Member of the Week: David Yee

yee photo uhaDavid Yee

Ph.D. Candidate in History

Stony Brook University

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

My current work is a social history of mass housing and inequality in Mexico City. The dissertation traces the rise of Latin America’s largest shantytown, Ciudad Neza, as it grew alongside a government-built housing complex named San Juan de Aragón. Both Ciudad Neza and San Juan de Aragón are representative of a crucial historic juncture for Mexico, and Latin America in general, an era when the optimism of modernist urban planning was eclipsed by the rise of the urban shantytown. I focus on housing to explore how it contributed to “a great divergence” among the millions of migrants who arrived to Mexico City in the middle of the twentieth century. During this period, public housing evolved into a mechanism for upward mobility among the city’s incipient middle-class at the expense of the informal poor, producing a new set of political subjectivities and cultural sensibilities among the city’s residents.

The project stems from my life-long fascination with the historical experience of people leaving the countryside for major cities. After pursuing several different ideas (street vendors, migrant associations), I found that struggles over housing provided a focal point and entryway into this experience and allowed me to highlight the diversity of the people arriving to Mexico City during the 1950s (erroneously portrayed in the press and scholarship as a monolithic mass of poor, illiterate campesinos.)

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

In the past, I have usually taught courses on Latin American history, but this past summer I was able to teach a course called “Cities in World History.” It was great to go beyond Latin America and teach about housing and architecture in places like New York and Paris. We also went up to the present and covered the rapid growth of refugee camps, a socio-spatial formation that exists in a peculiar kind of limbo state that contains both elements of transitory encampments and permanent neighborhoods. The refugee crisis is creating human settlements of millions of people and they’re challenging what we think of as “urban.” Ben Rawlence’s account of a massive refugee camp in Kenya (City of Thorns) and the UNHCR’s online resources on camps/cities in Syria were very eye-opening for the students.

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

There has been an effervescence of literature on Latin American cities in the past few years. The best of example of that work can be found in Cities from Scratch: Poverty and Informality in Urban Latin America, which is really a great collection of cutting-edge work that spans across various disciplines and countries. I’m looking forward to the release of two books on Mexico City – Matthew Vitz’s A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City and Andrew Konove’s Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy of Mexico City (both due out next year).

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

In general, there is no perfect dissertation topic. I found it was better to go through an early process of trial-and-error, doing some initial archival research to see what existed and where it would take me as opposed to trying to conceptualize and formulate everything in my head. Specifically, with urban studies, it is by definition multi-disciplinary/ interdisciplinary, opening up the opportunity to reach out to other scholars outside of your own department for advice, leads, or possibly to serve on your committee.

As a historian who studies the built environment and housing in Mexico, what has your response been to the two massive earthquakes that just hit the country?

More than anything else, there has been a tragic loss of life (361 people so far) that stretches from Mexico City to Chiapas. They were jolts that revealed the underlying divisions in Mexican society, while producing acts and sentiments of solidarity that transcended those divisions experienced in one’s everyday life and daily routines. At the time of this interview, I see hundreds of volunteers throughout the city as I go through my day. The memory of the more devastating 1985 earthquake is palpable in every sphere of society. There is a large void to be filled among historians in regards to the urban social movements that preceded the 1985 earthquake, its role in the expansion of Mexico’s civil society, and the urban reconstruction phase in the aftermath of the earthquake (one of the largest since the Marshall Plan in Europe). Two great pieces for further reading are: Elena Poniatowska’s Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake (a book on the 1985 earthquakes) and a recent article by Pablo Piccato, “Lessons from Mexico’s Earthquakes: 1985 and Today.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s