I was at an estate sale with my in-laws. Their curiosity was piqued at the opportunity to view the inside of a house they had driven by hundreds of times. However, I had no such history with the house or the neighborhood. Bored, looking to pass the time, I found an old children’s language arts textbook, How It Is Nowadays, and began idly skimming through.
How It Is Nowadays (edited by Theodore Clymer and Priscilla Holton Neff) is a fantastic artifact, full of cheerful, brightly-colored illustrations. A pink and purple polka-dot cow smiles out at the reader. Stories include “Mr. Flynn’s Crazy Kite” and “Flossie Flamingo.” The textbook is indicated to be at “Level 8” in publisher Ginn and Company’s “Reading 360” series. It appears to have been intended for fourth grade students.
Innocuously nestled among the paintings of birds and the rhymes about boats is an arresting image. A black boy. Three white friends. Construction debris. The drawing is part of a story called “Have You Seen Tim’s Surprise?” about a boy, Tim, who creates an artistic playscape from the pipes left over after his home was demolished to make way for a new highway. Guess which child is Tim?
How It Is Nowadays – at least, the edition I stumbled upon – was published in 1969. Here are a few events that occurred in the years leading up to its publication:
1948 – Robert Moses starts construction on the controversial Cross-Bronx Expressway. Robert A. Caro writes in his masterpiece biography of Moses, The Power Broker, that “what was most significant about the Cross-Bronx Expressway was not that seven miles of brick and mortar and steel and iron had to be removed from its path but that seven miles of people had to be removed.” (p. 848) Caro also interviewed Moses about the immensity of the Cross-Bronx Expressway project, with Moses responding, “There are more houses in the way [than on Long Island]. There are more people in the way — that’s all. There’s very little real hardship in the thing.” (p. 876)
1956 – Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority begins relocating 1,239 black families from the Lower Hill District to make way for the $22 million Civic Arena (1961) and the Crosstown Boulevard (1963).
1960 – Charlotte’s Director of Urban Renewal begins clearance in the “Brooklyn” neighborhood, a historically black community. The clearance will eventually displace 1007 families and 216 businesses. Ms. Naomi A. Davis, in a 2004 interview, reflects “we can’t put our hands on anything during this era that, you know, remains. [Urban renewal] means that you have taken away from me, you have taken away my heritage, because at some point you should be able to recapture things, you know, it should be there, something to remind you, you know. But, it was all taken away…”
At the time How it Is Nowadays was published, stories of slum clearance and highway building were so ingrained and so standardized from city to city that “Have You Seen Tim’s Surprise?” only needs three large-print pages to evoke all the hopes, fears, and disappointments surrounding the urban renewal initiatives facilitated by the Housing Act of 1949 and Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Tim Walker’s house is torn down to make way for a highway; he and his family are moving to another neighborhood. Tim writes a letter to the local paper: “Do you know about Baker Street?” he asks. “Machines came and plowed into all the houses….but they did leave a pile of old pipes.” (p.124) The remainder of the story, no doubt rich with grade-level vocabulary, describes various imagination-fueled games played by Tim and his white friends in the pipe forest he built.
When I first read the story, I found it hard to view it as anything other than a piece of urban renewal propaganda; an attempt to win children over to the racially-motivated politics of the day. However, once my initial shock had subsided, I was able to place the story in the proper context. By 1969, the era of urban renewal was (slowly) coming to a close; popular opinion had begun to shift. In 1961, Jane Jacobs published Death and Life of Great American Cities. By the 1970s, community activists had begun winning victories against urban highway construction.
Ultimately, as I read it today, “Have You Seen Tim’s Surprise?” reads most like an educator’s wish, dedicated to the precocious transfer student in the front of the class. Look how creative! Look how resilient! His parents may be reeling from the shock of a community uprooted, but he sees the potential in a new beginning. He is strong, forgiving, imaginative. Our mistake wasn’t so serious, was it?
Still, whatever the underlying intentions of the story, the problem is that we deeply remember what we learn in childhood, but often in naive snippets, void of context. We learn that there are seven continents. We learn that spiders have eight eyes. And from Linda Lamb, Tim’s blond, white friend from “Have You Seen Tim’s Surprise?”, we learn that “the pipes may topple over. If they do, we will set them up again in a new way.” (p. 129)
Watch out, Tim Walker. Your house is still not safe. Your community is still not safe. The children you played with are already anticipating the next opportunity to rearrange what you have imagined and built for yourself.