Francesca Russello Ammon
Associate Professor of City & Regional Planning and Historic Preservation
Weitzman School of Design, University of Pennsylvania
When and where was your first UHA conference?
In fall 2006, I presented my first UHA paper at the conference at the University of Arizona. It was a wonderful opportunity to present on a panel with colleagues with whom I’ve been excited to reunite at nearly every UHA and SACRPH conference since; and, the paper I presented eventually became a journal article. One of my favorite memories from the conference, however, was when several female faculty members (now senior scholars) invited me to join them for dinner. I didn’t know what to expect of academic conferences, and it was a pleasure to find such a welcoming community—including to junior scholars who are new to the field. The connections that the organization’s events afford—both scholarly and personal—make this field feel more exciting and fun. I particularly appreciate the conferences for that, but the work of everyone on The Metropole also certainly helps to sustain that sense of community throughout the year.
Please describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
My current research focuses on two areas: the relationship between urban renewal and rehabilitation/preservation, and the ways that photography has shaped cities. Both of these areas have also led me to the urban digital humanities. These interests grow out of my first book, Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape, which examines the large-scale destruction of buildings and land to clear space for urban renewal, suburban development, and interstate highway projects of the postwar era. After Bulldozer, I became interested in studying alternatives to large-scale clearance that also took root during this period. I’m looking especially at the landmark urban renewal project of Society Hill, Philadelphia, to understand this parallel story.
In all of my research, photographs have proven to be important—and often underappreciated—sources. The ways that photographs of “blight” helped sanction urban renewal clearance may be relatively familiar, but images also helped determine restoration and rehabilitation projects as well. Photographs also provide unique archives of development processes and urban change. A team including myself, Brian Goldstein, and Garrett Dash Nelson is currently aggregating and analyzing Ed Ruscha’s archive of Sunset Boulevard street photographs, from Los Angeles, to uncover what they can tell us about vernacular forms of everyday urban change. The scale of this archive has led us to begin to develop a digital humanities tool to examine and articulate this story.
What are you currently teaching, and how does it relate to your scholarship?
I primarily teach graduate students in both city planning and historic preservation. In my introductory course on planning history and theory, urban renewal receives its due—and a Society Hill walking tour that we include served as the initial seed for my current book project. I also teach a documentation course in historic preservation, the city planning thesis course, and a seminar on “Photography and the City.” This last course obviously connects to my research interest in visual culture. One benefit of the Zoom format this past semester has been that it has made it easier for students to spontaneously add photographs to our seminar conversations.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
There is so much great work that was recently published or is on the horizon, and I regret that the pandemic has diminished some of the usual opportunities we have (e.g., book exhibits at our annual conferences, book talks on campus) for getting to know that work. It is for that reason that several colleagues and I (including Aaron Shkuda and Brian Goldstein) from SACRPH organized a series of Zoom book conversations between authors of recently published books. Like many who attended those events, I quickly purchased copies of these books to add to my own office shelf. Among these, I am particularly excited about Akira Drake Rodriguez’s Diverging Space for Deviants: The Politics of Atlanta’s Public Housing (University of Georgia Press, 2021). I have the pleasure of co-teaching with Akira at Penn, and I am delighted that her long-term research project is now out in the world for us to read and to teach!
What kinds of advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers?
My advice is the same as what I always tell my thesis students: follow your instincts to the topic that most interests you. Rather than trying to guess the next fad or a topic that you think will excite employers, dig into the subjects and sources that excite you, and read widely. Then, carve your own path based upon the sources and your passions.