We here at The Metropole want to briefly interrupt our much desired (deserved? who is to say what anyone deserves nowadays) two week respite to draw the attention of urbanists to the Urban Affairs Association’s call for papers. Between April 24-27, 2019, the UAA will be hosting its 49th Annual Conference in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. and would like to invite and encourage individuals to submit an abstract/proposal by October 1, 2018.
UHA members who attended SACRPH’s 2015 conference held at the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles can attest to the city’s charms–as can this blog (see here, here, and here, for just a few examples). See below for the formal CFP, but feel free to click through to the following links as well for more information:
Over a three-day period, researchers, graduate students, policy advocates, service providers, program funders, and others will present their analyses, experiences, and actions related to urban communities. In addition to formal presentations, the conference provides opportunities to network with attendees from North America, Europe, Asia, and other parts of the globe. Special workshops and mobile tours will be offered to enhance the learning experience and promote professional development. Interested persons are welcome to attend as formal program presenters, or as observers. All attendees must register. Special discounted registration rates are available for UAA individual, student, and institutional members; ENHR/EURA individual and student members; local L.A. residents; and all enrolled students.
UAA welcomes proposals for a wide range of topics related to urban communities, policies, and populations. See Topical Categories for UAA Conferences section below for a listing of relevant topics.
2019 Special Sessions Topic – Claiming Rights to the City: Community, Capital, and the State
Cities have become the epicenter of competing claims for basic rights, living space, and access to opportunities. Dual realities exist in most cities where wealth, capital accumulation, and privilege coexist with poverty, homelessness, and inequality. Governance at all levels is confronted by increasingly aggressive capital investment pressures that call into question the ability of the state to protect and advance public welfare. In the face of these harsh realities, communities are engaging in a range of strategies to expose, challenge and counteract these dynamics. The UAA annual meeting in Los Angeles provides a unique opportunity to examine these dualities and community responses, in one of the most complex urbanized landscapes in the world.
Special Track on Race, Ethnicity and Place Track Committee: Michael Leo Owens, Chair (Emory University); Yasminah Beebeejaun (University College London); Anna Livia Brand (University of California, Berkeley); Kitty Kelly Epstein (Holy Names University); Arturo Flores (National Autonomous University of Mexico/Anahuac University); Roger Keil (York University); Ali Modarres (University of Washington-Tacoma); Jocelyn Taliaferro (North Carolina State University)
Special Track on Urban Issues in Asia & the Pacific Rim Track Committee: Cathy Yang Liu, Chair (Georgia State University, USA); Bligh Grant (University of Technology Sydney, Australia); Canfei He (Peking University, China); Shenjing He (University of Hong Kong, China); Xuefei Ren (Michigan State University, USA)
2019 Local Sponsor
2019 Platinum Conference Sponsor: UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
2019 Local Host Committee Julie Straub (University of California at Los Angeles); Vinit Mukhija (University of California at Los Angeles); Michael Lens (University of California at Los Angeles); Kenya Covington (University of California at Los Angeles); Victoria Basolo (University of California, Irvine); Juliet Musso (University of Southern California; Tom O’Brien (California State University, Long Beach); Ralph Sonensheim (California State University, Los Angeles)
2019 Program Committee Lucia Capanema-Alvares, Chair (Universidade Federal Fluminense, Brazil); Lars A. Engberg (Aalborg University Copenhagen, Denmark); Bligh Grant (University of Technology, Sydney, Australia); Al Gourrier (University of Baltimore, USA); Robert Collins (Dillard University, USA); Cathy Yang Liu (Georgia State University, USA); Sylvie Paré (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada); Carolina Reid (University of California, Berkeley, USA); Joan Wesley (Jackson State University, USA); Anaid Yerena (University of Washington – Tacoma, USA)
Participation Formats Most participants will wish to make a presentation in which they share their research and/or experiences and insights. To maximize opportunities for everyone, UAA limits Individuals to participation (as presenter, speaker or moderator) in one (1) session. There is no limit to the number of research papers/posters for which you are a co-author. Persons in special (sponsored) panels or breakfast roundtable discussions can participate in one additional session.
A proposal can be submitted through the UAA website using one of the following participation formats:
Individual research paper presentation: Proposal requires an abstract OR
Organized research paper panel: Proposal requires a panel summary, group of 4-5 paper abstracts, and a designated moderator (who may be one of the paper presenters) OR
Organized colloquy: Proposal requires theme statement & names of 4-5 discussants OR
Breakfast roundtable: Proposal requires theme statement & names of 1-2 conveners OR
Poster: Proposal requires an abstract. Best option for persons in early stage of research.
Key Deadlines UAA conferences are known for being well-organized events. That organization is dependent on certain deadlines being established and enforced. Two critical deadlines will apply for the 2019 conference:
October 1, 2018, 11:59pm Central Daylight Time (CDT) or 4:59am (GMT) Abstract/Session Proposal Deadline
The online submission site will close at 12:00 am CDT. Acceptance or rejection notices will be sent by October 24. Persons who miss this deadline are still welcome to attend the conference as observers.
January 15, 2019, 11:59pm Central Daylight Time (CDT) or 4:59am (GMT) Registration Deadline for Persons with Accepted Proposals
In order to be placed on the official conference program, an accepted presenter must register by this date. Failure to meet this deadline will mean loss of opportunity to be listed on the program. Persons who miss this deadline are still welcome to attend the conference as observers.
All good things must come to an end, and this is especially true of summer school. Whether talking about the 1980s Mark Harmon feature or the classroom, digital and analog, it’s come time to shutter our doors for a couple weeks as The Metropole takes some time off. We’ll re-open after Labor Day with a month dedicated to our grad student blog contest, “Striking Gold.” However, before we depart, we have one more lesson: this time from one of the most famous black enclaves in America, the Harlem Education History Project (hit them up on “the twitter” at @EduHarlem).
From curating online exhibitions to enlisting youth historians to highlighting the work of local Harlem educational institutions and more, the project organizers, Teacher’s College Professor Ansley Erickson tells us, hope to convey “the multiplicity and importance of stories about education in Harlem schools across the twentieth century, including in periods in which this complexity is often reduced to labels of ‘crisis’ or ‘failure.'”
Why did you establish the Harlem Education History Project and who do you see as its audience?
My colleague Ernest Morrell and I started talking about what is now the Harlem Education History Project in the fall of 2012. We shared an interest in generating new scholarship on the history of education in Harlem – for Ernest, as a way to ensure that ongoing work of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, which he then headed, was historically informed; and, for both of us, as a way to address the surprising lack of scholarly attention to education in this storied black urban community. We also wanted to bring the robust intersectional and critical scholarship in recent African American history to bear on this important educational case. Both of us were motivated, as well, by the sense that much contemporary education discourse about city schools, about schooling in black communities, is markedly ahistorical, trading in reductive notions of failure that obscure a reality of continued, creative, and varied struggles to secure quality education in an African American tradition.
As we imagined embarking on this new scholarly enterprise, we shared commitments about how we wanted the work to develop. We sought a multi-generational community of knowledge production, by which we meant a space that included not only scholars at different career stages (who joined us as contributors to an edited volume that is now completed and under review at a university press), graduate students at Teachers College and in the field, and local high school students (who we connect to through an after-school program called Youth Historians in Harlem, initiated by graduate student Barry Goldenberg and sustained with our support). It became clear that digital work would be central to these multigenerational connections. We first conceptualized the digital iteration of the project as a meeting place and a site for collaboration and sharing for those connected to the project.
We were also interested in how working digitally could allow us to work in public in ways that traditional publishing structures and timelines and traditional archive spaces prevented. This interest was motivated in part by the broad values of access and engagement that run through many public digital humanities efforts, but it was informed as well by the particular institutional and community context in which we were working. Urban historians know well the troubled history of Columbia in relation to Harlem, the most striking moment being the 1968 attempt by the university to build a private gymnasium in the public Morningside Park; questions about appropriation of land and colonial dynamics in relationship to the surrounding community continue in many ways today, including around the university’s expansion into a new area of West Harlem. In this context, committing university resources to new scholarship on Harlem was at once deeply necessary and very fraught. We hoped that working in public, emphasizing access not only to completed scholarship (as in the edited volume, which will be fully accessible online) but to the materials of our inquiry and our work in progress, would be one small part of trying to do this work well. Others, including various kinds of collaboration with community members, are discussed below.
As the project has developed – with our Omeka-based site now presenting a few collections of digitized primary source material, clips and complete oral histories, and digital exhibits – we’ve seen ways in which the site has supported the multigenerational engagement we were hoping for. A few chapters in our forthcoming edited volume cite oral history interviews conducted by students in my classes and housed on the site. A digital exhibit (in the pipeline, not yet published) created by a high school student links poetry as social critique across three generations: in the works of the Harlem Renaissance, in the writing of alumni from her school (as published in school yearbooks on our site), and in her own poetry. All of these connections are possible without a digital collection – but they have been facilitated by it.
The site’s audience has grown beyond those already connected to the project in two ways. First, our digital exhibits seem to draw the most traffic. This is in part via digital-only outreach, but also through the times they have been resources for authors’ and others’ presentations in various workshops, teacher professional development sessions, and the like. And second, as we’ve focused more intensively on “featured schools,” we’ve seen more use of the site by members of specific school communities, from people interested in accessing the material we’re sharing (much of it digitized at community members’ request) that is part of their own histories.
How did the Harlem Education History Project come into being? What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome to make it a reality?
This project has grown slowly, organically, based on relationships and based on pursuing new opportunities as they arose. And it is still in progress in every respect. In addition to the ideas and partnerships mentioned above, three key developments have made this work possible in our context.
First, I was able to build the Harlem Education History Project into my teaching work. Doing so provided a structured space to explore this history and the challenges and opportunities of working digitally. I teach two courses that have a topical focus on the history of education in Harlem with different methodological angles – one on oral history, one on archival sources. (Starting in 2016, these classes became connected to the Harlem Semester initative at Barnard College, which cultivates a set of community-engaged and Harlem-focused classes). Students’ final projects in these classes take the form of digital exhibits. From this pool of student work, my graduate fellows and I invite some students to refine their exhibits and move them through our peer review and publication process. (We would welcome exhibits proposed and created by scholars elsewhere, as well).
Second, the idea of “featured schools” gave us a scale at which to work that made many things – from collaboration to cultivating audience – more possible. In 2013 we started working with current and alumni community members at Harlem’s Wadleigh school building (it has been at various times a high school, junior high school, and secondary school, and now houses three schools.) Our work started with oral history interviewing, expanded to digitization of material of value to the school community – particularly, the rich sources that are the schools’ yearbooks. Increasingly, via a continuing set of meetings and conversations over the last year, this partnership is evolving toward more collaboratively-constructed oral history.
Third, graduate student leadership has been crucial in this work. Teachers College’s doctoral fellowships require a research assistantship commitment, and I have asked my students to focus their work on this project. Esther Cyna has been a fellow on the project for three years, and she has taken the lead in several ways – including researching, designing, and implementing our digital peer review process for digital exhibits. Cyna has also presented on our work at OAH, AHA, and other conferences. Rachel Klepper and Cyna have been key facilitators in our growing collaboration with Wadleigh community members as well, especially this year when I was away on leave and unable to attend community meetings and workshops in person. Youth Historians has been led over the past year by Matthew Kautz, Yanella Blanco, and Rhonesha Blache, whose work was funded by institutional fellowships that link TC students to work with local schools and students.
It’s crucial also to recognize obstacles we did not have to overcome. From this project’s inception, we’ve benefited from a stable, high-quality, sustainability-focused partnership with the digital humanities team at Columbia Libraries from this project’s inception. Rebecca Kennison, Barbara Rockenbach, Mark Newton, Alex Gil, and many others have been willing to talk about our ideas, the tools that exist (and don’t exist) to realize them, and in some cases to ask their skilled developers to help modify these when we needed. They have also made the quotidian issues of working online – in terms of updates, security, and more – things that we did not have to worry about. Having this support available to us without external fundraising has been crucial in beginning the work. Thai Jones and colleagues at the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library have been supportive partners as well.
What do you hope people take away from the Harlem Education History Project?
As the site continues to evolve, we hope it conveys the multiplicity and importance of stories about education in Harlem schools across the twentieth century, including in periods in which this complexity is often reduced to labels of “crisis” or “failure.” We hope that the potential of the digital – from listening to oral history clips to reading a digital exhibit organized around a map to moving back and forth between a chapter in a scholarly volume to related or divergent primary sources – make these stories more apparent and more engaging. And we hope that our exhibits (a small number now, but growing) attest to the range of analytical and interpretive approaches that these sources merit.
Although we continue to add to the project documentation on the site, I also hope that it conveys a sense of collaborations working to construct themselves, and reflects a humility about our work in this context. Looking back at our first conversations about the project, there are many things that we can imagine having done differently. We got started on this project via collaborative relationships within the university, building collaborative relationships with community members gradually along the way. At times this meant we needed to circle back to previous decisions and revise them, as in the case of our project name.
Each of the different collaborations on which this project depends has its own rhythm, character, and pressures – with Youth Historians and the schools and programs they attend, with the alumni and/or current communities at our featured schools, with scholars and community leaders who have been formal and informal advisors. Each is necessary as we seek not only to bring community knowledge to bear on university-based knowledge production, but to see university resources in the service of community knowledge-production.
What other projects or ideas most influenced this work?
Many projects and ideas circulating in digital humanities networks have been important provocations and, in some cases guides, for our work in progress. (This is not to claim that our work matches the aspirations or standards of these projects – but to recognize that we are learning from and thinking about their examples for our work, as others might want to as well).
These projects illustrate approaches to collaborative digital work in relationship both to the specific history involved and the contemporary landscape; some address the fundamental question that all digital historical work should consider: beyond what legally can be shared online as a matter of copyright law, what should be shared online and who decides?
Michelle Moravec, Jacqueline Wernimont, and others who center the ethical and feminist questions of working with history and collaborating in digital spaces, including matters of labor, privacy, and what should not be accessible online.
Approaches to digital archiving and presentation that emphasize community self-determination, such as Mukurtu.
Additionally, our approach to work in public around recent social history, especially with the stories of people who were not public figures, is informed by oral history practice and ethics. (For example, students creating digital exhibits around recent oral histories have contributed to a developing practice that ensures that oral history narrators have opportunities for feedback and response to exhibits that center on their lives).
Where do you hope the project goes in the future?
There are a few clear next steps, and other possibilities that may or may not come to fruition. First, once it is published, the full text of our edited volume will appear online as part of our site. We need next to decide what form this will take, but we have permission from the press that is now sending the volume for review to make the text fully available online with unfettered public access). We need to work especially to make the site not only include the book but have it feel a synergistic part of the work overall, connected to the primary source material and digital exhibits in the site.
Another next step is to build out the digital presence of our second featured school, The Modern School – which was an independent black progressive school that operated in Harlem from the 1930s through the 1990s. We partnered with a local history organization While We Are Still Here and The Modern School alumni community to host an event at which we collected several oral histories, and will continue to collect more. As these materials are processed, we look forward to building a collaboration that will determine how The Modern School’s history appears on our site.
Presenting any history digitally involves so many decisions – inclusion or exclusion, metadata, aesthetics, hierarchy – all of which involve choices. Who makes these choices, in a university-based and community-engaged project? In our earliest stages, university-based participants made many of these choices, in consultation with a few key community partners. Deeper collaboration going forward means navigating and recognizing the distinct positions that various participants occupy – people deeply invested in this history but less engaged in the digital; people for whom this is paid work, or those for whom it is volunteer work; volunteers who are retired, or are working full-time but still want to be involved, as a few examples among others.
Although connecting with local teachers has long been an ambition of ours, it is one that we haven’t yet seen realized. In the coming year, especially as one of our featured schools is undergoing a major regeneration and improvement, we are looking forward to connecting more with local teachers.
As a former teacher in a Harlem public high school, this is particularly important to me. I’ve been haunted by a bit of history that I had learned well after leaving high school teaching. I taught in the building that had been Junior High School 136. As Adina Back taught us in her work on the Harlem Nine, this very school was one of the hubs of mothers’ organizing against segregation in 1958. This concrete, geographically specific story raised questions for me that I should have thought more about as a teacher: was I connecting with my students’ parents as fierce advocates for their children? What would it have meant for my students to learn civil rights movement history with this example from their own school building, perhaps the same classroom where activists’ children attended and then boycotted? Whatever knowledge this project creates, it must be readily accessible to today’s teachers in Harlem.
Finally, in the next phase of this project we may return to a question we explored early on but then were pulled away from as other opportunities opened. What are the particular opportunities created for spatial thinking, analysis, representation in an intensively local digital project? What can you see, or what questions are raised, when various primary sources – from oral histories to archival documents – can be seen spatially, with metadata and an interface that allows for mapping as an exploratory process? Since we were asking this question in 2012, other projects have taken up this direction. We’ll be learning from their example.
Ansley T. Erickson, Associate Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; Affiliated faculty, Teachers College Institute for Urban and Minority Education; Affiliated faculty, Columbia University Department of History
Ansley Erickson is a U.S. historian who focuses on educational inequality, segregation, and the interactions between schooling, urban and metropolitan space, and the economy. Her first book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2016 and won the History of Education Society’s Outstanding Book Award in 2017. Her work has also been awarded the History of Education Society Prize (2016), the Bancroft Dissertation Prize (2010), and the Claude A. Eggertsen Dissertation Prize (2011). Her research has been supported by an NAE/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, an Eisenhower Institute fellowship, and a Spencer Dissertation Fellowship.
Erickson co-directs the Harlem Education History Project with Ernest Morrell, Coyle Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Notre Dame. In 2017-18, she was a Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.
 Initially we worked across various platforms – a WordPress blog for conference information and other events, a CommentPress site for contributors to our edited volume to share and comment on one anothers’ drafts, as well as an Omeka instance for digital versions of primary source materials. Gradually, we reconfigured our Omeka site to do the work the blog had been doing as well.
In the era of Black Lives Matter and under a presidency that stokes racial division and traffics in lies, the website Black Perspectives feels all too relevant to our times. “[I]n order for Black lives to matter, we must engage the matters of Black thought,” Associate Editor J.T. Roane noted in an interview with The Metropole. Though not focusing solely on urban history, Black Perspectives nonetheless provides insight into cities around the globe and the people that inhabit them–particularly people of color. Executive Editor Keisha Blain, Associate Editor Ibram X. Kendi, and Roane have endeavored to create a “critical digital public” that will enable readers to slice through the “chicanery” of the modern news cycle and the layers of false historical discourse.
What was the impetus for creating Black Perspectives? Who do you see as your audience?
Within far too many American mainstream institutions, including its academic ones, the communities of the African Diaspora are either ignored, labeled as incorrigible social problems, or marked as helpless victims. Black communities are rarely and inconsistently acknowledged as the progenitors of generative intellectual thought, as producers of information with meaningful bearing on the matters we face as a global society.
We understand that Black intellectuals, those formally trained and those practitioners invisible from the purview of formal academic acknowledgement, are important to historicize and recall collectively, especially given our great perils, including the realities of peak oil, the violent reterritorialization of our cities, the mounting immigration and refugee crises. I approach my writing and editing for the blog from the premise that Black intellectual histories contain insights about our present, ones that can help us shift the grounds of the perilously anti-Black world we inherited through slavery, colonialism, apartheid, and racial capitalism. I see this as critical in shaping and invigorating a critical digital public, such an important task in an era when inequality in information accessibility is sharpening and in which a faction of the country has embraced outright chicanery.
Black Perspectives combines original historical research and contemporary social analysis organized in part through the basic understanding that that in order for Black lives to matter, we must engage the matters of Black thought.
I’m proud to serve in the capacity as associate editor for a platform that can produce such stunning public commentary as the July 2018 forum organized by Keisha Blain and Phillip Luke Sinitiere to honor the life and work of Sandra Bland. Taken together the pieces charted Bland’s death three years ago within histories of state violence and resistance, honored Bland’s important social justice activism, and poetically mourned the premature snuffing of her flame.
What do you hope people take away from Black Perspectives?
I hope that people come to view the matters of Black thought as myriad and complex engagements with social, economic, political, and intellectual problems as they emerged within the various historical contexts of the Diaspora. I hold these as a key roadmap to the Black Radical Tradition and as the intellectual seeds for unrealized but not unrealizable futures.
How did Black Perspectives come into being and what obstacles did you have to overcome?
Black Perspectives was organized as an accessible digital platform in 2017. It is an outgrowth of the AAIHS blog, which was founded by Christopher Cameron in 2014. Under the sage leadership of chief editor Keisha Blain and associate editor Ibram X. Kendi the platform has become a recognized site for information about the histories and ongoing work of Black communities to make sense of, survive, thrive, and lay the groundwork for a different world. Some of the obstacles we face are unique to the particular precariousness of being junior Black faculty writing publicly in ways that the academy still doesn’t fully embrace as “the work”—i.e. the print form journal articles and books that guarantee tenure. Other obstacles are the speed and nature of online platforms like Twitter where people can use anonymity to be cruel and violent. We have had to learn to take real-time feedback in stride and to brace ourselves and ignore some of the vileness that comes with the territory.
Where do you hope Black Perspectives goes in the future?
My hope is that Black Perspectives will continue to expand to include longer-format, more in-depth pieces within our repertoire as we transition to an online magazine format. My hope is also that we will continue to remain accessible—i.e. on the free side of a pay wall—as we also infuse public discussions with the critical insights derived from Black intellectual history.
How does Black Perspectives speak to urban history and what does it tell us that other sites don’t or can’t?
Much of my writing for the platform centers in the ways that urban Black communities from Philadelphia to Havana historically and in ongoing ways express alternative, often heterodox visions for cities and their futures. I hold these dissonant intellectual traditions about the urban form as the containers of epistemologies vital in the face of the radical criminalization and displacement that defines Black urban life from Detroit to Rio de Janeiro. They can help us to make sense of what is happening and also help us to draw forward out of latency processes and practices that resonate with and edify contemporary struggles to make the city livable for all.
J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati. He is also part of the University’s urban futures initiative. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia, which historicizes multiple modes of insurgent spatial assemblage Black communities articulated in Philadelphia in the second half of the twentieth century. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.
Undoubtedly, one of the break out digital humanities projects of the last decade is Mapping Inequality: Redlining in America, the impressively ambitious and ultimately very successful work resulting from the collaboration of scholars at Virginia Tech, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Maryland including LaDale Winling, Nathan Connolly, Richard Marciano, Brent Cebul and directed by Robert K. Nelson out of the University of Richmond.
In 2016, Forbes ranked it as one of the five GIS projects changing the public’s conception of institutional racism. As University of Iowa’s Sarah Bond wrote of Mapping Inequality: “Such spatial analysis allows us not only to see how racism is instituted, but also to see how historical decisions continue to have an impact on the U.S. today.” Nelson, Cebul, and others have embarked on a new digital initiative on a topic close the hearts of urban historians, urban renewal, with Renewing Inequality: Urban Renewal, Family Displacements, and Race, 1955-1966. The two historians sat down with The Metropole to discuss the motivations behind Renewing Inequality, the complexity of mapping urban renewal projects, and the insights they hope to provide into the process of post-World War II economic development.
What was the impetus behind Renewing Inequality and who do you envision as your audience?
Renewing Inequality is the sequel to Mapping Inequality, the earlier project we created around the maps produced by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s. We were and continue to be pleased to see journalists and other users of Mapping Inequality make connections between the federal government’s urban policies in the 1930s and the landscape of inequality–particularly along the lines of race–in American cities today. That said, in no simple way did redlining cause or alone shape contemporary inequality. And it wasn’t the only federal policy or program that shaped that landscape.
The urban renewal projects that the federal government largely funded in the third quarter of the twentieth century were arguably just as, if not more impactful than, redlining – and in many cases renewal was the solution prescribed for neighborhoods whose decline was sparked or accelerated by redlining. Those renewal projects ended up displacing hundreds of thousands of families from their homes, they destroyed hundreds of communities, and in many cases they accelerated urban decline rather than abating it. And throughout, families of color disproportionately bore the highest costs of displacement, over-crowding, and entrenched urban decline.
In short, we created Renewing Inequality for much the same reason we created Mapping Inequality: we hope to make more people aware of how the brunt of federal urban policy refracted through local government priorities and elite leadership fell upon the poor and people of color, the impact of which continues to be felt today. How did this Renewing Inequality come to fruition? Were there any obstacles did you had to overcome?
Urban renewal was obviously a very complicated program. One challenge we struggled with is how to offer an account–a history–of the program where the point was not obscured but instead revealed by the data. The students we worked with spent hundreds of hours entering and correcting data. We ended up being pretty aggressive in selecting the data we used and discarding much of it. We collected, for example, tens of thousands of individual pieces of data that categorized how much of each cleared project was re-zoned or re-purposed for commercial, industrial, residential, and public uses. None of that is visualized or shown in Renewing Inequality. In order to focus as much as we could on the enormous impact of the program on people we decided to foreground data about displacements and either bury pretty deep or entirely ignore other data we collected (which was painful!). We also developed a more qualitative section of the site devoted to the social and planning history of the program – its lived experience – which we call “The People and the Program.”
Another challenge that we faced, which is an ongoing struggle, is finding maps for individual projects. There were thousands of urban renewal projects funded by the federal government in hundreds of cities and towns. It has been surprisingly difficult to find maps for many of these projects, particularly in some of the smaller towns. We’re confident what we have in Renewing Inequality is the largest collection of urban renewal footprints created to date, but it’s still far from being comprehensive. Then again, we also learned that many urban renewal projects –the program funded local code enforcement initiatives, for instance–did not have officially defined project boundaries and therefore maps. But the qualitative historical record suggests that these sorts of programs were almost certainly targeted on specific neighborhoods and people and, in the case of code enforcement, could accelerate displacement by means other than condemnation, eminent domain, and razing homes.
What role do digital projects like Renewing Inequality play in the field of history? Where do you see this project and others like it going in the future?
In urban history, in particular, urban renewal has most often been studied at the scale of the largest cities. In terms of sheer number of people displaced, the Chicagos, Detroits, and New Yorks are clearly the most significant. But what our data also makes clear is that renewal was a program most often deployed in smaller cities of 50,000, 25,000, even 10,000 or fewer residents. If the twentieth century was a century of urbanization, many of these urbanizing cities participated in urban renewal, and often with devastating effects upon residents of color and their urban fabrics. So our hope is that this project joins more recent efforts by scholars such as Douglas Appler and James Connolly to encourage urban historians to broaden our conception of what counts as “urban” in urban history. In the case of urban renewal, a preponderance of programs were deployed in cities like Rome, Georgia or Easton, Pennsylvania. Being able to visualize this historical reality is one way to begin to broaden our field of view.
One of the next steps we’re taking is a partnership (still in its infancy) with MASS Design Group on an exhibit tailored to urban designers and planners that might alert them to the history of urban renewal in mid-sized and smaller cities. As with Mapping Inequality, our goal will be to explore the connections between past policies and present inequalities, and, in this case, help urban planners and designers to think more capaciously about the roles of history, enfranchisement, and scale when designing plans for cities across the spectrum of urban forms. This partnership should result in some new applications within Renewing Inequality, so stay tuned for updates to the site.
Urban renewal has been a very big topic among historians, what misperceptions or myths regarding it do you hope to correct?
We’ve mentioned the need to consider smaller and mid-sized cities, where the majority of renewal projects took place and which continue to be the preponderant but too often overlooked urban form in the United States. But another aspect of urban renewal that we visualize though perhaps we don’t emphasize enough is the evolving, surprisingly plastic goals of urban renewal. What began almost exclusively as a housing and development program came to encompass broader goals over time (often when planners and policymakers were faced with resident activism against the local plans). Urban renewal funds were used to advance the expansion of university and colleges by the late 1950s, to take the first steps toward hospital-based redevelopment of deindustrializing cities, and later to rebuild areas decimated by natural disasters. For instance, five of the six cities in Alaska that received “urban renewal” funding received it as disaster funding after the 1964 earthquake that caused a devastating tsunami. The “Valdez Area” project “displaced” the entirety of that small town as it was moved several miles west to a seismically stabler area. These were larger scale programs akin to the earlier uses of the program, but over the course of the 1960s, the program was amended to include much smaller scale interventions: programs for city beautification through tree planting, parks, and playgrounds; citizen outreach meetings and planning initiatives; and even grants directly to homeowners to rehabilitate their homes rather than raze them. Though the backlash to the program brought it to an end in 1974, for over a decade leading up to its demise the program was continuously amended to incorporate critiques of the mega-block style that dominated in the 1950s and early 1960s. We’ve tried to capture this evolution in our legislative history of the program.
Considering the success of Mapping Inequality, how do your hopes or aspirations for Renewing Inequality compare? Similar? Different? Why?
One of the tragic ironies at the heart of the success of Mapping Inequality is that it derives from the perverse beauty and clarity of the HOLC maps themselves as well as the ugliness and equally clear racism so often voiced in the accompanying area descriptions. The forcefulness and intelligibility of these materials has led to a great deal of visibility for our site. But those same qualities have also led some to point to redlining as a monocausal agent leading to all sorts of instances of urban inequality today. Renewing Inequality complicates those monocausal explanations of contemporary inequality. While complexity isn’t always the best route to attracting eyeballs, Renewing Inequality offers a very data-rich, comparative, and nuanced portrait of the ongoing effort to redevelop cities at midcentury that helps to explain not only ongoing forms of inequality but why it is that downtowns in places as seemingly distinct as Lawton, Oklahoma (population 61,700 in 1960) and Boston share characteristics like modernist, megablock, center city developments.
Robert K. Nelson is director of the Digital Scholarship Lab and affiliated faculty in the American Studies Program at the University of Richmond. He has authored, directed, or edited digital humanities projects such as American Panorama: An Atlas of United States History, “Mining the Dispatch,” and an enhanced edition of the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. He teaches and writes on antislavery and slavery in the nineteenth-century United States.
Brent Cebul is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His scholarship sits at the intersection of urban and political history with topical interests in federalism, inequality, and political and economic development. His first book is Illusions of Progress: Business, Poverty, and Development in the American Century (under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press). It is a history of how and why 20th century liberals repeatedly convinced themselves that stimulating business growth might fight poverty. At Penn, Cebul is also a Mellon Research Fellow at the Price Lab for Digital Humanities.
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