Category Archives: Member of the Week

Member of the Week: Kim Phillips-Fein

Gallatin HeadshotKim Phillips-Fein

Associate Professor

Gallatin School of Individualized Study and History Department, College of Arts and Sciences

New York University

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

I’m actually between major research projects now, which is a nice though sometimes anxiety-provoking place to be!  I have been thinking about a lot of different topics–about the far right in the 1930s; about how to tell the history of the Great Depression in a way that is not triumphalist about the New Deal; about the transformation of the lived experience of political economy between the 1970s to the 1980s, especially the major strikes of that era (most of which ended in defeat for the unions involved) and the ways they reflected a fundamental conflict about the future of the country; about the political ideas of business executives going back into the 19th century, and the ways that their thinking has helped to shape a distinctive political tradition in the United States, one that is far more ambivalent about democracy than our mainstream political culture would suggest–but my energies are still dispersed.  I recently finished writing an essay for an edited volume about the contested history of the idea of neoliberalism, and this was fun because it allowed me to pull together some of the thoughts I had while working on Fear City. In general, I think that the current political situation informs my research interests. I am always trying to understand how and why the right is so powerful in this country, what kinds of voices get heard in political life, who is able to exercise power and how.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

This year I taught one class on the history of ideas about American capitalism in the 20th century, one course which I called “The American Business Tradition: Entrepreneurs, Robber Barons, Salesmen and Frauds,” and one on the history of social movements of both the left and the right in the 20th century (this was co-taught with Linda Gordon). All these classes are in direct dialogue with my own thinking about my research, even though in my classes I always try to take as broad a view as possible, rather than teaching my own arguments (I never really like assigning my own work).  In my writing I try to think about how to put complex ideas into clear language and how to foreground my arguments without making them too simple; teaching is great practice for both of these, as well as a chance to listen to what college students think about history, politics and American society.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

There’s always so much I am looking forward to reading at the end of the semester!  One book I’m especially looking forward to is Stacie Taranto’s Kitchen Table Politics, about conservative women in New York State. I’m also excited about Keisha Blain’s Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, as well as Michael Honey’s recent To the Promised Land, which is about Martin Luther King, Jr., and his longstanding commitment to economic justice. I’ve also been looking forward to LaDale Winling’s Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century, as I think about the efforts of cities to adapt to the loss of industry in the 1970s and after.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Always let yourself become deeply engaged by the city you’re writing about. Spend lots of time walking around it, observing it, traveling it. Don’t just work in the archives, but try to let your work there go along with an immersion in the present life of the place whose history you’re exploring.  If it is your home town, think of ways to make it appear strange and new to you, and if it is a new city, try to talk to the people who have lived there all their lives.

Your book, Fear City, is one of the most frequently referenced publications on The Metropole! It has clearly been an influential and useful resource for urban historians. Looking back on your career so far, what book or article most influenced you and the questions you have asked about the past?

While it’s hard to pick a single book, Josh Freeman’s Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II was the most important work for me as I was thinking about Fear City, in that it emphasized the distinctive nature of postwar New York and the unusual style of liberalism that existed in the city.  More generally, for thinking about urban history, both Jefferson Cowie’s Capital Moves and Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis were very important for me–they both suggested the importance of exploring the internal dynamics within cities while also seeing them as part of larger systems of power. Both books show that what we think of as the problems of cities are in many ways simply the problems of inequality, as they play out in a specific geographical space.

Member of the Week: Mason Williams

WilliamsMason Williams

Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science

Williams College


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

I’m writing a book about how New York City rebuilt its public institutions in the wake of the 1975 Fiscal Crisis—looking especially at schools, policing, and public space. The era of New York’s political history that I described in City of Ambition really does come to an end in the 1970s—if anyone hasn’t read Kim Phillips-Fein’s book Fear City, stop reading this and go find a copy! That moment of pure disinvestment doesn’t last very long, though; by the 1980s, liberals and technocratic problem-solvers alike are trying to recapture a vision of a democratic public sphere. But they’re doing so in ways that end up embedding racial and class inequalities in new institutional forms: public school choice, quality-of-life policing, public-private partnerships, and the like. (If anyone’s interested, there’s a preview of this argument in the latest issue of Dissent.)

To me, the most interesting thing about neoliberalism in New York is that key parts of the neoliberal state are not simply the products of a power grab by capital—which means they have at least some democratic legitimacy among people who think of themselves as progressives. All of which helps to shed light on one of the interesting paradoxes of contemporary American politics: the most progressive places are also the most unequal ones.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I’m teaching a course I offer every spring, Race & Inequality in the American City. It began a few years ago as a chronologically-organized history of American cities since 1945. But it became obvious that what the students really wanted to understand was what to do about contemporary forms of urban racial inequality. So I reorganized it. We now start with the deep structural underpinnings of contemporary compounded deprivation—they read Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, Massey and Denton’s American Apartheid, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (and Destin Jenkins’s great review of it). Then we look at how specific policy areas like policing and criminal justice, education, and housing/gentrification fit together and rearticulate broader structural inequalities. I want them to understand how much is being elided, for instance, when people speak of school equity in terms of an “achievement gap,” “failing schools,” or “bad teachers.”

By the end of the semester, the students understand just how deeply contemporary urban inequality is embedded in American capitalism, politics, and culture—and so they realize that small-scale reforms that leave larger structures of inequality intact risk making things worse. Once they’ve really grappled with that reality, we’re ready to talk about what “solutions” might actually look like.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I’m about to publish an edited volume with two great historians of urban America, Brent Cebul and Lily Geismer. It’s called Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century, and it will be out with the University of Chicago Press in November 2018. The project started as an inquiry into what historians were missing by framing post-1932 American politics as a story of “red vs. blue”—the rise and fall of the New Deal order, the rise of conservatism, the turn from “embedded liberalism” to “neoliberalism.” By the time we were putting the final manuscript together, the controversy over what constitutes “political history” had broken out. So we ended up doing a broader audit into what political history really is right now. A number of the contributors are UHA members: N. D. B. Connolly, David Freund, Andrew Kahrl, Matt Lassiter, Suleiman Osman, and Kim Phillips-Fein.

Of course, as a historian of New York, I’m also excited by all the work that’s coming out on Gotham’s recent political history: Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s Getting Tough, Mike Woodsworth’s Battle for Bed-Stuy, Brian Tochterman’s The Dying City, Brian Goldstein’s The Roots of Urban Renaissance, Aaron Shkuda’s The Lofts of SoHo, Heath Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, Saladin Ambar’s American Cicero, Chris McNickle’s Bloomberg, Joe Viteritti’s The Pragmatist (on de Blasio’s first term)—plus in-progress work by Marsha Barrett, Amanda Boston, Dylan Gottlieb, Ben Holtzman, Dominique Jean-Louis, Nick Juravich, Lauren Lefty, Suleiman Osman, and many others who I’m mortified to be leaving out. This is a golden age of scholarship on New York politics, and it’s exciting to be a small part of it.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Go out of your way to meet scholars who are a few cohorts ahead of you. You’ll get to know your peers, and you’ll hopefully have good relationships with the senior faculty members on your committee and elsewhere in your area of study. But having mentors, role models, and friends a few years ahead of you who’ve recently been in your shoes and really understand what you’re going through is invaluable—and only more so as your career progresses.

You work at the intersection of history and political science. We at The Metropole would like to know: which discipline throws better conferences? 

You’re trying to get me in trouble! I will say, the best thing about conferences is catching up with old friends, and I’ve been a historian longer than I’ve been a political scientist. But an occasional four-cell table wouldn’t hurt anyone!

Member of the Week: Stacy Kinlock Sewell

fallout shelterStacy Kinlock Sewell

Professor of History and Assistant Dean, School of Arts and Sciences

St. Thomas Aquinas College

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

My current research focuses on urban renewal in New York State. There has been much written on urban renewal in large cities generally and New York City in particular. I was surprised to find that dozens of small cities and towns around the State—some with only a few thousand residents—also received funding for “revitalization.” My project is an effort to broaden our understanding of urban renewal and how it affected diverse populations. I started thinking about this question more intently after the last Urban History Association conference, when I was on a panel on Urban Renewal in Small Cities.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I teach 20th century U.S. history courses like the History of the 1960s and a course called “City and Suburb in America.” My college’s particular geography, only 15 miles northwest of New York City, allows my courses to feature the many great and not-so-great local examples of architecture, infrastructure, redevelopment and public housing.   I have taught at this college for 18 years, so my courses have come to reflect my interest in urban policy but also the histories of many of my student’s families, who left New York City’s five boroughs in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of my students will be the next generation of the City’s teachers and police officers. I’m also an assistant dean in the School of Arts and Sciences. My college recently began a Bachelor’s program in a maximum security prison in our vicinity, for which I have primary responsibility. I’d like to begin introducing my students to some of the research on the geography of incarceration, both local and national.   I’m also pursuing some different options for connecting the students on the “inside” and my traditional students through programming and club fundraising activities that will buy additional books and supplies for students in the facility.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am working with a team of historians on a book that documents the destruction of downtown Albany, New York, in the 1960s and the creation of a major renewal project under the auspices of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The project, entitled 98 Acres in Albany, began as an effort to map, block by block, the destruction and renewal of the 40-block project in that city. We have photographs of every property taken by the State, some including the interiors and residents themselves. We have made an effort to track down the many stories of the people displaced and also those involved with the planning and construction of the modernist government office complex that now stands. We have created a website, 98 Acres in Albany, which features photos and stories from the project. We would like to finish the manuscript by the end of 2018.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

As for my advice for you urban historians, I would say that your place matters. It has been thrilling to help my students develop a consciousness about the history of where they come from and their current landscape. Consider developing projects with your students that incorporate the places near and around your college or university. This is an excellent way to engage them and, though I never considered myself a “local” historian while I was in graduate school, it has, rewardingly, moved my scholarship in that direction as well.

Before you ever contemplated being a historian, you studied art. If you were given a giant wall in downtown Albany and charged with creating a mural, what would you do with it? Would you paint it yourself, or commission an artist? What images, people, or events would you consider representing?

I grew up in Albany, but as many others native “Albanians” of my generation, never knew about the destruction of the downtown core. In today’s downtown I would love to see a mural placed in the vicinity of the impressive and extensive abstract public art collection chosen by Nelson Rockefeller. It would depict the displacement of 7,000 residents who populated the downtown, their homes and businesses. It would be a great way for the community to envision what was lost, and how renewal changed Albany so dramatically.

Member of the Week: Nathaniel Holly

holly_nNathaniel Holly

PhD Candidate

Lyon G. Tyler Department of History

College of William & Mary

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

At the moment I am neck deep in my dissertation, which examines the urban experiences of Cherokees in the long eighteenth century. While early American historians have long noted the presence of indigenous diplomats in colonial (and imperial) cities, few scholars have asked even the simplest research questions about those visitors. Once I entered the archives in search of urban Cherokees, a whole new sort of early America emerged: one where colonists and indigenous peoples of all stripes organized their lives around urban centers rather than frontiers and backcountries. Yes, you read that right. Cherokees organized their lives around their own urban places (and those of their indigenous neighbors) long before the English planted Charleston along the coast. Furthermore, in addition to the usual diplomats, I’ve found Cherokees of a more common persuasion—including women and children—who traveled to places like Charleston, Williamsburg, and New Orleans for their own diplomatic, economic, and personal reasons.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I recently taught a class on American Indian history that spans from creation/peopling to the end of the Seven Years War in 1763. I found teaching this particular course at a place like William & Mary—which has a lake named after Matoaka (or Pocahontas) and an Indian School that dates from the 17th century, and which is just a short jaunt from Jamestown and borders on a living history museum that has recently hired some indigenous interpreters—particularly rewarding. Many of the students were eager to learn about the indigenous history of places they trod on everyday, including the Revolutionary City. And like my scholarship, I leaned heavily on Nancy Shoemaker’s A Strange Likeness in emphasizing the similarities between indigenous peoples and colonists rather than their differences. Conceptualizing and teaching this sort of intellectual re-orientation really helped me hone some of my own ideas and grapple with the common humanity of all colonial era subjects.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

This is a long list so I’ll offer an abbreviated version here. In the recently published category I really enjoyed Christine DeLucia’s new book on King Philip’s War and historical memory: Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast. She has an excellent chapter that deals in part with indigenous visitors to and residents of Boston. Did you know that Boston only lifted its ban on Natives in 2005? And while Coll Thrush recently published Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, I am a much bigger fan of his earlier Journal of British Studies article, “The Iceberg and the Cathedral: Encounter, Entanglement, and Isuma in Inuit London.” While I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, Dana Velasco Murillo recently published Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546-1810. Along similar lines Colin Calloway recently published The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation, which includes a chapter on Indian diplomacy in Philadelphia. And it’s also worth noting that Calloway recently revealed in an interview with John Fea that his next book will be about Indian visitors to early American cities. I’m certainly looking forward to that. As far as general early American urban history goes, Mark Peterson’s The City-State of Boston: A Tragedy in Three Acts, 1630-1865 should be published shortly. I was lucky enough to hear a preview of his argument in a keynote at this year’s BGEAH conference in Portsmouth, UK. If the Q&A that followed is any indication, this is going to be a widely discussed book.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies? 

I’m glad you asked me about “preparing” a dissertation rather than “finishing” one. I’m definitely not ready to answer any questions about that. Fingers crossed though. One of the most important aspects of my preparation was reading urban history widely. This meant not simply focusing on early American historiography or the growing corpus of books on urban Indians in the twentieth century. Some of the most influential books in my thinking were written about urban places in colonial Latin America. The other bit of advice I would give isn’t really about urban history specifically. As my brilliant advisor made clear, I shouldn’t be afraid of being bold and flexible. As a result of that advice, what started as a provincial story about people who seemed out of place in cities (inspired by Philip Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places) turned into a project with something to say about urban and early American history more broadly.

What has been your greatest archival find while working on your dissertation?

While I’ve found great stuff in the legislative and executive papers of colonies like Virginia and South Carolina—Cherokees finding their own people enslaved by Charlestonians on visits to the colonial capital, a nameless Cherokee spotting a colonist who cheated him out of a deerskin and some baskets walking on the other side of the street, or a Cherokee prisoner begging to be killed rather than remain confined in Charlestown—I have stumbled onto a couple shocking archival finds. One involves membership in an exclusive, urban-headquartered society. As he evacuated the urban center of Chota in the winter of 1781, a Cherokee headman named Oconostota left some of his “baggage” behind. When the pursuing American officers finally rummaged through the bags they found the Cherokee capital’s archives. These archives consisted of wampum belts, medals, coins, treaties, letters, and other manuscripts. An officer collected some of the papers that interested him the most and sent them to Thomas Jefferson who managed to have them preserved in the Papers of the Continental Congress. While this collection of documents is intriguing for a number of reasons, one particular document is astonishing: Oconostota’s 1773 Certificate of Admission to the St. Andrew’s Society of Charlestown. It appears that the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, John Stuart, sponsored the Cherokee headman as he joined a group of some of the most prominent Charlestonians. At this point, I have more questions than answers about this document, but it certainly confirms the ability of Cherokees to incorporate places like Charlestown into their own urban-inflected world and domesticate the power that dwelled there.

Vol. 2, p.205 of item 71, Virginia, Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M247, roll 85).

Member of the Week: Claire Poitras

Poitrasc3Claire Poitras

Professor of Urban Studies and Scientific Director of the Villes Régions Monde Network

INRS-Urbanisation Culture Société

Montréal, Quebec, Canada

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

My areas of research include urban, suburban and metropolitan history. I am particularly interested in the built environment and urban technical networks and the ways in which they influence our representations of cities and place-making.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I am currently on sabbatical leave after acting as the director of my research institute for 7 years. Next fall, I am going to teach in an Urban Studies program (Master and PhD). I am also the member of the place name committee of the City of Montreal and this allows me to connect urban history with issues of the contemporary city.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

My recent publications have addressed suburban history as well as the changes in former working class neighborhoods in the Montreal area. Some of my publications have been linked to the Major Collaborative Research Initiative on Global Suburbanisms financed by the Canadian government and directed by Roger Keil at York University in Toronto.

Poitras, C. 2018. «Quand la banlieue était l’avenir» (When the suburb was the future), Revue allemande d’études canadiennes-Zeitschrift fur Kanadastudien (ZKS), January, no 38, p. 8-24.

Poitras and P. Hamel 2018. «The Montréal Metropolitan Region. The Metropolis of a not so Distinct Society», in North American Suburbanism, J. Nijman (ed.), Toronto, University of Toronto Press (in press).

Poitras, C. 2017. «Defining Peripheral Places in Quebec. A Review of Key Planning Documents and Electronic Media (1960-2011)», in What’s in a Name? Talking about Urban Peripheries, R. Harris and C. Worms (dir.), Toronto, University of Toronto Press, p. 112-130.

Poitras, C. 2017. «L’axe du Canal de Lachine et les quartiers du Sud-Ouest. Grandeur et misère du berceau de l’industrialisation du pays ?», in La cité des cités, J.-L. Klein and R. Shearmur (dir.), Montréal, Presses de l’Université du Québec, p. 107-124.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

I recommend that they read a lot on different cities and contexts and that they nurture their curiosity. Also, they should not hesitate to express their individuality in research. About 10 years ago, I heard a comment by a senior scholar at a conference on urban environmental history that influenced my path. It goes as follow: you’ve got to do your own thing!

You have written about the history of Bell Canada and the telephone more generally–a very interesting topic! I notice that most people seem to prefer text messaging these days, but are you still in the habit of calling people on the phone? How did researching the topic of the telephone influence your affection for this technology? 

Strangely enough, I have a certain aversion to technology and specifically smart phones. In addition, I think that we spend too much time in front of screens and not enough in the real physical/material world. This said, my preferred mode of communication is email.

Member of the Week: Alan Lessoff

Lessoff at ND, TW photo, Oct 16Alan Lessoff

University Professor of History

Illinois State University

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

I’m in the middle of two projects. The first is an exhibition and book project undertaken with the McLean County Museum of History, an exemplary regional museum in this part of Illinois. The theme is unbuilt buildings and failed and defeated plans and development projects. A lot of large cities in the United States and elsewhere have had exhibition and publishing projects on the theme of the Unbuilt City. They are often gorgeous–because of all the renderings, charts, and models–and they invite imagination of all sorts of possibilities, negative as well as positive. They also draw people into a discussion of how groups of residents in the past understood and argued about their city and its problems and potential. As far as we can tell, this is the first time a mid-sized city has tried an Unbuilt City exhibit. Given the nature of planning and development in mid-sized cities, this invites a discussion of the state-of-the-art professional advice–the contemporary best practice–that planning consultants and architects have over time diffused from larger cities to regional and secondary metropolises and how that diffusion shaped cities everywhere.

My other current project is a pair of essays about how Europeans became aware of American debates over urban machine politics, focusing on James Bryce (whom I wrote about in the past) along with William T. Stead and Mosei Ostrogorski. This is part of an international project about urban politics and corruption that I’ve worked with off and on for about a decade. In general, Europeans tried to distance themselves from the idea that mass party politics could bring urban political machines to European cities, but there was also the counter-notion this might become another menacing form of Americanization, that European cities could become “Chicagos,” as contemporaries at times put it.

This is pretty typical for me over the past two decades–my urban history goes in a public and regional history direction, but I also try to keep going with more conventional, analytical work.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

Once a year, I teach a senior/graduate course on U.S. urban history that includes a segment in conjunction with the McLean County Museum that we have devised to involve students with urban history archives, how they are organized, and how one can work with them. Given where we are in Central Illinois, I use works like Ann Keating, Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age, and Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, to encourage students to have a geographic and visual sense of the urban region. Keating’s Chicagoland is especially inspiring. I use it as the basis for a project in which students are meant to take photographs of their hometown or neighborhood and consider how a place they think of as familiar might fit into the regional patterns that Keating lays out and how they might be able to see previously unseen history in their own towns.

I also teach a senior research seminar on comparative urban history, as well as an MA-level seminar in local and public history methods. Last summer, I had the chance to try out a version of this seminar at the Bielefeld University Graduate School for History and Sociology, using historical museums and sites in that section of Westphalia. Public history draws us to the local wherever we are, but we can readily conceive of it in transnational and comparative ways as well. (This is not an original thought by any means.) And right now, I’m trying a new MA seminar on the United States in Transnational Perspective, which encourages big thinking among students about urban networks and urban environmental history. I also oversee our internship program and our small urban studies minor. Overall, my teaching these days amounts a pretty good arrangement for someone who does what we do–it runs the gamut from the most hands-on to the most interpretive.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

A short while back, I read a clear, detailed book by a University of Chicago urban studies scholar, Chad Broughton, Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). It’s a vivid account of the people swept up in both places when the Maytag plant moved in the early 2000s from Galesburg, Illinois, to Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. This book gives me ways to connect my earlier writing about South Texas to my current research on Central Illinois–he does a great job with one of the most relevant subjects one can imagine.

I love the way that Benjamin H. Johnson’s new book, Escaping the Dark, Gray City: Fear and Hope in Progressive-Era Conservation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), draws upon all the recent work in urban environmental history to create a new general narrative of the conservation movement.

One of the next books on my to-read shelf is Daniel Czitrom, New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), about the Lexow Investigation of 1894. I feel that our current debates about abusive policing help us better to understand why contemporaries in the late 1800s saw machine politics as so unsavory and oppressive.  Understanding police racketeering should offset any romance we might still have with the image of good-hearted ward bosses.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

To stay engaged with their places and the physical and local aspect of urban history work, even through all the anxiety and uncertainty of trying to become established professionally. We’re fortunate to have a field that enables us so readily to connect with the places where we happen to be, and that helps to some degree to keep us alive intellectually through the periods when one feels so unsettled and therefore so driven to live in one’s head and in one’s CV. All those places will accumulate and will be a tremendous resource later on.

You’ve written a history of Corpus Christi, Texas. What’s a surprising fact about the city that neither urbanists nor residents likely know?

Because of its name and location, people imagine Corpus Christi to manifest the Spanish and Mexican presence in South Texas that was overwhelmed by Anglo American conquest and colonization. In reality it shares more with Houston and other Anglo American urban foundations along the Texas coast, in that it began as an Anglo American outpost and gateway into what’s now southern Texas and the Borderlands, a launching point for the extension of Anglo American commercial and political networks and environmental transformation into what had formerly been a Spanish and Mexican frontier region. Anglo American civil engineering reshaped a shallow bay on the edge of an arid plain and with a hurricane-prone coast into a practical-enough site for urbanization geared into U.S. urban systems. The Spanish heritage, Mission Revival design, and ranger and pioneer lore that still dominate regional historical and visual identity can overshadow this more modern story of regional development for commercial agriculture, labor exploitation, and resource extraction. The main theme of my book was the tense interplay between those older regional epics and lore and an urban character, layout, and culture shaped by railroad- and petrochemical-era Texas.

Member of the Week: Bridget Flannery-McCoy

BFM_photo_smBridget Flannery-McCoy

Editor in Economics and US History

Columbia University Press


Describe your current editorial projects. What about them are you finding interesting, challenging, and rewarding? 

I always have projects at various stages: proposals going out for peer review, draft chapters coming in on books-in-progress, full manuscripts ready for line editing. No matter the stage, the biggest challenge is helping the author articulate the major driving argument, and ensuring that their presentation and tone is right for their audience (be it scholarly or popular). The reward comes when reviewers and readers recognize and engage with this argument—by which I mean, when people read the book!

Describe what your day-to-day life is like as an editor. Is there a routine, or is every day different?

When I’m doing my job right, I’m spending part of my day in meetings or on phone calls with potential and current authors, part researching and discussing new book ideas with colleagues, part actually reading and editing manuscripts—and part, of course, answering emails, which can include anything from review of potential cover images to discussion of marketing activities to hounding tardy peer reviewers. (When I’m not doing my job right, I’m spending all day on emails.)

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

I love when there’s resonance between books on my list, so I’m really excited about two new projects forthcoming on residential segregation—Paige Glotzer’s book on the history of the first suburbs in Baltimore (and the discriminatory practices built into them) and Elizabeth Herbin-Triant’s book on the different attitudes around segregated housing among elite and middle-class whites. Both are still in revisions, but keep an eye out for them next year. We also have a tremendously fun book on the way from Evan Friss on the history of cycling in New York City, and of course Joshua Clark Davis’s From Head Shops to Whole Foods, which was the subject of a great review on this very blog.

What advice do you have for scholars of urban history who are preparing book proposals? 

Don’t overthink it. (Easy for me to say, I know.) The best books evolve as you write, so I see book proposals as the beginning of an ongoing conversation about the book’s structure, scope, and goals. Start thinking early about the presses you’d want to publish with, and if you can, initiate a conversation with an editor as you’re working on the proposal. Conferences are a good way to make this connection—just email the editor about a month in advance requesting a meeting—or ask an advisor or colleague to get you in touch with their editor. That way you’ll know you’re preparing the right materials, and you’ll also get on the press’s radar early.

What item might readers of The Metropole be surprised to find on your desk?

A big stack of books published by other presses. I love seeing the publication decisions that other presses are making: How are they handling maps and images, and how many are they including? How are they laying out text on the page? What kind of paper are they using? Keeping a close eye on how other presses produce their books lets me pick up (as in, shamelessly imitate) what works, and to avoid things that don’t.

Member of the Week: Vince Furlong


Vince Furlong

Tour Coordinator and Guide, and Volunteer

Restoration Exchange Omaha

Describe your day job. How does it intersect with urban history?

I am mostly retired and did have 17 years as a teacher in my early days – Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and the Omaha metro.

You lead guided tours of Omaha. How did you get into doing that? Give us a sense for the tours!

About 20 years ago, I had space to consider what I might want to do at age 60 plus. I ran a self-initiated forum discussing the question – how do we want Omaha to grow? Several folks suggested a rebirth of Omaha’s historic neighborhood commercial districts. I was encouraged to look at the National Trust’s Main Street program. So, I tried to introduce the Main Street program here, but local government said “we are already doing this” and local business and neighborhoods oozed apathy. So, I began doing the tours of a couple districts myself.

Our La Veinticuatro tour of the South Omaha 24th Street Historic Main Street highlights an area that grew up in the Omaha stockyards/meatpacking satellite city from 1887-1970s and now is the heart of the Latino population. The Deuce tour of the 24th and Lake historic district emphasizes black musical heritage and local civil rights actions from 1920-1970. Finally, our Historic Vinton Street Commercial District tour stresses a unique street angle and interesting architecture that grew around it.

History is just part of each tour as we also look at the arts vibe in each area, ethnic influences, architecture, revitalization efforts…. Our main tourist clientele are students first grade to grad school.

What recent or forthcoming urban history books are you excited about?

My daughter recently gave me a hardback copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, so I have been re-reading selected areas.

What advice do you have for scholars of urban history who want to share history with their communities?

  1. Start doing it.
  2. Keep doing it.
  3. Show some passion.
  4. Keep adding tidbits of info.
  5. Do not be too scholarly.

What’s the best question you have been asked while giving a tour?

The best question for me while I was walking the streets doing the research was “Hey, Vince, why are you doing this?” Also, I always like “Que pasa?”

Member of the Week: Jim Wunsch

Jim-Wunsch-100x100Jim Wunsch

Professor, Historical and Educational Studies

Empire State College, State University of New York (SUNY)


Describe your current research.

I am interested in how social and technological changes over the course of the 20th century altered the lives of children. In “The Streetlife of Children in New York City” (Streetnotes, February 2015, 51- 91), I drew on memoir and literature to tell that story. Lately I have focused on how cars came to threaten and limit the child’s freedom of movement. The issue will be further considered when I join Joe Goddard of the University of Copenhagen and Veera Moll of Aalto University (Helsinki) in Cars v. Kids, a panel for the Children and Youth in a Global Age conference at the University of Hong Kong, 25-26 May.

What drew you toward research on children and cities?

 I have it on good authority that I once was a child, raised in the Midwood section of Brooklyn where I attended P.S. 193. When I was in fourth grade, my family moved to Westport, Connecticut, the very model of the prosperous rail commuter suburb. In Brooklyn, my two older brothers had enjoyed the freedom of subway travel, but when it came to getting around Westport, they were dependent on our mother. As I was content to ride my bike, I did not share my brothers’ objections to suburbia. Sixty-five years later, I am coming to grips with their discontent, an indication perhaps of a certain slowness in catching on or catching up.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship? 

In “Urban Change: The Story of New York City Neighborhoods” my students develop PowerPoint tours of their respective neighborhoods. Their presentations are built around photos of housing, shops, parks and prominent structures; through use of census and planning data students consider the racial and ethnic composition along with the health and wealth of their neighborhoods. The majority of students– mostly black and Hispanic working-class adults—are concerned with gentrification. The assigned readings and essays are intended to put their understanding of gentrification into historical perspective.

Many of the students in my other course serve as assistant teachers in the NYC public schools. In the “Childhoods of Great Americans,” the coming of age of Ben Franklin, his sister Jane, Sojourner Truth, Abe Lincoln, Huck Finn, W.E.B DuBois, and others is linked to a basic American historical narrative. Students can thus satisfy the SUNY American history requirement while also considering a fundamental pedagogical question: how is it that young people could become quite well educated with minimum of schooling? Daniel Wolff’s inviting How Lincoln Learned to Read inspired this course.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

Sonia A. Hirt’s Zoned in The USA: The Origins And Implications of American Land-Use Regulation (2014) is an astute and readable account of American land use planning, past and present. For urban historians the book serves nicely as model of comparative analysis. After comparing the US to other places Hirt asks: “How could Americans, whose reputations for being independent and freedom-loving and respecting private property… put up with such tedious laws governing the building of their everyday environments and way of life?”

Robert J. Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since The Civil War (2016) helps urban historians understand how the dynamo, the development of alternating current and the cheap internal combustion engine, pulled or pushed Americans from countryside to city and then spread them thinly across metro areas. By 1940 the technological revolution was complete. The American household was wired into the energy, communications, and plumbing grid. What has transpired since has been less consequential. Except for the microwave, your kitchen is little different from one set up seventy years ago. Compared to what the car, electricity, and indoor plumbing produced, the growth generated by the “digital revolution” has been pretty feeble.

As for my own work, I am relieved if not excited to be finishing “What I Learned About Cities and Suburbs By Working for The New Jersey Legislature,” a first-person account of serving as staff to the Assembly Municipal Government Committee during the late seventies, a period when this very wealthy state’s exceptionally poor and troubled cities appeared to be in free fall.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban history?

You might imagine that a tenured professor privileged to live and teach in New York City might have some useful advice to impart to others seeking to make their way in academia. But that would presume that I had some career strategy.

After earning a doctorate in history, I did not teach college for the next fifteen years. Instead, I served as staff to the New Jersey Legislature and then to The Regional Plan Association, a private, non-profit planning agency. I taught social studies full-time at Smith, Truman and Monroe, among the most troubled high schools in the Bronx. In retrospect it would appear that this extended “postdoc” was invaluable preparation for teaching college-level urban history. Maybe so, but at the time I didn’t know that. I was just looking for interesting jobs.

What has sustained me — those jobs were not always easy or interesting — was my feeling for urban history, the story of the rise and fall and often the rise again of cities and other places large and small. Urban history naturally draws you into civic engagement whether it is serving on a planning board, school board or joining a group trying to get the sidewalk extended so more kids can walk to school. Such engagement can be helpful in your own writing or research and even lead to gainful and interesting employment.

You’ve recently assumed the mantle of Book Review Editor for The Metropole. In a twist on the BBC classic radio program Desert Island Discs, what eight books, 1 CD, and single luxury good would you take if you were stranded on a tropical beach?

Listen, Metropole, I’m assuming no mantle, yoke or chastity belt until my retirement on August 3rd. And I must say your linking of editorial duties to being cast away is disconcerting. What are the survival chances of a pale, fearful chap, skilled mostly at annotating bibliographies?

But Book Review Editor sounds easier than teaching at Monroe High School, so I will do the best I can to assign books to competent reviewers.

As for that wretched island: I read that the palm fronds can serve as raiment (grass skirts) and shelter, and the milk and meat of the coconut will sustain life. So, I need a book titled Survival Under a Coconut Regime. [The Metropole editors note that this is not a real book, so far as Google is concerned, but believes the title must be applicable to some ongoing scholarly project]. I heard that Wiki is coming out with a print edition so have the UHA ship the 7,471 volumes to the island via Amazon Primeval. Other titles: Gulliver’s Travels, Ecclesiastes, Jonah and The Book of Revelation to remind me of how little I will miss the damned human race. Then a couple by P.G. Wodehouse to remind me of all that was good.

Ah, the luxury item. Doubtless, many would opt for a solar powered cell phone so that they could remain on Facebook and also order whatever they wanted. So equipped it would be irrelevant whether they were stranded on a tropical island or in Muncie. As for me I would want a pail and shovel, not the tacky 99-cent store stuff for kids, but serious sculpting and sand moving tools. I would then dig sluices, canals and moats, lay out a city mostly on the grid but with irregular streets and avenues respectful of the contours of the beach. A great improvement over NYC’s tedious 1811 Plan. ­­­­ Hovels, bungalows, castles and nunneries to follow. Then as Lord of all that I had surveyed, I would build a throne and thereon be anointed—remotely of course– Book Review Editor—with the Goldberg Variations in the background. How envious other urban historians will be.


Member of the Week: Ellen Hartman

Hartman_profileEllen Hartman

Research Landscape Architect, US Army Corps of Engineers Construction Engineering Research Laboratory

Part-time PhD Student, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois

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

My current research at work covers a few areas, but it’s mostly focused on military aspects of cultural resources management and socio-cultural goespatial research, with some natural resources management aspects thrown in. When I started working I didn’t know what to expect, except that I was interested broadly in military landscapes (although, at the time I didn’t really know what that meant!). Academically, my research is more historical and theory-based and addresses the militarization of tangible and intangible spaces through nuclear armament.

Describe your current work for the Army Corps of Engineers. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?

My research for the Corps is very applied, which means I conduct historical research that informs the management guidelines I write that help the Department of Defense facilities maintain compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act, among other federal policies. The overlap between my work research and academic research is that I can view military landscapes from two different perspectives–operational and theoretical. 

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

It’s not that recent of a publication, but I just came across a book in the NATO Science for Peace and Security Series called “Warfare Ecology: A New Synthesis for Peace and Security” (2011). It explores the “complex, reciprocal relationships between warfare and the environment.” I haven’t read it in depth yet, but so far all the contributions seem really interesting. 

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

I don’t have much advice, except that history is awesome and cities are awesome so they might as well be put together.

A few years you became interested in geomancy and began incorporating influences of geomancy into your design work. What is geomancy, and what’s your favorite example of how you’ve used it for design?

Oh boy, the geomancy question. Way back when I was working on my masters in landscape architecture I had an ongoing conversation with my advisor, David Hays, about the assumption that design is predicated on improving future conditions. One of the questions was, how do you design for something that is unpredictable? David suggested I look into geomancy because it’s an ancient “science” that uses Earth’s energies to predict the future as well as locate sacred, or important, sites. But really, I use it as a method to filter, or recognize, my bias and to question the modern notion of technological arrogance and that we are always progressing upward toward betterment.

Geomancy is a fun exercise that helps generate narratives and then design responses. As mentioned above, I used it for my masters thesis, which got published as the chapter “Savior City” in (Non-) Essential Knowledge for (New) Architecture: 306090, Volume 15. I also used geomancy to question how sacred sites get formed in a journal article “Sacred States of America” in Forty-Five ( This project is a favorite because I wanted it to be a prompt for action, to have people go to specific places to do specific things with the hope that over time the prompt would be forgotten, but the actions would continue, thereby creating new sacred sites. To my knowledge, no one has enacted any part of that plan.