Professor of Urban History
Department of Transnational Studies
University at Buffalo
Coordinator, Global Urban History Project
Board Secretary, People United for Sustainable Housing, PUSH Buffalo.
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
While writing my book on segregation, I got interested the relationship between urban history and other forms of history that currently occupy separate silos of scholarly practice—world or global history first of all, and, more recently, environmental history. For me, that means continuing to hone all of the skills we learn as urban historians to explore what happens when people live and act in large concentrated habitats, generating enormously dense and complex collective experiences. It also means giving more time than we often give ourselves to read about as many cities as possible beyond the single city or region of our graduate training and teaching practice. It means collaboration too–in my case as someone trained in modern US history reaching out to scholars who work on China, Brazil, the Middle East, West Africa, and Central Asia, reading medieval and ancient historians, and reading, reading, reading the secondary literature for clues that might bring any of the many stories we tell together—or not. Sometimes it means pressing these colleagues from around the world whether there are archival resources they know of that allow us to explore some of these linkages further than in their own work. It also means exploring urban studies more generally, into geography and sociology where the urban, global, and environmental are not as segregated as in history–and collaborating accordingly. Finally, it means asking questions about what we might call the framing questions of urban history. Why study “cities” alone? How exactly do big, concentrated built habitats matter to other human-built or human-altered spaces more generally and vice versa? Same with spaces that, not so long ago we (and urban humans in particular) affected far less than we do now, like the oceans, deserts, ice caps, and the atmosphere as a whole. What about the relationship between our spatial organization and change over time? We know cities are important to world history, but what is it exactly that makes that so? How does space—the setting of the story, matter to things like the geographical scale of things, the local and the global, for example, or to the temporal scale of things, to continuity and disruption? How about the scale of actions that such spaces, and arguably no others, allow us to take? We talk a lot about cities as “processes” and maybe for good reason . However, to me anyway, relying solely on “process” seems to ignore the intentionality and the power they need to mobilize in order to build anything. Are cities, with the opportunities they offer for coordinated projects, the places where our intentions can generate Jane Jacobs-like synergies with other projects that create “processes” operating beyond anyone’s intentions that we later interpret as globally significant events or historic continuities? What then about cities’ equally notorious fractiousness—is that a driving source of discontinuity in world history? Is it absurd to argue that a single type of space is a major causal factor for both continuity and change? In the upcoming years, I hope to explore these questions further in conversation and print.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
Teaching a course on global urban history for the past few years—once my university phased out the requirement for the “World Civilizations” course I used to teach—has literally forced me to practice everything I just preached. I find students are equally excited by questions about the density of life in cities around the world—typically arising from their own “consumption” of city life as would-be flaneurs, café denizens, club hoppers, apartment renters, or tourists—with other questions that engage the human predicament of our own time.
In addition to teaching, I got together with a few colleagues in 2017 to launch the Global Urban History Project (GUHP, pronounced “gup”) that is designed to focus energy on the specific kinds of collaboration, reading, and question asking that I described above. It’s pretty cheap to join (there’s still a $0 option if you really need it), so if you’re interested, it makes a reasonable complement to your UHA, SACRPH, IPHS, or EAUH membership.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I am super-excited by the huge amount of very diverse scholarship emerging under the rubric of global urban history. Last summer, GUHP co-organized two events, one in conjunction with Merry Wiesner-Hanks and the World History Association in San Juan Puerto Rico, the other with Simon Gunn and Prashant Kidambi of the Centre for Urban History in Leicester, UK. We convinced the critical geographer Christian Schmidt to talk to us about Planetary Urbanization theory. Sunil Amrtih started his keynote address by evoking massive river flooding and urged us to think about built and unbuilt environments as one. These were synapse-cracking events for me, and there were many “best” moments. The “bestest” moments of all were the presentations of graduate students and junior scholars from universities around the world who sat on panels on Latin America, Africa, various regions of Asia, and perhaps even more those that sat on panels where several of these regions were represented. Europeanists and Norte Americanistas were there too, but the main thing was always the linkages–and the willingness to stretch the scope of our questioning.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
Read, read, read in your field and out of it. Never stop reading. Collaborate. It’s never been easier or more necessary, and nothing can honor your urban sensibility more than to build your own “city’ of scholars by whatever electronic means you choose. The UHA, GUHP, SACRPH,IPHS, and EAUH are all great and very real town squares, but don’t rely on the jet fuel required for conference-going alone. Virtual space can be just as good, especially in pursuit of the hyper-specialized specifics we often need in our work, “global” or otherwise.
Outside of academia, you volunteer with many community-based organizations and serve on the Board of Directors for PUSH Buffalo (People United for Sustainable Housing). You also teach a course on racial justice. How has your scholarship influenced your interest in volunteering and activism, and vice versa? How can young scholars become involved in similar work?
Having just told students to read and collaborate every waking moment of their lives, it’s hard to say: “and meanwhile make urban history yourself too!” The reality is, it’s almost impossible to do this well, just like it’s hard to design an attache case that’s also a backpack and does neither very well. You can do everything–get tenure and lead the movement against cities’ role in climate change–just not at the same time. I am extremely fortunate to live in the same habitat as PUSH Buffalo, an organization that I believe our graduate students’ graduate students will soon write about—the geographers and sociologists already are! PUSH’s culture of tolerance for meddling professors like me is extraordinary, and for that, I thank the organizations’ co-founders Aaron Bartley and Eric Walker, its current Executive Director Rahwa Ghirmatzion, and the many brilliant organizers, grant writers, and community activists I have been so lucky to learn from over the last fifteen years. But my fortune isn’t the point. PUSH is doing what people have so rarely done in 6,000 years of urban history. It’s seeking ways to re-invest in a catastrophically disinvested community in ways that build affordable and safe housing, that substitutes community-controlled sources of renewable energy for extracted energy wherever it can, that trains people how to demand that society pays for that work, and finally that trains people to do that work and get paid for it. This is a sacred mission, which far exceeds any individual academic agenda in import, even if it can occasionally benefit from what we do as professors and students. The main thing is to remain awestruck in the presence of the professionals who do this work as well as the communities they seek to represent, and don’t try to become either. Find an organization with strong capacity to handle volunteers, and do something small, useful, and preferably unconnected to your research agenda that brings real assets to the organization. Adapting your teaching to a popular education frame is a good place to start—I took documentaries out of the university library and made a film series from them. Involve your own students only with great care and preparation, with activities that are appropriate for volunteers who have only a few hours to spare and who may not be even remotely aligned with the organization’s mission. Make as long and enduring a commitment as you can, and slowly integrate bigger activist projects into your life as your academic career allows and as the organization directs. Don’t do anything that’s another full time job. If you like urban movement building better than university work, quit, go to an organizing academy, and look for a living-wage job in that field instead.