commercial growth that took place in the downtown area and elsewhere in the city. Until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, blacks in Boise remained stigmatized because of their neighborhood and white residents bore the stigma of living in the “black” neighborhood. After the 1960s, the stigma of River Street as a crime-ridden ghetto became more real as upwardly mobile African Americans moved away and certain areas of the neighborhood became known for drug trafficking and prostitution (Demo 2006). Urban renewal was one way the city government attempted to remove this “blighted” area.
The stigmatization of African Americans in River Street was essential to the creation and maintenance of white privilege. Non-white groups are necessary in order to provide a contrast for whiteness. As a race, white people only exist in opposition to non-whites and, through the educated class, white elites play a pivotal role in deciding non-whiteness. Over time, white privilege has become normalized in American society and whiteness has become a baseline against which other races and ethnicities are compared. This normalization has reached a point where many white people are unaware or unable to acknowledge the existence of white privilege in the United States because many of the characteristics of what it means to be white, self-sufficiency, hard-working, financially successful, have become synonymous with what it means to be an American (Hartmann et al. 2009).
The goal of the River Street Digital History Project is to talk with former residents in order to provide a more nuanced interpretation of past racial dynamics in Boise. It is hoped that the resulting interpretations will allow provide valuable context for the archaeological interpretations and excavations.
River Street faces a new threat today. With home prices on the upswing, the City of Boise has resumed its plan to replace the neighborhood with new housing, civic buildings, and businesses that cater to the need of young, urban professionals. These new emigrants to Boise are overwhelmingly Euroamericans seeking to raise families in a safe, urbane environment. They are usually unaware of the role River Street played in the history of Boise, Idaho. Levy, Comey, and Padilla (2007:238) remark about the effects gentrification is currently having on formerly low-income and ethnic neighborhoods like River Street. The authors explain that: “Decreases in affordable housing units have accompanied the higher prices in many places, and there are numerous reports of resident displacement from neighborhoods long ignored that now attract higher-income households.” As more of the River Street Neighborhood is lost, the long movement toward eradicating Boise’s black neighborhood is almost complete. The River Street Digital History Project is one way of reclaiming the past and tucking it safely out of the reach of the wrecking ball.
I am always interested in hearing your opinion. Please Contact Me if you have a question or comment.
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