Preserving Law and Order: The Fight for Los Angeles’ Parker Center

By Meredith Drake Reitan, MPL, PhD

On February 7, 2017, the Los Angeles City Council ruled against colleagues on the Cultural Heritage Commission. After a lengthy and emotional public comment period, the Council decided not to designate Parker Center, the longtime headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, a local historic monument. The following month, the Council approved a new master plan for the Civic Center that included a 27-story tower on the Parker Center site. These decisions ended years of wrangling by preservationists, neighbors and city leaders about the future of the building.

Built in 1955, the police department abandoned Parker Center 54 years later when a new headquarters was constructed a few blocks away. The site’s large size and proximity to City Hall made it a target for redevelopment and many city leaders supported demolition of the “outdated” and “inefficient” building.[1] The city’s goal for the site was to consolidate departments scattered around the downtown area and to reduce the amount spent on leased space.

Parker Center may have been bright and shiny when originally built, but its construction and the legacy of its namesake cast a long shadow over the preservation debate.[2] The building was a complicated symbol for Los Angeles; representing the problematic history of the LAPD and the loss of a significant portion of the Japanese neighborhood of Little Tokyo. The fight to preserve it had divided allies and pitted communities that usually worked together against each other.[3]

DSCF0725
Figure 1: With its imposing front façade, the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters was designed by Welton Becket and J.E. Stanton and completed in 1955. The original landscape was created by Ralph E. Cornell. The building was posthumously dedicated to Police Chief William H. Parker in 1969. Photo by author, July 2017.

Parker Center as Scar

Preservation documents prepared for the Cultural Heritage Commission briefly mention the buildings that occupied the Parker Center site before its construction. The reports described the area simply as “residential with small clusters of commercial and industrial enterprises.”[4] Newspapers from the period gave a slightly fuller view, suggesting that the number of buildings removed to accommodate Parker Center was “enough to meet the business needs of a good-sized city, among them landmark structures that were notable in Los Angeles’ pre-metropolitan days.”[5]

Parker Center occupies some of the oldest blocks in Los Angeles. In the 19th century, the land was used for cattle and planted with grape vines. As the city urbanized, the neighborhood was settled by a racially and ethnically diverse mix of African American, Jewish, Irish, German and Chinese newcomers. After 1900, Japanese families established businesses along First Street and by 1920, the area was the “undisputed center” of Southern California’s Japanese community.[6] Twenty years later, on the eve of World War II, approximately 35,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans lived and worked in what had become known as Little Tokyo.

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and the Japanese community of Los Angeles was forcibly removed. They were released from the internment camps three years later and returned to the city. In the years they were gone, Little Tokyo had become home to thousands of African American migrants who were drawn to Los Angeles’ industrial jobs. After the war, Japanese Americans began to re-establish businesses in the area. However, in 1948 the city council identified the heart of Little Tokyo as the location for the new police headquarters. The area bounded by First Street, San Pedro, Market Street and Los Angeles Street was designated part of the Los Angeles Civic Center and the City Attorney’s office began to acquire property through eminent domain proceedings.[7] Forty-three individual parcels were condemned and the site was cleared.

Designed by Welton Becket and Associates, in collaboration with architect J.E. Stanton and landscape architect Ralph E. Cornell, the new “Police Facilities Building” was nationally recognized when it opened in 1955. Like many of his other projects, the building represented the architect’s commitment to the idea of Los Angeles as a “city of tomorrow.”[8] For the LAPD, Becket created an 8-story International style building with crisp right angles and spare detailing. Sitting away from the street, the landscape that initially surrounded the building occupied an entire city block with sprawling lawns, decorative river rock and gardens inspired by a Japanese Zen aesthetic. The design received an Award of Merit from the AIA in 1956 and a contemporary review suggested that the building represented a “brand-new design category” of centralized public facilities.[9] Drawings were displayed by the Architectural League of New York and the building was entered in the League’s 61st National Gold Medal Exhibition of the Building Arts in 1960.[10] Becket’s success with the Police Facilities Building earned the firm additional commissions in the Los Angeles Civic Center, including the Federal Building next door and the various buildings for the Music Center on the top of Bunker Hill completed in the 1960s.

While acknowledged as an architectural icon, city staffers received numerous letters against preserving Parker Center. More than 3,000 African Americans had been displaced by the condemnation proceedings of the 1940s, and yet most letters recalled the losses of the Japanese American community. Letter writers described a pre-war world of rich familial and social connections. They talked about shopping in stores now demolished and included family photos with smiling siblings and relations in front of restaurants and small businesses. The letters also told stories of grandfathers who participated in sumo wrestling at a dohyo on the block and uncles who founded the still extant Rafu Shimpo Newspaper in a building on the corner of First and Los Angeles Street.[11]

For many Japanese Americans, saving Parker Center meant preserving a scar. It was a reminder of years of disconnection and “mass displacement.”[12] The building’s presence in the neighborhood inspired anger. In his comments before the Planning and Land Use Commission, Chris Komai of the Little Tokyo Community Council suggested that the building represented an “unfair seizure.” He went on to say that while its architecture might be admired, the LAPD building had cut Little Tokyo off from the Civic Center and the rest of the city, “Look at it. All we see is its back.”[13] Kanji Sahara, another opponent of preservation, spoke for many when he told the commission, “the city said they needed the land for a ‘public purpose’ – to build Parker Center. Now that the public purpose has gone away, the Japanese people want that land back”.[14]

DSCF0773
Figure 2: The rear of Parker Center is dour. It offers a blank, windowless wall to the Little Tokyo neighborhood located behind it. Photo by author, July 2017.

In arguing against preservation, some letter writers found themselves in an uncomfortable position, noting that they would normally be on the side of those trying to save a building.[15] The break with the Los Angeles Conservancy was particularly difficult. The Conservancy was a strong and vocal supporter of the Little Tokyo National Register District that protected several blocks of the neighborhood’s early commercial core. More strategically, the Conservancy was an essential and necessary ally. Due to gentrification pressures, local landowners had begun to sell older properties to developers and there were concerns that Little Tokyo would not “survive”.[16] While Parker Center was an issue, local leaders still considered preservation to be an important tool to control growth.

The Historic American Landscape Survey for Parker Center prepared by the city’s Department of Public Works emphasized the building’s architectural legacy and defended the structure using the technical language of preservation.[17] The report had not addressed the site’s previous Japanese and Japanese American users. The documents also failed to acknowledge issues important to other communities of color in Los Angeles. While innovation described the structure, social conservatism defined the LAPD that filled the offices.

Chief Parker Divides the City

Early Parker Center preservation documents described the Los Angeles Police Department in glowing terms. Later comments by staff of the Cultural Heritage Commission suggested that the department’s legacy among Los Angeles’ non-white communities was “complicated.” The Los Angeles Conservancy acknowledged that the building was named for the “controversial” Chief William H. Parker.[18] All three sources credit Chief Parker for professionalizing the department, however the abuses of power that accompanied this professionalization are hard to ignore.

William Parker joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1927. He became its leader in August 1950 and served in this capacity until his death in 1966. During his tenure, Parker established strict new standards for the recruitment and training of officers. According to the Historic American Landscape Survey, Parker was a “policeman’s policeman.” He “inspired in all who served the department the higher ideals of service and justice, as well as a new sense of pride, professionalism and self-discipline.”[19] The Chief’s efforts in this area earned him a national reputation that he capitalized on through his friendship with the actor Jack Webb, who played Sgt. Joe Friday in the 1960s television show, Dragnet.

While he may have inspired the department’s rank and file, in private Chief Parker was an impatient and ambitious man. He was also quick to attack. Like a “horse charging toward the apocalypse of our times”, Parker was critical of anyone who disagreed with his strict law and order prescription for society. [20] He resisted political oversight of the LAPD and attempted to undermine the credibility of his detractors. According to Parker, only the “criminal, the Communist and the self-appointed defender of civil liberties” called for restrictions on police authority.[21] Parker’s impatience was accompanied by a sustained and irrational paranoia. He attributed his failures to local democrats, the Truman administration and to communist sympathizers who he imagined had personal vendettas against him. To balance the scales, Parker created a “mysterious and highly secret” intelligence gathering unit within the LAPD that reported directly to him.[22] The group served as his personal “Pretorian guard” and, before it was disbanded by court order, the unit had amassed thousands of records on 5×8 note cards. The files contained data on known criminals, as well as political and public figures.[23]

Parker coined the term, the “thin blue line” to describe the police as an institution that stood between “civilization and barbarism”.[24] However, Parker’s LAPD was capable of its own brand of barbarity. Records from the department’s Internal Affairs Division show that in 1951 alone, the police received 848 complaints of brutality. Internal investigations substantiated 298 of these complaints and yet just 10 officers faced disciplinary action. Only two officers were removed from the force due to the complaints.[25]

Newspapers frequently reported incidences of police violence while Parker was in command. Patrolmen fired their weapons at a doctor in East Los Angeles who had apparently failed to yield because he was rushing to the bedside of a sick child.[26] A local bus driver was hospitalized after officers attempted to “subdue” him during an arrest. Among other injuries, the driver sustained a blow that ruptured his bladder.[27] A shoemaker was approached in his car by two plain clothed officers with their weapons drawn. The officers pulled the man from the car, threw him to the ground and repeatedly kicked his head. The man was taken to the hospital and later informed that the officers had mistaken him for a suspect.[28]

On Christmas Day 1951, seven young men were arrested on misdemeanor charges and taken to the city jail where they were savagely beaten for hours by somewhere between 15 and 50 police officers. When the incident came to light, Parker claimed to be “vigorously” pursuing an internal investigation.[29] However, the allegations against officers were so appalling that they could not be contained. A judge ordered a grand jury and public inquest. During the hearings, police officials were asked to describe the night. According to the judge, their testimony stunk, “to high heaven and all of the perfumery in Arabia cannot obliterate its stench.”[30] Thirty-six officers were disciplined by the LAPD, while 8 others were indicted for assault with a deadly weapon.[31] Of the eight, five officers were found guilty and sentenced to either one or two years in the Los Angeles County Jail.

Despite public commitments to reform, the brutality continued. In 1959, Herbert Greenwood, the only African American Police Commissioner, resigned citing the “unhealthy attitudes” of the LAPD leadership regarding race.[32] Then, on a hot August night in 1965, Marquette Frye was arrested in Watts for suspicion of driving drunk. During his arrest, Frye, his mother and brother fought with an officer of the California Highway Patrol. Hundreds of residents were drawn to the scene and anger spread through the crowd. Frye’s arrest sparked six days of fighting, looting and rebellion during which thirty-four people were killed. Chief Parker saw this and other protests against the police as a personal attack. To Parker, it was the complaints, rather than the police, that were “wrecking” the LAPD.[33] Over time, his lack of transparency and repugnant comments in the aftermath of Watts worsened relations with Los Angeles’ communities of color.[34]

However, while Parker was unpopular for some, his strongman rhetoric was lionized by others. After his death, members of the City Council unanimously recommended that Becket’s Police Facilities Building and the ground on which it stands be named in his honor. The name change was enthusiastically supported by the city’s business elite and residents who described Parker as a “great American” and “champion of law and order.”[35] The Sentinel, the city’s largest African-American newspaper, reported the Chief’s death, but remained silent on the issue of renaming police headquarters in his honor.

Parker was succeeded by new chiefs. However, relations between the police and Los Angeles’ communities of color did not improve and the lawn in front of Parker Center was the location of countless demonstrations against police misconduct. The issue became especially charged when Parker’s prodigy, Daryl Gates assumed the position of Chief. Gates, perhaps even more than Parker, became a symbol of the racism and prejudice that permeated the LAPD. Over the years, Parker’s thin blue line had become thicker. By 1992, it was an impassable chasm, so that when four LAPD officers were acquitted in the nighttime beating of an African American motorist on a lonely highway, the city exploded. Again.

The Police Department’s relationship with Los Angeles’ citizens of color was a quiet bass note that sounded throughout discussions about whether to save the building. Most African American leaders were silent on the issue, however a few voices sought to use and reinterpret this history by adaptively re-using Parker Center. Gail Kennard, an African American member of the city’s cultural heritage commission acknowledged that, “preserving Parker Center won’t resolve L.A.’s troubled policing history. But restored and reopened, it can remind us how far we’ve come and how much more there is to do.”[36]

Future of the Parker Center Site

In retrospect, it is not surprising that the effort to preserve Parker Center failed. The Cultural Heritage Commission received a handful of lukewarm letters in support of preservation, but the fame of its architect could not overcome the building’s legacy of division. Parker Center sliced through the neighborhood that surrounded it, its namesake divided the city along racial and ethnic lines and the effort to save the building created rifts between the city’s preservation community.

1ST ST AND SAN PEDRO ST
Figure 3: Parker Center occupies an entire city block bounded by First, Los Angeles, San Pedro and Temple Streets in the Los Angeles civic center area. It replaced a once vibrant mix of houses, businesses, cultural and social institutions. Photo taken at First and San Pedro Streets in 1947. The tower of Los Angeles’ City Hall is visible in the background. Miyatake Family Private Collection, Bronzeville – Little Tokyo, Los Angeles Website. Available http://www.bronzeville-la.com/displayimage.php?pos=-4. Accessed July 19, 2017

Documents prepared by preservation planners articulated the building’s architectural value. They acknowledged Chief Parker’s problematic leadership but did not address the community that had been destroyed for Parker Center to be built. Yet, it was this origin story that ultimately persuaded members of the city council to reject cultural monument status.

City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents the Little Tokyo district spoke during the final preservation hearing. He suggested that to save Parker Center “dismisses the injustices done to many communities.” Huizar, who as a young man had delivered papers for the Rafu Shimpo Newspaper, specifically connected the history of the Japanese in Los Angeles to his experiences of prejudice as an immigrant, “I did get a bit emotional in the committee when I was talking about the injustices to the Japanese-American community…It just kind of hit me what that would have been like for those residents. And I put that into the context of what is happening today.”[37] The councilman’s testimony was persuasive and his colleagues unanimously denied the motion to designate Parker Center.

With demolition imminent, plans have been made to save a large sculpture that was attached to Parker Center’s exterior façade and to reuse a tile mosaic that decorated the building’s foyer. No plans have yet emerged to memorialize the Chief. As Richard Barron, President of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission suggested, Parker Center is simply “not an easy building to love.”[38]

 

MDR
Photo by Steve Cohn

Meredith Drake Reitan is an Associate Dean in the Graduate School and Lecturer in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. Her work has been published in the Journal of Planning History, the Journal of Urban Design, the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research and in Planning Los Angeles, an edited volume for Planners Press. She writes for KCET’s Lost LA and has a blog, called the LAvenuesProject, that uses the thousands of mundane decisions that define the look and feel of LA streets to talk about the long history of the city as a planned environment.

 

Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Emily Gersema and Hillary Jenks for their comments and feedback on early drafts of this post.

[1] City of Los Angeles Council. Information Technology and General Services Commission. Motion 2/17/2006

[2] Foote, Kenneth Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. University of Texas Press 1997, Austin

[3] See for example: Anderton, Francis. “Gail Kennard Makes the Case for Saving Parker Center” KCRW Design and Architecture. March 19, 2015 http://blogs.kcrw.com/dna/gail-kennard-makes-the-case-for-saving-parker-center; Waldie, D.J. “Op-Ed What to do with Parker Center, L.A.’s former police headquarters?” Los Angeles Times April 4, 2015 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-waldie-save-parker-center-20150405-story.html; “Parker Center’s Possible Demolition Sparks Interest in LA’s Civic Center Master Plan” The Planning Report June 2, 2015 http://www.planningreport.com/2015/06/02/parker-centers-possible-demolition-sparks-interest-las-civic-center-master-plan; Kennard, Gail. “Op-Ed Parker Center isn’t lovable, but it should be preserved” Los Angeles Times December 25, 2016 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kennard-preserve-parker-center-20161225-story.html; Waldie, D.J. “What to Do with Parker Center? Preserve? Repurpose? Demolish? KCET Lost LA January 11, 2017 https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/parker-center-preserve-repurpose-demolish

[4] City of Los Angeles. Cultural Heritage Commission. Parker Center, Case Number CHC-2016-3949-HCM and ENV-2016-3950-CE, Final Staff Recommendation Report, Categorical Exemption and Nomination. November 3, 2016. http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/CHC/2016/11-03-2016/5_ParkerCenter_Final.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2017.Pg 16

[5] Cohan, Charles “City to Erect Two Modern Structures: Large Area East of the City Hall Being Cleared for Projects” Los Angeles Times Sep 3, 1950; pg. E1

[6] Wild, Mark. Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth Century Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2005, Berkeley; Jenks, Hillary. Home Is Little Tokyo”: Race, Community, and Memory in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. Dissertation. University of Southern California, Los Angeles. ProQuest/UMI, 2008.

[7] __________ “Council Fixes Sites of Two New Buildings”, Los Angeles Times. Sep 21, 1948; pg. A7

[8] Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee. Built by Becket. Available: https://www.laconservancy.org/sites/default/files/files/issues/Built%20By%20Becket%20-%20Full%20Brochure%20-%20lowres.pdf

[9] __________ “Police Headquarters” Progressive Architecture. March, 1956

[10] __________ “Police Building Wins Place at N.Y. Exhibit” Los Angeles Times. Sep 27, 1959, pg. F10

[11] City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Committee. Correspondence from Alan Kumamoto 2/17/2017, Chris Komai, 2/7/2017, Nancy Kyoko Oda 2/6/2017, Yukio Kawaratani no date, Joanne Kumamoto 11/28/2016 and Jonathan Takeo Tanaka, 2/7/2017.

[12] City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee Correspondence from Dean Matsubayashi, 2/7/2017; Pacheco, Antonio. “LA to Heal Planning Scars with Ambitious Civic Center Master Plan” The Architect’s Newspaper April 10, 2017 https://archpaper.com/2017/04/los-angeles-civic-center-master-plan/

[13] Komai, Chris. Statement before the City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee Meeting. February 7, 2017

[14] Sahara, Kanji Emailed communication to City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee. February 17, 2017

[15] Tsukada Simonian, Irene. Letter to City of Los Angeles, Cultural Heritage Commission. January 10, 2017

[16] A light rail station has recently been erected in Little Tokyo and another is in the works. Several buildings were demolished to make way for these stations and the area is seeing increased land speculation. See Lue, Ryan. “Can Little Tokyo Survive the Growth of Downtown LA?” Planetizen. April 12, 2012. https://www.planetizen.com/node/56145

[17] City of Los Angeles. Cultural Heritage Commission. Parker Center, Case Number CHC-2016-3949-HCM and ENV-2016-3950-CE, Final Staff Recommendation Report, Categorical Exemption and Nomination. November 3, 2016. http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/CHC/2016/11-03-2016/5_ParkerCenter_Final.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2017.

[18] City of Los Angeles. Cultural Heritage Commission. Parker Center, Case Number CHC-2016-3949-HCM and ENV-2016-3950-CE, Final Staff Recommendation Report, Categorical Exemption and Nomination. November 3, 2016. http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/CHC/2016/11-03-2016/5_ParkerCenter_Final.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2017. Pg. 11; Los Angeles Conservancy. Parker Center/Police Facilities Building, History. https://www.laconservancy.org/locations/parker-centerpolice-facilities-building. Accessed July 11, 2017

[19] City of Los Angeles. Cultural Heritage Commission. Parker Center, Case Number CHC-2016-3949-HCM and ENV-2016-3950-CE, Final Staff Recommendation Report, Categorical Exemption and Nomination. November 3, 2016. http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/CHC/2016/11-03-2016/5_ParkerCenter_Final.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2017.Pg. 22

[20] Hertel, Howard and Berman, Art. “Thousands Mourn at Funeral Rites for Chief Parker” Los Angeles Times; Jul 21, 1966. pg. 1

[21] Webb, Jack. The Badge. Prentice Hall Engelwood Cliffs NJ. 1958

[22] Blanchard, Robert “Democratic Leader Raps Chief Parker” Los Angeles Times May 23, 1956; pg. 1

[23] Buntin, John. “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” Three Rivers Press 2009, New York

[24] Fogelson, Robert. “Big City Police: An Urban Institute Study” Harvard University Press 1977. Boston, MA;

[25] __________ “FBI Probing L.A. Police Brutality: Grand Jury Attention Indicated; Department Pushes Own Inquiry” Los Angeles Times, Mar 14, 1952; pg. 2

[26] __________ “Chief Parker Hits Brutality Stories: Unsubstantiated Complaints” Los Angeles Times. Feb 28, 1952, pg. 7

[27] __________ “Parker Hits at Charge of Brutality: Prisoner’s Claim Unfounded, Says Chief of Police” Los Angeles Times Jun 24, 1952; pg. 2

[28] __________ “$125,000 Suit Accuses Police of Brutality” Los Angeles Times Jan 28, 1958; pg. 5

[29] __________ “Judge Urges Jury Inquiry on Brutality” Los Angeles Times Mar 13, 1952, pg. 1

[30] __________ “Judge Urges Jury Inquiry on Brutality” Los Angeles Times Mar 13, 1952, pg. 1

[31] __________ “36 L.A. Policemen to Face Discipline for Brutality” Los Angeles Times, Jun 17, 1952; pg. 1

[32] __________ “Police Board Member Flays Parker, Quits” Los Angeles Times Jun 19, 1959, pg. 1

[33] __________ “Chief Parker Hits Brutality Stories: Unsubstantiated Complaints” Los Angeles Times. Feb 28, 1952, pg. 7

[34] Fogelson, Robert. “Big City Police: An Urban Institute Study” Harvard University Press 1977. Boston, MA; Buntin, John. “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” Three Rivers Press 2009, New York; Shaw, David. “Chief Parker Molded LAPD Image–Then Came the ’60s” Los Angeles Times May 25, 1992

[35] Mrs. Luther Liebenow. Letter to Mayor Yorty, August 16, 1966; Calvin E. Orr. Letter to Mayor Yorty. July 17, 1965. Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center. Box CC-01-1989, A-1989

[36] Kennard, Gail. “Op-Ed Parker Center isn’t lovable, but it should be preserved” Los Angeles Times 12/25/2016 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kennard-preserve-parker-center-20161225-story.html

[37] __________ “LA City Council Dooms Historically Fraught Parker Center” The Hollywood Patch. March 24, 2017 https://patch.com/california/hollywood/la-city-council-dooms-historically-fraught-parker-center; __________ “Huizar Weighs in on Parker Center, Little Tokyo” The Rafu Shimpo February 10, 2017 http://www.rafu.com/2017/02/huizar-weighs-in-on-parker-center/

[38] Kennard, Gail. “Op-Ed Parker Center isn’t lovable, but it should be preserved” Los Angeles Times 12/25/2016 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kennard-preserve-parker-center-20161225-story.html

Member of the Week: Elizabeth Todd-Breland

Todd Breland.Elizabeth09 copy
Photo credit: UIC – Jenny Fontaine

Elizabeth Todd-Breland

Assistant Professor

University of Illinois at Chicago

@EToddBreland

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I am currently finishing a book about transformations in Black politics, shifts in modes of education organizing, and the racial politics of education reform in Chicago from the 1960s to the present. I’ve always been personally and professionally interested in African American history. I also spent time working with Chicago Public Schools students in schools and afterschool and summer enrichment programs. This project has uniquely allowed me to merge my training as a historian with my commitment to racial justice and educational equity.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

Two of my favorite undergraduate courses to teach are Race and Education Since Brown v. Board and The History of Chicago. I’ve been able to draw on my research to inform the content and assignments for these classes. In these courses I require that students leave the confines of the classroom to attend local school and community meetings, conduct community research projects, and/or visit Chicago’s museums and neighborhood-based cultural institutions. The students analyze these experiences within a broader historical context informed by course readings and other materials. While I want my students to learn new content and develop a critical analysis of history and the city, I’m also always excited for them to visit and engage intellectually with parts of the city to which they might not otherwise venture.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I’m excited to finally be finishing my book, A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming 2018). The last book I read was Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. It is a beautiful and thrilling novel that challenged me to be more imaginative in thinking about the space and genre of the city in the particular way that good fiction can. I’m also looking forward to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s forthcoming book Race for Profit on Black housing and the relationship between the private sector and public policy during the 1970s.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

You will be with your research projects for a long time. So, it is important that you are passionate about the topics of study that you choose. Keep asking questions. Take the time to build relationships with people in the communities where you conduct your research. Be prepared to learn more from these collective experiences than you will ever teach others.

What was the most memorable oral history you completed as research for your book project?

I’ve had the privilege of conducting some amazing oral histories for my book. One of my most memorable was with a woman named Lillie Peoples. She taught in Chicago schools for more than forty years, organized Black teachers as a leader in Operation Breadbasket’s Teachers Division, and impacted many people along the way. Over the course of several phone calls and in-person interviews, she shared her personal and professional journey with me and allowed me look through her private collection of pamphlets, newsletters, obituaries, meeting minutes, and photographs. She is a dynamic storyteller with a quick wit, speaks her mind boldly, and remains a passionate advocate for Black children and public education. Like many of the Black women educators who I interviewed, Lillie Peoples’ story has not been adequately documented in an official historical record. Nonetheless, these Black women transformed city politics and education efforts as education practitioners, theorists, community organizers, and anchors of blocks and neighborhoods. There is an added urgency to this history given recent political attacks on public school teachers and public sector employees nationally, which have had a disproportionately negative impact on Black workers and Black communities.

Announcing The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest!

Blogging is an increasingly necessary skillset for scholars. Blog posts are a useful format for sharing knowledge with a wide audience, from the general public to researchers within the field. Scholars are now placing greater emphasis on publication beyond academic journals and monographs—the Washington Post’s new “Made by History” vertical is a prime example—as a way to teach beyond the classroom, market their scholarship, and promote the enduring value of the humanities.

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To promote blogging amongst graduate students and provide an opportunity for emerging scholars to gain experience working through the editorial process, The Metropole is holding a blog contest for the UHA’s graduate student members!

The contest theme is “A New Season.” Posts should take the form of essays that focus on historical narratives or events that signify transformation, evolution, or rupture.

All submissions that meet the guidelines outlined below will be accepted. The Metropole’s editors will work with contest contributors to refine their submissions and prepare them for publication.

A panel of senior scholars will serve as contest judges. Judges will be announced in November on The Metropole.

In addition to getting great practice writing for the web and experience working with editors, winners will receive a certificate and a small prize!

The contest will open on October 1 and will close on November 15. Entries must be submitted to uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com. Posts will run on the blog in November and December, and we will announce the winners in January.

Contest Guidelines

  1. Contest entrants must be enrolled in a graduate program.
  2. Contest entrants must be members of the UHA. A one-year membership for graduate students costs only $25 and includes free online access to the Journal of Urban History.
  3. Contest submissions must be original posts not published elsewhere on the web.
  4. Contest submissions must be in the form of an essay related to the theme, “A New Season.” Essays can be about current research, historiography, or traveling as a historian.
  5. Posts must be received by the editors (uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com) by November 15 at 11:59 PM EST to be eligible for the contest.
  6. Posts should be at least 700 words, but not exceed 2000 words.
  7. Links or Chicago Style footnotes must be used to properly attribute others’ scholarship and reporting.

ICYMI: The 2018 UHA Conference CFP Edition

By Avigail Oren

We can’t imagine that our loyal readers have missed the exciting news–the Call for Papers for the 2018 UHA Biennial Conference in Columbia, South Carolina dropped on Wednesday. The deadline is not until February, so you have plenty of time to pull together panels and write your proposal. In the meantime, however…

Take a look at the amazing program for the upcoming SACRPH conference. I was perusing it the other day and realized that not only are some of my favorite academic colleagues presenting, but so is one of my best friends from college!

Also check out the EAUH’s CFP for the 14th International Conference on Urban History and the CFA for the OAH’s China Residencies Program, both due in October.

While we’re thinking globally, Joseph Ben Prestel has a new post on “Cairo, Berlin, and the Compartments of Urban History” up at the Global Urban History blog.

I recommend this interview with Anthony Bourdain, about an upcoming episode of his show Parts Unknown that was filmed in Pittsburgh, for Bourdain’s criticism of the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the racialization of the opioid epidemic. Also, because Pittsburgh is great.

The correct response to this stupid Bodega startup is:

a) I can’t even

b) Eyeroll emoji

c) Screaming into the void

d) All of the above

And signing off with one of my favorite internet personalities, Lego Grad Student. Have a great weekend!

 

A Nineteenth Century Travelogue of HCMC: Clara A. Whitney in 1880 Saigon

With European colonialism exterting itself in Asia by the 1860s, Ho Chi Minh City, then known as Saigon and Cholon respectively, had fallen under French control. As Gwendolyn Wright and others since have noted, city building served as a central aspect of French colonialism. French leaders believed beautiful, grand cities embodied the nation’s strength, sophistication and imperial reach particularly during an historical moment in which Germany threatened the Francophone empire.[1] It helped that new urban design standards established by law in mid-nineteenth century Paris would be enacted at the same time as France expanded its presence across the globe.

Depending on the admiral installed to lead French efforts in Saigon, the city’s urban development proceeded along at rates related to leadership’s enthusiasm for such projects and the finances required to implement them. For example, one of HCMC’s early governors, Louis Adolphe Bonard, pursued the city’s urban development aggressively until a shortage of funds undercut his efforts. His successor Admiral La Grandiere “commissioned the construction of several institutional buildings and parks, as well as 15,350 km of streets,” writes historian A. M. Kim. “Obsessively controlling, he also issued an avalanche of decrees and regulations that left little to improvisation.”[2]

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Complete Map of Vietnam, between 1885 and 1890, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Governors like La Grandiere and Bonard imagined the future Saigon as a bustling, heavily populated metropolis. The former sought to design a city of 500,000, the latter of four million. Needless to say, in the late nineteenth century the cities that would become HCMC a century later consisted of far fewer citizens than these dreams envisioned. In 1873, French officials counted over 150,000 residents in Saigon-Cholon: 82, 681 Cambodians, 49,595 Chinese, 16,638 Malays, 1,391 Malavard, and over 7,500 Europeans, though only 1,114 of those were considered permanent inhabitants.[3]

Even in the nineteenth century, visitors remarked on the diversity of the city. Clara A. Whitney, the daughter of William C. Whitney, had resided in Japan since 1875; her father established a business college there at the behest of the Japanese government. In 1880, as she and her family traveled back to America they stopped in numerous cities along the way, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, Cairo, Naples, Rome, Florence, Geneva, Paris, and of course, Saigon. Only nineteen at the time, Whitney’s 1880s journals, housed at the Library of Congress, provide insight into Ho Chi Minh City’s early years under French colonialism. Saigon proved only a brief stop on her tour of Southeast Asia, but Whitney provides useful, if also Eurocentric observations on the city as it embarked on its Haussmanian redevelopment.

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Above: Sketching of William C. Whitney, based on 1874 original produced in 1961, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Below: Clara A. Whitney’s 1880 journal, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Upon their initial approach to the city, Whitney noted Saigon’s “low marshy shores – completely overgrown with a thick vividly green foliage” and searched for monkeys and alligators along the shore as her steamer moved toward the harbor. Heat greeted Whitney and her fellow passengers: “We arrived in the Saigon harbor and cast anchor beside the wharf in the boiling mid day son of this the hottest place in the world! It is the [Vietnamese Winter] but everybody goes around either in white or very scantily clothed.”[4]

 

According to Whitney, “this curious desert town as French colony” arose out of the jungle. The “smooth and glassy banks” of the Mekong River surrounded them as the river wound in and out upon their approach to the city, and where she saw the “white spires and red roofs of what appeared to be a great city lying like a magical [metropole] on this waste of green foliage and placid waters.”

To her mind, Saigon’s most impressive building was its Agency of the Messageries Maritime, the second home to the French Shipping Company created in 1851. The agency was housed in “a great white building with a flaming red roof over which metallic dragons climbed up towards the Unicorn and Crown of the French coat of arms.”[5] Whitney believed they had anchored and put into port on an island just across the river from Saigon, but in reality she and the others had docked at Thu Thiem, a peninsula, or more precisely, an oxbow across from the city.

Well before France’s arrival, Thu Thiem contained a market (1751) and judging from the writings of U.S Navy Lieutenant John White who visited the city in October of 1819, functioned as a site of bustling, energetic commerce. Boats ferrying fruits, teas, “timber, bamboos, and new canoes, from various parts of the country” remained in constant motion around the city.[6] Whitney reported similar activity sixty years later and, like White, noted the centrality of boats in the lives of Saigon residents. “Towards the evening we went on shore in a queer little boat whose bow resembled a gondola,” wrote Whitney, whose “arched cover protects a raised platform on which the passengers are expected to sit. Like the Chinese sampans these boats seem homes for families too to judge from the pillows and cooking utensils … around the walls.”[7]

Both White and Whitney, due to their own western conceptions of urbanity, obscured or failed to grasp the use of space in a river town like Ho Chi Minh City. White “denigrated life on shore as impermanent, inundated, eroding, muddy, lacking order, and unfixed,” historian Erik Harms notes. Rather what White should have noted was the means by which inhabitants best utilized space in order to create a “linear form of urbanism set against a backdrop of less developed land, which was reserved for agriculture, fishing, and gathering activities.”[8] Arriving six decades later and with French urbanism on going, Whitney drew fewer conclusions about wasted space or impermanence perhaps due to the city’s development or her own time abroad in Japan.

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Clara Whitney in her 20’s, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

HCMC’s cavalcade of ethnicities was not lost on the young female traveler. Whitney commented on the diversity of Saigon citing Chinese boatmen, French soldiers, Hindu carriage drivers, and Arab merchants all around her: “in the market place, one met a queer mix of nationalities. It was a positive pleasure to see all these different people and costumes.”[9] Unsurprisingly, Whitney falls into the usual Orientalist tropes form the era, using the word “queer” repeatedly and it remains unclear how much she was able to distinguish between Saigon’s Chinese residents and those of other Asian ethnicities, most notably the Vietnamese.

Whatever Whitney’s own prejudices, she paid close attention to the sartorial choices of residents. She noted the black trousers and long robes buttoned up to the neck but slit on both sides to the hip of boatwomen. The boatsmen resembled Chinese rowers, dressed in “wide white trousers, a little short white jacket and a broad brimmed straw hat.” For twenty cents an hour, Hindu men in picturesque dress transported Whitney and her fellow travellers along in cabs pulled by “energetic well fed little ponies.”

Similarly, she records the numerous turbans worn by local guards, the silver and gold hair combs in women’s hair, the amber, silver, and coral jewelry that adorned merchant women in the market. “The women were dressed much very much like the boat women but some wore amber and coral necklaces and bracelets and all wore little beads of amber in their ears fastened on the under side,” she explained. “Some were immense tortoise shelled combs pinned with silver.”[10]

In moments, Clara even seems to indicate the slightest measure of sexuality. She finds the Hindu cab drivers to be “the finest men in physique . . . Tall and muscular, dark skinned and eagle eyed their darkness set off by their bright costume.” Their racial characteristics do not escape her or their perceived relationship to Europeans. “They are cousins, not to be ashamed of. It seems strange nevertheless that these queer people are nearly related to us [more] than the Japanese are in fact our Caucasian cousins.”[11]

Whitney marveled at the local fauna and flora at the Governor’s gardens, where the caged tigers impressed her—but not nearly as much as her awe for the city’s verdant vegetation. “I never in my life saw such magnificent shrubbery. The palms and bananas grew in a state of luxuriousness. One leaf alone of a banana tree was five feet long and two wide. The palms were gigantic,” she noted. “Deep crimson” flowers grew all around.[12]

What of Saigon’s urban development in 1880s? “The streets are wide and clean – paved with square blocks of stone and very smooth. The sidewalks are shaded with quivering mimosa trees,” she recorded. Hotels abounded and churches, cathedrals, and temples were not uncommon.

Admittedly, Saigon’s low lying, swampy location presented difficulties—a point Whitney returns to on more than one occasion—but by the mid 1880s, five boulevards, nearly 40 streets, and three quays had been constructed, amounting to over 23 miles. “The pavements are everywhere well shaded with thick foliaged trees of all kinds and the drains well looked after by the municipality,” noted on observer in 1885. “Lamps line them at regular intervals.”[13] Whitney seems to have encountered the city as it built up this sort of infrastructure.

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Clara A. Whitney with husband and children in Tokyo circa 1900, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Whitney soon left the city for Singapore, but six year later married the son of a prominent Japanese Naval officer, Kaji Umetarō with whom she had six children. She eventually returned to the United States in 1900 and settled in Pennsylvania, where she subsisted off income supplied by her husband (who remained in Japan) and the money she earned by writing about Japan.

[1] Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[2] Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 38.

[3] Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 38-39.

[4] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[5] Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[6] Erik Harms, Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon, University of California Press, 2016), 128.

[7] Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[8] Harms, Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon, 129.

[9] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[10] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[11] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[12] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 39.

Member of the Week: Michael Durfee

durfee. headshot.Michael J. Durfee – Niagara University – Assistant Professor

https://pointsadhsblog.wordpress.com/author/mjdurfee/

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

My research focuses on the substantial growth of the carceral state throughout the Crack Era, the contingency of missed opportunity for police to cooperate with grassroots anti-crack and anti-crime activists in the Bronx, and the subsequent militarization of urban policing. Moreover, to borrow a phrase from the leading scholar of the field, I follow how local activists made sense of and struggled with the criminalization of urban space. In addition to the local, my book project explores the bipartisan panic spurred by the emergence of crack and the overdose death of Len Bias. As a cadre of scholars continue to probe carceral studies we are learning to train our gaze towards the deeper historical roots of mass incarceration. However, analyzing passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 is an important tipping point in cementing governing logics of hyper-punishment. Since the advent of #BLM I have been particularly interested in the ways in which old conversations about policing and punishment are suddenly “new” and ahistorical. Hopefully my work can highlight this unfortunate reality and underscore the continuity of activism regarding issues of policing and policy.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship? How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?

This fall I will be teaching a course on the rise of mass incarceration that examines the concurrent wars on crime and drugs. I also routinely teach a course entitled “The Crack Era in Context” which allows me to offer students an in-depth seminar using ethnography, historical monographs, and the interdisciplinary articles that got me started in the field. Additionally, I teach a general requirement Postwar United States history course that takes students away from narratives of American Exceptionalism and investigates how policy and place shaped inequality and rights to citizenship. It is incumbent that students and instructors grapple with the social, political, and economic consequences of the burgeoning carceral state in order to properly understand the latter half of the Twentieth Century.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

While I am genuinely excited for my forthcoming review essay in the JUH on informal economies, my preference is to point readers to the current and forthcoming work of scholars that have been invaluable to my understanding of my own research. For the less patient, I implore members to read Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s book, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America which arrived at my door last week. Moving forward I am particularly excited about two forthcoming monographs: Matthew Lassiter’s The Suburban Crisis: The Pursuit and Defense of the American Dream and Max Felker-Kantor’s book project, Battle for the Streets: Policing, Politics, and Power in Los Angeles.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Apply to and attend relevant conferences, ask questions, and get to know what I have found to be highly accessible, thoughtful scholars working in the field. Make and maintain connections with other graduate students pursuing research in urban history, and try to join a writing group. Perhaps most importantly, do not be afraid to submit your work, and write as frequently as possible. I also find applying our expertise and engaging the public sphere to effect change both rewarding and sustaining.

What book would you like to put in the hand of elected officials or policy makers who are trying to ameliorate the opioid epidemic?

This past year our community suffered a profound loss with the passing of Eric Schneider. To understand addiction, heroin culture, and unsuccessful punitive roads taken by elected officials and policy makers, Schneider’s Smack: Heroin and the American City is indispensable. This brilliant scholar, mentor, and somehow, even better human being will be sorely missed. I first met Eric in 2012 at the UHA conference where he chaired a panel with another scholar that subsequently took me in—Michael Javen Fortner. I think I can speak for Michael in saying that Eric improved our work—and my confidence—in immeasurable ways.

Cleveland, Carl Stokes, and Commemorating a Historic Election

By Avigail Oren

On November 7, 1967, the citizens of Cleveland elected Carl B. Stokes mayor. Stokes became the first black mayor of a major American city, a considerable feat in a majority-white metropolis. During his two terms as mayor, from 1968-1972, Stokes represented all Clevelanders and sought to universally improve the city’s neighborhoods, while simultaneously attending to issues of civil rights, economic justice, and police brutality.

This year, the 50th anniversary of Stokes’ election, Cuyahoga Community College’s Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Humanities Center has organized a yearlong community initiative to commemorate the contribution of Mayor Carl Stokes and his brother, Congressman Louis Stokes, to the city. As one part of the multifaceted programming being offered during the Stokes: Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future commemoration, Urban History Association member Todd Michney, Assistant Professor in the School of History and Sociology at Georgia Tech, led a one-week seminar sponsored by Case Western Reserve University’s Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative. During the second week of July, twelve faculty, instructors, and graduate students from Case Western Reserve (CWRU) and Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) joined Michney for “Carl B. Stokes and Black Political Power in Cleveland: A 50-Year Retrospective.”

On July 12, I drove up from Pittsburgh to observe the seminar and interview participants. After seeing the call for applications circulating through the UHA network a few months earlier I had become intrigued by the topic and the concept: to teach instructors about this history so they could convey it to their students. Having lived only a two-hour drive from Cleveland for the past six years, and, even more embarrassingly, having written a bit in my dissertation about the city’s Jewish community during the urban crisis, I knew nothing of Carl Stokes and his mayoral administration.

The goal of the seminar, in fact, was to promote more teaching of the Stokes brothers’ legacy within CWRU and Tri-C classrooms and, consequently, to encourage conversations amongst undergraduates about the connections between Cleveland’s present issues and past struggles. “Coincidentally, or maybe not,” Michney noted, “Stokes’ legacy seems relevant today.” Civil Rights and police reform are still major issues in Cleveland in 2017 despite that Stokes “strongly attempted to reform the Cleveland police department, which was engaged in all kinds of intimidation, brutality, and deaths of people in custody.” Thus the aim of the seminar in particular and the Stokes commemoration more generally has been to revive Clevelanders’ memory of Carl Stokes’ struggle for racial and social justice and to trace how his contributions continue to influence the present fight for a better Cleveland.

Several participants in the seminar were motivated to apply when they realized that they knew so little about such an influential political figure and period in Cleveland’s history. The seminar appealed to Cara Byrne, a lecturer in the Department of English at CWRU, “because I saw a deficit in my knowledge of Cleveland and of African American political figures who shaped the city.” Brian Clites, who teaches in the department of Religious Studies at CWRU and is a recent transplant to Cleveland, applied for the seminar to better familiarize himself with the city’s history. He recalled that when he received the announcement of the seminar, he realized “I never read about Cleveland when preparing for my exams,” and that “so much of [urban religious history] is told through the lens of big cities.”

Teaching inspired other participants to apply for the seminar. “Because Tri-C has spearheaded [Stokes: Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future],” Trista Powers, Assistant Professor of English at Cuyahoga Community College explained, “colleagues approached me last year and said, why don’t we as faculty collaborate and introduce this content within our classes in our respective disciplines?” The seminar thus presented a timely opportunity to read, learn, and discuss Stokes and his mayoral administration. “I am actually going to be creating a classroom curriculum completely predicated on teaching about the Stokes brothers, particularly Carl Stokes,” Powers told me, “because I teach college composition at Tri-C and part of my pedagogy is I try to incorporate really specific topics as part of the underpinning of the course, and this is an area that has been an interest of mine for such a long time.” For Powers, the seminar “was a perfect fit for me, perfect timing.”

Elise Hagisfeld, a doctoral candidate in history at CWRU and a graduate instructor, likewise saw the seminar as an opportunity to develop new course material. As a historian of philanthropy and foundations and a Cleveland native, Hagisfeld found Stokes’ Cleveland: NOW! Project—a public-private partnership to fund community-based efforts to revitalize the city—particularly fascinating. “I’m looking at ways to take this information and use it in a course that I’m teaching in the fall on Introduction to Nonprofit Organizations,” Hagisfeld explained, in order to “help students who are studying in Cleveland learn about where they are and how philanthropy and nonprofit organizations and civic leadership and business interests in the city have worked together—sometimes not so successfully—in the past.”

Cleveland: NOW! initially met its fundraising goals, but faltered after the 1968 Glenville shootout revealed enduring antagonism between the city’s black communities and its white police force and consequently punctured white Clevelanders’ belief in the possibility of racial reconciliation. For Hagisfeld, this makes it an especially valuable case study. “I think it’s … important to recognize [that] there’s a lot of celebration around those kind of public-private partnership successes,” she noted, “and there is a lot of silence around public-private partnership failures. And I think it’s just a fabulous point to study.”

On the day I attended the seminar, I entered the Baker-Nord Center’s conference room in the midst of the discussion and quietly found a seat alongside a wall of windows. The twelve participants sat around a large table in the middle of the room, the tabletop covered with books and laptops and coffee cups, framed by the immense and ornately carved light wood mantle of the fireplace behind them. Despite the group having met for the first time only days before, the conversation flowed easily as participants passed ideas amongst themselves.

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The topic of discussion that afternoon was “Black Political Power in Action: Carl Stokes’ Mayoral Administration.” Stokes gained the support of Cleveland’s white elite after the Hough Riots of 1966, when confrontations between black Clevelanders, white vigilantes, the police force, and 2,200 national guardsman over six nights in July left four dead, 30 injured, and 300 arrested. The city’s businessmen, in particular, hoped that Stokes could heal the city’s racial divisions and prevent future outbreaks of violence, which were costly to Cleveland’s economy. Bolstered by white votes, Stokes was elected to administer an institutionally racist government structure; he entered office with a mandate from his black voters to reform a municipality and a police department that were resistant to change. With little time and few resources, Stokes set about trying to change the people in power. In addition to hiring more black community members into government positions, Stokes also sought to change the perceptions of people in power. Particularly with career policemen, Stokes emphasized the sociological context of the neighborhoods and communities that gave rise to the Hough riots (and later, to the ’68 Glenville Riot). “The more I read about him,” one participant shared, “the more appreciation I have for what he was able to accomplish with so little.”

These efforts always required striking a delicate political balance, to maintain the support of both white elites and the black community. Stokes faced criticism from both sides, from white elites who were disappointed that he could not easily solve race relations and prevent more rioting and from Black Power activists who did not believe the mayor was doing enough to serve black interests. Conversation amongst the seminar participants centered on how Stokes’ experience was emblematic of black people who try to lead and have to fight for legitimacy, requiring them to project a non-threating confidence.

The seminar participants who identify as people of color related very personally to this aspect of Stokes’ legacy and the city’s history. As the conversation concluded, one participant confessed of the day’s material, “as a person of color, it’s traumatic.” This comment prompted the discussion to turn towards the pedagogical implications of discussing history that feels so personal to both instructor and students. “That’s what we have to remember when we take this back to our classrooms,” a participant noted, “that black proverb, ‘You have to work twice as hard [to succeed],’ it’s not just academic.” For her, Carl Stokes’ struggle to rise in politics and to improve the lives of black Clevelanders revealed how, for Stokes as well as for her students of color, the work is “also emotional and psychological.” Reflecting on this conversation afterwards, Powers added, “as a woman of color, it was hard to read about [Carl Stoke’s] challenges because some of those challenges were race-related challenges. So from that standpoint, it really struck a chord… reminding us of the level of grit and resiliency he had.”

Indeed, this is one of Michney’s take-aways for UHA members seeking to do similar seminars. “A lot of the value in this has been a meeting of the minds,” he noted, “and understanding people’s experiences.” Michney’s role as the seminar instructor provided an opportunity to review the history he knows so well from a number of new perspectives. After the day’s session, he reflected that:

It’s been a real reminder for me that, yes, I study living history and I may have grown up in this area, but I’m working with people in the seminar who have a more direct connection to the neighborhoods we’re studying. I grew up in the suburbs, they grew up in Hough, or their parents were activists with CORE. So I’m in a position to learn from them. It’s really helped to adjust and inform my own perspectives. It’s just so important to be a listener instead of a talker, and to bounce around these interpretations until they seem to be as good and useful and reflective as they can be. If they can’t be perfect they can at least resonate.

Participant Neeta Chandra, Assistant Professor of English at Tri-C, echoed this sentiment in her own reflection on the experience, agreeing that, “the personal insights, the lingering pain and agony that Blacks, and some participants were able to share by their and their family[’s] experiences were very special, disturbing and eye opening!”

Shemariah Arki—a native Clevelander and a dynamic educator, activist, organizer, and facilitator of the Women of Color series at CWRU’s Flora Stone Mater Center for Women—was one of the participants who shared personal and family stories with the group. For Arki, the seminar readings and discussions provided important context for her own family history. In the 1960s and ‘70s, her father was involved in the Black Nationalist party and her aunt helped to found the Cleveland chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). Learning about the Stokes brothers’ political careers and the history of Cleveland politics more broadly contextualized the liberation work of her family members for Arki, which made the seminar experience doubly meaningful.

Elise Hagisfeld likewise found the historical context she learned in the seminar to be emotionally fulfilling. “The ability to really study [Stokes’] election and tenure as mayor,” she reflected, “is helping me make sense out of the contemporary geography of the city, and when I say contemporary geography I mean that both physically and emotionally, the tenor of politics in the city and what’s informing debates we’re having now, and how far back those debates really go. … It’s very moving and personal to me, as a Clevelander.”

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Pedagogically, the seminar inspired participants to consider how to incorporate the Stokes legacy into their courses this fall. Erin Phelps, a doctoral student in sociology at CWRU, sees immense value for students who learn about Carl Stokes. “[H]is legacy,” she thinks, “can help youth nationally understand 1) the power of their voices, 2) the necessity of involvement in government, 3) that failures are within the recipe for success, 4) change can happen, 5) and the power of community action.” Insights like these demonstrate how the seminar will yield dividends for the commemoration. “I think increasingly people want to continue this further as they’ve become personally close,” Michney reported, and participants have discussed collaborating on classes, conferences, and the writing of a white paper. Most importantly, it has ensured that the story of the Stokes brothers will continue to be taught and remembered, and that their legacy will inform another generation of politics and reform in Cleveland.

The Cleveland Humanities Collaborative is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Avigail Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University. More of her writing can be found here.

ICYMI: The Long Look Back Edition

We missed sharing a lot of great history-related stuff with you, our dear readers, during our August hiatus. Have no fear, a great round-up is here!

Over at the Global Urban History Project‘s blog–our internet bffs–Noam Maggor wrote about “Brahmin Boston and the Politics of Interconnectedness” and Razak Khan about “Princely Architectural Cosmopolitanism and Urbanity in Rampur.”

UHA member Brent Cebul explained the perverse incentives of property tax policy over on City Lab.

From the UCLA Department of Chicanx Studies, a cool map of important Latinx sites in suburban Los Angeles.

The Washington Post’s Made By History vertical recently featured UHA members Andrew Kahrl, Max Felker-Kantor, Dan Berger, Brian Purnell and Jeanne Theoharis, Adam Goodman, Andy Horowitz, Victoria Wolcott, N.D. B. Connolly, and, just today, Heather Ann Thompson.

Following Charlottesville, UHA member Walter Greason’s tweet thread on teaching collective racial violence went viral… we’ll have a reflection from him about the experience on The Metropole next week!

 

I enjoyed the premier episode of Christine Morgan’s new YouTube series The History Gal, and look forward to seeing how the show evolves.

For those who love music as much as they love urban history, I found a Spotify playlist called “Metropolis” for you to jam to this weekend.

And last but not least, a shout-out to us all from the inimitable Ta-Nehisi Coates:

 

Have a great weekend!

Avigail, Ryan, and Hope

Culture, Commerce, and History in Ho Chi Minh City: A Bibliography of Vietnam’s Cultural Capital

For fans of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, Ho Chi Minh City is a familiar place. Both men have recorded numerous episodes for various television series over the years dedicated to the urban alchemy of HCMC. They laud its cuisine, marvel at its energy, and generally wallow in the boulevards and alleyways of Vietnam’s commercial and cultural capital. Obviously, such visions of HCMC oversimplify the city’s (and the nation’s) existence. After all, Vietnam itself is “neither wholly Eastern nor Southeast Asian,” as one scholar of the city argues; it cannot be considered fully socialist or capitalist, and instead it follows the vague government directive of a “market economy with a socialist direction.”[1] It is exactly this kind of in-between space, this navigation of identities, economies and politics beyond binaries that help one to understand this burgeoning Southeast Asian metropolis.

Late nineteenth and early twentieth century European tourists sometimes breathlessly described the city as the “Venice of Asia”; French colonists dubbed it “Little Paris.”[2] Subject to imperial rule throughout their history, the Vietnamese people held tightly to their own identity while absorbing aspects of its occupiers—China, Japan, France and the U.S. HCMC encapsulates this tension; it didn’t officially become designated as Ho Chi Minh City until 1976, but existed as two cities divided by the Saigon River, Saigon in the East and Cholon in the West.

By the late nineteenth century, Saigon represented the efforts of French colonizers intent on communicating to the world the grandeur of its Haussmanesque urban planning, the strength of its empire, and the “rationality of its modern bureaucracy,” notes Annette Mae Kim.[3] Defined by its grid plan, roundabouts, and grand boulevards, Saigon would later be designated the French colonial administrative center in 1931. During colonization much of its population consisted of Western and Vietnamese elites or Vietnamese working for the colonial French government. Unless they worked in the service sector for colonists, Chinese and Vietnamese residents were prohibited from living in French neighborhoods.[4]

HCMC’s Chinese population lived largely in Cholon, while Vietnamese largely resided in areas peripheral to both Saigon and Cholon. Between the late 1700s and mid-1800s, Saigon fell into disuse and sometimes into outright disrepair. At the same time, Cholon experienced steady growth, but did so based on a widespread Southeast China model. “Each community centered around a temple that also housed its association,” Kim points out. “Buildings lined streets that were oriented to access the canals built for transportation and trading …marked by narrow, curved roads toward the river …”[5]

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[Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson standing among group of Vietnamese soldiers and Americans during a visit to Saigon, South Vietnam], Thomas O’Halloran, May 12, 1962, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Cholon’s merchants, of mostly Chinese and Vietnamese descent, operated as middlemen, “hard driving bargainers” and conduits between the “disparate” worlds of Southeast Asian trade routes, western colonialism, and the dizzying diversity that each brought to the region.[6] Southeast Asian sensibilities, notably what Tana Li describes as HCMC’s place at the frontier of Vietnam’s southern borders, inculcated in residents a certain independence that enabled them to cling less tightly to traditional bonds between state and society. The earlier Nguyen rulers of South Vietnam in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries differed from the Trinh in the North. Through trade and openness to culture, the South defined “new way[s] of being Vietnamese.”[7] By the late 1880s, this diversity and emphasis on trade visibly demarcated Cholon from its neighbor Saigon. “As truly as Saigon is transplanted France, Cho’lon three miles away is transplanted China. With something over two hundred thousand inhabitants, Cho’lon is more than twice as large as its French neighbor,” one observer noted. It exuded modernity in its blazing electric signs above its shops and trams and motorcars that sped along its paved streets.

During the 1920s, Vietnamese anticolonialism took root in HCMC. In the interwar period, pro-independence movements and class consciousness gained greater footing among the city’s poor, yet the Vietnamese could not occupy Saigon more fully until the 1954 Geneva Conference.[8]

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[Group of ten workers posed by palm trees, Saigon, South Vietnam], between 1890 and 1920, Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
For much of its history, HCMC’s place as a trading center made it a site for migrants and refugees. This proved especially true in the 1950s as tensions with the North increased the flow of refugees to the city. The areas between Cholon and Saigon bulged with new arrivals from the north. South Vietnam’s turn toward market-based capitalism, supported by the United States, brought new economic opportunities to HCMC and in turn drew more migrants and refugees as well.[9]

American forces ushered in a thriving urban economy that benefitted some Cholon residents, though some observers bemoaned the changes that had undertaken the city by the late 1960s. “The good old days of Saigon are gone forever. The famous tree lined boulevards of Saigon have been widened to provide maneuvering room for the trucks, jeeps, and Hondas that are crowding out the Cyclos these days,” writer Dick Adair reflected in 1971. The threat of war and air conditioning kept people inside. “Gone is the simple pleasure of sitting quietly and gazing at the passing scene while sipping a refreshing drink,” Adair wrote.[10]

Often missing from accounts are the voices of the Vietnamese. The Vietnam War made a generation of American writers famous: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Tim O’Brien among others. Ho Chi Minh City often served as their headquarters abroad as they wrote dispatches to Americans back home. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American casts a large shadow, and the many American films made about Vietnam in the 1980s and 1990s arguably eclipses these examples combined. In all these examples, the viewpoint of the Vietnamese is marginal at best. Even urban histories often ignore the majority of Vietnamese residents in HCMC, since many as noted lived just outside Saigon and Cholon, divided between the peripheries of both cities. Still, emigration from HCMC has helped to shape modern American demographics and urban life in places like Orange County, California and Northern Virginia, a topic we will visit this month at the The Metropole.

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Little Saigon, Westminster, Orange County. Photo: A Culinary (Photo) Journal/Flickr/Creative Commons

 

With hostilities ended and a communist government asserting itself across a newly unified Vietnam, HCMC fell into economic isolation. Though long at the center of international trade routes, “Saigon literally vanished form the Southeast Asian mercantile orbit in the space of five years,” notes Eric Tagliacozzo. Hanoi’s ideological dedication to communism shrunk HCMC’s economy such that when Western observers returned to the city many recoiled at the levels to which the standard of living had plummeted. “[P]eople had begun to live on next to nothing,” Tagliacozzo writes.[11]

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[Group of children, with baskets, posed under palm tree, Saigon, South Vietnam], between 1890 and 1920, Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Judging from the Bourdains and Zimmerns of the world, HCMC is currently experiencing an economic and cultural renaissance. However, like many cities in the developing world, the traditional dichotomy between urban and rural does not fully capture its sprawling nature. Take Hoc Mon, an often, ignored peri-urban district on the edge of the city that serves as the focus of Erik Harms’s study on modern day HCMC. “There are no Vietnamese poems about Hoc Mon, which is littered with construction materials, marked by the ‘creative destruction’ of global industrial expansion and unbridled urbanization,” argues Harms. A product of the postcolonial world order and a totalizing global capitalism, Hoc Mon embodies the exciting but troubling growth of urban areas like HCMC. “Poverty is not beautiful, and the landscape it produces smashes ideal categories against the concrete realities of lived life,” Harms cautions.[12] At once, Hoc Mon raises questions about socialist utopias, the promise of capitalism to lift all boats, and the divide between our conceptions of the inner and outer city.

Yet, do not count Hoc Mon natives out, Harms asserts, for in their social and economic lives they exhibit a certain “social edginess” rather than marginality; they are not simply vessels on the ocean, but active participants. “Sometimes people actively edge their way into opportunities created by their position on the urban fringe,” he suggests, “at other times they are edged out by processes beyond their control.”[13]

 In the end, HCMC offers a fascinating, complex insight into modern metropoles. For over two decades urban historians have sought to dissolve the overly simplistic lines dividing the urban, suburban, and rural, and Ho Chi Minh City seems to be doing this not only theory, but in practice. In many ways, it seems to have been doing so for much of its complicated existence.

As per usual, the bibliography we have provided is far from comprehensive and really serves as a means for readers to get their feet wet. We welcome additions to the bibliography in the comments section below. Thanks to Scott Laderman for his help with getting us started on HCMC.

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Cholon Chinatown, Ho Chi Minh City, Katina Rogers photographer, April 2011

Ho Chi Minh City Bibliography

Saigon: Mistress of the Mekong, Ed. Anastasia Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Peter Arnett, Saigon Has Fallen (Rosetta Books, 2015) – Questia review

Jennifer W. Dickey, “Review: Reunification Palace,” The Public Historian 33 no. 2 (Spring 2011): 152-162.

Suhong Chae, “Contemporary Ho Chi Minh City in Numerous Contradictions: Reform Policy, Foreign Capital and the Working Class,” in Wounded Cities: Destruction and Reconstruction in a Globalized World, Ed. Jane Schneider and Ida Susser (Berg, 2003), 227-248 – Questia review

Haydon Leslie Cherry, Down and Out in Saigon: A Social History of the Poor in a Colonial City, 1860-1940. PhD disseration, Yale University, New Haven, 2011.

Michael Dolinski, “Identity Changes of the Chinese Community in Vietnam: A Survey of 20 Families in Cholon,” Asia Pacific Forum 26, (December, 2004): 192-208.

Lisa Drummond, “Street Scenes: Practices of Public and Private Space in Urban Vietnam,” Urban Studies 37.12 (2000): 2377-2391.

Lisa Drummond and Mandy Thomas, Eds. Consuming Urban Culture in Contemporary Vietnam (Routledge Curzon, 2003).

Catherine Earl, “Vietnam’s ‘Informal Public’ Spaces: Belonging and Social Distance in Post-Reform Ho Chi Minh City,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 5.1 (2010): 86-124.

Donald B. Freeman, “Doi Moi Policy and the Small Enterprise Boom in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam,” Geographical Review 86.2 (1996): 178-197.

Martin Gainsborough, Changing Political Economy of Vietnam: The Case of Ho Chi Minh City (Routledge, 2003).

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War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Ryan Reft Photographer, December 2014

Jamie Gillen, “Tourism and Nation Building at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104 no. 6 (2014).

Neil L. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam (University of California Press, 1993) – very short NYT review

Elena Givental, “Ho Chi Minh City: Contested Public and Private Space in the Vietnamese Metropolis,” Focus on Geography 56 no. 1 (2013): 32-44.

Eric Harms, Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City, (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) – Part of JUH review essay

Eric Harms, “The Boss: Conspicuous Invisibility in Ho Chi Minh City,” City and Society 25.2: 195-215.

Gregg Huff and Luis Angeles, “Globalization, Industrialization and Urbanization in Pre-World War II Southeast Asia,” Explorations in Economic History 48 (2011): 20–36.

Du Huynh, “The Misuse of Urban Planning in Ho Chi Minh City,” Habitat International 48 (2015): 11-19.

Annette Mae Kim, Learning to be Capitalists: Entrepreneurs in Vietnam’s Transition Economy (Oxford University Press; 2008) – Economic Development and Change review

Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015) – Asian Pacific Studies review (via Project Muse)

Priscilla Koh, “You Can Come Home Again: Narratives of Home and Belonging among Second-Generation Viet Kieu in Vietnam,” Sojourn: Journal o f Social Issues in Southeast Asia 30 no. 1 (2015): 173-214.

Scott Laderman, Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory, (Duke University Press, 2008) – Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia review (via Project Muse)

Tana Li, “An Alternative Vietnam? The Nguyen Kingdom in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 29.1 (1998): 111 – 121.

Tana Li, Nguyen Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Cornell University Press, 1998) – H-Net review

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Fruits and Juices, Ho Chi Minh City, Katina Rogers, April 2011, via Creative Commons

Hy Van Loung, Urbanization, Migration, and Poverty in a Vietnamese Metropolis: Ho Chi Minh City in Comparative Perspectives (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2009) – Journal of Vietnam Studies review (via JSTOR)

A.T. McGee, The Southeast Asian City: A Social Geography of the Primate Cities of Southeast Asia (G. Bell and Sons, 1967).

Kein Nguyen, The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood (Back Bay Books, 2002).

Andrew X. Pham, Catfish and Mandala: A Two Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam (Picador, 2000) – Very brief NYT times review

Gontran De Poncins, From a Chinese City: In the Heart of Peacetime Vietnam (Trackless Sands Pr. Inc, 1991) – Journal of Southeast Asian Studies review

Srilata Ravi, “Modernity, Imperialism and the Pleasures of Travel: The Continental Hotel in Saigon,” Asian Studies Review 32 no. 4 (2008): 475-490.

Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450 – 1680 (Yale University Press, 1990) – Journal of Sociology review (via Sage)

Anthony Reid, “The Structure of Cities in Southeast Asia, 15th – 17th Centuries,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 11 (1980): 235 -250.

Jonathan Rigg, Southeast Asia: The Human Landscape of Modernization and Development (Routledge, 1997) – Contemporary Southeast Asia review (via JSTOR)

Eric Tagliacozzo, “An Urban Ocean: Notes on the Historical Evolution of Coastal Cities in Greater Southeast Asia,” Journal of Urban History 33.6 (September 2007): 911- 932.

Phillip Taylor, Fragments of the Present: Searching for Modernity in Vietnam’s South (University of Hawaii Press, 2001).

Nigel Thrift and Dean Forbes, The Price of War: Urbanization in Vietnam: 1954 – 1985 (Allen and Unwin, 1986).

Allison J. Truitt, Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Washington Press, 2013) – Popanth review

William S. Turley, “Urban Transformation in South Vietnam,” Pacific Affairs 49.4 (Winter 1976): 607-24.

E.S. Ungar, “The Struggle over the Chinese Community in Vietnam, 1946-1986,” Pacific Affairs, 60.4: 596-614.

Nghia M. Vo, Saigon: A History (McFarland, 2011).

Michael Waibel, “The Production of Urban Space in Vietnam’s Metropolis in the Court of Transition: Internatnalization, Polarization, and Newly Emerging Lifestyles in Vietnamese Society,” Trialog 89.2 (2006): 43-58.

Michael Waibel, Ronald Eckert, Micheal Bose, and Volker Martin, “Housing for Low Income Groups in Ho Chi Minh City: Between Reintegration and Fragmentation,” ASIEN 103 No. April (2007): 59-78.

Johannes Widodo, The Boat and the City: Chinese Diaspora and the Architecture of Southeast Asian Coastal Cities (Marshall Cavendish, 2004).

Michael C. Williams, Vietnam at the Crossroads (Pinter, 1992) – Foreign Affairs review

Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

Fiction

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (Penguin Books, 2002).

Duong Thu Hong, Paradise of the Blind: A Novel (New York: Harper Collins, 2002) – very short EW review

Ma Van Kang, Against the Flood: Voices from Vietnam (Curbstone Books, 2003).

Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) – Independent review

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer: A Novel (Grove Press, 2016) – NYT review

 

[1] Erik Harms, Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 4.

[2] Eric Tagliacozzo, “An Urban Ocean: Notes on the Historical Evolution of Coastal Cities in Greater Southeast Asia,” Journal of Urban History 33.6 (September 2007): 923; Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 45.

[3] Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 38.

[4] Kim, Sidewalk City, 41.

[5] Kim, Sidewalk City, 35.

[6] Tagliacozzo, “An Urban Ocean,” 923.

[7] Tana Li, “An Alternative Vietnam? The Nguyen Kingdom in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 29.1 (1998): 111 – 121; Tana Li, Nguyen Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Cornell University Press, 1998), 59, 119.

[8] Kim, Sidewalk City, 48.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 49.

[11] Tagliacozzo, “An Urban Ocean,” 922.

[12] Erik Harms, Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 3.

[13] Harms, Saigon’s Edge, 4.

Member of the Week: Troy Hallsell

Hallsell PhotoTroy Hallsell

PhD Candidate, Department of History

The University of Memphis

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My research explores the grassroots politics of anti-freeway activism. In 1956, federal highway administrators proposed a freeway that would run directly though Overton Park in Midtown, Memphis. Their proposal became one of Tennessee’s and the nation’s most contentious public works project of the post-World War II era. Community activists organized to protect their park, going all the way to the Supreme Court to successfully prevent the freeway’s construction. While many scholars recognize their efforts as critical to protecting public spaces in American cities, they have not fully interrogated the politics behind the citizens’ freeway revolt, nor have they fully considered the ways in which this struggle served to increase residential segregation in places like Midtown Memphis. The project bridges literatures on environmentalism, urban history, and historic preservation to demonstrate the surprising and often unintended consequences of grassroots environmental activism that sought to preserve neighborhoods and public spaces.

As a historian and native Memphian, I have sought to answer questions about my home town—especially why is it segregated and how did it happen? During my MA program at George Mason University I took a course titled “Technology and Power” with Zachary Schrag. A portion of this course was dedicated to infrastructure and I was fascinated with our discussion about how roads/streets/highways shape built environments physically, spatially, and politically. When I began my PhD program at the University of Memphis I stumbled upon this freeway revolt in a book and found the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park’s archival record at the Memphis Public Library. I decided to take it up as a dissertation project and add to my city’s backstory.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I am currently teaching two courses: one that explores cities, technological innovation, and technology’s effect on the urban environment. This course is an extension of my research, but I have expanded it to include public health, housing, policing, and military activity. My other course, titled Environment and Society, is an introductory course that exposes students to some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. Using an interdisciplinary approach, they learn the science behind these issues, as well as the economic, political, and social factors that influence environmental change and shape our responses to it. Here, they learn that environment and politics are deeply intertwined.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

There are two books sitting on my desk that I am about to read: Benjamin Looker’s A Nation of Neighborhoods: Imagining Cities, Communities, and Democracy in Postwar America and Lila Corwin Berman’s Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit. Both books speak to dynamics at work in Memphis during my period of study.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies? 

The biggest lesson I learned came too late for me. When PhD students are selecting their major and minor fields, they must choose ones that complement, not necessarily reinforce. For example, I chose 20th century US history for my major field and African and African American history for my minor fields. Since my major field was headed by urban and civil rights historians, I read tons (perhaps literally) of African American historiography. While great for teaching, it is difficult to draw a straight line between Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship and urban renewal. I should have chosen an Urban Studies minor field instead of African American historiography. Working with a minor field advisor, we could have created a reading program that covered urban, race, gender, and class theory. This approach would have provided a theoretical foundation that I could then let loose on my dissertation topic. Instead, I am having to teach it to myself while writing a dissertation and found this to be a daunting task.

What Memphis sites are currently overlooked, but really should be a “must-see” on any historical tour of the city?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. When people come to Memphis they will inevitably eat BBQ, go to the National Civil Rights Museum, and drop $40 to see Graceland. But I always recommend people do the following things. First, see the Peabody Ducks. I’m thirty-five years old and I still act like a six-year-old when I see a guy in a tuxedo march ducks out of an elevator and along a red carpet to swim in the hotel’s lobby fountain. Second, if you are on Beale Street venture into Silky O’Sulivan’s. Upon first glance, it is a bar like any other. But if you venture into the courtyard you’ll see a pair of goats off to the right. They always make me laugh, because, well, goats. Lastly, walk down to the Beale Street landing and take in the Mississippi River. Memphis sits upon the river’s widest point and people rarely consider how big and powerful a river can be. They don’t call it mighty for nothing.