Category Archives: Member of the Week

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!

Member of the Week: Stacy Kinlock Sewell

fallout shelterStacy Kinlock Sewell

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

St. Thomas Aquinas College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Member of the Week: Nathaniel Holly

holly_nNathaniel Holly

PhD Candidate

Lyon G. Tyler Department of History

College of William & Mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Member of the Week: Claire Poitras

Poitrasc3Claire Poitras

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

INRS-Urbanisation Culture Société

Montréal, Quebec, Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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