Member of the Week: Elaine Lewinnek

Lewinnek headshotElaine Lewinnek

Professor of American Studies

California State University, Fullerton

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

At the UHA meeting in Philadelphia, I was enthusing to Laura Barraclough about her book, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, which takes insights from urban historians and radical geographers, presenting them in an appealing guidebook format that is open-ended and wonderfully teachable. “You need another guidebook for Orange County,” I gushed to Laura, since Orange County is the county I teach in, is heavily touristed, and may be even more amnesiac than Los Angeles is about its own fascinating history.

“You’re right,” Laura responded, “We do need a People’s Guide to Orange County, and you should write it.” Laura Barraclough, Laura Pulido, and Wendy Cheng — the co-authors of the original People’s Guide to Los Angeles — are now working with University of California Press as series editors for People’s Guides. Because of that conversation in between sessions at a UHA conference, I am now working on A People’s Guide to Orange County along with my co-authors Gustavo Arellano and Thuy Vo Dang.

We are excited to tell Orange County’s full story. Orange County is a space of segregation and resistance to segregation, privatizations and the struggle for public space, too-often-forgotten labor disputes, politicized religions, global Cold War migrations, and efforts for environmental justice. Memorably, Ronald Reagan called Orange County the place “where all the good Republicans go to die,” but it is also the place where working-class immigrants live and work in its military-industrial and tourist-service economies. There are many urban histories to tell here. After I spoke about this project at the UHA meeting in Chicago, The Metropole co-editor Ryan Reft interviewed me and Thuy over at KCET.

What strikes me now is how UHA conferences led me to this project and how much they deepened it. I hope others find our upcoming UHA conference as inspiring.

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

I teach in an American Studies department where my courses include urban histories of suburbs, Los Angeles, southern California, and a class called “Race, Sex, and the City.” I also teach classes about cultural-studies topics like “The American Dream,” U.S. history, California cultures, public memory, and cultural studies theory and method. My students’ enormous appetite for learning the stories that surround the places they know certainly feeds into my current project, which, in return, enriches my teaching. In a U.S. history survey course, there is a dramatic difference between telling students that lynchings happened all across the United States and telling students precisely where the nearest lynching tree is.

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

See my answer to question 5. Serving on the UHA 2018 conference program committee really shaped what I’m excited to read in the future.

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

Congratulations for choosing something that matters so crucially. You happen to be entering one of the friendliest fields I know of in academia, perhaps because we tend to feel there is room for each of us to study different cities, but also because the elders of this field – Richard Harris, Dolores Hayden, Kenneth Jackson, Tom Sugrue, and so many others – are each wonderfully decent people. I did not get to meet Arnold Hirsch, but our upcoming UHA conference includes a panel addressing his legacy and I have been struck by how many people describe him as a mensch. You have entered a field of mensches. Welcome.

Serving on a conference program committee sounds like a great way to read the temperature of a subfield. What were your big take-aways from reviewing all the panels and proposals for UHA 2018 in Columbia?

Great question. Right now, we’re making many small corrections to the conference program, so my latest insight is surprise at the number of people whose institutional affiliations have changed since they submitted their proposals. I would like to think this is a sign of universities eager to hire urban historians, but I am afraid it may be a sign of the precariousness of academic employment right now.

More to the point of your question, this year’s conference has terrific diversity and breadth. There are sessions at the intersection of urban history and carceral studies, environmental history, queer studies, labor history, cultural studies, and public history. This year’s conference features numerous papers analyzing times before the twentieth century or spaces outside of North America. Our field is growing. Our upcoming conference also includes panels reconsidering urban history in museums, teaching urban history (both globally and at the high school level), and presenting urban history in documentary films. I am excited that, on Friday afternoon, October 19th, the conference will include a series of documentary films.

This reaching for broader audiences extends beyond the conference itself. In Andrew Kahrl’s recent interview about the people affected by Hurricane Florence, and David Freund’s introduction to the new reader The Modern American Metropolis, I see urban historians speaking up about the ways that the history of land-use choices and urban-planning decisions have exacerbated our current crises of climate change and mega-storms. Understanding today’s news requires understanding urban history, and we are slowly doing better at getting that message out, so I am not just excited about publications but about public urban history in general.

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