Member of the Week: Joe Merton

P1000726Joe Merton

Department of History

University of Nottingham

 

 

 

 

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

I’m currently working on a project which examines a perceived crisis of crime, particularly street crime, in 1960s and 1970s New York City, and its role in transforming the city’s politics, public policy norms and modes of governance, built environment and media cultures. You can find a recent example of my research in the Journal of Policy History, which examines the role of public and political anxieties over crime in undermining a culture of expertise in New York politics and policy during the Lindsay years. I was initially hooked in by the image of the infamous ‘Fear City’ campaign run by some of the city’s police officers during the fiscal crisis and widespread austerity of the mid-late 1970s, as well as the symbolic power New York holds in shaping the image we hold of the contemporary city and the promise and perils that lie within it. Yet there’s also something about this period more broadly which seems so fluid, so transformative, and so crucial to the making of our own times and our own cities today: it really is a critical juncture in contemporary history. I wanted my work to be part of that.

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

I teach a final year, full-year course on narratives of crisis and decline in the 1970s United States called Life During Wartime (I’m a Talking Heads fan). We look at the construction of various political and cultural narratives of crisis in the 1970s, from Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich’s predictions of imminent environmental disaster to neoconservative warnings of the impending ‘Finlandization’ of the United States; the pathologies of the urban crisis to the perceived failures of public policy in areas such as welfare or prisons. This is what we in British history departments call a Special Subject, with a strong emphasis on the analysis and discussion of primary sources. It is extremely rewarding to teach, as each year my students come up with new and amazing ways of conceptualising or making sense of the 1970s from their readings of original sources, much of which work to inform my own research (even if they also regularly complain how “gloomy” and “depressing” the content is!).

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

I really enjoyed Brian Tochterman’s recent book on cultural and political representations of post-war New York, The Dying City. It offers such a diverse and wide-ranging insight into the various narratives of fear, pathology and even death which worked to construct a particular image of New York, taking us from film and literature to planning documents and public policy discussions. I also enjoyed the recent collection of articles in Journal of Urban History on New York City after the fiscal crisis, edited by Jonathan Soffer and Themis Chronopoulos, each of which do much to challenge many of our prior understandings of the crisis and the rather loose or imprecise labels – neoliberalism, conservatism, gentrification – we use to conceptualise it. The series also, like Kim Phillips-Fein’s recent book, finally gives us an account of how ordinary New Yorkers experienced the crisis, and its role – sometimes deliberate, at other times inadvertent – in establishing many of the city’s contemporary problems and inequalities.

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

Put yourself out there. It’s not easy, and often intimidating, when you’re starting out, but attend conferences and seminars, submit your work for review, and don’t be afraid to approach others, even senior scholars, with questions, advice, or simply to introduce yourself and your work. The encounters and exchanges you have will undoubtedly enrich your work. On a similar note, don’t forget where you have come from. You were once that irritating undergraduate determined to perfect their coursework or borrow that book. Likewise, you were once that sessional teaching assistant on a poorly-paid, fixed-term contract with little time for marking and teaching preparation, let alone research. Provide counsel and advice, lend support – especially to those new to the game or on short-term contracts – and be as giving of your time as others were to you.

What item/idea/trend/attitude would you bring back from the 1970s, and what enduring item/idea/trend/attitude from that decade do you wish hadn’t followed us into the present?

What a question. I would certainly argue that our diminishing faith or trust in a particularly academic or professional form of expertise – a trend whose genesis I would trace to the 1970s – has had a destructive impact on public life since the 1970s. Equally would anyone argue that the individualism of the 1970s identified in Tom Wolfe’s (admittedly limited) “The ‘Me’ Decade” – now manifested in selfies, Instagram feeds and #YOLO – has really enriched our lives?! As for what I would like to bring back, greatly reduced income inequality would be nice. Or how about a socialist Labour government?

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