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Digital Summer School: Chicago Elections Project

After sojourning to the East Coast to visit the Gotham Center’s Gotham blog last week, we now travel to capital of the Midwest, Chicago, where LaDale Winling and others have embarked on an ambitious project that combines political science, history and GIS mapping to create the Chicago Elections Project (CEP). Winling, who has both a new book out, Building the Ivory Tower, and worked on the very successful Mapping Inequality project, sat down to discuss the roots of the CEP, the challenges faced in putting it together, and what makes Chicago such a worthwhile case study for urban political history.

This is the fourth in our Digital Summer School series, including the aforementioned Gotham blog, the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, and Tropics of Meta.

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Harold Washington Library Center, Passing ‘El’ Train, Chicago, Illinois, photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience?

In the summer of 2017, I was doing some research on Oscar DePriest and Arthur Mitchell, the first two black Congressmen from a northern district, DePriest as a Republican and Mitchell, a Democrat. Devin Hunter, a fellow Chicago historian, told me that the Chicago Public Library held detailed election results for their two head-to-head elections in one of their collections, so I went to check it out.

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“The map captures the results of the 1936 election for Congress in IL-01 in Chicago, a rematch between Oscar DePriest and Arthur Mitchell.  Mitchell won re-election in 1936, but it was largely due to districts with white voters.” – LaDale Winling

The Harold Washington Library of the CPL has nearly a hundred thousand “aperture” microfilm cards of detailed election results, down to the precinct level, going back to 1886. They have data for municipal, state, and federal elections and primaries, as well as the precinct and ward boundary maps to go with them. It was exciting and nearly overwhelming to find such a treasure trove of material on urban political history. It was also extremely frustrating to wrestle with the microfilm reader and squint at the faint and grainy data in negative on the screen. Through social media inquiries, I heard from a few historians that they had used this collection before, with some of the same difficulties, and the wheels in my mind began to turn. Margaret Garb at Washington University had used this collection in her recent book Freedom’s Ballot on black politics in Chicago.  Also, Richard Anderson, who is just completing his PhD at Princeton University, had digitized some elections for his dissertation on post-WWII Chicago politics, called ‘The City That Worked.”

One of my fundamental ideas as a digital historian is that there is value in providing access to data, something I saw, for example, when a group of my collaborators made the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation redlining maps available through Mapping Inequality. Since there was established demand for these election results, I thought there would be opportunities to broaden access and simply make it easier for people to conduct the research they were already doing.

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[Alderman Edward Vrdolyak (aka “Fast Eddie Vrdolyak”, standing, center) gesturing during a meeting of the Chicago City Council with Mayor Harold Washington, as Alderman Edward M. Burke stands behind him], photograph by Lee Balgemann, May 11, 1983, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
In addition, access to this data and digital mapping resources can help us think about urban political history in new ways—as diverse coalitions, independent individuals, and communities with shifting interests and alliances. We often use the metaphor of the political “machine” to describe urban politics. That image and concept can obscure the variety of political activities, patronage employees and power centers operating in cities. A political machine can be decentralized and some of the key connections may be between the ward offices, precinct captains, and the local voters, rather than through city hall. We know this, and some of the best urban political history accounts for this. However, the research burden of investigating the variety of neighborhoods and communities in a large city can be very challenging—that spade work often gets lost in favor of synthesis or providing context.

Finally, I want to emphasize that elections matter. Studying these popular expressions of political sentiment is an important way of understanding social change. My suspicion is that we often rely on qualitative explanations and narratives for political change without drawing on the messy data where voters express their actual choices.

In terms of audience, we want to provide for scholars, to reach journalists, and to connect with the public at large. Chicago historians and urban political historians who have already been using the microfilm will get better, easier access. Chicago journalists will be able to draw on this material for data visualization and to craft more detailed and meaningful stories about Chicago politics that go beyond the typical mayoral narratives. Chicagoans interested in the history of their city, their ward, their precinct, or their neighborhood will find something about the history of their communities. Chicago loves to talk politics and this will help us do it better.

Why Chicago?

Chicago has been a well-studied center of urban sociology and urban politics that, through the tradition of scholarship coming out of the many Chicago universities, has strongly shaped the way we think about urban history. By taking this new look at Chicago, we can enable an interesting set of inquiries about neighborhoods, political figures, and policymaking that can be a model for other cities around the country.

I also lived in metro Chicago (Evanston) for several years in graduate school and studied the University of Chicago and surrounding for a chapter in my book, Building the Ivory Tower. It is a place I return to for archival research each year, so Chicago also makes sense for me logistically.

How does GIS contribute to a data-rich effort like the Chicago Elections Project and what do you hope people will take away from this?

We’re in the early stages, but when we launch, I envision this project as a comprehensive data resource for Chicago political history – one where users can appreciate the multitude of Chicago political figures, the fine-grained geography of city neighborhoods, and the interaction between space and politics. We live our lives in space, build community in space, and spatial relations structure our politics, whether it be racial segregation, the provision of civic infrastructure, or other investments. So we’d like people to appreciate the historical importance of counting votes, getting out the vote, of targeting appeals to specific neighborhoods and demographics. We recognize all of these things in contemporary political campaigns and elections, but they are hard to reconstruct and do justice to in historical research. Digital data management and mapping technologies help us handle this type of research.

Through a project like this we can also teach history students and research assistants digital skills in the course of building the site and collections. History students learn GIS, HTML coding, image editing, digital archiving, and data management by working on some pieces of a larger digital project as part of their college or grad school experiences. They can go on and apply these skills to their own research or to their career work after graduation.

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The historic Chicago Theater, Chicago, Illinois, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This project is in its early stages. What obstacles do you face?

Building any new collaboration brings questions and challenges – how much time people can devote to the project, whether we have compatible interests and visions, how we can accumulate the resources to pull it off – and that takes time to negotiate and navigate. There is a set of supportive participants and advisors with interests in Chicago politics (Richard Anderson, Margaret Garb, Brad Hunt, Nora Krinitsky, Christopher Manning, and Christopher Reed, in addition to me), which has been a great help, and we would always welcome additional collaborators.

We next would like to find an institutional home for the project that is publicly engaged with the city of Chicago. Chicago Public Library administrators have not yet agreed to host this as a digital project. It takes a while to reorient institutional priorities and we’re working to get the library to take this project seriously. Some of the staff has been very cooperative in facilitating the digitization phase of the Chicago Elections Project, but we’re just at the start of a long process. Scanning; data entry, checking, and cleaning; creating relational databases; and drawing digital maps in ArcGIS all take a long time and a lot of labor.

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Chicago Federal Center, Chicago, Illinois, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, July 27, 2007, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Where do you hope it goes in the future?

The ambition is to catalyze a data-enabled, spatially-informed way of approaching urban political history, so building relationships with scholars in other cities could help start that process and demonstrate the possibilities elsewhere. I have just started conversations with a library in New York City that also has a large collection of elections data somewhat like Chicago’s, which may be the first step.

 

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Chicago Merchandise Mart, the world’s largest wholesalers’ building. Chicago, Illinois, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

The career of Barack Obama prompted several projects examining Chicago politics, from the Making Obama podcast to David Garrow’s book, Rising Star, and Gary Rivlin’s book on Harold Washington, Fire on the Prairie. What does this project have to contribute to our understanding of the already well-trod topic of Chicago politics?

All of those very good projects rely on narratives that are fairly triumphant about racial dynamics – either voters’ acceptance of African American candidates or black elected officials’ skillful navigation of racial politics.

David Axelrod, who worked for both Harold Washington and Barack Obama, tells a tale about how Harold Washington’s mayoral tenure helped pave the way for Barack Obama’s rise. It’s a neat story, and he illustrates it by saying on election night for the Senate primary in 2004, Axelrod checked a northwest side precinct where Washington had faced protests and white opposition. Washington lost the precinct, 10 to 1, but in 2004, Obama carried the precinct. Axelrod’s takeaway is that Chicago grew more tolerant, even in its most regressive neighborhoods, because of Harold Washington.

It’s not as tidy as that. Groups like the “lakefront liberals,” who were supposedly strong supporters of Washington, voted for his opponents, in many precincts, by large majorities. Northwest side precincts were changed as much by demographic transition as by any changes in hearts and minds, and this spatial and voting data helps us investigate that in detail.

So this project can help scholars bring together comprehensive data resources with excellent, synthetic scholarship. The combination of data and narrative can help us enrich the stories that we tell, improve our arguments, and help us appreciate both the optimism and the failures of our very messy democratic process.

Featured image (at top): Chicago silhouette, Chicago, Illinois, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

Winling-Headshot2.jpgLaDale Winling is an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, where he teaches U.S. urban history, digital history, and public history.  He is one of the co-creators of ‘Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America’ and a forthcoming project on U.S. Congressional elections, both part of the American Panorama digital atlas from the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond.  His book on universities and urban politics, Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2017.

Grad Student Blog Contest Deadline Extended to August 1

We couldn’t resist extending the Second Annual UHA/Metropole Grad Student Blog Contest two more weeks! Why? Why not?! You know have until August 1 to enter the contest.

First prize claims $100 but as important is the value of contributing to a lively public discourse and active dialogue within the profession of urban history. It doesn’t hurt that a panel of distinguished, award-winning urban historians will judge it: UHA President Richard Harris, Pulitzer-prize winner and UHA President-elect Heather Ann Thompson, and standard-bearer in the field, Tom Sugrue, author of the foundational Origins of the Urban Crisis.

The rules are below, and there’s two weeks left before we reach the new deadline of August 1. We hope to read your submissions soon!

Striking Gold: The Metropole Grad Student Blog Contest

The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest exists to encourage and train graduate students to blog about history—as a way to teach beyond the classroom, market their scholarship, and promote the enduring value of the humanities.

The summer’s blogging contest theme is “Striking Gold.” With golden rays of summer sunshine in our near future, we invite graduate students to submit essays on lucre and archival treasures. Tell us how you found the linchpin of your dissertation argument hidden in a mislabeled folder, or share the history of an event or era characterized by newly-realized wealth.

All submissions that meet the guidelines outlined below will be accepted. The Metropole’s editors will work with contest contributors to refine their submissions and prepare them for publication.

In addition to getting great practice writing for the web and experience working with editors, the winner will receive a certificate and a $100 prize!

The contest will open on June 1 and will close on August 1. Entries must be submitted to uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com. Posts will run on the blog in August and September, and we will announce the winners in late September. Finalists will have their papers reviewed by three award-winning historians: Heather Ann Thompson, Tom Sugrueand Richard Harris. The winning blog post will receive $100.

Contest Guidelines

  1. Contest entrants must be enrolled in a graduate program.
  2. Contest entrants must be members of the UHA. A one-year membership for graduate students costs only $25 and includes free online access to the Journal of Urban History.
  3. Contest submissions must be original posts not published elsewhere on the web.
  4. Contest submissions must be in the form of an essay related to the theme of “Striking Gold.” Essays can be about current research, historiography (but not book reviews), or methodology. Essays that stick to the following criteria will be most successful:
    1. Written for a non-academic audience and assume no prior knowledge.
    2. Focused on one argument, intervention, or event, and not trying to do too much.
    3. Spend more time showing than telling.
  5. Posts must be received by the editors (uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com) by August 1 at 11:59 PM EST to be eligible for the contest.
  6. Posts should be at least 700 words, but not exceed 2000 words.
  7. Links or footnotes must be used to properly attribute others’ scholarship and reporting. The Metropole follows the Chicago Manual of Style for citation formatting.

Digital Summer School: Gotham

Digital Summer School began with Tropics of Meta where co-editors Romeo Guzman and Alex Sayf Cummings talked about the old and new initiatives at the academic/cultural website. We then moved the classroom to the Midwestern metropolis of Milwaukee as Amanda Seligman discussed the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. Today, we travel to New York City and The Gotham Center. Peter-Christian Aigner explains how Gotham: A Blog for Scholars of New York City came into being and where it hopes to be going in the future.

Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience? ​

I started Gotham three years ago, for a simple reason—it didn’t exist. New York City has an unrivaled number of libraries, museums, universities, and buildings dedicated in one respect or another to its history, of course, and some of them have blogs that occasionally spotlight the many treasures in their archives or the many wonderful programs they do. But there was no regular digital space, and certainly no obvious place, no headquarters online for all the scholars who do research on New York City history. And that just seemed insane.

There are hundreds of academics, in so many disciplines, who have done research on New York City history, so many every year. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of books, articles, etc., have been published on the subject, much of it recently. And that’s because New York City is, and has long been, America’s unofficial capital. People outside the five boroughs may dismiss that as egotism, and historians of different regions might cite their area’s significance, but the fact is that New York is this country’s most important city, historically speaking.

So, the goal was to provide a “blog” for scholars, like the Gotham masthead says. But I struggled a bit with that label, because the Gotham Center takes seriously the mission of NYC’s public university, our institutional sponsor: “knowledge for the public good.” We sometimes do programming strictly for scholars, but we are a public history organization, even if we are based in a university (CUNY’s Graduate Center). We’ve always sought to make scholarship accessible to non-academics, and have always included other professionals in the historical world (curators, educator, archivists, filmmakers, preservationists, independent scholars). So I did not want our digital publication to be exclusive. I wanted a broad range of contributors and followers.

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College of the City of New York (City College, City University), New York, N.Y., between 1900 and 1915, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What do you hope people take away from it?

Well, in terms of professional value, I think Gotham provides a unique space for younger scholars in particular to engage with other professionals, share their research, and gain writing experience. Ideally, we can be a place that helps identify the next generation of New York City historians.

In terms of intellectual value, I think beyond that shared locus of conversation Gotham offers not only a place where one might apply the latest method or theory of urban history, but also perhaps a counterpoint to the pointillism of the field now, where the focus on a single place allows us to really dig deep and fill out collective understanding in a particular setting. Both approaches, the global and local, are obviously needed.

And generally, I feel there’s just a desperate need still for this kind of work, in public education. Mike Wallace established The Gotham Center at a time when New York seriously lagged behind other world cities in presenting its historical resources to locals and tourists. There was little collaboration between our great historical institutions, and the oldest, biggest one, New-York Historical Society, had in fact closed and nearly sold off its collections only a few years before. The idea was to establish a place that could network and support the many institutions and individuals who kept the history of this city alive, and make the public — including civic leaders — aware of New York’s rich history, and why it matters. Although in some ways the situation has improved, in others we are no better off, collectively, than all those years ago. New York History, for example, should be celebrating its hundredth anniversary next year. Instead, fifteen months after the Board of Regents dissolved the state’s 120-year-old historical association, it’s still very unclear whether—in addition to being the only state in the country now without an organization promoting and preserving its history— New York will lose the journal and conference that were attached to NYSHA. Ten years ago, Ken Jackson gave a wonderful speech before the state library, laying out the case for New York as the “most historical” state in the nation. Mike Wallace is finishing up the last volume in a brilliant trilogy making that argument for New York City, across the centuries and virtually every area of life. But there is still very little appreciation of these facts by the public, even locally. And there is little obvious collective power still among our historical organizations. So, I hope with Gotham, just like all the programming we’ve done at the Center, and the new programs I am working to establish, we are pushing back against this situation.

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College of the City of New York (City College, City University), New York, N.Y., between 1900 and 1915, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did the project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

It wasn’t hard, just time-consuming. Daniel Wortel-London (ed. note: his work has appeared here on The Metropole as well), the blog’s first associate editor, then at CUNY’s Graduate Center, provided crucial help. But the work itself has not been difficult. We benefited, I think, from our association with The Gotham Center, and the niche we filled. Traffic has grown steadily and handsomely. Conversation is now far less about how to fill our calendar and far more about how we can deliver the high-level content we present to new audiences.

Where do you hope it goes in the future?

We’ve got a few exciting new ideas we’re pursuing. I’ll leave it at that, but I’m very optimistic about Gotham‘s future. The potential has always been great. We mostly feature new original content, book reviews, interviews, etc., and obviously that is valuable. But we are looking to expand into different areas. It should be a place that discusses New York City history everywhere one finds it: in museums, libraries, schools, the arts, TV and film, memorials, tourism, etc. And I would like to see it become a place where experts regularly comment on social, cultural, political and economic debates in New York City, from that historical perspective. We recently doubled our editorial team, and have begun exploring new partnerships, with these long-term goals in mind​. But transforming into something larger (e.g., more than a semiweekly publication, like it is now) may ultimately require some kind of backing.

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College of City of New York, N.Y., circa 1908, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In regard to the Gotham Center, New York City has been a subject of study by urban historians for decades, with so much already said about NYC, how does Gotham Center approach the Big Apple with fresh eyes?

In my younger days, I used to think “How much could there be to say about ___?” I don’t  often have such thoughts anymore. There are still many new frontiers in New York City history, as there are in U.S./world history generally. What hasn’t been researched—huge, important subjects—consistently astounds me. And so long as we have new theories, there can be hundreds of people writing about New York City every generation, and still  many mountains to cross. We could, for example, see a lot more research on “the outer boroughs.” There’s an over-focus on Manhattan, logical as that is. As on city limits. “Metropolitan history” is more or less the new consensus among suburban and urban historians, but I’m sympathetic to complaints that (as in other fields) practice hasn’t really kept pace with the professed methodology. Finally, I’d say the point we constantly make at the Gotham Center is that New York City is the best lens for learning about the history of the United States. So long as that is true — and it is —  learning about its past will always be vital.

unnamed_3_origPeter-Christian Aigner is the director of The Gotham Center for New York City History at CUNY’s Graduate Center, and the founding / managing editor of Gotham. He is currently writing a biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, contracted with Simon & Schuster. 

Featured image (at top): College of City of New York, N.Y., circa 1908, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Remember the Grad Student Blog Contest deadline is approaching July 15!

You’ve undoubtedly spent the past few days gorging yourselves with barbecued food, imbibing adult beverages, and semi-enjoying fireworks as you beat away thousands of swarming mosquitoes. But now it’s Monday and if you’re an intrepid, enterprising, UHA member and grad student, you have until this Sunday to enter our second annual competition.

First prize claims $100 but as important is the value of contributing to a lively public discourse and active dialogue within the profession of urban history. It doesn’t hurt that a panel of distinguished, award-winning urban historians will judge it: UHA President Richard Harris, Pulitzer-prize winner and UHA President-elect Heather Ann Thompson, and standard-bearer in the field, Tom Sugrue, author of the foundational Origins of the Urban Crisis.

The rules are below, and there’s less than one month left until the July 15 deadline. We hope to read your submissions soon!

Striking Gold: The Metropole Grad Student Blog Contest

The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest exists to encourage and train graduate students to blog about history—as a way to teach beyond the classroom, market their scholarship, and promote the enduring value of the humanities.

The summer’s blogging contest theme is “Striking Gold.” With golden rays of summer sunshine in our near future, we invite graduate students to submit essays on lucre and archival treasures. Tell us how you found the linchpin of your dissertation argument hidden in a mislabeled folder, or share the history of an event or era characterized by newly-realized wealth.

All submissions that meet the guidelines outlined below will be accepted. The Metropole’s editors will work with contest contributors to refine their submissions and prepare them for publication.

In addition to getting great practice writing for the web and experience working with editors, the winner will receive a certificate and a $100 prize!

The contest will open on June 1 and will close on July 15. Entries must be submitted to uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com. Posts will run on the blog in July and August, and we will announce the winners in September. Finalists will have their papers reviewed by three award-winning historians: Heather Ann Thompson, Tom Sugrueand Richard Harris. The winning blog post will receive $100.

Contest Guidelines

  1. Contest entrants must be enrolled in a graduate program.
  2. Contest entrants must be members of the UHA. A one-year membership for graduate students costs only $25 and includes free online access to the Journal of Urban History.
  3. Contest submissions must be original posts not published elsewhere on the web.
  4. Contest submissions must be in the form of an essay related to the theme of “Striking Gold.” Essays can be about current research, historiography (but not book reviews), or methodology. Essays that stick to the following criteria will be most successful:
    1. Written for a non-academic audience and assume no prior knowledge.
    2. Focused on one argument, intervention, or event, and not trying to do too much.
    3. Spend more time showing than telling.
  5. Posts must be received by the editors (uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com) by July 1 at 11:59 PM EST to be eligible for the contest.
  6. Posts should be at least 700 words, but not exceed 2000 words.
  7. Links or footnotes must be used to properly attribute others’ scholarship and reporting. The Metropole follows the Chicago Manual of Style for citation formatting.

 

Digital Summer School: The Encyclopedia of Milwaukee

In our second installment of Digital Summer School, Amanda Seligman, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee historian and co-founder of the online project the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee (EMKE), discusses the challenges, triumphs, and goals of the EMKE.

Twitter handle for EMKE: @MkeEncyclopedia

Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience?

Urban history encyclopedias have been around for two generations. The first major U.S. project, the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, started with a print edition and transitioned into the digital environment. Smaller Midwestern cities (Indianapolis, Louisville) and the largest cities in the US (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles) followed suit. Some projects were print-only (New York, Los Angeles), some were hybrid (Chicago), and some are born digital (Philadelphia). The two of us who are lead editors on the project (Margo Anderson and Amanda Seligman) both had previous experience with historical encyclopedias—Anderson on the US census and me with Chicago. As scholars, we know how convenient it is to have access to short, focused analyses of specific topics. It can be a big timesaver for researchers—but only if they are confident in the reliability of the encyclopedia. We also knew that Milwaukeeans are passionate about their history and believed that Milwaukee deserved an authoritative, scholarly encyclopedia of its own. We also hope that students and scholars who are researching Milwaukee will turn to the EMKE to support their projects.

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View of the Milwaukee River in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Carol M. Highsmith, August 22, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What do you hope people take away from it?

We have three major goals for our readers. First, we want to be a starting point for research on the Milwaukee area. We have worked hard to unlock history from archives and libraries, which non-scholars may find intimidating or not even realize exist. But we don’t want to be an end point; we want to inspire our readers to go deeper. Our entries have “for further reading” suggestions and footnotes to guide readers to new sources. To that end, once we realized how much material has been produced on Milwaukee over the past century and a half, we also published a spin-off print project, a Bibliography of Metropolitan Milwaukee (Marquette University Press, 2014) based on the work of one of the first graduate students who came to work on the project.

Finally, we want our readers to leave the project with a stronger sense of how history is written. We developed what we call the “Underbook,” which readers can access by clicking on the “Explore More” button at the end of some entries. In addition to the footnotes and bonus images, right now the Underbook contains “Understories,” a genre we invented for this project. Understories narrate the process of research, so that readers learn about how historians know what we know. One of my favorites is underneath the “Borchert Field” entry. It was written by a student who went from my history methods class to being an undergraduate and then graduate fact-checker for the project. I like his piece, “How Microfilm and the Internet Get Along: A Demonstration,” so much that I assign it to new groups of history methods students. It helps them see that new information storage technologies do not necessarily undermine old ones. I was also really proud of the first undergraduate who did image research for the project. A few years after leaving us, she turned her Understory—about a mysterious postcard showing what she called “Baby Hammocks”—into her own digital history master’s project at George Mason University. To me, these two pieces illustrate exactly the kind of articulation of research and teaching that universities are meant to produce.

How did the project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

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Wisconsin St., Milwaukee, 1900, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I’m not sure it has “come to fruition” quite yet. As of this interview in mid-June, we have 334 entries live, 105 entries scheduled for release, 115 entries waiting to be scheduled, and about 150 entries working their ways through our editorial process. We also have a Research Assistant hard at work identifying images to accompany the entries (a process that has completely changed since we first envisioned it, thanks to librarians digitizing their collections). The first phase of the project will feel more finished when we have gotten all those entries out and illustrated, and have cross-referenced all the content, loaded the maps, and made some technical tweaks to our platform (like fending off the increasing number Russian bots who keep registering as if they planned to leave comments for our site).

Obstacles? Even for experienced research-oriented scholars, putting together an enormous encyclopedia as a first digital history project has a lot in common with doing prelim exams and writing a dissertation—every aspect of this project has been a learning process, most of them with steep learning curves. First of all, there is simply a huge amount of new content to think about. But it also has involved coming to terms with work processes that ten years ago we were not only unfamiliar with but did not really know existed. When we started in 2008, I didn’t even know the terms “metadata” or “project management,” words that I throw around every day now. Nor did we have a clear path to raising the $3 million (a goal later lowered to $2 million) that we expected it would cost to build and staff the project. I’m so grateful to all the people and institutions who have shown their confidence in us by investing their time and money in the project.

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The Pabst Mansion, one of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s most notable landmarks, Carol M. Highsmith, August 28, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Where do you hope it goes in the future?

We hope that the project gets more deeply institutionalized in Milwaukee. When I talk to donors and public audiences, I tell them that having an urban history encyclopedia for our region is like having an art museum, an opera company, a zoo, or a baseball team (all of which Milwaukee has and of course are covered in the EMKE). We want to the EMKE to be a basic civic institution in the Milwaukee area.

To get to that point, there is a lot more work to do. We need to build our public relationships through in-person networking and social media; to build out our non-text content with more images, digitized primary sources, and static and GIS maps; and we need to solicit and consider a lot more feedback through our public comment capacity. Fortunately, we continue to find excellent students who see doing this work as a worthwhile part of their education.

When did you start to consider yourself a digital historian?

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The tower of City Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Carol M. Highsmith, August 22, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I have struggled with a lot of imposter syndrome over accepting the label “digital historian.” One of the first times I asked myself whether I was a digital historian, I ran smack into a suggestion that I couldn’t possibly count unless I knew how to code. Several years into the project, my departmental colleagues and I decided it was unethical to fail to train our students in digital history, and I drew the straw that gave me the chance to teach the graduate seminar (at least until we hired someone I considered a real digital historian onto the faculty). Even when teaching that course, I blogged about it as “The Reluctant Digital Historian.”

But despite my self-doubt, “real” digital historians and Twitterstorians have consistently offered warm welcomes into the club and affirmation that my work matters. The beauty of digital history is that—like history in general and unlike, say, mathematics or language—none of us is born with an intuition about the contents or how to do it. Working on the project gives us a chance to learn a bit more than we already know. Where I have come to at this point is that anyone who uses any kind of digital tool to understand or create historical knowledge is standing under the digital history umbrella. This even includes some of the EMKE authors who aren’t particularly tech savvy. Some struggle with how to make their word processors create hanging indents so that bibliographic entries are properly formatted and some send their entries in by email because they don’t want to bother with the backend system our IT team built to organize our workflow (I have only dealt with one entirely non-digital author, whom I located by phone and who sent in a typescript text). It also includes me. By now I have learned enough code to fix—or at least diagnose—minor problems that crop up, and just this week I am trying to learn how to use WordPress to format our tables. There are so many different kinds of digital history skills and platforms that no one person is going to master them all, just like no one historian can know the history of the whole world in real depth. What makes a project like ours functional is bringing together people with complementary skills, each of us knowing or learning a couple of pieces, so that we can somehow manage to pull the whole thing off. History, and digital history, are collective projects.

amanda-seligman.jpgAmanda Seligman (@AmandaISeligmanis Professor of History and Urban Studies and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she has taught since 1999. She holds an AB in Classics from Princeton University and a PhD in History from Northwestern University. She is author or coauthor of four books, most recently of Chicago’s Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City (2016). She is also a co-editor of the Historical Studies of Urban America series published by the University of Chicago Press. 

Featured image (at top): Sign for the Milwaukee Public Market, a popular shopping venue and gathering place in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin neighborhood called the Historic Third Ward, Carol M. Highsmith, August 28, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Fighting for Clearance: SoCal, the Military Industrial Complex, and Gay Liberation or Your Weekly Reminder to enter The Grad Student Blog Contest

Security clearances have been a topic of great controversy in recent months. The process of issuing access to government secrets has always been opaque, but for decades it was also discriminatory. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower issued executive order #10450, which banned homosexuals from government employment and labeled them a threat to national security. “Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the term ‘security risk’ in fact functioned largely as a euphemism for homosexual,” notes historian David K. Johnson. For gay and lesbian Americans, gaining a clearance proved nearly impossible.

Thousands of employees lost their jobs due to their sexual orientation. Tens of thousands more abandoned any hopes of working for the federal government in policy positions and elsewhere, to say nothing of how private business followed suit.

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Title page of Otis Tabler hearing, July 30, 1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Circumstances began to change in 1975 when Otis Francis Tabler, a suburban Los Angeles resident and computer defense systems analyst, with the help of Washington, D.C. LGBT activist Frank Kameny, became the first openly gay individual to gain a security clearance from the United States government.

World War and the Post War Defense Industry

World War II and the postwar rise of the military industrial complex radically reshaped Southern California. Los Angeles and Orange County attracted new installations and defense industries, particularly in aerospace. By the early 1960s, 43 percent of manufacturing employment in the two counties was tied to government aerospace contracts. This process persisted into the 1970s by which time L.A and the “surrounding region had come to rely to an extraordinary degree upon the related industries of defense aircraft space and electronics,” notes historian Roger Lotchin.

Demographically, California and the West changed as the population boomed and diversity increased. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego served as critical nodes in the mobilization for war. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and others moved to the Golden State. The gender segregation of the military, as demonstrated by historian Allan Berube, provided the opportunity for same sex relationships while the unsupervised nature of urban living provided the means. “Because L.A. has a port and vast numbers of soldiers landed there, far from watchful eyes ‘back home’ and yearning for rest and recreation they enjoyed unprecedented opportunities for gay experiences,” add historians Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons. Military officials attempted to squash such developments. “The war mobilization laid the groundwork for a national effort to eliminate homosexuals from public life,” historian Daniel Hurewitz points out.

In the face of such hostility, Harry Hay and others formed the Mattachine Society in 1951. Through the organization Hay constructed what would become the homophile movement and the Los Angeles Mattachine emerged as its first real organization. It enabled gay men and women to form a community and present a collective identity to a hostile, questioning public.

Despite military policies and discriminatory public attitudes, gay men and women built lives for themselves in and around Los Angeles; when the war ended and the defense industry expanded in Southern California many sought new work opportunities. One such individual was Otis Francis Tabler, a computer scientist who studied missile defense systems at Logicon in San Pedro, California. According to his coworkers and supervisors, Tabler demonstrated considerable skill in carrying out his responsibilities, but due to his inability to secure the necessary security clearance, his talents were not being adequately utilized. His former supervisor Captain (USAF) Larry Wayne Kern believed Tabler to be honest, trustworthy, and reliable; Tabler had “a specific and unique contribution to make in the field,” he testified.16

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Picture of Frank Kameny between 1947 and 1960, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Few understood the effects of the policy better than WWII veteran Frank Kameny, who in 1957 was fired from his job in the Army Map Service for homosexuality. By 1961, Kameny had established the Mattachine Society of Washington (MSW). From his leadership position in the MSW during the 1960s, Kameny criticized the government’s “war on gays and lesbians” at every opportunity, even picketing the White House, Pentagon, and Civil Service Commission Headquarters. Kameny and his fellow MSW members demanded that the government “cease noting that they are homosexuals and ignoring that they are also American citizens.”

No stranger to activism, Tabler, inspired by the Civil Rights, Black Power, Chicano, and Feminist movements then roiling the nation, took part in what is now known as the Gay Liberation Movement, the more militant successor to the post-WWII homophile movement. Due to generational and ideological differences, some homophile leaders and activists had trouble aligning with the newer movement’s more aggressive tactics. Kameny bridged these differences. Having distinguished himself through his work during the 1960s, Kameny drew plaudits from Los Angeles’s Gay Liberation Front (LAGLF). As a result of these connections, Tabler reached out to Kameny who then represented the computer scientist at the first-ever open hearing regarding a security clearance in 1974.

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Front Cover, The Ladder, October 1965, Lilli Vincenz Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

The hearing, held over four days in late July and early August of 1974 at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard, revealed a clearance process beset with contradictions that reflected broader societal biases of the day.Throughout the hearing, the federal government focused on Tabler’s violation of California sodomy and perversion laws as reasons to deny him clearance. Two heterosexual witnesses for Tabler, both of which held security clearances, admitted to engaging in similar activities but had never been questioned about them. Even a government investigator testified that officials only inquired about an individual’s sexual history when they were a suspected or an admitted homosexual. “In my opinion, the sodomy laws are merely words written on statue books,” Tabler told officials. “I believe that they do not exist.” 23

Nor could the government say Tabler represented a blackmail risk. He was an open homosexual. His mother knew of his sexuality, as did all his coworkers. Kamney and Tabler submitted dozens of affidavits from neighbors and acquaintances testifying to his homosexuality.

Though not a lawyer, Kameny represented Tabler and employed an unorthodox approach. His opening statement lasted over ninety minutes. He called the security clearance program bigoted, politically corrupt, and vile. He accused the DOD and federal government of conducting a war on gays waged “relentlessly, remorselessly and mercilessly.” The homosexual community did not want to fight, but “if [the government] want[s] a war they will get it,” he told the government examiner.

Tabler’s mother also testified, making an impassioned plea to the government that her son was a loyal American and that, as the widow of a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran, she loved her country. “But I’m horrified to find out that the Defense Department does not honor the Constitution of the United States,” she said, then breaking down in tears.

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Matching Society of Washington newsletter, August 14, 1975, Frank Kameny papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

On December 17, 1974, government Examiner Richard S. Farr, who had supervised the hearing, ruled in Tabler’s favor, judging him worthy of a security clearance. The Department of Defense, however, appealed the decision and even attempted to disqualify Kameny as his counsel. Within a year, though, the DOD reversed course and dropped its appeal, notifying both Kameny and Tabler that it had changed its policies regarding homosexuals.

Tabler became the first openly homosexual person to gain a security clearance, though as Kameny noted in a Mattachine newsletter much work was left to be done, since now it needed to be determined that such policies would be followed; other branches of the government like the F.B.I. and C.I.A. conducted their own investigations and continued to discriminate against homosexuals.

Today, homosexuality is no longer an impediment to securing a clearance, opening up thousands of jobs to gay men and women. Undoubtedly, Otis Francis Tabler’s fight contributed to such developments.

The above post is based on some very fortunate archival discoveries in the Frank Kameny papers (and to a lesser extent the Lilli VincenzLilli Vincenz papers) located in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Right now, I’m working on a longer article with greater analysis and stronger argumentation, however, crafting a short twelve hundred word summary of it has helped crystalize my thoughts on the subject. As I revise my longer article for publication, I now feel better prepared to explain the story and its significance to both fellow historians and the general public. In short, writing in public venues like The Metropole not only helps craft better public history but also sharpens one’s own writing clarity and precision. This is why we are holding our second annual Grad Student Blogging Contest. First prize claims $100 but as important is the value of contributing to a lively public discourse and active dialogue within the profession of urban history. It doesn’t hurt that a panel of distinguished, award-winning urban historians will judge it: UHA President Richard Harris, Pulitzer-prize winner and UHA President-elect Heather Ann Thompson, and standard-bearer in the field, Tom Sugrue, author of the foundational Origins of the Urban Crisis.

The rules are below, and there’s less than one month left until the July 15 deadline. We hope to read your submissions soon!

Striking Gold: The Metropole Grad Student Blog Contest

The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest exists to encourage and train graduate students to blog about history—as a way to teach beyond the classroom, market their scholarship, and promote the enduring value of the humanities.

The summer’s blogging contest theme is “Striking Gold.” With golden rays of summer sunshine in our near future, we invite graduate students to submit essays on lucre and archival treasures. Tell us how you found the linchpin of your dissertation argument hidden in a mislabeled folder, or share the history of an event or era characterized by newly-realized wealth.

 

All submissions that meet the guidelines outlined below will be accepted. The Metropole’s editors will work with contest contributors to refine their submissions and prepare them for publication.

In addition to getting great practice writing for the web and experience working with editors, the winner will receive a certificate and a $100 prize!

The contest will open on June 1 and will close on July 15. Entries must be submitted to uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com. Posts will run on the blog in July and August, and we will announce the winners in September. Finalists will have their papers reviewed by three award-winning historians: Heather Ann Thompson, Tom Sugrue and Richard Harris. The winning blog post will receive $100.

Contest Guidelines

  1. Contest entrants must be enrolled in a graduate program.
  2. Contest entrants must be members of the UHA. A one-year membership for graduate students costs only $25 and includes free online access to the Journal of Urban History.
  3. Contest submissions must be original posts not published elsewhere on the web.
  4. Contest submissions must be in the form of an essay related to the theme of “Striking Gold.” Essays can be about current research, historiography (but not book reviews), or methodology. Essays that stick to the following criteria will be most successful:
    1. Written for a non-academic audience and assume no prior knowledge.
    2. Focused on one argument, intervention, or event, and not trying to do too much.
    3. Spend more time showing than telling.
  5. Posts must be received by the editors (uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com) by July 1 at 11:59 PM EST to be eligible for the contest.
  6. Posts should be at least 700 words, but not exceed 2000 words.
  7. Links or footnotes must be used to properly attribute others’ scholarship and reporting. The Metropole follows the Chicago Manual of Style for citation formatting.

Member of the Week: Brett Abrams

Brett L. Abrams

Senior Archivist

National Archives and Records Administration

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

I am examining the role of visual arts in the development of Washington, D.C. during the twentieth century. My previous books examined the intersection between popular culture and urban history. Hollywood Bohemians looks at transgressive sexuality in the understanding of Hollywood during the 1920s and 30s. Capital Sporting Grounds analyzes proposals for built and proposed stadiums in the Washington, D.C. landscape.

How do you make time for your independent research around your day job at the National Archives? Do you stick to a writing routine, or is every day different?

Although not in a routine way, I usually devote some time to research, reading or writing on historical topics during the evening or on weekends. The challenge is balancing that with spending time in the present with my cats and my husband.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either that you have edited or from other presses or journals?

Because of my time limits, I don’t do much reviewing and often only read about books pertinent to the subject I am writing about. However, recently I enjoyed reviewing Benjamin Lisle’s Modern Coliseum: Stadiums and American Culture.

What advice do you have for scholars of urban history who are considering pursuing work as archivists?

Currently, archives appear to be most interested in hiring people with strong training in information services and library training along with a history background.

What do you think is more likely to happen first: an NBA championship win by the Washington Wizards, or achieving peaceful diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea?

At this moment: U.S. and North Korean peace but the Capitals did remove part of the D.C. curse.

From Point Break to La La Land: Travel, Film, and the Circus that is L.A

Perhaps it’s fitting that I ended my week-long sojourn to the City of Angels eating Sushi on Sunset Boulevard while sitting behind 1990s super model Fabio. As someone who came of age in the 1990s – I graduated high school in 1994 and college in 1998 — the Los Angles of 20th century fin de siècle America, at least from the distance of the Midwest, felt more plastic and less vital than New York City. At the same time, Los Angeles of the 1990s seemed awash in troubled ambivalence.

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I can guarantee you that man sitting over my left shoulder is Actor/Model Fabio

Fabio’s vacant image seemed to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere during the decade; we all knew who he was, but I’m not sure any of us knew why we did. The last time I remember seeing Fabio, before his recent turn as celebrity Trump supporter, was Zoolander, where he expressed gratitude over receiving the Best Actor/Model award: “You consider me the best actor slash model, not the other way around.” I must confess as we all entered the 21st century, he served as an avatar of my (inaccurate) perception of the city: shiny, vacuous, and superficial.

My very sad Generation X celebrity sighting confirmed the city’s magnificent ridiculousness, while also putting my own misconceptions about L.A. into greater clarity; today’s City of Angels continues to exert a cultural influence while experiencing less violence and maintaining its persistent devotion to the absurd. “Then it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there was nor would there ever be another place like this City of Angels,” journalist Carey McWilliams wrote. “Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me – a ringside seat at the circus.”[1]

Considering that I’ve written about the city for Los Angeles’s KCET since 2012, my youthful ignorance regarding it feels that much more outlandish. One could try to blame pop culture for such dubious notions—after all, films like The Player (1992) and Get Shorty (1995) cast a jaundiced if humorous eye at the city’s entertainment-obsessed culture and emphasized L.A.’s superficiality. Yet, if one actually looks back at the cinematic offerings of the ‘90s, film depicted a much more diverse, nuanced and complicated city than I acknowledged then (see the footnote).[2] The truth is Los Angeles is a circus, but one that includes a multitude of players from a constellation of backgrounds. Since the 1990s, the big top has changed.

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Hotel Casa Del Mar, Santa Monica, May 2018

Troubled 1990s Los Angeles

I bet I’m hardly the only one who at one point or another viewed L.A. narrowly. I’m guessing for many Americans the city existed on two poles: one, the cynical, superficial Hollywood dream machine and the other a gritty, troubled, drug infested, gang-ridden city inhabited by criminalized African and Mexican American residents—a perception based on films like Colors (1988), Boyz in the Hood (1991), Blood In Blood Out (1993), and Menace to Society (1993). I won’t even mention catastrophe films like Volcano (1997), because Mike Davis and Eric Avila have explored the fetish for literary and celluloid destruction of the city to much greater effect than I ever could.

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Time, 1991, Anthony Lewis Papers, Library of Congress

As evidenced by a 1991 special issue of Time devoted to the Golden State, California remained a national curiosity; a state, and by extension a city, at a crossroads. “It’s still America’s promised land – a place of heart stopping beauty, spectacular energy, and stunning diversity,” a caption from the issue stated. “But faced with drought, mindless growth, and a sputtering economy, can it preserve the dream?”

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Botanical Gardens at the Huntington Library, May 2018

Even city histories exuded pessimism. Mike Davis’s seminal work City of Quartz captured L.A.’s dark mood as it hurtled toward the millennium: “In Los Angeles there are too many signs of approaching helter-skelter: everywhere in the inner city, even in the forgotten poor white boondocks with their zombie populations of speedfreaks, gangs are multiplying at a terrifying rate, cops are becoming more arrogant and trigger happy, and a whole generation is being shunted toward some impossible Armageddon.”[3] In retrospect, Davis sounds a bit like ad-copy for the Purge movie series.

To be fair, at the time violence, though exaggerated by film and television, permeated the metropolis. The aforementioned films though empathetic to their respective characters, also helped burnish the city’s image as gang-ridden, which in part was true.

In his 2006 work Coast of Dreams, the late dean of California history Kevin Starr noted the struggle with gang violence during the 1990s grew so pervasive that local businesses morbidly adapted. “Florists in certain Los Angeles neighborhoods grew skilled in combining floral patterns with gang color ribbons. Other vendors specialized in producing custom-made sweatshirts and t-shirts with stylized messages honoring the departed,” he wrote.[4] One could even find the city’s famed diversity reflected in its gangs. By the 1990s the LAPD reported 230 black and Latino gangs with an additional 81 Asian ones, “Model Minority” myths be damned.[5]

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Botanical Gardens at the Huntington, May 2018

Police corruption ran amuck as well. The LAPD’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit descended into lawlessness under the leadership of Rafael Perez, who coincidentally served as a model for Denzel Washington’s character, Alonzo Harris, from Training Day (2001). CRASH officers beat, shot, murdered, and extorted on a level exceeding that of its criminal targets. “No Los Angeles gang could have exacted a more stylized revenge,” remarked Starr. By 2000, 70 former and current CRASH officers had either quite, been suspended and/or relieved of duty, or were under investigation.[6]

Air polloution also plagued the city. The air was thick, disturbingly thick, which proved unhealthy. Yet, at moments, the smog was also aesthetically compelling. “They say the *%*%*%*%* smog is the *#*$@*$@ reason we have such beautiful %$%#&#%# Sunsets,” bad guy mob boss Ray Barbones (Dennis Farina) dispassionately tells B movie producer Harry Zimms in Get Shorty. Beyond picaresque sunsets, air pollution in 1990s Los Angeles was bad, though better than during the 1970s and 1980s (the latter examples being a central part of the plot to 2016’s comedic noir, The Nice Guys). During the 1990s air quality improved, though on average residents endured 200 bad air days each year.

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Japanese Gardens at the Huntington, May 2018

Better Days? L.A. 2018

Since then, California, and especially Los Angeles, has righted itself. Crime has diminished, though certainly not disappeared. “Angelenos are far less likely to be murdered than in the 1990s, when homicides peaked at 1,094 in a single year,” noted the L.A. Times in late 2017. Homicides and gun violence had declined, but violent crime increased for the fourth year straight.

As for the city’s air pollution, 1991’s ripe, masculine, homoerotic action-adventure bromance Point Break encapsulates how far the city has come in this regard. “22 years. Man the air got dirty and the sex got clean,” LAPD Detective Pappas (Gary Busey) explains to partner Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves). Pappas wasn’t wrong, as noted the air was bad in 1991, but the 1990s for all its struggles would turn out to be a period of real environmental improvement as residents witnessed rapid gains in air quality. Granted, recent evidence suggests some back sliding. An uptick in pollution led to 145 bad days for the year in 2017. Angelenos had not inhaled that much pollution since 2004. Still, even this regression remained far better than where the city stood nearly 30 years ago.

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Outside LACMA, May 2018

If one wishes to enjoy whatever fresh air L.A. provides, hikes around the city and county serve as a great option. For example, one can begin a long day hike with a trip to Griffith Park. Hit up the Autry Museum of the West, which has some “old timey” exhibits but is also currently exhibiting photography of the Chicano Movement, LA RAZA. From there trek via one of the various hikes at your disposal over to Griffith Observatory, where you can take in views of the city and, afterwards, hike back down (or catch a bus or call a ride-sharing service). If you get a nice day, the views are outstanding. If you’re closer to Pasadena/San Marino, drop in on the Huntington Library, whose botanic gardens alone are worth the trip—to say nothing of its notable art collections and the library itself.

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The art scene in Los Angeles is quite impressive beyond LACMA and The Getty including the Broad and the Museum of Modern Contemporary Art (MOCA, which has more than one site), selections from the Broad are pictured here, where admittance is free but you need to make reservations

While hiking around the city, you’ll notice Los Angeles has been and is growing. Debates about economic development and housing have arguably grown more substantial and nuanced. No longer mindless, growth in Los Angeles often sparks fierce discussion particularly in the face of rising housing costs and efforts to blunt them. However, the city needs more affordable housing and better regulations. According to the L.A. Times, L.A. needs between 1.8 and 3.5 million new units of housing by 2025 to meet “existing demand and future growth.” The housing crisis has led to a homeless population of 116,000, roughly 21 percent of the national total. Attempts to allow for increased-density housing have been met with unanimous opposition.

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More art from the Broad

The city remains car-centric though, as will be discussed in a moment, getting around the city has gotten significantly easier. Its history as an autotopia remains troubled. Joan Didion famously described Angelenos’ relationship to driving a form of “secular communion.”[7] Reyner Banham observed similarly that “the freeway is not a limbo of existential angst, but the place where [Los Angeles residents] spend the two calmest and most rewarding hours of their daily lives.”[8] Perhaps, but freeways also imposed costs on working class communities, particularly those of color and especially those in East Los Angeles. “By the late 1960s, after the California Division of highways had completed its assault on East Los Angeles, freeways dominated the sensory experience of daily life in the nation’s largest barrio,” UCLA’s Eric Avila notes.[9] In 2015’s Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Andersen captured the city’s tradition of imposition on non-white minorities—whether for highway construction, economic development or urban renewal—through the voice of the film’s narrator, Sortilege (Joanna Newsome): “Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium. American Indians swept out of Bunker Hill for the Music Center. And now Tariq’s [African American] neighborhood bulldozed aside for Channel View Estates.” Though fictional, Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams) and the plight of his neighborhood represent the city’s general attitude toward minority communities for much of the 20th century.

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Bunker Hill not far from the Broad, May 2018

In the face of this history, development arguments bleed unsurprisingly into issues of gentrification as well. In Boyle Heights long time residents battle gentrification as art studios and galleries scoop up spaces on the Eastside, having already changed the face of the nearby communities of Echo Park and Highland Park. “Newcomers, including artists, have been drawn to Boyle Heights by its rich cultural character — forged from generations of Mexican, Japanese, Russian and Jewish immigrants relegated to the city’s eastern periphery — as well as its cheaper rent and property in an increasingly unaffordable city,” writes Carribean Fragoza. As the “epicenter of all the social ferment that emerged around the Mexican American civil rights movement of the late 1960s”, Avila noted in a KCET short documentary, Boyle Heights “sustains” the current national backlash against gentrification in urban areas.

Less-visibly ethnic neighborhoods have also struggled with gentrification. Downtown Los Angeles and its Arts District serve as one example. In 1981, the city passed the “Artist in Residence” ordinance, which enabled artists to live in their downtown lofts; the L.A. Times noted in 2014 that “it became a bohemian playground – but a rough one.” One could witness drug users shooting up, cars with smashed windows, and “Christmas trees on fire in the middle of the street,” older residents reminisced. The planting of artist/hipster flags established a certain level of stability such that during the 1990s new restaurants began opening one by one, “warehouses became condos,” and new coffee shops moved in month by month.[10]

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DTLA, May 2018

The transformation of DTLA proved so stark that it even worked its way into pulp noir novels. “The Arts District was more than a neighborhood. It was a movement,” Detective Harry Bosch reflects in Michael Connelly’s 2016 L.A. noir, The Wrong Side of Goodbye. The fictional Bosch had been assigned to the district in the 1970s and remembered its various incarnations and how different they were from present day Los Angeles. “The Arts District now faced many of the issues that came with success, namely the swift spread of gentrification. … The idea of the district being a haven for the starving artist was becoming more and more unfounded.”[11]

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Little Tokyo near DTLA, May 2018

Unsurprisingly, amidst all this change, complexities abound; improvements for some Angelenos spark fear in others. For example, the late Mayor Tom Bradley established the first seeds of mass transit in Los Angeles in the 1980s. In 1985, the city broke ground on the Blue Line Light Rail; it debuted five years later and soon become one of the nation’s most used light rails lines. Since then the city has added traditional bus lines, light rail, subways, and even Bus Rapid Transit. Tough battles with the Bus Riders’ Union in the mid-1990s forced the city to adopt more environmentally-friendly buses and to expand service especially in working class areas. While these changes vastly improved transit around the city, they contributed to gentrification. In Boyle Heights, where four light rail stops have connected the once isolated community to the city, the improved transit has also opened the door for gentrification that threatens to displace thousands of longtime residents.

Budget deficits and legislative rancor led many to dismiss 1990s California as unmanageable. However though once denuded of funds, today state coffers brim with dollars. “We’re nearing the longest economic recovery in modern history,” Governor Jerry Brown told the public in May 2018. Even the state’s Rainy Day Fund now holds billions of dollars primarily to address homelessness, infrastructure needs, and mental health service. “Isaac Newton observed: What goes up must come down,” said Governor Brown. “This is a time to save for our future, not to make pricey promises we can’t keep. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Let’s not blow it now.”

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Hiking in Griffith Park, May 2018

As a result, Los Angeles—even acknowledging the above struggles—feels like America’s most vibrant city. Whether depictions have expanded the public’s idea of the city remains debatable. L.A.’s celluloid identity during the early aughts was certainly helped by films like the confusing but mesmerizing Mulholland Drive (2001), Paul Thomas Anderson’s odd Punch Drunk Love (2002), the Rampart-scandal-inspired Training Day (2001), Kurt Russell’s problematic rogue cop and the 1992 L.A. Riots in Dark Blue (2002), the overwrought Oscar winning Crash (2004), the Shane Black noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), the East L.A. coming-of-age story Real Women Have Curves (2002) and more recently films and television series like Tangerine (2015), Beginners (2010), Insecure (2016 – present) and Barry (2018) have expanded the nuances of the city’s image.

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Hiking in Griffith Park with Griffith Observatory in background, May 2018

One controversial example, the simultaneously maligned and celebrated La La Land (2016), seems to be a sort of standard bearer for modern Los Angeles (at least through sheer repetition, considering its numerous showings on HBO):  “a love letter to Los Angeles like the ones Woody Allen gave Manhattan, with fireworks popping over the cityscape (minus the Gershwin) and a romantic bench looking out on the Hollywood Hills instead of the Queensboro Bridge. I ♥ N.Y., but they made L.A. a ★,” New York Times assistant editor Dave Renard wrote in 2017. Perhaps it goes without saying that even those voices that criticize the film often use it as a reference point for what observers misunderstand or obscure about Los Angeles.

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Hiking at Gene Autry State Park, May 2018

Putting aside one’s feelings about La La Land as a movie, the film highlighted some of the city’s most notable, and mundane, destinations: the Griffith Observatory, 105/110 Freeway Exchange, Hollywood Drive, the Rialto Theater, and Griffith Park among several others. Of course, the film is anything but realistic; it’s an oddly nostalgic fever dream based on earlier films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). For example, you don’t witness many homeless people (or any at all really), despite homelessness being a persistent, grinding and tragic problem for the city. Even I, who really enjoyed the film, can see why the idea of white Angeleno Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as Jazz purist and apparent savior along with Mia’s (Emma Stone) tale of a lone actress trying to make it in the big city annoyed many viewers.

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Hiking at Will Rogers State Park, May 2018

To be honest, having lived in Southern California for half a decade during graduate school, Los Angeles felt like gravity; it was an irresistible force, yet it wasn’t an open city. Hanging out there depended on your L.A. connections. Did your friend know the best bar in Silver Lake to knock back a few drinks? What about cool restaurants in gentrifying DTLA? Or the best time to hit Comedy Meltdown in Hollywood?

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The Last Bookstore in DTLA, may 2018

In contrast, New York City, where I lived for a decade, is so dense, crowded, and threaded together by the subway that one can find old time bars, hip cafes, and alluring dives almost by accident. Stumble off the F train at 2nd Avenue or Delancey Street and you’re bound to find something. The expanse of Los Angeles makes this sort of geographic serendipity nearly impossible. “There are not enough dimensions for a film to truly convey the meaning of Los Angeles, so vast it is in its miles of sprawl,” noted Emily Hunt Kevil at cinemathread.

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The Last Bookstore in DTLA, May 2018

Yet, everyone has a vision of Los Angeles. “People who have never lived or even breathed in Los Angeles have an idea of what Los Angeles is. But I don’t know if they’re wrong. That’s the privilege of Los Angeles,” Kevil asserts. “It’s the privilege of a city that claims the home to Hollywood and Paramount and Warner Brothers and whose buildings have been reproduced countless times across countless screens all over the world —it’s everybody’s city.” The circus, after all, was meant for everyone.

Between improved mass transit and ride sharing options, one can take numerous paths through, around, and parallel to the L.A. circus. Early in 2018, the New York Times, famous for its awkward coverage of the city, journeyed along all 22 miles of Sunset Boulevard from Echo Park to the Pacific Ocean chronicling the changing face of the city along the way. The newspaper did so always with an eye toward pop culture depictions: “at any point along the route, you will see the images that movies, TV shows and magazines have implanted in your brain.”

I spent my last three days in the city in West Hollywood on Sunset, where one can find great views of the city and the mountains that hem it in, but also a tangle of billboards, bars, and restaurants. During my first three days I crashed in Mar Vista on my younger brother’s sofa. Only blocks from Sawtelle Japantown and a thirty minute walk from Santa Monica, I took in Venice Beach, Korean cuisine, and, after a bit of a trek, Will Rogers State Historic Park, where one can tour the humorist’s old home (house tours only on Thursdays and Fridays however) and go for a short hike in the mountains just behind it.

From Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place to The OC to Insecure and the ill-fated season two of True Detective, Los Angeles’s image will always remain tied to television and film depictions. Yet, change has always been afoot; 1993 Los Angeles differs greatly from its 2018 reality. Fabio might stay the same but the city hasn’t. It remains a circus, but an ever-changing one.

[1] Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land, (Gibbs-Smith, 1946), 376.

[2] Plenty of other films along the way depicted L.A. very differently, the neo-noirs Grifters (1990) and L.A. Confidential (1997), the Cohen Brothers through-the-looking-glass comic noir of The Big Lebowski (1998), the racist dog whistle of Falling Down (1993), the Mexican American saga of American Me (1992), the inspirational Stand and Deliver (1988), the tragic heist caper of Heat (1995), the magnanimously weird Ed Wood (1994), the San-Fernando-centric porn tale Boogie Nights (1997), SoCal’s take on Jane Austen, Clueless (1995), the groundbreaking Boyz n the Hood (1991), and the underrated but equally captivating Menace to Society (1993). Throw in Generation X staple Swingers (1996), the Walter Moseley-based Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), the paranoid parable regarding fascism Barton Fink (1991), the overly long but also moving Magnolia (1999) and the iconic post-Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Keanu Reeves in both Point Break (1991) and Speed (1994). I dig 1999’s revenge tale The Limey (1999) as well, but this is getting ridiculous. Still, one more thing: once Boyz and Menace demonstrated an ability to make money (see Straight Outta Compton (2015) for a more recent example), Los Angeles filmmakers treated the public to a string of movies like Boyz, such as Baby Boy (2001) and South Central (1992) which inspired more purposely ridiculous variations of the theme in Don’t Be Menace in South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996) and the horror/black exploitation of Tales from the Hood (1995). I’m not even counting 1988’s controversial Colors. This is all to say, yes, I realize much more was offered to the public than Get Shorty and The Player.

[3] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, (Verso, 2006), 316.

[4] Kevin Starr, Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003, (Vintage Books, 2006), 78,

[5] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, (Verso, 2006), 316.

[6] Kevin Starr, Coast of Dreams, 93.

[7] Joan Didion, The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1979), 83.

[8] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), pg. 204.

[9] Erica Avila, The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 120.

[10] Marisa Gerber, “Arts District’s changing landscape is worrisome to longtime residents,” Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2014.

[11] Michael Connelly, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 312.

 

A Quick Reflection on the Member of the Week Series

While I’m waiting for the newest batch of responses to roll into the UHA’s inbox, I wanted to share some thoughts on the first year-and-a-quarter of editing the Member of the Week series:

First and foremost, I am unceasingly amazed at the generosity of UHA members. I have solicited just over 50 posts since we launched The Metropole, and all but a handful have enthusiastically agreed to participate despite it adding unpaid labor to their already full plates. I do my best to make the process easy, straightforward, and fun, but even writing five short answers can take an hour of time. And yet our Members of the Week generously give the time and share pieces of themselves with the rest of the community.

Second, our Members of the Week have terrific senses of humor and I consistently find myself chuckling when I read over their responses. Topher Kinsell‘s recent remark about doing archival research in Hawai’i made me guffaw (“Living in Hawai‘i for six months was pretty rough. In between the hiking adventures, sunsets, and countless acai bowls, I barely had enough time to take naps at the beach”), and Cynthia Heider‘s favorite archival find had me giggling for a week (“an extraordinarily formal letter sent by Bernard J. Newman of the Philadelphia Department of Health in 1911 that simply said, ‘I am sorry you did not wait at my office as I was only away to get a bite to eat.’ I love, by the form and content of the letter, the insight it gives into this man’s fussy personality”). But the response that I found most memorable and funniest was from Andrew Konove, who, when I asked what item sold at Mexico City’s thieves market would most surprise or delight The Metropole’s readers, shared this perfect gem:

In 1895 a vendor in the Baratillo was caught with rails stolen from the Federal District Railway. The report doesn’t specify the length of track he was trying to sell, but it seems like a particularly conspicuous item to try to unload.

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Standard Oil Building, drawing by Joseph Pennell, 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

My third thought: you cannot read the Member of the Week posts and not remark on the wondrous history buried in global cities. I know that this is stating the obvious to an audience of urbanists, yet I read about Nate Holly‘s incredible archival find (Oconostota’s 1773 Certificate of Admission to the St. Andrew’s Society of Charlestown) or about the matryoshka doll that is the Standard Oil building, as described by Joseph Watson, and feel that we’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to know about these places.

Finally, the range of interests, experiences, and work done by UHA members is as vast as the Pacific Ocean and as dynamic as a coral reef. I try to ensure that the fifth question for each Member of the Week will not re-tread their description of their research or teaching, which can sometimes send me scrolling pretty deep through our members’ bios. Among us are artists, students of geomancy, photographers, foodies, tour guides, and yuppies. Our members work in political science departments and museums and at university presses, and quite a few have contributed to museum exhibits.

Thank you to our UHA members who have already participated, and, to those who I have yet to approach, I hope that you will feel that you are in good company!

Featured image (at top): Scene on campus of University of California, Los Angeles, 1950, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Slums: Alan Mayne Responds

The Metropole‘s recently launched a new series of book reviews, edited by Jim Wunsch. UHA President Richard Harris inaugurated the series in May with a review of Alan Mayne’s Slums: The History of a Global Injustice. Wunsch contacted Professor Mayne regarding his response to Harris’ review, which Mayne generously wrote and shared:

9781780238098I thank Richard Harris for his searching review of my Slums: The History of a Global Injustice. I especially appreciate his concluding assessment that “it makes principled connections across time and space”: this book draws upon a long and now (largely) concluded career as an urban historian, and I would very much like to be remembered with those words!

Allow me to respond to four of Richard’s criticisms.

Firstly, that I obscure the fact that clearance and upgrading schemes have “done some good.” Yes, I am guilty of that, because I wanted to emphasize the appalling social costs overall of ‘slum’ programs from the nineteenth century to the present day.

Secondly, that there are gaps and imbalances in my analysis of global trends and events. Yes, the book inevitably reflects my research years spent in Britain, the US, India, and — quirkily — my homeland Australia. I spent a lot of library hours attempting to smooth out the imbalances, and in so doing learnt a great deal about Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Richard is right about the gaps, but I think my general historical arguments are nonetheless unassailable.

Thirdly, that “Mostly, Mayne focuses on how areas have been (mis)represented, rather than the places and people themselves.” Again, Richard is right, although as he acknowledges there are substantial parts of this book in which I move beyond the misrepresentations that I highlighted in my 1993 book The Imagined Slum: In doing so I draw upon anthropology, cultural geography and sociology. I also harness my collaborations with historical archaeologists over the past 30 years.

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Better housing The solution to infant mortality in the slums” produced by Benj. Sheer as part of the Federal Art Project, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Which brings me to a fourth and final point. Richard and I fundamentally disagree — albeit, I think, in a constructive sense — about ‘slums’: he thinks of them as a socio-spatial reality whereas I think ‘slum’ is an imposed and caricatured denial of those realities. Richard writes, “by whatever name, slums have been a significant element in the modern urban experience.” I would argue instead that whereas social disadvantage has indeed always been an element in urbanization, the linguistic construction of ‘slum’ — dating from the ‘urban revolution’ of the early nineteenth century, and unfortunately reasserted in the ‘developing world’ by well-intentioned reformers since the middle of the twentieth century — has sought to deny or trivialize that connection.

Jim Wunsch’s insertion of Charles Abrams’ thoughts about ‘slums’ in his The Language of Cities (1971) highlights this juxtaposition of viewpoints. Yet as Abrams concludes, “The word ‘slum’ is a piece of cant of uncertain origin, little more than a century old. Slum reveals its meaning the moment it is uttered. Abhorrence of slums has often led to reckless destruction and more than once contributed to severe housing shortages.”

Featured image (at top): “Eliminate crime in the slums through housing,” Federal Art Project, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress