Category Archives: Member of the Week

Member of the Week: Danielle Wiggins

headshotDanielle Wiggins

Doctoral Candidate in History

Emory University

@from_dlwiggins

 

 

 

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

I’m currently writing my dissertation about the development of black politics in Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s by examining how members of the black political class–namely, mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young as well as people on the city council and county commissions, in the Georgia Assembly, in the Department of Public Safety, and within the the black business community–governed through issues of crime and urban development. More specifically, I investigate how these figures responded to rising crime rates, in particular what they identified as “black-on-black crime,” and escalating fear of crime, as well as deepening inequality with punitive public safety policies and market-based economic development programs based in notions of law and order, personal responsibility, and the sanctity of capital. I argue that these leaders accomplished this with the approval of much, though not all, of Atlanta’s black electorate by drawing on a black reformist liberal tradition that emerged in the late 19th century, a political moment of revanchism similar to that of the 1970s and 1980s. More broadly, I consider the ways in which shifts in black politics on the urban level provide insight into the broader rightward shift of the post-Great Society Democratic Party.

I came to this topic in the aftermath of the murder of Freddie Gray and the uprising in Baltimore. I wanted to understand how putatively liberal, Democratic black political officials could come to condone systems of policing and urban redevelopment that criminalized poor black people and exacerbated racial inequality. My research shows that black leaders not only condoned these practices, they designed them, and furthermore, they defended them by appealing to traditional ideals in black political culture.

Describe your current public history work. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?

This year, I’m working as an editorial assistant with the Washington Post’s “Made By History” blog. It’s a forum that enables historians to share insights about current events and their historical context with a broad audience. It has been really fun as a historian to learn about the work other people are doing and to read fascinating pieces outside of my field. It has also been really rewarding as a scholar committed to dismantling barriers between the academy and the wider world to help other scholars make their work accessible and cogent for a broader audience.

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

When I’m not writing my dissertation or editing pieces for the blog, I’m working on an article that provides a genealogy of the concept of “black-on-black crime.” It has really surprising origins in black progressive politics that provide insight into the role of African Americans in constructing the carceral state. As for the work of other scholars, Brian Goldstein’s The Roots of the Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem has been really instructive for me as I try to untangle the messy politics of development within black politics. I also really enjoyed Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, which is not only a well-researched historical study, but is a real page-turner. I think it would make a great movie a la The Big Short.

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

As I was struggling to write my dissertation prospectus, Nathan Connolly advised me to spend some time reading the records of city council proceedings. This really helped me to get a sense of what issues were really important to city legislators and their constituents and what they believed was at stake in how the city governed on particular issues. Issues that I thought would be really significant based on the secondary literature–affirmative action and animosity between the mayor and the business community, for example–were not nearly as inescapable or as contentious as the crime issue, which of course was inextricable from the development issue and the push to make Atlanta the “next great international city.” This realization changed the entire project. So my advice would be to start by spending a good amount of time with city council records to see what people actually cared about and how they went about addressing their concerns.

You have served as a teaching assistant and editor with the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, in which Emory University undergraduate students are examining unsolved and unpunished racially motivated murders from the modern civil rights era. What was one of the most memorable moments–either experienced by you, or a student, or shared as a class–from the time you worked on the project? 

The Cold Cases Project  is an important initiative and I’m very happy to been able to contribute. There isn’t quite one particular moment that stands out because the course, and the project itself, was very much a process of discovery. We spent the semester examining one case, the murder of James Brazier in southeastern Georgia. Each week the students examined different components of the case and gradually they were able to put the pieces together. As a teacher, I enjoyed helping students do the real work of history–examining different kinds of evidence such as autopsy reports and witness statements, putting these pieces of evidence in conversation with each other and the secondary literature, and creating a narrative that provides an informed explanation of the case.

Member of the Week: David Yee

yee photo uhaDavid Yee

Ph.D. Candidate in History

Stony Brook University

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

My current work is a social history of mass housing and inequality in Mexico City. The dissertation traces the rise of Latin America’s largest shantytown, Ciudad Neza, as it grew alongside a government-built housing complex named San Juan de Aragón. Both Ciudad Neza and San Juan de Aragón are representative of a crucial historic juncture for Mexico, and Latin America in general, an era when the optimism of modernist urban planning was eclipsed by the rise of the urban shantytown. I focus on housing to explore how it contributed to “a great divergence” among the millions of migrants who arrived to Mexico City in the middle of the twentieth century. During this period, public housing evolved into a mechanism for upward mobility among the city’s incipient middle-class at the expense of the informal poor, producing a new set of political subjectivities and cultural sensibilities among the city’s residents.

The project stems from my life-long fascination with the historical experience of people leaving the countryside for major cities. After pursuing several different ideas (street vendors, migrant associations), I found that struggles over housing provided a focal point and entryway into this experience and allowed me to highlight the diversity of the people arriving to Mexico City during the 1950s (erroneously portrayed in the press and scholarship as a monolithic mass of poor, illiterate campesinos.)

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

In the past, I have usually taught courses on Latin American history, but this past summer I was able to teach a course called “Cities in World History.” It was great to go beyond Latin America and teach about housing and architecture in places like New York and Paris. We also went up to the present and covered the rapid growth of refugee camps, a socio-spatial formation that exists in a peculiar kind of limbo state that contains both elements of transitory encampments and permanent neighborhoods. The refugee crisis is creating human settlements of millions of people and they’re challenging what we think of as “urban.” Ben Rawlence’s account of a massive refugee camp in Kenya (City of Thorns) and the UNHCR’s online resources on camps/cities in Syria were very eye-opening for the students.

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

There has been an effervescence of literature on Latin American cities in the past few years. The best of example of that work can be found in Cities from Scratch: Poverty and Informality in Urban Latin America, which is really a great collection of cutting-edge work that spans across various disciplines and countries. I’m looking forward to the release of two books on Mexico City – Matthew Vitz’s A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City and Andrew Konove’s Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy of Mexico City (both due out next year).

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

In general, there is no perfect dissertation topic. I found it was better to go through an early process of trial-and-error, doing some initial archival research to see what existed and where it would take me as opposed to trying to conceptualize and formulate everything in my head. Specifically, with urban studies, it is by definition multi-disciplinary/ interdisciplinary, opening up the opportunity to reach out to other scholars outside of your own department for advice, leads, or possibly to serve on your committee.

As a historian who studies the built environment and housing in Mexico, what has your response been to the two massive earthquakes that just hit the country?

More than anything else, there has been a tragic loss of life (361 people so far) that stretches from Mexico City to Chiapas. They were jolts that revealed the underlying divisions in Mexican society, while producing acts and sentiments of solidarity that transcended those divisions experienced in one’s everyday life and daily routines. At the time of this interview, I see hundreds of volunteers throughout the city as I go through my day. The memory of the more devastating 1985 earthquake is palpable in every sphere of society. There is a large void to be filled among historians in regards to the urban social movements that preceded the 1985 earthquake, its role in the expansion of Mexico’s civil society, and the urban reconstruction phase in the aftermath of the earthquake (one of the largest since the Marshall Plan in Europe). Two great pieces for further reading are: Elena Poniatowska’s Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake (a book on the 1985 earthquakes) and a recent article by Pablo Piccato, “Lessons from Mexico’s Earthquakes: 1985 and Today.”

Member of the Week: Betsy Schlabach

headshot schlabachBetsy Schlabach

Associate Professor of History and African & African American Studies

Earlham College

@schlabetsy

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

My current book traces African-American women’s use of policy gambling to navigate racism, sexism, and capitalism in Black Chicago between 1890-1960. Policy structured economic and gender relations there, where participation in the formal economy was tenuous and unstable—or plain back-breaking. Policy was a viable option for the overwhelming amount of women who confronted a lack of opportunities to get ahead legitimately in the primary economy. I rely on archival collections from the Chicago Public Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and National Archives, as well as arrest records and police reports from the Archives Department of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, to show that Chicago’s policy women—the wives, the queens, the runners, the gamblers and conjurers—capitalized on both their tenuous relationship to the economy and the men in their lives to capture unheard of possibilities.

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

I’m teaching a first-year writing seminar on the Underground Railroad, with a focus on Eastern Indiana-Ohio history. I’m also teaching an upper-level survey course, African-American History to 1865. These courses, at first, don’t seem very related to my research on policy gambling but both push students to reconsider the legacies of escape. Escape informs the ways in which gambling, as part of the informal economy, unfolded in major urban centers such as Chicago, Harlem, and Washington, D.C. The Great Migration starts with these radical acts of self-emancipation and results in innovations to capitalism. Isabel Wilkerson charts this amazing chronology in her book The Warmth of Other Suns. I also push my students through various writing and digital assignments to reflect on the ways in which the past informs their present, especially our relationships in urban spaces. For example, my Underground Railroad students have to complete a digital storytelling project exploring the parallels between present-day issues such as Sanctuary Cities and the Underground Railroad.

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

Keisha N. Blain, the editor of the wonderful blog Black Perspectives, recently released her book Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (Penn 2018). It is on my must-read list as is Tera W. Hunter’s Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Harvard, 2017). I’m also rereading Rashauna Johnson’s Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, 2016). The latter is helping me craft a collaborative faculty/undergraduate research seminar on the History of New Orleans. I appreciate her use of digital humanities to help us reconceptualize the relationship between race, labor, and the urban geography of New Orleans.

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

I can offer words of advice on balancing the demands of your institution while satisfying your own research agenda. I have found that the best way to balance my commitment to research and the demands of teaching at intensive small liberal arts intuitions like Earlham College is to follow academic blogs like this one or others such as Black Perspectives and to start networking on Twitter. This became my way to keep on top of the debates in my fields and keep me informed of relevant publications when I can’t devote a lot of time to reading scholarly monograph after scholarly monograph or traveling to conferences.

I’ll also offer a plea: if you find yourself in a place where you can take advantage of the benefits of tenure-track employment turn your focus to the tireless advocacy for contingent laborers in our field–the adjuncts, visiting assistant professors, and short-term contracts. There is no better place to focus our efforts.

Your current work is on gambling. What’s the best story you’ve seen during your research about how someone spent their winnings? 

Most people who won from policy drawings used their money to place more bets—this was how policy writers (those who solicited bets door to door throughout the neighborhood) made their living. Their goal was hook patrons on the excitement of the drawings and small kickback winnings. But by far the most incredible story comes from the famous Jones Brothers in Chicago. The brothers, with help from their mother, owned and operated several policy wheels all over Chicago pulling in millions of dollars annually. In the late 1940s their family had several run-ins with the Italian mafia forcing them out of the city. The family matriarch, Harriet Lee Jones, moved the family to Mexico City where they opened up a very successful car dealership and textile factory. Harriet and her boys were tireless and very successful entrepreneurs.

Member of the Week: Katie Schank

Schank - UHA photoKatie Marages Schank

George Washington University, PhD, American Studies, May 2016

Emory University, Fellow, James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, 2016-2017

@kmschank

 

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

In my current research, I explore the relationship between architecture, housing policy, race, and visual culture to study the history of Atlanta’s public housing program. The “rise and fall” narrative, which frequently relies on critiques of design, policy, and funding, has dominated public housing history, and I hope to demonstrate the ways in which visual representations and public relations had an equally vital and largely untold role of influence on this major municipal program. My research focuses on demonstrating that neither the early success nor the later failure of public housing was inevitable but both were the result of considerable rhetorical work dependent upon representations of modernist architecture, the social program, and residents. I also explore the unique, symbiotic relationship that existed between Atlanta – a city obsessed with image and self-promotion – and public housing. While focused on Atlanta, my research looks at larger questions about the ways that images and visual rhetoric operate as agents in urban politics, policy, and understandings of race.

I lived and worked in Atlanta for five years before moving to Washington, DC to start graduate school. It was unlike any other city I had lived in, and while it took a while to grow on me, I became fascinated with it. While I was working on a paper for a research seminar, I stumbled on a catalogue entry for a collection of papers at Emory University of an Atlanta real estate developer turned amateur documentary photographer, filmmaker, and public housing advocate. A year later, happy to have a reason to visit Atlanta, I took a research trip to view that collection. Within the first day of research, I had a feeling that I might have discovered my dissertation topic. This topic perfectly brings together my interests in the built environment, urban history, and visual culture. Now, as I’m taking my dissertation and revising it to become a book manuscript, I am still just as excited about this topic as I was when I started my research almost seven years ago.

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

Last semester I taught a course at Emory University called “20th Century African American Urban History and Visual Culture.” We examined twentieth-century African American urban history through the lens of visual culture. As a class, we worked to develop a clear understanding of the historical and interdisciplinary frameworks that are available to analyze and “read” both documentary and popular visual materials such as photographs, television, and film. The class drew directly from the methodology that I use in my own work, and while we did study other cities, Atlanta was the main focus of the class. It was rewarding to see students develop the critical skills necessary to look at visual materials and begin to realize that photographs and films are not innocuous materials but serve an agenda to shape perceptions about race and the city.

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

I am always excited for new scholarship about Atlanta, so I am looking forward to Maurice Hobson’s book, The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta, which is being published by UNC Press this fall.

While it is not a publication, I am also looking forward to the 2018 release of documentary about the East Lake Meadows housing project in Atlanta by Ken Burns and his team. They seem to be taking a very balanced approach in telling the history of the program and the story of East Lake’s redevelopment. I know that they have gone to great lengths to find and interview former residents. I also had the honor of being interviewed for the film, so that certainly adds to my excitement about its release!

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

I would encourage them to attend the Urban History Association Conference! The conference draws scholars who are doing such interesting and important work. It is a great way to get a sense for all of the possibilities that exist in the field. Not only should they attend the conference, attend paper sessions, and present their own work, but I would urge them to make an effort to meet people – both senior scholars and their peers from other universities. As a grad student, I was admittedly nervous and hesitant to approach scholars whose work I had read and admired. Yet, once I began to talk with people, I found them to be very approachable and genuinely interested in talking to me about their work and my work. Since my first urban history conference five years ago, I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of people in the organization. They have provided me with great advice and support in terms of my research and career, and I now look to them as mentors. I also look forward to seeing my “conference friends” – people I’ve gotten to know who are at similar stages of their careers to me. It’s always great to have a chance to catch up and encourage one another. Because I hope to have a career in this field, these are people that I will see and work with for years to come.

What is one of the most unique or unusual visual representations of public housing that you have used as a source in your study?

I would have to say that the music video for Outkast’s “B.O.B (Bombs Over Baghdad)” is one of the most unique visual representation I have used in my work. In the video, Outkast’s Andre 3000 stumbles out of an apartment in the now-demolished Bowen Homes housing project in Atlanta. Instead of the drab brick buildings and poorly landscaped grounds that existed when the video was filmed, he’s surrounded by psychedelic purple grass and trees, bright yellow sidewalks, and neon green roads. Whereas so many images from this time period are focused on despair and the failure of the program, the vivid colors of the video combined with the fast tempo of the hip hop music offer an image of Atlanta’s public housing that was very different from the dominant narrative being circulated when the album was released in 2000. The music video offers the view of an alternate future and different possibilities for public housing residents by invoking Afrofuturism. It was a valuable perspective and important message that was not coming from anywhere else during this time period. I love that my interdisciplinary approach to urban history means that hip-hop videos and traditional archival sources each have a place in my work.

Member of the Week: Elizabeth Todd-Breland

Todd Breland.Elizabeth09 copy
Photo credit: UIC – Jenny Fontaine

Elizabeth Todd-Breland

Assistant Professor

University of Illinois at Chicago

@EToddBreland

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

I am currently finishing a book about transformations in Black politics, shifts in modes of education organizing, and the racial politics of education reform in Chicago from the 1960s to the present. I’ve always been personally and professionally interested in African American history. I also spent time working with Chicago Public Schools students in schools and afterschool and summer enrichment programs. This project has uniquely allowed me to merge my training as a historian with my commitment to racial justice and educational equity.

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

Two of my favorite undergraduate courses to teach are Race and Education Since Brown v. Board and The History of Chicago. I’ve been able to draw on my research to inform the content and assignments for these classes. In these courses I require that students leave the confines of the classroom to attend local school and community meetings, conduct community research projects, and/or visit Chicago’s museums and neighborhood-based cultural institutions. The students analyze these experiences within a broader historical context informed by course readings and other materials. While I want my students to learn new content and develop a critical analysis of history and the city, I’m also always excited for them to visit and engage intellectually with parts of the city to which they might not otherwise venture.

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

I’m excited to finally be finishing my book, A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming 2018). The last book I read was Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. It is a beautiful and thrilling novel that challenged me to be more imaginative in thinking about the space and genre of the city in the particular way that good fiction can. I’m also looking forward to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s forthcoming book Race for Profit on Black housing and the relationship between the private sector and public policy during the 1970s.

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

You will be with your research projects for a long time. So, it is important that you are passionate about the topics of study that you choose. Keep asking questions. Take the time to build relationships with people in the communities where you conduct your research. Be prepared to learn more from these collective experiences than you will ever teach others.

What was the most memorable oral history you completed as research for your book project?

I’ve had the privilege of conducting some amazing oral histories for my book. One of my most memorable was with a woman named Lillie Peoples. She taught in Chicago schools for more than forty years, organized Black teachers as a leader in Operation Breadbasket’s Teachers Division, and impacted many people along the way. Over the course of several phone calls and in-person interviews, she shared her personal and professional journey with me and allowed me look through her private collection of pamphlets, newsletters, obituaries, meeting minutes, and photographs. She is a dynamic storyteller with a quick wit, speaks her mind boldly, and remains a passionate advocate for Black children and public education. Like many of the Black women educators who I interviewed, Lillie Peoples’ story has not been adequately documented in an official historical record. Nonetheless, these Black women transformed city politics and education efforts as education practitioners, theorists, community organizers, and anchors of blocks and neighborhoods. There is an added urgency to this history given recent political attacks on public school teachers and public sector employees nationally, which have had a disproportionately negative impact on Black workers and Black communities.

Member of the Week: Michael Durfee

durfee. headshot.Michael J. Durfee – Niagara University – Assistant Professor

https://pointsadhsblog.wordpress.com/author/mjdurfee/

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

My research focuses on the substantial growth of the carceral state throughout the Crack Era, the contingency of missed opportunity for police to cooperate with grassroots anti-crack and anti-crime activists in the Bronx, and the subsequent militarization of urban policing. Moreover, to borrow a phrase from the leading scholar of the field, I follow how local activists made sense of and struggled with the criminalization of urban space. In addition to the local, my book project explores the bipartisan panic spurred by the emergence of crack and the overdose death of Len Bias. As a cadre of scholars continue to probe carceral studies we are learning to train our gaze towards the deeper historical roots of mass incarceration. However, analyzing passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 is an important tipping point in cementing governing logics of hyper-punishment. Since the advent of #BLM I have been particularly interested in the ways in which old conversations about policing and punishment are suddenly “new” and ahistorical. Hopefully my work can highlight this unfortunate reality and underscore the continuity of activism regarding issues of policing and policy.

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

This fall I will be teaching a course on the rise of mass incarceration that examines the concurrent wars on crime and drugs. I also routinely teach a course entitled “The Crack Era in Context” which allows me to offer students an in-depth seminar using ethnography, historical monographs, and the interdisciplinary articles that got me started in the field. Additionally, I teach a general requirement Postwar United States history course that takes students away from narratives of American Exceptionalism and investigates how policy and place shaped inequality and rights to citizenship. It is incumbent that students and instructors grapple with the social, political, and economic consequences of the burgeoning carceral state in order to properly understand the latter half of the Twentieth Century.

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

While I am genuinely excited for my forthcoming review essay in the JUH on informal economies, my preference is to point readers to the current and forthcoming work of scholars that have been invaluable to my understanding of my own research. For the less patient, I implore members to read Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s book, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America which arrived at my door last week. Moving forward I am particularly excited about two forthcoming monographs: Matthew Lassiter’s The Suburban Crisis: The Pursuit and Defense of the American Dream and Max Felker-Kantor’s book project, Battle for the Streets: Policing, Politics, and Power in Los Angeles.

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

Apply to and attend relevant conferences, ask questions, and get to know what I have found to be highly accessible, thoughtful scholars working in the field. Make and maintain connections with other graduate students pursuing research in urban history, and try to join a writing group. Perhaps most importantly, do not be afraid to submit your work, and write as frequently as possible. I also find applying our expertise and engaging the public sphere to effect change both rewarding and sustaining.

What book would you like to put in the hand of elected officials or policy makers who are trying to ameliorate the opioid epidemic?

This past year our community suffered a profound loss with the passing of Eric Schneider. To understand addiction, heroin culture, and unsuccessful punitive roads taken by elected officials and policy makers, Schneider’s Smack: Heroin and the American City is indispensable. This brilliant scholar, mentor, and somehow, even better human being will be sorely missed. I first met Eric in 2012 at the UHA conference where he chaired a panel with another scholar that subsequently took me in—Michael Javen Fortner. I think I can speak for Michael in saying that Eric improved our work—and my confidence—in immeasurable ways.

Member of the Week: Troy Hallsell

Hallsell PhotoTroy Hallsell

PhD Candidate, Department of History

The University of Memphis

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

My research explores the grassroots politics of anti-freeway activism. In 1956, federal highway administrators proposed a freeway that would run directly though Overton Park in Midtown, Memphis. Their proposal became one of Tennessee’s and the nation’s most contentious public works project of the post-World War II era. Community activists organized to protect their park, going all the way to the Supreme Court to successfully prevent the freeway’s construction. While many scholars recognize their efforts as critical to protecting public spaces in American cities, they have not fully interrogated the politics behind the citizens’ freeway revolt, nor have they fully considered the ways in which this struggle served to increase residential segregation in places like Midtown Memphis. The project bridges literatures on environmentalism, urban history, and historic preservation to demonstrate the surprising and often unintended consequences of grassroots environmental activism that sought to preserve neighborhoods and public spaces.

As a historian and native Memphian, I have sought to answer questions about my home town—especially why is it segregated and how did it happen? During my MA program at George Mason University I took a course titled “Technology and Power” with Zachary Schrag. A portion of this course was dedicated to infrastructure and I was fascinated with our discussion about how roads/streets/highways shape built environments physically, spatially, and politically. When I began my PhD program at the University of Memphis I stumbled upon this freeway revolt in a book and found the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park’s archival record at the Memphis Public Library. I decided to take it up as a dissertation project and add to my city’s backstory.

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

I am currently teaching two courses: one that explores cities, technological innovation, and technology’s effect on the urban environment. This course is an extension of my research, but I have expanded it to include public health, housing, policing, and military activity. My other course, titled Environment and Society, is an introductory course that exposes students to some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. Using an interdisciplinary approach, they learn the science behind these issues, as well as the economic, political, and social factors that influence environmental change and shape our responses to it. Here, they learn that environment and politics are deeply intertwined.

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

There are two books sitting on my desk that I am about to read: Benjamin Looker’s A Nation of Neighborhoods: Imagining Cities, Communities, and Democracy in Postwar America and Lila Corwin Berman’s Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit. Both books speak to dynamics at work in Memphis during my period of study.

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

The biggest lesson I learned came too late for me. When PhD students are selecting their major and minor fields, they must choose ones that complement, not necessarily reinforce. For example, I chose 20th century US history for my major field and African and African American history for my minor fields. Since my major field was headed by urban and civil rights historians, I read tons (perhaps literally) of African American historiography. While great for teaching, it is difficult to draw a straight line between Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship and urban renewal. I should have chosen an Urban Studies minor field instead of African American historiography. Working with a minor field advisor, we could have created a reading program that covered urban, race, gender, and class theory. This approach would have provided a theoretical foundation that I could then let loose on my dissertation topic. Instead, I am having to teach it to myself while writing a dissertation and found this to be a daunting task.

What Memphis sites are currently overlooked, but really should be a “must-see” on any historical tour of the city?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. When people come to Memphis they will inevitably eat BBQ, go to the National Civil Rights Museum, and drop $40 to see Graceland. But I always recommend people do the following things. First, see the Peabody Ducks. I’m thirty-five years old and I still act like a six-year-old when I see a guy in a tuxedo march ducks out of an elevator and along a red carpet to swim in the hotel’s lobby fountain. Second, if you are on Beale Street venture into Silky O’Sulivan’s. Upon first glance, it is a bar like any other. But if you venture into the courtyard you’ll see a pair of goats off to the right. They always make me laugh, because, well, goats. Lastly, walk down to the Beale Street landing and take in the Mississippi River. Memphis sits upon the river’s widest point and people rarely consider how big and powerful a river can be. They don’t call it mighty for nothing.

Member of the Week: Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

joanna-merwood-salisburyProf. Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

Faculty of Architecture and Design

Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

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

I began my career as an historian of late-nineteenth-century American architecture, in particular the culture of the early Chicago skyscraper (roughly 1880 to 1910). My research investigated the broader group of social actors involved in the creation of the skyscraper city, and asked how the appearance of the skyscraper changed ideas about the nature of cities and American society as a whole. From there I moved on to explore the types of public space available to Americans during this period: what was the dominant understanding of public space? How was it incorporated into strategies of urban design and how did different social groups make use of it? These interests lead to my current project on the history of Union Square in New York City.

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

My current position as Associate Dean of Research and Innovation means I spend the majority of my time helping other scholars make the most of their own research. When I do teach it is courses in modern Architectural History. Throughout my career I have usually worked with students aiming for careers in architecture practice. I find that students enrolled in a professional program are principally focused on the contemporary issues at stake for design. For this reason I try to situate historical material in relation to those issues. For example, I connect the current concern with sustainability to the long-standing interest in “organicism” in architecture; in courses dealing with the formulation of the industrial city in the nineteenth-century, I relate historical processes of change to contemporary issues in urban design, in particular the impact of globalization and the environmental crisis.

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

I am excited for the publication next year of Race and Modern Architecture, edited by Irene Cheng, Charles L. Davis II and Mabel O. Wilson. This is a series of essays on the critical role of racial theory in shaping architectural discourse. Redressing a longstanding neglect of racial discourses among architectural scholars, it reveals how the racial has been deployed to organize and conceptualize the spaces of modernity, from the individual building to the city to the nation to the planet. I have an essay in it about racial themes in Civil War-era New York City architecture. I’m also looking forward to the publication of my book-length project on Union Square, Design for the Crowd Patriotism and Protest in Union Square, which investigates the history of the Square since the early-nineteenth-century, understanding it as both a real public space and as the symbol of competing ideas about the operation of democracy in the United States.

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

Even if it seems unfashionable, obscure, or even over done, find a topic that you are deeply interested in, not just one that seems to tick the right boxes. The many hours you’ll spend in library basements and archival storage will seem even longer if you’re not passionate about what you’re looking at.

In this current moment of political protest, how would you design the optimal protest space? What would it look like and where would it be? Assume no obstacles!

Protest movements today no longer rely on gatherings in physical space to get their message across. Some of the most effective contemporary activism (the “Black Lives Matter” movement, for example) is geographically dispersed with a heavy reliance on social media. However I still believe that physical space has a role to play, principally in giving a visual image to protest movements, as in the Occupy Wall Street protest at Zuccotti Park. The most effective seem to combine occupation of dedicated public spaces (where proximity to symbols of power is key) with dynamic connections to larger groups not present on site, via mainstream and new media.

Member of the Week: Scarlett Rebman

ScarlettSquareCrop-2-thumbScarlett Rebman

PhD Candidate in History

Syracuse University

@scarlettrebman

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 
My dissertation, “Saving Salt City: Fighting Inequality through Policy and Activism in Syracuse, New York (1955-1975),” uses mid-twentieth-century Syracuse, New York, as a lens to explore the relationship between grassroots activism and federal, state, and local government policies. I aim to uncover the factors that fostered innovative efforts to address social problems in Syracuse–and why these efforts largely failed. Five specific issues dominated community conversations during this time: education, housing segregation, tenants’ rights in public housing projects, employment, and leadership. Examining them reveals that although activists achieved some tangible victories at the local level and even reshaped the realm of possibility in the national political landscape, they were unable to fundamentally alter systemic mechanisms that reproduced inequality and segregation.
I came to this topic in stages. Before starting graduate school, I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services. In this position, I worked with a geography professor to compile census data on the low-income neighborhoods that my organization served, including the one in which I lived at the time. The people with the lowest incomes lived in the areas with the oldest and poorest housing stock, which was expensive to maintain and potentially had lead paint hazards. Moreover, these neighborhoods were racially segregated. I wanted to understand the political, economic, and social forces that created this situation. My boss assigned me Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis to read, and it captivated me and inspired me to study urban history.
As I began to think about dissertation topics, my focus shifted to the ways in which these oppressive urban conditions had been challenged by citizens. Syracuse is a perfect entry point into a study of urban social movements. The city had both a robust civil rights movement and two controversial War on Poverty programs that were terminated by the federal government. Using the case study approach allows me to untangle complicated organizational and political relationships and trace individual careers across organizations, capturing nuances that would be lost in a regional or national narrative.
 
Describe your current work in the public humanities. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?
Last November, I joined the staff at Humanities New York as Grants Associate. This necessarily entailed a transition away from the classroom and has made carving out writing time a challenge, but it has been so rewarding. Humanities New York is a state-level, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our grants and programs allow organizations around the state to creatively engage their communities using the tools of the humanities. I get to interact with representatives of libraries, historical societies, and quite a few academic departments. It’s all about drawing connections–among organizations doing similar work, from the particular to the general, between historic and contemporary contexts. My academic training definitely helped prepare me for this type of work.
Additionally, through my position I’ve acquired a new perspective on how communities both urban and rural are discussing issues such as economic inequality, race, democracy, and immigration. This has informed how I think about the activists that I study. It helps me appreciate that this type of work is ongoing. The issues at the top of reform agendas in 1967 certainly resonate fifty years later. On the other hand, we need to understand the specific factors that inhibited groups from achieving their goals in the twentieth century in order to move forward in the twenty-first.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America and Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy are both incredible books that shine new light on the history of the criminal justice system.
What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies? 
Although it can be daunting when time is so precious, seize opportunities to share your work with community members outside of academia. Consider partnering with a community organization on a humanities project. The results will most likely be unexpected but exciting.
You have done a lot of public history and teaching in the community. Would you share one of your favorite memories of doing this work?
During the 2016-2016 academic year, I was a Public Humanities Fellow with Humanities New York. Each fellow proposes and implements a public-facing project. I worked with the Southwest Community Center in Syracuse to offer a camp on local human rights history last summer. I received a Humanities New York Action Grant through my history department to make the project happen. Eleven young women between the ages of ten and thirteen participated, and I had an amazing co-teacher and assistant. We went on a field trip every day. The best trip was to Harriet Tubman’s house and gravesite in Auburn, New York. The students were amazed that Tubman’s home had been preserved and was not a replica. Harriet was a role model and hero for them, and they were excited to learn more about her legacy. At her gravesite, they spontaneously gathered around the marker and bowed their heads in prayer. History can impact us in profoundly personal ways, and I was fortunate to share that experience with the campers.

Member of the Week: John Fairfield

Fairfield head shotJohn D. Fairfield

Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH

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

I’m currently working on several projects. I recently drafted an essay on my late friend/mentor/editor Zane L. Miller called “’The Metropolitan Mode of Thought’: Zane L. Miller and the History of Ideas.” I hope it will be part of a retrospective on Miller’s career (including several excerpts from the unfinished manuscript he left behind) that I am working on with Larry Bennett and Patty Mooney-Melvin. I’m also writing something on Jesuit pedagogy and education for sustainability for a project that my Xavier colleague Kathleen Smythe is heading up. With my students, I’ve recently finished a little history of Oakley (a Cincinnati neighborhood) and am working on another one on Avondale (another Cincinnati neighborhood). I’m currently finishing an article on “The City Beautiful Movement, 1890-1920” for The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. That last work intersects with my current book project on urban sustainability and human ecology. The basic argument is that urban sustainability is not a new thing. The success or failure of cities has always depended on their ability to construct productive ecologies and to manage precarious settlements. We have not, however, fully developed the knowledge of human ecology that should guide those efforts. I think what unites all my interests, from the beginning, is urban space. I did a book on city planning, a book on public experience, and now human ecology; urban space is there in all that.

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

Most of my teaching is in two programs at Xavier, the Philosophy, Politics, and the Public honors program (PPP) and the M.A. in urban sustainability and resilience (MA URS) that I designed and co-direct with my colleague Elizabeth Blume (a former city planner in Dayton and Cincinnati). In the PPP program, I teach a course called “Constructing the Public” that examines political culture, political philosophy, and urban experience and a course called “Writing in Public” that explores the historical and philosophical roots of contemporary issues (the subject changes every semester as the course is blocked with a political science course where the students engage in legislative politics, trying to advance an issue). In the MA URS program, I teach a course called “Urban Ecologies and Urban Economies” that looks at the intersections, collisions, and synergies between urban ecologies and economies. I also teach (with a member of the City of Cincinnati’s Planning Department, James Weaver) a course on Urban History, Geography, and GIS. Weaver does the heavy lifting in that class, teaching the students how to use the ArcGIS software. My role in the PPP program came out of the work I did for my book The Public and Its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City (Temple University Press, 2010). The MA URS courses come out of my current research on urban sustainability and human ecology.

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

I recall as a young faculty member hearing senior faculty describe work for encyclopedias and other research guides as the grunt work of the profession (they sometimes used a less gentle adjective). But I’ve always enjoyed doing such work and I believe it gets read more than anything else I write. A recent piece I did on “Green Cities and Sustainability” for The CQ Press Guide for Urban Politics and Policy in the United States (CQ Press, 2016) gives me great satisfaction. It also has provided me with something of a blueprint for my current book project. But the work I am most anxious to see is my partner and Xavier colleague Rachel Chrastil’s “historical companion to childlessness in the 21st century” (currently under review). Although I’ve lived a “child-full” life (having four children and now a grandson), I find Rachel’s work to be illuminating about all the most important things about life, from enjoying it and making a contribution to finding meaning and leaving a legacy. It’s a book we very much need today, not least because if we are to seriously address our mounting environmental challenges, childlessness is likely to be an experience that more and more people share in the coming years.

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

Well, I’d tell them it’s the right place to be. If you recall the talk about imbrication and the dangers of meta-narratives and interdisciplinarity and all that, cities demand it. They are so complex, so many things are always going on, there are so many dimensions to everything, that you can never be tempted by mono-causation or totalizing narratives. History and especially historians can never have the whole urban story and so you must branch out into philosophy, sociology, political science, literary theory, economics, ecology, and so much more. I’d also tell them about something I read long ago, when I was in graduate school. I believe it appeared in the Journal of Urban History, in Bruce Stave’s interview of Sam Bass Warner, Jr. (the first one, in 1974, although I just looked it up and couldn’t find the passage). But Warner (or whomever it was) essentially said it takes all kinds, just write what you can, there is no one way to do history. Here was this giant of the profession saying that and I didn’t know what I could write, if anything, but that sounded encouraging; write what I can, there’s all sorts of contributions to make. I later got the same thing from Elvis Costello, in an interview about his anti-capital punishment song, “Let Him Dangle,” where he said we all have to find our own way to contribute. It takes all kinds; write what you can. Read and write and talk and read and write some more.

What’s your favorite history book to recommend to non-historians?

The book that drove me back to graduate school to study cities was Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. I was just out of college, working as a glorified clerk (a “paralegal”) at a big-time New York City law firm with a roster of evil clients. I took that book everywhere I went in the city and read it every spare minute I got, cover to cover. Sure, it suffers from the great man theory of history and perhaps isn’t entirely fair to Moses, but what a story, what a canvas. I went to many of the places Caro wrote about (some of them on one of Ken Jackson’s early midnight bicycle tours) and it fired my imagination and ambition. Somewhat more recently, I’ve found Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors, Jeffrey Sanders, Seattle & the Roots of Urban Sustainability, and Andrew Needham, Power Lines to be stimulating reading. But here’s a test for any non-historian. Take a look at three very different books, Mike Davis, City of Quartz, Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America, and Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of American Whigs. If you don’t find something in at least one of those books that you find fascinating, then maybe you just don’t like history.