Member of the Week: Jim Wunsch

Jim-Wunsch-100x100Jim Wunsch

Professor, Historical and Educational Studies

Empire State College, State University of New York (SUNY)


Describe your current research.

I am interested in how social and technological changes over the course of the 20th century altered the lives of children. In “The Streetlife of Children in New York City” (Streetnotes, February 2015, 51- 91), I drew on memoir and literature to tell that story. Lately I have focused on how cars came to threaten and limit the child’s freedom of movement. The issue will be further considered when I join Joe Goddard of the University of Copenhagen and Veera Moll of Aalto University (Helsinki) in Cars v. Kids, a panel for the Children and Youth in a Global Age conference at the University of Hong Kong, 25-26 May.

What drew you toward research on children and cities?

 I have it on good authority that I once was a child, raised in the Midwood section of Brooklyn where I attended P.S. 193. When I was in fourth grade, my family moved to Westport, Connecticut, the very model of the prosperous rail commuter suburb. In Brooklyn, my two older brothers had enjoyed the freedom of subway travel, but when it came to getting around Westport, they were dependent on our mother. As I was content to ride my bike, I did not share my brothers’ objections to suburbia. Sixty-five years later, I am coming to grips with their discontent, an indication perhaps of a certain slowness in catching on or catching up.

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

In “Urban Change: The Story of New York City Neighborhoods” my students develop PowerPoint tours of their respective neighborhoods. Their presentations are built around photos of housing, shops, parks and prominent structures; through use of census and planning data students consider the racial and ethnic composition along with the health and wealth of their neighborhoods. The majority of students– mostly black and Hispanic working-class adults—are concerned with gentrification. The assigned readings and essays are intended to put their understanding of gentrification into historical perspective.

Many of the students in my other course serve as assistant teachers in the NYC public schools. In the “Childhoods of Great Americans,” the coming of age of Ben Franklin, his sister Jane, Sojourner Truth, Abe Lincoln, Huck Finn, W.E.B DuBois, and others is linked to a basic American historical narrative. Students can thus satisfy the SUNY American history requirement while also considering a fundamental pedagogical question: how is it that young people could become quite well educated with minimum of schooling? Daniel Wolff’s inviting How Lincoln Learned to Read inspired this course.

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

Sonia A. Hirt’s Zoned in The USA: The Origins And Implications of American Land-Use Regulation (2014) is an astute and readable account of American land use planning, past and present. For urban historians the book serves nicely as model of comparative analysis. After comparing the US to other places Hirt asks: “How could Americans, whose reputations for being independent and freedom-loving and respecting private property… put up with such tedious laws governing the building of their everyday environments and way of life?”

Robert J. Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since The Civil War (2016) helps urban historians understand how the dynamo, the development of alternating current and the cheap internal combustion engine, pulled or pushed Americans from countryside to city and then spread them thinly across metro areas. By 1940 the technological revolution was complete. The American household was wired into the energy, communications, and plumbing grid. What has transpired since has been less consequential. Except for the microwave, your kitchen is little different from one set up seventy years ago. Compared to what the car, electricity, and indoor plumbing produced, the growth generated by the “digital revolution” has been pretty feeble.

As for my own work, I am relieved if not excited to be finishing “What I Learned About Cities and Suburbs By Working for The New Jersey Legislature,” a first-person account of serving as staff to the Assembly Municipal Government Committee during the late seventies, a period when this very wealthy state’s exceptionally poor and troubled cities appeared to be in free fall.

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

You might imagine that a tenured professor privileged to live and teach in New York City might have some useful advice to impart to others seeking to make their way in academia. But that would presume that I had some career strategy.

After earning a doctorate in history, I did not teach college for the next fifteen years. Instead, I served as staff to the New Jersey Legislature and then to The Regional Plan Association, a private, non-profit planning agency. I taught social studies full-time at Smith, Truman and Monroe, among the most troubled high schools in the Bronx. In retrospect it would appear that this extended “postdoc” was invaluable preparation for teaching college-level urban history. Maybe so, but at the time I didn’t know that. I was just looking for interesting jobs.

What has sustained me — those jobs were not always easy or interesting — was my feeling for urban history, the story of the rise and fall and often the rise again of cities and other places large and small. Urban history naturally draws you into civic engagement whether it is serving on a planning board, school board or joining a group trying to get the sidewalk extended so more kids can walk to school. Such engagement can be helpful in your own writing or research and even lead to gainful and interesting employment.

You’ve recently assumed the mantle of Book Review Editor for The Metropole. In a twist on the BBC classic radio program Desert Island Discs, what eight books, 1 CD, and single luxury good would you take if you were stranded on a tropical beach?

Listen, Metropole, I’m assuming no mantle, yoke or chastity belt until my retirement on August 3rd. And I must say your linking of editorial duties to being cast away is disconcerting. What are the survival chances of a pale, fearful chap, skilled mostly at annotating bibliographies?

But Book Review Editor sounds easier than teaching at Monroe High School, so I will do the best I can to assign books to competent reviewers.

As for that wretched island: I read that the palm fronds can serve as raiment (grass skirts) and shelter, and the milk and meat of the coconut will sustain life. So, I need a book titled Survival Under a Coconut Regime. [The Metropole editors note that this is not a real book, so far as Google is concerned, but believes the title must be applicable to some ongoing scholarly project]. I heard that Wiki is coming out with a print edition so have the UHA ship the 7,471 volumes to the island via Amazon Primeval. Other titles: Gulliver’s Travels, Ecclesiastes, Jonah and The Book of Revelation to remind me of how little I will miss the damned human race. Then a couple by P.G. Wodehouse to remind me of all that was good.

Ah, the luxury item. Doubtless, many would opt for a solar powered cell phone so that they could remain on Facebook and also order whatever they wanted. So equipped it would be irrelevant whether they were stranded on a tropical island or in Muncie. As for me I would want a pail and shovel, not the tacky 99-cent store stuff for kids, but serious sculpting and sand moving tools. I would then dig sluices, canals and moats, lay out a city mostly on the grid but with irregular streets and avenues respectful of the contours of the beach. A great improvement over NYC’s tedious 1811 Plan. ­­­­ Hovels, bungalows, castles and nunneries to follow. Then as Lord of all that I had surveyed, I would build a throne and thereon be anointed—remotely of course– Book Review Editor—with the Goldberg Variations in the background. How envious other urban historians will be.


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