PHILADELPHIA

The City of Philadelphia’s engagement with the threat of nuclear attack tells a compelling story of how the intersection of racial prejudice and Cold War defense policy came to be played out in America’s urban spaces. In the late 1940s, Philadelphia Mayor Bernard Samuels hired recently retired army general and war hero Norman D. Cota to head up a new Civil Defense task force for the city of Philadelphia. Records of the task force show a bureaucracy dedicated to imagining the possible destruction of Philadelphia by atomic attack.

  Hypothetical Test Map

 

Hypothetical Test Map

At 5.30AM on February 13th, the Mayor of Philadelphia received an official confidential yellow air raid alert. At about 5.30AM the Mayor received telephonic information from the Governor that enemy planes were being tracked in the general direction of the Philadelphia-Camden region and that appropriate segments of the Armed Forces had been alerted and were actively defending that area.

Between 5.35 and 5.45 A.M. the principle broadcasting companies interrupted their programs to announce atomic attacks upon one New England and two Great Lakes industrial cities

At 5.45 A.M. there was an atomic burst (Northeast Airburst) about 2500’ in the air over a point at or near the intersection of SEPVIVA, WHEATSHEAF and the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Within 3 seconds there was another such burst over a point at or near the intersection of 61st and MARKET Streets.
— Hypothetical Test Narrative, “General Outline: Civil Defense Plan for the CIty and County of Philadelphia” (City of Philadelphia Archives, Box A5311, 1951).

As the imagined bombing of Philadelphia demonstrates, the arrival of nuclear weapons significantly affected the way that cities were understood in America. American nuclear policies came to equate urban with black with violently-destroyed atomic target.

The atomic bomb has raised, in fact, the question of the survival of urban culture itself.
— Winfield W. Riefler, Chairman, Committee on Social Aspects of Atomic Energy, Social Science Research Council (1947)
Niggertown was right on Ground Zero.
— Philip Wylie, Civil Defense Administrator, Tomorrow! (1954)

White flight, aided by federal and municipal investments in highway construction, suburban housing stock, and mortgage guarantees, recreated the inner city as predominantly African American at the same time that the inner city was being written off as the inevitable ground zero of a future nuclear war.

The best protection against atomic or hydrogen bombs is - don’t be there!
— “Six Steps to Survival,” Federal Civil Defense Administration, 1957
  Advice given to city-dwellers in the 1957 Federal Civil Defense Administration publication “Six Steps to Survival”

 

Advice given to city-dwellers in the 1957 Federal Civil Defense Administration publication “Six Steps to Survival”

The suburbs, redefined as spaces of relative atomic security, were closed off to African Americans and other ethnic minorities through restrictive covenants and violent assaults.

  The white nuclear family relaxes in their spacious suburban fallout shelter (“Your Family Survival Plan,” Office of Civil Defense, 1963)

 

The white nuclear family relaxes in their spacious suburban fallout shelter (“Your Family Survival Plan,” Office of Civil Defense, 1963)

  White mobs and broken windows greet the arrival of the first black residents of the suburb of Levittown, PA, 1957

 

White mobs and broken windows greet the arrival of the first black residents of the suburb of Levittown, PA, 1957

By the end of the Cold War, the demographic makeup of the Philadelphians residing at the imagined Ground Zero of the 1951 bombing had shifted from 71.9% white to 72% African American. 

  The changing demographics of West Philadelphia (West Philadelphia Community History Center, 2009)

 

The changing demographics of West Philadelphia (West Philadelphia Community History Center, 2009)

But even as African Americans became the primary targets of nuclear weapons, they were being repositioned as themselves a nuclear threat to white America.

What would a nuclear war mean for black America Demographically, the black population is the most “urban” of all other ethnic and social groups within the US. About one out of every eight African-Americans lives in metropolitan New York City and Chicago alone; almost 9 million blacks live in the nation’s 15 largest cities, and half of all blacks live in the 60 largest urban areas. US military planners assume that in the first half hour of a general war, the 200 largest US cities and almost every military base or missile site would be struck by at least one Soviet warhead, delivering the explosive power of at least 657 Hiroshima bombs (one megaton)...In this initial exchange, at least 80 percent of the total black US population would be instantly obliterated, or would soon die from injuries.
— Manning Marable, “Nuclear War and Black America,” 1984
The dark ghettos now represent a nuclear stockpile which can annihilate the very foundations of America.
— Kenneth Clarke, New York Times Magazine, 1965

When a bomb was finally dropped on West Philadelphia, it was dropped by the Philadelphia Police Department. The firebombing of the MOVE house at 62nd and Osage in 1985, only five blocks from the 1951 Ground Zero, killed eleven people, of whom five were children, and burned down sixty residences. Almost all of the citizens killed or affected by the bombing were African American.

  Ground Zero of the MOVE bombing, May 13, 1985

 

Ground Zero of the MOVE bombing, May 13, 1985

  Ground Zero of the MOVE bombing, May 13, 1985

 

Ground Zero of the MOVE bombing, May 13, 1985

  Ground Zero of the MOVE bombing, May 13, 1985

 

Ground Zero of the MOVE bombing, May 13, 1985

What Matthew Farish describes as the “spatial hierarchy of risk” that defined Cold War urban development was also, in Philadelphia as it was elsewhere, a racial hierarchy of risk.