Katie Marages Schank
George Washington University, PhD, American Studies, May 2016
Emory University, Fellow, James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, 2016-2017
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
In my current research, I explore the relationship between architecture, housing policy, race, and visual culture to study the history of Atlanta’s public housing program. The “rise and fall” narrative, which frequently relies on critiques of design, policy, and funding, has dominated public housing history, and I hope to demonstrate the ways in which visual representations and public relations had an equally vital and largely untold role of influence on this major municipal program. My research focuses on demonstrating that neither the early success nor the later failure of public housing was inevitable but both were the result of considerable rhetorical work dependent upon representations of modernist architecture, the social program, and residents. I also explore the unique, symbiotic relationship that existed between Atlanta – a city obsessed with image and self-promotion – and public housing. While focused on Atlanta, my research looks at larger questions about the ways that images and visual rhetoric operate as agents in urban politics, policy, and understandings of race.
I lived and worked in Atlanta for five years before moving to Washington, DC to start graduate school. It was unlike any other city I had lived in, and while it took a while to grow on me, I became fascinated with it. While I was working on a paper for a research seminar, I stumbled on a catalogue entry for a collection of papers at Emory University of an Atlanta real estate developer turned amateur documentary photographer, filmmaker, and public housing advocate. A year later, happy to have a reason to visit Atlanta, I took a research trip to view that collection. Within the first day of research, I had a feeling that I might have discovered my dissertation topic. This topic perfectly brings together my interests in the built environment, urban history, and visual culture. Now, as I’m taking my dissertation and revising it to become a book manuscript, I am still just as excited about this topic as I was when I started my research almost seven years ago.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
Last semester I taught a course at Emory University called “20th Century African American Urban History and Visual Culture.” We examined twentieth-century African American urban history through the lens of visual culture. As a class, we worked to develop a clear understanding of the historical and interdisciplinary frameworks that are available to analyze and “read” both documentary and popular visual materials such as photographs, television, and film. The class drew directly from the methodology that I use in my own work, and while we did study other cities, Atlanta was the main focus of the class. It was rewarding to see students develop the critical skills necessary to look at visual materials and begin to realize that photographs and films are not innocuous materials but serve an agenda to shape perceptions about race and the city.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I am always excited for new scholarship about Atlanta, so I am looking forward to Maurice Hobson’s book, The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta, which is being published by UNC Press this fall.
While it is not a publication, I am also looking forward to the 2018 release of documentary about the East Lake Meadows housing project in Atlanta by Ken Burns and his team. They seem to be taking a very balanced approach in telling the history of the program and the story of East Lake’s redevelopment. I know that they have gone to great lengths to find and interview former residents. I also had the honor of being interviewed for the film, so that certainly adds to my excitement about its release!
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
I would encourage them to attend the Urban History Association Conference! The conference draws scholars who are doing such interesting and important work. It is a great way to get a sense for all of the possibilities that exist in the field. Not only should they attend the conference, attend paper sessions, and present their own work, but I would urge them to make an effort to meet people – both senior scholars and their peers from other universities. As a grad student, I was admittedly nervous and hesitant to approach scholars whose work I had read and admired. Yet, once I began to talk with people, I found them to be very approachable and genuinely interested in talking to me about their work and my work. Since my first urban history conference five years ago, I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of people in the organization. They have provided me with great advice and support in terms of my research and career, and I now look to them as mentors. I also look forward to seeing my “conference friends” – people I’ve gotten to know who are at similar stages of their careers to me. It’s always great to have a chance to catch up and encourage one another. Because I hope to have a career in this field, these are people that I will see and work with for years to come.
What is one of the most unique or unusual visual representations of public housing that you have used as a source in your study?
I would have to say that the music video for Outkast’s “B.O.B (Bombs Over Baghdad)” is one of the most unique visual representation I have used in my work. In the video, Outkast’s Andre 3000 stumbles out of an apartment in the now-demolished Bowen Homes housing project in Atlanta. Instead of the drab brick buildings and poorly landscaped grounds that existed when the video was filmed, he’s surrounded by psychedelic purple grass and trees, bright yellow sidewalks, and neon green roads. Whereas so many images from this time period are focused on despair and the failure of the program, the vivid colors of the video combined with the fast tempo of the hip hop music offer an image of Atlanta’s public housing that was very different from the dominant narrative being circulated when the album was released in 2000. The music video offers the view of an alternate future and different possibilities for public housing residents by invoking Afrofuturism. It was a valuable perspective and important message that was not coming from anywhere else during this time period. I love that my interdisciplinary approach to urban history means that hip-hop videos and traditional archival sources each have a place in my work.
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