Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Alex Sayf Cummings

Second Advisor

Kathryn Wilson

Third Advisor

Charles Steffen


After the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, applicants to Baltimore’s public housing projects were legally allowed to apply for residence in whichever projects they preferred, regardless of race. When it came to implementing this desegregation policy, however, the reality was not so simple. By ignoring the legacy of segregation and ongoing systemic racism and focusing on removing official barriers to “choice,” housing officials and local leadership did little to actually alleviate segregation among public housing residents. In the city’s three main arenas of conflict—planning, policy, and politics—leaders embraced the rhetoric of “freedom of choice,” which allowed them to eschew more substantive steps toward desegregation by blaming continued segregation on individual agency.

This dissertation examines the ways in which city planning, public policy, and local politics intersected in the fight over segregation in Baltimore’s public housing during the twentieth century. The critical period from the early 1940s to the early 1970s established patterns of residential segregation that the city follows to this day. This dissertation relies upon close readings of sources to get at the underlying implications and obfuscations by Baltimore policy makers and public officials, and to highlight the places where the rhetoric of “freedom of choice” was embraced by the public. This close-reading approach questions the underlying assumptions and unspoken motivations policymakers had related to “choice”—What does choice mean? When is choice meaningful, and when is it not? Ultimately, the espousal of “choice” in public housing was more a way for city officials to avoid responsibility for meaningful desegregation than honest attempt to support individual agency and decision-making . These changing uses of “individual choice” in Baltimore created a path that other cities would follow in the more well-known neoliberal policies after 1970. Rather than chronicling the important ways that tenants worked within and challenged the limitations of the public housing systems, this dissertation examines the ways that those systems were constructed and construed by city planners and policy makers.

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