The Second Story: Looking Up to Henry Binford

By Amanda I. Seligman

Henry Binford’s most legendary urban tours are ones that he led on Chicago’s elevated trains, but he knows his way around the city by car too. Once while driving with a small group during my time in graduate school, Henry found his planned route blocked. Undeterred, he drove over a block or two and instead discussed the buildings and landscape there, as if that had been his intent all along. It was perhaps on this unplanned detour that he imparted one of his most important lessons to this budding urban historian: Look up! The second story has as much to teach you as the first.

Henry’s insight about looking to second stories has held me in good stead my whole career. It’s a lesson I have passed on to my children, even though they are destined for futures beyond urban history. Looking up—literally as well as metaphorically—yields all kinds of details omitted from the first story: the original purpose of a building or its owner’s name; the date of its construction; ornamental elements that reveal its role in the city. Historians instinctively look down, dig deep, expose the roots—for urban historians, that means the physical infrastructure under the pavement, the water and sewer system, electrical wires, and gas mains, as well as the social, political, and economic origins of the modern city. But the second story also illuminates how the pieces of the urban landscape fit together into a diverse and layered whole.

Henry Binford, above, circa the 1970s, May 27, 2022 photograph by Amanda I. Seligman.

The First Story: Foundation of a Remarkable Career

Last May’s celebration of Henry Binford’s retirement from the Northwestern University History Department framed elements of his first story. Although the broad outlines of Henry’s biography were familiar, the long retrospective interview and colleagues’ toasts filled in details that I had missed in graduate school. Like many professors at top American universities, Henry has an elite academic background: high school at Phillips Andover Academy, bachelor’s and graduate degrees from Harvard (where his advisor was Oscar Handlin), plus a self-financed year at the University of Sussex. Thanks to his social history computing chops, Henry landed unexpectedly at Northwestern in 1973 and never left. He retired in 2022 after 49 years of dedicated teaching and service.

Unlike most faculty of his vintage, Henry’s first story also has distinctive African American elements. His parents were successful professionals who facilitated his access to private educational institutions. They relocated the family back to Washington, DC, from Ohio in 1954, which meant that he spent just a semester at a segregated public school before Brown vs. Board of Education changed the nation’s opportunity landscape. Part of a tiny, close-knit cohort of Black students at Harvard in the 1960s, he once escorted their distinguished guest, James Baldwin, to a public lecture. At Northwestern in the 1970s, he experienced criticism of his Afro from a senior colleague while simultaneously lifting up stories about Black women.

Henry’s manner and scholarly output are modest. His tenure book, The First Suburbs, examined how Cambridge commuters understood their suburb on its own and in relationship to Boston.[1] His new book, From Improvement to City Planning, is the result of decades of development. It explores how the urban improvement efforts of Cincinnati’s early nineteenth-century elites constituted a pre-history of professional planning.[2] When invited at his retirement celebration to summarize his scholarly intervention in the field, Henry demurred. The most gratifying legacy of his career, he offered instead, was when former students wrote to him after their travels in world cities reminded them what they had learned in his class.

Henry Binford at the May 27, 2022 event. Photograph by Amanda I. Seligman.

The Second Story: A Way of Seeing and a Way of Being

This characteristic humility about his accomplishments points to Henry’s second story, the one that illuminates his distinctive academic contributions. His legacy is not a breakthrough interpretation of urban history or the uncovering of an obscure event or person critical to our understanding of the past. Rather, what Henry offers us are ways of seeing urban history and being in the academy.

After reading the manuscript that became From Improvement to City Planning, I began to grasp how Henry’s vision of urban history had shaped my thinking. The book is full of the slow-baked ideas that undergird my understanding of American urban history and animate how I teach my own students. The first aspect of this legacy is the sympathetic understanding of how people sought to manage their environment. Henry assumes that the historical figures he writes about, such as the Cincinnati boosters, were sincere in their improvement efforts. Although he is not without criticism of them, he takes seriously the ideas that animated their improvement projects. The second part of this legacy is an interest in governance rather than government. Henry’s book examines people who wanted to change Cincinnati and how they went about doing so, whether they were public or private actors, and regardless of how much money they had to achieve their goals.

With decades of perspective, I can now see Henry’s intellectual fingerprints all over my teaching and my scholarship. Yet, he never told me that I should conduct my scholarship in one way or another. Rather, he reacted to what I was producing and gently counseled me about how to make it better. When I teach the United States urban history course, I tell students that my greatest hope is that they will take away from the class a recognition that the physical environment has a history. If they pay attention as they walk through cities, they will be able to see the past built into the present. The insight I most hope to spread is exactly what Henry taught me to see.

Northwestern students express their appreciation for Binford, May 27, 2022 photograph by Amanda I. Seligman.

Henry’s conduct as a classroom teacher and advisor is also one I aspire to recreate in an academy that is too often dispiriting. I cannot recall a single word Henry spoke or comment that he left on my work that made me feel less than whole or incapable of achieving my goals. Once, he noticed me feeling overwhelmed by the whole enterprise and steered a friend to help me clear my head at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Henry understood why students messed up. He had a gift for calling them out for the error of their ways without leaving them damned, for seeing their mistakes with clear eyes without taking any of it personally. A laudatory quotation from student evaluations shared at his retirement party summarized how Henry embodies the combination of decency and brilliance we all yearn for in our leadership: “Binford for President!”

Look Up!

Once, Henry told me about a negative review of The First Suburbs by a senior scholar. Ah, he explained, I see how someone could misunderstand what I was trying to say if they read my book too quickly. Henry extends humanistic generosity to everyone: to students, to colleagues, to historical figures, and even to himself. His legacy is in modeling self-governance—in how to see and how to be. You cannot learn or teach this approach through an interpretive catchphrase, flashy pedagogy, or behavioral prescription. It is passed from one person to another through direct exposure. If you are lucky enough to receive this slow and gentle instruction, I hope you look up to catch the most important details.

Amanda I. Seligman earned her PhD at Northwestern University in 1999. Since then, she has tried to live up to Henry Binford’s model at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she teaches history and urban studies. Her projects include Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago’s West Side (University of Chicago Press, 2005), Is Graduate School Really for You?: The Whos, Whats, Hows, and Whys of Pursuing a Master’s or Ph.D. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), Chicago’s Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City (University of Chicago Press, 2016), and the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. Seligman thanks Barbara Posadas and Daniel Horowitz for their feedback on this essay.

Featured image (at top): Henry Binford taught five decades of students to read the urban landscape. By looking at the second story as well as the first, we can learn the deep history as well as the present use of a structure. In this photo from Milwaukee, in case the central garage door and statue of a fireman at rest were not enough to alert passersby the that the medical building used to have a different function, the inscription on the second story explains key elements of its history as a fire station.

[1] Henry C. Binford, The First Suburbs: Residential Communities on the Boston Periphery, 1815-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

[2] Henry C. Binford, From Improvement to City Planning: Spatial Management in Cincinnati from the Early Republic through the Civil War Decade (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 2021).

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