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.

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