Kara Murphy Schlichting
Assistant Professor of History
Queens College, City University of New York
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I thought I would be an environmental historian of the American West, particularly the Utah desert (really). But my first year in graduate school at Rutgers reinforced to me that environment was also everyday and urban. And there I was living in New York, jogging along the East River on the narrow path between the ConEd plant and the FDR drive. I ended up researching how the characteristics of the coastal environment of the East River and Long Island Sound shaped urbanization and, in turn, the environmental change wrought by regional growth in metropolitan New York. My first book New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore is forthcoming this spring with the University of Chicago Press. This book examines the city’s geographic edges—the coastlines and waterways—and the small-time unelected locals and residents who quietly but indelibly shaped the modern city alongside power brokers like Robert Moses. It challenges the idea that urbanization is always a linear progression and that growth is always directed by central planners and government officials. Ordinary citizens (like joggers in waterfront parks!) also played a role.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
Besides the US survey, I teach courses on the history of New York City and the history of Queens and the outer boroughs. My forthcoming book grew from the question “what does the history of the city look like if we get off Manhattan, stop obsessing about the powerbrokers of city hall, and look at the people and spaces of the periphery?” Manhattan is only 7% of the city. There is so much more to discover, and my outer boroughs research class encourages students to dig into this history. This spring I am teaching a new urban environmental history seminar, which looks at cities nationwide. I believe that urban history is inherently about environment–an idea I look forward to pitching to the students in my senior seminar this spring.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I have a continually growing list of publications I am looking forward to from 2018 alone. I just got a copy of Karen Routledge’s Do You See Ice? Inuit and Americans at Home and Away and ordered Andrew Kahrl’s Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline. I am also on the waitlist for Joanna B. Freeman’s The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War. I am not a historian of antebellum America, but it is one of my favorite eras to read about.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
I would say read widely. This is advice I also give myself. There is so much to be read about New York that I could never read a history of anything besides the city I live in and research and teach about. But then I would miss the smart work underway (and on display at the UHA this past fall) on cities like Hamburg, with its growing storm surge concerns, or the problems of made land in San Francisco, two topics that are also crucial to New York City’s history. We all have very specific research agendas, but that research benefits from creative, comparative thinking.
Your research interests center on shorelines and waterfronts. When vacation time rolls around, are you a beach enthusiast or do you run for the hills?
I am mystified that this is even a choice for people. The shore always wins for me. I have family in Rhode Island which has wide sandy beaches, I grew up on Long Island Sound’s rocky shores, and I live three blocks from the East River in Brooklyn, which has derelict piers and fancy new parks. I love them all equally, in any weather.