Category Archives: Member of the Week

Member of the Week: Matthew Guariglia

39310556_10213341790634339_3231092978973933568_oMatthew Guariglia

Ph.D. Candidate in History

University of Connecticut

@mguariglia

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

My current research explores how policing changed as U.S. cities became more racially and ethnically diverse between the 1860s and the 1920s. A few years ago I became very interested in how the state learns about citizens and how that knowledge is employed in the project of policing and social control.

After years of research, what I’ve discovered is that between around 1895 and 1920, police departments experimented with a number of different tactics in order to make people it deemed too foreign to be “legible” to the state more policeable. I’ve also been surprised at how international my scope has become in order to tell this story. By tracing the origins of these different tactics and technologies used on the streets of New York City, my dissertation has widened to include U.S. colonial governance and race making in the Philippines and Cuba, criminal anthropology in Italy, newly invented information management techniques in Germany, as well as a number of policing tactics present in European cities that were developed in colonies in East Africa and South Asia.

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

Last semester I taught African American History from 1865 to the present, which really helped me solidify a lot of the themes and ideas in my dissertation. I had been having trouble conceptualizing the difference between how immigrants and African Americans in New York were subject to two entirely different modes of policing and what that meant for the project of racial state building. Getting the chance to teach Reconstruction and the history of Black citizenship really helped me develop this idea of police as citizen-makers who could deploy different styles of policing depending on who they were bringing in to the national fold and who was being excluded.

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

 Lately, I’ve been very encouraged and inspired by the recent scholarship pulling the conversation on race, crime, policing, and incarceration further into the past. I believe the genealogies of mass incarceration go back much further than post-war policy. For me, Adam Malka’s The Men of Mobtown, Tera Eva Agyepong’s The Criminalization of Black Children, and Kelly Lytle Hernández’s City of Inmates, have all been brilliant at showing the intellectual and structural foundations on which the carceral state was built. In terms of upcoming books, I am excited for an upcoming book by Craig Robertson on the history of the filing cabinet. It’s a bit of a pet project and obsession of mine, but because the state’s collection and retention of information on racialized subjects is so central to my thinking on state power, that book is going to be a must read.

As for my own work, this fall I have an article coming out in the Journal of American Ethnic History that looks at the mechanization of bureaucracy and deportation in 1919-1920. It is also proving increasingly timely as it revolves around the political agency of bureaucrats to resist policy from within institutions, especially those institutions that are engaging with questions of race, immigration, and civil liberties.  

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

When visiting that city for research, go seek out the archivists, librarians, museum employees, and historical society workers. Their perspective is invaluable for understanding the history of a city. Them, and cab drivers. Telling people I study the history of the NYPD has brought me so many good tips that usually begin with, “My grandmother always used to say her father was a police officer……”

Last year your Made By History article was retweeted by none other than Edward Snowden. How do you plan to top that? 

That was a weird day. I had a lot of people accusing me of being a Russian spy. If I could top that experience, it would be by getting some policy makers to actually read the Made By History column. It’s always so disappointing when politicians propose solutions to problems like police brutality or mass surveillance and are unaware that those solutions already have long histories. I would love to start seeing some of that work seep into the political sphere.

Member of the Week: Malcolm Cammeron

IMG-3199Malcolm Cammeron

2-yr MA Student

History Department

The University of Alabama

@itsmalcolmyall

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

I’m interested in the post-Civil War “Deep South” with a particular focus on the intersection of public policy, labor, cities, and civil rights. My current project explores urban renewal and resistance in an Alabama community following the Housing Act of 1949. Most studies of housing in the state focus on Birmingham, the state’s largest city. However, I hope to broaden our understanding of the practice in the state and its effects on communities. I first learned of urban renewal efforts in the community I study when conducting an oral history interview with a former civil rights activist. The former activist believed that urban renewal and other events in the community had been overlooked and encouraged research on the subject.

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

This semester I am a teaching assistant for an undergraduate world history course in which I lead four weekly discussion sections. Each week I make an effort to incorporate current events or elements of popular culture into our discussions. Most recently, I asked my students to analyze a classic hip-hop song as a primary document. I find that making the material relevant encourages engagement, particularly for those students who are not history majors or have had poor experiences in the subject in high school.

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

2019 marks Alabama’s bicentennial. To commemorate the occasion, organizations and institutions around the state have hosted educational programs and activities. I’ve celebrated by grounding myself in important texts for study in the state including Alabama: The History of a Deep South State (recently reissued for the bicentennial) by William Warren Rogers, Robert David Ward, Leah Rawls Atkins, and Wayne Flynt plus Michael Fitzgerald’s recently published Reconstruction in Alabama: From Civil War to Redemption in the Cotton South.

Recent titles about city planning and urban renewal I’ve also enjoyed include Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Secret History of How the Government Segregated America and N.D.B. Connolly’s A World More Concrete: Real Estate And The Remaking Of Jim Crow South Florida.

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

I would encourage graduate students to engage local historians and consult local cultural institutions. Both are likely to have resources not available in larger collections or secondary sources. My own research has benefited tremendously from primary sources in the possession of local historians and local public library.

You recently interned at the White House Historical Association! Tell us about a really cool moment or experience you had, or something you learned as an intern that you may not have learned in the classroom.

The internship provided a great window into public history in the nation’s capital. My responsibilities included content development, marketing, and historical research. Also, as part of the internship experience, I visited the White House twice. On the first visit, I was among the first users for the Association’s new mobile app. The app is the twenty-first century version of the Association’s White House guidebook and offers users guided tours of the Executive Mansion.

Member of the Week: Vyta Baselice

Vyta BaseliceVyta Baselice

PhD Student in American Studies

George Washington University

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

My dissertation explores the cultural history of concrete. I examine why concrete became the second most consumed material on the planet and how it came to define architectural and social modernity in the United States. The dissertation therefore attempts to move beyond aesthetic concerns typically addressed in literature on concrete and, in addition to built environments, looks at cement plants, concrete distribution businesses, contractors, and construction workers, among other important players. My interest in concrete is a result of both my personal and educational backgrounds. I grew up in a post-Soviet country, where the material was quite literally everywhere. My experience of studying architectural design and history, first at Wesleyan and then at University College London, got me interested in materials and environments people take for granted.

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

I currently work as a teaching assistant for various courses in the history of art, architecture, and science and technology. My teaching experience with undergraduate students allows me to clarify my own ideas about design and culture. This is important because although I come from a specialized background, I write for a non-expert audience. And it was only when I started teaching that I realized that students with no experience in architecture have a difficult time not only reading plans, drawings and other documentation, but also finding the language with which to describe space. So, I am now particularly sensitive about selecting helpful case studies that we can collectively break down and analyze, paying attention to how architecture can perform as functional buildings, artistic projects, capitalist ventures, and political statements.

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

I have been working on an article that examines the way concrete was transformed as a result of research and engineering efforts during World War I. This project has allowed me to engage with secondary and archival materials in the history of engineering, which is a fascinating though new field to me. In terms of other scholars’ work, I am excited to read Megan Black’s The Global Interior (Harvard, 2018), which examines the transnational aspirations of the Department of the Interior. Black’s approach to her topic is particularly inspiring to me as I am tackling some similar issues related to politics, culture, and the environment.

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

I would advise students to select a topic that allows them to visit diverse archival repositories and field sites. While I have found secondary and digitized materials to be helpful and convenient, it has been critical to actually get to the archives and flip through the different materials, which often reveal unexpected relationships and thoughts. This has been particularly true for a documentation report I wrote for the Historic American Buildings Survey on Paul Rudolph’s Burroughs Wellcome Headquarters. The different project-related boxes I examined at the Library of Congress often included information on other buildings the architect was working on simultaneously. It was fascinating to consider how those projects might have informed the design of Burroughs Wellcome. Visiting the building was likewise critical for understanding the scale of the project and the extent to which representational tools attempted to mediate some of the less successful aspects of the design.

You live in Washington, D.C., which has no shortage of interesting structures. What concrete building should be included in any architectural tour of Washington, D.C.?

Oh, that’s a tough question. Some of the most obviously stunning buildings are large in scale and built by and for various government departments, like Marcel Breuer’s Department of Housing and Urban Development headquarters or Stanislaw Z. Gladych and Carter H. Manny Jr.’s J. Edgar Hoover Building (otherwise known as the imposing FBI structure). The DC metro likewise showcases a pretty impressive application of exposed concrete for transportation. I would, however, like to highlight some other lesser known works of concrete that represent earlier experimental uses of this material, like John Earley’s Meridian Hill Park, which is truly a spectacular urban park project, or the mini golf park in East Potomac Park.

Member of the Week: Brett Abrams

Brett L. Abrams

Senior Archivist

National Archives and Records Administration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Quick Reflection on the Member of the Week Series

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

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

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

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

50127r.jpg
Standard Oil Building, drawing by Joseph Pennell, 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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

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

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

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

Member of the Week: Topher Kindell

image1Topher Kindell

Doctoral Candidate

The University of Chicago

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

Broadly speaking, my research lies at the intersection of urbanization, commercial trade, race, and public health in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. My dissertation examines how medical professionals, legislators, indigenous Hawaiians, and East Asian migrants transformed Honolulu from a passive, mid-Pacific seaport into a vital, disease-screening checkpoint for the Hawaiian Islands, the Pacific Basin, and America’s overseas empire. The proliferation of steamship traffic during the second half of the nineteenth century accelerated the rate of transpacific trade and migration, thus amplifying the urban prevalence, interisland diffusion, and international circulation of infectious diseases. As a result, health officials in Hawai‘i came to view Honolulu’s position at the crossroads of the Pacific as both a blessing and a burden—a contradiction, they asserted, that needed to be controlled at all costs. Alongside its role as a lucrative waystation, agricultural entrepôt, and budding tourist destination, I contend that Honolulu assumed a unique and often self-proclaimed responsibility as a “sanitary sieve”—an urban clearinghouse that could filter out infectious diseases traversing the Pacific. Indeed, by the turn of the century, safeguarding the Hawaiian Islands, the Pacific Basin, and the U.S. Empire from disease had emerged as Honolulu’s chief public health responsibility.

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

I recently finished a year-long preceptorship mentoring undergraduate BA thesis students through the research and writing process. Topics ranged from urban redevelopment in Paraguay and labor recruitment in Hawaii to education reform in India and foreign policy conflicts in Palestine and Israel. In the fall of 2018, I will be teaching a course of my own design—“Pacific Worlds: Race, Indigeneity, and Migration”—which will examine how race, racism, and racial ideologies were integral to the formation of three long-nineteenth-century Pacific Worlds. By focusing primarily on the northeastern Pacific, Oceania, and a selection of islands scattered in between, the course will investigate how divergent, convergent, and evolving notions of race shaped the histories of Pacific exploration and settler colonialism; indigenous sovereignty and the law; gender and sexuality; disease, depopulation, and public health; transpacific commerce and labor migration; war, imperialism, and national belonging.

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

As I’m in the throes of dissertation writing, I’ve had few opportunities to delve into new publications. However, I recently taught selected chapters from Amy Lippert’s first book, Consuming Identities: Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Oxford University Press, 2018), which sparked an engaging in-class discussion about the interplay among migration, urbanization, and visual imagery (e.g. photographs, political cartoons, etc.). I’m also excited to sink my teeth into Seth Archer’s recently released book, Sharks upon the Land: Colonialism, Indigenous Health, and Culture in Hawai‘i, 1778-1855 (Cambridge University Press, 2018), as it appears to be a precursor to many of the themes I address in my own research on the Hawaiian Islands during the second half of the nineteenth century.

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

First and foremost, find something you’re passionate about, but also embrace any changes that may arise. When I began graduate school, I hoped to pursue a dissertation topic on the circulation of medical knowledge among municipal health officials in San Francisco, Sydney, and Honolulu; however, due to time constraints and funding hiccups, I found it to be in my best interest to focus my efforts on a single city. In so doing, I’ve been able to demonstrate how the physical and commercial growth of Honolulu had far-reaching consequences for other Pacific seaports and, inversely, how epidemic events beyond Hawai‘i had direct, persistent, and often detrimental effects on Honolulu’s development.

What torture do you endure, having to do research in sunny Honolulu? Describe a typical post-archive evening, so we can at least live vicariously through you.

Living in Hawai‘i for six months was pretty rough. In between the hiking adventures, sunsets, and countless acai bowls, I barely had enough time to take naps at the beach. Honestly, though, the Hawai‘i State Archives were open from 9am to 4pm, which gave me plenty of time to explore Honolulu and the island of O‘ahu.

Member of the Week: Cynthia Heider

meCynthia Heider

M.A. Student in Public History, Temple University

Digital Projects Assistant, Center for Digital Scholarship at the American Philosophical Society

@comebackcities

Describe your current public history project(s). What about it/them are you finding interesting, challenging, and rewarding?

I suspect that some readers may be confused by or unfamiliar with the term “public history,” so I’ll begin with the short definition given by the National Council on Public History (NCPH): “[P]ublic history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues.” You can learn more in this section of the website.

Part of the challenge and reward of public history work is that it can be highly variable in topic and audience. I enjoy this because I’m interested in lots of different historical topics, and it keeps my research skills sharp. Currently, I’m working as Digital Projects Assistant at the Center for Digital Scholarship at the American Philosophical Society Library, which allows me to make notable Early American documents available to a wider audience through digitization, transcription, data visualization, and open data initiatives. I’m an emerging scholar currently finishing my master’s thesis on data collection and exhibition practices of Progressive era settlement houses as well, part of which includes an institutional history project in partnership with a still-operational settlement house in Philadelphia. I am finding these projects rewarding due to their potential for near-immediate community impact.

What is one of your favorite examples of public history, and why?

I’m very excited about the National Public Housing Museum which will be opening next year in Chicago. From everything I’ve seen, it is going to be really relevant, showing examples of family life in the public housing units as well as engaging contemporary issues of housing insecurity, gentrification, zoning, and other topics particularly pertinent to urban settings. It has been a long time coming, in planning since 2007, which is sometimes a reality of public history projects. But if it can involve the local community in a fundamental way, while starting fruitful public conversations about these issues, I think it will have been worth the wait.

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

I recently published a dataset in the Magazine of Early American Datasets (MEAD), and I expect to publish another within the calendar year. This open data initiative records receipt and dispatch of all mail in the Philadelphia Post Office between May 25, 1748 and July 23, 1752; it should be of interest to scholars of Benjamin Franklin, informational networks, and/or the early colonial postal service.

As for other scholarship, I just recently read and admired Joyce M. Bell’s The Black Power Movement and American Social Work (Columbia University Press, 2014), which gave greater depth to my understanding of the historical context of American social work institutions including settlement houses. I look forward to learning more about women’s role in the movement in Ashley D. Farmer’s Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (UNC Press, 2017).

What advice do you have for urban historians who want to work with the public but might not know where to start?

I think the idea of working with the public can be rather intimidating sometimes; there’s an assumption that you have to act or be a certain way in order to “connect” with them. But “the public” is just composed of individual people, many of whom have deep community roots or feel strongly about neighborhood issues. The best place to meet the kind of people who might want to work with a historian is anywhere where people gather: city council meetings, churches, recreation centers, cafes, city parks, even online. Strike up a casual conversation, see where it takes you- but remember first and foremost to listen.

What’s the coolest document you’ve discovered in your own research? And what’s the wackiest document you’ve processed as an archivist?

I’ve had the good fortune to have worked in a wide variety of archival collections–from the point of view of both researcher and archivist. I am fascinated by the decision-making processes that go into archiving things. For instance, my absolute favorite archival find from a research point-of-view was an extraordinarily formal letter sent by Bernard J. Newman of the Philadelphia Department of Health in 1911 that simply said, “I am sorry you did not wait at my office as I was only away to get a bite to eat.” I love, by the form and content of the letter, the insight it gives into this man’s fussy personality, and I’m so intrigued by the fact that it was archived at all! Similarly, from the archivist’s point-of-view, I’ve come across items that I waffled about archiving- for instance, an eminent scientist’s ca. 1970 copy of High Times. I’ll leave it unanswered whether I chose to accession this item or not.

Member of the Week: Joseph Watson

watsonJoseph Watson

Ph.D. Candidate in the History and Theory of Architecture

University of Pennsylvania School of Design

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 
I am currently wrapping up my dissertation. It’s a study of competing ideas about the future of metropolitan America during the 1930s. I focus primarily on two architectural projects, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City and Rockefeller Center, designed by Raymond Hood and a handful of other architects. At face value, these two works seem entirely incompatible. Wright’s techno-pastoral celebration of decentralization, which only exists in a handful of books and a giant model, doesn’t appear to have much in common with a dense assemblage of office towers and theaters built in midtown Manhattan. My contention is that they were, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Not only because Wright first exhibited Broadacre City at Rockefeller Center in 1935. The two projects both used the same points of reference—the proliferation of skyscrapers, automobile-induced suburbanization, technologies like radio and television, an acute crisis of capitalism—to make divergent arguments about how the social, cultural, and economic landscapes of metropolitan America might be reconstituted. What drew me to these projects was a notion that reframing familiar works could produce something new.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
I spent the past year teaching history and design in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia. My dissertation work is part of a larger research interest in the histories of skyscrapers and suburbs, which (very conveniently) dominate the landscapes of Metro Vancouver. In my history seminars, I used the peculiarities of Vancouver’s mixture of density and dispersion to frame discussions of industrialization and financialization, infrastructure and environment, the pervasiveness of inequity and the persistence of utopia. By using Vancouver as a laboratory, my students were able to better grasp less visible, sometimes nebulous qualities of architectural and urban history.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
A number of recent books have helped me to define my own position at the intersection of architectural and urban history. Among them are Francesca Ammon’s Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape, Brian Goldstein’s The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem, Reinhold Martin’s The Urban Apparatus: Mediapolitics and the City, and Sara Steven’s Developing Expertise: Architecture and Real Estate in Metropolitan America. Since last year would have been Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday, there are quite a few new studies of his work. Of the most interest to UHA members would probably be Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive, an edited volume that accompanied a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and Neil Levine’s The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright. (Although, I argued in a review of Levine’s work that there are issues with his framing of Wright’s relationship to American urban history.) I’m looking forward to finishing the dissertation so that I have time to grapple with Edward Eigen’s On Accident: Episodes in Architecture and Landscape. Finally, and it’s not a work of historical scholarship, but I am currently enjoying Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, a science-fiction novel about the catastrophic convergence of climate change and finance capitalism set in a semi-drowned, 22nd century Manhattan.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies? 
Since I’m currently trying to wrap up a dissertation, I’m not sure I’m in the best position to answer this right now. But, I think my own work has benefited from a willingness to let the project evolve as I made new archival finds (or didn’t find what I’d hoped for), which sometimes required rethinking how I was framing things. I’m not sure if that’s a terribly original observation or how it applies directly to urban history or urban studies, but a mix of focus and flexibility has been useful throughout this process.

Most people can list off the name of a few famous skyscrapers. What’s a skyscraper that no one knows about, but should? 
Here’s one I became fascinated with as I was researching the backstory of Rockefeller Center. The Standard Oil Building sits on Broadway, in New York, a couple blocks south of Wall Street. In terms of design, it’s fairly unremarkable. It was designed in the early 1920s by Carrère & Hastings, with Shreve, Lamb & Blake, and is composed of two roughly parallel, sixteen-story bars intersected by a bulky pyramidal tower, an arrangement all but dictated by the 1916 zoning law. Inside of this behemoth, however, are two earlier Standard Oil Buildings. The original is a ten-story, load-bearing masonry structure built in 1886 by Ebenezer L. Roberts. In the mid-1890s, Kimball & Thompson engineered a mostly self-supporting, steel-frame annex that rises alongside the original before adding seven floors to the overall height. The final, 1920s version assimilates the earlier buildings behind a uniform façade, but the floor plans retain obvious traces of each incarnation. So, hiding in plain sight, the Standard Oil Building is a singular accretion of almost fifty years of early skyscraper history.

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

@masonbwilliams

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!