Adrienne Brown’s forthcoming book The Black Skyscraper teaches us how early “sky-scrapers” shifted our perception of race in America. I met Brown in her office at the University of Chicago, where’s she’s taught in the English department since 2011. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
JSTOR DAILY: You’re working on a book called The Black Skyscraper. What is a skyscraper? And more specifically, what is a black skyscraper?
ADRIENNE BROWN: Oh, my gosh, those are really big questions. “Skyscraper” is an interesting word because it has really changed a lot. The Home Insurance Building in Chicago was once considered the “first skyscraper,” but it was only 10 stories tall. It wasn’t even the tallest building in Chicago at the time. But it’s called a skyscraper because it had a steel frame. We tend to think about the skyscraper now as merely a tall building, but when the word was invented it referred to a building structure that’s not wedded to construction rooted in walls or masonry that holds the weight of the building. Instead, a steel interior holds the weight.
Originally, the word was hyphenated—“sky-scraper”—to point out the artifice of the term. The early language with which we talked about skyscrapers was childlike, poetic, almost utopian.
My project is really around the invention of the skyscraper. For me it’s not only about the invention of a building type, though that’s certainly important, but also the invention of a new language or descriptive language to describe height, density. The skyscraper is really a symptom of an era. It came of age in the late-nineteenth century with urbanization, mass immigration to the U.S., and industrialization. The skyscraper is a product of all of these forces and movements, but it’s also contributed to these discourses at the same time.
I’m interested in this early moment of the skyscraper when people are learning how to live in dense spaces, how to live and operate on different stories, but more importantly for me, it’s about learning to perceive. How do you go about and understand your world when the scale of your world is changing, the density of the world is changing, the height at which you see is changing, the height at which you work is changing? As skyscrapers become taller, as they evolve aesthetically and structurally, those questions of what it means to see and how you see change, too.
What is a black skyscraper?
It really means a lot of things. In this book, I’m thinking about how writers from 1880 to 1930 tried to make sense of skyscrapers when they were new. I see these writers asking: How have skyscrapers changed the ways we see race, how we see bodies, how we perceive and make judgments about people in the world given the perceptual strains that the skyscraper puts on people or bodies.
What “perceptual strains” did skyscrapers put on people?
These writers imagine skyscrapers, in some instances, turning everyone black. They describe a view from the top of the skyscraper in which people look like ants, or dots, or specks, like dark ephemera. They seem to be struggling with the question: What is race going to be in the future if we live in a world where we’re so scaled out that race becomes a category that’s less functional or less useful? That’s one kind of blackness I explore in the book.
I also write about the way that black writers were imagining skyscrapers as sites of modernity. Black writers were interested in the skyscraper not just as white space that they were outside of, but as a place black characters worked or visited, or took in as a tourist. For black writers the skyscraper is a site for reimagining the city, reimagining democracy, reimagining a public space.
The “black skyscraper” is a term in the book that really allows me to talk about all these different ways of being and feeling and knowing blackness that get yoked to the skyscraper.
You mention working women. What is the relationship between skyscrapers and class? Remember the ’70s TV show The Jeffersons. Louise and George Jefferson are a black family that has made it to “a de-luxe apartment in the sky?” Is living in a skyscraper just a sign of being upper class?
The skyscraper really emerges as a business structure, first, before it becomes a residential structure, because you had people who ran factories on the outskirts of the city deciding they needed another space, an office space downtown to be closer to other kinds of vendors and merchants.
The Faith Baldwin romance novels feature many middle-class heroines who are working in skyscrapers. Which reminds us that the skyscraper is the site of the production of a managerial class that isn’t in the factory and that’s not necessarily running the factory, but this kind of paper class that’s in between. So I’d argue that the birth of the middle class, or the managerial middle class, is in some ways tied to the invention of the skyscraper.
I maybe read too much Ayn Rand at a tender age, but I also associate skyscrapers with masculinity and ego.
There are plenty of arguments that the phallic shape of a skyscraper is evidence that they are these male-dominated sites, but there were so many women working in the skyscrapers. Particularly in this earlier period, because office work hadn’t been gendered. The typewriter was invented in the 1880s and there were male clerks at first, but women very quickly came in and took the secretarial jobs, or the clerk jobs, partly because it’s a new type of work so they weren’t displacing men.
That surprised me about the skyscraper. It’s this place we tend to think of as masculine that was actually being run on a day-to-day basis by women. There were women working in these clerkship positions, but also women who were cleaning the skyscraper; and black men were running the elevators in the skyscraper. You have these racialized and gendered jobs within the skyscraper that are about the maintenance work that can get obscured by the flashiness and the fanciness of the skyscraper.