Member of the Week: Christine Henry

IMG_7235 (1)Christine Henry, PhD

Assistant Professor

Department of Historic Preservation

University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA



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

My current research is focused on several aspects of the history of Fredericksburg, VA including the influence of women in the preservation of local landmarks, and the role of the heritage economy in racial segregation in the city.

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

I currently teach four courses each semester on various topics of historic preservation including a wide range of class sizes, topics, and teaching styles. Classes include an introductory architectural history course, a building documentation course, a seminar on diversity in historic preservation and a seminar on vernacular architecture. In my large lecture courses I use my research on gentrification and neighborhood change as case studies to illustrate how historic preservation happens in urban environments. In my seminar, I have been able to involve my students directly in the documentation and development of a walking tour app for the Vernacular Architecture Forum meeting in Alexandria to be held in May 2018.

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

I am very excited about the upcoming publication of an edited volume titled Contested Pasts: Urban Heritage in Divided Cities. This past year I have been working with a colleague in the Department of Historic Preservation, Andréa Livi Smith, PhD, to co-author a chapter in the book which is titled ”Segregation, Gentrification, and Heritage in Fredericksburg, VA: A Preservation Perspective.”

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

The advice I have for young scholars is to keep an open mind in terms of research interests and to listen to as many people as possible about your research area. I am always talking with people about ideas, buildings and sites to investigate, which at first don’t seem to relate to my research areas, but after some exploration often have some connection I would not have found on my own.

As someone who studies neighborhoods, what would you personally argue is the most essential ingredient in making one great? Is it the built environment? The retail and services available? The relationships between residents? And what could you not live without in a neighborhood?

As a person who studies neighborhoods, I think that the most significant factor is the relationship between the residents and business owners. This atmosphere is of course shaped by the physical environment, which can enhance or inhibit interaction among residents, but the essence of a neighborhood is the people and the ties they create with one another. One thing that I could not live without in a neighborhood is age diversity—both personally and in my research I have found that having neighbors that are part of an age spectrum makes for a vibrant and interdependent community.

Children’s Fiction in the City

By Avigail Oren, with contributions from Kevin Seal, Melanie Newport, and other #twitterstorians

I’m spending the month of February living in the bedroom I occupied as a teenager, in the house my parents have lived in for almost twenty years, which is mercifully located in the warm and sunny state of Florida. In the parlance of the internet, I just can’t with winter anymore. So here I am, surrounded by the books my parents bought me as a child, brought from Chicago and St. Paul to Gainesville, where I added more to the collection.

When we proposed the City in Fiction series on The Metropole, I did not anticipate that I would simultaneously be editing thoughtful analyses of novels set in the urban landscape and weeding through my own personal archive of fiction. But I have been, and in addition to the books by Judy Blume and Sharon Creech, the volumes of the Anastasia and Alice series, and the bevy of great historical fiction for young readers, I found the seeds of my own personal interest in immigration, race and ethnicity, and the urban environment.

IMG_0598In amongst the Dr. Seuss I found a picture book that fascinated me as a child. In Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, Cassie’s parents take the family out onto the roof of their neighbor’s Harlem apartment building one evening. Cassie and her brother Be Be eat dinner with their parents and Mr. and Mrs. Honey and, as the adults begin playing cards and socializing, Cassie and Be Be lay down on a mattress and go to sleep. Except that Cassie does not go to sleep. The story begins with her recalling how, that night when “the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge,” she imagined flying above the city and taking ownership of all that she could see.

Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical. Lying on the roof in the night, with stars and skyscraper buildings all around me, made me feel rich, like I owned all that I could see. The bridge was my most prized possession. Daddy said that the George Washington Bridge is the longest and most beautiful bridge in the world and that it opened in 1931, on the very day I was born. Daddy worked on that bridge, hoisting cables. Since then, I’ve wanted that bridge to be mine. Now I have claimed it. All I had to do was fly over it for it to be mine forever. I can wear it like a giant diamond necklace, or just fly above it and marvel at its sparkling beauty.

Although the context was lost on me at the time, Cassie’s flight over the city and her repossession of the various infrastructure projects her father helped build was her response to the racism and exclusion her father experienced in the labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s. As a kid, I could understand and relate to Cassie’s worship of her father, a man who “can walk on steel girders high up in the sky and not fall,” earning him the nickname “the Cat.” I also admired my father, whose work as a political scientist was less risky but clearly intriguing enough to me that I followed him into academia. What I do not recall is what, if anything, I understood when my parents read me Cassie’s declaration that her “Daddy is going to own [the new union] building, ‘cause I’m gonna fly over it and give it to him. Then it won’t matter that he’s not in their old union, or whether he’s colored or a half-breed Indian, like they say.” I must have recognized that Cassie and her parents did not look like me, but did I register the unfairness that Cassie felt because of the discrimination her father faced? Did I intuit her need for reparation, and the reason why?

Regardless, I remember wanting to be Cassie and to have the ability to fly above the George Washington Bridge and wear it as a necklace. The idea of sleeping on the rooftop of an apartment building on a hot summer night in the big city was as fantastic to me as dragons and fairy princesses, but unlike dragons I knew that cities were real and that one day I too could move to the big city. And I did, and for two years I lived at the foot of the George Washington Bridge—though I never lay on my own tar beach.

As I became a stronger reader and began tackling chapter books, the American Girl books introduced me to historical fiction and made me fall in love with immigrant stories and American history. At the time, there was only Felicity, Kirsten, Ada, Samantha, and Molly, and I read and loved all of their stories. Molly, whose story was set on the home front during WWII, was my favorite. I eventually became a historian of post-1945 America.

IMG_0599When I moved on to more substantive historical stories, one of my favorites was Joan Lowery Nixon’s Land of Hope—which I just reread. It tells the story of Rebekah Levinsky, who we meet in 1902 as her family is in the woods at the border between Russia and Austria, attempting to sneak across en route to the port of Hamburg. As pogroms crept steadily towards their shtetl, her father decided that his family should join his brother Avram in New York City. Rebekah, at age 15, is brokenhearted to leave the life she knew—but that changes when, onboard the steamship to New York, she finds two spunky girlfriends who help her imagine the life she can have in America. The proto-feminists Kristen Swensen from Sweden and Rose Carney from Ireland encourage Rebekah to pursue her dream to get an education and become a teacher, despite that her parents have prioritized the education of her brothers and need Rebekah to work to support the family. As her family passes through the inspection at Ellis Island, their carefully-laid plans begin to go awry; with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the generous but pragmatic Avram, they begin to adapt to life on the Lower East Side.

The first time I read the book, I remember that I finished the final chapter, sprung out of the teal pleather beanbag chair I was sitting in, and ran to ask my mother when Grandma came over on a boat from Europe. I was crushed to learn that Grandma was born in the Bronx (as was her mother). This most recent re-reading, I had a more pleasant historical realization—the book is remarkably accurate on the facts of European immigration, down to the detail that inspectors at Ellis Island only denied entry to around 2% of migrants. And I say this having taught U.S. Immigration history last semester.

Land of Hope provided a backstory and context for another fictional Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family. I learned the terrain of New York City from Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie. The adventures of the five sisters took them from the local and familiar—school, their Poppa’s junk shop, the candy shop, and the public library—to the faraway and foreign, such as when they rode the train out to Coney Island on a hot summer day, and when eventually the family moved to a nicer apartment in the Bronx. I’m constantly reminded of tiny details from Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books. I can’t go into a candy store without thinking how marvelous it would be if you could buy four candies for a penny. Drinking black tea reminds me of when Henny spilled some on her sister’s white dress, so she dyed the dress in a bathtub filled with tea to match the stain. And when I dust the house I wish that someone had hidden buttons and pennies for me to find. These are the details that captivated me as a girl, that made me fall in love with this family and their lives, and that piqued my curiosity about their particular time and place. Years later, despite coming to graduate school to study something entirely different, I wrote a dissertation about Jews in New York.

I’ve gone through every bookshelf in my parent’s home and cannot find the last novel that made me fall in love with city life: Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game. Set in the 1960s in what I presume to be Berkeley, though it’s only named as “a large college town in California,” The Egypt Game follows April and Melanie and Marshall and Elizabeth as they build a shrine to Nefertiti in the overgrown yard behind a neighborhood curiosity shop. The devotion of this multiracial group of friends to the study and celebration of ancient Egypt spurred them to search throughout their neighborhood for objects to decorate the shrine and items needed to perform rituals. Their urban neighborhood was one of limitless opportunity, so long as you had imagination and elbow grease. And it’s this possibility and creativity that remains what I most love about cities today.

And some additional recommendations, for those in search of great books to read or gift to kids. This list comes from Kevin Seal, a 4th Grade teacher, native New Yorker, and–in the interest of full disclosure–my husband. These are listed in reverse chronological order.

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

Set in New York City (get used to that), this middle-grade novel follows blues-loving Clayton in the aftermath of a family tragedy. Seasoned New York subway riders will connect with Clayton’s underground journey. It’s showtime!
Defying the notion that community doesn’t exist in urban areas, this modern throwback follows the Vanderbeeker family in New York City’s Harlem. The Vanderbeekers, beloved members of their neighborhood and all-around lovely family, find out that their landlord will not renew their lease, and turn to community ties, activism, and old-fashioned acts of kindness to turn the tide.
When The Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill; illustrated by Theodore Taylor III
An historical fiction picture book, When The Beat Was Born traces the story of hip-hop’s roots from Jamaica to The Bronx. DJ Kool Herc is the star of the show here.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita Williams-Garcia’s second entry on this list, One Crazy Summer is the story of three sisters moving from New York City to Oakland, California in 1968 to live with their estranged mother. The sisters discover mysterious depths to this seemingly heartless matriarch, and soon find themselves enrolled in and energized by a Black Panther day camp.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Set in Manhattan, this first-person narration features a unique mix of urban, cynical savvy and magical revelations. For a slightly older crowd than previous entries, this book demands to be re-read to fully appreciate what on earth just happened. Stead’s Liar & Spy could just as easily be on this list as well.
Macaroni Boy by Katherine Ayres
This novel is wonderfully confined in place and time: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s working class, immigrant-filled Strip District during the Great Depression. Main character Mike Costa balances working for the family business and dodging bullies with solving a mystery to save his failing grandfather. A great way to learn about an underappreciated neighborhood.
From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson
Set in Brooklyn, this novel examines the relationship between 13-year-old protagonist Melanin Sun and his single mother. Their bond is imperiled when the latter reveals that she is gay and dating a white woman. Tackling issues of race, sexuality, and masculinity, Woodson pulls no punches in showing Melanin’s once-simple world spiraling out of control towards a promising but uneasy conclusion. Woodson’s novel in verse Locomotion could also be on this list.
An immigrant story of struggles and triumphs, Lord sets Chinese protagonist Shirley in Brooklyn at the same time that Brooklyn Dodger and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. No real appreciation or knowledge of baseball is required for this one, but it does help a bit to round out the context. May inspire curious minds to learn more about Jackie Robinson or professional sports’ role in America’s racial history.

And finally, some crowd-sourced recommendations from UHA members, #twitterstorians, and enthusiastic readers.

Melanie Newport on Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street

I first read The House on Mango Street at Curtis High School in suburban western Washington. I loved how the book captured the energy of the city and the importance of taking in every detail. I was most excited by the fact that it centered how young women moved through the world. My favorite chapter, “Hips” starts out, “One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?” At a time when I thought my body was in revolt, that passage made me feel powerful. I can see now that The House on Mango Street was a book that made me appreciate that you can love where you came from and still leave.

Katy Peplin (of Thrive PhD) on The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Amanda Kolson Hurley (of CityLab) on David Macaulay and Castle

Art Blake on Time of Trial by Hester Burton

Help us create a valuable resource for parents, teachers, gift-givers, and book lovers! Share your favorites with us on Twitter @UrbanHistoryA or on the UHA Facebook group and we will add them to this post.

UHA award submissions now being accepted: Send us your brilliance!

“What is so detestable about war is that it reduces the individual to complete insignificance,” wrote the English surrealist poet David Gascoyne during World War II. Existentialism, which began with phenomenology prior to World War I and came of age during the Second World War, arose in an era of “extreme ideology and extreme suffering” notes Sarah Bakewell in her excellent 2016 intellectual history of the movement, At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom Being and Apricot Cocktails.

Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and numerous others sought a new way forward amidst a generation besot by industrialized total war. Though wide differences existed between each in terms of philosophical thought and beliefs, in general they all embraced the idea of authenticity and personal agency.  Survival in this new age depended on one’s ability to “decide to live” to engage the issues of the time; a philosophical system “designed for a species that had just scared the hell out of itself, but that finally felt ready to grow up and take responsibility,” writes Bakewell.

Well, most of us don’t live in Occupied Paris, the Pacific Theater, or the Russian Front, but needless to say, several aspects of this era seem to be reappearing and millions of people around the world do live under such distress: see Syria and Myanmar for just two examples. So at first blush, our announcements regarding the UHA awards might feel slight, yet, in our own way as historians, we aspire to the same kind of engagement and authenticity that Camus, Beauvoir, and Sartre all attempted.

Camus, pictured above receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, bickered with Beauvoir and Sartre about how to move forward. In novels like The Plague and treaties like The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus put forth the idea that life and the impersonal systems we all toiled under were absurd, however, it was up to us to determine how and why we endured. “We must decide whether to give up or keep going,” Bakewell summarizes. Heroism, as depicted by the protagonist of The Plague, was not about winning or losing but rather about enduring for a purpose even in the face of limitless odds. Despite differences, Sartre and Beauvoir came to a similar conclusion: “the art of life lies in getting things done.”

Sometimes the fetid residue of social media can be distressing, even oppressive. However, this only adds value to the work done by UHA members. Every article, book, and dissertation produced is an effort to push through this post-truth age of political discourse; a grappling with who we are and an expression of a writer’s belief system even when submerged beneath historical detail. History’s importance, be it for national debates or identity, has rarely been greater. In our role as historians, we search for evidence, craft narratives, and assert arguments as both an expression of our authentic selves and as a means to get closer to establishing the truth about our ocean of municipal, state, and national history. After all, to quote David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”  It’s our ocean, drop your knowledge into it, watch the multiplicity of historical waves roll in and let us celebrate your contribution to the rising tide of truth.

Kenneth Jackson Award for Best Book in North American Urban History in 2017

61+W9nLjhkL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe UHA will award a prize of $500 for the best monograph in North American urban history with a copyright date of 2017. To be considered, please submit three (3) copies of the book, each containing a complete publication citation. All materials must be received by May 1, 2018.

Submit one book directly to each member of the Jackson Award committee:

Margaret Garb
Washington University in St. Louis
Campus Box 1062
One Brookings Drive
St. Louis, MO 63130-4899

Paul Gleye
Department of Architecture & Landscape Architecture
North Dakota State University
650 NP Avenue
Fargo, ND 58102

Monica Perales
Department of History
University of Houston
3553 Cullen Boulevard – Agnes Arnold Hall Room 524
Houston, TX 77204-3003

Criteria for selection for all awards: significance, originality, quality of research, sophistication of methodology, clarity of presentation, cogency of arguments, and contribution to the field of urban history. Membership in the UHA is not required. All works must be in English or in English translation. Late or incomplete submissions cannot be considered. Submissions will be considered incomplete unless a copy of the book is received by each of the three (3) award committee members by the deadline. Submissions must be accompanied by a single page providing the author’s current address, e-mail, and telephone number(s). Letters of recommendation and endorsement are discouraged. The winner will be announced in late summer 2017, with formal presentation of the award at the UHA biennial conference in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 18-21, 2018. The Urban History Association reserves the right not to award this prize.

Arnold Hirsch Award for Best Article in Urban History published in a scholarly journal in 2017 (no geographic restriction)

9780226342443The UHA will award a prize of $250 for the best article on urban history published in a scholarly journal with a publication date of 2017 (either in print or online as part of a journal’s early online version). To be considered, please submit three (3) copies of the article, each containing a complete publication citation. All materials must be received by May 1, 2018.

Articles must be submitted by email as attachments in PDF format. Submit one copy of the article directly to each member of the Hirsch Award committee:

Brodwyn Fischer
University of Chicago

Lionel Frost
Monash University (Australia)

Benjamin Looker
Saint Louis University

Criteria for selection for all awards: significance, originality, quality of research, sophistication of methodology, clarity of presentation, cogency of arguments, and contribution to the field of urban history. Membership in the UHA is not required. All works must be in English or in English translation. Late or incomplete submissions cannot be considered. Submissions will be considered incomplete unless a copy of the article is received by each of the three (3) award committee members by the deadline. Submissions must be accompanied by a single page providing the author’s current address, e-mail, and telephone number(s). Letters of recommendation and endorsement are discouraged. The winner will be announced in late summer 2017, with formal presentation of the award at the UHA biennial conference in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 18-21, 2018. The Urban History Association reserves the right not to award this prize.

Michael Katz Award for Best Dissertation in Urban History completed in 2017 (no geographic restriction)

KATZ-1-obit-master180The UHA will award a prize of $350 for the best dissertation in urban history with a completion date in 2017. To be considered, please submit three (3) copies of the dissertation, each containing information on where and when completed. All materials must be received by May 1, 2018.

Dissertations must be submitted by email as attachments in PDF format. Submit one copy of the dissertation directly to each member of the Katz Award committee:


Andrew Diamond
Sorbonne Université

Lily Geismer
Claremont McKenna University

Jim Wunsch
SUNY Empire State College

Criteria for selection for all awards: significance, originality, quality of research, sophistication of methodology, clarity of presentation, cogency of arguments, and contribution to the field of urban history. Membership in the UHA is not required. All works must be in English or in English translation. Late or incomplete submissions cannot be considered. Submissions will be considered incomplete unless a copy of the dissertation is received by each of the three (3) award committee members by the deadline. Submissions must be accompanied by a single page providing the author’s current address, e-mail, and telephone number(s). Letters of recommendation and endorsement are discouraged. The winner will be announced in late summer 2017, with formal presentation of the award at the UHA biennial conference in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 18-21, 2018. The Urban History Association reserves the right not to award this prize.

Featured image: Camus wins Nobel Prize, October 17, 1957, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Romance Novellas and the Postcolonial African City

By Emily Callaci

In the late 1970s, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was one of the most rapidly growing cities in the world. Each year, thousands of young men and women left their rural homes and made their way to the city, expanding the squatter settlements and the ranks of the city’s youth population. The global economic recession of the 1970s, followed a decade later by structural adjustment policies and the gradual collapse of Tanzania’s socialist experiment, led to great hardship for most urban residents. Public buses ground to halt for lack of petrol, and Dar es Salaam residents queued for hours outside government cooperative stores to access basic necessities, such as soap, tea, flour and rice, only to find that the shelves were often empty. More gallingly, despite an official public rhetoric of egalitarianism, the city was a place of visibly dramatic inequalities, where the corrupt could prosper and those who followed the rules often found themselves living in dire poverty. Yet in this context of scarcity, at least one thing could be found in abundance: love stories.

SImbamwene(1978)Swahili romance novels proliferated in Dar es Salaam in the late 1970s. Every year, tens of thousands of novellas were produced and sold in the city’s informal economy. They were printed on thin, cheap paper, and had titillating cover artwork depicting voluptuous women, kung-fu fighters, guns, suitcases of cash, and motorcycles. The books circulated from person to person, traded along social networks of readers until they eventually began to fall apart from wear and tear. The back covers of the novellas helped amplify the reputation of the writer by displaying his picture and bio, alongside several blurbs of bombastic praise from other young writers. The authors were young migrant men from rural areas, newly arrived in Dar es Salaam, and they circulated throughout the city on foot, selling their books out of briefcases or displaying them at newspaper stands or religious bookshops. These romance stories offer up a kind of unintended archive of the emotional lives of Dar es Salaam’s young men in the mid-1970s through 1980s, the final decade of Tanzania’s socialist experiment.

The romance novellas are formulaic and share similar casts of characters. They feature young, handsome and athletic male protagonists, fashioned after international celebrities including Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali and Bob Marley. The heroes are well-versed in global black popular culture and radical political thought, and can quote James Brown songs and Julius Nyerere’s writings with equal ease, yet at the same time, they are rooted in the contemporary material realities of Dar es Salaam. Physically, they are lean from hunger and fit from playing soccer and practicing kung fu. They are often broke. Crammed into shabby apartments with their mates, the protagonists of these novellas nonetheless piece together their outfits from second hand clothes, tailored to the latest fashions on the sewing machines of street tailors. Their elegance in the face of scarcity attests to their taste and street-smarts. They are virtuous, cosmopolitan and frugal. And they are always in love.

fig4.5A beautiful “girl” is always part of the story. Sometimes she is virtuous and pure, and sometimes conniving and greedy. In these male-authored romance novellas of 1970s Dar es Salaam—and despite the many Tanzanian women writers at the time, the authors of this particular popular genre were men—she is never complex, never has an inner life of her own. The story is not about her; rather her depiction furthers a story that is about young men. Attached to the girl are her conservative parents, who antagonize their daughters’ suitors and stand in the way of love. Take, for example, Juma Mkabarah’s Kizimbani (On the Witness Stand), in which the young Rosa is found dead in the bed of her boyfriend, Joseph Gapa. Rosa’s father comes after Joseph with a machete, publically berates him for stealing Rosa away from his household, calls him a hooligan, and accuses him of killing her. But in a dramatic final courtroom scene, a letter from the departed Rosa is presented in which she reveals that she killed herself out of despair when her parents refused to allow her to marry the boy she loved. Joseph Gapa is exonerated and carried out of the courtroom on the shoulders of a cheering crowd, a hero.

fig4.6The great obsession of many of these romance writers was the figure of the sugar daddy. In Kassim Kassam’s Shuga Dedi, the titular character is Fabian Mwaluso, owner of a factory and seducer of the young and beautiful Fatuma: a schoolgirl from a poor family. Fabian is overweight and arrogant, and he seduces Fatuma with a meal of chicken and chips, rides to school in his Mercedes Benz and nights out dancing. In Kajubi’s Kitanda Cha Mauti (Bed of Death) it is Fadhil Magoma, a schoolteacher who sleeps with schoolgirls and impregnates at least one student: the protagonist Diana Kiboko. In the end, Diana kills him, herself and their child. In Mkufya’s The Wicked Walk, Magege is a manager in a factory, drives a Mercedes Benz, and ruthlessly exploits his employees. Outside the workplace, he seduces the young Anna away from her hip and politically righteous boyfriend, the protagonist Deo: a tall, thin, handsome man in bellbottoms and platform shoes, and a fan of Bruce Lee films. In contrast with the young male lovers like Deo, the sugar daddies are fat and old. They are wealthy and can wear expensive imported clothes, but they have no style. They drive around Dar es Salaam’s dilapidated roads in expensive imported cars while young men walk on foot or wait in lines for public buses that may never arrive. They leave their wives and children at home and steal young girls from their rightful partners—young men—by plying them with rides in cars, dinners of chicken and chips, and access to the city’s bars and nightclubs, with bottled alcohol and dinner and dancing. The relationships are always ruinous for the “girls,” who end up dying through botched abortions or suicides, or else destitute and shunned by their communities.


As an urban archive, these novellas take us into the intense generational tensions that structured experiences of the city. The young male migrants who came to the city in the 1970s had been to secondary school in the more optimistic years of decolonization, and as citizens of a newly independent nation, had expected to become a new generation of literate, salaried men supporting families in the city. Yet the economic decline of the second half of the seventies laid waste to those ambitions, and they encountered a city starkly different than the one they had envisioned, with skyrocketing unemployment rates and rapidly declining real wages. Marriage was increasingly out of reach as the cost of bridewealth—gifts offered from the family of the husband to family of the wife to solidify the bond between them—was increasingly high, making it impossible for many young couples to form socially recognized families. Forms of adulthood that had been available to their parents and grandparents’ generations, attained through land cultivation and marriage, were increasingly out of reach. In these circumstances, young men in the city found themselves stalled, unable to find public recognition as an adult. In these novellas about love, writers gave voice and pathos to their generation, placing blame at the feet of older generations, and creating a counter-narrative to the more dominant public narrative of degenerate urban youth.
The Swahili romance novellas of 1970s Dar es Salaam were whimsical, raucously imaginative, cheeky and sometimes absurdly far-fetched. They were also dead serious. They lured the reader in with fabulous cover images, bombastic prose and suspenseful plots, and grounded the reader in the emotional contours of urban life as experienced by young African men. At a time when the young and unemployed in cities were blamed for Tanzania’s ills, the writers of romance novellas wrote a new moral script of the city, recasting young transient men in the city as virtuous, emotionally authentic and heroic. The Swahili romance novel made room in the collective imagination for a new kind of urban resident.

Featured image at top: Tanganyika. Dar-es-Salem. Sunrise seen through palm grove from across the bay, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Emily Callaci is an assistant professor of African History at the University of Wisconsin Madison and author of Street Archives and City Life: Popular Intellectuals in Postcolonial Tanzania (Duke, 2017).

Race, Sexuality, and Noir in Chester Himes’ Wartime Los Angeles

Recently, UHA member, historian and social media personality extraordinaire Kevin Kruse tweeted out a thread of advice on writing in which the Princeton professor noted that historians, young and old alike, would do well to read outside of the field. Though the thread covered a great deal of territory, Kruse emphasized the need for historians to engage works of fiction as a means to improve their writing and that of the larger discipline.





While much of Kruse’s advice focused on style, pacing, and plot, one might add that works of fiction can provide emotional and contextual insights regarding various historical subjects, eras, geographies, and cities that sometimes elude traditional history.

Taking Professor Kruse’s advice, The Metropole sat down with a classic but arguably under-read work from the 1940s: Chester Hime’s If He Hollers Let Him Go. An admittedly imperfect novel, in If He Hollers Himes captures the existential tension of World War II-era Los Angeles for its black population while delving unflinchingly into the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. A contemporary of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Himes remains less familiar to the larger public than his two aforementioned peers. Though during his Los Angeles sojourn he only wrote two novels and several essays and short stories, Himes made an indelible mark. Literary critic John N. Swift places him in the company of Joan Didion, Nathaniel West, and Thomas Pychon as one of the “city’s great mythographers.”[1]

[Portrait of Chester Himes], Carl Van Vechten photographer, March 9, 1946, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Himes offers a dark vision of American racial relations in If He Hollers while also charging headlong into the fraught dynamics of interracial sexuality—all under a sun-drenched Southern California sky that casts brighter light on Black Los Angeles.

L.A. Race

In his 1971 autobiography, Himes wrote that despite the city’s welcoming climate and racial and ethnic diversity, Los Angeles had harmed him: “Los Angeles hurt me racially as any city I have ever known – much more than any city in the South … The difference was that the white people of Los Angeles seemed to be saying, ‘Nigger ain’t we good to you?’”[2] The protagonist of If He Hollers Let Him Go, Bob Jones, encapsulates the contradictions and tragedies of mid-century Los Angeles but also the nation’s grim history of sexual violence, or, perhaps more accurately in this discussion, violence related to sexuality. Jones shares Himes’ grim view of the city. “’Just between you and me,’” he confides to another character, “Los Angeles is the most overrated, lousiest, countriest, phoniest city I’ve ever been in.”[3]

During World War II Los Angeles drew 70,000 African Americans to the metropolis, growing from a population of 63,774 in 1940 to 133,082 in 1947. “Most new arrivals found atrocious housing and poor jobs,” points out historian Daniel Widener. Many came for work in the war industry, including Jones, who had also migrated from the Midwest.

Though multicultural for decades, the city placed definite boundaries on its populations: Jews, Mexicans, Asians, African Americans and non- white immigrants (sometimes even European ones in certain cases) were relegated to specific neighborhoods. “Housing restrictions consigned nonwhites to less than a tenth of available housing stock, and the homes of recently interned Japanese and Japanese Americans often constituted the only residences open to African Americans,” writes Widener.[4] While whites might visit minority neighborhoods, blacks and others found themselves less welcome in white communities.

Racism in Los Angeles depended more on custom than law. As evidenced by internment, the Zoot Suit Riots in the 1940s, and bombings and house burnings that occurred in some L.A. neighborhoods during the 1950s and 1960s, violence did occur. In comparison to the South or even Midwestern cities like Chicago, however, racism in the city of Angels was shrouded by a false veneer of respectability.

Construction of the liberty ship “Booker T. Washington.” Black skilled workers in many crafts participated in the construction of the “Booker T. Washington,” first liberty ship named for an African American. James Kermit Lucas, welder, is shown working on the top deck of the vessel which bears the name of the noted African American educator, Alfred T. Palmer photographer, September 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Economic segregation proved especially pervasive—so much so that in 1941 Los Angeles hosted the first hearings of the Fair Employment Act Commission to be held outside of the nation’s capital. However, due in part to the bonanza of military spending that cascaded over the state as a result of the war, federal scrutiny of employment discrimination increased. By 1945, one estimate suggested that 85 percent of the city’s black laborers worked in connection to the manufacture of military equipment.[5]

Though the war had raged for two years before the U.S. entered following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Himes’ protagonist initially thinks little of the growing international conflict. “I’d never given a damn, one way or the other about the war excepting wanting to keep out of it; and at first when I wanted the Japanese to win,” Jones narrates. However, wartime employment provides opportunity and even briefly reshapes Jones’ conception of his place in America. “I was stirred as I had been when I was a little boy watching a parade watching the flag go by. That filled up feeling of my country. I felt included in it all. I had never felt included before. It was a wonderful feeling.”[6]

Unfortunately, such emotions proved transitory. Jones had arrived in L.A with the mindset that while the color of his skin might be an obstacle, it was not wholly limiting. “Race was a handicap, sure, I’d reasoned. But hell, I didn’t have to marry it. I went where I wanted and felt good about it,” he tells the reader. For a moment or two, such beliefs even rang true. Jones ascends to the rank of Leaderman, a working class middle management position at an L.A. Navy Yard devoted to wartime production. He dates Alice, a social worker and the daughter of prominent Black Los Angeles elite. Things appear to be on the rise.

Los Angeles, California. Japanese-American evacuation from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Japanese-American child who will go with his parents to Owens Valley, Lee Russell photographer, April 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Events, unfortunately, conspire to disabuse Jones of such ideas. His optimism sours as Japanese internment unfolds, thereby wiping away any feeling of belonging: “It was taking a man up by the roots and locking him up without a chance. Without a trial. Without a charge. Without even giving him a chance to say one word.”[7] Jones understood the same fate could befall him. “And since I’d begun earning enough money to live my own life, I hadn’t felt my life belonged to me. Any moment the white folks might ask me to check it in.”[8]

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had unleashed something in L.A’s white population. “It was the look in the white people’s faces when I walk down the streets,” he notes. “It was that crazy wide-eyed, unleashed hatred … All that tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the street as gas fumes.”[9] Throughout, Jones expresses unease at whites’ ability to demonize the other. “I was the same colour as the Japanese and I couldn’t tell the difference. ‘A yeller-bellied Jap’ coulda meant me too.”[10] Himes’ awareness of this particular inequality may have been heightened by the fact he wrote the novel while living in a Boyle Heights home that had been abandoned by an interned Japanese American family.[11]

Police check draft cards on explosive Central Ave.–Tempers tense as officers patrol area to curb battles, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As in any good L.A. novel, cars play a critical role. Jones drives a 1942 Buick Roadmaster; it “gives Bob the illusion of freedom and equality as he challenges even white drivers to race him on Los Angles streets” knowing that even the toniest resident of Beverly Hills could not get a Roadmaster amidst wartime rationing. Yet it also brands him “an arrogant, uppity Negro” argues literature professor Charles Scruggs.

Indeed, though it provides his mode of transportation throughout the novel, it hardly sets him free: “It was a bright June morning. The sun was already high. If I’d been a white boy I might have enjoyed the scramble in the early morning sun, the tight competition for a twenty-foot lead on a thirty mile highway. But to me it was racial.” Even the scenic “snowcapped mountains” fail to win his attention. “I didn’t even see them; all I wanted in the world was to push my Buick Roadmaster over some peckerwood’s face.”[12] Revenge fantasies rather than escapism dominates his thoughts, notes Scruggs.[13] Doom hangs over Jones, observes novelist, literary critic, and Himes expert Robert Skinner. His “relentless travel” throughout the novel “serves only to bring [Jones] closer” to his tragic end.[14]

Policemen and wounded African American man inside police ambulance, during Los Angeles “Zoot Suit” riot of 1943, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Between revenge fantasies, employment discrimination at the Navy Yard and housing segregation, Jones vibrates knowing the all-encompassing nature of American racism. Minorities stood subject to the racial law of L.A. Sure, Japanese Americans experienced the most blatant form of internment, but as Lynn M. Itagaki points out, in Los Angeles racial groups of all kinds were interned in some fashion: “the Japanese Americans in desert prisons, the African Americans in neighborhoods constrained by residential ordinances and segregation.”[15]

The fate of Japanese American Angelenos struck an admitted fear into Jones that pervades much of the novel and drives him to act out in ways indicative of an individual living under a kafkaesque racial regime. “Do you ever wake up scared?” he asks his roommate and occasional paramour Ella Mae one morning.

When a white co-worker knocks Jones unconscious and robs him of his gambling winnings, Jones stalks and nearly kills the man. A desire to turn the tables on his antagonist and escape his feelings of confinement motivates his actions: “I wanted him to feel as scared and powerless and unprotected as I felt every goddamned morning I woke up.“[16] The idea of striking back mattered as much as the act itself. “As long as I knew I was going to kill him, nothing could bother me … they couldn’t hurt me no matter what they did. I had a peckerwood’s life in the palm of my hand and that made all the difference.”[17]

Nine huge Liberty cargo ships at outfitting docks of California Shipbuilding Corporation’s Los Angeles yards, nearly ready to be delivered to the U.S. Maritime Commission, December 4, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Nonetheless Los Angeles’s structural racism, even amidst wartime emergencies, does damage Jones—be it in his troubled relationship with his girlfriend/fiancé, the distinctly upper middle class Alice, or in his interactions with his white co-workers at the Navy Yard. The former encourages accommodation while the latter reveals that the Midwestern and Southern whites that migrated to L.A. brought with them the racial beliefs that governed their hometowns. Even before penning If He Hollers, Himes acknowledged this reality in a 1943 article for The Crisis, concluding “the outcome is simply that the South has won Los Angeles.”[18]

“Women aircraft workers. Perched high on the wing of a giant bomber, women of a large West Coast aircraft factory are speeding the installation of electrical units contolling the engine.” David Bransby photographer, May 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

L.A. Sexuality

Himes was not without his own overdriven masculinity. Many of his characters, including Jones, drew upon noir traditions of the “unapologetic and testosterone driven” male. “Turned on by their own bravado, they claimed entitlement and viewed sex as a struggle for power – the only form of intimacy that engaged them,” wrote the New Yorker’s Hilton Als in 2002.[19] Himes admitted as much. He treated his wife Jean Johnson in “the most casual of manner; sometimes I would leave her standing on a corner waiting for me for hours on end.” Moving to New York in 1944, he confessed to a philandering lifestyle that had wronged his wife, writing “I lost myself in sex and drunkenness … And I almost lost my wife too … and when I came to” If He Hollers had been published to general acclaim.[20]

The black female characters in If He Hollers reflect this sort of ambivalence. Alice, his girlfriend and fiancé, is depicted as a middle-class accomodationist more interested in fading ideas of the “talented tenth” than general racial uplift or protest. “I’m ambitious and demanding. I want to be important in the world. I want a husband who is important and respected and wealthy enough so that I can avoid a major part of discriminatory practices which I am sensible enough to know I can’t change,” she tells Jones during one of their many arguments. “I don’t want to be pulled down by a person who can’t adjust himself to the limitations of his race.”[21] Jones does not stick to only one woman; with Ella Mae’s husband off at war, she and Jones sometimes sleep together and he pursues Madge while dating Alice.

To be fair, the noir genre has long been riddled with misogyny apart from racism. As a result, recent work like the 2014 film “Man from Reno,” which features a Japanese female protagonist in the usual role of the hardboiled male detective, easily distinguishes itself as a result of breaking with genre traditions. Whatever his problematic stances on race and gender, in terms of sexuality, Himes writes squarely within this noir structure.

Still, with such caveats noted, Himes understood the deadly intersection of race and sexuality for minorities. In the aforementioned 1943 essay on the Zoot Riots, he argues that one of the precipitating factors of the violence hinged on white men’s perception that Mexican Americans had been harassing “their women.” Himes refuted the idea that black and Latino men pined for white women. “Mexicans do not desire” white women; “They do not even look at them.” Black men he argued will “crack at anyone of any race who is nice looking … But they will never go as far as white men toward a Negro woman in a white district.” Himes wades into a very problematic and patriarchal view of sexuality, but it’s one that, whatever we think of it today, defined sexual and racial relations at mid-century.

The six plane factories of the Douglas Aircraft Company have been termed an industrial melting pot, since men and women of fifty-eight national origins work side by side in pushing Americas’s plane output“, circa 1940s, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

When involving white women, interracial sex led to violence or at the very least, the distinct threat of it. Americans “are strictly a gang minded people,” Himes argued, “we lynch Negroes, rob banks, kidnap babies, extort merchants, beat strikers, etc.”[22] Jones himself is both titillated and horrified when his antagonistic co-worker, the relocated Texan Madge, tells him sex with her would “get him lynched” in her home state.[23]

Himes depicts a white Los Angeles obsessed with interracial encounters; its black counterpart less so. When two white soldiers walk into a black bar with a young white woman interested in the male patrons, the tension builds. Though the two soldiers, apparently tired of her behavior, attempt to leave the girl behind, the black manager immediately intervenes “She came in with you, she’s got to go out with you,” he tells them. Jones conveys the dangers succinctly, “She could take those two black chumps flirting with her outside and get them thirty years a piece in San Quentin; in Alabama she could get them hung.”[24]

Despite his own knowledge of these dangers, Jones pursues his white female co-worker, Madge. A recent arrival from Texas, Madge carries with her the kind of racist thoughts common to white Americans of the day. She refuses to take orders from Jones, freely throws racial epitaphs in his direction, and more or less gets him demoted.

Yet like Jones, she seems excited, arguably for different reasons, at the prospect of interracial sex. Even after his demotion, Jones pursues her. Madge proves a willing participant, though she throws around the word rape to remind Jones, and perhaps herself, the taboo nature of their potential coupling. Jones eventually decides against it, yet even his contemplation of sex with her proves worthy of punishment under the racial logic of Los Angeles. His decision to pursue Madge puts into motion a series of events that don’t quite end tragically but also do not result in anything remotely triumphant. “She pretends to be terrified of him, and he wants nothing to do with her, but as in a nightmare he lives out Freud’s repetition-compulsion cycle,” observes Scruggs.[25]

To their credit historians like Josh Sides and Daniel Widener have acknowledged Himes’s contributions to L.A. culture and history. Sides describes his L.A. works, If He Hollers and The Lonely Crusade, as “searing indictments of racism, unemployment, and the emasculation of African American men in the 1940s.” Widener notes Himes’ “incisive and dystopian” outlook, and the two books as “exemplary examples of California noir, as pioneering examples of interethnic, cross-racial politics linking disaffected black, Asian American, and ethnic Mexican communities and as a challenging … effort to write seriously about the problematic boundary between race, sex, and violence in Jim Crow America.”[26] Reading fiction serves many purposes, as Kevin Kruse aptly detailed in his tweet thread, but one of the more enjoyable and insightful is when it tells us a story about history with pathos, tragedy and emotion. Whatever his flaws, Chester Himes captured the despair and hurt of mid-century Black Los Angeles.

Featured Image at top:  Launching of the SS Booker T. Washington. Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, Director of Negro Affairs, National Youth Administration (NYA); an identified member of the local committee; Marian Anderson, celebrated contralto; Dr. William J. Thompkins, Recorder of Deeds, Washington, D.C.; Reverend F.D. Jordon, Los Angeles; and Mrs. Portia Washington Pittman, only living daughter of Booker T. Washington, wave farewell as the Liberty Ship named for the great Negro educator and leader, slides down the ways at the California Shipbuilding Corporation’s yards at Wilmington, California, Alfred T. Palmer photographer, September 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[1] John N. Swift in Lynn M. Itagaki, “Transgressing Race and Community in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, African American Review, Vol. 37 No. 1: 78.

[2] Chester Himes, The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years, The Autobiography of Chester Himes (Paragon, 1972), 73-74.

[3] Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (Da Capo, 2002), 41.

[4] Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Duke University Press, 2010), 32.

[5] Widener, Black Arts West, 32.

[6] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 38.

[7] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 3.

[8] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 163.

[9] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 4.

[10] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 4.

[11] Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre, The Several Lives of Chester Himes, (University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 50.

[12] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 14.

[13] Charles Scruggs, “Los Angeles and the African American Literary Imagination”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin McNamara, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 77.

[14] Robert E. Skinner, “Streets of Fear: The Los Angeles Novels of Chester Himes” in … 229.

[15] Lynn M. Itagaki, “Transgressing Race and Community in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, African American Review, Vol. 37 No. 1: 68.

[16] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 35.

[17] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 45.

[18] Chester Himes, “Zoot Riots are Race Riots” in Black on Black, 225.

[19] Hilton Als, “In Black and White” in If He Hollers Let Him Go, (Da Capo, 2002), xiv.

[20] Als, “In Black and White”, xv.

[21] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 97.

[22] Chester Himes, “Zoot Riots are Race Riots” in Black on Black, 220-225.

[23] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 147.

[24] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 76.

[25] Charles Scruggs, “Los Angeles and the African American Literary Imagination”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin McNamara, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 76.

[26] Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, University of California Press, 2006, 54-55; Widener, Black Arts West, 30.

Member of the Week: Andrew Konove

HeadshotAndrew Konove

Assistant Professor

Department of History, University of Texas at San Antonio


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

I just completed my first book, Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy in Mexico City, which will be published later this spring. It traces the history of Mexico City’s infamous “thieves’ market,” called the Baratillo, from its origins in the seventeenth century to the present day, revealing how illicit street commerce has been central to both the urban economy and urban politics since the colonial era. My new research grows out of that project. I’m looking at how the circulation of informal currencies, which were traded in markets like the Baratillo, spurred new ideas about poverty, economic development, and sovereignty in Mexico and the Hispanic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I see it as a study that links economic ideas to on-the-ground economic practices and one that broadens my focus beyond Mexico City.

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

This semester I’m teaching Introduction to Latin American Civilization—my department’s one-semester survey of Latin American history. At first, the incredibly long time frame was a challenge (I begin the course discussing human migrations to the Americas during the last ice age and end with recent political developments in the region). But it’s actually become my favorite class to teach. I think it’s important for students to think about long-term patterns, something I deal with in my own research.

I’m also teaching a new class on Imperial Spain from the fifteenth century to the Spanish-American War of 1898. The idea behind the class is to put Spain’s interactions with Europeans, Americans, Africans, and Pacific Islanders into same frame of analysis. It covers a similar period as my course on Colonial Latin America, but it takes a global perspective. Teaching this class is helping me to conceptualize a new project that looks beyond Mexico to the broader Hispanic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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

On my shelf is Patricia Acerbi’s Street Occupations: Urban Vending in Rio de Janeiro, 1850-1925, which I’m eager to read. Along with Sandra Mendiola García’s recent book, Street Democracy: Vendors, Violence, and Public Space in Late Twentieth-Century Mexico, and my own forthcoming book, we’ve had a surge of recent scholarship on street vending in Latin America, and that’s very exciting! I’m also looking forward to Matthew Vitz’s A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City, which comes out this spring.

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

I’d encourage them to think and read broadly about their topics, looking beyond their disciplines and outside their geographic areas of expertise. Some of the most helpful scholarship I read in writing my book was the social science literature on the informal economy and studies of street vending outside of Mexico and Latin America. I’d also push them to try to bring their research to a broader audience. We generally gear our first book toward specialists, but it’s also important to share our work with people outside the academy. From op/eds in the local paper to commentary in news magazines to articles in our schools’ alumni magazines, there are many opportunities to take our work to the public. And they might be surprised: in an era of short attention spans and rapid news cycles, there is a lot of demand for experts to provide historical context for present-day challenges.

What item sold at Mexico City’s thieves market would most surprise or delight The Metropole‘s readers? 

In 1895 a vendor in the Baratillo was caught with rails stolen from the Federal District Railway. The report doesn’t specify the length of track he was trying to sell, but it seems like a particularly conspicuous item to try to unload.

Contending Urbanization Through Satire: Late Imperial Baku as Seen in Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s If Not That One, Then This One

By Kelsey Rice

In 1806, the city of Baku was a sleepy port town of about 3,000-5,000 Turkic and Persian Muslims, governed by a local Khan who swore fealty to the Qajar state. Compared to the cities of Shamakha to the north and Shusha to the west, it was a relative cultural and political backwater, notable only as home to one of the few ports on the western coast of the Caspian Sea. That year Baku’s status would begin to change, however, as the Russian Empire continued its bid to conquer the South Caucasus by laying siege to Baku. The local leader, Huseyn Qoli Khan, responded by assassinating the Russian General Pavel Tsitsianov under the pretense of meeting to surrender. That brief victory met with swift reprisal, however, and Baku fell to the Russians four months later. With the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 and the Treaty of Turkmanchay in 1828, Baku and the other surrounding Khanates comprising the modern-day territories of Azerbaijan and Armenia came under Russian rule.

Now part of a vast multiethnic empire, the once homogenous city of Baku began to change. In the 1860s, Baku became the new capital of the governorate, leading to the population more than doubling to 13,000. Within a decade of Baku’s promotion to regional capital, the rich reserves of oil in the area, where oil literally seeped out of the ground and formed pools on the surface, suddenly became attractive to more than just local traders who scooped it from shallow wells and sold it as lubricant and ointment. Baku’s oil boom, which birthed the world’s first major petroleum industry, emerged in the 1870’s and continued apace until World War I. Diverse populations streamed into the city to seek their fortunes in oil. By 1897, when Russia conducted its first empire-wide census, the population of Baku was 111,904. By 1913 it had nearly doubled again, to 214,672. The formerly homogenous city of Turks and Persians had transformed into a cosmopolitan boomtown with a population of Russians, Azeris, Iranians (most of whom were also ethnic Azeris), Armenians, and smaller populations of Germans, Jews, and Georgians.[1] Russians replaced Azeris as the largest group in the city, comprising 38 percent of the population, compared to the latter’s 33 percent.[2] With the addition of a large Armenian population, Baku went from a majority-Muslim city to majority-Christian.

Mosque of the Shirvanshahs’ Palace in BakuProkudin-Gorskiĭ, Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich, 1863-1944, photographer, between 1905 and 1915, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Such a massive population growth hardly occurred in an orderly fashion, and the majority of the population increase came from the arrival of unskilled workers from throughout the Caucasus and Iran. The role of labor migration in increasing the city’s population gave it a dramatically uneven gender ratio, and in 1913 Baku’s population was 55-60 percent male. Baku was a place where some men went to become millionaires, but many more were answering the rising demand for cheap labor and toiled in abject poverty. With a large population of single young men, a dramatically uneven distribution of wealth, and a new cosmopolitanism that stoked simmering ethnic tension, Baku was a dynamic city where violence constantly threatened to surface. In newspapers of the era, reviews of opera performances were published side-by-side with crime reports of bodies found in allies, stories of daring prison breaks by Bolshevik agitators, and descriptions of robberies by armed bandits. As historian Audrey Altstadt puts it, “It was as if the industry of Pittsburgh and the frontier lawlessness of Dodge City had been superimposed on Baghdad.”[3]

Arriving in this chaotic city of opportunity in 1906, a young schoolteacher, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, sought his fortune. Hailing from a noble family from Shusha, Hajibeyov had grown up immersed in classical Azeri and Persian music and poetry. A graduate of the Gori Pedagogical Seminary, where he learned to play the violin, he was a member of a small but growing class of secularly educated young men who moved to Baku and began clamoring for social and cultural reform. The men extolled the values of the “progressive path,” a route of social and cultural progress along European lines that would uplift Muslim populations. Following the Russian Revolution of 1905, laws monitoring the press and associational life loosened, and they began organizing into voluntary associations, founding schools, publishing Azeri-language periodicals, and staging plays. Hajibeyov quickly became an integral figure in this community of reformists, sealing his place as one of their greatest artists at the age of twenty-three when he composed and staged the first opera ever produced in a Muslim culture, Leyli and Majnun, in 1908. Following the success of his debut, Hajibeyov went on to almost singlehandedly create Azeri opera culture. He wrote eight more operas and operettas that were staged regularly throughout the imperial and Soviet eras.

The Summer Centre for Public Gatherings, Baku, AzerbaijanProkudin-Gorskiĭ, Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich, 1863-1944, photographer, between 1912 and 1915, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Like his contemporary playwrights, Hajibeyov tended to set his works either in the epic past or in generalized provincial settings. Although Azeri theater of the era was primarily both written and staged in Baku, urban life was rarely depicted. The exception to this trend is Hajibeyov’s four act comic operetta If Not That One, Then This One, written in 1910. This piece, one of Hajibeyov’s most popular, grappled with the social challenges and violence presented by urbanization through a combination of biting satire and catchy tunes. The operetta tells the tale of two young lovers, Sarvar and Gulnaz, whose desire to form a love match is threatened by Gulnaz’s father, who hopes to settle his gambling debts by selling her into marriage to a rich and much older bazaar merchant named Meshedi Ibad. The father, Rustam bey, is joined by four friends in celebrating the coming nuptials, who each represent a caricatured version of typical figures encountered in Baku society. As the mutually beneficial deal between Rustam bey and Meshedi Ibad begins to derail, these men manipulate the hapless merchant into giving them increasingly more money for services never rendered. Finally, the young lovers trick him into agreeing to marry the maid instead. Meshedi Ibad reasons, with women, “if not that one, then this one,” and everyone gets what they want in the end.

The plot hinges on Meshedi Ibad, a character that would become the great comic role of Baku theater. He and Rustam bey, a nobleman drowning in debt and uninterested in his daughter beyond her use in a financial transaction, represent the old elites of Azeri society whom Hajibeyov and his contemporaries saw as holding back progress. Rustam bey’s urbanite friends, however, are held up for even more scorn than the lord and the merchant, who are presented as pitiable relics trying to stay afloat as they confront a modernizing society. Indeed, Meshedi Ibad argues to Gulnaz that his age is a benefit, noting “I swear by you both, the existing world has changed so much that today’s elders are thousands of times better than the young ones.”

After Rustam bey and Meshsedi Ibad agree to a bride price of 1,500 rubles for Gulnaz, Rustam bey’s friends arrive at his home to celebrate, singing about the coming nuptials, and overwhelming Meshedi Ibad with their self-importance. Hasanqulu bey, a self-declared nationalist, ruminates on the immorality of society, though his actions reveal him to be utterly self-interested rather than a servant of the people. He is followed by Asgar, a qochu, a particular brand of Baku criminal who hailed from a tradition of tribal chieftains but was functionally a bandit. Asgar recalls once trying to shoot Meshedi Ibad down in the street when he mistook him for an enemy, declaring himself glad he had not killed him, a humorous reference to the very serious violence that plagued the streets of Baku. Rza bey, a journalist, then asks permission to give a toast, but employs so much Ottoman vocabulary and grammar in his speech that his Azeri peers do not understand him and do not answer. Offended, he threatens to use his paper to attack them all the next day. Only then do the other men admit they hadn’t understood a word he had said. The guests are not to be spared a perplexing toast, however; Hasan bey, a self-styled intellectual, follows Rza bey with a barely comprehensible speech in a garbled mixture of Russian and Azeri, with the occasional French word thrown in for good measure. Beyond his modest grasp of Russian and French, however, Hasan bey reveals himself to be less of an intellectual than a drunken windbag.

Meshedi Ibad discovers Gulnaz’s desire to marry Sarvar the next day when he peaks over her garden wall, using a poor porter as a human stepping stool, and and spies the lovers rendezvousing. Meshedi Ibad rages at Sarvar, who cheerfully mocks him, as the porter, representative of the unskilled laborers populating Baku who have become so abased that they will agree to literally let rich men step on them for a pittance, protests that his back is breaking. Meshedi Ibad proceeds to approach each of Rustam bey’s friends with his dilemma, and they gleefully take his money with promises to solve his problem. Asgar tries to attack Sarvar with his gang, but the sight of the police scatters them immediately, an episode that celebrates the potential for urban order through policing. With violence no longer an option, Meshedi Ibad turns to Rza bey, who promises to defame Rustam bey in his newspaper, and Hasanqulu bey, who offers no real solution but still demands Meshedi Ibad give him money so that he can work on the problem. The porter, meanwhile, tags along begging for a second coin to make up for the pain inflicted on him, which Meshedi Ibad refuses to pay, despite handing out hundreds of rubles to the other men.

The critiques Hajibeyov directs to the nationalist, the journalist, and the intellectual, echo those written by the most powerful satirical voice of the era, that of Jalil Mammadguluzade. Mammadguluzade was the editor of Molla Nasreddin, an illustrated literary journal that spared no sector of Azeri society its sharp pen. Hajibeyov and Mammadguluzade were frequent collaborators, and shared similar sentiments on the failure of many supposedly progressive men to actually contribute meaningfully to progress. Journalists engaged in petty feuds in the pages of their journals, and accepted payment for character assassinations. “Intellectuals” mimicked European speech without really understanding what they were saying, and nationalists used the title in entirely self-serving manners. If Not That One, Then This One demanded better of Baku’s new urban society.

Four oil derricks in water, Baku, Azerbijan Soviet Socialistic Republic, 1954, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The operetta did not disappear following Sovietization; indeed, Hajibeyov was a leading cultural figure of Soviet Azerbaijan until his death in 1948. In 1956, it was turned into a popular film by the director Huseyn Seyidzadeh. The film remains mostly faithful to the source material, but Seyidzade inserts the real historical figures of Mammadguluzade, the artist Azim Azimzadeh, and the satirical poet Mirza Alakbar Sabir, to offer an idealistic counterpoint to the corrupted older men of the operetta. Recognizable cultural artifacts of the era pepper the film; poles are decorated with posters advertising other Hajibeyov operas such as Leyli and Majnun, Azim Azimzadeh shows the students a caricature he drew for Molla Nasreddin, and Mirza Alakbar Sabir recites one of his famous poems for Sarvar, who then recites it to Gulnaz. In 1956, the urgency of Hajibeyov’s social satire is less immediate. The characters of Rustam bey’s friends are played for humor, while the insertion of celebrated historical figures conveys a nostalgia for late imperial Baku that still exists to this day in Azerbaijan. The period is considered one of Azeri cultural renaissance, and the writers, actors, and intellectuals that came out of it continue to shape Azeri culture today. Street names, parks, institutions, and monuments throughout Baku commemorate these years, including quite a few dedicated to Hajibeyov. The corruption, violence, and hypocrisy of the past lies largely forgotten, while its melodies, words, and imagery continue to animate Azerbaijan’s national memory.

Featured image at top: [Left: Pouring benzine in cistern at an oil refinery in Baku; right: Oil towers (wells) in the Caspian Sea], 1954, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

headshotKelsey Rice is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania whose research is located at the intersection of Middle Eastern and Central Eurasian history. She is currently completing her dissertation, Forging the Progressive Path: Literary Assemblies and Enlightenment Societies in Azerbaijan, 1850-1928, which she will defend in April.

[1] Audrey Altstatd. “Baku: Transformation of a Muslim Town” in Hamm, Michael F., The City in Late Imperial Russia. Arts and Politics of the Every, 1986.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.





The View from 71st and Jeffery

By Carlo Rotella

The best spot for ectoplasmic people-watching in South Shore is the raised wooden platform of the Bryn Mawr Metra station at 71st and Jeffery. This is the old Illinois Central station that formed the principal bud from which this neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago grew in the late nineteenth century, supplanting the Potawatomi camps and chipping stations that had previously dotted the lakeside landscape of sloughs and prairie. From the platform you can catch glimpses of the converging ghosts, and the lost cities they represent, that move among the current-day hangers-out on the corners, commuters waiting for buses or trains, and local residents running errands at the neighborhood’s principal intersection.

After the Potawatomi in South Shore’s parade of historical ghosts come the German truck farmers who settled the area beginning in the 1850s. Ferdinand Rohn drives the ox team with which he made the day-long round-trip to the hamlet of Chicago seven miles away, Christian Seip works his 25 acres on the southwest corner, and Charles and William Seigler leave their father’s farm to become policemen. Bessie Goodwin, Mrs. Downs, and Jessie Mann come and go from the German Settlement School on the southeast corner, where they taught local children on weekdays; Messrs. Wunderlich, Urlich, and Keller taught there on Sundays. Travelers to and from Chicago on the Michigan City stage, drawn by two Arabian horses, climb aboard after stopping at Goldhart’s Tavern, just southeast of the intersection, where the church of St. Philip Neri is now. Then, from the era when the city of Chicago expanded southward to engulf satellite communities like South Shore, come the English railway workers who built the station first called South Kenwood and then Bryn Mawr; and the pioneering developer Frank Bennett, who built a tract of houses on the prairie just west of the intersection; and George Bour, whose real estate office was at one time the only business establishment anywhere along 71st.

There are more recent ghosts, too, including officers and volunteers of the South Shore Commission, the once-powerful neighborhood organization that in the 1960s initially tried to prevent African Americans from moving into the immigrant-ethnic Jewish and Irish urban villages of South Shore and then, accepting the inevitable, tried to “manage” integration. The Commission’s office was at 7134 S. Jeffery, north of the train platform. Next door at 7124, once the headquarters of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, you can see the organization’s founders, the young Buzz Palmer and Renault Robinson (both very much alive at this writing, but their youth is long gone), coming and going. The AAPL style of checkerboard-strip police hat perched atop a modest afro signals the tricky confluence of Black Power and blue solidarity that they navigated in the late 1960s and 1970s.

20570051And then there’s the literary contingent of ghosts, populating a body of writing that exploits the storytelling possibilities opened up by the succession of neighborhood orders in South Shore. From the platform you can look down Jeffery Boulevard to catch a glimpse of Studs Lonigan, the protagonist of James T. Farrell’s trilogy of novels published in the 1930s. Studs, a prewar incarnation of the suckerpunching corner guy who lives for the approval of the pack, lives on Jeffery just south of the intersection with 71st, if I read the novels’ imagined landscape right. Offering Studs as a scrappy, doomed exemplar of the South Side Irish, Farrell bends the naturally upward-tending arc of that tribe’s immigrant story into a downward slide toward failure. Studs collapses under the combined pressure of the capitalist disaster of the Great Depression and internal contradictions that divide him against himself–especially, as the Popular Front leftist Farrell saw it, the tension that comes of aspiring to individual success and refusing to recognize the communal ties inevitably attaching him to other members of the working class. Broke, broken, and mortally sick at the end of Judgment Day, the last of the trilogy, he staggers off the train at Bryn Mawr and drags himself down the block toward his deathbed. Like so many characters in Chicago neighborhood novels, Studs, and the way of life for which he stands, has been ground up by the relentless action of business as usual in the city.[1]

In David Mamet’s play “The Old Neighborhood,” which I saw on Broadway in 1997, the immigrant-ethnic urban village personified by Studs Lonigan is a long-lost city, its ruins overgrown with myth and lamentation. From the platform of Bryn Mawr station you can see the ghostly forms of the play’s adult characters going in and out of Mr. White’s long-gone shoe store as children. In the play, a fortyish man named Bobby returns to Chicago and visits with family and friends. Their seemingly tangential talk about the usual Mamet subjects, like who was or wasn’t a fag or why their parents hated them so much, keeps circling back to the topography and meaning of an Old Neighborhood they and all their people left behind long ago: Jewish South Shore. Mamet, born in 1947, lived there, on the 6900 block of Euclid, in its late heyday. Looking back at South Shore over a widening gap of social distance and decades, Mamet’s characters see desolation: “Oh, Bobby, it’s all gone,” says one of them. “It’s all gone there. You knew that… .”[2] This comes after an extended discussion of the thuddingly symbolic Mr. White’s shoe store. Bobby did know that “it’s all gone there,” just as everybody in the play knows certain mock-epic routines of nostalgia and recrimination that locate the inner city in their unquiet past. Running a series of satirical riffs on laments for the urban village, expertly pouring salt in the open wound of shame and regret inherent to them, Mamet has his characters take turns declaiming from atop that headstone-cum-soapbox called The Old Neighborhood. They keep picking at the scab of an idea that deeply marks the neighborhood’s literature: that an apparently passionate commitment to neighborhood masks a deeply felt right to disconnect from any sense of collective peoplehood except as a safely distanced nostalgic curio.

Train comes into the Metra Station in Chicago, Illinois, Carol M. Highsmith between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The specter of disconnection isn’t unique to white-flight stories. It haunts the literature of black South Shore as well. Turn to look down 71st to the east from the Bryn Mawr platform, and here comes the essayist Gayle Pemberton, picking her way through the ruins of another lost city, the Black Metropolis. In her essay “Waiting for Godot on Jeffery Boulevard” she describes a Saturday morning walk on 71st from the lakefront to Jeffery in the early 1980s, past heaped garbage, shuttered storefronts, and menacing male idlers. Reaching Jeffery, where there are more signs of life but also more young men “with plastic bags on their heads” messing with passersby, Pemberton enters a shoe repair shop. Inside, a group of middle-aged men are extolling the verities of the Book of Genesis. She wonders how they can talk so complacently about God’s creation when “just outside the door was desolation and death.” Pemberton wants the men in the shoe repair shop to “act in the face of the ironies of black American life, . . . to stop preaching to the converted and get out in the streets to do some small thing, like suggesting to young men that obsession with one’s genitals stunts one’s growth and that curls, though no doubt pleasing to their wearers, look like conked, greasy Afros to a whole lot of people—potential employers, for instance.” She makes 71st and Jeffery into ground zero of a Biblical devastation visited upon the black inner city (so, recalling Mamet, we’re back on shoes and epic desolation at 71st and Jeffery), the kind of plague that drives young men violently mad and turns old men into maundering weaklings. The essay proceeds to other matters, especially the death of her father and her mother’s near-death after being stabbed by someone who broke into her house. At the end of the essay, having returned through the annihilating landscape to her sister’s apartment on South Shore’s lakefront, Pemberton concludes that “something out there today is too much for me,” puts her head back, and cries herself to sleep.[3]

I grew up in Pemberton’s South Shore rather than Mamet’s, and so I recognize her reaction to South Shore’s stark public spaces, which stand in such grim contrast to its trimly kept bungalow blocks, but I’m also aware that her essay makes a portrait of the neighborhood from an angle that consciously emphasizes isolation and despair. When Pemberton took her Sunday morning walk, South Shore was blessed not only with a coterie of active citizens coming off recent big wins in the exercise of collective efficacy–preventing the local bank from leaving, forcing the city to turn the defunct country club into a cultural center, shutting down a notorious tavern strip–but also with the results of one of those victories: the central presence, right at the corner of 71st and Jeffery, of the South Shore Bank, an institution famously committed to helping provide the material basis of a viable inner-city urbanism by reversing the effects of redlining. I’m not overly patient with readings that assign importance to what’s not there in a text (a critical move that usually seems like an excuse to beat up the author for the sin of not being the critic), but in this case any reader who knows that intersection will note that Pemberton walks right by the bank on the way to her encounter with desolation. Pemberton details the landscape with care in making 71st and Jeffery stand for what’s wrong with the black inner city, so it’s not trivial to leave out of this wasteland the central presence, right on that very corner, of what was by then arguably the neighborhood’s most important institution.

75th and Exchange, “South Shore Bank” circa 1920 courtesy of John Chuckman

When I asked Pemberton during an interview about the bank’s invisibility in the landscape of “Waiting for Godot on Jeffery Boulevard,” she said it had not been the result of an oversight. “My sister worked there and she was not treated well,” she said. “The bank is a cold place, because money is cold. The bank maintains itself, whatever happens to the neighborhood.” In that sense, the South Shore Bank might have made the perfect centerpiece for her essay’s cold, class-divided South Shore. “I felt that South Shore is a neighborhood by territory, but it has no feel of a neighborhood,” she told me. “Where would you put the town green in South Shore? It’s split like a zipper by the tracks. I’ve lived in places where a street like 71st will have a set of players you recognize, but it just never felt that way to me. I never saw people. It was a place where life was lived indoors, where the curtains were heavily drawn. There was a fearfulness out of proportion with what felt scary in the street. The blinds were drawn to their own safe neighborhood.” That last image captured the essence of South Shore for her. She said, “My sense is that people don’t know their neighbors,” and perhaps they don’t want to know those neighbors, because “everybody makes different sorts of sacrifices to be there, and everybody’s reluctant to find out what the sacrifices are their neighbors made.” South Shore, she believed, was haunted by a question: “Can you go far enough? It may well have to do with having had a place to get to, and getting there, and that not being it, the reality of one’s kids still being black, no matter how nice the house you give them. I’ve felt that in every parlor I’ve sat in in South Shore, except my sister’s.” Summing up the neighborhood, she said, “It’s about holding on tenaciously to a class place,” as opposed, in her view, to a collective sense of community–which wasn’t that far from one of Farrell’s main themes in the Studs Lonigan novels. “Whatever people have in common,” she said, “they’re not willing to share.”

51uTaowMGTL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_In Bayo Ojikutu’s novel Free Burning, it’s getting harder to hold onto that class place. Written in 2002-2004 and published in 2006 but reading like a primer on what would shortly be coming in 2008, it tells the story of a midlevel service worker who gets yanked out of his information-handling life in a downtown skyscraper and into the drug-dealing street life in South Shore. It’s “last hired, first fired” again–not only as a downtown office worker but as a member of the shrinking middle class. In a crucial scene played out at 71st and Jeffery, our hero pursues and confronts his mother, who used to work on the line in a Ford plant farther out on the South Side but has been reduced to a marginal state somewhere between barfly and bag lady. She’s on foot, he’s in a car; they come right past the Bryn Mawr station platform, eastbound along 71st, desperate in their separate but linked ways and unable to do much of anything for each other. In contrast to the Old Neighborhood narrative’s version of decline, which is really about the sorrows of making it in America, this is a story about not making it, about the fear—pervasive in South Shore these days, divided as it is between black haves and have-nots who have trouble seeing each other as neighbors across the gap left by the disappearing middle class—of being pushed back into second-class citizenship by institutional racism and pulled back to it by underclass neighbors.[4]

Field Columbian Museum, Jackson Park, Chicago, circa 1901, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The great fear expressed in stories like this, and more generally in contemporary South Shore’s version of the politics of respectability, is that the urban world made by the black middle class that expanded so promisingly in the New Deal and Great Society eras, and by the black working class that confidently believed it had a realistic shot at making it into the middle, will itself become a lost city, like the white-ethnic urban village and the Black Metropolis–or, for that matter, like the White City of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which rose and fell in Jackson Park just to the north of South Shore. This fear of falling complements the fear that white gentrification will impinge from above. Either way, whether the bungalows fall into prairie-grass-choked ruin like a chain of sacked frontier forts or get expensively renovated and fill up with white hipsters who ride fixies and keep organic chickens and cultivate an inauthentically acquired appreciation of Quiet Storm dusties, the worry is that in future people will say, “Can you believe Michelle Obama grew up in South Shore?”–just as they now express surprise when informed that Mamet, the Oracle zillionaire Larry Ellison, or the Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist James D. Watson grew up there.

Caravels and La Rabida [Sanitarium for Children], Jackson Park, Chicago, Ill., circa 1905, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
All the stories upon which I’ve touched, whether they’re about the Old Neighborhood or the Black Metropolis or some other lost-city version of South Shore, imagine the meanings and consequences of the succession and persistence of urban orders, of the constant play between emergence and disappearance, rise and decline. You can see it all happen–and see how it shapes the lives and inner lives of the neighborhood’s residents–from the platform of Bryn Mawr Station, if you know how to look. And the literature of South Shore can teach you how to look.


Carlo Rotella is Director of American Studies at Boston College. His books include Playing in Time, Cut Time, Good With Their Hands, and October Cities.  He contributes regularly to the New York Times Magazine, and his work has also appeared in The New Yorker and The Best American Essays. This essay is drawn from his book-in-progress about South Shore.


[1] James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy Comprising Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day (University of Illinois Press, 1993 [1932, 1934, 1935]. For scenes at 71st and Jeffery, see 687, 797.

[2] David Mamet, “The Old Neighborhood” (New York: Random House, 1999), 28.

[3] Gayle Pemberton, “Waiting for Godot on Jeffery Boulevard,” The Hottest Water in Chicago: On Family, Race, Time, and American Culture (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992), 176-193.

[4] Bayo Ojikutu, Free Burning (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006). See 303-305 for the scene at 71st and Jeffery.

Member of the Week: Margaret O’Mara

OMara.pngMargaret O’Mara

Professor of History

University of Washington

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

I’m currently working on a book about the history of the American high-tech industry—from semiconductors to social media—and its relationship to the worlds of politics and finance. My interest and intent here is, to adapt a phrase, to “put the tech back in” to the study of modern American history, including urban history. Cities are among the many things that computer hardware and software have disrupted in the past half century—from the use of mainframes to run urban infrastructure and municipal services, to the personal computer’s transformation of workplaces, home life, and “third places,” to the role of social media in political mobilization, group identity, and sense of place. The high-tech revolution is rich and relatively underexplored territory, and as the PC reaches middle age and the smartphone approaches adolescence, it is ready for some serious historical analysis. I encourage other urban historians to join me!

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

I teach twentieth century political, economic, and urban history, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Every winter term—including this one—I teach my undergraduate survey course, “The City,” which covers North American urban history from New Amsterdam to the new economy. One of the joys of teaching this class is the wide variety of students who take it—engineering majors as well as history majors, freshmen to seniors, all drawn in by a curiosity about what makes cities work and how they’ve grown. Instead of a final paper, the students build a digital exhibition that uses the history of one Seattle city block to discuss broader patterns of urban change. The focus on the digital also allows me to introduce students to new scholarship and new scholarly voices, and to incorporate beyond-the-book digital platforms and sources like Mapping Inequality from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab and the urban visualizations built at the Spatial History Project at Stanford University.

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

I’m excited by the transnational turn in urban history, a good slice of which is represented in the edited volume published last year from Penn Press, Making Cities Global (full disclosure: I’m a contributor) and reflected in important recent books like Nancy Kwak, A Nation of Homeowners and N.D.B. Connolly, A World More Concrete. These and other works placing urban ideas and institutions in global and imperial context have had a significant impact on both my teaching and my research. Also, with tax reform in the news—and, as urban historians know, taxation is at the center of everything!—I’m gaining much from the recent crop of books giving tax policy and politics a deeper and more nuanced history, such as Isaac William Martin, Rich People’s Movements and Ajay Mehrotra, Making the Modern American Fiscal State.

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

One of the more refreshing trends in the profession today—call it the silver lining on the gloomy cloud of the academic job market—is that younger scholars are more willing and more able to practice history in public, whether by writing directly for public audiences, developing public history and digital history projects, or simply by being very good at Twitter. At a moment when “history” is so often wielded as a partisan weapon, it’s particularly important to have thoughtful and careful scholars out there engaging broad audiences. I encourage younger scholars to start thinking quite early about how they want to contribute to this conversation, how they delineate their scholarship and their activism, and how their scholarly expertise might translate to a broader scholarly community as well as to public audiences. Particularly good examples of this sort of careful, informed engagement can be found these days on the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) blog Black Perspectives, the Organization of American Historians’ Process: a blog for American History, and the online and print editions of the Boston Review, all of which are on my regular reading list.

You are the lead curatorial advisor to the Bezos Center for Innovation at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). What have been some of the highlights of serving in that capacity?

My work at the Bezos Center at MOHAI was a lightning-fast education in public history, and in the art and science of historical museums in particular. Creating an effective museum exhibit is a team sport involving players with a wide range of expertise, from my team of History PhD researchers to the to visionary architects and graphic designers who turned our research into words on a wall to the lighting maestros who set the mood and feel for the experience. It was also was an eye-opening lesson in how a well-designed museum experience can reach and educate so many different people, including those who don’t see themselves as “history people.” I also love that a future-tense business leader like Jeff Bezos has such an appreciation for the past—I hope other tech leaders will embark on their own philanthropic efforts to support history education and scholarship.

Crabgrass Chaos: Failed Suburbs in Science Fiction

By Carl Abbott

The picture window in the modest suburban house in Belle Reve, New Jersey is marred by a long crack from top to bottom. Built for World War II veterans, its foundation is cracking after a dozen years and there’s no money to fix the fifteen-foot window that supposedly signaled upward mobility.

Forward another eighty years and the once hopeful community of Belle Reve has turned into the dangerous slum of Belly Rave, the setting for Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s 1955 novel Gladiator-at-Law, a story of corporate malfeasance in the socially divided society of twenty-first century America. Some of the houses are burnt out shells, others have turned into dens of vice. The house in which the Bligh family live may be the same that we’ve seen generations earlier. The roof leaks, the stairs are rotten, and the cracked window is now boarded over, with just a chink left for scoping out dangers in the front yard.

Gladiator at law

The year after Gladiator-at-Law, journalist John Keats titled his anti-suburb diatribe The Crack in the Picture Window. A signature feature of atomic age residential design, the picture window once cracked was a multiple metaphor, calling out the suburbs for failing as physical places and for betraying expectations as harmonious communities.

Pohl and Kornbluth’s depiction of Belly Rave extrapolated the disdain with which intellectuals in the 1950s treated the massive growth of middle class suburbs. It is also an early example of a recurring science fiction vision of feral suburbia. Science Fiction (SF) writers have offered a series of variations on the theme of crabgrass chaos. Their stories project aging suburbs as the new ghettos and slums, zones of danger and depopulation where it’s everyone for themselves and wilding gangs take the hindmost.

Extrapolating near-future suburbia, SF has developed in tacit dialog with critics of American urban planning, paying attention to the prevailing consensus from journalists and scholars. If science fiction suburbs are usually troubled and dangerous places, it’s in part because popular discourse about suburbia has been equally negative—from aesthetic and moral censure in the 1950s to critiques of suburban isolation in the 1980s and the trope of “slumburbia” in the present century.

 Examples from three eras, the 1950s, the early 1990s, and the 2010s, illustrate these dyanmics.

Slamming the Slurbs

Gladiator-at-Law appeared in the midst of a national indictment of post-war suburbanization. David Riesman, author of the best-seller The Lonely Crowd (1950), penned an essay on “The Suburban Sadness,” writing, he said, as someone who loved both the city and the country, but not the suburbs. He was one of many American intellectuals after World War II who hammered suburbia for a litany of physical and social deficiencies. Suburbs were attacked as tacky, inauthentic, inefficient, and boring by academics, journalists, and, of course, Malvina Reynolds, whose catchy two-minute song “Little Houses” is an entry point for a closer look at Belly Rave.

Aerial view of Levittown, New York housing development, Thomas Airviews, 1954, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

With the severe housing shortage of the late 1940s a recent memory, Pohl and Kornbluth describe buyers in the new subdivision lining up to view model homes—a scene that mirrored real communities like Lakewood and Levittown. In the novel, things turn sour fast. The tiny houses are only partly finished. Unexpected fees and taxes for schools, fire protection, and sewers eat up money that might have gone to upkeep. The market for the houses dries up as newer neighborhoods are built, and bad elements move in, including moonshiners with a still in their living room [it would now be a meth house].

By 2040 Belly Rave has turned nasty and brutish. People huddle in their houses with guns at the ready. Thrill-seekers arrive for illicit sex, but the city police only come in armored cars. Gangs of preteens and teens roam the streets, protecting themselves to avoid being sold as pickpockets and child prostitutes.

1950s New Jersey and its counterparts, of course, was not half so bad. Behind Gladiator-at-Law was a suburban myth, as analyst Scott Donaldson called it, or even a suburban slander. The reality of new suburbs was not social disorder a la Belly Rave, but rather the reconstitution of community in new setting—as we know from the work of Herbert Gans and other sociologists.

California behind Walls

A generation after Gladiator-At-Law, suburban California attracted the same sort of science fiction critique. The anti-suburban indictment had moved beyond the moral and aesthetic posture of the 1950s to an explicitly political argument about how economic polarization plays out on the metroscape. Coming soon to southern California, or already arrived, said novelists and social scientists alike, is the deeply divided metropolis of global capitalism, explicated for us most memorably by feisty Mike Davis.

In the heart of the valley of love.jpgThe polarized and decrepit Los Angeles in Cynthia Kadohata’s In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992) riffs on the Quartz City. Francie is nineteen years old in 2052. With her parents dead of a wasting disease that is a metaphor for cultural malaise and economic decline, she’s living in a run down Los Angeles bungalow and working for a financially marginal delivery service.

Francie’s city is leading the downward spiral of the American economy. A new highway system looms unfinished, started “before everything ran out of money, back at the beginning of the century.” The family house, bought by her great-great-grandmother, is now “in a section of town largely abandoned by anyone who mattered to the country’s economy.” Francie sometimes wakes to the smell of burning buildings not many blocks away. Meanwhile, the people of “richtown” (her term for places like Brentwood) are increasingly moving to “camps,” communities “enclosed by high metal fences and guarded by uniformed, armed men and women.” We can assume that Kadohata picked the term “camp” to recall the internment experience of 1942-45 and relishes the inversion of the image as the elite pull barbed wire around themselves rather than stringing it around others.


Parable of the Sower is perhaps the most wrenchingly realized of the gated suburb fictions. Fortress LA is now literal, and the extinction of the middle plays out in fire and blood. Octavia Butler’s novel centers on Lauren Olamina, who grows up in the 2020s on a collapsing Los Angeles. Her parents and the other homeowners have created the ultimate cul-de-sac, surrounding their street of eleven houses with a locked gate and wall that is “three meters high and topped off with pieces of broken glass as well as the usual barbed wire.” The internal combustion era is over, with three-car garages turned into rabbit hutches and chicken coops. Lauren’s walled street is in the San Fernando Valley near the 118 Expressway, a sad survivor of the Valley isolationism described by Mike Davis. The whole community learns to handle guns; the only safe respite from the tiny community is a group excursion for target practice in the surrounding ravines where they are likely to encounter homeless squatters, feral dogs, and human corpses.

In this quiet apocalypse, foreign corporations are buying up the United States and turning Americans into agricultural slaves or white collar debt peons in defended enclaves. It is the economically bifurcated society of the early twenty-first century made manifest, and Lauren muses about the new economy:

Cities controlled by big companies are old hat in science fiction. My grandmother left a whole bookcase of old science-fiction novels. The company-town subgenre always seemed to star a hero who outsmarted, overthrew, or escaped ‘the company.” I’ve never seen one where the hero fought like hell to get taken in and underpaid by the company. In real life, that’s the way . . . it is.

As the story unfolds, addicts and thieves grow bolder, scaling the wall and cutting the wire, first to strip the gardens, then to ransack houses for anything they can sell. Three years after the story opens–it’s now 2027 and Lauren is eighteen–the community dies in a night of riot and fire, murder and rape. She escapes by luck, salvages what she can and starts a long trek north on what will be the road to a new, hard-won, tentative, and very rural utopia.

The Everted Metropolis

In the nearly six decades since Gladiator-at-Law hit the shelves, Americans have continued to vote with their Chevys and Volkswagens. In 2000 the nation was officially suburban—146 million people or 52 percent of all Americans.

But the suburban triumph can also be read as a suburban crisis. As early as the 1980s, social scientists realized that the aging of the baby boom generation was bringing problems to inner tier suburbs. Moving beyond the cultural critique, they mined masses of data to see that demand for housing was stagnant or falling and that declining numbers of students were rattling around in schools built for Brady Bunch families. By the twenty-first century, it was clear that older suburbs often shared “central city problems” of declining tax base and crumbling infrastructure, while the number of poor people in suburban rings rose by a whopping 67 percent from 2000 to 2011.

The result is the everted—or perhaps reverted—metropolis that has begun to reverse 150 years of suburbanization. The center is again the favored location, attracting the upwardly mobile young, successful middle-aged, and comfortable retirees who have triggered an outpouring of celebratory writing about the “return to the city.” The flip side of celebration, however, has been a counter-explosion of newspaper opinion and blogging about the rise of “slumburbia,” stoked by an Atlantic article by Christopher Leinberger at the height of the housing crash of 2008. Older suburbs in the Rustbelt and brand new suburbs in the Sunbelt are both described as losing the middle class; falling into abandonment and disrepair; attracting vandals; becoming homes to drug gangs. The urban crisis rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s has thus been transferred part and parcel to the suburbs of the new century, with Escape from New York being reimagined as “Escape from Nassau County.”

This rhetorical trend is background for three long stories published in the original anthology Metatropolis (2009). John Scalzi set his story in St. Louis, Elizabeth Bear and Tobias Buckell set theirs in Detroit, but they share a common vision of the near future.

MetatropolisIn each case, the central core has survived and prospered. In Scalzi’s story, New St. Louis is an independent and ecologically self-sufficient zero-footprint city that recycles everything. It shares “open borders” with the Portland Arcologies, Malibu Enclave, and Helsinki Collective but it is physically closed to the surrounding suburbs. Like a medieval European city it confers its own citizenship and uses walls and gates to control access and commerce. Bear and Buckell envision Detroit reduced to a highrise core of offices and apartments that still connects to global capitalism.

Danger lurks outside the center. In Scalzi’s story, Benji Washington is a slacker who borrows a lorry and ventures outside on a complicated errand for an ex-girlfriend. “That’s not a trip I’d want to take these days,” his boss says when passing over the keys. Out in the suburbs are angry locals who don’t like his looks and punch the daylights out of him. A security guard pulls him out and tells him as be regains consciousness:

You got beat on is what happened. You New Louies are dumb as hell, you know   that? Go out to a rave in the middle of The Wilds, and then you’re surprised when the kids out there start taking a crowbar to your heads. Let me give you a little tip, townie: The kids our here in The Wilds, they don’t like you. If you give them achance to crack open your skull, they’re going to do it.

The Wilds surrounding Detroit are even more derelict. Tract houses slump into the earth like barns dragged down by blackberries or kudzu. The handful of people who are left claim abandoned lots and buildings for mini-farms in an extra-legal rearrangement of property. Bear’s heroine, on the run from the Russian mafia and a newcomer to Detroit, tries to avoid the feral suburbs: “There were gangs out here, packs of the disenfranchised, squatters, and petty warlords.”

This fictional Detroit reflects the real city of the early 21st century. Urban planner Margaret Dewar has analyzed the changing neighborhood of Brightmoor in Detroit’s northwestern corner. Once a fully populated neighborhood of blue collar workers, it was more than half empty by 2010. Residents have appropriated the vacant lots for gardens, car parks, and buffer zones, essentially re-ruralizing in the twenty-first century a landscape that was urbanized in the twentieth.

Both Bear and Buckell offer the depopulated Wilds as a setting for social experiment and reconstruction. In Buckell’s version, the suburbs are peppered with abandoned mid-rise apartment and office towers that were once Edge City nodes. Grassroots eco-revolutionaries liberate one of the buildings and turn it into a multi-story self-sustaining garden-greenhouse and prepare at the end to take their vision of radical social change to other cities. Bear’s eco-activists work on a smaller scale, mining trash piles and landfills for materials to turn abandoned houses into small farms and miniature factories as cooperative low-visibility communities in the interstices of dying global capitalism.

Although forty- and fifty-page novelettes are not the place for extended exposition of post-capitalism and post-petroleum economies, Metatropolis may suggest an end point for traditional crabgrass chaos stories and a new beginning that spans rhetoric and reality. Scalzi, Buckell, and Bear are a generation younger than Mike Davis and Octavia Butler, and two decades younger than Fred Pohl. In their hands, the future of middle class suburbia is neither disaster or nor an occasion for satirical glee. Theirs is not a complete vision by any means, with the multiple ethnicities and races of actual suburbs conspicuously absent, but it does suggest that we challenge rather than accept slumburb imagery. Instead, suburban collapse and abandonment is a necessary stage in social change, the winter that may open physical and institutional space for the spring of economic and environmental innovation.

Featured image at top: Le Sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000,  Albert Robida, 1902, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Carl Nov. 2011aCarl Abbott is Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. A past president of the UHA, he ios the author of numerous books on American cities and city planning, most recently Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)